Comedian skewers Bible tales, angering ultrareligious

JERUSALEM — In his wildest dreams, Israeli comedian Gil Kopatch could never have written such a script. No producer would touch it.

The story would go like this: Upstart Israeli comedian does satirical shticks based on weekly Torah portions for prime-time TV show. Ultrareligious Jews grow livid. Furor erupts in Israel's Knesset, sparking debate over Noah's penis. Government is in danger of falling.

Any self-respecting agent would show a scriptwriter the door for such a cockamamie idea. But fact is stranger than fiction.

For several weeks, Kopatch's in-your-face versions of Torah portions have been zooming up the ratings charts on a prime-time Channel 1 TV show, "Week's End."

Last week, for instance, he quoted the Genesis story: "Noah drank the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent" (Genesis 9:21).

"That means he apparently danced a striptease in his tent," Kopatch said. "What's so interesting about the bulbul [Hebrew slang for male organ] of a 600-year-old man? He may have been innocent and righteous, but he packed a big hammer."

Kopatch's sketches cast a modern light on the weekly Torah portion, in the street Hebrew of Israeli youth, shaped by political edge and social commentary. Kopatch treats Bible heroes with irreverence.

Kopatch called Eve "the first sex bombshell," and said Sarah was a lightheaded ninny who made the life of her Egyptian maid, Hagar, a misery before firing her.

Referring to the Nannygate scandal, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's wife, Sara, unceremoniously fired a maid for burning soup, he said, "Sarah will always be Sarah whether it's Sarah the matriarch or Sara Netanyahu."

This past week, the Israel Radio talk show "Hakol Diburim" ("It's All Talk") aired a Kopatch Torah segment, and Knesset member Rabbi Shlomo Ben Izri of the ultrareligious Shas Party heard it.

Ben Izri, a member of the Likud's governing coalition, promptly called the Prime Minister's Office and demanded that the Torah segment be banned.

If "the wicked clown Gil Kopatch" was not removed, Ben Izri said, he would urge the Knesset Finance Committee to ax the Israel Broadcasting Authority's budget. Or, he warned, Shas would quit the coalition, toppling the government.

Ultrareligious Knesset factions joined the chorus of outrage.

"Kopatch is trampling with arrogance and contempt over every Jewish feeling, everything sacred," Ben Izri said.

Another ultrareligious Knesset member, Avraham Ravitz of the United Torah Judaism faction, said staffers of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which runs Channels 1 and 2, "know their days are numbered."

The scandal burst Wednesday of last week, when Kopatch was summoned to testify before the Knesset's Education Committee. The twentysomething performer showed up wearing his trademark backward army cap, jeans and long sideburns.

The session degenerated into a yelling match between ultrareligious and secular Knesset members.

"I have never seen a [rabbinical] commentary which says like [Kopatch] did, forgive me, `With [Noah's] bulbul hanging out.' These are your inventions, and they hurt the people of Israel," Ben Izri was quoted as saying.

Yossi Sarid of the opposition's leftist Meretz party shot back, "What can I say? Noah was a righteous man, and yes, he had a bulbul."

The controversy reflected the growing boldness of the government's religious factions, who fared well in May's elections. Tommy Lapid, host of the political talkfest "Popolitika," said the real issue was whether Israel's ultrareligious, many of whom do not watch TV, should dictate what the secular public can see.

Some secular commentators dubbed Kopatch the secular Israeli Salman Rushdie.

Lapid denied the Kopatch segments were intended to insult anyone.

"On the contrary, the whole idea comes from a deep love for the Bible and appreciation of the text," Lapid said.

The religious, Lapid charged, "want to hijack the Bible just for themselves."

Kopatch agreed. "I think the Bible and Jewish heritage belong to the whole nation and not to one haredi [ultrareligious] or religious stream," the comedian said.

"Secular people are also Jews, and it's their right to interpret the text. The language I use is the language of my audience. What do you want me to speak in, Aramaic? Yiddish? The humor is just the means of conveying the message. "

Kopatch also defended his own material.

"To say that Noah was naked, that's what the Torah says, isn't it? And when a man is naked, in today's world you may say he had his bulbul out. Who is hurt by it? Noah's family? Even if Noah was alive today, who would be hurt by it?"

Whether the Torah portions, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and even the government itself survive, one thing is clear: Kopatch is enjoying the kind of notoriety for which most comedians would give their eyeteeth.