Seeing the Holy in the Profanities

Susan Silverman gives rabbinic interpretation to her comic sister's act

Most rabbis probably don't think too highly of Sarah Silverman, the foulmouthed, American-Jewish comic who makes a point of being as racist, sexist and generally as politically incorrect as possible. Not so Rabbi Susan Silverman, who says she is "immensely proud" of the controversial comedienne - who in one of her famous lines says she was raped by a doctor, "which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl." Sarah Silverman's dirty jokes, says the rabbi - who happens to be her older sister - are actually serving a holy purpose, at least as much as a rabbi's sermons.

"The truth is that I really think of Sarah - you might laugh but I'm actually not joking - as like a biblical prophet," the 47-year-old Reform rabbi told Haaretz last week in Jerusalem, where she lives with her husband and their five children. "Sarah's really calling out the ills of society. She's saying: I'm not interested in your rituals, in what you pray and what you say. I'm interested in the fact that we live in this really racist society, that we live in this really violent world. She's interested in the [same] things that God actually is interested in."

The comic's shtick and the rabbi's preaching are "very similar" in spirit, Rabbi Susan explains. Both spread an important message to improve the world; while she interprets Scripture, her sister provokes by breaking taboos.

"How many times are we told in the Bible not to mix meat and milk, two or three times?" Susan asks. "And look how much of our resources go into kashrut. [But] we're told some 30 times or more to care for the orphan and the stranger - where are our priorities? I feel Sarah does the same. She's really pointing out this crazy stuff. When she says that 9/11 was really tragic for her because it was the day she found out that there are 800 calories in a soy latte, she's saying something [about society]. We're spending a lot of energy and effort on our appearances - where are our priorities?"

Rabbi Susan, a likable woman who can hardly finish a sentence without emanating a jolly, heartfelt laugh, has just finished writing a book about the importance of adoption. She herself adopted two boys from Ethiopia and intends to dedicate her rabbinic career to encouraging the global Jewish community to put adoption on the top of their agendas.

The four Silverman sisters, who were born and raised in New Hampshire, are in constant contact, but Sarah, who at 39 is the youngest, is the only who has yet to visit the oldest sister in her apartment in Jerusalem's German Colony - or set foot in Israel. "I harass her about coming all the time," Susan says, but Sarah was always too busy with her popular TV series, "The Sarah Silverman Program."

This week, however, it was announced that Comedy Central, the network that produces the show, would not renew her contract for a fourth season. "Perhaps now I can get her to come," Susan said, adding that her sister hates travel and that it still might take her some serious convincing. Yet, Sarah is concerned about Israel, Susan wrote two years ago in a U.S.-Jewish newspaper, "both its well-being and its behavior as a moral actor on the world stage."

Currently, Sarah is touring the U.S. promoting her first book, "The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee," a bestseller in which the Emmy Award winner confesses having suffered from incontinence until she was 16. "I remember 17, but you know, it's her book," her sister said, bursting into a fit of laughter. "We're really close," she adds. "Sarah was like my baby. To this day, I call my kids Sarah sometimes. I look at my oldest daughter Aliza and call her Sarah."

Sarah's father taught her to amuse friends and family members by repeating obscenities before she could count to 10, Susan recalls. He could not have been more proud than when she learned to say "Bitch, bastard, damn, shit" - at age two. "Sarah's not the funny one, we're all really funny," Susan added. "At home she's not the comic; she's just one person in a funny family. Everyone is funny in my family."

Still, Susan has not followed her father's lead and does not make it a point to teach her children how to swear. She actually discourages the younger ones from watching "Auntie Sarah's show," as one recently requested. (Her older daughters, who are in their teens, freely watch the program, but she says they aren't really shocked anymore by its impropriety. )

Yet the rabbi herself doesn't smell of roses, either, when it comes to proper speech. Asked by Haaretz to provide a photo of the family for this article, she e-mailed her parents, copying this reporter: "Please send a picture of the four sisters. One in which I look good! I don't give a shit about how L[aura], J[odyne] and S[arah] look."

Having grown up in a completely secular family, Susan discovered religion while studying at Harvard.

"When I was getting my MA in multicultural education I realized I knew nothing about Judaism, which is my own culture. I got a little bit interested and then met Yosef at the end of college, and he was all Jew-y and interested in Judaism, so I decided to become a rabbi, completely randomly."

Her husband, Boston-born Yossi Abramowitz, was then a well-known Jewish campus activist and educator. Today he is the president of Arava Power, one of the country's leading solar energy companies. (Sarah, who on stage occasionally mentions her family in Israel, jokes that the Abramowitz-Silverman family should, for convenience's sake, just shorten their name to "Jews." )

"My family was just in shock," Silverman says about the day she revealed her plan to become a rabbi. "I think that every year I was in rabbinic school except for the last my stepmother Janice would say: 'Are you really going to go through with this?' In the beginning I thought I wasn't, I thought it was just some sort of kick that I was in rabbinic school. It was crazy but something was just right about it."

While Susan studied at Hebrew Union College in New York's Greenwich Village, Sarah - then an aspiring comic in her early twenties - joined her every other weekend for huge Shabbat dinners with friends. "It was half rabbinic students and half comics, it was just hysterical," Susan remembers. "You couldn't really tell who was who after a while; it was just so much fun... We would just laugh and laugh and laugh the entire night, laugh and drink and eat." These dinners were her first serious exposure to Jewish practice, she adds, as she had never really experienced the religion before. "The first time I really sat through High Holy Day services, I led them as a student rabbi."

Silverman was ordained in 1994 and served for a few years as a rabbi in Germantown, Maryland. But when she became pregnant with her second child she understood the busy life as a pulpit rabbi wasn't for her.

"It just wasn't how I wanted to prioritize my life, being a congregational rabbi. I liked it a lot, I had a good congregation and we were growing, but I realized when I was pregnant that I had to make a choice, that I wasn't going to be the kind of mother I wanted to be and stay in the congregational world." The family moved to Boston, where besides teaching part time and running a social action program at a local synagogue she concentrated on raising her family.

In 2006, the family moved to Kibbutz Ketura, in the Arava, and last year relocated to Jerusalem. But wherever she went, she says she never encountered complaints about her sister's controversial humor. Sticking to her point that Sarah's satirical humor is a crude but effective tool for social change, she even defends her jokes about the Holocaust (in one episode of her show, she juxtaposes the Holocaust and diarrhea, saying that "one of them happened. And one of them continues to happen." )

Indeed, the rabbi says she only felt "icky about a joke" once, when Sarah was belittling the legacy of Martin Luther King and claimed he liked to torture his family by passing gas in his car after rolling up the windows. "For some reason that just made me sad," Susan says. While perhaps disrespectful to survivors, Sarah's Holocaust jokes are less about the tragedy itself but "about how the Holocaust can be used," the rabbi says. "I think she also uses it to point out how atrocities become run of the mill."

Supportive like a big sister, Susan says she would only draw the line if Sarah ever said something that incited people to violence, which she would never do. "She really doesn't want to be hurtful. But she understands that there will be people who don't get what she's doing and will feel hurt as a consequence."

Laura, Sarah, Susan and Jodyne Silverman - Beth Ann O'hara
Beth Ann O'hara