US-born Israeli comics explain local life (and cats) in fun, wise book ‘Israel 201’
Joel Chasnoff and Benji Lovitt launch their ‘Next-Level Guide to the Magic, Mystery, and Chaos of Life in the Holy Land’
It’s a true pleasure to read “Israel 201, Your Next-Level Guide to the Magic, Mystery and Chaos! of Life in the Holy Land,” by Joel Chasnoff and Benji Lovitt, and appreciate the humor, pathos and bonafide research offered by this American-born pair of Israeli comics.
It’s a book written to mark Israel’s 75 years of existence, which is coming up in May and a milestone event by any measure. Chasnoff and Lovitt used the opportunity to examine the daily life of Israelis.
The comical pair bring their magnifying glasses, a sardonic yet friendly sense of humor, and Lovitt’s annual “Things I Love about Israel” list style to this volume on Israeli society.
“I wanted to look at the wonderful but chaotic life here,” said Chasnoff. “I wanted it to be fair, and not just another Disney-sanitized version.”
“Israel 201” (Gefen Publishing) is Chasnoff’s fourth book, and Lovitt’s first, and the 265-page book is an ode to life here, with all its ironic, annoying and heartwarming aspects. It’s an easy read, flowing smoothly from one topic to the next (75 in all), but with solid facts and research backing up the more complex subjects.
It covers the usual subjects of get-to-know-Israel books, such as typical Israeli behavior, the Hebrew language and the vagaries of immigrating. Yet it’s also an in-depth primer to some daily aspects of life in Israel that are rarely discussed in book form.
In “Chapter 3: The Hebrew Language”, Lovitt interviews Liron Lavi Turkenich, creator of Aravrit, a hybrid writing system that combines Arabic and Hebrew. A few chapters later, Chasnoff writes about his day spent at Darca Druze High, a high school in the Druze town of Yarka that has been the number-one school in the country since 2014.
They break down the mysteries of Israeli real estate and home ownership, discuss what motivates pre-army Israeli teens, and offer some different perspectives on lone soldiers.
Having written books before, and knowing that it’s a lengthy process, Chasnoff said he found collaboration a fulfilling part of the project, particularly given the workload of book writing.
“Benji was the obvious choice,” he said. “We’ve worked together as comedians, he has the right sense of humor and he understands Israel so well as an insider-outsider.”
The Texas-born and raised Lovitt grew up in the Young Judaea youth movement and moved to Israel in 2006, where he lives in Tel Aviv and works as a stand-up comedian, writer and educator.
Chasnoff, a comic, TV and podcast host, has authored three books, including his comedic memoir, “The 188th Crybaby Brigade” about his experiences as a tank gunner in the IDF. He grew up in Chicago, and moved back with his Israeli-born wife and family in 2016, settling down in Ra’anana.
The two writers began with a long list of subjects, said Lovitt: some 200 potential chapters that included surveys of every beach up and down the Israeli coastline. That got shelved.
There were certain topics that had to be included, such as the Hebrew language and their mutual fascination with it, as well as cross-cultural differences. “Benji loves that,” said Chasnoff.
“We wanted it to be exhaustive,” added Lovitt. “The macro and the micro, like why are there so many cats. It’s something a comedian would joke about.”
The book is especially good for those who have been to Israel before but want to know more about the things they don’t usually hear about, like cats and tour guides, said Chasnoff.
“It’s very easy to read,” said Lovitt, but it’s things that most people don’t know,” noting that his own parents have no idea who or what Kaveret is (popular 1970s-era rock band; see page 195). “You don’t have to know about Aravrit and cats, it’s not [a guide] like The Lonely Planet; it’s all these slices of life.”
They also realized the importance of adding other voices, experts who could broaden the perspective and conversation on the topics at hand.
For instance, the two were working on their first chapter, “The Israeli Psyche,” which could easily have “just been a bunch of stories of ‘I hate when Israelis do this,'” said Chasnoff. They then decided to add an interview with an anthropologist and read “a huge number of studies,” realizing that those layers would give the book more legitimacy.
Once they began reaching out for interviews, they appreciated the authenticity it lent to their work, and the interview process became one of the best parts of the book, he added.
Chasnoff said he was particularly enlightened by his hours spent with Rachel Stomel of the Jerusalem-based Center for Women’s Justice about the thousands of women trapped in marriages because of often arcane and inappropriate policies, and by his day spent at the Darca Druze school, where students told him they feel stuck between Jews who see them as terrorists and Arabs who see them as traitors.
“I saw their humanity of being trapped in the middle,” he said of the youngsters.
The experience of writing “Israel 201” has transitioned both writers from standup comedy to educators and visiting scholars in residence, particularly as they gear up for a book tour, in Israel and throughout the US, that will last through next winter.
“We’re corporate comedians for Jews,” said Lovitt.
The two are planning multiple sessions for synagogues and Jewish federations, with text study and cooking classes (think hummus and tahini workshops). Some of their stops will include both Lovitt and Chasnoff, but they’ll also travel individually.
“We both have so much more material to draw on because we know more now,” said Chasnoff.
“Israel 201” is being launched first in Israel with a series of events, including two that were hosted by Nefesh b’Nefesh and others in Modiin, Beersheba — “anywhere there are Anglos,” said Chasnoff.
Check the “Israel 201” website for the full schedule of upcoming events.
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