Comedian Abby Feldman Wants You to Call Her by Her Hebrew Name

Hey Alma spoke to Feldman about her Shabbat musical comedy show and creating community through Jewish humor.

If you follow the alternative comedy circuit in New York or Los Angeles and don’t know Abby Feldman yet, you probably should. A self-described comedy pop star, Feldman’s prolific range spans from parody commercials to character work to stand-up, but her most prominent specialty lies in musical comedy that combines the personal and satirical à la Rachel Bloom.

Her most notable single, “Call Me By My Hebrew Name,” finds Feldman rap-singing about the sexiness of having a Hebrew name, whether it’s Rifka, Rachel, Abram, Yakov or Shmuel. In addition to its clever Jewish references and amusingly risqué lyrics, the track both celebrates Judaism as an identity and defuses the discomfort we tend to feel around what makes us different, like a Hebrew name.

https://open.spotify.com/track/1IRH3p7rnRdeOO8Fn9HUlY?si=cd3737eb456b4b14&nd=1

That dichotomy is a central theme in Feldman’s new monthly comedy show, which shares the same name as the song and debuted on September 4th at The Crow in Santa Monica. Nicole Blaine, co-owner of The Crow, described “Call Me By My Hebrew Name” as a “full comedic Seder.” That characterization is pretty dead-on, though I also got Shabbat dinner vibes.

Feldman’s show features tongue-in-cheek guided meditations, freewheeling observational musings and topical musical improv with piano accompaniment. One minute, Feldman is leading the blessing over the candles; the next, she’s singing “4 to 5,” a raunchy ode to average penis sizes.

Ahead of the first iteration of “Call Me By My Hebrew Name,” I spoke to Feldman about the origins of the show’s title song, finding the nuances in Jewish humor and creating community in the comedy space.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

First of all, congrats on the show! How are you feeling about it?

I’m feeling really good about it! It’s something I’ve thought about for a while. I wanted to do a Shabbat something. I thought, maybe I’ll have a Friday night dinner with friends. But I wanted to do something spiritual and I wanted to do something comedy.

I hope that’s what I’m accomplishing with the show — and it feels like more than a comedy show, it feels more like an experience. I want it to feel like community, like people can come back every month and know that they’re kind of at home.

Like at a Shabbat dinner.

Exactly. Like at a Shabbat dinner hosted by your weird, wacky cousin who’s going to make everyone do a guided meditation, and everyone’s going to roll their eyes, but everyone’s going to love it. The whole concept is, like, cleanse the past week and set an intention of joy for the coming week.

Is Shabbat dinner something that you regularly practice?

It was, growing up. My family and I always had Shabbat dinner, but I guess I lost that over the years. I think maybe the pandemic made me yearn for that a little bit more. And also, being new in LA from New York, I wanted that kind of community and Shabbat, to feel more at home even though my family’s back east.

The show is named after one of your songs, “Call Me By My Hebrew Name.” What inspired you to write the song and what was the process of producing it?

I wrote it in the middle of a [COVID-19 pandemic] lockdown when I was having an identity crisis. I’m often like, “I need a stage name” or “I want to have an artist name.” Abby Feldman, who is she? Maybe I go by Devorah. That’s my Hebrew name.

Devorah means “bee,” which is like Abby. My mom wanted to name me Abby, but she also wanted to name me after my great-grandma Debbie, who had passed before I was born. But she didn’t want to name me Debbie or Deborah, so she was like, “Okay, we’ll give her the Hebrew name Devorah.” That was like a little workaround.

I was also thinking about how I didn’t realize how embarrassed or ashamed I was growing up about my Judaism. There’s this sense of just… this old age, old world, immigrant-y thing. Like, [pronounces phlegmily] Devorah.

Right, that name feels very different from the context in which you were raised.

Right! All my friends are like Tyler and Ashley. Here I am, I’m Abby, but then I go to Hebrew school and it’s like, “Devorah, stop talking, go to the principal’s office!” The whole point of [“Call Me By My Hebrew Name”] was that [“Devorah” is] cool. I’m reclaiming it. That vintage-y, weird, old-school vibe is cool. All the things that I thought I needed to change about myself, I’m trying to embrace.

Even though I’ve been doing comedy for 10 years, I’m often trying to look some way, trying to look cooler, trying to hide the ugly parts. But the ugly parts are what make me able to relate to others.

We all have a Hebrew name. Even if it’s not a Hebrew name, it might be that you had acne growing up. It might be that you were goth. It might be whatever skeletons you have in your closet that you thought were the embarrassing things about you that you wouldn’t want to put out there. Beauty and what’s acceptable is so subjective. It really is how you portray it.

I would love to hear more about your Jewish background and how Judaism influenced your comedic sensibilities.

Where I grew up, there were some Jews, but it was a pretty WASP-y suburb. There was full on antisemitism that I wasn’t even super aware of.

There was this kid in school who would be like, “Yeah, Hitler did a good job, but he still missed a few” to me and my Jewish friends. We would be like, “That was weird.” It was subconscious — I internalized a lot of that stuff and thought, “Yeah, the Jewish experience isn’t a shared experience to talk about in comedy,” and I shied away from it in my comedy.

I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself as “the Jewish comedian.” I have another song, “Cellulite Summer,” about embracing these things that I’ve been insecure about, like having cellulite, sucking in my stomach — things that I did for years and years and years without even realizing before I was like, “Why am I not breathing deeply? Why am I hiding this part of my body?” In another song, “Soft to Get,” I talk about how I don’t want to play hard to get. I don’t want to play games. Why do I have to pretend I’m not interested? I am. It talks about feeling ashamed that  I’m too easy or too forward, and trying to embrace all of it.

I do comedy about being Jewish that isn’t making Judaism the butt of the joke. I really don’t like when people do self-hating Jewish comedy, like “I’m a Jew and we’re so cheap.” I’m like, no, it’s hot! Who doesn’t like a fucking sale? Everyone likes sales. That’s not a Jewish thing. Jews are generous.

Yeah, stereotypical humor can perpetuate more misunderstanding, whereas your comedy is more about honoring the nuances.

Thank you. I worry about that too. I go, “Is this stereotypical?” But I don’t think it is. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone doing something like that. Growing up, the only Jewish song in comedy I knew was “The Hanukkah Song.” I haven’t heard another song like that since then. That was huge for me.

Especially since there’s a billion Christmas songs.

Exactly! Yes!

So it’s nice to have one song that’s about Hanukkah, sung by a famous Jewish comedian.

Yeah, and it just became universal. It made it normal, which matters when you’re a kid. These traditions that I thought only my grandparents knew about, this famous person is talking about.

I wasn’t like, “I want to make an anthem about Jewish traditions.” It was like, let’s take this thing,  a Hebrew name that was maybe previously a point of insecurity or embarrassment, and make it this iconic thing. I wanted all of the little Rivkas and Rachuls and Chanas to be like, “What if I go by that, what if I tell my partner to say that to me in bed?” I do think that would be cool and hot. It’s so intimate and vulnerable.

Call Me By My Hebrew Name
Photo by Jas Sams

I wanted to ask you more about the different types of comedy that you do — stand up, sketch, musical. What draws you to each of these? How do you feel like you’ve evolved with each since you started doing comedy?

I pretty much let myself flow. Sometimes, I feel like I need to be more focused and stick to one thing and be like, “I’m the girl who just does Jewish comedy songs.” But then, I hate that and I’m like, “I want to make this fake ad about DivaCups for farts.” I love silliness for silliness’ sake.

I thought your Not-Sees video was very clever. Even though it’s not explicitly about Judaism, it still carries a political tone. 

And I think Judaism is about justice and standing up for social causes. We all thrive when everyone thrives. One of my biggest inspirations is Sarah Silverman, who so beautifully and eloquently talks about social issues and differences with so much love and grace.

Actually, that was my next question! Who would you consider your Jewish comedic inspirations?

I was really lucky to grow up in a time where there was a show like “Seinfeld” on the air and Sarah Silverman and Adam Sandler were popular. There was a good amount of Jewish visibility when I was a kid.

Rachel Bloom is so brilliant and good at touching on awkward insecurity and putting a magnifying glass on it and making it beautiful. I think that’s my mission, or what I feel like I love to do: take the dark thing and make it light.

I loved “Broad City.” When that first started, I was so grateful and inspired. They’re so effortlessly funny and joyful. There’s a lot of comedy that doesn’t bring me joy, that feels angry and ranty. And who doesn’t love to rant? I could rant all day long. But then, I’m like, “Oh, now I feel crappy and complain-y.” Instead of misery loves company, I would love joy loves company.

I was recently on a big Barbra Streisand kick. I watched all these movies that she starred in. I watched “Funny Girl,” obviously, then watched “A Star is Born,” then “The Mirror Has Two Faces.” I became obsessed with her.

I admire how [Jerry] Seinfeld looks so cool and calm while all this chaos is going on around him. I found out not that long ago that he’s been practicing transcendental meditation since the ‘70s, which resonates with me in a huge way. About 10 years ago, around the same time I started comedy, I’ve been on a spiritual journey, doing yoga and meditation and learning about yogic philosophy and reiki. That’s a big part of my life.

You’ve performed a lot in LA and NYC and have this following on social media. When performing songs like “Call Me By My Hebrew Name” that revolve around explicitly Jewish references, have you ever experienced any negative or confused reactions from audiences, or do they usually resonate?

It mostly resonates. I was actually shocked at how positive the response was online, because online is where the monsters are. Trolls come for a lot of my stuff, but for some reason, this song got picked up and supported in the hands of Jewish stans on TikTok and Instagram, and it’s been really positive.

What I realized is when it’s coming from your own experience, even if it’s not someone else’s direct experience, people can relate. I mean, there’s plenty of people who will just be like, “This isn’t funny at all.” Like, well, yeah, if you didn’t have a bar or bat mitzvah. Or maybe they just don’t think it’s funny. I’m okay with that.

It’s all about the process. It’s just a constant evolution.

It’s like puberty. When you’re going through puberty, you think that at the end you’ll have perfect boobs. And it’s like, no, they’re still gonna be lopsided. You’re still going to have acne. The process never ends. Once puberty finally ends, then wrinkles start. There’s always going to be some growing pains, some ugliness in our process of life until we die. That’s how I feel about my work.

The magic for me has been in getting a little bit deeper every time and figuring out music. That didn’t start until 2019 when a musician friend and I collaborated. I was like, “I would love to do music.” When I had a popular tweet, and I would sing it on a voice note and send it to her, and she would break it out into a song and produce it. It was called “My Tweets: The Musical” and I would release one a week.

Then, I did a solo show, “Life is Amazing,” and wrote all this music for that. The music has been the soft evolution for me, where I get to be a little bit more vulnerable.

Abby Feldman
Photo by Jas Sams

Is the plan right now just to create songs or are you leading up to an EP or an album?

I definitely have enough to release an album. I would love to put out a special and then release the music, kind of like how Bo Burnham did with “Inside.” But I’m open to possibilities. I just want it to reach the people who would want it.

Since “Call Me By My Hebrew Name” is a monthly event, what are some other things that you hope to explore as the show goes on?

I don’t know if you’re familiar with ecstatic dance. People get together on Sundays on the beach and it’s like a silent disco. They wear headphones, and there’s a DJ, and people dance freely on the beach. People are such hardcore devotees of that.

I would love for “Call Me By My Hebrew Name” to have that kind of following, that safe space vibe. I want people to know it’s happening, that it’s going to be this release, this reset, this cleanse. There’s going to be laughter. There’s going to be joy. There’s going to be freedom. I think it could tour. It’s the kind of thing I could bring anywhere. I could bring it to festivals or bring it on the road, bring it internationally. There’s Jewish communities everywhere. How cool would it be to have this little Jewish experience, especially in communities where there aren’t tons of Jewish activities going on? Maybe there’s a Nebraska Jewish community that wants to see “Call Me By My Hebrew Name,” and I bring it to them, and they leave being like, “Oh, I’m not so weird. There are people like me. I belong in the world. And that was fun.”

The next “Call Me By My Hebrew Name” show will take place on November 4th at The Crow in Santa Monica. You can also follow Feldman on Instagram and Tik Tok.

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