Known for her irreverent comedy, Sarah Silverman is now raising awareness about church-state separation.
Along with comedian Russell Brand and a group of musicians, the Jewish comedian is headlining “Voices United,” a nationwide series of grassroots concerts and live shows Sept. 28-Oct. 1.
Sponsored by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “Voices United” features Brand, Silverman, Catie Curtis, Janis Ian, John McCutcheon, Mary Gauthier, Guy Davis, Roy Zimmerman and Natalia Zukerman.
Americans United represents members and supporters in all 50 states who come from different religious, political and philosophical viewpoints, but share a belief that preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation is the only way to ensure religious freedom for all. Among its activities, Americans United opposes prayer in public schools, school voucher initiatives in the states, and “faith-based” initiatives in government.
Though born into a Jewish family, Silverman grew up in a secular household in New Hampshire. Her mother, Beth Ann Halpin, worked as presidential candidate George McGovern’s personal campaign photographer and her father, Donald Silverman, was a social worker who ran the discount clothing store Crazy Sophie’s Outlet. Sarah’s sister Susan is a rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.
In a recent interview, Silverman told Church and State, a magazine published by Americans United, that her sister helped get her involved in “Voices United.”
“My sister Susan is friends with singer/songwriter Catie Curtis and passed along an email from her about Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and I knew right away I wanted to be involved,” Silverman said. “Church-state separation is a part of what this country was built on. It wasn’t until the ’50s that ‘God’ (the Christian God) was wedged into government and the Pledge of Allegiance. This country was built by immigrants and founded by people who intended it as a place where everyone is welcome and all religions and nationalities are accepted and respected.”
Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, considers Silverman the perfect headliner for the Voices United series.
“I’ve always considered Sarah a marvelous comedienne,” Lynn told JNS.org. “She did a wonderful job in films and on television and I’m delighted she’s part of this effort. She’s edgy as good comics need to be.”
Called “irreverent,” “fearless” and “hardcore,” Silverman has built her career by not shying away from controversial topics. Known for diving right into issues of race, religion and sex—whether it be on “Saturday Night Live” or her Comedy Central show “The Sarah Silverman Program”—Silverman will perform at Voices United’s grand finale event in Los Angeles on Oct. 1.
At the 2011 Presidential Conference in Israel, Silverman told Israel television news host Yigal Ravid that she supports solar power as a project on which Israelis and Palestinians can work together as a peace-building exercise.
“When I think about peace and I think about the Jews and the Palestinians I think the only real solution is the classic buddy-movie formula,” Silverman said. “You take two enemies and they are forced to work together on some common goal and in the end they realize they aren’t that different. Right? So they’ve got to come together either for some common goal—how about solar power? How about solar power!? How about powering the world with this beautiful sun they share?”
Comedian Elon Gold—a rising star in his own right from appearances on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “Bones”—told JNS.org that he “grew up with Sarah in comedy in New York 20 years ago” and “always had great admiration and respect for what she does.”
“It was really cool to see the girl at the comedy clubs who didn’t care she was offending people with her edgy jokes and getting more gasps than laughs, parlay that same irreverence into an awesome career,” Gold said. “Every time I watched her go up I recall watching in amazement and thinking, she’s so brave to get up there and say the edgiest stuff and not let the audience response get to her. If anything she reveled in the shock of it all.”
“Nowadays, audiences everywhere get it and she kills wherever she goes because they know what to expect and just enjoy the great comedy,” he added. “Back then it was, ‘who’s this pretty, young, nice Jewish girl with the potty mouth? How could she says those things?!’ Those things were funny then and they’re funny now. The only difference is, now they’re cracking up and she’s become one of the brightest stars in comedy.”
Americans United’s Lynn told JNS.org that in member surveys, nearly one-third of the membership of Americans United identifies as Jewish. That number has seen a large increase during the last few decades, he said.
“This increase is not only about thinking about Nazi Germany, but thinking about what America was like for Jewish-Americans in the 1940s and 1950s, when anti-Semitism was rampant in this country,” Lynn said. “Throughout the world where Jews are a minority group, culturally or religiously, they face the same kinds of difficulties.”
Although Silverman said she does not practice religion, she frequently mines Judaism for material.
“Culturally, I can’t escape it,” she told the New York Times in 2008. “I’m very Jewish.”