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Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World

Sister Act

Activism, Silverman–Sister Style

The comedian and her rabbi sister talk about their very different approaches to changing the world. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports from the Women in the World Summit

At face value, sisters Sarah and Susan Silverman couldn’t seem more different. But Sarah, a notably edgy comedian, and her older sister Susan, a rabbi who lives in Israel, are clearly cut from the same cloth. “I suppose it’s because our lives seem at the surface to be so polar opposite,” Sarah told The Daily Beast before they addressed the 5th annual Women in the World Conference on Friday. “But the truth is we both kinda … preach; and we both take in our surroundings and try to mirror it.”

The sisters have both been vocal activists for a variety of issues that are dear to them. Susan, who says she always wanted to be s social worker, decided to become a rabbi as a way into social justice.  Her pet causes, including international adoption, religious pluralism, and rights for refugees, particularly those in Israel, guide her. “I knew nothing about Judaism, so I decided to be a rabbi,” she says, recounting how she called the rabbinical school on a Friday night not knowing that it was the eve of the Sabbath. 

Sarah, who did her first open-comedy mic between her junior and senior years of college, says she chose her calling because it gave her a platform. “When you keep your overhead low, risk is minimal, you can do what you believe in, and live the life you believe in. I always think of Charlie Karufam who said ‘failure is a badge of honor’ and that ‘failure means you risked failure’,” she says. “I continued to chase the shock value, and at some point I had hoped that [some issues] became a little bit ‘unsubstantive’.” So far that hasn’t happened, and she is never at a loss for material.

Both sisters believe that while their chosen paths allow them to get an important message out, they are aware that they do it with relative safety. “I sit here at the end of the day with these women in Syria, and Peru and Russia who are out risking their lives for what they believe in,” Susan said. “I’ve never been called on to risk my life for what I believe in.

Susan was, however, arrested for wearing a prayer shawl at the Western Wall in defiance of the cultural standards and laws. But she said it was actually her daughter who brought her to the wall where they were arrested. “I thought I’d better go with her because if she was going to be arrested I wanted to be with her,” Susan said. Sarah said she had never been prouder of her older sister. “I was so proud, I think they are changing the world and I think it is important,” she said.  When Sarah went to the wall on a visit to Israel to see her sister, she left her own mark.  “No more religion,” she wrote on her message to live on the wall.

Sarah has had her own brush with justice. She has been a vocal advocate for the right to choose, protesting at abortion clinics and making a now infamous video spoofing a conversation with Jesus about abortion over popcorn. “The world provides the teaching moment,” she says. “Comedy, like the clergy, is an inclusive endeavor. That’s what we have in common. That we care.”

Sarah says that women’s rights are about being undeniable.  “It takes one person who just doesn’t know it isn’t impossible to do something to make it possible,” she says. “You can’t put a woman [in a job] because there hasn’t been a woman before. You don’t want to get things because of unfairness, you need to be undeniable.”

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