JR OutLoud: Lawyer turned comic Jeremie Bracka discusses his new show Thank you for Flying Hell-Al

Australian-Israeli comedian, actor and human rights lawyer Jeremie Bracka will be making his London debut on night one of JW3’s UK Jewish Comedy Festival (1-4 Dec). Here he talks to Judi Herman, JR’s arts editor, about life in the Middle East and Down Under, as well as his latest one-man show, Thank you for Flying Hell-Al, in which he uses storytelling, stand-up, character comedy and mockumentary to explore life in Israel and the experience of making Aliyah.

Thank you for Flying Hell-Al is on Thursday 1 December, 8.30pm, £15, at JW3, NW3 6ET; 020 7433 8989. www.jw3.org.uk

Review: The Writer ★★★★ - A guide for the perplexed from the writer of hit Israeli TV series Arab Labour

film-the-writer More reviews from the 20th UK International Jewish Film Festival. This time looking at two films from Israel giving insights into Arab/Israeli relations, featuring this mockumentary written by Sayed Kashua and directed by Shay Capon.

If you loved Arab-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua’s Arab Labour and you’re into Larry Davidson, this meta-reality TV series, which has its first three episodes screened at the Festival, is for you. But don’t expect to get the belly laughs or even the cynical giggles you got from Larry and Arab Labour’s genial, narcissistic anti-hero Amjad (who finds celebrity when he wins a TV reality show). Kashua’s writer Kateb (wonderfully perplexed Yousef Sweid) is his fictional alter ego, an Arab-Israeli TV writer who has achieved celebrity status with his hit TV series called – yes you’ve guessed it – Arab Labour.

But Kaleb is uneasy about his celebrity – is he merely the acceptable face of Arab-Israeli culture – the creative who makes Israelis feel liberal when they laugh with him at his clever take on life on the other side of the cultural divide? And despite – or perhaps partly because of his success, he’s having a mid-life crisis. Is he really living the dream or is he increasingly alienated from his admittedly demanding wife and teenage daughter as he ineffectually juggles the life/work balance with increasingly chaotic results? And then there’s his insecure pre-teen son, terrified by his father’s altercation with a black-garbed, Orthodox Jew complete with sidecurls as the pair go head to head over a parking space. Will their overreaction lead to violent repercussions or will an apology go some way towards rapprochement between these members of two communities living uneasily side by side?

His attempt to answer these questions leads him to announce a sabbatical from making a new series of Arab Labour – instead he proposes a series based on a character much like himself, going through just the sort of life experiences he is experiencing. See what I mean about meta-reality? This one really does have as many layers as an onion. So the laughs are subtle and the questions posed about Israeli society promise to continue to be telling in the rest of the series of ten episodes. With Fauda – the hit action series about an Israeli undercover unit operating in Palestinian territory that has proved a runaway success with both Palestinians and Israelis – about to come to Netflix, I’m optimistic that I’ll find out – I just hope I don’t have to wait too long!

By Judi Herman

The Writer screens on Sunday 20 November,  4pm, at JW3, NW3 6ET.



Gefiltefest 2016 - Jewish Renaissance visits Finchley Road’s very own Gastro-nbury

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gefiltefest5 copy

Gefiltefest featured surprisingly few actual gefilte fish, but as one of the arguably less tasty staples of Jewish cuisine, it was more than made up for by the variety of food, including dairy-free ice cream, vegetarian caviar and multi-coloured hamentashen, all of which we dutifully and extensively sampled. Beth Duncan of Stapleton Dairy poured out tasting pots of the best yoghurt known to Finchley Road, and the courtyard was dominated by the exuberance of Michelle from Visit Israel – if this radiant lady can’t convince you to make Aliyah, no one can.

Founded by Michael Leventhal in 2010, Gefiltefest is a charity whose work culminates in the annual festival celebrating Jewish culture, heritage and food (and lots of it). JR spoke to Charlie from Mitzvah Day Charity, who ran an apple crumble making workshop for children attending the event. The crumbles were donated directly to asylum seekers at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, exemplifying the kind of charity work Mitzvah Day encourages: giving up your time instead of just your cash.

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gefiltefest2 copy

A particular gem was the children’s books being promoted at the Jewish Vegetarian Society’s stall. Reminiscent of the recent children’s book And Tango Makes Three, about two homosexual penguins who decide to adopt, the power of ideas in fiction for the youngest of readers is not to be underestimated. We may just see a generation of little vegans yet.

The festival attendees were also treated to a range of workshops, talks, films and events, including a rip-roaring edition of Just a Minute, Gefiltefest style. The host quickly dispelled fears that the show would be akin to the poorly received Have I Got Jews For You or Schmock the Week. This was almost immediately evident after a comment from a panel member about 30 seconds in caused another to spray of water over the front row (alas, we quickly regretted our seating choice).

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gefiltefest3 copy

Topics ranged from ‘bagel or beigel?’ and ‘latkas vs hamentashen’ to Mrs Elswood and 'my mother’s chicken soup’, each extrapolated on beautifully by the gifted wits Abigail Morris, Dan Patterson, Adam Taub and Jenni Frazer, who were bolstered by host Raymond Simonson. Although wholly enjoyed by most, the event was put into perspective by the sleeping (or worse) older lady at the back of the room, as Simonson confirmed after a joke about Mr Elswood’s pickle: “This is about as niche as it gets.”

The day was rounded off by a cooking demonstration by Tomer Amedi, head chef of the new award-winning restaurant The Palomar, who revealed the secrets behind the restaurant’s signature Jerusalem-style polenta. The audience murmured angrily as Amedi explained the difficulties of finding kosher asparagus, and we left quietly with a full stomach and on a beeline for Babke ingredients.

By Rachel Wood

Can the chaos of hit TV series Fauda help to bring about peace and understanding between Israel/Palestine's battling communities? Judi Herman speaks to writer/performer Lior Raz

Fauda TV show Lior Raz is the co-writer and plays a vital leading role in Fauda, currently the biggest hit TV series in Israel. Surprisingly, this thriller about an Israeli combat unit (or Mista’arvim) working undercover disguised as Arabs, is a hit with the Arab community. This is because it is even-handed in its portrayal of the hopes and fears and the good and the bad in both communities. It is a phenomenon then, particularly right now, as violence escalates again on the streets of Israel. Judi Herman spoke to Lior Raz ahead of his visit to the UK Jewish Film Festival for a Q&A session following the second of three cinema screenings of all 12 episodes of Fauda at JW3.

Fauda is Arabic for chaos – not just an apt description of the state of lives on both sides that is often used in the present situation, but the code word the unit uses when its cover is blown.

“I think our show demonstrates how complicated the situation is between us and the Palestinians”, declares Raz. Complicated indeed so I wonder how Raz and his co-writer, journalist Avi Issacharoff, manage to be so even handed. I have noticed from the credits that the production team seems to be Jewish Israelis and yet they show the Palestinian community and their hopes and fears so compassionately.

“Actually part of our production team was Arab and that was very important for us to hear their voices throughout the production. Our script manager for example, she was an Arab Israeli. And my co-creator Avi Issacharoff is one of the best Israeli reporters dealing with Arab issues on a daily basis.  And for us it was very important to show the other side and to let the Israelis know and try to understand and maybe to have a little bit of compassion for the other side. We wanted to talk about the price that everybody pays.” He says simply.

“For me as an actor when we wrote the Arab parts, it was very important that they wouldn’t be flat characters, that they were rounded, the bad guys and the good guys. Because when you play the bad guy you have to convince the audience that the bad guys are human beings and let the audience be the judge. Actually everything is very similar for the Israeli and Arab characters. Both are shown fighting and the price that their families and friends pay is so huge and it doesn’t matter if you’re Arab or Israeli. And that is even though the narrative of the story is Israeli, because it’s not an Arab show it’s Israeli. We’re talking about the pain we have to deal with.”

The reality of that pain is all too personal for Raz. I had been moved to read that although it’s made clear that none of the characters or events in Fauda is real, the third episode is dedicated to the memory of a real woman, Iris Azulai, stabbed 25 years ago in Jerusalem in the sort of terrorist attack featured in Fauda. When I ask him to tell me more about her, he tells me she was his girlfriend, aged just 18 when she was murdered. “So that’s why we based a character in that episode on her.”

He says he drew on his own reactions to his terrible loss in the writing. “The way her boyfriend reacted, was just how I used to act when I was in the army when she was murdered.” When he tells me it is 25 years to the day since Iris died, he can tell that I’m fighting back tears and comforts me. But his answer is uncompromising when I go on to talk about the violence in the show, which far from playing for sympathy for the Mista’arvim, does not shirk from showing members of the Israeli unit as trigger-happy and heavy-handed right from the start, where a joyful Arab wedding scene becomes a scene of devastation.

“A guy comes towards us with a knife, so for me the knife is a weapon. And yes it’s a big question what to do if someone is running against your friend with a knife. When you do this kind of action, working undercover, it’s quite a scary thing. When you get inside these kinds of places everything is very dangerous and if you see a knife it means someone wants to kill you or your friend and you have to kill him first.” And Iris, he says, might not have died if only one of the knifeman’s other victims, armed with a gun, had shot to kill. “Another of those attacked was from the Israeli special forces. He shot this guy in the knees. He thought he could stop him by shooting him in the knees. But he still managed to stab him to death. So for me if someone comes against you with a knife, it is life or death and I prefer to live.”

Fauda TV show

Of course Raz has been in the eye of the storm. He has first-hand experience of this sort of situation from his time serving in the army. “Yes I was in the special forces in Israel. I used to see these things, I participated in this kind of operation. Even so, many things that we wrote in the stories in the show are from our imagination. But there is this kind of unit in Israel there is this kind of terrorism in Palestine and there is this kind of action. For 26 years we didn’t talk about it, I didn’t talk about it what I did in the army, what kind of stuff I saw and participated in.  But when we started to write about all this stuff it was kind of healing for us because it was the first time we talked about the price everybody paid for the actions we did in the army.”

The show has been equally successful with both Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli viewers. Arab fans were astonished to discover it was not written and made by an Arab production company and Raz and his co-stars are regularly mobbed by fans from both communities and asked to pose with them for selfies. “You know I just came back from the mall – I went to the pharmacy to buy stuff for my kids and there are many Arab pharmacies in Israel – and everyone wanted to take a picture with me because they saw the show and really loved it. I love Arab culture and I love the language and this is the first time in Israel we showed them. We showed women – you don’t see women on Arab TV sitting drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. This is the first time that you hear their voices and the Palestinian narrative. And I know that a huge percentage of Israeli Arabs follow our show and I get emails from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia from Arabs who have seen it. And what’s interesting is that I talk with many right-wing Israelis too and they say that this is the first time they can feel compassion for the other side – because of our show.”

I can really understand that, for I was particularly moved myself, when Fauda’s central Palestinian character, Tawfiq Hamed, a notorious terrorist who has to live in hiding, because he is presumed dead, manages a clandestine rendezvous with his wife Nasrin. They are obviously a devoted couple, played with huge sensitivity and uncompromising authenticity by Hishan Suleiman and Hanan Hillo. And both man and wife are indeed paying the price for his violent activism. I congratulate Raz on the series’ marvellously complex and believable women characters, both Arab and Israeli.

The tension is unbearable enough, and it’s ratcheted up, not just by the music but also by a clever linking device. As the action moves from one location to another, the screen becomes monochrome and flat as if the viewer were behind surveillance cameras from drone devices. “This was our director, Assaf Bernstein’s idea, because there is, as we speak, in Afghanistan, in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, someone, planes, watching everything, helping the forces to orientate. But for us as artists in the show we wanted to show that all the time it’s tense. Even in your home, someone is watching from above, and yes, I think it does keep up the tension.”

The music, especially over the end credits of each episode, is not always the same but has a terrific Arab pulse beat. Is it original or found music?

“It’s new music and we asked the composer, Gilad Benamram, for Arab music. It is supposed to be Arab music and when as an actor I was practising my role, for something like six months I just listened to Arab music. For me to get into character (though my wife didn’t like it!) everything in my car was Arab – Arab news and Arab music! And also the undercover Israelis, that’s what they hear – Arab music; because they like it and they want to act like Arabs, sound like Arabs so that’s what they do. They hear Arab music all the time.”

Raz plays Doron Kavillio, a former member of the Mista’arvim, who returns to the unit from his new life planting vineyards and running his winery, when it becomes clear that Tawfiq Hamed, whom he thought he had hunted to his death, is still very much alive. So for Raz, it is almost art imitating life. I ask him what it’s like to have written the show, to appear in it, to know he is writing lines and situations for his own character. Are you at one remove from that character? I ask him. I’m finding it strange to talk to him when I’ve just been watching ‘him’ on screen.

Fauda TV show

“It’s actually very hard to be creator, writer and actor at the same time. But I think four months before we began to shoot, I put aside my creator alter ego and I just concentrated on the acting part. But when we were on set, I went every day, even if I wasn’t involved in the shooting, and I watched everything. It’s amazing to see the words that you write become a character. There was an amazing actor whose character got killed off in the middle of the season. When you write it, you don’t know the guy, how he’s acting, but when he ‘died’ it was very hard for all of us because we really wanted to continue with him, because he was such an amazing guy. I really had to concentrate on the filming because there was a very big operation, at that time, the Gaza war, in August last year and Avi my co-creator was in the field reporting everything, so I was quite alone, it was just the director and me. We had to really concentrate on everything, especially on how the Arabs might be thinking. It was amazing to see everything you’ve been writing in your imagination for 20 years happening right in front of you. To see an actor saying the words that you wrote – and it’s a great part that I’ve got.”

I’d read an online story about Hishan Suleiman getting some flak from his community for taking part as Tawfiq Hamed, so I ask if he knows what it’s like for him.

“There were many Arab actors in the show. At the start when we offered them parts it was very hard to convince them it was not the bad guys and the good guys like always, that we wanted to hear their voices. Hishan Suleiman is a man of peace. Actually, two days ago he came to eat dinner with me at my house. He does live in an Israeli city, not an Arab city. And it is very complicated to be an Israeli Arab. Because on the one hand the Israelis see you as a spy inside your country, a fifth columnist, and on the other side the Palestinians think of them as traitors because they live in Israel. They are full citizens, they go to the same universities as I do.  They have money and they live well but it is complicated. So I can tell at the start it was very hard for them, but when the show went out and everyone saw it, they were very pleased about what they had done and many of them call me to make sure they are in Season Two! The actor playing the guy that was kidnapped from the mosque at the beginning really didn’t want to get involved, but now he’s so happy that he did – people keep stopping him in the street and it’s the first time they have wanted to ask him about how he acts rather than who he is playing!”

And even before the series became a hit, when they were shooting episodes in Arab villages at the height of operation Protective Edge and the conflict in Gaza in the summer of 2014, despite all the tension, the actors and crew met with nothing but kindness. “We were shooting in Arab villages and they were very welcoming, the hospitality was amazing."

Does he think then that a show like this (and perhaps hit TV comedy  ) can make a difference? “The Israeli film industry is so powerful, perhaps just because it usually not afraid of showing bad Jews and good Arabs. Do you think art can make a difference?”

“Since our show aired, a huge number of (Jewish Israeli) people want to learn Arabic because most of the series is in Arabic. All the Arab Israelis know Hebrew but the Israelis don’t know Arabic. For me that’s amazing because the language is the bridge for peace, because you can understand and feel the other. I know Arabic and I speak with Arab Israelis all the time on the street and it’s totally different when you hear Arabs and understand what they’re talking about, rather than thinking they are terrorists.”

By Judi Herman

Fauda, episodes five to eight, screen Sunday 15 November, followed by a Q&A session with Lior Raz; and episodes nine to 12 screen Thursday 19 November. 6pm, £12 each, £20 for both, at JW3, 341-351 Finchley Rd, NW3 6ET; 020 7433 8988. www.jw3.org.uk

SERET 2015 reviews: Do You Believe in Love?

Do_You_Believe_in_Love, israeli film, seret 2015 Funny, tender and even gripping, this is Tova’s story – a larger-than-life matchmaker with a heart of gold, down-to-earth philosophy, a devoted husband and a crippling disease.

Tova conducts her business from the easy chair to which she is confined, loud and proud despite having no movement at all from the neck down, thanks to the muscular dystrophy that struck after she gave birth to her daughter Dolly. “I do everything with my mind,” she declares, and she certainly proves it in Dan Wasserman’s documentary.

Although she has a special interest in would-be brides and grooms with their own disabilities, she welcomes everyone and anyone of any age looking for a life partner. So the film opens with a parade of the long, the short and the tall; the old and the young; the abled and the differently-abled; all looking for love and each with their own wish list. She pulls no punches and is not afraid to ask wheelchair user Yossi whether he can get to the toilet unaided. “Do you believe in love?” is her constant question and she advises all her clients to be prepared to compromise.

And so the viewer is drawn in to the stories of Tova’s clients. You find yourself hoping against hope that they will find happiness with Mr or Ms Right. There’s spiky Rosan in her wheelchair, out and proud about her chain-smoking and entirely unprepared to compromise to impress health-conscious Asi on their first (and probably last) date. The beautiful young blind woman, with whom you get to share the pain of having a potential date hang up the phone when she confides that she cannot see, gets short shrift from Tova, who tells her sternly not to mention her sight until the prospective husband has set eyes on her.

In case you think her successes are few and far between, it is her proud boast that she has arranged more than 550 matches. The filmgoer does get invited to the wedding of one of Tova’s successes, thanks to daughter Dolly who goes on behalf of her mother and relays the ceremony via her mobile phone. The joy of both bride and groom is palpable and immensely touching and Wasserman does indeed give the audience a guest’s-eye-view of the details of the traditional ceremony.

And then there’s the overarching story of Tova herself and her devoted husband Gaby. It doesn’t matter that he has "heart and psyche problems", including a strange compulsion to buy huge quantities of fresh peppers every day. It’s his total devotion to Tova that is so moving and their unwillingness to survive each other as they make clear in the living wills they make on video.

The climax of the film is their 43rd wedding anniversary party, surrounded by their large and noisy family and many friends. The highlight is watching the film of their 1960s wedding, and it is extraordinarily moving to see the young sprightly couple dancing together – she so slender and lively, as she points out herself. But time certainly has not withered this indomitable spirit and she and Gaby are a shining example of what you can look forward to if you believe in love.

By Judi Herman

Do You Believe in Love screens Monday 15 June. 4pm. £14. JW3, 341-351 Finchley Rd, London NW3 6ET. www.seret.org.uk

JR OutLoud: Judi Herman speaks to the cast of The 2000 Year Old Man and offers listeners a sneak preview of the show

The hotly anticipated rebirth of the legendary comedy shtick is nigh! Mel Brook’s comedy tour de force as the oldest man in the world (Jewish, Yiddish accent), in improvised interviews with ‘TV reporter’ Carl Reiner, subsequently made into a collection of best-seller albums is about to take to the stage. This month, Canadian-born actor, writer and voice-over artist Kerry Shale, together with the British comedian, producer and writer Chris Neill are bringing The 2000 Year Old Man to JW3 in a verbatim performance where the actors wear earbuds and copy the edited recordings word-for-word, intonation-for-intonation.

Judi Herman has been following the continuing story and was ‘thrilled and delighted’* to get a sneak preview for Jewish Renaissance and to talk to the brand new double act of Shale and Neill. Hear the podcast above or download it for later listening.

*see the show to find out where this quote fits in!

The 2000 Year Old Man runs from Monday 9 - Sunday 22 March. 8pm. £6.50-£12.50. JW3, 341-351 Finchley Rd, NW3 6ET; 020 7433 8988. www.jw3.org.uk

Interview: Kerry Shale talks about taking classic romcom When Harry Met Sally to the live stage

kerry_new_2 On Tuesday 2 December, JW3 brings Rob Reiner's effortless romcom When Harry Met Sally to the live on stage as part of the Jewish Comedy Festival. Canadian-born actor Kerry Shale plays Harry and tells Judi Herman all about playing the famous role.

"I guess I've seen it four or five times! But I'm watching the DVD in case there's anything in the script that needs clarification." Kerry Shale is giving me the low down on his preparation for playing the eponymous Harry in the staged reading of the iconic film script. "We're not updating it. The original was pretty much written for Billy Crystal and he came up with some of his own lines because he's such a genius comedian, such as: 'I'll have what she's having'. Nora Ephron gives him credit for it in the introduction to the printed script."

I venture that it must be like taking a jump at the Grand National running up to that line – everyone is waiting for it. "Yeah exactly! There's a lot of really famous lines in the film. But I'm going to treat it a bit like I did when I played the Woody Allen part in Play It Again Sam years ago on stage. Allen wrote that for himself, so I basically used the Woody Allen accent and played the character like Woody Allen, but filtered through me. So I think I"ll be playing Harry like Billy Crystal filtered through Kerry Shale, certainly not a slavish recreation but there's certain ways to time some of these lines, and there's only one way to deliver them."

Is it a particularly Jewish sort of story? "It wouldn't have been such a huge breakaway hit if it had only spoken to Jews and Jewish sensibilities. And I think they very cleverly disguise Harry's Jewishness, so you and I and most Jewish people would recognise that he was Jewish but I don't think your average filmgoer recognised that." Shale tells me how he said to the production team that "it's the story of a Jewish boy who meets a non Jewish girl. They said 'What do you mean?' They were completely flummoxed by that, it had never occurred to them. Harry doesn't mention being Jewish, the Jewish holidays – they eat at Katz's, but then so does everyone in New York! Sally on the other hand is very clearly not Jewish. In the introduction Nora Ephron, who is obviously Jewish, says that Sally was based on her. She takes all her stuff on the side, she always has her mayo on the side. I think it may have been the casting of Meg Ryan that set the seal on that, probably they wrote her Jewish too but by casting Meg Ryan she became non-Jewish."

I venture that I think her casting makes it stronger, which brings us on to the casting of the script reading. His Sally is the hugely versatile, funny woman Morwenna Banks, also currently high-profile on TV as the voice of Peppa Pig's mother. Shale explains that the line up of six also includes Debbie Chazen – recently seen with Shale at JW3 in the revival of the highly successful Listen, We're Family – and Michael Mears, a good friend of Shale's in real life, who both play Sally and Harry's best friends, respectively. "And we've got a wonderful pianist called Duncan Wisbey who's going to be narrating, reading all the stage directions and also be playing numbers like 'It had to be you' sitting at the grand piano so you'll get a little bit of Harry Konick Junior."

The delightful and imaginative addition of video clips of various real-life couples talking about how they met will make the evening truly original, among them the parents of Jewish Renaissance Editor Rebecca Taylor. Shale says: "It'll make it very much at home at JW3 and will make it a very special evening for the people involved. And the audience will recognise even more how universal the story is that deals with these themes of finding a good life partner."

We agree that it seems to be creating a sort of JW3 tradition, building on the way Listen, We're Family celebrated real life stories on stage, transmuting real life into something very special. "It's what they intended to do originally in the film," reveals Shale, "but they could not quite find the right people to give the right feel and so they ended up getting actors who gave very naturalistic performances, but delivered lines written by Nora Ephron. This evening is different because it is a celebration of When Harry Met Sally, so a lot of people will know a lot of the lines, but they won't know the lines of the couples who will be delivering their own stories!"

The icing on the (wedding) cake is that the whole evening is directed by Bill Dare, whose credits include TV's legendary Spitting Image. It really does sound unmissable!

By Judi Herman

When Harry Met Sally – The Live Read Through will be on Tuesday 2 December. 8pm. £12. JW3, 341-351 Finchley Rd, NW3 6ET; 020 7433 8989. www.jw3.org.uk