Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women

Saratoga Jewish Community Arts, through a generous grant provided by the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, opens its 2019-2020 season on September 9, at 7 pm, at Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs with the film Making Trouble: Three generations of funny Jewish women, directed by Rachel Talbot and produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Have you heard about the subversive tradition of Jewish female comedians? While the predominance of Jews in American comedy is well known (one frequently cited statistic is that the minute proportion of Jews in the United States made up eighty percent of the comedy industry), Jewish women’s comedy has largely gone unnoticed, save for one or two essays in the 1980s and 1990s.

As Joan Rivers was known to say, “Most girls, when they’re young, realize that they don’t get attention for being funny. Girls want to be pretty or sexy. Funny isn’t sexy. Comedy isn’t sexy. Stand-up comedy is a very masculine form. You’re taking an audience and dominating them. You’re like a ringmaster in a lion’s den. You have to be very strong.” 

There has been a veritable tradition for well over one hundred years of Jewish women delivering their distinctive humor onstage for approving audiences.  “They had chutzpah. They were brazen; they were brash, and they were bold,” says Jewish Community Arts Coordinator Phyllis Wang. From Yiddish Theater and film, to vaudeville and burlesque, to nightclubs, improve and stand-up clubs, radio, television, the Broadway stage, and Hollywood cinema, Jewish women have made us laugh in a myriad of performance venues. In each of these arenas, they challenged conventional modes of joking.  When they speak up, stand up, or even sit down, these women create humor by speaking through their Jewish sensibilities. 

Six women are profiled in the Jewish Women’s Archive’s documentary film, Making Trouble, that includes Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, and Wendy Wasserstein (who didn’t go on stage herself, but joins the other funny women in this film through her writing, creating a legacy of thought provoking, troublemaking female characters).

These women were subversive. Each in their own time pushed through societal boundaries to say something important about American culture. Not hiding their heritage was daring and important. These women brought their culture into the public eye, celebrating it without shame.  They gleefully violated the Jewish conception of feminine modesty. While their lips were sullied, they could corrupt, they could defile; they also shattered taboos and liberated their audiences.  Were these women just making trouble?Making Trouble will be shown on Monday, September 9, at 7 pm, at Temple Sinai, followed by a dessert reception and panel discussion. A $5 donation is requested.  For information and reservations, call 518- 584-8730 option 2

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