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Sarah Silverman, Rabbi Sister Riff on “Jewy-ness”

Comedian, alum sister strike lively note

| From BU Today | By Susan Seligson. Video by BU Productions
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In the video above, watch Sarah Silverman and Susan Silverman (CAS’85) discuss all things Jewish in Sister Act, a talk sponsored by the the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies and the CAS religion department. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky

Sarah Silverman and her sister Susan Silverman transformed the School of Management auditorium into a giant, congenial living room recently, when they spoke about their “Jewy-ness.” The rambling discussion between comedian Sarah Silverman and Rabbi Susan Silverman (CAS’85) was laced with humanity, wisdom, mutual affection, and a gentle helping of mischief.

Hosted by the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies and a College of Arts & Sciences religion department hoping to broaden the focus of Judaic studies from sober examinations of anti-Semitism and the long historic shadow of the Holocaust, the evening, titled Sister Talk, drew an overflow audience that included the Silvermans’ parents, friends, and members of Susan’s former Newton congregation. (She’s now an adoption advocate living in Jerusalem with her husband and five children, including two from Ethiopia.) When moderator Virginia Sapiro, dean of Arts & Sciences, noted that Susan Silverman’s children “are of different backgrounds,” Sarah Silverman pounced: “They’re from Weston.”

The sisters Silverman disarmed their audience right off the bat by appearing on stage and plopping into their seats before being introduced. Dressed in jeans, lace-up boots, and a hooded sweatshirt over a T-shirt with the words “I love you so much,” Sarah Silverman, a former Saturday Night Live regular and star of a Comedy Central sitcom and the film Jesus Is Magic, repeatedly leaned into her older sister to pat, embrace, or plant a kiss. Jovial, articulate, and with a contagious laugh, Susan Silverman commanded the audience’s attention at least as much as, and at times more than, her famous sister, whom she described as “brilliant.” (“But you should know that this morning she described her venti Starbucks as brilliant,” Sarah added.) Sarah, 40, and Susan, 48, are two of four sisters who grew up in the predominantly Christian town of Bedford, N.H., with their parents, a father who ran a discount clothing store and a mother who founded a community theater company.

Neither sister missed a beat. At times, responding to questions with weighty academic themes, Sarah defused any appearance of self-importance by drifting off in mid-thought, head cocked, black ponytail swaying, and asking sweetly, “What was the question?” Her facial expressions often spoke louder than her quips; one priceless “oh my God” glance came during introductory comments by Michael Zank, a CAS professor of religion and acting director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies, when he described the comedian’s stage persona as “attractive and repulsive.”

At times, responding to questions with weighty academic themes, Sarah defused any appearance of self-importance by drifting off in mid-thought, head cocked, black ponytail swaying, and asking sweetly, “What was the question?”

“We tried to frame the event in academic terms,” said Zank, who added gravitas to the occasion by soliciting blog entries from scholars as the Sister Talk evening approached. But the sisters held their own throughout the freewheeling discussion, highlighted by Sarah Silverman’s frank discussion of the integrity of her art, and Susan Silverman’s impassioned defense of Israel as a place so real, progressive, and steeped in history and spirituality that she would not think of raising her kids anyplace else. Some of Zank’s colleagues had expressed concern before the event, he said, about featuring the sometimes controversial comedian. But those concerns proved unfounded. The event “succeeded in raising the profile of Jewish studies at BU from the tried-and-true—and Holocaust-centered—to something that is more contemporary, fresh, irreverent, exploring new boundaries and giving room to different voices,” said Zank, and Sapiro’s “tactful and calm” moderation helped prevent the students from being starstruck and allowed Sarah “to just be herself.”

When Deeana Copeland Klepper, a CAS associate professor of religion and history and chair of the religion department, learned the religion department had won a 2010-2013 grant from the Center for Cultural Judaism to develop new Judaic studies courses and programs, she immediately thought of her college friend Susan Silverman. The grant supports the BU Jewish studies faculty initiative The Other Within.

“While Sarah may be the most famous Silverman sister, I knew Susan to be incredibly articulate, smart, and funny,” said Klepper. “I thought that the story of these two sisters—one a rabbi and one a comedian—emerging from their New Hampshire experience of Jewish otherness to forge careers in which Jewishness becomes absolutely central would be interesting to people, and I thought it could provide an opportunity for us to think about Jewish identity in new ways.”

Asked by Sapiro to share tales of growing up Jewish in white bread New Hampshire, Sarah described being mystified when taunted as a “Christ killer” by classmates. “It’s not like we killed the baby Jesus,” she said. “He had a good run.” But the creator of the video Sell the Vatican, Feed the World showed a quieter, thoughtful side when she spoke of telling her father as a young girl, “I’m homesick, but I’m already home,” and realizing as a New York University freshman, as her sister had when she came to BU, that that vague longing for home was a visceral hunger for the company of other Jews. And while Sarah Silverman admitted she “used” her Jewishness at the start of her career, these days when she embraces projects like the Vatican video (“I mean, there’s hunger and starvation in the world and here you have a house that’s a city”) she does so “not as a Jew, but as a human.”

“She’s my hero,” said Sarah of her sister. For her part, Susan referred to Sarah as “a modern-day prophet, sharing the truth as she sees it.”

Although Sarah’s remarks were punctuated with piquant one-liners—the lineup of Republican presidential candidates, for example, “is like that bar in Star Wars”—the comedian’s comedy is often sharp. The routines (“I love Chinks”; “My Nana was a survivor of the Holocaust…sorry, I mean alleged Holocaust…”) that rile her detractors are based on “ignoramuses,” characters of her invention, and she says she shouldn’t have to justify them to those who miss the joke. “I never defend my jokes,” she said, in perhaps her most serious moment of the evening.

“The event was exactly as we hoped: thoughtful, making a big-name Hollywood comedian accessible, and showing, rather than telling, the difference between person and persona,” said Zank, who, along with the audience, was charmed by the “beautiful kind of sisterhood” on display. “She’s my hero,” said Sarah of her sister. For her part, Susan referred to Sarah as “a modern-day prophet, sharing the truth as she sees it.”

Zank noted that it could be argued that the real star of the event was the earnest, witty Susan, ordained a rabbi in 1994. During the question-and-answer period, a student rose to ask her how he could better balance his Judaism with his demanding course work. After some good-natured banter, Susan Silverman’s voice grew, well, rabbinical. “Judaism obviously means meeting our obligations,” she told the young man, an aspiring actor. “But you need to decide what it is you want. The way I look at it is this: the worst Jew is no better or worse than anybody else, and the best Jew is no better than anybody else. But as a people we’ve done pretty good. I was born Jewish, and I want to be part of this people who really make a contribution to the world above and beyond their numbers. There’s something good, something that propels us forward and makes us think about the world and not just ourselves.”

So, “be a part of it,” she said. At this point in your life, she advised the student, whether you keep the Sabbath or don’t keep the Sabbath, “keep yourself with this prophetic vision of who we are and what our purpose is.”

Asked by Sapiro to share a few parting words of wisdom, Sarah Silverman quoted her mother: “Be brave” and “keep your overhead low.” Her sister concluded by urging the audience to promote adoption. Sarah echoed her sister’s sentiments. “Don’t get your dogs from a breeder,” she said. “Get them from a shelter.”

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