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ISRAEL: The Good Humor Men visit

July 1, 2008 | 11:07 am

So, these four American guys walk into an Israeli bar ... what, not funny? Well, depends who the guys are.

Last week, these were stand-up guys and comics Avi Liberman, Dan Naturman, Lowell Sanders and Harland Williams -- and they most certainly were funny.

The four U.S. comedians performed in a series of shows to benefit the Crossroads Center in Jerusalem, an outreach and support center for at-risk Anglo teens.

L.A.'s Avi Liberman left Israel in his early childhood but Zionist upbringing kept him in touch. Struck by the dismal air when morale had hit rock bottom at the peak of the second intifada around six years ago, he started thinking of ways to provide some first-aid comic relief and teamed up with childhood friend Caryn Green, who directs the Crossroads Center, to come up with combining comedy and good cause.

Comedians3

Sure, everyone supports a good cause. But not always enough to travel to Israel in the days when most plane tickets involving Israel were one way -- and "in" wasn't it. Non-Jewish performers were reluctant to travel to a perceived war-zone, and Jewish performers weren't that enthusiastic either. Wayne Federman and Dan Naturman (the latter taken by Liberman 'sight unseen') were among those crazy enough to come in the first years, and the Crossroads Comedy Tour was born.

These days, Avi doesn't have to beg big names to join him on the tour. "I'm not afraid to come to Israel," Lowell Sanders told the crowd. Never mind three years in the navy: "I'm from Detroit."

Humor, theater and the arts are deep-seated parts of Jewish culture, says Liberman, but the material doesn't have to be Jewish or Israeli. "Funny is funny, is all," he says.

Harland Williams has his doubts about the "Whaling Wall," where he assumes big mammals are being harpooned, Liberman has an irreverent top 10 countdown of things you'll never hear in the Ultra orthodox neighborhood of Mea She'arim (which I won't repeat), Naturman offered dating advice for the professional loser (which I can't repeat), Sanders seemed surprised by Bethlehem ('they're selling everything -- I think they're closing') -- and the mostly English-speaking crowd packing the Maabada ('the lab') theater-plus-bar in Jerusalem were cracking up.

High-profile artists are once again beginning to include Israel in their tours but there were lean years when politics and security concerns kept performers away. A tad claustrophobic, Israelis always crave a whiff of abroad. And the English speakers, who usually get their comedy on TV complete with a network logo and subtitles, seemed grateful for some real-time, mother-tongue-in-cheek laughs.

Avi Liberman has visited Sderot several times, sometimes schlepping other comedians with him to the southern town that has been targeted by Gaza rockets for seven years to show support and to spend some money raised by members of his L.A. congregation at Young Israel of Century City. Of course, they do it the funny way -- buying gum for $50 and blowing off the change. Another thing Liberman blows off is the odd raised eyebrow. Dangerous? Maybe. But the people living there are suffering and it's uncool not to make it down there for one hour. To him, "it's a no-brainer."

Taking laughter on the road, Liberman also performs for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I don't view any of this as political," he says, explaining this is his way of supporting those who protect the way of life he lives in America. They do their job, he does his. And there's no contradiction between American patriotism and Israeli expatriatism either.

Besides gathering new material, Avi Liberman hopes his fellow funny men will come away with something else: a positive experience in Israel. People may not believe everything they hear on the news, but if someone like Harland Williams with his star power will tell people guns are not going off everywhere, they might consider believing him -- if he keeps a straight face. (I spent part of the potential good-will ambassador's set cowering in the back, hoping he'd pick on someone else, which he did.)

Comedians2_2 Comedians1 Anyway, these four American guys walk into an Israeli bar ...

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Photos: top, left to right: Sanders, Naturman, Liberman and Williams, at the Crossroads benefit in Jerusalem.

bottom left and right: touring Jerusalem's Old City sites and market.

Credit: Jeremy Wimpfheimer/Crossroads Center

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East. You can subscribe by registering at the website here.

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