25 Questions for a Jewish Mother
nytheatre.com review by Eric Pliner
January 24, 2006
In Penn Gillette and Paul Provenza’s recent dirty joke documentary The Aristocrats, Judy Gold and Sarah Silverman are among the limited number of female comedians (who, as a whole, are far funnier than their male counterparts) to appear on-screen. Creating humor from truth and self-mockery, Gold and Silverman stand out not only as women in comedy, but also as Jewish women who speak openly (albeit from vastly different vantage points) about being women and about being Jews. Silverman opens her film Jesus is Magic with a running joke professing that she has created a stage production of a comic musical dealing with September 11th, AIDS, and the Holocaust. Over the course of the film, Silverman manages to integrate these three topics—among others of equal seriousness—in amusing if not entirely logical ways.
In the new show 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, however, Judy Gold has more than outdone her counterpart, crafting an endlessly amusing and truly heartfelt production that includes all three of the aforementioned taboo topics (among many others) in ways that are both hilarious and, ultimately, profoundly moving.
25 Questions (written by Kate Moira Ryan with Gold) intertwines elements of Gold’s stand-up comedy (old and new) with a project that grew out of an autobiographical journey. Gold moves from the Judy Blume-obsessed, fish-out-of-water, New Jersey-resident, lesbian daughter of a loving and dominating Jewish mother to becoming her own version of a loving and dominating Jewish mother to two sons with Wendy, her partner of 20-plus years. Along the way, she and collaborator Ryan take others along for the ride, conducting 25-question interviews with Jewish mothers of all ages, careers, races, degrees of observance, and movements within Judaism.
The results are presented as interstitials to Gold’s larger story, about her journey to and through motherhood, and her fear of turning into her own mother, a well-meaning woman who calls the police if she doesn’t hear from her daughter on a daily basis. Gold impersonates each of her interviewees, crafting a body language and speech pattern that clearly demonstrates that, although they live under the shared rubric of “Jewish mother,” these women are incredibly different. From the Orthodox mother who insists that she would sit shiva (a death ritual) for her daughter were she to marry a non-Jew to the Chinese Jew-by-choice who doesn’t regret converting but deeply regrets moving to New Jersey, Gold gives voice to a broad range of women whose similarities are often caricatured, but whose individual experiences are often ignored.
Most poetic and deeply moving is the tale of a woman who, as a young girl, recalls being left with the girls and women in the balcony at shul (synagogue) while her beloved grandfather went to pray with the men and boys in the main sanctuary—only to find herself by his side, wrapped in his tallis (prayer shawl) before the service’s end. Similarly, stories from women who survived concentration camps (and their mothers who, in some cases, did not), a mother who outlived her eldest son, and even Gold’s own story of sharing a painful life change with her young children elicit an exquisite—almost reverent—silence from her riveted audience. Indeed, it is a testament to Gold’s gifts as a performer that she is able to move so skillfully from guffaw-inducing comedy to moments of such rare poignancy.
The piece still has a few rough edges: several of 25 Questions’ opening scenes feel over-rehearsed, and a section about Gold performing at a benefit for Howard Dean is incongruous and falls painfully flat. Karen Kolhaas’s simple and clean staging relegates the collection of Jewish mothers to the side, placing Gold squarely at the center of the stage and of the story. And although Gold is more than up to the task of carrying the piece, the audience is left wanting more from the mothers. Only one mother’s response to each question is shared; with multiple interviews and so many questions, we must assume that there is a trove of material that remains left out of this work. (Indeed, Gold jokes that she and Ryan were hopelessly naive to assume that any Jewish mother could respond to 25 questions in the 30 minutes that they had initially allotted for their meetings.) Perhaps the authors plan to release the material as a book; we can only hope. Still, none of these minor shortcomings undermine the overall experience of 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother as an entertaining and powerful work.