In a tiny pub basement, beneath the affluent, leafy streets of Hampstead, Anglo Jewish comedian Ivor Dembina is premiering his new one-man show. It’s an informal, ad hoc performance in front of a modest midweek audience, yet the atmosphere in this crowded cellar bar is alive with anticipation.
And the reason this raw first draft is generating so much interest and adrenaline is that it’s all about Dembina’s recent trip to the West Bank, as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement - a Palestinian led group engaged in direct non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation.
The working title of Dembina’s work-in-progress is This Is Not A Subject For Comedy, but like every crucial topic, this brave, provocative show is actually dripping with dark laughs.
Dembina begins with a dry, self-deprecating quip about how he’s spent the last six months trying to write the joke that would solve the Middle East crisis (only to have his efforts scuppered by the current peace process) before rewinding, back to his childhood introduction to the Promised Land - in an Orthodox Synagogue in 1950s Finchley - and his teenage support for Israel during the Six Days war.
It’s an intriguing starter, but the main meat of Dembina’s monologue is his journey to the West Bank. There’s a degree of dramatic licence (Dembina’s confrontation with Israeli soldiers destroying the home of a suicide bomber’s family is actually based on the experience of other volunteers) but there’s also plenty of straight reportage, and lots of insightful satirical commentary. After just one public performance, it’s already a powerful (and surprisingly funny) show about an issue that affects us all.
All of us, Jewish or Gentile, have certainly been affected by Jewish comedy. From Groucho Marx and Phil Silvers to Roseanne Barr and Joan Rivers, the 20th century was the century of American Jewish comedy.
Through the shrewd slapstick of Mel Brooks, the neurotic wit of Woody Allen, and the political polemic of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, Jews gave American humour a jazz rhythm and a quarrelsome dialectic which transformed a safe, formulaic amusement into an energetic modern artform - delighting us with its ear for language and its appetite for debate.
And next weekend, one of its greatest exponents arrives over here. Jackie Mason could scarcely be more different from Ivor Dembina - and between them, they personify the vast difference between American and Anglo Jewish comedy.
American Jewish comedy is supremely self-confident. Anglo Jewish comedy is unassuming. And while Anglo Jewish comedy is still a cottage industry, American Jewish comedy is big business - on both sides of the pond.
While Dembina plays to a few dozen punters, at seven quid a ticket, Mason plays to thousands, at up to #100 a seat.
There are specific differences, too. While Mason deals in Jewish and Gentile archetypes, Dembina deals with personal, often painfully intimate revelations. His last solo show, Sadojudaism, which he toured to both America and Israel, was a courageous confessional about masochistic fetishism and prostitution - a world away from Mason’s immaculate yet impersonal one-liners.
Yet it’s Israel that really sets them apart. A rabbi from a family of rabbis (including his father, grandfather and great grandfather, plus two brothers in law and all three brothers) Mason closed his Broadway show during the first Gulf war, to fly to the Middle East to show support for the troops and people of Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu gave him an award for “bravery, commitment and valour to the state of Israel” the highest honour the Israeli government can bestow.
Given his very different view of Israel, you might think Dembina had no time for Mason, but you’d be wrong. Dembina might not agree with his take on the Middle East, but he’s a dedicated follower of his act.
“He is an astonishing comedian,” says Dembina, backstage after tonight’s gig. “A great writer, a great performer and he says where he’s coming from. It’s not a view that I share, but technically he’s a master.”
Ironically, Dembina’s interest in the Middle East was also inspired by brave, committed, valiant Jews - Israeli army veterans who were willing to defend Israel, but are unwilling to serve in the occupied territories.
Dembina organised a benefit gig for these refuseniks, attended by refusenik guest speakers, and it was out of their campaign, called The Courage To Refuse, that his involvement with the International Solidarity Movement grew.
“They were inspiring,” says Dembina. “They weren’t full of themselves. They were there just to tell us about their experience.”
Dembina travelled to the West Bank with a group of British Jews. Some of them had been out there before, others hadn’t, but the risks were clear to see.
“I knew the kind of work that we were expected to do,” he says, “to try and intervene peacefully on behalf of the Palestinians, and I really started thinking about it when one of the volunteers got killed.”
Shortly before he flew out, a US student, Rachel Corrie, was crushed to death by a bulldozer while trying to prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes. Then a UK student, Thomas Hurndall, was shot in the head by Israeli troops.
It left him in a coma. Both of them were there with the International Solidarity Movement. “This is real,” realised Ivor, who at 52 is old enough to be their father. Before he left, people here told him he was brave.
“I didn’t feel brave,” he says. “I felt I was making an informed choice.”
And he could choose what sort of work he wanted. “You do what you want to do.”
Dembina spent most of his time watching army checkpoints. “I had to conquer my own personal fear of violence,” he reveals. “I didn’t need persuading about the value of the cause, because the way I saw it was, the imbalance in power between the Israelis and the Palestinians was so great that the only weapon that the Palestinians had left at that time was world opinion.”
His opinions didn’t change, but he learnt a lot about his attitudes. “I’m a liberal person,” he says. “I hate being forced to take a side, and that was the question. Was I able to say ‘in this conflict, I support the Palestinians against Israel’ (which is a big one for a Jew)?”
And could he? “There were times when I felt I could and there were times when I found myself backing off,” he says. “I found myself wanting to be a conciliator rather than a warrior.”
Yet despite his opinions, or maybe even in part because of them, he was bewitched by the beauty of the country. “The place is paradise,” he says. And when he performed in Israel, his experiences were positive too.
“The great thing about Israel is you’re expected to have an opinion. Say what you want. We might say something back but say what you want don’t come here and waste our time.”
If anything, he was too timid. “The way to deal with Israelis is the way they deal with you - upfront. In that sense, they’re great people. No bullshit.”
Dembina even visited a settlement. The Israelis he met there respected his honesty and his integrity, but they said he was naive. “You can engage in a dialogue with them,” he says, “but once it becomes a question of their faith you can’t go any further. What can you do? You just agree to differ.”
But what’s all this got to do with comedy? Why don’t comics like Dembina give up the day job, and become full time activists, or even politicians? Well, humour sweetens some bitter pills, and a little stand up can go a lot further than an awful lot of politics.
“The great thing about stand up is that it’s live and it’s very human and you can touch people and you can move people,” says Ivor. “Maybe I can inspire some other Jews in that audience who feel the things that I felt, to maybe help legitimise their feelings.”
And the irony - and the beauty of stand up is that Jackie Mason, from his very different stance, does much the same thing. “All the audience want you to do is to be honest about who you are. “It’s like Woody Allen said, ‘who are you, why are you here and what have you got to tell me?’”
. This Is Not A Subject For Comedy is at the Hampstead Comedy Club, London NW3 on July, 10, 17 and 24 Call 0208 299 2601, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.hampsteadcomedy.co.uk
. Jackie Mason: A Night At The Opera is at Manchester Opera House, on July 12 (0161 832 1111), Leeds Grand Theatre & Opera House on July 13 (0113 222 6222) and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2, on July 15. Call the central ticket booking line on 0870 602 1101 or visit www.jackiemason.com.