The last trick-or-treater had just departed.
Seconds later all of it started.
Jingle bells. Ho ho ho. Happy shouts.
Biggest birthday party in the world … Not invited. Left out.
Actually that’s no longer true. Now major winter celebrations include all us Jews.
Santa’s not the only one traveling the globe. There’s also a holiday hero named Joel.
He’s flying home to Chicago from far away Ra’anana. He brings comedy and a show that are spiritual manna.
So Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Jew, no matter your religion, you’ll love it, too.
It’s December 25 at City Winery. Come and feel free to wear comfortable finery.
Be ready to laugh and be amazed. Because December 25 is Belongs-To-All-Of-Us Day.
Joel kindly called me from Israel about the brand new “Christmas for the Jews.”
We’d spoken in 2017, too.
Link over there for his extraordinary story. He was an I.D.F. tank gunner. Not all of it glory.
So for this interview, we went behind-the-scenes.
His new life in Israel and what comedy means.
Teme: How would you describe the two years since we last spoke?
Joel: We’ve now lived in Israel for three years. We’re more adjusted. It’s a very complicated country. But it’s also fulfilling in many ways.
Teme: Have you been affected by all the rockets coming over the border?
Joel: We weren’t personally affected, but the kids had drills in school and a teacher described what to do if something happens. So we’re affected in the ways you are when your kids are exposed to these kinds of messages and situations. It’s different than life in the U.S., but in many ways it’s not different. Schools and Jewish institutions in the States have their own warnings about violence, so it’s not like we are the only place in the world where this is happening.
Teme: What part of Israeli everyday life feels normal now that didn’t feel normal when you first moved there?
Joel: That’s a great question. I’ve gotten used to the lack of fluffiness and beating around the bush. People are very direct here. They don’t ask “how are you?” and then get to the point. They just get straight to the point. That was shocking at the beginning, but now I am used to it. I actually prefer it, the fact that I can just cut straight to the chase, too.
I’m also getting used to the prices. Things are very expensive here, but now it’s sort of become normal. I no longer question the fact that a box of American cornflakes costs nine dollars!
I’m back in the States once every six weeks, so I’m constantly remembering what it’s like to be back in the culture I grew up in. On the one hand that’s great, but on the other hand, it’s challenging because you keep being reminded of what you left and how things are different.
Teme: What are your favorite things about living in Israel?
Joel: My kids start school at 8:00 a.m. and get out at 1:30 p.m. At first, that was hard. When do I have time to do my stuff? But I like it. I get to spend time with them. In the States I put my kids on the bus at 7:15 a.m. and they wouldn’t get home until 5:00 in the afternoon. After dinner and homework it was straight to bed. We didn’t see them that much. So that’s one of the things that I like here. It’s also refreshing that not everyone is obsessed with SAT scores and college placement and all of those stressful markers that dominate American life.
Teme: What are some funny things about Israel and Israelis?
Joel: Israelis really appreciate comedy. They like being made fun of and love to hear jokes about themselves. In America, the audience likes to hear jokes about parenting or observational humor about daily life. In Israel, by far the best jokes are the ones about them, and the more you can make fun of them and tear down society and how crazy it is, the more they love it.
Teme: What’s an example of a joke that’s a hit with Israeli audiences?
Joel: I have jokes about being a soldier in the Israeli army when I was twenty-four. I have jokes about being married to an Israeli and jokes about Israeli security. Instead of “What’s the deal with Israeli security,” I make it more about “Hey, what is it with you people? Why are you like this?!” The more I make it about them and showing where I’m vulnerable compared to them, the more they love it. It took me a while to figure that out, but it’s something I’m slowly observing and noticing.
I talk about joining the Israeli army and how at first, the army tried to convince me not to join. Then they misspelled my name on my dog tag. I explained to them that it was misspelled and they gave me a typical Israeli response which was “So don’t die!” Instead of fixing it, they said “It’s your problem. We don’t want to bother.” They sort of take pride in the fact that “Yeah, we don’t care!” That’s a joke they really love here [in Israel].
Teme: What is something you recently observed that will make it into your material?
Joel: In Israel I’m starting to talk about how per capita there are more computers and more internet use than anywhere else in the world. It’s a very tech savvy society, but almost too much. It’s not really even monitored in schools, so I’m developing jokes about that.
In the U.S., I’ll tell you what I don’t talk about. I don’t talk about politics. I don’t talk about Trump. I feel like (A), it’s too easy, and (B), what am I really going to say that hasn’t been said wonderfully by all the other commentators on both sides? I’d rather leave it and focus on things that are less recognized.
Teme: Definitely. I kind of have Trump fatigue.
Joel: Exactly. If anything, let’s have a break from Trump.
Teme: How would you describe the stand-up and improv scenes in Israel?
Joel: They’re both changing. Improv is new [in Israel]. To get kind of deep, I think Israelis aren’t used to being vulnerable and aren’t used to admitting weakness. To be a good actor, to be a good improviser, you have to let your guard down and put your faith in others. I think it’s the right time for improv because this younger generation of Israelis is willing to do that. So improv hasn’t caught on like it has in the U.S., but it’s starting to catch on.
Stand-up is changing. It used to be very aggressive here, and now it’s starting to get a little more conversational, a little quieter, less shouting and more thoughtful.
Teme: Those are such interesting insights! I never would have known any of that! When we last spoke, your daughters were getting close to going into the army. You have so many great stories about your own time in the army. How does their experience compare with yours?
Joel: They both have [enlistment] dates and they’re ready to go. The biggest difference is that it’s way more organized now. All incoming soldiers have an app on their phone and they get updates if they have a new interview or test to take, whereas I was scrambling. Pre-internet, I was making phone calls with an eight-hour time difference and trying to figure everything out without any centralized information.
Teme: What is your favorite Hanukkah tradition in Israel?
Joel: No one tradition per se. It’s more the “avira” which is Hebrew for “atmosphere.” It’s really neat to be in a country where everyone is celebrating Hanukkah. I’m so used to Christmas and Christmas trees everywhere.
I like seeing the Chanukiah in public spaces. We walked into a bakery yesterday and they’re already selling sufganiot, the jelly doughnuts, and it’s that feeling of the holidays are in the air, except it’s our holiday this time.
Teme: When I lived in Jerusalem, I remember how Christmas was like any other day unless you’re in the Christian quarter in the Old City.
Joel: People are getting more interested in Christmas here, I think because of the internet. Now it’s becoming a tradition to go to Bethlehem and Jerusalem around Christmastime to see the lights and displays. But in terms of the day itself, on Christmas day and January 1st, people go to work and school is open. Younger people have New Year’s Eve parties. They call it “Sylvester,” but it’s a work day and not a major holiday like it is in the U.S.
Teme: As a frequent world traveler and since travel season is starting, what are your tips for making travel as stress-free as possible?
Joel: I make an effort to call the airline ahead of time and arrange for aisle seats and vegetarian meals. I used to just be like “Eh, it will all work out.” I’ve had too many experiences where it didn’t work out. I take calling ahead seriously because I fly a lot and these are long flights.
Teme: How do you make time pass on the plane?
Joel: My number one tip is an app called Softorino which allows you to download YouTube videos legally onto your iPad. I’m a big tennis fan, so I download tennis matches or highlights from recent baseball or football games. Having at least one or two good books, snacks and a lot of water, and my own little curation of sports to watch on the plane makes it a lot more enjoyable.
Teme: Speaking of traveling, I read that you recently traveled to Africa on a “Comedy Beyond Borders” trip. I’d love to hear more about that.
Joel: That was a family trip and the second time we’ve been to Africa. We mixed sightseeing with volunteering. In Rwanda, I wanted to learn more about the genocide. We also visited a center in Uganda for single parent families who are struggling with extreme poverty. Despite that, the kids were some of the happiest kids I’ve ever met in my life, although I’m sure they don’t have easy lives. It was a joy to spend time with them just doing art and making them laugh a little bit and singing and playing soccer. It was also great for us to take a break from the normal type of kid we often see who is entitled and has everything.
Teme: I loved the video where you and the kids at the center found the common language of funny noises and laughing.
Joel: It taught me that certain things are funny across all cultures, and funny noises and strange faces are some of those things.
Teme: Do you think that funny noises are vastly underutilized? I loved your video and after seeing it, I feel that we should start integrating funny noises into daily routines. What if in a tense situation somebody just made a funny noise? Like you’re on the phone with customer service or something.
Joel: I totally agree with you. I think we might be too uptight to do that in normal daily life. That’s too bad. We’re just too worried about how we would come across.
Teme: Somebody needs to start. I wonder who can do it.
Joel: I think that’s you!
Teme: I’ll do it! What makes laughter such a powerful force for connecting with each other?
Joel: You can’t experience laughter without a connection. Whether it’s two people or an audience of one thousand, there’s a connection happening. When people laugh together, something glues them together during the experience. Also, the audience has to do a little bit of work. With music you can sit passively and enjoy the sound, but in comedy you have to do some of the work also. You have to put the puzzle together. Whatever the comedian is saying you have to take that and join it with what you already know, and that’s where you get the laughter and engagement. It’s powerful because it’s a two-way street. It might be the only art form that is dependent on the audience as a participant.
Teme: That’s such a great point. What lessons can non-comedians take from that insight to better connect with other people?
Joel: We’re very developed when it comes to technology, but we’re forgetting that we are social creatures, that the things that really matter to us are connecting with other people. The more we search for bigger and better gadgets, the further we’re getting away from the things that really make us happy.
Human connection through devices and machines is just not working. People are still very lonely and maybe lonelier than ever because of it. It’s the real genuine human face-to-face connection that’s important. Comedy promotes that because you’ve got to be connected [to your audience] as a performer. Comedy reminds us all that that’s important.
Teme: What do you most enjoy doing when you’re back in Chicago?
Joel: Seeing old friends. Going to Carmen’s Pizza. If it’s summer, going to a Cubs game. Those are the three things.
Teme: What question has no one asked you that would be a great question?
Joel: Wow. Maybe “would you ever move back to Chicago?”
Teme: Oh, what do you think?
Joel: I think about it a lot. I’ve traveled a lot and backpacked a ton and lived in different places, but home will always be home. There’s something really charming about Chicago. It’s a big city that can still feel familiar. I still call it home. Without thinking about it I say “home.” And it is. It always will be.
Teme: What would you like people to know about your upcoming show in Chicago?
Joel: We’re changing the format this year. I’ll still be hosting and doing comedy but our headliner is Jason Suran, a mentalist and magician. It’s an art form that I don’t fully understand. Usually, I understand performance, but this is mind-blowing, so I’m really excited to be in the room when it’s happening. He’s also funny but his real talent is magic, mind reading and tricks of the mind. It’s a little freaky to tell you the truth.
Teme: I actually know the answer to this next question because I’ve been to your shows and they’re always awesome. The show is “Christmas for the Jews,” but would you say that everyone should check it out?
Joel: The answer is always yes. This year in particular there’s nothing necessarily Jewish about it, although my material has a Jewish flavor. This show is open to all, and anyone would enjoy it.
Teme: What will people experience at the show? What do you hope they leave with?
Joel: I hope they’re entertained, but also shocked in an uplifting way. I’ve gone to great magic shows in my life and I always left them feeling like that was awesome and I don’t know what happened, but a new part of me was awakened. That’s my hope. I hope Jason’s performance will awaken a new part of people so that they feel there’s more to life than just what we see in our immediate surroundings.
On December 25, Joel Chasnoff will host the 4th Annual “Christmas For the Jews” with comedian Sohrab Farouzesh and mentalist Jason Suran at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph, Chicago. Doors open at 6:00 p.m. Show starts at 8:00 p.m. Tickets and all details here.
More about Joel at joelchasnoff.com
2017 interview with Joel: The season’s best new tradition: “Christmas for the Jews” with Joel Chasnoff!
More about Sohrab Farouzesh at sohrabisbrown.com.
More about Jason Suran at jasonsuran.com.