Funny Girl

How do you build peace in the Middle East? With a punch line, says stand-up comedian Noam Shuster-Eliassi ’11.

Noam Shuster-Eliassi ’11
Corinna Kern
Noam Shuster-Eliassi ’11

Noam Shuster-Eliassi ’11 was a rising star among Israeli-Palestinian peace activists. She met with hard-line settlers who live in the territory that Palestinians claim for a future state. She spoke at conferences around the world, exhorting her generation of Israelis to chart a more progressive course. She considered entering diplomacy or politics. Then, in 2017, her career took an abrupt turn: She started telling jokes.

Like the one she told a London audience last year, about why she goes to leftist protests in Israel: “I care about the political causes, but I’m 31 and single, so I go to the demonstrations mainly to look for dates. And when I go to the demonstrations, the problem is the only people who look like they have taken a shower are the police officers.”

Shuster-Eliassi’s comedy isn’t just about politics. It is about identity — her identity, which is about as multifaceted as it gets. A self-described “halfie,” she is half Ashkenazi and half Mizrachi (Ashkenazi Jews are of European origin; Mizrachi Jews are of Middle Eastern or North African descent). Raised in Israel’s Arab-Jewish intentional community, Oasis of Peace, she speaks fluent Arabic, Hebrew and English. Even her name contains layers. In Israel, her first two names connote an elite status, a classic name for a high-achieving Ashkenazi male. But she looks just like her Mizrachi mother.

Applying for jobs after college, she was practically guaranteed an interview on the basis of her name alone. Would-be employers were shocked when a tall (5-foot-9-inch) woman of color showed up. “I walk around with the name of an Ashkenazi pilot in the body of a Persian Wonder Woman,” she joked during a recent performance in Jerusalem.

Comedy has allowed Shuster-Eliassi to explore nuances of identity and their interplay in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way her peacebuilding work did not. She believes comedy can open the hearts and minds of Israelis, Palestinians, and Jews and Arabs in the diaspora to an alternative reality.

“I really want the audience to leave my shows with something that is beyond me,” she says. “I see myself as a vehicle for saying there is no future for Israel and for Jews without Palestinians being in the picture and being equal to us. And there is no future for women like me if we don’t speak up and embrace our height, and curls, and brown skin.”

‘Close the door - there are Arabs outside’

Shuster-Eliassi has been in the comedy world for less than two years, but she’s already making waves. In 2018, she was one of two comics named New Jewish Comedian of the Year by JW3, a Jewish culture and community center in London. In January, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper called her “the most up-and-coming Jewish comedian.” She plans to tour the United States this summer.

She performs regularly in Israel in Hebrew and English. She also has an Arabic comedy spot on Israel’s i24NEWS Arabic broadcast. (A recent spot in which she jokingly proposed to Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman went viral in the Arabic-speaking world.) She is now working on an hourlong show in all three languages.

Though topically based in the Middle East, Shuster-Eliassi’s comedy resonates with other audiences dealing with issues of identity, borders and conflict — and in these fraught times, that’s much of the world. When she performed at London’s JW3 center, her story of finding common cause with Palestinians touched those navigating internal divisions in the age of Brexit, says live-performance programmer Sarah Sigal.

“Britain is becoming so politically divided — not yet to the extent that Israel is, but we are going down that road,” says Sigal. “People were hungry to hear from those who are focused on peace and reconciliation, and people who have stories of successful integrated lives with ‘the other.’”

Shuster-Eliassi’s comedy is deeply rooted in her personal story and in growing up in a home filled with political discussions. Her parents met as teenagers at an agricultural boarding school. Her father, the son of Romanian immigrants — one a Holocaust survivor — grew up in Jerusalem. Her mother’s family left Iran for Israel when she was a child, settling in Yavne, a working-class town near the port city Ashdod.

When Shuster-Eliassi was a toddler, her father spent several months in prison for refusing to serve as a soldier in Lebanon or the Palestinian territories. During the Oslo Accords, when it looked like Israel and the Palestinians were on the verge of a lasting agreement, her parents made the bold decision to relocate with Noam and her younger brother to the Oasis of Peace, an experimental village where Arabs and Jews live side by side.

In her routine, Shuster-Eliassi often tells the story of her family’s first Sabbath in the new community, when her Mizrachi grandmother came to visit: “My grandmother couldn’t understand that my mom intentionally moved to live with Arabs. She walks in the house and says, ‘Close the door — there are Arabs outside!’”

‘SEVEN MINUTES, NOT 70 YEARS’: Shuster-Eliassi performs in East Jerusalem.
Zaki Qutteineh
‘SEVEN MINUTES, NOT 70 YEARS’: Shuster-Eliassi performs in East Jerusalem.

Oasis of Peace was supposed to be a model for a shared future. Instead, it became an anomaly. Just a year after Shuster-Eliassi’s family moved there, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist who opposed territorial compromise with the Palestinians. In the ensuing years, Palestinians launched the Second Intifada; Israel built the West Bank separation barrier; the Oslo Accords stalled; and Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians drifted further apart. Meanwhile, Shuster-Eliassi was making friends with her Arab neighbors, learning the Arabic language and becoming more aware of her Mizrachi identity.

She didn’t look like the average resident in the peace camp, which is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi and led by men. When Israel’s first lady, Sara Netanyahu, visited the bilingual Oasis of Peace school with Hillary Clinton, she confused Shuster-Eliassi for an Arab child, Shuster-Eliassi says.

“We were singing a song for peace in Hebrew, and Sara looked at me and said, ‘Your Hebrew is so articulate,’” Shuster-Eliassi says in her routine. “I realized everyone assumed I was Arab.”

‘Brandeis shaped me, period’

After she graduated from high school, Shuster-Eliassi’s Arabic skills made her a desirable recruit for the Israeli army, which considers Arabic fluency an asset in intelligence work. But she didn’t want to exploit the language she used to communicate with her neighbors for militaristic ends.

She did national service instead and then spent a year in New York in a film-acting program before deciding to attend college. A friend told her about Brandeis, and she enrolled in 2007, receiving the Sylvia and Joseph Slifka Israeli Coexistence Scholarship, which is awarded to two Israeli citizens, one Arab and one Jewish.

Lisa Hanania ’11, who now works in Jaffa as an international relations manager at a startup, received the scholarship the same year and roomed with Shuster-Eliassi. She remembers how Shuster-Eliassi’s friends stopped her everywhere she went on campus. “Everyone wanted to speak to her,” says Hanania, to the point that, in the winter months, “I didn’t enjoy walking in the cold with Noam.”

Shuster-Eliassi was so beloved, she was elected to student government as a write-in candidate. She sang Beatles songs in Hebrew, cracking up other students. Even then, her future as a comedian seemed assured. “It was obvious it was there. It was always waiting for her to take the professional step,” Hanania says.

Though Jewish at a historically Jewish university, Shuster-Eliassi found she had more in common with minorities on campus. Seeing a need for Palestinian representation among the many pro-Israel groups, she helped found the first Palestinian student club. Even today, she’s proud to have brought a more dynamic view of Israelis and Palestinians to the university. “If Brandeis holds the flag of social justice and human rights, and becoming resilient, and overcoming this oppression that Jews experienced, it also needs to be the place for uncomfortable issues for Israel and Palestine to be discussed,” she says.

As she influenced campus discourse, the campus also influenced her. She majored in international and global studies, and African and African American studies; and minored in theater studies; women’s, gender and sexuality studies; and peace and conflict studies.

“Brandeis shaped me, period,” she says. “I felt like the whole world was open to me at Brandeis. I could study what I wanted. I could research what I wanted. I met people from all over the world. I was exposed to how important America and American Jews are to my future, and we are to your future.”

The power of forgiveness

As a Brandeis student, Shuster-Eliassi got the chance to intern in Rwanda at the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center on a theater project with Rwandan and Ugandan genocide survivors.

At the Kigali Genocide Memorial, she was surprised to find an entire room dedicated to other atrocities around the world. That comparative approach is missing in Israel, she says.

“The narrative of the Holocaust we grew up on is that something terrible happened to us — which it did — and we do not have the space or place to talk about other suffering,” she says. “We don’t train that muscle to talk about pain collectively, or as something that happened in other places. This is preventing us from seeing Palestinian pain. It is preventing us from listening to Mizrachi pain.”

In Rwanda, she gained insight into how societies move beyond conflict. One bereaved woman told her that although she refuses to forgive the people who killed her family members, she will teach her children to forgive. Shuster-Eliassi was moved by the woman’s decision. “You are not giving up on what you experienced, and the anger and even the will for revenge,” she says, “but you are giving your children a different future.”

After her internship, Shuster-Eliassi returned to Rwanda several times to work with youth through a health-care organization. But she felt her skills were needed back in Israel. “I have a home I need to fix,” she remembers saying to herself.

In Israel, Shuster-Eliassi worked with the NGO Interpeace on a project “to introduce new voices that have never been part of our conversation of our future with Palestinians in the picture,” she says. She met with ultra-Orthodox Jews, Russian Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Eventually, she met with Israelis who fiercely opposed a Palestinian state, including religious Zionists and settlers. But the international community was “not ready to speak to settlers, not ready to work with the real hard-liners in Israeli society,” she says.

After five years at Interpeace, Shuster-Eliassi felt stuck, both professionally and creatively. “I knew I needed to find my own venue to express myself,” she says. She found it almost by accident.

Laughing together

In 2017, Interpeace was getting ready to shutter its Israel program. Facing unemployment, Shuster-Eliassi was in a slump. She applied to become a member of ROI Community, the Jewish-engagement and social-change leadership program of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Everyone who attended the ROI Summit in Jerusalem got an invitation to participate in a talent show. This time, Shuster-Eliassi wanted to deliver a message in a different way, through stand-up comedy.

At the ROI talent show, Shuster-Eliassi joked about speaking to a conference of American liberals, where she was told to wipe off her perfume because she was sitting in a fragrance-free zone. “And I’m like, you guys are trying to make peace in the Middle East, and you want to be fragrance-free?”

The laughs came easily. “For me, it was so obvious [comedy] was something I need to develop and do,” Shuster-Eliassi says. “I’m an exhausted activist, and the only thing available for me is a mic and my big charismatic body, and I’m just going to do this thing and hope some people will listen to what I’m going to say.”

Since the ROI event, Shuster-Eliassi has been performing regularly, as often as three times a week. Her most meaningful show to date, she says, was in East Jerusalem, where she was the first Jewish comedian at the 1001 Laughs Palestine Comedy Festival.

As she took the stage, she noticed a few men in the front row with their arms crossed. She warmed up the crowd by telling them not to worry: “I’m only staying for seven minutes, not 70 years,” the State of Israel’s age at the time.

She talked about growing up in a large Iranian family. Facing pressure from her grandmother to find a husband, she downloaded Tinder and immediately swiped two cousins in a row. She was horrified, but her grandmother said, “If we were in Iran, you would have married your cousin a long time ago!” By now, the audience was cracking up.

After her set, Shuster-Eliassi cried. After years of taking part in dialogue projects between Jews and Arabs, she had suddenly found a new opening, through the simple act of making people laugh. And she didn’t have to choose which person to be — Israeli, Jewish, Mizrachi or female. Those few minutes encompassed it all.

“It is like a huge ache in my throat is released,” she says of her comedy career. “Because no one is telling me what to say. I’m my own voice. And this voice can be many things.”

Naomi Zeveloff is a freelance writer living in Tel Aviv.