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The Chosen Ones: An Interview With Chemda

The Queens-based podcaster, singer, and author on her love of sleepovers, the importance of women speaking their minds, and the illusion of tradition

Periel Aschenbrand
October 14, 2016
Illustration by Tablet; Photo courtesy of the author
Chemda. Illustration by Tablet; Photo courtesy of the author
Illustration by Tablet; Photo courtesy of the author
Chemda. Illustration by Tablet; Photo courtesy of the author

The Chosen Ones is a weekly column by author and comedian Periel Aschenbrand, who interviews Jews doing fabulous things.

The radio celebrity Chemda recently had open-heart surgery to have a football-sized tumor removed from her chest. The tumor, thank God, was not cancerous, but it was dangerously close to her heart. Instead of the more typical post-op concerns, the first thing she asked her surgeon was, “Where were my boobs during the operation?”

If you are familiar with the woman who the Village Voice put on their cover and described as “The Queen of Podcasting,” this inquiry may not be particularly shocking. For those not in the know, Chemda is the girl from Keith and The Girl, a daily comedy talk show-podcast that started in 2005. In the world of podcasting—which has exploded in the past decade—KATG has consistently ranked in the top ten, received a multitude of awards, and now has over one million monthly downloads.

The show is recorded in Queens, which is where Chemda lives, which is also where I first met her, in 1981, when we attended Solomon Schechter together. We met again, 35 years later, in Chelsea, across the street from my old therapist’s office. She looked exactly the same, but taller. She looks like she could be a queen from biblical times, with a crown of big, black curls that hangs down past her shoulders, an electrifying smile and deep, soulful, brown eyes that flicker with naughtiness and belie her regal appearance. Before she got into comedy, she was a singer and, truth be told, her voice is even more captivating than her smile.

While she has been on the forefront of a groundbreaking medium for 11 years in her professional life, Chemda has recently found herself on the forefront of an equally groundbreaking movement in her personal life: Her husband, Hennessy, is transgender. And so, this piece is not just about another cool Jew (even though it is about another cool Jew), it is also about something that we need to wake up about in our community.

Chemda’s story is a tough one, and I hope you’ll all read it with an open mind. We are a tribe that claims to value family above all else. Because we are a tribe who claims to be there for one another, particularly now—with the state of the world and the rise in anti-Semitism—opening our minds and our hearts seems to be the very least we can fucking do.

Periel Aschenbrand: I remember having sleepovers at your house.

Chemda: I loved having sleepovers! I still do.

PA: We went to school together for a long time, until I left, actually, in sixth grade.

C: Yeah, I stayed at Solomon Schechter until 8th grade and to me, it was a shock, a good shock—when I went to high school.

PA: How so?

C: I wanted a different perspective and I wanted my personality to come out. I always find it interesting when people avoid other ethnicities when living in New York. It’s so diverse, it’s like you must be trying really hard to isolate yourselves. My parents did that. They and every single one of their friends were Israeli. I’m actually having an epiphany right now. I think my father’s factory was around the corner from where we live now, but I can’t ask him because we’re not talking.

PA: That must be rough.

C: I think people have opportunities all the time to go this way or that way but what happens if you start looking at your lives and the decisions that you’re making? Maybe you think about things you did in your life that were unsatisfactory.

PA: And what you’re doing is unsatisfactory?

C: It was, always. Even before I was doing what I’m doing now, when I was singing. I was actually getting gigs. I was on tour. I remember being on a tour, when I was 23 years old and my mom was like, “When is this going to end?” I was like, “I don’t know what you think success is, but this is pretty fucking good.”

PA: I take it that wasn’t her idea of success?

C: For them, success is getting married and having kids.

PA: Right. Of course it is.

C: And look, I didn’t have a bad childhood, but I did have a relatively oppressive one for my personality. Credit where credit is due. I would not for a second, with three children under the age of 6, move to a country where I do not speak a word of the language.

PA: Totally. But they made it work.

C: Both of my brothers changed their names to be more successful in business. My father understands this because he was a foreigner and had an accent, but is a highly intelligent, very intellectual, blue-collar type person, who ran a business.

PA: He figured it out.

C: When he would call people, they would hear his accent and dismiss him, so he would get this guy, named Bill Smith, who worked for him, to call up and say that he was Danny and then shit would get done.

PA: That’s insane.

C: My brothers didn’t just change their names because they didn’t like their names, they changed them because they experimented. They called companies and said my name is Andrew versus Shuki and got hugely different responses.

PA: What do they do?

C: Dotcom. They’re very successful, they sold their company. They formed a company and instead of naming it after themselves, they called it Bradford and Reed because it sounded like, you should call us.

PA: It does sound like I should call them.

C: They’re incredible people, they walked me down the aisle.

PA: They sound wonderful.

C: When I was a kid, all this misogyny was happening without me noticing. At the age of 15, it already started with the when are you going to get married? I was like, well, maybe I would, if you’d let me shave this fucking mustache! And then, by 18, you should start locking it down, don’t date for frivolous reasons. Like fun? Noooooo.

PA: G0d forbid anyone should have fun.

C: Dating is a consecutive interview for marriage. That’s how we teach our women. And then we teach our men to go “get that.” So we’re teaching them completely opposite things and then people are upset when women are with women. Like, what are you doing?

PA: People get stuck in their tradition or they hide in it, because it’s the only thing they know.

C: Tradition creates the illusion of feeling comfortable and safe and warm because you have something that you know is going to happen. But what are we getting out of these traditions? They’re not making us question anything. Why are we mouthing words when we don’t know what they mean? I still can recite my haftorah, but I have no idea what it means. People wake up in the morning and they start praying and they don’t even know what they’re saying but they do it because it’s comforting. Where is that comfort coming from? You step on freedom for a woman to speak her mind when you’re on your way to synagogue and you’re not even questioning it, because if you start questioning it, then what are you going to do?

PA: It’s easier not to question things…

C: You can see the humanity in my parents when they speak to other people, and when you hear other people speak about them, they’re beautiful people. But my father has specifically said, “I don’t want to be the pioneer.” And I’m considered the pioneer in my medium. My whole thing is to question everything and so I brought tons of shame. Parents make changes to transition into adulthood with their kids and the ones who don’t, don’t have relationships with their kids. For me, being open is so much better than being private. There is something about being private that encourages shame.

PA: I think you should be very proud of yourself! And you love what you do, which itself is a gift.

C: We get five minutes here, on this earth. So, four days a week, with no edits, we podcast live. We once did a 70-hour marathon where we were live for the entire time. And I loved it. There is an intelligence and hilarity because you have to get faster and funnier to be on top of it. I’m a freak. I want to be a freak. In the comedy clubs, I dressed up as Pocahontas for my first time on stage because I didn’t know how to participate and I sang “Colors of the Wind” because that’s what I was doing for my job. And they loved it!

PA: I watched clips of you singing on YouTube, your voice is insane.

C: Thank you.

PA: Tell me about your husband. How did you meet?

C: We were both in a musical. The connection was magnetic.

PA: Instant connection?

C: I’m wary about instant shit.

PA: My whole life is instant shit.

C: I didn’t want to promise something to somebody that I couldn’t keep.

PA: And now you’re married and you work together?

C: He’s an actor but we started a podcast together to educate people about being transgender, where you can ask all your ignorant questions: What does cis mean? Why are you transgender? What does it mean? Have your parents listen to it! Send them here, we will answer everything.

PA: Tell me about your wedding.

C: It was in Hawaii and Hennessy’s dad, who is a Christian minister, officiated. I sat him down before the wedding and I said, “You can’t use female pronouns, you can’t say God. This is an Atheist, trans wedding, with a straight couple.” Hennessy’s dad was like, “Yeah, I know. What are you thinking?” I was like, “I don’t know, I’m thinking you’re a conservative guy with a lot of guns!”

PA: I’m kind of blown away by that. That is really a step forward for humanity… and Christian ministers.

C: Well, he used to be a hippie. He did acid before acid was illegal and then he found God. He started the first suicide hotline. He is a compassionate, wonderful person and both of Hennessy’s parents say what I do is important.

PA: That’s really beautiful. What you do is important! Speaking of important: What’s your favorite drink?

C: Seltzer

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

C: Different every time. Maybe shakshuka.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

C: My favorite is probably a soy cappuccino. Specifically a Starbucks, which I hate. I’m not a coffee person. I need junk in my coffee. They have a special soy milk that’s just theirs, you have to buy a restaurant amount. Luckily, my husband is the barista of the century.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?

C: It used to be Yom Kippur, which I kept doing even after I didn’t believe in Judaism anymore. I like the idea of fasting, cleansing, and shutting everything down.

PA: Why’d you stop?

C: I can do my version. That’s what the LGBT community does, they build larger circles.

PA: Did you have a bat mitzvah?

C: Yes.

PA: What did you wear?

C: A horrible dress. I hated it.

PA: Why did you hate it?

C: I was encouraged to be agreeable. I had it with my brother because we’re a year apart. In my synagogue, I wasn’t allowed to read from the Torah.

PA: That is so fucked up. What shampoo do you use?

C: Whatever my husband buys.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

C: Neither. I have never eaten any of them. My people are not gefilte or lox. This hair doesn’t come with gefilte fish, it comes with a mustache.

PA: Ha! Five things in your bag right now?

C: I like to carry as little as possible. My phone, my wallet, a marijuana stick, a blunt, and headphones. Anytime I see someone without headphones on the train I wonder…

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

C: I don’t really have a lot of them. Crocs.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.