Israeli comic uses Bible tales to lampoon officials But HTC ultra-Orthodox Jews find nothing to laugh at

November 10, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Noah performs a striptease, Eve is a babe and Lot's cowboys put down stakes in the Indians' fields when comedian Gil Kopatch tells stories from the Bible.

Kopatch's biblical interpretation, broadcast weekly on the state-owned television station, goes beyond humorous description.

He relies on traditional biblical commentaries to lampoon current events -- the prime minister's wife sacking of the family nanny, the violence of extremist Jewish settlers, the centuries-old land dispute between Arabs and Jews.

The 26-year-old comic -- wearing a trim goatee, thick-lensed glasses and a military cap put on backward -- delivers his political critiques in the hip-hop street parlance of Israel's liberal, left-wing youth.

His satire has inflamed the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. A religious member of parliament talked about cutting the television channel's public funding. And this week the boyish Kopatch found himself before a Knesset committee defending his art.

The Kopatch affair struck a familiar fault line in Israeli society -- the widening rift between secular and religious Jews. It hit upon free speech, artistic expression, religious respect and societal values.

Kopatch's commentaries spin out of the Parashat HaShavua, the weekly Bible segment read in synagogues worldwide.

Kopatch is clever, witty and politically current. He relates Abraham's decision to protect Lot and his family in the city of Sodom to the Israeli government's efforts to protect Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

According to Kopatch, Abraham "builds him tents, infrastructure, ring roads, organizes military escorts for the kids."

It was Kopatch's description of Noah dancing naked that enraged Knesset member Shlomo Benizri. The Bible speaks about Noah's nakedness one evening when he had too much to drink. But Kopatch added an extra touch of description.

Religious Jews have accused Kopatch of disrespect, find his brand of humor offensive and want him pulled from the show.

"Here we are talking about insults, in the strictest sense of the word. I can't even repeat what that clown said," said Moshe Gafni, an Orthodox Jew and Knesset member.

Criticism isn't just from the religious right. Hagai Hitron, an editor of the Ha'aretz newspaper, lamented, "Presenting a Biblical text in modern slang is a worn-out method of making people laugh and therefore base."

But Uri Orbach, a religious journalist writing in the newspaper Yediot Aharanot, described the opposition by the religious as "a knee-jerk reaction" to a secular person's nontraditional reading of the Bible.

Mordechai Kirshenbaum, director of the Israel Broadcast Authority, has supported Kopatch's sketches. He said the broadcast authority runs many programs, "very serious ones," about the Bible. He said the show on which Kopatch appears is popular -- a recent poll found 60 percent of Israelis wanted it to continue.

Kirshenbaum disputed charges that Kopatch was rude.

"If there is rudeness in this program, then we certainly need to take care of it," he told Israeli television. "Noah was naked and it is written that he was naked. On that there is no argument -- and about a naked man you say that he walked around. Who is hurt by this? Noah's family? Even if Noah was alive today, who is hurt by this?"

At Kirshenbaum's request, the broadcast authority's seven-member public board of directors will review the Kopatch program at its meeting tomorrow.

Kopatch told the Knesset's education committee that he speaks in a language that his audience understands.

"Secular people come up to me and say, 'It is because of you that I read the [Torah portion].' That makes me happy. Humor is just a way to get the message across. It is not, God forbid, to make fun of it. I'm not saying that we're right or they are right. We are both correct. That is what is so great about the Torah."

Yair Lapid, on whose show Kopatch appears, said he's pleased about the commotion. "I'm happy to fight for a value that I strongly believe in, which is freedom of speech, freedom of thinking," he said.

He said no one has a corner on the Bible.

"We feel we have access to the Bible and we don't have to pay commission," said Lapid. "Neither Orthodox Jews, Jerry Falwell, the mullahs of Iran have a right on the Bible. It's everybody's."

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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