Picture this. You’re a 31-year-old, gay, Conservative Jewish, female stand-up comedian about to get on stage at a Jewish Community Center in rural Connecticut to perform for a crowd with an average age of 65. You look out into the audience and over and over again you see men who look like your grandpa and women who look like your grandma. Your set is 80% about being gay, and though you’ve come out to your parents, sister, aunts, uncles and cousins, you’ve never come out to your grandparents. And you never will — because they’ve passed away. Do you do your typical set or change it last minute?
That was the scene in which I found myself last July. Allow me to tell you how I got there.
I grew up in suburban New Jersey, went to Jewish day school from kindergarten until 8th grade, went to Hebrew high school on Sundays, and was on the board of the Hillel at NYU. And somehow, I never found myself that nice Jewish boy my grandma asked me about every time we got together. To be fair, I never found myself that nice not-Jewish boy either. My grandma started to get desperate. She would ask me if I even had any friends who were boys, and if I did, why not date one of them. It’s not that simple, Grandma.
I tried. I really did. At one point, I found myself meeting up with a guy I met on J Date. At another point, I went on a few dates with a guy I’d seen around at Jewish events at NYU. I even went out once with a guy I met at a Chabad in London while studying abroad. As it turns out, that whole time, I was only trying to find that nice Jewish boy grandma kept asking me about. I wasn’t successful in my dating life, until finally, at 24 years old, I went out with a woman. Still, whenever my grandma asked me about finding that nice Jewish boy, I just said, “Not yet, Grandma.”
About two years later, I started to perform stand-up comedy. Boy, did I go heavy on the gay jokes. Clean, dirty, anecdotal, you name it, I joked about it. I told strangers, old and young, extremely personal information, but I couldn’t seem to rip off the band aid when it came to my own grandma.
My mother’s mother passed away before I was born, her father passed away before I became a comedian and my father’s father passed before I knew I was gay. It all came down to my grandma.
My grandma was a Holocaust survivor. She found her way to America after years fighting to survive in concentration camps, and then again in a pogrom in Poland. Family, food (she was one heck of a cook) and Judaism were top priorities to her. I knew how important it was to her to continue the Jewish lineage, to be fruitful and multiply.
Being gay doesn’t make that impossible, but it does throw a wrench into the mix. So, I avoided the topic altogether. At the time, I was scared to let her down, or thought that she’d be upset or wouldn’t understand. But, thinking back on it now, I think that I was still coming to terms with my own sexuality, and wasn’t confident in it enough to have to justify it to someone I didn’t think would approve.
Two years after starting stand-up comedy, my grandma passed away. Two years after that, I found myself in that JCC, about to get on stage, wondering if I was going to tell all these Jewish grandmas and grandpas, bubbes and zaydes, that I’m gay. This wasn’t my first time performing for a Jewish crowd. I actually did a Zoom benefit comedy show for my very own synagogue, the same synagogue at which I had my baby naming and became a bat mitzvah. I did have some concerns about the nature of my material, but I also had the computer screen to hide behind and my own image to look at the whole time. It’s a lot easier to come out as gay to your fellow congregants when you can stare at the smile on your own face as you do it.
So now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Did I come out as gay, on stage, to all these sabas and savtas?
I sure did, with flying rainbow colors.
Seven years after coming to terms with my sexuality, I had the confidence to be proud of who I am and not care if someone might not be accepting. It felt great. I pictured each one of those audience members as my grandparents. I looked them in the eye and told them I’m so gay that I used to watch that movie “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” wishing I was the pants. I may not have gotten a hug, or a lipstick-on-my-cheek kiss, or an I love you, but that laughter from the audience gave me a feeling of closure that I never thought I’d get.