Henny Youngman had his wife, Sadie Cohen; Phyllis Diller has her husband, “Fang,” and Judy Gold has her mother, Ruth. Gold’s nervous and oft-negative mom provides consistent fodder for the stand-up comedian’s act. “She is constantly calling and asking me, ‘Where are my residuals?’” Gold said. In her one-woman show “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” which closed in March, Gold delved beyond one-liners and stereotypes to explore what makes a mother born of the tribe unique.
But the story didn’t end there. This month, Hyperion will publish a companion book to the off-Broadway play, just in time for Mother’s Day.
Gold and co-author Kate Moira Ryan spent six years interviewing 50 Jewish mothers of varied denominations. Questions ranged from the practical (“Are you kosher?”) to the deeply personal (“What’s your biggest regret?”) to the silly (“Who is your favorite Jewish-woman famous person?”) to the philosophical (“What is God to you?”). That last question sparked the original title of the play, “God Doesn’t Pay Rent Here” (for marketing purposes, the title was later changed by producers). An interview with one Modern Orthodox woman revealed that her gay son had died of AIDS. When asked how the tragedy had affected her faith, she responded: “I’m kind of mad at him — God, that is. But that’s okay. Because this is my house and I’m allowed to be angry. You have to understand one thing: God may live here, but he doesn’t pay the rent.”
Many other interviews show women asserting themselves in the face of divine providence. In fact, a good number of those interviewed showed strength when challenged with all kinds of adversity — from disconnected mothers to catty suburban neighbors to Nazis.
While conducting the interviews, Gold and Ryan noticed that family members would often peer in to hear snippets. “Not only were these women being asked about their lives for the first time,” Gold writes, “but their husbands were also hearing what they had to say for the first time. And it wasn’t only the husbands.”
Gold and Ryan’s post-performance goal is to keep these lines of communication open. They’ve included questions at the end of the book that are aimed at facilitating readers’ conversations with their own relatives.
“This project is about getting strength from other women’s stories,” Ryan said. “Women get a lot of support from hearing each other’s stories.”
For Gold, support was the ever-elusive component of her relationship with her mom. An openly gay mother of two, the comedian describes herself as “equally Jewish and gay,” and much of her book focuses on her struggle to feel accepted by her more traditional mom.
“If we could prevent one gay child from being rejected, then we’ve done our job,” said Ryan, who is also a lesbian. Gold was surprised at how well Orthodox women responded to her being openly gay (she was pregnant with her second son during the interview process). In fact, it was these religious women with whom Gold identified the most. “It stunned me at first, and then it made sense,” she writes. “They went to shul. I went to shul. They kept a kosher home; so did I. They were imparting Jewish values and education to their children; so was I.”
If everything goes according to plan, Gold and Ryan’s conversations won’t end with the off-Broadway play, the book or even their upcoming cross-country tour. “We’d like to do a similar series with non-Jewish mothers, and even fathers,” Gold said. “Though, if all the jokes about Jewish men are true, they won’t talk.”
But if her projects have proved anything, it’s that jokes are just the beginning.
Lucy Cohen Blatter is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.