David Letterman has his Top 10 List. Milton Berle has dresses. And comedian Gil Kopatch has his shtick, too - the Old Testament.
Wearing a baseball cap and geeky glasses, he delights TV audiences with political jokes and racy bits, all based on the Bible. Heard about the prime minister’s wife, who has trouble keeping good help? “Sarah will always be Sarah,” Kopatch cracks. Get it?
Maybe not. But most Israelis, who study the Bible all through school, find this humor hilarious. The only ones not laughing are ultra-Orthodox Jews, who have a serious problem with Kopatch’s religious riffs.
Determined to silence the man they call “the wicked clown,” ultra-Orthodox lawmakers dragged Kopatch before parliament’s Education Committee on Wednesday and threatened to bring down the government if the comic wasn’t taken off the air.
Kopatch, in his mid-20s, worked the crowd and won them over in the end. His stand-up act will - for now - remain a feature on the Friday night program “Week’s End,” and the religious lawmakers - or Shas party - will remain part of the Israeli government coalition.
It seemed unlikely that Shas actually would leave the government, where it controls several ministries and considerable funding for its network of charities and religious schools.
But its threat was no laughing matter: Israeli governments have fallen over religious issues before. The Shas party bolted the previous government over a religious dispute. And losing the support of the 10 Shas lawmakers in the Knesset would seriously undermine Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The furor is part of a cultural clash between secular and religious Israelis that has grown ever more venomous since Netanyahu’s election in May.
Encouraged by their strong showing in the elections, religious lawmakers have become increasingly assertive in their financial demands on the government and their attacks on secular institutions - in this case, the Israel Broadcast Authority.
The state TV channel is run by a theoretically independent board representing a broad spectrum of opinion. But while the Knesset committee had no official say on whether Kopatch stayed on the air, governmental pressure in the past has sometimes affected programming.
Kopatch was his soft-spoken, wisecracking self during his appearance Wednesday before the committee. Wearing his trademark cap - backward, as usual - jeans and an untucked button-down shirt over a T-shirt, he looked more like a college student than a “wicked clown.”
He argued that he didn’t aim to offend but instead to enhance interest in the Bible.
“We thought it would bridge the terrible rift between secular and religious,” said the comedian, who comes from a secular home but recently started attending prayer services. “I just address my audience in light language.”
Kopatch’s jokes range from calling Eve “the first sex bombshell,” to his crack about the prime minister’s wife, Sarah, lambasted in the press for firing a series of nannies. “Sarah will always be Sarah,” is a reference to Sarah of the Old Testament who banished her maid to the wilderness.