“I was the hairy Jewish monkey in a sea of blonde kids.”
That’s Sarah Silverman talking about her upbringing in Bedford, New Hampshire, on“Finding Your Roots,” the celebrity genealogy show on PBS — the American equivalent of “Who Do You Think You Are?”
Bedford, the comedian explains, was not exactly a very Jewish community.
“My feeling of being Jewish came from my being the only Jew,” Silverman tells host Henry Louis Gates Jr. “We [her family] had no religion, but because I had this kind of intuition, when I went to any friend’s house, I made sure their parents knew I was not scary. You learn to ingratiate yourself, to be non-threatening, to be funny.
“As a comedian, you become funny as a survival skill — like the fat kid who makes fat jokes before others do.”
Silverman’s sense of “Jewish otherness” wasn’t the only thing that fuelled her comic tendencies — her parents divorced when she was seven.
“My other sisters were crying and upset. I was thrilled, and they kept saying, ‘she doesn’t understand,”‘ the comic recalls. “And I kept thinking, ‘what’s not to understand?’ Are you going to continue to fight? Wake me up in the middle of the night screaming? No? Great.’”
Perhaps because she is part of a crowded hour shared with fellow comics Seth Meyers and Tig Notaro in the episode, shown on February 19, the viewer learns little about Silverman’s immediate family, such as her parents or any of her four siblings — including sister Susan, a prominent activist Reform rabbi living in Israel. Instead, the episode focuses on her maternal grandparents, Golde and Herman Halpin.
“[Golde] was a monster,” Silverman says. Herman, on the other hand, was a funny and apparently stabilising influence in her life. He was born Hyman Cohen in Seattle, but apparently changed his name at Golde’s insistence.
“She didn’t want people to know they were Jewish,” Silverman surmises.
While life in Israel has returned to normal and hopes are high that Britain is set for a summer without restrictions thanks to vaccines, for billions around the world there is no such imminent light at the end of the tunnel. In the majority of countries around the globe, particularly the poorest, the vaccine rollout has barely kicked off.
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