Danielle Shami, 33, is Israel’s 74th confirmed case of COVID-19. Today she is also a national celebrity.
In a first-person piece she recently published in Hebrew, the Tel Aviv-based graphic designer wrote that initially she panicked after being taken to the coronavirus ward at Rabin Medical Center. But after looking around at her brave new world, she began document her time on social media.
Her ironic snapshots of corona-life quickly went viral in a news cycle fixated on the world’s ever-tightening environments and skyrocketing numbers of the sick and the dead. Shami offers an absurd breath of fresh — if infected — air.
“If I’m depressed, I tweet, or I try to ridicule the situation,” explained Shami. She quickly got a huge following. “I started feeling like I was in ‘Big Brother.'”
Through Shami, we see the laughable food selections at mealtimes, overhear conversations between an unlikely mix of Israeli populations, and see the extreme, almost sci-fi measures taken by medical staff as they treat the sick while doing their best to prevent their own exposure. Early on, to pass the time, she and a few others in her hospital ward posted a “breakout” movie that was so convincing a panicked viewer called in the police, who begged Shami to post an update saying it was faked.
After her transfer to lockdown in Tel Aviv’s Dan Panorama, one of several shuttered hotels that were turned into quarantined holding tanks for light cases of COVID-19, Shami parodied the empty halls with a post riffing on “The Shining.” She depicted how she’s decorated the room — with yellow do-not-cross security tape — and posted split-screen conversations with herself, echoing “Lost in Tokyo.”
אני שואלת את עצמי על הבידוד pic.twitter.com/r31L96Cpcw
— חולה מספר 74 (@Delirium1) March 21, 2020
It’s often said that the history of the Jewish people can be summed up in one line: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” But beyond the ability to eat when in danger (just ask any Israeli parent with children at home), Jews also stand out for their ability to laugh.
As social media becomes flooded with witty quips on today’s new normal, is it ever too soon to joke? And is there anything particularly Jewish or Israeli about this need for humor during times of existential darkness?
Stand-up comedian Jonathan Barak took a long drag of something while standing on his Tel Aviv balcony late last week. Cars could be heard in the distance over his slow exhale, while The Times of Israel waited on the phone line. With his stadium-filling shows canceled and stuck at home like most everyone else, the celeb known for his raunchy, drug-filled act readily agreed to speak with this reporter about humor in times of crisis.
“The first rule of comedy is that comedy is tragedy plus time,” the popular comedian explained. “But for Jews, time is irrelevant, that’s why Jews can make fun of tragedies as they occur… Because we have been suffering for like 5,000 years, so no joke is too soon or too late. We can still make jokes about being slaves in Egypt and we can still make jokes about the Holocaust, and we can still make jokes about the coronavirus.”
“We have that privilege that we can always make jokes about the terrible things that happen to us… because nothing good ever happens to the Jewish people,” laughed Barak.
At the same time, he said, “You don’t want to be the idiot who was making jokes about the coronavirus two weeks before it killed him. I will bet you dollars to donuts that there was a guy walking around on the Titanic making jokes about the iceberg and nobody thinks that that guy is funny now. You know, wait until you get on the lifeboat and then you start making the jokes.”
Jaffa-based comedian Benji Lovitt is stuck in quarantine after returning from a US tour, but the Texas-born performer hasn’t held back in sharing his coronavirus quips.
Among his more recent social media musings include, “Can I enjoy COVID-19 on its own or do I need to see COVID-18 first?” and a fun fake dictionary entry — complete with phonetic pronunciation — of his word “coronusional,” poking fun at those who, delusional, expect to accomplish all their rainy-day plans in two weeks of confinement.
He too is no stranger to laughing in times of crisis. Lovitt immigrated to Israel in 2006 and came to national attention during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge when he basically “spent the summer live blogging, live joking, putting out a lot of stuff when people were down.”
“Most anything can be joked about if you’re doing it right and in a smart way,” said Lovitt in a recent Times of Israel podcast.
Satirist Asaf Beiser told The Times of Israel for this week’s podcast that the current crisis is already sparking his muse. “On one of my kids shows, we already wrote an episode that is concerning — not exactly the corona — but being ill and being isolated from the world and being in quarantine. We’re already using it. We’re not waiting a second,” he said.
Beiser is best known for his work on the satirical sketch show “Hayehudim Ba’im” (The Jews Are Coming), which pokes fun at Jewish and Israeli history, but has also written for dramas, including the first season of hit show “Fauda.”
“Right now I’m writing a sketch,” Beiser told The Times of Israel later last week, “I don’t know if it will be aired or not, for a show that I don’t know if it will happen or not, next week about the corona, about the situation. The actors will eventually have to get together and tape it — I’m not planning to be there.” He laughed.
He said that the biggest challenge for writers in times of crisis is to find the right balance between entertainment and satire. “On the one hand, people really need entertainment right now. People really need to laugh, people need to take the stress out in the form of laughing. And it’s important. It’s almost a national mission to do that as a writer.”
But for other comedians and satirists, humor isn’t necessarily a distraction from their woes, but rather a vehicle to bring attention to them.
Even with four kids making joyful noise in the background, US-born Irish-Catholic-turned-Orthodox Jew Yisrael Campbell became contemplative on the topic of his life’s work.
“I think the purpose of humor is to upset the expected and to change the dynamic. And break paradigms and dichotomies — and that’s what gives the downtrodden their humor. You may be ruling over me, but you can’t stop me from making a joke about you,” said Campbell, who has lived in Jerusalem for two decades.
His triumphal version of a comedian’s vocation is echoed by leading Israeli writer David Grossman, who wrote in a recent Haaretz op-ed, “And blessed be humor, the best way to withstand all this. When we are able to laugh at the coronavirus, we are actually saying that it has not yet driven us into total paralysis. That within us there is still freedom of movement in facing it. That we are continuing to fight it and that we are not only its helpless victim (more precisely, we are in fact its helpless victim, but we invented a way to bypass the horror of that knowledge and even to amuse ourselves with it).”
Jewish humor in the face of darkness
Columbia University Prof. Jeremy Dauber was still adjusting to 24/7 life at home with his three small kids in a modest New York City apartment when contacted by The Times of Israel about humor in the time of corona. In a stop-start email conversation, Dauber, who wrote the 2017 “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History,” concisely addressed his unified theory of Jewish humor.
“One of the trickiest questions about Jewish humor is, of course, what’s Jewish about it — aside, perhaps, from the specifics of Jewish culture and circumstance,” wrote Dauber. “On the other hand, one of the defining aspects of Jewish circumstance, alas, has been the struggle to cope with all sorts of travail; and it’s not surprising that Jewish comedy has — in one of its many forms — developed an accordingly robust strain of humor to respond to it.”
Dauber points to three main traditional themes in the long history of Jewish comedy:
1. Gallows humor, or “what can’t be cured must be endured.” In this vein, said Dauber, “The joking will help you cope, even if it seems unendurable.”
2. Historically oriented humor, that contrasts current Jewish crises with events and episodes past. “I haven’t yet seen coronavirus jokes you can tell at the Seder table, but I am sure that they’re coming, complete with plague-inspired puns etc,” Dauber wrote.
3. Pulpit humor, or “a theologically-inspired comedy, taking on the metaphysical ramifications of the events directly in terms of Jewish liturgy and covenant.” Dauber explained that this type of humor is “rarer, now, in some circles.” He points to an archetypal expression of it in Sholem Aleichem’s quotation, “You have chosen us from among all the other nations — so why don’t You go choose someone else already?”
San Francisco-based radio host Michael Krasny, author of the 2016 “Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means,” adds another wrinkle to the third item on Dauber’s list: Holocaust humor.
“One motif well worth thinking about in the post-Holocaust era we now reside in that would appear to apply to Jews in the US as well as in Israel would be one centering on the role of God and the irreverent and irreligious (secular) humor that has to do with his inability or unwillingness to watch over his flock as they are randomly struck ill and decimated,” wrote Krasny. “The humor serves as a catharsis for the anxiety over a contracting of the illness as well as the fear that God will not or cannot provide.”
At the same time, Krasny said he’s “skeptical” of Jewish humor elements related to COVID-19, “though, as I have written, humor inevitably occurs by and for Jews in times of distress and, as you suggest, has for centuries. It has served our tribe as an anodyne to pain and deep anxiety.”
Whether or not humor actually does serve to soothe anxiety is up for debate, however. According to anthropologist and humor expert Prof. Elliot Oring, “Of course, there are jokes about any crisis or unusual event… I would guess that jokes about potential threats serve to project a momentary sense (‘illusion’) of control and express a certain amount of bravado in the face of something dangerous (the discounting of the threat by the joke form).
“However,” Oring cautioned, “a lot of scary information — both true and false — is being communicated at the very same time and often by the same people who purvey the jokes. So where is the benefit? Jokes do communicate that others find themselves in the same situation as oneself. But do jokes constitute a coping strategy? Do they relieve stress and allow people to function better in the long term? It is the conventional wisdom, but it just may be conventional and not any kind of wisdom.”
It sounds darker in Hebrew
Anyone who has listened to comedian Barak’s wildly popular specials knows he has a lot of theories. One of them is the difference between Jewish and Israeli humor.
“The thing about Israeli humor is that it’s the same thing as Jewish humor only it’s more sarcastic and more vicious and more cutthroat and sooner, and there’s no joke that’s too soon for Israelis,” he hypothesized. “The Israeli comedians are like the first responders to anything because we feel privilege, we feel we have the right. We’ve been through so much shit that we feel we can say whatever we want.”
That definitely includes Holocaust jokes, which are rampant in stand-up — and local school cafeterias.
Campbell shared that his kids can tell 10 Holocaust jokes, right off the cuff. “And I both think that’s amazing and certainly our grandparents couldn’t do that — or wouldn’t do that. And they’re pretty bad, tasteless jokes.”
On the phone with The Times of Israel in last week’s podcast, he shared a shockingly bad one: “There’s this one where Hitler and Eichmann are walking down the street and Hitler goes, ‘Watch this,’ and he pulls out a gun and shoots a Jew. And Eichman says, ‘For the six millionth time, I told you that’s not funny,'” said Campbell. And he said his 15-year-old told that joke “over dinner! On Shabbos!”
Beiser acknowledged that Israeli humor can be dark, but said it’s also bold and more irreverent than American or European humor.
“We don’t keep anything in our stomachs. We don’t use too much subtext,” he said. But the key, defining ingredient? “Chutzpa,” laughed Beiser.