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The Versatile Power of Sarah Silverman

The ‘I Smile Back’ actress—at once the face of Jewish comedy who can also take on serious roles—has truly come into her own

Rachel Shukert
December 24, 2015
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Sarah Silverman in Hollywood, California, December 9, 2015. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Sarah Silverman in Hollywood, California, December 9, 2015. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

I noticed an intriguing tweet the other day from comedian and unofficial Tablet poster girl Sarah Silverman. It read: “Spending much of my Sunday picking tiny pieces of wet kleenex out of my wet laundry #jewish

First, I laughed, because who hasn’t this happened to #funnybecauseitstrue #andspecific. Then I thought, God, how we’ve all grown up?

It seems like only yesterday that Sarah came out with the one-liner for which she is arguably the most famous and endlessly quoted in think pieces that dissect her espousal of a new, more highly sexual Jewish womanhood; and by nerdy Jewish guys at parties who futilely hope you might choose to espouse said Jewish womanhood vaguely in their direction. You know the one. It involved jelly, her mother, and something I’m not sure I’m allowed to say on a family website. More than any other joke to which Silverman claim’s authorship, this one seemed to synthesize her unique brand—a singular blend of irreverent perversity and haimishe Hebrew school candor. Lots of female comedians have made jokes about sex; very few of them had anything had to do with their mother (or Nana, as the case may be.)

But that was over a decade ago, and we’ve all come a long way since then. The march of young Jewish womanhood and its various identifications has started to lean more towards the renaissance of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in popular culture than reclaiming the legacy of Monica Lewinsky. I live in Los Angeles now, and have thus become sexually invisible to even the nerdiest and most awkward of men, all of whom are convinced that if they can just slightly exaggerate the importance of their jobs in personal management or film development then they have at least an outside chance of sleeping with Jennifer Lawrence.

The maturation (for lack of a better word) of Sarah Silverman has been going on for some time. Over the past several years, the pigtails and lollipops of yesteryear have slowly fallen away, and she has emerged as a thoughtful and well-informed voice on a wide range of political and liberal causes, inaugurating The Big Schlep in 2008 as part of a get-out-the-vote effort for Obama while emerging as a major activist for reproductive freedom and gender equality. It’s a focus Silverman has brought fully to her creative work as well, with her well-received (and unexpectedly moving) 2010 memoir The Bedwetter, and a variety of increasingly weighty dramatic roles, which recently culminated with her stellar performance in 2015’s I Smile Back, a sensitive and searing portrayal of an upper middle-class wife and mother in the throes of mental illness and substance addiction. (Silverman has been admirably upfront about her own lifelong struggle with clinical depression; it’s hard not to think that this project had deep resonance for her.)

But I think what I think is most intriguing about Silverman’s tweet is the way it classifies such a mundane act of forgetfulness as having left a Kleenex in your pocket, and having to deal with the soggy consequences, as definitively “Jewish.” There’s something touching—and revealing—in the way Silverman (as many of us) seems to ascribe a Jewish feel to her most humanizing and relatable moments. It’s not rational—this sort of thing must surely happen to gentiles as well, if they do their own laundry—but it conveys a kind of deep identification with one’s cultural identity, a sense Jewish is what one is at one’s deepest, most unglamorous, most unartificial core. That, I think, will be Sarah Silverman’s true legacy to Jewish girls everywhere—not just the inescapability, but the relatability of Jewishness. It’s a powerful message to send as she truly comes into her own.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.