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Wednesday
Mar082017

TO BRING MOSHIACH WITH HUMOR TOO

When I asked RYiftach Luzia about feedback he gets from his comedy, he smiled and said:

“After a performance at a jail, one of the inmates who is behind bars for a series of thefts came over to me and said, ‘I admire you. At home I have all your CD’s, the videos, books, and also all your silver and gold items …’”

R’ Yiftach’s face turns serious. It seemed to me that after the few jokes with which he began our conversation, he was going to start talking “tachlis.” Then he said, “A Lubavitcher recently got a call from his bank manager. The Lubavitcher was very nervous as the manager gravely told him he had an overdraft of 24,000 shekels. The Chassid was very taken aback and asked in dismay, ‘But according to my calculations, the amount is much lower, just 6000 shekels!’ The manager replied, ‘You forgot that for the next few days, every shekel of yours counts for four …’”

“Fine,” says R’ Yiftach, “now I am serious. A group of young guys, not yet religious, came to spend time at Ascent in Tzfas. The custom there is that they send all the guests out to different host families of Anash in Kiryat Chabad for the Friday night meal, and then everyone returns to Ascent. On this occasion, one of the young fellows returned early and he looked like someone who had been insulted.

“The man in charge of the group asked what had happened, but he refused to answer. Finally, after much importuning, he shared the trauma he had just experienced. It seems that the host, a bearded Lubavitcher, had poured wine into his cup and then turned to him with the following question, ‘To be motzi you or will you be yotzei on your own?’ Truly insulted, the young man was yotzei (lit. Heb. to leave) on his own…”

It is already ten years that R’ Yiftach Luzia has been performing on stage as a comedian, mostly for children. It started small, as an activity in Camp Oro Shel Moshiach, and progressed to many and varied audiences, fundraising events for Chabad Houses, evenings for women, and events and gatherings for children. If you ask him, his favorite audiences are the children of Tzivos Hashem. “They come to these events open and ready to laugh; they are the easiest crowd to work with.”

In everyday life, R’ Yiftach serves as a professor at the Technological Institute in Tzfas and as a shliach in Kibbutz Machanayim and Moshav Mishmar HaYarden. So how did he get into the field of jokes and comedy? How does this talent help him in his work as an educator and shliach? What differentiates a Chassidic comedian from any other? What are the limits? And how does one introduce the concept of Moshiach in these appearances? We asked these and other questions, and in the spirit of Purim, we got some serious answers alongside many jokes and clever turns of phrase that will bring a smile to any face.

LIFE IS NO JOKE

It all started when he was a boy in the third grade in Kfar Saba, a shy and introverted child who barely opened his mouth. He always preferred to have other children respond to questions that were directed at him by his teachers. Towards the end of that year, he signed up for a karate class to help build his self-confidence as well as to be able to hold his own against those children who saw him as an easy target. It worked. His self-confidence soared, and along with his progress in his karate studies he also began to open his mouth, surprising himself and those around him.

“The greatest surprise was that I discovered a talent for acting and joking. I would imitate political figures, the principal and the teachers, even my neighbors and the local grocer. The other guys, even the older ones, would get a kick out of it and sneak a laugh. For the production at the end of sixth grade, I was given a major role, and the entire audience enjoyed it and laughed.”

The applause that he was getting led him to apply to join the “media” program in his high school, as the school did not offer a theater program. In that program, he produced a number of comedy short films, together with two friends, which won acclaim and positive reviews. “It was clear then that my future was in the world of theater and acting.”

And then you became a baal teshuva?

My return to Judaism began at age fourteen and a half. Until that point I had a general feeling that I had a good and fulfilling life, I really had it all. I won two youth championships in karate, and in other competitions I took second or third prize. Socially, I was outstanding and everything seemed to revolve around me and I felt great.

During that period, my father began to attend services in the local shul. In the beginning I was not involved in the spiritual awakening that he was experiencing, until one Friday night I decided that I had to express my gratitude to Hashem for all of the good He was giving me, and I joined my father for the prayers. I came home inspired and from that point on I began to join him every Shabbos.

When we moved to Tel Mond, I met the shliach there, R’ Amram Shaatal, and he was very mekarev me. I took upon myself to keep Shabbos, then to wear tzitzis, and at age sixteen and a half, to the utter shock of all my classmates and all my karate friends who were sure I would make it big in the sport, I switched to the Chabad yeshiva in Tzfas.

So when you became a Lubavitcher you put all your talents on hold?

“The truth is, yes. Like all newly-minted baalei teshuva, I was ‘flying.’ I stuck my head in the s’farim for about twenty hours a day. But then comes the ‘coming down to earth’ stage. I really began to open up when they had me perform at Camp Oro Shel Moshiach. I did a karate show for the kids along with jokes that I improvised on the spot. When I saw that it was possible to do entertaining shows in the spirit of Chassidus, and the children enjoyed it, I knew I had to continue doing this.”

His friends in yeshiva who discovered his talent asked for more and more. He started using it on mivtzaim.

“I saw people happy and feeling good about themselves.”

R’ Yiftach improvised. This is the secret to his charm. “I didn’t have a script. I would stand up there and it just flowed.”

What is the difference between comedy in the world of Chabad as compared to your previous world?

“It’s a big difference. Today, I would never insult anyone with my humor, which often happened in the previous world I was in. Furthermore, I always have a hidden message in my jokes while the non-religious world has no message at all.”

Does every joke have to have a message?

“No. If you look for a clear-cut message in every joke, you are mistaken. However, the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya that when a Jew is happy, it helps him progress in his connection to Hashem, while a Jew who is sad will continue doing sins. Therefore, the added value of jokes, even if they don’t have a message, is that people should be happy and then it will be easier for them to fulfill mitzvos and cleave to Hashem.

“I once saw bachurim sitting and joking around and someone went over to them and told them this is leitzanus. I asked him afterward, ‘Why leitzanus? Jews are sitting during their break and laughing among themselves without insulting anyone and within clear halachic guidelines, so what’s the problem with that?’

“I teach at the Technological Institute and sometimes I sit with guys for twenty minutes and we laugh. Is that a waste of time? Absolutely not. Tomorrow or the next day, when they will want to ask a serious question, they will come over to me and be more open. The Amoraim also did this, beginning their talks with a humorous remark to open people up. Afterward, people listen. It is not necessary to find the immediate benefit every single time.

“They tell about a farbrengen attended by some mashpiim where one of the people finished talking by saying that they need to leave the farbrengen with something practical. A mashpia next to him asked, ‘Isn’t the farbrengen itself something practical?’

“The same is true with the jokes themselves. Some have a message and some don’t. The latter are told just to make people laugh. The message is that a Jew should laugh and let that be our reward. Nonetheless, I think that even jokes without a clear message definitely have an indirect message.”

Who is it easier to work with, adults or children?

“It’s no secret that it’s easier to make children laugh and definitely the children of Tzivos Hashem. They come to performances already happy and it makes no difference who will stand on the stage. Kids are forgiving and what they feel and think you see on their faces. The world of adults is naturally more skeptical and cynical. Adults are more closed when they go to a show, with an attitude of, ‘Let’s see if you can make me smile.’”

THE DAY FATHER STOPPED TALKING TO MOTHER

“When I first became a baal teshuva, I went through many things that after becoming a Lubavitcher, I laughed at. Today I even talk about them in performances.

“I remember that when my father became a baal teshuva, he learned the Mishna that says, ‘don’t talk excessively with a woman.’ He took it at face value and didn’t talk to my mother for a week …

“I remember that when I was first becoming religious, I read the bedtime Shma, known as ‘Krias Shma al HaMitta’ (literally, Shma on the bed) by standing on my bed and reading the prayers. One night, my mother came in and saw me standing on my bed and striking my chest with my fist and was sure this was yet another karate move that I had learned.

“The funniest thing was when I went to learn in the yeshiva in Tzfas. They told me that you don’t say cancer; you say ‘that disease.’ When I committed to doing the Rebbe’s horaa to learn three chapters of Rambam every day, and I got up to the chapters about the laws of sanctifying the month, and read about the constellation called cancer, I would say something like this: ‘The constellation of the “dreaded disease” which crosses the constellation of the archer, etc.’ Someone who heard me corrected me immediately.”

R’ Yiftach shoots off jokes in streams and you don’t know what’s fiction and what’s reality. Here’s another one:

“There is another famous joke about baalei teshuva who meet for a shidduch. The bachur’s name is Eliyahu and the girl’s name is Batya. When she asks him his name, he says, ‘Keiliyahu,’ and when she is asked her name, she says, ‘Batka.’

“The message in these jokes is that baalei teshuva should get guidance and not be locked into what they think is correct. The same is true for those who grew up in Chassidic homes; you don’t have to go around with somber faces and the feeling that the whole world is on your shoulders. You should smile and rejoice and even laugh. The very fact that a Jew is happy and smiles in exile is a blessing.”

How about sharing some trade secrets: Are you one of those who prepares material for every performance? Are all your jokes written down and filed away by topic, or is it all off the cuff?

“The truth is that I only recently began to keep notes. People ask me to appear before specific types of audiences, so I write down jokes and ideas that are tailored to each type of audience. But those who know me know that the best performances are those that are improvised.

“There is something else that people need to know; what will ultimately determine whether a show is successful is the audience. A lot depends on the audience doing its part.”

SHLICHUS AND COMEDY

You are already on shlichus in Kibbutz Machanayim for six years. Does the talent to make people laugh help in your shlichus?

“You have absolutely no idea just how much. On the first Shabbos I was there, I was given the aliya for Kohen in shul. Afterwards, one of the congregants asked me if I am a Kohen and I answered in the negative. He then asked if that was the case how could I receive the aliya of Kohen, and I told him that I was in middle of the conversion process to become a Kohen. He seemed shocked by my response, and asked how is it possible for someone who is not a Kohen to convert and become one. I explained to him that since my father is a Kohen and my grandfather is as well, I decided that I wanted to become a Kohen too.

“But really, on Shabbos I try to be more serious and cut down on the jokes, in order to avoid transgressing the forbidden work of ‘tearing’ people up.

“Okay, seriously now: The humor helps me a lot on shlichus. When people are happy and open up, it is much easier to work with them. When I arrived six years ago in Machanayim, one of the local women asked me to come check the mezuzos in her home. Before I went, people warned me that her husband was anti-religious, of the sort that scream and attack. I went anyway.

“While I was working on removing the mezuzos in the living room, he suddenly appeared with a very serious look on his face. He came over and asked my name, and I answered that my name is Yiftach Luzia and I came to make him a baal teshuva. As we were talking, I took my hat off and put it on his head. He smiled and the conversation took off. Since then we are good friends. He comes occasionally to classes in the Chabad House and even signed up for a monthly direct deposit donation. It was specifically the most extreme and ludicrous response that was totally unexpected, which established a connection between us. That is the advantage of humor, it breaks down all barriers.”

What is the line between being a comedian and a clown? Obviously, you don’t want to be seen as the town clown in your place of shlichus.

“Good question. Perhaps that is the difference between a comedian who is a Chabad Chassid and anyone else. After a comedy show, there is a mission to be accomplished, giving Torah classes, preparing children for their Bar-Mitzvas, and many other serious activities. To a certain extent, I am even seen as the Rabbi, so I have to observe some degree of ceremony. When I teach Tanya, I’m not going to toss around any jokes. One can share some words of humor at a farbrengen or a home-based class, but people understand very quickly that there are limits.

“One can balance humor with being a role model. Let us take as an example the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach. Nobody thinks that the Rebbe is any less fanatical about matters in Shulchan Aruch because he is more smiley and conciliatory and greets each person with a pleasant countenance. That is why it is necessary to understand that all of this humor has a goal and a message; to connect more Jews to the Rebbe, and even among Anash, to bring joy to the Chassidim so that they will be that much more effective in mivtzaim and the work to bring Moshiach.”

TO STEP OUT OF THE BOX

R’ Yiftach tends to get a lot of positive feedback. Sometimes there are “serious folks” who will throw out some cautionary words about not letting the joking get out of hand, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, people are happy and come over to offer thanks. “Children will actually come over to thank me before the show, even before they got to laugh. That is how it is with children.

“When I do a show in front of ladies, I get the feedback the next day from the husbands. ‘My wife told me over this or that joke,’ or ‘What a great time she had.’ The fact that people in our generation are happy, even for a brief time, is a worthy goal onto itself.”

Like any shliach, surely your intentions include the hastening of the revelation of the Rebbe.

“Certainly. The Rebbe says clearly in one of the sichos, that what is still lacking for the complete revelation is the matter of joy. The Rebbe explains that joy is something that needs to be above the limitations of the rational mind, since when it comes to bringing Moshiach we need to do activities that transcend rational limits, to go out of ourselves. When we only think in rational terms, we remain trapped in our own little worlds and are not able to really step outside of them. The Rebbe tells us that the Redemption is already here and we only need to open our eyes. Well, to open our eyes in exile, it is necessary to step outside of our preconceived notions.

“In general, you see how at the distribution of dollars the Rebbe would smile at a lot of people and knew how to get a smile or even a laugh out of some people. When somebody is happy, it is a lot easier to get them to take on good resolutions. Joy lifts a person out of his existing state and situation.”

During this month of Adar, you are no doubt very busy.

 “When Adar comes around my phone does not stop ringing. Can you guess when my phone gives me the silent treatment? In the months of Av or Elul, nobody thinks of inviting me to give an inspiring talk; they have other speakers for that. Although in truth it is a real shame, because I have a whole collection of puns, jokes and witticisms for those months.”

PURIM IS SERIOUS BUSINESS

Throughout the month of Adar, R’ Yiftach receives dozens of requests to participate in events and gatherings in his role as a comedian. For his part, he makes an effort to participate in all of them, since he sees making Jews happy as a vital part of his life shlichus. However, if you go looking for him on the day of Purim, you can find him in his place of shlichus, over his head with the work of visiting homes, delivering Mishloach Manos, reading the Megilla and gathering everybody for the festive meal at the Chabad House. There is no clearer distinction between an ordinary comedian and a Chabad comedian.

R’ Yiftach concludes the interview: “There is a saying out there in the world, ‘A comedian is like rain. It is nice to watch, but when it falls on you it is not so pleasant.’ The guiding principle of a Chassidic comedian has to be that at all times it is pleasant to be around him, and his jokes should be encouraging and uplifting.”

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