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The Battle of the Sarahs

If Sarah Palin was a big factor in the Republican defeat, might we say that the other Sarah, Ms. Silverman of comedy fame, helped to win it for the Democrats, with her "great schlep" video? There is some evidence that … Read More

By / November 5, 2008

If Sarah Palin was a big factor in the Republican defeat, might we say that the other Sarah, Ms. Silverman of comedy fame, helped to win it for the Democrats, with her "great schlep" video? There is some evidence that young Jews heeded her urging to get to the crucial battleground state of Florida and lobby their grandparents to vote for Obama.

Yesterday I sat next to a cousin of Silverman at a luncheon of the Gotham Chapter of the Brandeis National Committee. This lovely lady told me that Sarah’s father, nicknamed “the Schlepper” by another family member, proudly sat his youngest daughter down when she was only three and taught her all the swear words. And Silverman, innocent as a fox with her sly humor, has been spouting them ever since. Silverman’s edgy routines, like Jon Stewart’s arch humor, are current examples of Jewish political comedy. And "the Silverman Hypothesis"–that her video, seen by millions on You-Tube–influenced the vote of Florida Jews–is being taken seriously by social scientists. We should never underestimate the influence of comedy on everyday politics. Silverman is not the first female Jewish satirist with a distinctly political bent.

But while Jewish male humor has long been recognized as virtually synonymous with the American comedy tradition in the US, the Jewish female comedic tradition has long been overlooked. This was brought home to me some years ago, when I dedicated my book on Jewish women’s history, The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America, to my two daughters, calling them "badkhntes of the next generation." Yiddish language experts discouraged my use of the word, telling me that there was no feminine form for badkhen, the Yiddish word meaning jester or clown. The badkhen, who had amused Jews in Europe for hundreds of years with his witty rhymes, composed on the spot at weddings, was a formative influence on the creators of Yiddish theater and may be seen as the forerunner of today’s standup comedian. However, this important Jewish icon, as well as the long tradition he started, has been considered wholly male. To ignore the funny Jewish women who helped shape American humor is to miss some of the most distinctive expressions of American comedy–not only Sarah Silverman, but other contemporary Jewish women comics–like Judy Gold, Jackie Hoffman, Cory Kahaney and Jessica Kirshon –four women who serve as the guides to a wonderful film journey through the Jewish female comedy tradition.

The film, MAKING TROUBLE, produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive, introduces us to six legendary comics: Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, and Wendy Wasserstein. All of these women were troublemakers who used their comedy to make people look at the world in a new way, challenging their assumptions and pushing them to new understandings. Sarah Silverman is the latest in a long line of Jewish comedians to use her platform in this way, except that she is doing it through the Internet and TV. Comedy and politics are porous; they live and breath together. Sarah Silverman, like Tina Fey, whose spot-on impersonation of Governor Palin was a highlight of this season’s campaign coverage, forcefully demonstrate that while men might be from Mars and women from Venus, political humor traverses the gender divide.

The Great Schlep http://thegreatschlep.com/site/index.html

The Jewish Women’s Archive

http://www.jwa.org

Making Trouble

http://www.makingtrouble.com/

Joyce Antler author of You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother, will be guest blogging on Jewcy this week. Stay Tuned.

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