Leah Forster had last prayed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall 18 years ago. She had just graduated from high school and was still living the life of a Hasidic girl.
It was her first trip to Israel, and she had come to visit friends studying in a seminary for religious girls.
Looking back, she recalls a sense of disappointment that her first visit to the Jewish holy site had left her feeling cold. In fact, what she remembers most now is her sense of angst about what the future held. “I was like, ‘Crap, I’m coming home and I’ll probably have to get married to someone I don’t love.’”
A few days ago she paid her second visit to the Kotel, but this was an entirely different experience.
“There were tears streaming down my face when I walked in,” Forster, 36, tells Haaretz. “I was so grateful and so overwhelmed. I looked to the right of me, and there was this ultra-Hasidic lady. To the left there was an Ethiopian Jew, and behind me a woman in jeans. And it was just like we’re all one. I felt so connected and grateful.”
Another big difference — perhaps the most significant — was that this time she was accompanied by her wife (also called Leah).
A former ultra-Orthodox schoolteacher-turned-comedy sensation, Forster was in Israel this week for the ROI Summit — a convention held in Jerusalem every summer for young Jewish innovators from around the world. This annual gathering of Jewish movers and shakers is the flagship event of the ROI Community, an organization created and run by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network.
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In December, Forster found herself catapulted into the limelight when her photograph was splashed across the front page of the New York Daily News, the headline identifying her as a “Jewish lesbian comic.”
The popular tabloid reported that the Brooklyn kashrut supervisory board (the “Kosher Nostra”) was threatening to withdraw its certification from two local restaurants that were planning to host Forster’s comedy act — and all because of her sexual orientation. The kashrut authorities later denied issuing such threats, but by then the story had become national news.
It was actually the second time Forster had been outed (though the first time in the mainstream media). Five years earlier, just as her career was taking off, she was sighted at a gay club in New York. Within hours, a photo of her was posted on Facebook with the caption “Leah Forster — lesbian.”
It went viral, and her life was changed forever.
“Within a week, my community backed away from me,” she recounts in an interview during her stay in Jerusalem. “I lost my teaching job, my marriage was over, and my family severed all ties. My mother even sent me a text message saying I shouldn’t come to their funerals. It was like having a Band-Aid ripped off. I had to start my entire life all over again.” To this day, she is not in touch with her family.
Since she had mostly performed in the Orthodox community, Forster was convinced that her comedy career was finished. “And I was fine with that,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m giving certain things up, but that’s OK because I’m giving them up for things I like even more.’”
Out of a job, she founded her own — now very successful — home care company to pay the bills. But it was hard to wean herself off comedy completely, so she began posting funny little skits of herself on social media.
Before long, she had tens of thousands of followers and was getting invitations to perform again. “This time around, though, I decided that I’d be me: No more dress codes and no more curtailing my humor,” she says. It was only when it came to mentioning her sexuality that she drew the line. “It was out of respect for my parents and my community — I never shoved it in anyone’s face,” she adds.
But all that changed when her hardly discussed lesbianism was weaponized against her.
After Forster was notified in December that she was about to lose several gigs because of her sexuality, she decided it was time to fight back: “I’d come too far in my life by then, and I realized that if I kept quiet, what about all the other LGBTQ Jews out there being discriminated against unlawfully?”
If anything, this second outing has been a blessing for her career, she says. As proof, she cites recent bookings at some of New York’s top clubs, including the Comedy Cellar (“That one blew me away”) and Stand Up NY.
These days, she no longer needs to confine her act to the Orthodox Jewish circuit.
The Purim ‘clown’
The middle child and only girl among five siblings, Forster was born and raised in the ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn enclave of Borough Park. “There was no TV in the house, no internet, no movies and no secular music,” she relays.
But that wasn’t even considered extreme where she came from. “My mother actually drove and she only wore a sheitel — she didn’t wear a shpitzel [the head covering worn by especially vigilant married Hasidic women] on top of it,” she adds.
It was while attending a Bais Yaakov school (the educational network for religious girls) that Forster discovered her talent for making people laugh.
“I wanted to try out for the part of Queen Esther at the Purim play,” she relays, “but my teacher told me I had to be the Purim clown. ‘But there is no Purim clown,’ I told her. So she tells me, ‘We created the role just for you. Just be yourself.’”
She got married at 20 — relatively late in the Haredi community — to “a really lovely sweet guy,” as she describes her ex. “My parents were getting worried at that point, so they settled and allowed me to marry a guy who didn’t have a beard,” she says. Their first and only child, a daughter, was born a year later (she’s now 15), and Forster began teaching advanced English classes at a Bais Yaakov high school (she has a master’s degree in English from Long Island University) while performing private comedy gigs for women in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Like many wives and mothers in this community, she would spend her summers in a bungalow colony in the Catskill Mountains. The husbands, who typically worked in the city, would join their families on weekends.
It was during one such summer that Forster struck up a special relationship with another wife and began to question her sexuality. “This woman was married to a rabbi and had six kids,” she says, “and I started developing an emotional relationship with her. But I didn’t really know what I was feeling. You see, I never spoke to a boy before getting married, and sexuality was not something discussed in my community — let alone feeling attracted to other women.”
She shared her deep feelings for this woman with her husband, “but he never even felt threatened because it was a woman.”
An imperfect Shabbos
Her newfound love was perfectly happy to go on leading a double life, but Forster was not. “I began feeling like a failure and a hypocrite, so I started making the necessary changes to live a more authentic life,” she says. “I stopped covering my hair, I pulled my daughter out of her very religious school, and I started accepting engagements I would never have accepted before, in more modern communities. I was definitely trying to merge my two lives.”
The Facebook post that ended her 10-year marriage paved the way for the second chapter of her life. Her current spouse, whom she married in January in a civil ceremony, grew up in a Modern Orthodox home.
“Her parents are loving, accepting and wonderful people,” says Forster. The couple lives in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, together with Forster’s daughter. Her ex, with whom she enjoys a “beautiful co-parenting relationship,” has since left the Orthodox world.
Forster says she is not bitter or angry about being rejected by her own community. “I get that there’s a limited way of thinking, because I grew up that way so I understand it, though it doesn’t make things easier,” she reflects.
She doesn’t attend synagogue much these days but still identifies as Orthodox. “I do keep Shabbos and I do keep kosher,” she says. “Am I perfect? I probably don’t do Shabbos the way my parents did it.”
Does it bother her that many Orthodox Jews reject her way of life? “I don’t think of it that way,” she replies. “The way I see it is that God loves all of us. God created me, and I know this may sound cheesy but I don’t have a problem with who I am — and I don’t believe God does either.
“The problem is the community. Or rather, the people who believe I don’t belong because I am who I am,” she adds. “But I don’t really care too much about that. Let’s just say that those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”