Emmy Award Winning Comedian Judy Gold has always been fascinated by her Jewish roots. Her own loving, but sometimes overprotective, Jewish mother has been a focal point of her stand up act; and to mixed reactions. Some people have accused her of playing up cultural stereotypes and lampooning her own people. She says she is simply presenting an accurate portrayal of her mother and doing so in a loving way. Never squeamish about expressing her opinions, she is quick to bring up many a comment that has ruffled social and political feathers throughout her career.
After years of impersonating her mother on stage and contemplating her own role as a Jewish mother, she decided to embark on a project that would change her life forever. She and playwright Kate Moira Ryan set out on a five year journey, where they toured the United States interviewing over fifty Jewish women of varying backgrounds. The purpose: to find out if there is, in fact, a stereotypical prototype of a Jewish mother and what that means to her own existence as a modern, single and gay Jewish mother.
After interviewing fifty women from different Jewish denominations, backgrounds and walks of life, Judy found these women to be as strikingly similar as they were colorfully different and unique. Each woman had her own story to tell, while at the same time demonstrating the warmth, caring, and closeness to their children that Judy has experienced with her own mother since childhood. Judy found herself to be humbled, enriched and inspired by these women's stories. Along with her writing partner Kate Moira Ryan, they developed these interviews into a humorous and poignant One-Woman Show that is getting rave reviews and selling out theatres. Our conversation took some interesting and bold detours, and that's fine with me.
PR.com (Allison Kugel): It was incredible to see 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother. I saw it a few days ago...
Judy Gold: Oh, did you see it?! I'm so glad when people actually see the show. The guy from the [New Jersey] Star Ledger... he was like "So you wrote that song From a Distance? I'm like "No. That was Julie Gold. Have a fantastic day and enjoy your research."
PR.com: Well I saw the show last week. I'm Jewish and I brought a friend who isn't Jewish and he was laughing. He really enjoyed it, but for me it wasn't just a show, it was an experience too.
Judy Gold: Right, it was a journey.
PR.com: Yeah. I called up my mother the next day and said, "You have to go see this show. It's not just a show. It's an experience."
Judy Gold: That's so sweet! It's been through the roof after the New York Times came out with that review.
PR.com: I was going to ask you about that. You got a glowing review!
Judy Gold: Have you ever read a review like that?
PR.com: No. When I was doing research on you, I was Googling your name...
Judy Gold: And you found out that I called the President a living, breathing piece of shit... (She's referring to a comment that she made at a fundraiser for Howard Dean which resulted in the White House declaring her a Homeland Security Risk. Are they f****** kidding??)
PR.com: Well I don't see anything wrong with you stating your opinion.
Judy Gold: Alright, thank you.
PR.com: In the show, were you trying to create something that would be an emotional experience for other Jewish people?
Judy Gold: It wasn't even about other Jewish people. What we wanted to do was pretty much tell a story and I wanted it not to be stand up [comedy]. I wanted it to be its own thing. It's a play. Before I go on stage, I really get excited to tell this story. It's a journey and I wanted to be honest. I wanted to show how these women affected my life and I wanted to pay as much respect to these women as I possibly could, especially with the Holocaust survivors.
PR.com: Throughout the years, and I've seen you performing in clubs over the years, you've always incorporated your mother into your act. Did that come from a place of appreciation for her or did it come from a place of conflict and pain?
Judy Gold: I think it's a combination of love, conflict and pain. I have the best job in the world. Someone said to me, "You get to go on stage and vent." I think my mother had a very unique view of the world, as did my father and I grew up in this household... I just felt out of place. I'm in this suburban [neighborhood] and this is the way life's supposed to be and I'm like, "If this is life, I'm outta here! I am not living here baby!" Knowing that my mother grew up in Manhattan and had dreams... also, I was 6 ft tall when I was thirteen, so I couldn't fit in, in any way shape or form.
PR.com: Well kid's can be obnoxious...
Judy Gold: Oh horrible! And they're worse in New Jersey for some reason. People are always like, "Isn't it hard to bring your kids up in the city?" My mother grew up across the street from [where I live now] and she said, "It would have been easier to bring you kids up in the city," because if you're a freak, there's a group of freaks just like you waiting to be your friend," you know?
PR.com: Why do you think that the Jewish media and the media in general, have come down on you so much for perpetuating the Jewish stereotype?
Judy Gold: It's come from a lot of different places. I was doing a function and this woman came up to me and said, "When are you going to stop?!" And my manager did get calls when I did the Anne Frank joke on The Tonight Show. I'm thinking to myself, here I am. I go all over this country to places where they've never seen a Jew and say "Here I am! I'm a Jew!" And these people are sitting in judgment of me. I understand where it comes from...
PR.com: But why is it ok for Keenen Ivory Wayans to make fun of black culture, or for Larry David or Richard Lewis to make fun of being Jewish?
Judy Gold: I don't know. It's really odd to me because, first of all, I'm not exaggerating. These are things that my mother does say to me. And by the way, I'm usually home on a Friday night with my kids, saying prayers over the challah [bread] and the wine. I've been to Alabama and been a Jew. I've been called a kike in Georgia, you know?
PR.com: Do these people find any common ground with you and enjoy the show, or do they sit there dumbfounded?
Judy Gold: Yes, I've found with being gay and being Jewish. Then they'll say, "Oh, I like her!"
PR.com: At the beginning of the show they don't know what to make of you and by the end of the show, they like you.
Judy Gold: Right.
PR.com: Then you've essentially done your job.
Judy Gold: Exactly. So these people were saying that I was promoting this stereotype, when I was actually just doing my mother. And then they're coming up to me saying, "You shouldn't do this, you shouldn't say this..." You're right, these [other comedians] can make fun of it and it's very funny. What is it about women that makes it so, you know, "don't go there?" So I was like, ok you think I make fun of the [Jewish] stereotype? I'm going to go out there and find it. I'm going to go see. Initially we just went out to find out if there really was the stereotype. What happened was these women just started blowing me away.
PR.com: They blew you away how?
Judy Gold: The ultra Orthodox really blew me away. There was one woman, her kid went to Yeshiva and her son was disabled and there was no room for him. They didn't have the facilities at the Yeshiva. She went back to school and got her Master's Degree in special education and opened up a Yeshiva for special needs children.
Judy Gold: I mean, just pro-active. I'm thinking I'm going in here and they're going be like, "I get up and I make breakfast, and then I go shopping..."
PR.com: "And then I go to lunch..."
Judy Gold: It was...I'm a judge, I'm a lawyer, I'm a school teacher, I'm a librarian...just blew me away!
PR.com: And one thing you said that they all have in common is that they all speak to their kids...
Judy Gold: ...every day. I'm thinking I'm the only one who talks to my mother every day.
PR.com: My parents call me two or three times a day and I always feel weird if I don't speak to them for a day.
Judy Gold: Exactly. It's such a bond.
PR.com: How did you team up with playwright, Kate Moira Ryan (Judy's co-writer of 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother)?
Judy Gold: I'm friends with her. For years I've been saying I've got to get off the road. I love doing stand up more then anything in the whole world but I couldn't take the traveling and I don't want to be away from my kids. I've always wanted to do a one person show but I never wanted it to be my act, augmented by a band. I told Kate this whole story and she said let's go out and start interviewing women and we'll see what happens.
PR.com: Why 25 questions for each woman?
Judy Gold: We had a list of more then 50 and we would sit there with a list. We would always start with, "What makes a Jewish mother different from a non-Jewish mother?" Easy, general questions. As we got to know the women, we'd get more specific and we'd be like, "Oh ask #19 or ask #23!!" We ended up asking them 25 questions each. It just ended up that way. Not all the same questions. Kate is a playwright and she loves European history. She's spent a lot of time in Europe and whenever we would have a Holocaust survivor or an immigrant, it was very logistic with her. It was so great having another person come from a completely different place. So I felt it was more thorough.
PR.com: Did you each interview different women and then you exchanged notes?
Judy Gold: No, we were always together.
PR.com: It's not like Jewish people are blanketing the middle of the United States. Did you stick to large cities?
Judy Gold: Initially we went with a group of women and we would ask them, "Who should we go to next?" We would ask people, "Do you know anyone who would be interested in this project?" Then when we traveled, I would call the local synagogues. I'd call my mother and say, "Do we have any relatives [here]?" Kate found someone in Utah. We went to Reno and we met with some people and then they would tell other people. We went to Vegas, California, Florida...
PR.com: You interviewed over 50 women?
Judy Gold: Yeah, I'm pretty sure.
PR.com: And you chose to showcase a handful of women in the show...
Judy Gold: 12 women.
PR.com: What made you choose those 12 women to impersonate and tell their stories in the show?
Judy Gold: It fit into my journey. It was "how can I move this story along?" Kate Moira Ryan actually put the structure together. And she also transcribed every interview.
PR.com: I can relate to that! After doing all of these interviews, is there such a thing as a stereotypical Jewish mother?
Judy Gold: There are affectations, such as, what you see or what you hear. "Are you hungry? Do you need to eat?" (She slips back into her own Jewish mother's inflection)
PR.com: Very concerned. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Judy Gold: I think it's a great thing. How can you say it's a bad thing? Look what the Jewish people have been through and we're still here! So, obviously we're doing something right. When you started talking to them about their lives, things came out that you couldn't imagine. They were just so open and ready to talk about their lives. Husbands and friends were like, "I can't believe she told you about this. We never talk about that." They didn't feel threatened or judged. And I thought they were pretty special, these women.
PR.com: They knew you had the best intentions and there's also a certain freedom in opening up to someone you don't know very well.
Judy Gold: Exactly, and we said if you don't want to answer something, don't answer it. There was one woman who was the WASP-iest Jewish woman you've ever seen and she was apparently the only Jew in her country club growing up. A very assimilated and very wealthy family. She ends up marrying a Jew and they end up having kids. Her daughter comes home from school one day and says that she wants to be bat mitzvahed, and she wants to go to Hebrew school. She ended up getting bat mitzvahed and it was the first time the family had ever been to [temple]. Her daughter started singing her haftorah and everyone in the family burst into tears. She said she saw her daughter up there reading her haftorah and thought, "How did my kid lead us on this journey?" Now they go to the High Holiday services. She said she feels something when she goes in there now. It's pretty intense.
PR.com: You were quoted as saying that being a practicing Jew and a Lesbian and a mom with an unconventional career, that you felt it was somewhat of a struggle?
Judy Gold: Well, I like all of these traditions. I want to pass down what my grandmother taught me and what my parents taught me. I love being a Jew, but it's like... where do I fit in? I love going to shul, but going to shul growing up, it's like a) you're not gay and b) you're a woman, so you're not carrying the Torah around...
PR.com: I grew up in a Reform [Jewish] household and I'm a fourth generation American.
Judy Gold: I'm fourth generation too, pretty amazing, huh?
PR.com: My parents had ties to European relatives. I don't. So I never experienced that firsthand. But, the very first time I had to go to an Orthodox Temple, I have to be honest, I was offended when I was asked to sit in the back and I walked out into the lobby and I didn't want to participate and I didn't want to sit there.
Judy Gold: It's not like they put the women in a nice area...
PR.com: It doesn't matter. I couldn't get past the fact that we have to sit in the back. Judaism is my culture. When somebody asks me what I am, I say I'm Jewish. But as far as the religion, I just don't see how some of these things fit into my life.
Judy Gold: But some of them do fit, and I was like, how do I reconcile that? And there's a place for everyone. I think that's the greatest thing about Judaism. It's all about questioning and re-interpreting. And there are other people out there like me who want to be Jews and want to sit with their husbands or fathers [in temple], and that's why I find the last woman (impersonated in her show) so profound. She hits on every topic that we discussed; acceptance, a family secret, being mad at God, not agreeing with what your friends say...no matter what you subscribe to or how religious you are, life hands you shit that you don't expect.
PR.com: The Jewish religion is something where you're supposed to question and read...
Judy Gold: I think that's why there are so many Jewish comics. We see things in so many different ways.
PR.com: But thank god for that. There are some religions where you're told "this is the way it is..."
Judy Gold: Exactly! I don't need some guy in a white hat telling me you can't have an abortion and I've just decided that gay people can't...
PR.com: You can't be gay, you can't have an abortion if you need to, you can't get a divorce... and it's caused profound guilt in people...
Judy Gold: And self hatred.
PR.com: So as much as Jewish people talk about how we're all neurotic and that we have Jewish guilt, I don't think it's anywhere near what Catholic people experience.
Judy Gold: And we also have outlets. We love the arts... the thing is, we have a culture. We are more then a religion.
PR.com: Why did you choose to premiere your show at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal before bringing it to New York?
Judy Gold: Jodie Lieberman who runs the Just for Laughs Festival, she saw a reading of it and we had been trying to get it into festivals for a while. She saw it and she said, "Oh my God, I have to bring this to Montreal." We got the most amazing reviews and Ars Nova (the Ars Nova Theatre in New York), they loved it and now it's a sold out hit, standing room... it's incredible.
PR.com: And the reviews don't hurt. Dude, that review was outrageous (in the New York Times)!
Judy Gold: Well we got the reviews in Montreal and they were stellar too.
PR.com: Let me ask you this. I didn't know if I was going to ask you, but I will. When you were growing up and you were in adolescence, how did you process the realization within yourself that you were gay? Then how did that translate into you sharing that information with friends and family?
Judy Gold: Well, I knew, but especially at that time, you fight it. You're an abomination, and there's no role model...I didn't talk about it. I didn't deal with it at all. And then in college, it was funny. I met a group of friends and all of a sudden, junior year, all of us were like, "Umm...by the way, I'm gay."
PR.com: All of you?
Judy Gold: Yeah, pretty much, this whole small group. And we all kind of came out together. And I never told my family. I told my sister first and then someone slipped in front of my mother. But my mother said she already knew. We got interviewed for Nightline a while ago, and she said, "Well, I knew when she was very young because every night she would go over to the neighbor's house because they had crayons and she wanted to play, and every time she went over there, she had to where a necktie!" Then she said that when she would come to visit she would notice that there was one bedroom that had two alarm clocks and one bedroom that had no alarm clock. So I was like, "Mom, you should have been a spy!"
PR.com: I think this is so important because I feel that the more public figures are just open about it, not making a ceremony out of it, but just talk openly about it just the way anybody would talk about their relationship...
Judy Gold: My relationship was just like anybody else's...
PR.com: It takes away the stigma, it makes it more like, ok you're this and I'm that and we're all just living our lives. It's a real problem with gay teenagers feeling depressed and alone...
Judy Gold: Most suicides are from gay teens...
PR.com: But the more that people in the public eye are open about it and just live their lives, it will make other people feel like they can just be themselves and live their lives openly and honestly.
Judy Gold: It's just a part of who I am. It's not who I am. And I'm a Jew before I'm anything else.
PR.com: Your mom came to see your show during previews.
Judy Gold: Yeah, very emotional...
PR.com: Was her reaction a positive one?
Judy Gold: She loved it but then she said it was very, very sad for me. I warned her. There was a lot of stuff [in the show] that we hadn't talked about, and how one thing can effect generation after generation. She is seeing how her actions affected her child. I think that that was really hard for her. The profound effect she had on me.
PR.com: Did she think it was an accurate portrayal of her? Because we never see ourselves as others see us?
Judy Gold: I don't think anyone ever sees themselves as other people see them. But she's so used to me imitating her.
PR.com: Your show is a one woman show, which is essentially, one very long monologue which is 70 minutes of material. As somebody who doesn't do what you do, it's fascinating to me. How do you memorize every piece of material, every inflection, and every nuance from beginning to end?
Judy Gold: It's so organic to me and I know the story so well. It just flows out of me.
PR.com: The answering machine at the beginning of the show is my favorite thing of all time! (A voicemail message from Judy's mother that she plays at the top of her show)
Judy Gold: Thank you and it's real. People always ask me [that]. And I'll never forget when I played it for my mother. My father had died and we were at my brother's in Arizona and I taped it. I said, "Mom, you gotta listen to this and I brought the tape of her, and we were peeing in our pants. And I said, I'm playing this onstage.
PR.com: Are you taking the show to any other cities after New York?
Judy Gold: We want to, yeah. And I keep getting emails...can you bring it here? Can you bring it there? I think I'm going to be doing the show for a very long time and I'm very happy about it. I think it has a profound affect on people. People thank me... mothers, kids, gay men...
PR.com: Are you still doing At the Multiplex with Judy Gold for HBO?
Judy Gold: Yes.
PR.com: When does it air? Because I always just catch it randomly...
Judy Gold: They show it in between movies.
PR.com: Has performing in a one woman show changed your perspective on the direction you'd like your career to take?
Judy Gold: I'd like to do more acting and I love live performance, so hopefully it will bring me some jobs that I've always wanted.
PR.com: Are you looking to take the show to Broadway?
Judy Gold: Yes.
PR.com: That's the first thing that came to my mind when I saw it.
Judy Gold: Oh, yeah.
25 Questions for a Jewish Mother is currently playing at the Ars Nova Theatre at 511 West 54th Street (west of 10th Ave.) New York, NY. To purchase tickets, SmartTix at 212-868-4444 or www.SmartTix.com. All tickets are $25.00, Running Time: 70 minutes, no intermission.