Question time: Comic queries Jewish mothers in one-woman show

Chuckle-hungry fans of Judy Gold may have a surprise reaction when they catch the comedian’s play: tears.

“25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” is Gold’s long-running, long-touring, one-woman show. It comes to San Francisco’s Marines Memorial Theatre for a 16-performance run starting March 11.

The play’s title may seem self-explanatory, especially coming from a 6-foot Jewish lesbian comic who draws mercilessly on her own Jewish mother for standup material.

With the play, Gold promises a lot more, although she will still make ample use of her mom. Gold takes on the personas of 12 Jewish mothers — including her own — spanning age, ethnicity, occupation and level of Jewish observance.

It’s called, you know, acting.

“We deal with the Holocaust, sexuality, death, AIDS, sitting shiva,” Gold said from Washington, D.C., where she was completing a run of her show. “It’s definitely very poignant and moving at times. It’s a universal story. You don’t have to be Jewish or gay to enjoy it, but it helps.”

“25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” came about when Gold and her writing partner, Kate Moira Ryan, set out on an odyssey several years ago. They wanted to find out if there was anything at all to those Jewish mother stereotypes running rampant through popular culture.

They spoke with 50 Jewish moms, always starting out with question No. 1: What makes a Jewish mother different from all other mothers?

That and the other 24 questions elicited some fascinating answers.

“The first night we interviewed two women, and the husband of one of them said to me afterward, ‘I’ve known these women 40 years and tonight I felt I really knew them for the first time,'” she recalled.

Gold and Ryan went on to write a 2006 book with the same title that is part sociology, part humor. Her aim, however, was to create a work for the stage, something she has called “‘The Vagina Monologues’ of Jewish mothers.”

Much of the play’s dialogue comes word-for-word from the interviews and, although humor abounds, so does the weight and sorrow of life. Among the show’s characters are a Holocaust survivor and the children of survivors.

“That’s a major part of it: memorializing [the Holocaust] This was the defining moment of modern Jewry. I was born less than 20 years after the Holocaust ended.”

If these sound like sobering thoughts for a comedian, Gold explains: “I’m a serious person, curious about what makes people tick and what people’s stories are. Feeling like an outsider most of my life, it was really interesting that everyone has a story.”

Gold has taken the play across the country, including Chicago, Boston and New York City, where it ran for nine months. It earned her a Drama Desk nomination for outstanding solo performance.

Not that Gold is a stranger to such public adulation. She has been a staple on the standup circuit for years, thanks in great part to mining her Jewish roots for comedy.

Born and raised in New Jersey, she started doing standup while attending Rutgers University as a music major. By the early 1990s she had become a hit, with HBO specials, Cable Ace Awards and a pair of Emmys.

She also had a couple of children, to whom she now plays Jewish mother. She has not, however, allowed them to see Mommy’s show. They are too young and it’s a bit too sophisticated, she says.

Unlike so many recent vanity projects for the stage, Gold insists her solo play is not all about her. “I wanted it to be about the women. So many one-woman shows are just therapy on stage. Who cares?”

“25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” runs March 11-23 at Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter, S.F. Tickets: $29-$49. Information: (415) 771-6900 or www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.