Is Jewish comedian Ester Steinberg the next queen of comedy?

Britney Spears and a unique name have made Ester Steinberg’s humor irreverent, hilarious and unabashedly Jewish. In an interview, she tells about her journey.

 ESTER STEINBERG channels Britney Spears’s iconic schoolgirl on the cover of debut comedy album ‘Hebrew School Dropout.’ (photo credit: Courtesy Ester Steinberg)
ESTER STEINBERG channels Britney Spears’s iconic schoolgirl on the cover of debut comedy album ‘Hebrew School Dropout.’
(photo credit: Courtesy Ester Steinberg)

When Ester Steinberg starred on the reality show Funny Girls, fellow comedian Ari Shaffir told her she was “too Jew-ey.”

She heard the refrain as a cheerleader at Plant High School in Tampa, Florida, when people heard her name and later, when comics warned that focusing on Jewish themes could hurt her career.

“I appreciate constructive criticism but I’m always gonna do whatever the hell I want to,” Steinberg told the Magazine.

She jokes that with a mother from Israel and a father from Florida, she is “half-Hummus Jew, half bagel-Jew.

Her mother from Givatayim, argued with both her neighbors in Florida because of her fighting spirit. Steinberg said she was rejected from Taglit-Birthright because she’d already been on an organized tour of Israel and “it would be my dream to perform in Israel.”

The New York University graduate has a small role as a Jewish mother in the Netflix film Me Time starring Kevin Hart, streaming August 26.

 JUST SIX weeks after giving birth, Steinberg filmed her Amazon Prime special, ‘Burning Bush.’ (credit: Courtesy Ester Steinberg) JUST SIX weeks after giving birth, Steinberg filmed her Amazon Prime special, ‘Burning Bush.’ (credit: Courtesy Ester Steinberg)

She dreamed of making it in showbiz ever since she riffed on her parents during her Hollywood-themed bat mitzvah. At 16, her father, a former comedian, signed her up for a class. She became the ticket girl at Side Splitters Comedy Club and watched seven shows a week. It was clear to her why some killed it, and others bombed their performances.

It was her admiration for Britney Spears that inspired the cover art for her album Hebrew School Dropout in 2019, where she had pigtails and paid homage to her idol who “rocked everyone’s world” with the “Oops, I Did It Again” video.

“She’s in the Catholic schoolgirl skirt and I’m a nice girl in a long skirt doing my Torah studies at the Hillel of Tampa,” she recalled. “I grew up worshiping Britney. I had her posters on my wall. Britney came into my life and it was a sexual awakening.”

“I grew up worshiping Britney. I had her posters on my wall. Britney came into my life and it was a sexual awakening.”

Ester Steinberg

Breaking into comedy

Steinberg rocked on stage when she got her big break. Burning Bush on Amazon Prime is one of the funniest and most Jewish comedy specials you will ever see. Likely the only mainstream comic to make a joke about the yichud room, she explained that at Jewish weddings, the couple traditionally consummates the marriage in this secluded room. But now, it’s more commonly used for eating. It is a tradition for those getting married to fast until the conclusion of the ceremony. She joked that she wanted a traditional Jewish wedding and would choose sex over food. She says she hit the jackpot with her husband as he is tall, Jewish, and has a dead mom. Of someone she knows taking classes who is converting to Judaism, she wonders if the person will be taught how to “send back food with only a look.”

She was thrilled that Jason Zinoman of The New York Times praised Burning Bush, writing that she “has been a charismatic spark plug of a comic for years, but there’s a nimbleness here that is the work of someone who has come into her own.”

The circumstances for her special were anything but normal.

She gave birth to her son six weeks earlier. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, where normal venues were locked down, she was told to fly from New York To Pasadena, California, where she would perform outdoors for people in cars. While comedians workshop material for their specials at dozens of clubs, she’d never performed the entire show live and had done some parts only on Zoom. But she said she couldn’t let any doubts get in her head.

“This was the situation I’d been waiting for, for my entire career,” Steinberg said. “This was my shot. I was nervous and frustrated, but I was like ‘look, I’m not gonna blow this.’’’

Steinberg made connections organizing The Kibitz Room Comedy Show in a room in Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles, even once getting comedian Bill Burr to headline.

She said some encouraged her to get a nose job, but she is happy she didn’t. She said her mother is the best laugher ever and her dad tells jokes at the grocery store and humiliates her.

The story of how she married Noah Gardenswartz is unique. She twice rebuffed his efforts to woo her. But then, they were guests on the podcast of the hilarious and boisterous Yamaneika Saunders at comedy club Stand Up NY with an episode the host titled: “Noah, Will You Marry Me?” As she heard him talk authoritatively, she was impressed by his swag. The kicker, she said, was when she later asked where he was going, he said he was off to dinner with his sister who teaches Talmud. Steinberg and Gardenswartz went out for pizza and played pool. But there was an obstacle.

“I was kind of nervous because I had a boyfriend in San Francisco,” she said. “’I was like, ‘if this guy tries anything, it’s not okay.’ But he was a perfect gentleman. He gave me room to breathe. He was friendly and wasn’t thirsty.”

One can be said to be “thirsty” if one pushes for physical intimacy right off the bat.

Soon after, she said he took a nine-train ride to see her show in Rochester, New York. He also did his own material on that show, and she thought he was funny. She dumped her boyfriend, dated Gardenswartz for a month and moved to New York to be with him. Her husband is a writer for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel series and she appeared on the sixth episode of the second season when the family is in the Catskills and she gives lentil soup to Susie, (Midge’s agent) thought to be missing.

She said her husband’s “grand gesture” was to pick her up from Newark Airport in New Jersey. He then proposed in Brooklyn with flowers.

She said she’s begun to light Shabbat candles on Friday night and framed their ketubah, the Hebrew marriage contract.

“Now that I’m a mom, I’m totally leaning into my Judaism and I’m coming back to my roots,” she said, adding that she went to Camp Ramah in Georgia in her younger days and loved it.

Their toddler is named Moses. That name is ironic, not only because her special is called Burning Bush, but because back in the day, she once dated a gentile, and he was teased for dating a Jew and was taunted and called Moses. Asked if he will keep the pattern of biblical names with her soon-to-be-born child, she said she might but would not reveal her name choices.

Did her name influence her to go into comedy?

Partially.

“If my name was Rachel Klein, you’d have to be Jewish to know it’s a Jewish name,” she said. “But you can be anything and know what Ester Steinberg is. There’s no second-guessing that one.”

She said Sarah Silverman’s comedic style inspired her to be edgier.

In her routines, Steinberg pairs observational humor with high-octane impersonations of a Jewish grandmother, an Australian author who screams that to get a husband, single women should sleep on one side of the bed (don’t all people do that?) and overzealous male fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

As for advice to others who want to be comics, she said it requires patience, an ability to overcome rejection and thick skin.

“Comedy is such a roller coaster,” she said. “I figured by the time I was 21, I’d be super rich and famous. It didn’t quite go as planned. But I’m happy with how things have gone. At 19, I was like, “I’m the best comedian!’ At 21, I was like, ‘I suck.’ Now in my 30’s, I think I’m okay.”

In the self-assessment, she is too modest.

On that episode of Funny Girls (also available on Amazon Prime) Shaffir, an excellent comedian, sarcastically asked her if she was going to be “the best girl comic.”

It’s a lofty goal, but as of now, in this writer’s opinion, she is one of the best.