Rabbi Susan Silverman (second from right) with, from left, Jimmy Kimmel, sister Sarah, and Susan’s husband, Rabbi Yosef Abramowitz.
Photo courtesy Rabbi Susan Silverman
June 26, 2008
“Bitch, bastard, damn, s***.”
The crowd roared with laughter. The performer was two-year-old Sarah. The stage was our living room. The set was our father’s lap on one of our giant round sponges — 1970s artsy chairs — in orange and beige stripes, upon the bright green carpet of our living room. The “crowd” was our houseful of volunteers for the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign, home at the end of a long day before the general election.
Sarah’s ear-length, jet-black hair and pale skin emphasized her big brown eyes, and she smiled so that every tiny tooth sparkled. Who wouldn’t laugh when this beautiful toddler — all eyes and smiles — swore like a longshoreman?
We had her perform for everyone. At family gatherings our Nana would say, “Don’t make her say that,” but stood transfixed and smiling like the rest of us. Nana didn’t always love what came out of Sarah’s mouth and knew exactly whom to lay into when she went too far — her son, our father, who trained Sarah in this particular art.
One Saturday afternoon, Sarah sat in the family room, tush on heels, her elbows leaning on the yellow plastic coffee table. Nana stood in the doorway and said, “Sarah, what are you coloring?”
Sarah (focused on her work): “A house.”
Nana: “Guess what? I brought some brownies for you.”
Sarah (still focused on her work): “Shove ’em up your a**, Nana.”
Our mother rolled her eyes in mock disapproval as our father beamed. And we, her big sisters, couldn’t believe our luck — in Sarah we had found the perfect juxtaposition of adorable and crude. It was genius. We couldn’t get enough of it.
Her fans today can’t either. Watching a beautiful, wide-eyed, 37-year-old Sarah Silverman joke — deadpan — about rape, racism, and genocide, audiences burst out laughing in the same self-conscious way our guests did decades ago.
Sarah keeps her fans painfully enthralled, whether she’s sleeping with and then trying to ditch “Black God” in her TV series, The Sarah Silverman Program; blasting Jewish people who drive German cars in her concert film, Jesus Is Magic; or describing her niece (my then eight-year-old daughter) as a sexually active lesbian in her stand-up act.
Throughout the years, my sisters Laura and Jodyne and I loved to make Sarah perform. Even when she was a preteen she was the size of a nine-year-old, so the juxtaposition of cute and inappropriate still worked. Once, when I was 19 and Sarah was 12, I took her to the beach for spring break. She sat on the sand and nonchalantly smoked a cigar.
A longtime sisterly favorite was to do The Rocky Horror Picture Show songs and dances: “But it’s the pelvic thru-ust that really drives you insay-ay-ay-ay-ane. Let’s do the time warp again….” One night the four of us performed it as a sister act at the local White Horse Tavern. The audience — rural New Hampshire diners out for an evening — stared in, well, horror.
We didn’t care. Then, like now, our favorite audience was ourselves.
As kids we were more likely to sing at the White Horse Tavern than in synagogue. We did not have a religious upbringing, and my parents and sisters still marvel at my having become a rabbi. We sisters associated being Jewish with being liberal. That’s how the lines were drawn in our New Hampshire culture: Christians celebrate Christmas and vote Republican. Jews celebrate Hanukka and vote Democratic.
For each of us, being Jewish has come to have a more mature meaning in our lives. For Sarah, it’s an identity of naming, loudly, what she sees in society that disturbs her — a tradition that goes back to our biblical prophets, who spoke their minds even when people were resistant to their message.
In the book I Am a Jew, edited by Judea and Ruth Pearl in honor of their son, murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, Sarah wrote, “Remember that guy who smashed all the idols in the idol store? His mother had a heart attack when she saw the mess, but I’m sure she bragged about it later. That’s us. That’s me. I am Jewish.”
Like the Jewish prophets, Sarah names what most of us fail even to notice.
In Jesus Is Magic she makes fun of midgets wanting to be called “little people,” then justifies this by saying we can make fun of “little people” because we don’t fear them. Then she tells this (true) story: Backstage at a late-night show before she performed, a producer said to her, “Don’t say the word ‘nigger,’ instead say ‘the n-word.’”
“Oh, no problem,” Sarah replied. “What should I say instead of ‘Chink?’”
The producer looked at her blankly, as if the answer were too obvious to even have to say. “Say ‘chink.’”
As children, liberal values and arts replaced synagogue life. (Most years we joined the Reform temple, but very rarely went, except when my father was social action chair.)
The soundtracks of our ranch house — on a quiet street in the middle- and upper-middle-class “North End” of Manchester, NH — were Purlie, Godspell, and Hair. Our father, a retailer, was a social worker by training and would one day return to it. Our mother, McGovern’s personal campaign photographer, later founded New Thalian Players, a theater company in Manchester. They divorced and each remarried.
We daughters truly had four loving and devoted parents — a great gift to all of us and an even bigger captive audience for Sarah’s antics.
Sarah brought these antics nationwide to Saturday Night Live when she was 21. (She’d been doing stand-up in New York clubs when someone told Lorne Michaels that Sarah was going to be the next Gilda Radner.)
Her big debut was as a reporter on “Weekend Update,” in which she recounted the news of her life. This included the now-classic joke about me: “My sister Susie got married and they took each other’s names, you know? So now she’s Susan Silverman-Abramowitz. But they’re thinking of shortening it to just ‘Jews.’” Silence, then a strong but evidently uneasy laughter followed.
Oh, the days when that caused discomfort. Nowadays, Sarah talking at a bat mitzva is even more shocking.
After our oldest daughter, Aliza, read and interpreted the Torah before her family and community, my sisters, her aunties, stood at the microphone to speak to her. They had all attended her birth, and Sarah described it in detail — leaving out only the part in which she, Sarah, passed out cold. (Out of the corner of her eye, the doctor noticed that Sarah had turned green, and called out, “She’s going down. Somebody grab her.” Laura caught her.)
Sarah put her arm around her bespectacled niece and said, “When you were born, Aliza, I watched your head come out” — she went on in some detail, but I will leave that to your imagination — “and I thought, ‘Where did she get those little glasses? With such tiny windshield wipers?’” I’m not sure the word “vagina” had ever before been used — at least not that many times — in addressing a bat mitzva on the bima. I was mortified. And tickled.
Sarah Silverman in Jesus Is Magic
Sarah is just inspired to do things like this — even when she’s not on a stage (or a bima), even when she doesn’t expect anyone to notice.
When my sister was performing Jesus Is Magic Off-Broadway, I went to New York to see it. I arrived the afternoon of the show and went straight to her hotel room. She and I were both exhausted and went into the bedroom to rest. We lay on the big bed and she tickled my back and arms until I fell asleep.
When we woke up, I had to leave because I was meeting a friend for dinner in the East Village before the show. I put on the summer dress I had brought, and Sarah walked me to the door. As I was leaving, Sarah said, “Oh, you’re wearing a sleeveless dress?”
“Yeah,” I said, “so?”
She was quiet for a moment, then said, “Oh, nothing.”
I took the subway and walked to the restaurant. I sat down at the table, and my friend Shoshi looked at me quizzically. Then she asked, “Why do you have ‘JEW’ written on your arm?”
People often ask if I am disturbed by my sister’s humor. I squirm at times, yes. But I love it. She makes me laugh and she highlights in one joke what I struggle to say in a decade of High Holy Day sermons.
When all four sisters are together, we lie on our mother’s bed with our mother and stepmother and talk and laugh. The fathers and stepfather wander in and out, impatient for us to come into the living room, but we want girl time. We want to laugh in the way we laugh only with each other.
Now my older daughters, Aliza and Hallel, pile on as well. It makes us all happy that a third generation is growing to laugh with us.
It is to Sarah’s credit that she makes it to so many family events. She is a hesitant traveler — to the point where she flies my family to the United States each summer so she doesn’t have to come to Israel to see us.
Laura and Jodyne are both coming to visit this year, and we hope to persuade Sarah and her boyfriend, late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel, to come. But they make appearances in other ways. Obscenely giant boxes arrive full of Hanukka presents for the kids. A gift arrived at the hospital for our son, Zamir, within hours of our arrival, after he suddenly lost his hearing. Phone calls are regular and e-mails are nonstop.
And Sarah lives off photos and videos of her nieces and nephews: When Jimmy hosted a Super Bowl party in February, Sarah missed the entire thing because she was watching videos of my kids that Laura had just brought back from Israel.
Sarah’s life is very different from mine here on Kibbutz Ketura. She encounters celebrities and fans. She is adored by all — and I love witnessing it and experiencing it when I am with her. And I am deeply proud of the social change she effects.
Despite not ever having been here, Sarah is concerned about Israel — both its well-being and its behavior as a moral actor on the world stage. Recently Sarah e-mailed to ask what my husband, Yosef, and I were doing to make sure Sudanese refugees found sanctuary here. I wrote back with a list of what Israeli organizations were doing on behalf of the refugees here and how Yosef was involved. I also reminded her not to be too hard on Israel — Sudan is an enemy state and terrorism is a very real threat, so if Israel is hesitant and cautious, it’s understandable.
Sarah wrote back, impressed at all Israel was doing to give safety to Sudanese refugees, despite the risks involved in this part of the world.
Then she added: “God! The U.S. is freaking out over Mexicans — and all they want to do is clean our houses.”
Rabbi Susan Silverman lives with her family on Kibbutz Ketura in Israel. She is the coauthor, with her husband, Yosef Abramowitz, of Jewish Family and Life, Traditions, Holidays, and Values for Today’s Parents and Children. The new season of The Sarah Silverman Program will begin this fall on Comedy Central.
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