November 15, 2007
My sister Sarah
I live in Israel, seven hours ahead of New York. Last week, when my sister Sarah Silverman performed in Manhattan at Carnegie Hall, I opened my eyes every hour or two, and counted backwards. The last time I woke it was 2 a.m. Hmmm... 7 p.m. in New York. She must be doing a sound check. Or maybe getting dressed. I could picture her outfit, because before I went to bed we spoke on the phone, and she e-mailed me a picture. Did I think it was too casual? |
My husband and I live with our five children on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Desert -- where biblical prophets spoke out against the sins and hypocrisies of the time. As I lay in my little house under the expansive black sky dotted with bright stars, Sarah prepared to stand under bright lights in front of thousands of people at Carnegie Hall. As I slept in the desert, my baby sister was on a stage. Such distance. Such contrast. Yet our connection to one another runs deep. For me, these are moments of God. Two seemingly opposing realities -- separation and intimacy -- co-existing, each fully.
There are many times each week that I think about what my three sisters are doing. I count backwards and imagine where they are at the moment. I'm on kitchen duty -- pulling clean plates off the dishwasher belt after dinner in the dining hall, stacking them as quickly as I can. Counting backwards 10 hours to Los Angeles. Maybe all three are having breakfast at Kings Road Cafe? Maybe Laura, an actress, and Sarah are on the set. Maybe Jodyne, a writer and producer, is at Starbucks, writing on her Mac laptop. I'm watching my preschoolers learning Israeli dances, my heart filled to bursting. Count back 10 hours ... 11 p.m. Maybe they're going to sleep. Maybe out with friends.
When our daily lives somehow intersect -- phone, e-mail, Skype -- I am happy. Lately, I've heard my sisters' names spoken in my workplace here, on Ketura. Sarah and Laura are hosting a fundraiser for The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies -- which is on our kibbutz -- and where my office is located. The institute brings together Palestinian, Jordanian, Israeli, North American and other students for a year of study in order to meaningfully address the most pressing issues of our time -- peace and the environment. It is a place, in this desert of prophets, from which voices still speak out against the abuses of our time. My sisters share these concerns, so I asked Sarah to do a fundraiser. Of course she said yes. She might be famous, but I'm still the oldest and, as our parents say, "head sister." We are very hierarchical that way. To this day, when we ride in cars together, none of my sisters would ever sit up front instead of me.
Sarah asked the whole cast to participate -- which includes our sister Laura -- and, in addition, Roseanne Barr. A fundraiser was born! I am proud of their professional success, but most proud of their goodness. They're mensches.
"Bitch, bastard, damn, s--t." Okay, her menschiness has never taken a traditional form. But the crowds roared. The performer was 2-year-old Sarah. The stage was our living room. The set was our father's lap on one of our giant round sponges -- 1970s artsy chairs -- in orange and beige stripes, upon the bright green carpet of our living room. The audience was our house full of volunteers for the 1972 McGovern presidential campaign, home at the end of a long day before the general election.
Sarah's ear-length, jet-black hair and pale skin emphasized her big brown eyes, and she smiled so that every tiny tooth sparkled. Who wouldn't laugh when this beautiful toddler -- all eyes and smiles -- swore like a longshoreman? A recipe for success? Our mother didn't seem to think so. She rolled her eyes in mock disapproval as our father beamed. We, her big sisters, couldn't believe our luck -- this juxtaposition of adorable and crude. It was genius. We couldn't get enough of it.
We had her perform for everyone. At large family gatherings, our Nana would say, "don't let her say that," but stood -- transfixed, smiling -- like the rest of us. Nana didn't always love what came out of Sarah's mouth and knew exactly whom to lay into when she went "too far" -- her son, our father. One Saturday afternoon, Sarah sat in the family room, tush on heels, her elbows leaning on the yellow plastic coffee table. Nana stood in the doorway and said, "Sarah, what are you coloring?"
Sarah (focused on her work): "A house."
Nana: "Guess what? I brought some brownies for you."
Sarah (still focused on her work): "Shove 'em up your a--, Nana."
Throughout the years Laura, Jodyne and I loved to make Sarah perform. Even when she was a preteen she was the size of a 9-year-old, so the juxtaposition of cute and inappropriate still worked. A long-time favorite was "Time Warp" from the "Rocky Horror Picture Show": "...and do the pelvic thru-ust, until it drives you insay-ay-ay-ay-ane. Let's do the time warp again,..." One night, the four of us performed it as a sister act at the local White Horse Tavern. The audience -- rural New Hampshire diners out for an evening -- stared in, well, horror.
We didn't care. Then, like now, our favorite audience is ourselves. When all four sisters are together, we lie on our mother's bed, with our mother, Beth Ann O'Hara, and stepmother, Janice Silverman, and talk and laugh. The fathers (Donald and our step-father, John) wander in and out, impatient for us to come into the living room with them and the grandchildren (my kids), but we want girl time. We want to laugh in the way we only laugh with each other. Now my older daughters, Aliza and Hallel, pile on as well. It makes us all happy that a third generation is growing to laugh with us.
As kids we were more likely to sing at the White Horse Tavern than in synagogue. We did not have a religious upbringing, and my parents and sisters still marvel at my having become a rabbi. We sisters associated being Jewish with being liberal. That's how the lines were drawn in our New Hampshire culture: Christians celebrate Christmas and vote Republican. Jews celebrate Chanukah and vote Democratic. Liberal values and arts replaced synagogue life. (Most years we joined the Reform Temple but very rarely went, except when my father was social action chair.) The soundtracks of our ranch house -- on a quiet street in the middle and upper middle class North End of Manchester, N.H. --were the records "Pearlie," "Godspell" and "Hair." Our father, a retailer, was a social worker by training and would one day return to it. Our mother, McGovern's personal campaign photographer, later founded New Thalian Players -- a theatre company in Manchester.
Thus we lived anachronistically. It was this worldview that Sarah brought to "Saturday Night Live" when she was only 21. Her big debut was a report on "Weekend Update" in which she recounted the news of her life. This included the now classic joke about me: "My sister Susie got married and they took each other's names, you know? So now she's Susan Silverman-Abramowitz. But they're thinking of shortening it to just 'Jews.'" Silence, then a strong, but evidently uneasy laughter followed. Oh, the days when that caused discomfort. Now her talk is more shocking than that at a bat mitzvah. Let me explain.
After our oldest daughter, Aliza, read and interpreted Torah before her family and community, my sisters -- her aunties -- each stood at the microphone to speak to her. They had all attended her birth, and Sarah described it in detail -- only leaving out the part in which she, Sarah, passed out cold. (Out of the corner of her eye, the doctor noticed that Sarah had turned green, and called out, "She's going down. Somebody grab her." Laura caught her.) Sarah put her arm around her bespectacled niece and said, "When you were born, Aliza, I watched your head come out ... [she went on with some detail, but I will leave that to your imagination] and I thought, "Where did she get those little glasses? With such tiny windshield wipers?" I'm not sure the word vagina had ever before been used -- at least as many times -- in addressing a bat mitzvah on the bimah. I was mortified. And tickled.
It is to Sarah's credit that she makes it to so many family events. She is a hesitant traveler -- to the point where she flew all seven of us to the United States so she didn't have to come to Israel in order to see us. Laura and Jodyne are both coming this year -- Laura for the third time and Jodyne for the second. We hope to persuade Sarah and her boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel to come. But they make appearances in other ways. An obscenely giant box arrived -- as I was writing this! -- full of Chanukah presents for the kids. A gift arrived at the hospital for our son, Zamir, within hours of our arrival, after he suddenly lost his hearing. (He had a progressive hearing loss and will now hear with the assistance of technology.)
Despite not having been here, Sarah is concerned about Israel -- both its well-being and its behavior as a moral actor on the world stage. Recently Sarah e-mailed and asked what Yosef (my husband) and I were doing to make sure Sudanese refugees found sanctuary here. I wrote back with a list of what Israeli organizations were doing on behalf of the refugees here, and how Yosef was involved. I also reminded her not to be too hard on Israel -- Sudan is an enemy state and terrorism is a very real threat, so if Israel is hesitant and cautious, it's understandable. There is a tension between the government's job to protect the nation and the popular desire to take in refugees. The latter urge should, and I believe will, prevail, but the former cannot be ignored.
Sarah wrote back, impressed at all Israel was doing to give safety to refugees (a small example: two Sudanese families live on our kibbutz, and other kibbutzim have welcomed many such families) and said, "God, the U.S. is freaking out over Mexicans -- and all they want to do is clean our houses."
It is fitting that Sudanese seeking refuge live on Ketura, home to the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where people of many cultures call upon humanity -- like the biblical prophets did on this same land so long ago -- to make the earth a sanctuary for all life. And I am proud to say that at their benefit for the Arava Institute my sisters Sarah and Laura will use obscenity, racism and sexism to proclaim this conviction. Like the ancient prophets did. Sort of.
Rabbi Susan Silverman lives with her family on Kibbutz Ketura. She is the co-author, with her husband, Yosef Abramowitz, of "Jewish Family & Life, Traditions, Holidays and Values for Today's Parents and Children" (Golden Books and St. Martin's Press). She is currently at work on a memoir and theology of adoption called "Blessed Are They Who Dwell in Your House." Her office is located in the Arava Institute's building.
Sarah Silverman, the cast of her Comedy Central TV series "The Sarah Silverman Program," including sister Laura, and Roseanne Barr will star in a live benefit performance, "Comedy Without Borders," on Thursday, Nov. 29, at 8 p.m. at Bovard Auditorium at USC. For more information, call (877) 725-8849.
The Silverman-Abramovitz bat mitzvah album: From left, sisters Susan, Jodyne and Laura Silverman; the bat mitzvah Aliza Abramovitz; her aunt Sarah; and Yosef Abramovitz. The Abramovitz children in front are, from left, Zamir, Ashira, Hallel and Adar.
Ashira, aged 4, blows a balloon for aunts Laura (l) and Sarah.
The Silverman sisters: (top) Susan, Sarah (front), Jodyne, Laura (w/ arm around Jodyne) circa 1979 in Bedford, N.H.
Sarah Silverman at the Arava Institute benefit show 11/27/2007