In Her New Special, Sarah Silverman Finally Gets the Jewish Mom Joke Right – Kveller
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In Her New Special, Sarah Silverman Finally Gets the Jewish Mom Joke Right

Silverman has never shied away from speaking out on Jewish issues — and her latest special, streaming on Max, is no exception.


via Max

This past weekend, my husband was laid up sick in bed while I tried to make the best of not one but two holidays with my 1-year-old daughter (Shavuot and Memorial Day — much cheese and many hot dogs were consumed). After putting her down for a nap on Monday, I checked in on him, where I learned that, on the downside, he was not feeling any better, but on the upside, he had watched Sarah Silverman’s new HBO comedy special. (Am I jealous of his illness? No. Am I envious that he got to stay in bed watching TV all day? I mean, yeah.) He encouraged me to stand by the door while he pulled the special up on the iPad so that I could watch just the very first joke, which he had a feeling I would love.

“Is it Jewish?” I asked, because I am who I am.

“I mean, it’s Sarah Silverman,” he said.

If you, like me, were wondering, yes, the first joke in “Someone You Love,” Sarah Silverman’s first HBO special in a decade, filmed at the Wilbur Theater in Boston, is a Jewish joke. A Jewish mom joke, actually. A great Jewish mom joke. But more on that later.

Since her previous special, 2013’s “We Are Miracles,” Silverman has, among other things, hosted a late night talk show (Hulu’s “I Love You, America”), reprised her role as (the first Jewish?) Disney Princess Vanellope von Schweetz in “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” campaigned for Bernie Sanders and then Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election (and then again for Bernie in the 2020 election), joined the star-studded cast of Mel Brook’s “History of the World: Part II,” and launched “The Sarah Silverman Podcast” in 2020. On her weekly podcast, Silverman discusses a range of topics involving her personal life and current events — and she has increasingly, as she notes in her special, been “so Jewy on it… because there’s been such a rise in antisemitism.”

Silverman has been one of the most outspoken Jewish celebrities when it comes to Jewish issues, speaking on everything from authentic casting of Jewish characters, experiencing antisemitism as one of the only Jews in her New Hampshire hometown, and the rise in antisemitic crimes in the U.S., which she called out while accepting her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Earlier this year, during her run as guest host on “The Daily Show,” she filmed a delightful clip in which she took to the streets of New York City to find allies to the Jewish people, asking strangers what they like about Jews (answers ranged from bagels to Idina Menzel to the polio vaccine).

So perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that “Someone You Love” is not just a little Jewish, but so Jewy. Early on in the special she offers what she describes as “a very fresh take on a Holocaust joke” involving a German inventor of Lucky Charms (“Sorry, the alleged Holocaust,” she clarifies at one point, a subtle reference to Holocaust deniers). “I don’t know why people hate Jews so much,” she says, then lowers her register to follow up with a mumbly, “I mean, I get a little.” She describes going to church with friends when she was a kid and being denied a communion wafer (“What is your fear? That I’m gonna put a schmear on it?”). She does a joke about the title of Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf,” which translates to “My Struggle” in English (“Is there a more Jewish sounding book?”).

And in one of her longest bits, she describes being put up in a fancy hotel in Hawaii for a gig, where the pool had a sign that forbid anyone with diarrhea — currently, or within the past two weeks — from entering the pool. “I mean just say it: No Jews allowed,” she jokes, then polls the audience to see how many Jews are in attendance (a lot). She talks to one Jew sitting in the front row (Karen Martin-Epstein, whom I assume at least one reader of this website must know) and asks if she’s ever gone 14 days without diarrhea. “That would be considered a miracle in our religion,” Silverman says, likening it to the story of Hanukkah.

Scattered among the Jewish jokes are other bits of standard Silverman fare: jokes about porn, jokes about poop, jokes about unsupportive boyfriends, and wholesome moments where her progressive values — and her desire for people not to live in fear — shine through. Not everything is ground-breaking, but if you’re a fan of Silverman, you’ll be comforted by her voice and presence on stage once again (and you’ll wonder if you too could pull off bell-bottoms so well).

But back to that first joke.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear a joke set up around the idea of a Jewish mother, I brace myself. Not because I care what people say about Jewish mothers. Not because I’m afraid I’ll be offended, as a Jewish mother myself. But because I’m sure I’ve heard it before. The Jewish mother trope is such well-trodden territory in stand-up, sitcoms, movies and pop culture — she’s overbearing, she’s nagging, she’s always playing the guilt card, she wants you to eat more and then will judge you for eating too much — that it’s hard to believe it could actually be funny anymore.

So when Silverman opened her special with, “What did the Jewish mother say to her porn star daughter after watching her in a gang bang?” I had that typical moment of panic, but then I remembered who I was watching.

“You were the best one,” Silverman says in her classic Jewish mother accent (which, if I had to define, is elderly East Coaster now living in Florida). “You were the best one, of all of them!” she continues. She switches back to her regular voice to explain, “That’s a great stereotype. It’s true. Jewish mothers, they’re just so bananas for their kids,” before assuming the voice of the Jewish mother once more: “My Sharon had all holes filled. I’ve never seen anything like it!”

With that, Silverman kicked off her special with an excellently crafted, excellently delivered joke that finally highlighted the upside to all those Jewish mother stereotypes and made me laugh in a way that few Jewish mom jokes can.

Silverman herself is not a mother, but her love for mothers, Jewish and otherwise, has long been apparent — and not just when she’s wearing a shirt that says “Love your mother,” as she does in this new special. She shared a beautiful tribute to her own mom, Beth Ann O’Hara, when she died in 2015, and more recently to her step-mom, Janice, who died just a week before her father, Donald Silverman, died, earlier this month (“Someone You Love” is dedicated to Janice and Donald). It’s clear that Silverman has felt that bananas love from all of the mother figures in her life. If anyone’s going to perpetuate stereotypes about Jewish moms, let it be our kvelling, and not our kvetching, for once.

After watching the opening, I ran downstairs — far away from the sick bed — to watch the rest of the special, and I’m so glad I did. And in truly perfect timing, my daughter woke up from her nap as soon as it was over. Because she’s the best.

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