We Are Family

03.31.14

Sarah and Susan Silverman: Comedian and Rabbi are Perfect Sisters

On the surface, it may raise an eyebrow that controversial comedian Sarah Silverman’s sister is a renowned rabbi. That is, until you get to know them.

At this point, there are few things that Sarah Silverman could say or do that would shock people. But mention that the consistently controversial—and consistently hilarious—comedian’s sister is one of the world’s most renowned and influential rabbis, and watch those who thought they’d seen or heard everything from the professional button-pusher react, once again, with surprise.

But learn more about Sarah’s sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman, and it becomes abundantly clear that even though “I’m godless and she’s godfull,” as Sarah puts it, audacity runs in the family.

Many siblings independently grow up to choose alternative careers that one won’t find in those “When I Grow Up” children’s books we all read as kids. But it’s still hard to deny the acute fascination over the fond relationship between Sarah, the comedian, and her sister Susan, the rabbi.

“I suppose it’s because our lives seem at the surface to be so polar opposite,” Sarah says. “But the truth is we both kinda … preach; and we both take in our surroundings and try to mirror it.” Speaking over Skype from her home in Israel—where she, her husband, and her five kids have lived since 2006—Susan agrees. At least about the preaching bit.

“I was just saying to a friend, it’s sort of like a Kardashian phenomenon,” she says. “Like I’m not exactly sure what all the attention’s about, but I feel like since I’m getting it, I should use it for good.”

The truth is that, even though the pairing of a comedian and rabbi sounds like beginning of a “walk into a bar…” joke, Sarah and Susan Silverman have much in common, beginning with the fact that both outspokenly champion the issues they’re most passionate about. When the sisters hit the stage at 2014 Women in the World Summit April 4 for a panel on how they chose such different paths and inspire one another, expect them to touch on just that.

Sarah, for example, brings her unblinking perspective and razor-sharp wit to more than just comedy. The stand-up mic has doubled as a megaphone for her, through which she has advocated for women’s issues—for example teaming with Daily Show creator Lizz Winstead to help raise funds for female reproductive rights. Then there were her efforts to galvanize, mobilize, and, ultimately maybe influence elderly voters in the 2008 and 2012 elections, “The Great Schlep” project.

“I really think of her as carrying on the prophetic tradition, of just pouring out truth and justice,” Susan says about her sister. “And she does it in a way that people want to hear.” Then, with a hearty laugh: “No one wanted to listen to the prophets.”

As for Susan, that “good” she refers to is working on behalf of the causes most meaningful to her: international adoption, religious pluralism, and on behalf of refugees, particularly those in Israel. Last year, she was arrested in Jerusalem for wearing a prayer shawl at the Western Wall, the city’s holiest site, protesting that women’s rights are too restrictive. And you thought Sarah was the controversial one.

Naturally, then, the sisters’ shared spirit of mischievous do-goodery—preaching without fear of four-letter words and a little controversy—comes from an upbringing that encouraged speaking one’s mind, making people laugh, and the necessity to use both as tools for enacting change.

Susan and Sarah grew up in Bedford, New Hampshire, two of Beth Ann and Donald Silverman’s four daughters. Seven and a half years separated Susan and Sarah, the youngest of the Silverman siblings. “She was my baby,” Susan says. “It took me years to stop calling my oldest daughter ‘Sarah.’ In all of our old pictures, you see me holding her. She’s still my baby.”

Susan thinks her decision to become a rabbi shocked the family more than Sarah’s decision to become a comedian.

They were raised, according to Susan, on good, liberal values, in an area of New Hampshire where those who shared liberal values were few and far between. “I remember as a kid that the only other Democrats I knew were the other Jews,” she says. “So I thought that being Jewish meant that you vote for George McGovern. Like, ‘We have Hanukkah and we vote for Democrats.’ That was the extent of my knowledge.”

Their parents, no surprise, were about as outspoken as their daughters have grown up to become.

“Our mom is a big brain—very passionate and opinionated,” says Sarah. “She always had buttons on her purse and her overalls (yes, overalls) that said stuff like ‘question authority’ and how the military should have a bake sale and schools should be funded, ‘We have met the enemy and they are US'—you know, that stuff.  And our Dad is also outspoken, very liberal, very funny.  He calls himself a reverse snob. He’ll heckle people: 'Nice Rolex. That could probably feed a whole town in India—but good for you. I love my Timex—it was $35 and it can go underwater!'”

She adds: “He’s been punched in the face thrice.” In other words, Susan and Sarah’s brazenness—not to mention that of their two sisters—is “a real combination of both our mom and dad.”

Sarah’s journey from precocious Bedford girl to celebrity activist is well-documented in her sharp but surprisingly moving autobiography, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee. There was the move to New York City to attend New York University, before she dropped out to pursue comedy full-time.

Susan recalls Sarah dropping out as disappointing—“I was like, ‘That’s crazy! It’s so hard to make it! And she won’t even have a degree in the end!” But Susan says that, in hindsight, her baby sister seeking out a career in comedy was practically inevitable.

“One day my grandma walked in and Sarah was coloring, maybe she was 3 or 4,” Susan remembers. “And my grandma said, ‘Sarah, I made some brownies for you.’ And Sarah, not even looking up, said, ‘Shove them up your ass, Nana.’ She did it to be funny. She didn’t know what she was saying, really. She just knew that it was crude and her adorableness saying it was going to be funny.”

Susan thinks her decision to become a rabbi shocked the family more than Sarah’s decision to become a comedian. She had been working with at-risk teenagers and was really frustrated the the red tape involved in making a difference in their lives> Yet she was still inspired by people like her mentor, Howard Zinn, to make a global impact by enacting change locally.

“I remember deciding, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll be a rabbi,’” she says, only sort-of cheekily when asked when she got “the call.” “I called the rabbinical school on a Friday afternoon and asked for the person I needed to talk to and she was like, ‘Oh, he’s gone for the day.’ So I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll call back tomorrow.’ And she said in this booming voice, ‘Tomorrow is the Sabbath.’ And I was like, ‘Oh fuck, I hope I didn’t leave my name.’” (Rabbi Susan says things like “fuck.” Maybe it’s not that hard believing she and Sarah would be sisters, after all.)

Sarah, however, remembering her big sister’s big heart, has no trouble believing that Susan would’ve grown to be a spiritual leader making a difference purely by having a big heart.

“She slept with her drawers open because she couldn’t bear the thought of her clothes suffocating,” Sarah says. “I was just little but I remember when she turned 14 and realized her own mortality and just sobbed and sobbed over her pending demise. When she was in rabbinical school in New York City, she never left her tiny apartment without a bag full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and dollar bills.” 

To hear sister talk about her other sister, it becomes clear that their paths to the unconventional careers they’ve chosen in life were marked early. But especially when hearing one sister talk about the other sister’s accomplishments, and the gravity and professionalism they bring to their respective careers, it becomes ever easier to believe that the two sisters who have arrived at superficially polarizing occupations are not only cut from the same cloth, but madly in love with each other, too.

“She is stunningly brilliant and knows how to articulate complex genius without any hoity toitiness,” Sarah says about Susan. As sisters do, Susan said essentially the same thing about Sarah: “She’s just so brilliant. She’s that brilliant in life, too. She just cuts to the core of everything and gets it.”

And their relationship? Now we get it, too.