Actress-comedian Judy Gold kicks off her new one-woman show, “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” with a question put to her by her own smothering Jewish mom. Gold plays an answering machine message in which the senior Gold — always quick to assume the worst — asks Judy, who is in her 40s, if the reason she has not picked up the phone is that she’s fallen and hurt herself. And this is no isolated incident: When Gold was a teenager, her mother sent her to school attached to a ticking egg timer to ensure that her daughter made it home on time.
Gold delves deeply into the realm of the Jewish mother in her new show, which debuted at the Montreal Comedy Festival last summer and will be playing at New York’s Ars Nova Theater through February 12. In assembling the piece, Gold drew not only from her own experience as the daughter of a Jewish mother, but also from her experience as the mother of two sons. Together with playwright Kate Moira Ryan, over the course of the past five years Gold traversed the country, interviewing more than 50 Jewish women of varying ages, ethnicities and religious backgrounds. In “25 Questions,” she intersperses bits based on her own experience with meticulously crafted re-creations of the women whom she has interviewed.
Early in her show, Gold mentions twice how one of its sources of inspiration was an interview she did some time ago with… the Forward. She told how, both in person and in print, a Forward reporter took her to task for reinforcing Jewish mother stereotypes. (A semi-thorough search of the Forward archives yielded no evidence of such a charge. Asked if she remembered who the reporter was, Gold said she did not.) But whatever its source, Gold took the critique to heart.
And it shows. Gold’s play offers a textured and nuanced discussion of Jewish motherhood — one that’s played not just for laughs. An out lesbian, Gold is deadly serious when she discusses how hurtful her mother has been to her at times, because of her “lifestyle.” But while her play may have its serious side, Gold has not dissociated herself from Jewish mother jokes altogether. It’s just that now they have a 21st-century edge. Her boys must suffer twice over, she deadpans; they have two Jewish mothers.
A native of the sleepy suburb of Clark, N.J., Gold recalls life there as the child of a tax lawyer and a homemaker who stressed education, religion and hard work. The 6-foot-3-inch Gold describes the loneliness of being an overly tall high school student coming to grips with her sexuality. But what sets her show apart from recent “me”-driven Broadway extravaganzas like Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays” is the fieldwork she and Ryan did and the poignant portraits to which it has led — whether of an Orthodox mother whose son died of AIDS, or of a first-generation Chinese immigrant who converts to Judaism for the sake of her Jewish husband.
Asked if she had anything she’d like to say to the Forward reporter who allegedly challenged her for trafficking in Jewish mother stereotypes lo those many years ago, Gold gamely said, “Thank you.”