Dear Male Comedian
Dear Male Comedian,
I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to be you. As a rabbi, I know something about what it takes to get up in front of an audience. I know what it’s like when people offer unsolicited critiques, or don’t “get” your material. I certainly know what it’s like to bomb.
I have some sense of what it must have been like to be invited to an event, and be told you can’t talk about politics. Or religion. Or anything remotely controversial.
Still, I can’t say I know exactly what it was like for you to do a set at our Federation Gala. But I’m writing to you because I need you to at least try to understand what it was like to be me that night.
I didn’t come to this event to see your act. I came because I work in the community and it was expected of me. People I love and admire were being honored. I wanted to be there. But also, I was at work. With colleagues. And congregants. Lots of them.
Your set wasn’t really my style. I probably would have liked your political material better. I didn’t appreciate how you talked about Reform Jews. Or intermarriage. Or women. I’m not a fan of the “My wife’s a nag and I can’t get laid” genre of comedy (which means I can’t watch most of what’s on network television).
When you likened seducing a woman to cracking a safe, I might have laughed. But mostly, I sat quietly, waiting for you to finish so that I could leave. I considered walking out, but that would have been perceived as a “statement,” or as me being a humorless…whatever. So I didn’t.
Then this happened:
“Are there any female rabbis in the room?”
This isn’t like when you ask if anyone is from Cleveland. Everyone in that room knew who I was. The other female rabbi in the room had already walked out. It was just me. In a brightly colored dress. Dead center.
If I had chosen to not raise my hand—like I could have done in a comedy club—any number of people would have “outed” me. So I raised my hand.
“You’re a rabbi?” you asked. I nodded. “Well that’s great! I support that!” Great, I thought. The comedian supports my professional ambitions.
But you didn’t stop there. You gave me the once-over. “Wow, you’re really pretty,” you said. “Are you married?”
My readers can tell you that I don’t love that question. “No, I am not.” I smiled through gritted teeth. You couldn’t read my body language, but I was shooting daggers at you with my eyes. I didn’t like where this was going.
“Oh,” you said. “Maybe I’ll divorce my shiksa wife and marry you!”
You mimed cracking a safe.
Some people laughed. Later some people told me they were offended and wanted to write an angry letter. One of my congregants—the one being honored—told me he nearly stood up and shouted, “Leave her alone!” But he didn’t. We all just sat there.
I don’t want this to be about what’s funny and what’s not. This isn’t about how you talked about women, or about why we don’t use the word shiksa anymore (Though, as it happens, both of my sisters-in-law come from other faith backgrounds, as do about 50% of my congregants).
But I need you to know why that joke didn’t work, and why I felt, not offended, but humiliated.
I was not a girl at a comedy club. I didn’t choose to come to your act. I didn’t really even choose to raise my hand. I was not anonymous in this space. I had to work with these people the next day.
And though I am technically a public figure, this was also not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where everyone attending expects to be roasted, and where some of the targets have the opportunity to respond (even if this administration chooses not to take it). You didn’t call out other people. I suspect you didn’t have a punchline ready if there happened to be a female rabbi. So you improvised, commenting on my appearance and, however subtly, my sexuality.
You leaned into the tendency to fetishize women clergy. Rabbis are human beings, with the same needs, desires, and bodily functions as most people. But, too often, the lens zooms in too close on our clothes and our bodies.
Female rabbis are not sex objects. Nor are we novelty items. Women have been rabbis for over four decades. We don’t need your approval, and giving me your “support” implies that there is an alternative.
Though I wouldn’t say that your joke ended well, there are a hundred ways it could have gone worse. You don’t know if I’m straight, gay, married, widowed, or divorced. You don’t know if I’ve just had my heart broken. You don’t know if I’d be interested in you, particularly since you’ve just spent 30 minutes talking about how you’re lazy and broke and have a wife.
I spend a lot of time trying to shift the focus away from my appearance, my love life, and my sexuality. By sizing me up in front of my entire community, you undid three years of that work in 30 seconds.
Most of all, you put me in a terrible position. I could sit there and take it, and have everyone, including you, think that what you said was okay when it wasn’t. I could stand up and walk out, and have everyone think I’m a stick in the mud who can’t take a joke. Or I could have said something salty back, which would have only prolonged the discomfort for all of us. None of these are good choices.
I thought about telling you this when I bumped into you on the way out. Instead, I smiled and said, “Good night.”
I didn’t think you’d get it.
How to cite this page
Berkowitz , Leah. "Dear Male Comedian." 23 May 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 23, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/dear-male-comedian>.