Leah Forster is the Orthodox world’s favorite lesbian Jewish comedian.
Admittedly, there’s not much competition for that title. But for nearly a decade, Forster was one of the most popular entertainers in the community, until she walked away from the business and her strict ultra-observant lifestyle. Now she’s making a comeback in both the religious and secular worlds — but some ultra-Orthodox rabbis are trying to stop her.
After news broke that religious leaders had threatened to pull the kosher certifications from two different Brooklyn restaurants that had offered to host her New Years’ Eve show, Forster has been on the cover of the New York Daily News and interviewed by NBC and CBS.
The secular media is captivated by tales of formerly ultra-Orthodox people who go “off the derech” and reject Judaism entirely — just look at the success of the Netflix documentary “One of Us,” or observe the frequency of such stories in The New York Times.
But Forster’s story is more complicated — and interesting — than what typically makes the news. She’s chosen to embrace many elements of her community and her past even as she’s rejected others. She’s trying to live in two worlds at once, and mostly succeeding, despite some pushback.
“I separate the good Jews from the bad people,” she said. “The majority of Jews are good and kind and genuine. And some take God’s message in their own hands. It’s always those extreme, ultra-ultra-Orthodox who ruin it for the rest of the good Jews.”
Forster, 36, grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park, which has a large religious Jewish community. Her family didn’t belong to a specific sect but was certainly highly observant — Forster says her father wore a shtreimel, the fur hat often worn by many Haredi Jews.
Forster says she was always funny growing up and loved performing in high school plays — “pizza and making people laugh, I could live on that alone,” she said. She got her start in comedy as an adult in 2006, after one of her fellow teachers at the all-girls’ school where they both worked asked her to perform for a few minutes at a private party. From there, she was asked to do voice-over work to promote a local charity, and the producer then recommended she put out an album of songs and skits.
The album sold well, and her career blossomed from there: “I was busy maybe every single night in the week, sometimes,” she said.
Forster was entrenched in a very religious community at this time. She was married, had a daughter, and wore the right “uniform” — a wig, modest clothes. And she only performed in front of women to avoid violating strictures against men hearing female singing. But she started to feel increasingly uncomfortable with her success as a performer for her community.
“I didn’t feel like I was being authentic,” she said. “I was being hired under the premise I was something, and I knew that wasn’t who I was.”
She knew she was gay, and she also privately watched movies and television, actions that her rabbis would have condemned. In 2014, she decided to stop performing altogether after a farewell tour.
“The more you start living that double life, it sort of starts making you into a really unhealthy person,” she continued. “You’re disassociating, you have two separate identities. I just wasn’t happy. I was in the highlight of my career, running out every night to make people laugh, and inside I felt like the life I was pretending to live didn’t match with who I was inside.”
She was publicly outed four years ago, at the same time she was in the process of divorcing her husband and moving her daughter to a less strict Jewish day school. She was fired from her teaching position within a day.
But she now considers her experience a blessing in disguise.
“As corny as it sounds, I feel like God loves me. Things happened to me, but he really sent me great things at the time to help me get through it,” she said. “Great friends — my religious friends stood by me the whole time. I fell into another career that is really successful” — running a home health aide business — “and my daughter is happy at her new school. A year later, I looked back at the last year, and I was like, ‘Whoa, I lost everything and I gained so much.’”
But to her surprise, her Orthodox fans begged her to return to performing. For a while, she resisted, telling herself that she couldn’t have that “authenticity” while also performing in religious circles.
Then, about a year and a half ago, Forster started an Instagram account and posted jokes and videos, and her following — both old fans and new ones — exploded. She now has 23,500 followers.
Her account is set on private, so only people who choose to follow her will see her routines and hear her voice. Forster says many of her followers come from communities that ban social media and so send her messages privately because they can’t be spotted commenting on her videos.
Some of her Jewish-specific videos poke fun at Orthodox community foibles like pushy matchmakers, putting on a variety of accents to mock the impossible standards for brides-to-be.
Two months ago, a follower who happened to be the CEO of an Orthodox Jewish charity asked her to perform at their function. She said she would as long as she could “come as myself” and wouldn’t have to wear a wig. They agreed, she was a hit, and within 24 hours she had multiple offers for new gigs for both Jewish and secular functions, including at renowned New York venues like the Comedy Cellar.
“My mother-in-law and I did agree on something. We both thought that my husband should have married another woman,” she says in one video. “After all, she did tell me, ‘Leah, remove the stresses from your life.’ And I was like, ‘All right, I guess I’ll get divorced.’”
Forster never mentions her sexuality in her routines. She stresses that she loves and values the Jewish world, including the strict community she grew up in. “I value Shabbos, I keep kosher, I fast when you fast,” she said in one of her videos.
But the fact that she is a lesbian was apparently too much for rabbis in Flatbush and Borough Park, who threatened restaurant owners with revoking their kosher licenses if Forster performed there.
“(The rabbi) said that you’re a lesbian, and you represent that, and we can’t let this go on,” a Flatbush restaurant owner told Forster in a phone call that she recorded and shared with the Daily News. (The Vaad Harabanim of Flatbush said in a statement on Wednesday, “At no time did the Vaad, or any representative of the Vaad, threaten to remove the Vaad’s kashrus certification [i.e., its “religious stamp of approval”] because of the sexual orientation of a performer at a supervised restaurant.”)
“I feel really bad. I really wanted to work it out,” another restaurant owner in Borough Park told the Daily News. “I need to have the rabbi’s certificate,” she added. “If I don’t have (it) I have nothing.”
Forster and her friend Adina Miles, the Orthodox Instagram influencer who will MC her show, announced on Instagram on Tuesday that they had booked a third location, but said they couldn’t yet reveal its name or location.
Forster stressed to the Forward that she has no ill will towards the restaurant owners that cancelled on her, calling them “victims” who “tried their best.”
“This is also not all the communities,” she said. “There’s one sect in the ultra-Orthodox community that’s not okay. I was hired to perform for Modern Orthodox communities and people didn’t care.”
She doesn’t think this controversy, which included broadcasting the fact of her sexuality that many potential audience members consider sinful, will affect her ability to book future events in most corners of the Jewish community, even among Modern Orthodox Jews. “It will only affect me in ultra-Orthodox circles,” she predicted.
Forster says she’s still committed to performing for Jewish audiences.
“If they don’t have a problem with me, I don’t have a problem with them,” she said. “If you’re cool with me as me, I’m cool with you as you.”