And now for the next trick, making Hebrew disappear
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And now for the next trick, making Hebrew disappear

It’s no Hogwarts, but Sorcerers’ Night, a magical comedy act, is shuffling the deck on English-language entertainment in Tel Aviv

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Magician Ran Gafner performs a close-up trick at a patron's table. (photo credit: photo by Shivi Isman)
Magician Ran Gafner performs a close-up trick at a patron's table. (photo credit: photo by Shivi Isman)

It’s a Sunday night in Tel Aviv, and HaArba’a Street, the restaurant-packed drag that runs alongside the city’s Cinematheque complex, is filled with hungry couples looking for dinner, and groups of tipsy teenagers heading to one of the area’s nightclubs.

There’s an excellent sushi restaurant on this street, a well-reviewed Spanish tapas joint, and a handful of reliable burger restaurants that do good business with young families. But on Sunday nights for the past several months, there has also been a new attraction: a grown-up magic show, geared directly to Anglos and offering, for the first time in decades, an English-language entertainment act in the heart of the first Hebrew city.

“There were always English-speaking entertainment shows in Israel, until the mid-1990s,” says Dror Liwer, an entrepreneur and amateur magician who founded Sorcerers Night, the English-language magic, comedy and illusion show that happens here every Sunday night. “But then the First Intifada came, and the venues crashed. The top performance venue in Jaffa that catered to English speakers is now a wedding hall. The industry just never recovered.”

Liwer travels a lot for his day job, and whenever he goes abroad, he has a tradition to escape the doldrums of solitary business travel: check the local Time Out or Village Voice-like publication, find a magic show or comedy act, and wile away the hours between dinner and bed with laughter and some English-language company.

Magician Itai Pinki on stage at Sorcerers' Night. (photo credit: courtesy Sorcerers' Night)
Magician Itai Pinki on stage at Sorcerers’ Night. (photo credit: courtesy Sorcerers’ Night)

In Israel, however, a nation packed with both ex-pats (some 500,000 immigrants live here permanently but still speak English as their primary language) and drawing record numbers (about 2 million) of English-speaking tourists each year, there is a dearth of entertainment options for non-Hebrew speakers.

Hotel concierges are trained to point their guests to restaurants or bars in the evening, or encourage them to spring for tickets to the opera, the ballet, or subtitled movie screenings. But what about folks who just want to relax and be entertained, and – like Liwer – who love the allure of a stage show and some laughs?

There was a gap in the market, he realized. And as quickly as you can pull a rabbit from a hat, the idea for Sorcerers’ Night was born.

“There was a need, and there was an audience,” Liwer says. “And I’ve always wanted to do something that was more creative and fun.”

Itai Pinki performs a combination of comedy and magic on stage with a guest from the audience. (photo credit: courtesy Sorcerers' Night)
Itai Pinki performs a combination of comedy and magic on stage with a guest from the audience. (photo credit: courtesy Sorcerers’ Night)

Fate, Liwer felt, was sealed after he attended a bar mitzvah of a family friend where Itai Pinki, a magician and comedian, provided the entertainment. The two talked long into the evening, and a few days later, Liwer pitched the idea of the two going into business together.

Their first challenge was finding the right space: they wanted a spot in central Tel Aviv, where patrons could eat at restaurant-style tables but still see the stage. They needed a kosher kitchen so anyone could feel welcome, but they needed that kosher food to be at a high standard. They needed a full bar, and they wanted to make sure they were in a high-traffic area.

They found a great spot, but it was near Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, in a run-down neighborhood south of the city. They nixed it, for fear tourists would be scared away. They found a few other great locations, but none of them could offer kosher food. Finally, they landed on Punch Line Tel Aviv, a hybrid bar/restaurant/disco on one of Tel Aviv’s best culinary streets, with seating for 200 people and a great, liberal-handed bartender. Liwer refuses to sell all 200 seats, offering only the 120 with the best view, and he says so far, the combination of atmosphere and quality menu is working for them. It’s not Hogwarts, but it will do.

Dror Liwer, far left, with his performers Ran Gafner, Matan Rozenberg, Daniel Harel, and Itai Pinki. (photo credit: courtesy Sorcerers' Night)
Dror Liwer, far left, with his performers Ran Gafner, Matan Rozenberg, Daniel Harel, and Itai Pinki. (photo credit: courtesy Sorcerers’ Night)

The next task was recruiting talent from within Israel’s magic community. They needed magicians who could perform in English, which at first proved limiting, but as the shows began attracting fuller audiences and racking up positive reviews on TripAdvisor, soon illusionists were coming to them and asking to be included in the line-up.

“It’s great exposure for a magician,” Liwer says. “There aren’t so many opportunities in Israel for these guys to be seen outside of bar mitzvahs and birthday parties. This is something completely different.”

An evening at Sorcerers’ Night features five or six performers, who kick off the evening by strolling from table to table and performing close-up magic: they shuffle decks of cards only to make all the aces vanish, or they chat with a female patron only to pull her husband’s watch from their pocket a moment later. After the ice is broken and ticket-holders have ordered some food and drinks, the show moves to the stage, where a nightly show will offer a variety of illusion tricks, mentalism, and plenty of comedy.

Magician Matan Rosenberg on stage at Sorcerers' Night. (photo credit: courtesy Sorcerers' Night)
Magician Matan Rosenberg on stage at Sorcerers’ Night. (photo credit: courtesy Sorcerers’ Night)

Despite the strict English-only policy, the audience tends to be a mash-up of both English- and Hebrew-speakers, which Liwer attributes to the fact that the Israeli magic scene is still quite sparse. For sabra sorcerers, there just aren’t that many venues where they can watch a top-notch magic show and indulge their love of illusion.

“Some people just love magic. A lot of guys from Israel come just to watch the magic. And there are also so many Israelis who speak beautiful English, or have American spouses, friends, partners. If you’re an Israel and your American friend comes to visit, how many times can you take them to a restaurant? This is a chance to come have some fun.”

Liwer doesn’t perform – he says his skill level is still several notches below the quality level he insists from his magicians – but he still manages to indulge his love for conjuring by serving as MC and host. The business venture is still purely a side project and labor of love, and he admits that in addition to keeping his day job, he is actually still losing money on the project. But he has big plans for Sorcerers’ Night, and hopes to eventually fashion the show into a double feature, with a kid-friendly performance in the afternoon followed by an more mature adult-geared show later in the evening.

They’re doing something right, though. Most shows are sold out, and the act is rated the #1 attraction in Tel Aviv on TripAdvisor.

“Initially what fueled us was the need, and because we wanted to please the audience,” he says. “And now people come and they laugh, they’re having a great time, and they write a glowing review. So we know we’re doing something right.”

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