The Gift of Jewish Women's Comedy
by Joyce Antler
In featuring Jewish women comediennes, the Jewish Women's Archive puts the spotlight on a tradition that has been neglected for far too long. The significance of American Jewish women's comedy was brought home to me some years ago, when I dedicated my book on Jewish women's history, The Journey Home, to my two daughters, calling them badkhntes of the next generation.
Some experts tried to discourage my use of the word, telling me that there simply 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, and later, at other social gatherings-had influenced the creators of Yiddish theater and may be seen as the forerunner of today's standup comedian. However, this important Jewish icon-and the tradition he started-has been always considered wholly male.
As in so many other areas, coming to America meant breaking the Old World pattern by which Jewish women performed in dramatic roles but rarely as comedians. American Jewish women became prominent comic performers in the immigrant generation, when comedic talents like Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, and Molly Picon took to the stage. Their comic routines expressed the experiences and desires of many second generation Jews, yet they appealed to mainstream audiences as well.
In every successive generation, Jewish women comediennes helped shape the contours of American comedy. From Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Molly Picon, Gertrude Berg, and Judy Holliday, through Joan Rivers, Totie Fields, Gilda Radner, Madeline Kahn, Elaine May, Roseanne Barr, Fran Drescher, and most recently, to Judy Gold, Susie Essman, Rain Pryor, Jackie Hoffman, Wendy Leibman, Sandra Bernhard, Sarah Silverman, Lisa Kron, and many other younger comediennes, Jewish female comics have been found in every corner of American culture vaudeville, burlesque, radio, television, legitimate theater, film, stand up comedy, performance art.
Like generations of male Jewish comedians, they have demonstrated a superb wit, wonderful verbal skills, and the masterful use of irony, satire, and mockery, including self-mockery. Their heritage as Jews especially, the Diasporic experience of living between two worlds has given them a sharp critical edge and the ability to express the anxieties and foibles of contemporary culture.
Yet there is something unique about female Jewish comics which distinguishes them from male colleagues and peers. Jewish comediennes often center their humor on a specifically female—and sometimes explicitly feminist—perspective that showcases issues of particular interest to women.
Whether they are openly rebellious, using bawdy, sexually frank routines in the manner of a Sophie Tucker, Belle Barth, Totie Fields, Bette Midler, or Joan Rivers, or whether they present more gentle challenges, with portrayals of innocent, endearing characters—think Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Gilda Radner, and Goldie Hawn—these comediennes have stretched the boundaries of conventional thinking about gender roles and stereotypes. The laughter they engender is powerful, and it can be subversive.
What we learn from the tradition of Jewish female comedy is that laughter can critique and even disrupt the social order. Nothing was sacred to these Jewish women comics—everything could be mocked—but by and large they stood proudly within a Jewish tradition that offered comfort, familiarity, and guidance.
Many of them earned the laughter they achieved through tears that bore witness to unhappy romances, the see-saw of illness and recuperation, the struggle with beauty and weight issues, the separation from loved ones in order to pursue careers. Laughter provided a way not only to cope with the pettiness and pains of daily life but to transcend them.
The gift of Jewish women's comedy is to make us transcend our own daily lives as well, and to see, through humor, alternative visions of who we could be if we, too, had the courage to challenge—and mock—the strictures that hold us back.
Joyce Antler is the chair of the Academic Advisory Council and a founding board member of the Jewish Women’s Archive. She is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University.