College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

The Sisters Silverman

A former rabbi and a comedian

By Jean Hennelly Keith

How do two sisters view their Jewish identity, or “Jewy-ness,” as they playfully call it? The Silverman sisters—adoption advocate and former rabbi Susan (CAS'85), now raising her five children (including two from Ethiopia) in Israel, and actress-comedian Sarah, of Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central fame—talked before a BU audience last fall, about what being Jewish means to each of them. Funded by a grant from the Center for Cultural Judaism as part of “The Other Within” Jewish Studies initiative, “A Sister Act: A Conversation on Growing Up Jewish in New Hampshire and Making the Best of It” was moderated by Virginia Sapiro, dean of Arts & Sciences. Frank, thoughtful, and funny, they brought the house down.

Photos by Kalman Zabarsky

On Israel

Susan: It's a very activist place, and it's very exciting. I want to be part of creating this state. I want my children to feel as they do, and as I do, like a plant that grows organically from the ground, whereas here, I think we're sort of potted plants.

Sarah: I actually just went to Israel for the first time last June. I loved seeing kids live the way I remember, with the freedom we had when we were little, where you're just out on bikes until it's pitch black and no one's worried about you. Oddly, it isn't as fear-based a life for families there, it seems.

Judaism

Susan: It's beautiful that it's thousands of years old and that we can engage in this river of being. But at the same time, it's something we've created in our minds. It's a way for us to understand the mysteries of the universe. It's not absolute, and as soon as we get to absolute, danger sets in.

Sarah: I don't have religion personally, but I'm Jewish in that it's in my bones. I'm not an atheist; I'm an agnostic because I just have no idea. I think there's so much magic in the world that I can't explain, but I also think that religion seems to be so based on location that how could one be right? My personal god is I like to pretend that my therapist can see me at all times.

Legacy

Susan: I figure I was born Jewish. I want to be part of this people that really makes a contribution to the world, above and beyond its numbers. There's something good in our tradition that propels us forward and makes us think of the world as a whole, and not just ourselves.

Sarah: Be brave. Don't have anything to lose. Keep your overhead low.

Humor

Sarah (about Susan): Susie had a congregation outside of D.C., and she was leading them in a song, and she started laughing and she couldn't stop—she was crying. Slowly the congregation stopped singing and was like, “huh?” She said, “I'm sorry. You are the worst singers I've ever heard in my life.”

Sarah: [On Saturday Night Live] I talked about [how] my sister's name is Susan Silverman-Abramowitz, but for short, they call her 'Jew.' No, it's weird. I've definitely used the maximum license I can with being Jewish, for better and for worse.

Sisterhood

Susan: Sarah's like a modern-day prophet. I mean, she just names the truth as she sees it, and in a way that people can hear, unlike the biblical prophets.

Sarah: I am in awe of my sister. She's my hero.

Experience the whole Silverman sisters' conversation on BUniverse.