NEW YORK — One of the biggest entertainment stories out of 2017 was the “where did she come from?” appearance of Tiffany Haddish in the raunchy comedy “Girls Trip.” Starring opposite Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall and Queen Latifah, Haddish stole the show from her better known co-stars as the outrageous, loose canon friend.
Haddish had been kicking around the comedy world and doing guest shots on television programs for some time, but this role got her the spotlight she deserved. She was voted Best Supporting Actress by the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle, a rarity for a comedic performance, and ultimately far more impressive than an Oscar (because it is a group that I vote in).
Since then she’s hosted “Saturday Night Live,” co-headlined with Kevin Hart in the very successful comedy “Night School” and brought back the show “Kids Say The Darndest Things.” She also published a memoir, which revealed a lot about her very troubled upbringing.
As the child, her stepfather tried to kill her mother by tampering with the breaks of her car, and the resulting accident gave her mother severe brain damage. Haddish then spent much of her childhood in and out of foster care, then had multiple stints of homelessness.
As a teen she met her biological father, an Eritrean Jew who was living in Los Angeles for a while but went back to his home country when she was three years old. At the same time she started working in comedy clubs and other entertainment jobs. Ironically enough, one of her early gigs was working as part of the party team at bar and bat mitzvahs in Los Angeles. (In a further twist, she and “Kids Say” producer Eric Schotz later realized she helped rev up the crowd at two of his kids’ celebrations. They’ve got pics to prove it.)
In recent years, though, Haddish has gotten more interested in exploring her Jewish heritage. She started learning Hebrew and preparing for a bat mitzvah of her own. Indeed, she plans to answer the call to Torah this December 3, her 40th birthday, which just so happens to coincide with the release of her latest comedy special on Netflix, “Black Mitzvah.”
While Haddish is one of the busiest women in show business, she took a few moments just days before her big event to speak with The Times of Israel over the phone. Below is an edited transcript.
On behalf of The Times of Israel allow me to say mazel tov on your forthcoming bat mitzvah.
Thank you, thank you.
And it’s happening on your 40th birthday, which is the day your special is coming out, correct?
Originally the special was going to come out in September, but they held it up, so I said “well you do it on my birthday and my mitzvah then it will make all the sense in the world! And it will also be my [laughing] gift to the world! Everyone gets to come to the party!”
You mention in the special that learning Hebrew isn’t too easy. Is there a specific Hebrew phrase that you really like, just maybe the sound?
[Tiffany commences singing in a cantorial voice] Aaaaaa-lef!
You have a favorite Hebrew letter?
I like “shin.”
Zayin. [Hebrew slang for penis.]
And another one I always mess up that’s like my favorite one.
I get it.
Samech! And I like the way they sing Elohim [Hebrew for God]. [Tiffany breathes in like she is about to sing, then stops herself.] No, I am not going to sing it right now. I don’t want nobody judging me. You can judge me on the day! But my teacher says I’m doing really well. My cantor also says that compared to kids who grow up in it and learn at 13, I’m doing it just as well. Maybe it has something to do with all the bat mitzvahs that I’ve been to.
That’s an amazing thing, that you used to work them as an entertainer.
Yep, and then when I met my dad and he told me about his Jewish background. He explained how it was illegal at the time in his country, Eritrea, and how he left. And that’s why there are so many Eritrean Jews in Israel now; the  war [of independence] there really changed things.
A bat mitzvah is something I’ve always wanted to do but didn’t know if I could. Would I be allowed, even? Then I did the DNA test and realized it was only right, it’s all in alignment. Gotta do it.
There’s a quote from the Book of Joshua. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged.” Translate that to today, this sounds like your war cry: She ready!
Correct. So correct. Hello! I am not afraid, I am courageous. I am just follow the signs.
When did you come up with “She ready”?
When I was 17 or so, my cousins and I would go out dancing or whatever. And when someone would come out of the house and if they looked cute, we’d shout “She ready!!!” But if you came out and weren’t looking cute: “She not ready! Go back inside and start over!” Never let nobody go out lookin’ crazy!
But then we’d use it for anything. If someone got a new job. “I got a job working at the airline.” “That’s right, She ready!” We would always say it, but eventually my cousins gave up on it. But I never did. I loved hearing it and it made me feel good, like I could do anything.
It’s my mantra. I have to be ready. And as I am studying the Torah it is a lot of preparation. Being ready for whatever may come. Being ready for what evils may attack and having strong faith. It all comes from being prepared and knowing where you are going.
But even if you don’t know where you are going, if you know who you are, it gets you ready. You will be ready.
At the beginning of the show — after you sing “Hava Nagilah” — you tell the audience that you are a teacher. I’m wondering, “What is Tiffany going to teach me?” and, well, there’s the story of your, um, home remedy involving mayonnaise applied to a sensitive body part. Some of the things you say are just far too specific to ever be made up.
When I was crafting this I did wonder, “Is this too much information?” But I said no, because I was a young girl, this happened to me, so I must imagine there are other women out there with stories like this, too. And maybe they feel they can’t share it because someone will make fun of them, or not love them. But we have to share our mistakes! That goes to the Torah, to spread learning. You must know your history, then you can avoid mistakes.
When you look at things under a microscope it’s just crazy!
So this was was a case where I was listening to my stupid friends instead of talking to an adult. And my friends didn’t know nothin’, just like I didn’t know nothin’! She gave me hearsay. Hearsay is how you mess up. And next thing you know, you have mayonnaise on your vagina!
It’s a common thread of your stories: details. You discuss how, after years of hardship, you finally got a little money, and the first thing you ended up buying was a microscope. Not a car or anything. This has to be true, because who would make up such a thing?
I’m still looking at germs. When I’m out and about and if I come across something that might be interesting I put it in a little baggie and put it in the fridge, then take it home to look at it under the microscope.
When you look at things under a microscope it’s just crazy! All the bacteria and germs, how things are shaped — skin, hair, dust, mucus! God made all of this, right? When I got my microscope I did not sleep for three days straight because I just in complete amazement to see just whatever was on my knees!
If I ever catch a cold I love to inspect a tissue and try to find “what infected me this time?” And I don’t make out with a guy right away. I need to look at their saliva in my microscope.
So you’ve got the really small stuff, do you think you may also gain an interest in telescopes to see very big things?
Ehhhhhh, I feel like looking at the heavens and the universe, there’s not a lot of change there.
I’m much more interested in looking at germs. They are always evolving. I want to learn. Hey, who knows, I may find some cures! Maybe I’ll find the cure for cancer or get rid of eczema. Who knows?
Okay important question, because you mentioned dating. As you are about to have your bat mitzvah, can you tell me who the most handsome Jewish men are out there?
Look, I have been watching, and there are some out there. But I haven’t seen any that are not married, and I will not covet! I will not! I will not look at somebody’s husband and think, “Ooh, he fine!” At least, not knowingly.
I’m working to be a grown, mature woman, so I’ll do what a mature woman does and go on J-Date and look for mature single Jewish guys
I’m working to be a grown, mature woman, so I’ll do what a mature woman does and go on J-Date and look for mature single Jewish guys.
Fair enough. I’d have said Paul Rudd, but nobody is asking me.
Paul is married!
You traveled to Eritrea, do you think you will visit Israel?
Yes, definitely. It’s on my list for next year and I’m excited to see all the landmarks, see things from the Torah and experience the people. I feel like my soul will evolve even more.
When I went to Eritrea it made me feel like a complete human being for the first time, really grounded in my roots. So, wow, going to Israel?
I’ve been doing a program I found on YouTube called “Learn Hebrew In Your Sleep.” Eight hours that plays while you sleep. So I wake up and I think I might be thinking in Hebrew. I ask my teacher, “Why am I thinking this phrase?” so it’s sinking in. I’d be excited to go there and have people to talk to.
In the United States there are not a lot of extremely well-known celebrities who are black and Jewish. It’s been a long time since Sammy Davis, Jr. Are you prepared to help, perhaps, two minorities that sometimes don’t always get along?
Yes, but I don’t think that the communities don’t get along, I think it’s that the communities are so separated they don’t even know one another. The Jewish women I know, as soon as we met we clicked. And when they met my friends everything clicked. But we live segregated, really.
I would love to help bring people together. I feel like that’s what my comedy shows are for.
Bagels? I thought they were a black thing!
Are there things you’ve discovered while meeting Jewish people and realized “Hey, I did the same thing growing up?”
All the time. So many things. Bagels? I thought they were a black thing!
It’s a busy time for you. You’ve got the special, you’ve got the film “Like A Boss” with Rose Byrne out early next year. When they put me through on the phone they said you were at the studio finishing something up.
That’s a [Netflix series] called “Madam C.J. Walker” about the first female who was a self-made millionaire in America, who also happened to be black.
For quite some time there have been rumors about writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson creating a project for you. Any truth there?
We talk about it. I would love to do something. Love to. You know what? Yes. Yes, there is truth to that. I am going to manifest it right now. That’s going to happen. We talk about it all the time. We say “what if we do this, what if we do that” and then he sends me a bunch of books on a certain subject and then I send him a bunch of books. We are crafting something. It’s going to happen. That baby will be born.
And I also want to do something with Billy Crystal. He’s going to do the aliyah at my bat mitzvah.
Yep, Billy Crystal’s coming. He just took me to his temple, the one where he grew up in Brooklyn. It’s been there for over 100 years. It was so cool.
Which other important Jews are going to be at your event?
All the network executives! Every studio executive!
Good, get them watching.
Also Sarah Silverman will be there, and Chelsea Handler. I hope it is going to be a good time.
“Black Mitzvah” is streaming on Netflix starting December 3.