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More than three months after hanging up his hat as host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, Jay Leno has found a new holy audience for his comedic chops.
The 64-year-old late-night alum made his inaugural visit to Israel this week, where he hosted the first annual Genesis Prize ceremony, held in Jerusalem. The first-ever recipient of what has been dubbed “the Jewish Nobel Prize” is a fellow high-profile figure who exited his own public position this past year: former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The main event during the Thursday night ceremony saw Jewish-American business magnate Bloomberg awarded the Genesis Prize, which came with $1 million, which he announced he will use to establish a new fellowship under the auspices of the Genesis Philanthropy Group. Meanwhile, Leno’s emceeing duties included his very familiar monologue setup, starting with him noting that the event was not unlike most Hollywood award shows, “only with fewer Jews.“
Leno’s mostly political quips included references to ongoing media reports about the tenuous relationship between President Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reminding the audience that May is Jewish American Heritage Month in the U.S., with Obama “calling it an opportunity to renew our ‘unbreakable bond with the nation of Israel.’ And he knows it’s unbreakable, because he’s been trying to break it for the last five years.”
Leno also joked about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s role in trying to broker peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in recent months, explaining he did some research ahead of his visit: “According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, here in Israel the most popular boys name is Noam. Noam is the most popular boy’s name in the country. The least popular boy’s name? John Kerry.”
Leno also familiarized himself with local indicted headline makers for his monologue, taking shots at former Israeli president Moshe Katsav, who is currently serving a seven-year sentence for rape, indecent acts, sexual harassment and obstruction of justice, saying “Israel had some great leaders: David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin. People were really touched by them. Well, of course, not as many people as were touched by former President Katsav.”
A more recent aim was former prime minister Ehud Olmert, sentenced earlier this month to six years in prison on two counts of bribery. “You guys are tough,” quipped Leno. “You sentenced your former prime minister to six years in prison — did you hear Olmert’s defense? Not the best strategy. He blamed the whole thing on the Jews.”
Both Leno and Bloomberg are set to end their visit Friday, clearing the way for the much more formal papal visit of Pope Francis in the holy land and Jordan starting Sunday, and, later in the week Justin Timberlake’s concert in Tel Aviv, part of his The 20/20 Experience World Tour.
Ahead of his hosting duties, Leno was invited for a sit-down meeting yesterday with Netanyahu, who welcomed him by saying, “I’m glad you left television and came to Israel. Thank you for the long and funny nights.” Leno humbly answered with “I hope tomorrow night will be one of them. Thanks for having me — this is a huge honor.”
Leno was candid about his support for Israel in local interviews and joked with various media outlets that his Italian heritage bears a resemblance to that of Jewish families, adding that he came with a long list of distant relatives he has to call up.
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