What’s the greatest gift a Jewish mother can bestow upon her children?
For years, comedian Judy Gold has mined her mother Ruth’s neurosis and nonstop noodging for her stand-up act. (One of her greatest jokes involves the first book her mother read to her as a tot — a pop-up version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”) Now, the quintessential yenta is the inspiration for Miss Gold’s wildly funny and affecting one-woman play, “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” playing for the next month at Theater J.
The 70-minute show, which will have tears of laughter and poignant recognition rolling down your cheeks, is based on her mom’s ferocious, anxiety-riddled love for her children and interviews that Miss Gold and playwright Kate Moira Ryan conducted with other Jewish mothers across the country.
“25 Questions” incorporates choice bits from Miss Gold’s act — an actual voice message left by Ruth Gold when her daughter committed the unpardonable sin of failing to call her back is a scream — with deft, pain-etched portrayals of some of the Jewish women Miss Gold met during her research. Some of the questions are reflective (“Who do Jewish little girls look up to?”), some are ripe for comedy (“How are you like and not like your mother?”), and others get to the crux of maternal love and solace (“What is the best piece of advice your mother gave you?”).
Ruth is depicted as an outlandish, albeit highly articulate, ranter. She rages, for example, that had the Golds been in the Anne Frank family’s shoes, they would have been found by the Nazis much sooner because Ruth would have had to shriek at her daughter for constantly putting the meat knife in the dairy drawer (in violation of kosher dietary laws).
Another memorable vignette centers on mother and daughter at each other’s throats during Judy’s adolescence, which resulted in them communicating though letters to Ann Landers tacked to the refrigerator. It isn’t until the end that we learn why Ruth held on so tightly — and the story she tells about a tragedy involving her older brother will leave you breathless.
While Ruth is a marvelous piece of work, “25 Questions” reaches another level of artistry with its depictions of the other women interviewed. They range from Orthodox mothers who insist they would sit shiva if their children married outside the faith to Holocaust survivors — one achingly speaks matter-of-factly of how the mother-daughter roles were reversed in Auschwitz and she had to become the strong one.
In between, Miss Gold talks about her journey from an ambitious comedian constantly on the road and running as far away as she could from her smothering, religious childhood to a lesbian, Kosher-keeping mother of two sons who is diligent about taking her boys to Hebrew school.
“The 25 Questions” does not yield easy answers. It is a beautifully detailed, deeply felt exploration of identity and acceptance, as Miss Gold moves from denial to accepting that she is indeed a Jewish mother — and proud of it.
WHAT: “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” written by Kate Moira Ryan and Judy Gold
WHERE: Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 24.
TICKETS: $15 to $50
WEB SITE: www.theaterj.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS