It wasn’t until she was 27 years old that Tiffany Haddish discovered she was the daughter of an Eritrean Jew. Since then, Haddish has come to embrace her Jewish roots, culminating in her bat mitzvah last week. The ceremony coincided with the actor and comedian’s 40th birthday, as well as the release of her Netflix comedy special, “Black Mitzvah.” Haddish kicks off her set by arriving onstage in a sedan chair carried by four brawny men. She’s singing “Hava Nagila,” which morphs into a rap song and ends with, “Black mitzvah, b****!”
Haddish goes on to proclaim: “That’s right, I’m Jewish, everybody don’t know that about me. I hope you are all here ready to celebrate tonight because this is a celebration, ‘cause I have finally come into my full-grown womanhood.”
Throughout the hour-long show, Haddish talks about her childhood in foster care, her curiosity about science, her sex life and some of her more notable drunken experiences. This curious mix of topics always has Haddish returning to the refrain, “I learned a lot of lessons the hard way, and I’m here to share with you. It’s my mitzvah. I’m here to teach.”
On hand to officiate at Haddish’s bat mitzvah was Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of comedian and actor Sarah Silverman. Susan, who lives in Jerusalem, enlisted her daughter, Aliza Rose Silverman, to help. Aliza, who lives in New York City, tutored Haddish in Hebrew and then her Torah portion while the latter was filming a movie in the city. Susan spoke to JewishBoston about working with Haddish to prepare her for her big day, her nonprofit, Second Nurture: Every Child Deserves a Family and a Community, and walking the red carpet for the first time.
How did you and Tiffany Haddish meet?
I had heard about Tiffany’s work and the fact she grew up in the foster care system. She is incredible, advocating on behalf of foster care kids today, and I wanted her on my board for Second Nurture.
Tiffany had become friends with my sister Sarah. One night she and Tiffany were together, and Sarah said, “My sister wants you on her board.” Tiffany said, “Of course. That’s your sister, the rabbi, and I want her to do my bat mitzvah.”
Given that you were in Jerusalem and Haddish was in Los Angeles, what was it like to prepare her for her bat mitzvah?
Tiffany and I initially worked together long distance. But then she was filming a movie in New York City, and I connected her with my oldest daughter, Aliza Rose, who lives in the city. Aliza taught Tiffany the blessings and how to chant her Torah portion.
You and Haddish also share a special bond over your experiences with adoption and the foster care system. How did that factor into her bat mitzvah experience?
It was Tiffany’s bat mitzvah, so I listened to her. Her Torah portion was the story of Jacob and Jacob’s ladder, where Jacob was fleeing a dangerous situation at home. Although he was going to a destination he knew, he didn’t know what awaited him there. Tiffany related the portion to her life and her frightening time in foster care. She said she felt the angels going up and down the ladder and being with her on her journey.
She didn’t write down her drasha [an interpretation of the Torah portion]; she spoke from the heart. However, we talked about how the drasha related to her life beforehand. I have never seen somebody so moved and make her claim as a Jew so publicly. Tiffany was born Jewish, and she was like Jacob in the sense that Jacob wakes up from a dream and realizes that God was in that place, but he did not know it. Tiffany was Jewish her whole life and didn’t know it until she was 27. Like Jacob, she also woke up and was awed.
What do you think is the significance of Haddish’s bat mitzvah for the Jewish community in general?
In working with Tiffany, Aliza was so moved by her that it reignited in Aliza a passion for Judaism. Aliza said she hadn’t seen someone so excited about Judaism and so thrilled to be Jewish. For me, personally, it was wonderful to see my 20-something daughter, who grew up so steeped in Judaism and in Israel, to be completely inspired by how moved Tiffany was. Tiffany’s soul was shaking with joy, a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose. I hope Jews everywhere who see Tiffany’s excitement, gratitude and passion around Judaism are reignited themselves.
And for Jews of color?
I can’t speak for Jews of color. But I can say that as an ally, it seems to me that Tiffany is furthering the conversation. Jews of color have already started very important conversations and new ways of thinking for the broader Jewish community. Tiffany is moving that innovative thinking to the forefront of people’s minds. When all Jews see Tiffany’s excitement and are moved by it, that’s great for the larger conversation for Jews of color in America.
What was special about Haddish’s tallit?
Tiffany and Aliza went tallit [prayer shawl] shopping in New York. Tiffany couldn’t choose just one tallit, so she bought a bunch of them. Aliza was also impressed by Tiffany’s love for all things Jewish. For me, watching my daughter get so enthusiastic about Judaism has been one of the highlights of this experience.
I also read that you gifted Haddish a yad from Israel and that she used it to read from the Torah at her bat mitzvah.
Second Nurture gifted Tiffany a yad [a pointer used when reading the Torah] for her bat mitzvah. I gave it to her when she was practicing her Torah portion, but she used it for reading everything Jewish-related. I love that what she was reading was so holy to her. She said, “I’m going to use this yad for everything.” That’s what Judaism is all about—making everything holy. Tiffany was connecting it all to her Jewish essence. Sarah had a feeling ahead of time that Tiffany would use the yad all the time, and she was right. Tiffany is so linked to Judaism in every way. Her Judaism comes from such a deep place. That yad is such a fantastic image—she’s just connected to the outside world with her neshama—soul.
What were some of the more unique aspects of Haddish’s bat mitzvah?
I haven’t been involved in a bar or bat mitzvah where the person is on the verge of tears or crying the whole time. There was this burning ardor for all things Jewish in Tiffany. She would say each blessing, and there was such joy that she now had the words for what was unformed in her before. In some ways, it felt like watching Zamir hear for the first time in a long time. [Zamir is Silverman’s younger son who became deaf at an early age.] Tiffany was able to form the words that had been trapped in her—to communicate and articulate what had been inside of her for so long.
What was it like to walk the red carpet?
Before it was my turn to go on, I was standing with Sarah and asked her what to do. I hadn’t registered that people call your name, and you turn and look at them and simply smile. “Just look at Wanda Sykes,” Sarah said. And then I realized that when everyone is yelling your name, you look and smile.
How was the party?
The party was so much fun! I’m usually the person who stakes out the quietest place at a party. But I grabbed my stepmother’s hand and was out on the dance floor. The place was buzzing. I also made HaMotzi and did the Kiddush at the start of the festivities.
This interview has been edited and condensed.