Sarah Silverman shines at Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival
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Sarah Silverman shines at Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival

Controversial Jewish comedian in Israel to accept achievement award and celebrate nephew’s bar mitzvah

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Sarah Silverman, December 18, 2014. (photo credit: Nir Shaanani)
Sarah Silverman, December 18, 2014. (photo credit: Nir Shaanani)

Sarah Silverman and her raunchy brand of comedy lit up the Jerusalem Cinematheque as she made a special appearance at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival on Thursday evening, the third night of Hanukkah.

The provocative funnywoman accepted an achievement award from the festival for her contributions to film, television and new media, and also engaged in a freewheeling on-stage interview with Israeli comedic actress and TV host Einav Galili that followed a screening of her 2013 HBO special, “We Are Miracles.”

The standing-room-only audience, comprising mainly young people drinking beer from bottles, was clearly appreciative of Silverman and predisposed to her comedy, which involves an abundant use of expletives and tackles controversial topics like racism, sexism and religion.

With regard to the latter two topics, Silverman, dressed in skinny jeans and a puffy ski jacket, did not mince words in expressing her anger at discrimination against women at the Western Wall, where she had been earlier that evening. The comedian had joined her sister, Jerusalem resident Rabbi Susan Silverman, and other Women of the Wall activists for Hanukkah candle lighting at the Wall’s women’s section.

It was the first time that women had kindled Hanukkah lights at the Wall, and it was only possible for them to do so after Women of the Wall leaders lodged a complaint with police to gain access to the area with menorahs.

Sarah Silverman (second from right) joins Women of the Wall's Anat Hoffman, sisters Susan Silverman and Laura Silverman, and niece Ashira Abramowitz for Hanukkah candle lighting at the Western Wall, December 18, 2014. (photo credit: Story & Media / Daniel Shitrit)
Sarah Silverman (second from right) joins Women of the Wall’s Anat Hoffman (left), sisters Susan Silverman and Laura Silverman, and niece Ashira Abramowitz (right) for Hanukkah candle lighting at the Western Wall, December 18, 2014. (photo credit: Story&Media/Daniel Shitrit)

“I went to the Kotel with Women of the Wall today and we lit candles and sang Hanukkah songs,” Silverman told the audience, using the Hebrew name for the Western Wall.

“I can’t believe that’s a big deal.”

The outspoken Silverman expressed her outrage about what she perceives as discrimination against women at the holy site in general.

“It’s like, f*ck you! You’re perverts and so we have to wear unflattering length skirts?!” she said, apparently addressing Jewish religious male authority.

‘It’s like, f*ck you! You’re perverts and so we have to wear unflattering length skirts?!’

This is the 44-year-old Silverman’s second visit to Israel. She is currently in Jerusalem for her nephew Zamir’s bar mitzvah.

“He’s a man now. Well, at least a man who can’t wait to open presents,” she quipped.

In her conversation with Galili, Silverman gave the impression that she was at once comfortable and uncomfortable talking about herself and her creative process.

At the very least, she expects people to pay attention to her when she speaks from the stage. Annoyed with teenagers in the audience (even those in the front rows) constantly on their smartphones during the program, she reprimanded them.

Sarah Silverman (right) in conversation with Einav Galili at Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, September 18, 2014. (photo credit: Nir Shaanani)
Sarah Silverman (right) in conversation with Einav Galili at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, December 18, 2014. (photo credit: Nir Shaanani)

“Turn off your phones and have a life experience. You won’t remember that tweet you just sent, but you’ll remember this, because I’ve just scared you,” she told them.

“Go express yourself, but just not in front of me when I have a microphone.”

Silverman fielded questions from Galili and the audience about how her Jewish identity informs her comedy. Having grown up in New Hampshire in a family that was not at all religious, she said she nonetheless felt very Jewish. She labeled her upbringing as more “Jewy” and Democrat than Jewish, an American concept somewhat foreign to Israeli Jews.

“I think Jewish people are expressive,” she said. “Our guilt is famous, while Catholic guilt is torture.”

Silverman admitted that although she can come off as cynical, she is actually naive in some ways — especially when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

‘I know I am polarizing. I’m not for everybody… I like talking about things that are serious, dark, tragic and hard to process’

When she was in Israel for the first time three years ago, she did a couple of shows. At one performance in Tel Aviv, she asked if there were any Palestinians in the audience. There was no response.

“So, someone explained to me that Palestinians could come to see her perform, but they probably didn’t bother because it would mean spending, like, eight hours going through checkpoints,” she said.

In another example, she said she had had T-shirts printed up with the slogan, “Be brave and love each other,” in Hebrew and Arabic. She had several hundred made and had planned to send them over to Israel, but her boyfriend challenged the idea. (Silverman is currently in a relationship with British actor Michael Sheen, to whom she affectionately referred as Mr. Fancypants Sheen as she accepted an Emmy Award last August.)

“He was right. Like I’m this girl from LA who lives in a doorman building, and I’m going to tell people here to love each other?” she said.

“But, I kept the T-shirts anyway because they look good on my boobs,” she joked.

Sarah Silverman with Jerusalem Cinematheque founder Lia van Leer, September 18, 2014. (photo credit: Nir Shaanani)
Sarah Silverman with Jerusalem Cinematheque founder Lia van Leer, December 18, 2014. (photo credit: Nir Shaanani)

Asked about her relationship with the recently deceased Jewish comedian Joan Rivers, whom she knew personally, Silverman said that she adored her. She especially liked that Rivers used her age to her advantage and became even more hardcore as time went on.

While she doesn’t plan on undergoing plastic surgery like Rivers, she does want to keep doing comedy at least as long as Rivers did.

“I want to grow old this way, like Ruth Gordon and Joan Rivers,” added Silverman, who also commented about how hard the comedy business can become for women as they age.

‘I want to grow old this way, like Ruth Gordon and Joan Rivers’

“When you are a woman and old enough to have opinions, you are encouraged to crawl under a rock and die,” she claimed.

Silverman, of course, has no intention of doing any such thing.

“I know I am polarizing. I’m not for everybody… I like talking about things that are serious, dark, tragic and hard to process,” she explained.

“But I’m a comedian and I put it all into the light for people to see.”

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