Heeere's Sandy

En-route to Israel, comedian talks about Palin, Silverman, and Shabbat.

sandra bernhard 88 (photo credit: )
sandra bernhard 88
(photo credit: )
Some people mellow with age, but not Sandra Bernhard.Example: The 53-year-old Jewish New Yorker made headlines last September while appearing at Theater J of the Washington, DC, Jewish Community Center, when she warned vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin that she would be gang-raped by Bernhard's "big black brothers" if she visited Manhattan. At the time, Bernhard told the New York Daily News that she was just being provocative, which is what she's famous for doing. "[The gang rape comment] is part of a much larger, nuanced and yes, provocative (that's what I do) piece from my show about racism, freedom, women's rights and the extreme views of Governor Sarah Palin, a woman who doesn't believe that other women should have the right to choose," Bernhard told the Daily News. And now five months later, instead of retreating and taking it back, the comedian isn't backing down at all. "I think most people agreed with what I said, and it didn't take more than a couple weeks to discover what a total hypocrite she was. She stood for everything that women have been fighting against for the last 150 years - she was ready to roll back everybody's rights. Women deserve better," Bernhard told The Jerusalem Post during a mid-morning conversation from her Manhattan apartment. Despite a time-difference snafu which resulted in other Israeli media waking her and her 10-year-old daughter up in the middle of the night, Bernhard sounded content and upbeat, especially when talking about the administration switch over in Washington which took place the day before. "It's been the most incredible week of our history. I tell you, the day that George Bush got on that helicopter and took off, it felt like 1,000 tons had been lifted from my shoulders. Obama is an incredible inspiration," said Bernhard in typically no-holds-barred fashion. That take no prisoners sensibility permeates all of Bernhard's work, an ethos local audiences will get to experience for the first time since she performed here in 1999, when the biting gay satirist headlines the Holon Women's Festival, taking place from February 25-28. In addition to theater, dance and music, the theme of the 13th Holon festival is women's humor, something Bernhard knows something about. With a rubbery face and Mick Jagger-like lips that exude emotion and sensuality, her brash persona was ripe for her breakout role as the unforgettable stalker and kidnapper Masha in 1983's Martin Scorsese film The King of Comedy. Branching out into TV and theater, books and music, Bernhard hit her stride with her 1998, one-woman Broadway hit, I'm Still Here... Damn It! described by The New York Times as "an angst driven, foul-mouthed, poison-laced joy ride that banks and careens frenetically through the worlds of fashion, celebrity, rock and religion." But beside the critical acclaim, Bernhard became a bona fide celebrity icon - mostly for her recurring role from 1991 to 1996, as Nancy on the Roseanne Barr TV show Roseanne, her high-profile 1980s friendship with Madonna and her penchant for making outrageous statements a la Palin. One look at Sarah Silverman's strong-armed act, and you can tell who she grew up admiring. "I know that [Silverman's] a fan of mine. There are people I've kind of emulated over the years, so it feels kind of pretentious to be in this other position. But if it's the case that I'm a role model in a positive way, I'm totally thrilled," said Bernhard, whose star has fallen somewhat in the last few years, but can still capture headlines at will. According to Holon festival artistic director Rivi Feldmesser-Yaron, both Bernhard and Silverman, who was also approached about performing but was unavailable, have helped reinvent the traditional model of women in comedy. "I investigated this a little before I decided to make the theme of the festival 'women and humor' and that humor has often been used against women. Traditionally, if you say a woman is funny, it can be a euphemism for not being pretty - she's got a great sense of humor," said Feldmesser-Yaron. "Women like funny men - most male comedians have beautiful women around them. But men are afraid of funny women, as if they're threatened by their intellect." That discrimination has permeated the type of humor which women have traditionally been pigeonholed with, and which Bernhard was instrumental in breaking out of. However, Feldmesser-Yaron sees the comic revolution in Israel happening much more slowly. "I think Israelis have problems accepting women comedians who are sharper and more in-your-face. Someone like Adi Ashkenazi is kind of polite and more subtle. She doesn't cross the line. What society is willing to accept from a man is different than from a woman. What might be perceived as cool coming out of a man is vulgar coming from a woman. Sandra isn't subtle, which is a difficult way to be for a woman," she said. But Bernhard has never shied away from doing things against the grain, whether it was spending a year here after high school working on a kibbutz cleaning chickens on an assembly line, exploring and expressing her Judaism through Kabbala study or her decision 10 years ago to become a single mother. Recalling that the last time she traveled to Israel it was with her infant daughter, Bernhard laughed. "It's shocking how quickly it's flown by. She's absolutely amazing, a wonderful kid," she said. And perhaps in a sign that there is some mellowing going on, Bernhard has even performed a children's song on an album by hip kids' musician Dan Zane called Dan Zane's Family Dance Album. "When my daughter was little, Dan used to perform down the street from our house at a restaurant. Then I had him perform at her second birthday party. We had become friendly and he asked me to come down and work on a song for his album. It was a natural evolution," she said. The thought of the often abrasive, frequently X-rated Bernhard performing children's material may confound the stereotypes about her, but so does her dedication to the study of Kabbala. Bernhard sends her daughter to a Chabad school for the basics in Hebrew and Torah study, and mother and daughter frequently attend Kabbala Shabbat services in New York. In an interview last year with the JDate Web site, Bernhard explained her attraction to Kabbala and criticized the "pop culturization" of its study. "Ultimately, it's the spiritual dissemination of Judaism. If you are just practicing the rituals without a deeper understanding, they become sort of a robotic, unfulfilling practice. Once you add the spiritual nature to it, the ephemeral emotions of life, it brings a much deeper meaning. It's a very complex, deeply intellectual and soulful pursuit that takes all of your life to even begin to understand. I think it's really been done a disservice by the pop culturalization of it, you know, through the Kabbala Center, even though I still go there, and I still go to Shabbat and do stuff with them. I think that on some level, they thought this was a good way to go. I think it backfired. I'm not saying it should be closed off to anybody. It's open to everyone as a spiritual study. But when it starts becoming this weird, star-driven vehicle, I have a problem with it," she said. Bernhard has no problem, however, sharing her life with her non-Jewish partner though, even displaying a Christmas tree during the holiday season. "Even though I had been fully prepared to be a single mom, it was fortuitous that soon after I returned from performing in Israel, I met my girlfriend. She's a fabulous partner and we've been together ever since," she said. With such clear-cut opinions on most subjects, it's no surprise that Bernhard has emphatic views about Israel, Operation Cast Lead and settlers. During her last performance here a decade ago, Bernhard started riffing on the Israel-Arab conflict, quickly coming to the conclusion that "you two peoples deserve each other." While not approaching the vitriol spewed by former TV mate Barr, who on her blog called IDF actions in Gaza Nazi-like, Bernhard felt that Operation Cast Lead was one more failed campaign following the worldview of George W. Bush. "I understand how Hamas works and what they've done as much as anyone. But ultimately, I think the war was carried out under the auspices of George Bush and his careless philosophy about peace," she said. "I think what happened in Gaza is unacceptable, just as it's unacceptable for Hamas to be firing rockets into Israel." Until Israel deals with the issue of settlement in the West Bank, it's not going to be able to effectively pursue peace with the Palestinians, surmised Bernhard, who added that she will have no problems raising that point during her performance in Holon. "Of course, I'll talk about those issues. I have to gauge the vibes to a certain extent. I don't want to get into something that I can't get out of, and have it not be entertaining," she said. According to artistic director Feldmesser-Yaron, Bernhard is given total freedom regarding the content of her show. "One of my responsibilities as an artistic director is to not limit the artist - it's a philosophy of mine. My feeling is that if I bring Sandra Bernhard, she can be responsible for herself. I think rudeness for its own sake is unnecessary, but it's not part of my job to tell her that," she said. "I think the role of the comedian is to criticize, it's part of artistic culture. If she wants to talk about the occupation being bad, that's her right. A lot of people here think the same way. If you start limiting artists, then you develop a situation in which [Avigdor] Lieberman can become prime minister." "An Evening With Sandra Bernhard" promises to be - like Bernhard herself - all over the place, careening from comedy and music to improv and rants, all filtered through Bernhard's manic delivery. "I'm working with Israeli musicians - they couldn't afford to bring over my musicians. So hopefully they'll be prepared and know what the hell I do," said Bernhard with a laugh. "There's lots of improvisation, I'll be talking about my past visit to Israel, things that have happened to me since, it's kind of fluid and stream-of-consciousness, which anybody who's seen me knows. Since it's almost all personal, there's kind of a timelessness to it. You can always go back and talk about the highlights you experience. I was really surprised last time how the audience reacted positively to the material and got it. My first law is to always give the people their money's worth." Whatever else Bernhard's been accused of during her career, it hasn't been not doing that.