ToI podcast'We know how to translate this country for people not here'

What Matters Now to Joel Chasnoff and Benji Lovitt: Love for Israel’s magical chaos

Comic educators talk about their new book, ‘Israel 201, Your Next-Level Guide to the Magic, Mystery and Chaos of Life in the Holy Land’

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Welcome to What Matters Now, a new weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.

As Israel celebrated Purim this week, putting on costumes and trading sweet treats with neighbors and friends, we took a brief, humorous break to speak with Benji Lovitt and Joel Chasnoff, comics, educators and speakers who recently launched a new book,  “Israel 201, Your Next-Level Guide to the Magic, Mystery and Chaos of Life in the Holy Land,” written to mark Israel’s 75 years of existence.

“Israel 201” (Gefen Publishing) is Chasnoff’s fourth book, and Lovitt’s first, and the 265-page book is an ode to life in Israel, with all its ironic, annoying and heartwarming aspects.

It’s a comic — at times — and in-depth primer to some daily aspects of life in Israel that are rarely discussed in book form. And as Israel grapples with the vagaries of the planned judicial overhaul, a new government and its 75th birthday, we talk about their path to this manuscript and What Matters Now.

The following transcript has been lightly edited.

The Times of Israel: You are two expats, or Anglos, as we call ourselves here in Israel, English-speaking Israelis. Joel, you are from Chicago, served in the army, married an Israeli, went back to the US, and then moved here in 2016 with your family. Benji, you’re from Texas and came here in 2006. And you have both, therefore, put in your time as American Israelis. And yet, as we all know, we are all, in this room, Anglos Israelis. So that makes it both harder and easier when writing a book about Israel, don’t you think?

Benji Lovitt: Well, we wrote in the intro, I think, Joel, maybe you came up with these words, that we’re both insiders and outsiders, and you talk about being American Israeli, and people always ask, Are you American? Like I always say, when I’m here, I feel American, but when I’m there, I feel Israeli. So we’re able to sort of straddle the boundaries, and we know how to translate this country for people not here. We know how to speak to people and the language they understand.

Joel Chasnoff: So I think also furthering on, that what Benji said is that by living here, we can appreciate what it means to actually be on the inside. And yet, by virtue of the fact that we’re both raised in America and Americans, we are still fascinated with the country in a way that maybe Israelis who were born here and lived here their entire lives might not be because it’s just normal for them. We’re still kind of fascinated by all the magical things, but also the mishegas of this country. And we try to communicate that in the book.

And fascination could be a good thing, especially, as you say, when you’re writing a book. So distill for me, each of you, what you really wanted in this book. I mentioned the 75th birthday, but of course, books live hopefully far longer than just one particular event. 

The cover of ‘Israel 201, Your Next-Level Guide to the Magic, Mystery and Chaos of Life in the Holy Land, by Joel Chasnoff, Benji Lovitt, launched February 2023 (Courtesy Gefen Publishing

Joel: I mean, my original goal for this book was to show people the Israel that they never get to hear about and won’t see, certainly not in the news, it’s not in the headlines. But also, even if they’re on the trip, on a visit for two weeks, for six weeks or even a year, these are things that won’t be on the itinerary. We wanted to go into all the tiny pockets of Israeli life, all the elements of life here that make it both magical and wonderful, but also chaotic. We wanted to be fair and nuanced, not just serve up a sanitized version. And our premise was that the more people know the good and the bad, the more connected they’ll feel to the country. And we wanted to communicate the special connection that both Benji and I have, despite how hard it can sometimes be to live here.

And Benji, this is your first book, right? It’s Joel’s fourth. Your first.

Benji: I’ve read a few books, but yes, usually with pictures. But this is my first book. Yes. So it’s interesting. It sort of evolved a bit. At first we thought, what are we going to put on this? Is it going to be like a Lonely Planet with everything you need to know? And then we realized, no, we don’t want that. But we wanted to offer things that interest at us. I’m a big sports fan, so the more I read about this famous 1977 game between Maccabi Tel Aviv and the big great Russian basketball team. I thought, this is incredible.

So the best way to translate it for a non-Israeli audience, if you’re an American sports fan, is to compare it to the great 1980s Olympic hockey game. It was turned into a Disney movie called Miracle on Ice. It’s about this ragtag group of college kids who somehow beat the great Russian professional army. It’s incredible. So we have our own version. And again, this is the height of the Cold War, and there are refuseniks in Russia not able to leave. So we talked to Aulcie Perry, who was not even the biggest star. But if it’s an unknown story, it’s even more unknown.

He was an African American, non-Jewish player who came here because he wanted to get on the court and he helped lead us to a victory. So this is a story I never would have thought to put it in the book beforehand, but when we thought about, like, what excites us or what do we think will be interesting for people to know about? We’ve lived here for a bunch of years combined. Most immigrants, I think, don’t know this story either, for a variety of reasons. It’s old. It was 45 years ago.

So things like, why was this game so famous? How did Kavaret get to be the biggest Israeli band? Why is this movie so popular? It’s a little a lot of little taste of different parts of Israeli culture that people just wouldn’t know about.

As a reporter, I very much appreciated the solid number of interviews. The research that you guys did, the reading that you did, whether it’s books or studies. And then you went out and you found the people who could talk to you about the subjects that you wanted to include. We spoke about this a little bit in the written interview that we conducted, the three of us. But I found it made the reading actually much more gripping, in a sense, because there’s the funny and there’s the light and there’s the knowledge that you two bring to the subjects, but there’s also just reaching out to these other people. Talk a little bit about that. What made you decide to go into the interview process to bring in other voices? And what was it like?

Joel Chasnoff: We didn’t want this just to be a book about Joel and Benji’s take on Israeli life. Not that that wouldn’t be entertaining, but we wanted it to have a little more meat than that. I think the original intention was to find a few experts we could talk to for the subjects. We didn’t know much about just to maybe get a few quotes and flesh it out a bit. But the deeper we got into the book, we realized this is really a good thing. And also the people are happy to talk to us. We didn’t have to beg anyone for an interview. People were very willing. And one of the best parts about the book for both of us was talking with these figures from Israeli history, whether it’s Yael Arad or Avi Issacharoff or people who aren’t known, but who will hold very important roles in Israel. We sort of reached a point where the number of chapters with an expert, there was just no way we could have the rest of them without one. And so we just decided, every chapter, we have to go to at least somebody.

Benji Lovitt (left) and Joel Chasnoff at a signing of their new book, ‘Israel 201, Your Next-Level Guide to the Magic, Mystery and Chaos of Life in the Holy Land, launched February 2023 (Courtesy Joel Chasnoff, Benji Lovitt)

Benji: I give Joel credit for that. I thought it was going to come out of our heads. I mean, the first thing that we wrote was the thing that I’m obsessed with cultural differences or Why do Israelis do this? And that that’s where I’ve always found the most interesting content. And I feel like I have enough stories and insights. And it was Joel’s idea to have these authorities. And the deeper we got into the book, the the more it it became fun. I mean, it was a blast to interview these people. I think every time I interviewed someone over Zoom, you know, my jaw would drop. And it became fun. Even just to be able to go to friends. I think we each have friends who we interviewed who are authorities on things, just be able to get the greatest expertise out of people we know. It made every section that much deeper.

Joel: I want to point out that not everyone we interviewed was famous.
And Benji sort of alluded to this, but one of my favorite interviews was Daniel Alkobi. He runs something called Kosher KRAVI, which is fitness training for 16- and 17-year-old Israelis who want to be in high level combat units in the IDF. These are both men and women who in high school the same way Americans might take Princeton review courses back when they were SATs. They do physical training and also mental training. And just talking with him, this is a guy you would never otherwise hear about. But to get that insight into all these teenagers dreaming of being in the most elite units, what they have to go through. I didn’t know about this before. Aside from seeing them in the park, I didn’t know about this before. I think people outside of Israel would have no idea unless they’re really tapped in that this kind of phenomenon exists.

Benji: I think one of the ways I know a lot of this book is special is I didn’t do the army. So much of this was new for me. I think we learned from conducting our own research and chapters, but then when we got to read the others, each respective chapter, because we split the content, I learned a lot about the army, so that was fascinating for me. I got to sort of experience the book in two ways. One, diving deep into some of the topics myself and then getting to experience some of them through Joel’s research.

Joel: Wow, Benji, I’m really glad. I learned a lot.

Benji: I want to do the army starting tomorrow.

Joel: I’m sure they want you. That’s what they need.

Now, I know that you had an exhaustive list at the outset, but talk to me a little bit about how you did make some decisions. And I want to touch on something else before you answer that, which is that you state in the intro that by the time the book reaches reader’s hands, some things will have changed, like the government. So you’re up to date in terms of Netanyahu’s new government and the coalition that is wreaking havoc right now, as well as last summer’s Roe versus Wade controversy and how that affected Israel. But now here we are in February 2023. So talk about how you chose the subject and how you could say, I’m not going to deal with those certain subjects.

Benji: One quick thing before I let Joel answer that. It is amazing the book is so up to date that we couldn’t help have certain things change. We have a section on caverett, and one of the members of Kavaret has passed away since he wrote the book. If you recall, at the end, we say they’re all still alive and they’re nice Jewish boys. So one of them was at Klepter.

Joel: It’s the big things, like government or, sadly, some people passing away, but even language. There’s a section in the book on the Hebrew language and even the words that are really hip and current right now. In a year or two, there might be different slang words that have replaced them. And so we have a section called sorry if this is wrong in the beginning, just to say, like, a lot of this, because Israel is such a fluid country where so many things change and fluctuate, there could be things that that have have changed by the time readers actually open the book.

Interesting. Okay. But while you make it clear and I am getting into the What Matters Now headlines part of our interview, while you do make it clear that you’re not about to really dive into the occupation, Israeli settlements, big issues of religion and state, and these are really issues that we are dealing with front and center right now. You do, though, sort of through the back end, right? You have your research about Aravrit, the Arabic and Hebrew font. Benji, you wrote that one. Joel, you have the section about the Druze high school. That is the number one high school in Israel, I believe, for matriculation scores for many years running. So before you talk about those specific subjects, was that essentially your way of back sort of like backing into some of these issues in Israeli life or not?

Benji: Well, we knew we couldn’t exclude 20% of the population. We’re Jewish. Do you know that? Do our readers know that we’re Jewish? Let’s put it at them. But 20% of the country is not Jewish and is Arab. We just didn’t know how to do it. We knew we didn’t want to get into who did what to who first. And that is a no-win situation. But we thought, how can we address these people? So we did profiles of we have a profile of an Arab Israeli standup comedian. That’s interesting. I mean, comedy and what can you say? And where’s the line that’s interesting anyway?

Yeah, so we knew we wanted to be inclusive. We just didn’t know how to do it. And that took some time. So it’s not about who did what and playing a blame game. It’s about, let’s showcase a big part of this country.

Joel: And it also wasn’t to be token and say, well, we should we owe them. It was genuinely if you want to understand Israel today, you absolutely have to understand the 20% of the population that isn’t Jewish. And even if you’re a tourist and you go into a pharmacy and get a prescription because you’re not feeling well, there’s a good chance the pharmacist serving you will be Arab. Why is that? That’s a question that fascinated us, and Benji explored it, and we have a chapter on it’s called My Son the Jewish and that’s crossed out Muslim Doctor. Because so many Arabs these days are seeing medicine as a path, a career path for them. The point being that it’s not just a token to make to feel good, to really understand the country, we need to understand everyone who’s living here. And exploring the high school and medicine and all these other avenues was the way that we chose to do it.

You worked on this for how many years? And during the pandemic, I’m assuming.

Joel: Yeah, it started before the pandemic, but then yeah, really in the last couple…

Benji: Of years, it really picked up. I think you approached me about four years ago.

Okay, so I guess first question then, what changed from when you started, and how did that affect your topics? Did the roiling aspects of life here in Israel pandemic? So many elections. Did any of that affect your choices of topics and where you were going with it?

Joel: I think in minor ways it may have the pandemic. Certainly getting our vaccinations from Arab nurses made us sort of appreciate their role in our society and then helping Israelis, and I mean, all Israelis feel better at the same time. We didn’t I don’t think election turmoil dictated that we’re going to drop one issue but explore another. Sure. We did want to show readers what some of these hot-button issues are like in Israel. So, for example, gun control, capital punishment. We wanted to explore, you know, what do Israelis say about abortion? So we have a chapter on hot-button issues just because it’s so talked about in the US. What do Israelis say about it? But Benji, do you want to answer? Was there any topic that we dropped or added specifically?

Benji: Nothing really changed. Nothing really changed in 24, 36 months. Israelis are like this. Americans are like this. These are things that have been part of the country forever. And I think because we both come at this from like, we both come from Jewish summer camp and this education background, we wanted to be exhaustive. We made our huge list and different criteria. We want some things big, something small about demographics and language and culture and this and that. So that stuff was going to be the same anyway.

Joel: But you asked, Jessica, about Judaism and states. This is an eternal question. This is a question that the country has been dealing with since before it was even founded. So right now it’s maybe coming to a boil, but this has been, I think, the central question that Israel has had to face and will continue to face in the future is just what does it mean to have is this a state for Jews or a Jewish state? That’s something we’ve always been grappling with. And what’s new is we’ve always seen it from the perspective of how much Judaism should there be? But we have one chapter that came that we didn’t expect was a chapter on is there enough Judaism? There are some what you’d call modern Orthodox kipa sruga, people who feel there’s not enough protection for them, that traffic could be quieter on Shabbat, that sports teams should have leagues for religious kids so they don’t have to play in tournaments on Friday nights and Saturdays. So that was a new chapter that came about from our exploring.

And now, as you’re heading out on this road show in the States, North America, you’re going to be asked questions by audiences, by your audiences, whether they’re community centers or Jewish federations or synagogues. You guys are going to be the representatives, in a sense of that weekend or that week in that community, of what they’re seeing or hearing or getting a glimpse of when they catch the news, when they look online and look at the headlines of the day. What are your thoughts about it? How do you think you’re going to be approaching it?

Benji: I will say if someone here asked me, if one of my fellow Israeli friends asked me, that would be a hard question for me to answer. I’d send them to the Times of Israel. But if I ever get questions in America about politics, it doesn’t faze me because I know they’re asking me not because they believe I’m a political expert, but because my word means something, because I live here. People always say, what’s the word over there? After a certain American electoral say, what are people saying over there? As if you could encapsulate what everybody’s saying. But if you’re not here, there’s a sensitivity, like there’s something missing. You’re not walking around every day getting the nuances. So I think just helping people understand, like, it’s complicated. There’s two sides. It’s just about everything and what people are saying. But to play devil’s advocate, I think just the fact that we live here, that gives us credibility and that’s what people want to hear.

Joel: I think a lot of the communities we are going to will ask questions and many of them will be sort of skewing on the left liberal side and might not understand why things are happening right now. And I don’t want to give them my opinion, but I do want to explain to them why people here vote the way they do and why so many people do support benziere and what factors those in the US or Canada might not be considering when looking at this whole government and election picture. Just to give them a little more nuance and context and show them how much more complicated it is. But at the same time, the whole point of the book and of this comedy tour we’re going on called Israel 75 Live is to show them that there is way more to Israel than just what you see in the news and way more to Israel than just all the chaos that’s happening right now. That the people on the ground, day to day. For the most part, life is continuing and pursuing amazing pursuits and making the country great and trying to improve those aspects that need improving and that the sky is not falling.

Joel, I want to go back to something that you said. You said that you will not give them your opinion.

Benji: I don’t have them, Joel. He will give them mine.

But seriously, how are you going to get through? Let’s say you have a weekend at a synagogue in Poughkeepsie or wherever, and you’re someone who has done this before, right? Do you actually go out on the road and never, over the course of many events in one place, not give your opinion? And why?

Joel: I think on the record, I wouldn’t say this is right, this is wrong. I think if people spend a weekend with me teaching, I think they’ll pick up on my opinion and they’ll see where I’m coming from. Even by reading the book. I think it’s pretty sort of a hint of that. But what I don’t want to do is come in and say, this is definitely the way it should be. This is definitely wrong. I would like them to understand that there are many factors that go into that influence how the people vote here and how people think they’re not all security oriented. A lot of it is economic, which doesn’t get talked about enough. There are class and social issues. The army plays a role and just sort of instead of saying, here’s what’s right and wrong, saying, hey, here are some things you should think about before deciding, even for yourselves. And we developed a game called If You Will It, Then What? Where people are going to sort through cards and rank their values in order. And our whole point of this game is to get people thinking about how complicated it is to build a Jewish state that’s both democratic and Jewish.

Some things have to be sacrificed along the way and just to make them appreciate the complication.

So you guys really are educators.

Joel: We really are.

And I’m just curious, did you make up this game before the whole judicial reform issue was coming to a head or during?

Joel: About a few months ago, we started discussing, well, we’re going to do these live programs. We do not want to just give lectures, so we need to find some ways to keep it interactive and more like a workshop. And we started developing that game even before, and now it’s become even more relevant. And we’ve switched out some of the values, some of the cards that people are going to play with just because it’s become more salient with everything happening now.

I mean, you could literally do a judicial reform game now…

I know that you had this exhaustive list. You did not get everything in. You have said to me that there’s plenty for a third book. What are some of the topics that you loved that we actually have? I know there were beaches perhaps?

Benji: Yeah, there were the beaches in Tel Aviv. We have the dog beach next to the religious beach, next to the gay beach. I mean, I think when we’re talking about being exhaustive, we have, you know, we have Arab communities. We would have loved to profile Ethiopian communities and, you know, for about a week near the end of the book I was looking for someone who had done the trek from Ethiopia to here. What a story that would be. Have you been to Achzivland?

Yeah. Crazy.

Benji: It’s like a country within a country. Yes. Run by one person. I forget why we scrapped it. I think we thought for our next book will do that. But there’s no shortage of interesting things here, both big and small, and from.

Joel: I was sad that we didn’t interview any novelists, nonfiction writers, dancers, painters. I mean, there’s so much more in the arts that we didn’t explore.

And it really, at some point came down to balancing the content, a timeline, those outside obstacles that sort of just force you to move forward in the direction you’re headed.

Sometimes you start out with a project, a book, an article, whatever it is, and you think it’s going in one direction, and then it just turns on you, goes in other directions that you’d anticipate, and you have to kind of go with it because that’s just where it’s going. Did that happen here in any sense? Is it following through the trajectory that you anticipated?

Joel: There was never a hard reset where we scrapped it and started over, but it definitely took on a life of its own. Benji had the suggestion for having 75 topics to tie it into the 75th birthday, although we decided not to call it Israel 75 because we want the book to live on just past this year. Once we knew there were 75 topics, that definitely changed the trajectory of the writing because we knew that chapters were going to be short because there are 75 of them. But also that we need to find enough of these topics to fill the book. But I think that was sort of the launch pad that sent us into the current iteration.

Talk to me about what happens now the book is out. You have a couple of these launches here in Israel, around the country, and then you’re heading out to different communities around North America, working with your product, with your book.

Joel: Well, this actually loops back to a question you asked before, and on March 1, we’re beginning a three-and-a-half-month tour. It’s called Israel 75 Live, going to synagogues, JCCs, Hillels, Federation, Chabad, anyone who wants to meet Israel on a deeper level. And often it’s for an entire weekend with Benji and me together. So a Friday through a Sunday with a comedy show, of course, but also tech study on Torah Neshek, which is Purity of Arms and Hebrew was Magic session. There’s a cooking session. And I think this is what loops back to. The question you asked before. I think one of the reasons that many communities are interested in this is because they want to do Israel. Specifically this year, the 75th, they want to celebrate Israel, but they’re not sure how with everything going on. They don’t want to anger anyone. They’re afraid of people being offended. And here we gave this menu of program options that shows you there’s actually a way to do Israel beyond maybe what you were thinking before, and it frees them up to commemorate Israel, but still have some meaning and content that was true to what Israel is going through.

Benji: On a smaller scale, I think this is, again, my first book, and Joel’s done a few of these before. And every day we wake up and we say, holy cow, what are we going to do today? I mean, there’s the sort of top-down, approaching big organizations and seeing how we can get this to be a part of their educational curriculum. So the sky is the limit. Sounds cliche, but there’s simply so much to do. And I think we’re realizing it’s about the marathon, not the sprint. But we’re excited, I think, just to see where it goes. And I think every day we wake up, we have our emails and people to talk to in podcasts, which we’re thrilled to do. And I think at some point it’s going to take on a life of its own. It’s going to start to snowball and build all these little like if you’re building a fire, these little sparks who light here and there, at some point it just catches on its own. So I think we’re excited for that.

What are the reactions from the native Israeli people in your life? Do they say, Great. Do they say, Why would you even touch this? What do they think? And where does that put you as you head out onto this journey?

Benji: Yeah, so whenever we’ve explained this book to Sabra native Israelis, they’ve thought it was a great idea and asked if it’s being translated into Hebrew and have readily admitted that some of these topics that we just rattle off for them are topics they themselves don’t know much about, which they would like to. So I think there’s interest there and we are going to pursue a Hebrew version of it. It’s sort of a different animal that we need to look into the logistics of, but hopefully that would happen.

Joel: Not a direct translation.

Benji: No, it would have to be right. It has to fit the language they speak.

I think people get that we’ve been here long enough that they say, wow, good job. My question will be I can’t wait for them to actually read it. I will want to get their input. And I always say in the stand-up show, I joke that when an Israeli laughs, it’s worth, like, ten American laughs, not because it’s hard to make them laugh, but because it means more it’s, you know oh, I mean, harder.

More deeply earned, in a sense.

Benji: Yeah. It’s like, oh, you know, I get them. So if an Israeli really likes the book, I’ll say, wow, this, you know, it means even more.

So part of your weekend events include a comedy show, and what does that even sound like? Give us some sound bites of the two of you so we have a sense of what the two of you are like together on stage, because this has been a pretty serious conversation or more solemn.

Tell listeners what your comedy is like.

Benji: I used to do more stuff about, like, oh, Israelis are rude. These sorts of shallow stereotypes. There are always some stereotypes there, but I look back and I feel like I was more of an outsider and a complaining classic immigrant. And now I like to make fun of myself. I still make fun of the Israelis by making fun of the Americans. I make fun of myself. And I like to sort of be in authority. And we have a section in our book about nonverbal communication. Different hand gestures. Yeah, I love explaining those, and I love explaining them to people who don’t live here because they’re shocked. So when I teach them how to give the finger like an Israeli in the middle of the show, people who get it really love it. My favorite material is now sort of more Israeli stuff because it makes me feel like I’m in.

Did you develop material based on the book? Are you developing material based on some of the topic subjects?

Benji: A lot of things I make jokes about, I want it like the hand gestures. I wanted to put in the book. Those mean a lot to me.

Joel: For me, the comedy is about trying to really build a life here, raise kids here, being married to a Sabra Israeli, and yet, hard as I try, never being able to fully let go of my American roots.

Exactly. Look, one hard thing for me is just speaking Hebrew with Israelis. My Hebrew, it’s not fluent, but it’s a pretty high level. But immediately, Israelis speak to me in English because their English now is so good.

And I think being an immigrant here, no matter how long you’re here, you’re always going to straddle that line between being a civilian as a citizen, I served in the army, being a full-fledged Israeli, but also being just a little bit American or wherever you’re from. And it’s that balance and that tightrope that I try to bring out in.

At this point, you’ve even moved comedic topics from complaining to just being able to really look at it with a much wider range and to be able to say, okay, we’ve got this information. We’ve got these topics. We’ve got these subjects, and we can bring it to the world out there because we’re able to explain it from both sides of the fence. Really. Or I don’t know, both sides of the something.

Benji: No, I think you said it. I joke that I feel like a successful immigrant on three occasions. One, when I go back to the States, two, when I meet an oleh chadash, like, someone newer than me, and three, when I make Israelis laugh on stage, because then I’m like, someone came up to me, like, five years ago. He’s like, I’ll probably say it wrong. What did he say? Like, said something like “my brother, you really get us.” And that meant the world, because, like, oh, sorry, I’ve done it.

Joel: I think for me, I want to communicate also that I still genuinely love this country. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. And even through the humor and the jokes, and certainly through the book, and despite all the chaos going on, I want readers to walk away and audience members to walk away knowing that this is still a wonderful country with wonderful people in it, and it rekindled my love for the country. There were a few hard years where I wanted to leave Israel right after we moved back, and meeting all of the Israelis for the interviews and getting so in depth into the history and the current events here, it really rekindled my love for the country, and I hope that comes through in both performance and the book itself.

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