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Leah Forster

Comedy | June 23, 2020

Listen to “Leah Forster: Of Comedy and Community” on Spreaker.

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, David sits down with Leah Forster, a world-famous ex-Hasidic comedian, to talk about how her journey has affected her comedy.

Leah found comedy at a young age and pioneered comedy by women, for women, in the ultra-Orthodox world. She realized that the ultra-Orthodox life she grew up with caused a deep conflict within her, and she left to remain true to her authentic self. She was later at the center of a controversy where two bookings at kosher restaurants were cancelled, with their kashrus organizations threatening to pull their certifications because she was lesbian. How has Leah kept her comedy positive and free of bitterness and cynicism? How has she stayed positive in her personal life when dealing with these hardships? What lessons has she learned from them? And does she see herself as a role model to religious people who are realizing that they don’t fit within their community? Tune in to join David and Leah as Leah reflects on her journey in between demonstrations of her many comedic personas.

TRANSCRIPT

David Bashevkin:

Welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where we discuss issues, personalities, and ideas about religion and traditional world confrontation with modernity, and how on Earth are we supposed to construct meaning in the contemporary world right now? It is my absolute pleasure to welcome to the 18Forty Podcast Leah Forster, who is a comedian. She performs shows all around the world and the United States. She is an Instagram star with close to 60,000 followers, and puts up a famous character on Tichel Tuesdays, where she really brings a lot of joy to a lot of people. Leah, thank you so much for joining. It really means a lot.

Leah Forster:

Thank you for having me, and to everyone listening, hello hello.

David Bashevkin:

Leah, let’s rewind a little bit and start with the beginning of your story and your entrance into comedy. When did you start becoming interested and realizing that you have a talent for impressions, imitations, comedy, and all of the stuff?

Leah Forster:

I think I’d like to thank my third grade teacher, Mrs. Lazar, for not casting me as Queen Esther in the Purim play when I tried out, and I desperately wanted to be Queen Esther.

David Bashevkin:

Purim play, that’s where it all starts, in the Purim play.

Leah Forster:

That’s where it starts, I tell you, that’s where the magic happens.

David Bashevkin:

What part did you get?

Leah Forster:

Unfortunately… She tells me, “We created a part just for you,” and I’m like, “ooh,” and she says, “Yep, we’re going to make you the Purim clown.” In my head I’m like, “But wait a minute, there’s no Purim clown in the Purim story.” She’s like, “It’s okay, just be yourself. Make those faces that you make.” At the time it was a very humbling experience as a third grader who wanted to be Queen Esther, especially because she cast me side by side with another clown who was super skinny and acrobatic, and then there’s me, Pudgy Pudgenstein. What should I tell you, the rest was history. Once I heard people smiling and laughing, I was like, “Hey, we’re onto something.”

David Bashevkin:

So you grew up in a Chasidish community, correct?

Leah Forster:

Correct.

David Bashevkin:

Could you say which sect of Chassidus were you affiliated with growing up, or was it generic?

Leah Forster:

It’s kind of a typical, heimish, Borough Park family: a melting pot of a little of everything. I went to Klausenberg until first grade, which is a very right-wing Chasidish environment, mostly Yiddish speakers, and my father wore a shtreimel, which is like –

David Bashevkin:

You spoke Yiddish? Do you speak in Yiddish?

Leah Forster:

Fluent Yiddish.

David Bashevkin:

A fluent Yiddish, fabulous. Growing up in that world, and we’ll get to the fact that you’re no longer in that world in your day-to-day life, but growing up in that world, was comedy something appreciated? Did you have a space to do that stuff?

Leah Forster:

I think the Chasidish community, the heimish community, is very warm, and they love fun. If you’re familiar with the niches in Judaism, there’s the ongoing battle between the Hasidics and the Yeshivish, because they say Yeshivish are kalte litvaks, they take everything very seriously. Heimish people, Chasidish people, love to laugh, and there’s a constant laughter. The question is in terms of where a woman performing belongs in that niche, and of course, women can perform for women, and I did that –

David Bashevkin:

And you developed that, meaning your early shows were within the community, and were exclusively female audiences.

Leah Forster:

For women, by women. I sold out shows with thousands of seats, I was flown around the world, I put out three comedy musical albums, I put out 10 DVDs, and I really had no competition. I was super duper successful in the mainstream, frum community for performing.

David Bashevkin:

And this is when you were still affiliated openly, more or less, with that heimish, Chasidish community.

Leah Forster:

Correct, correct, and I loved it. I loved performing for women, like I said, by women. Even within that community I definitely broke some barriers, because the idea of stand up comedy didn’t exist, and I found a way to bring it into mainstream. But with all my performances, and every time I was hired for a job, I had to go through the same, you know, “Please make sure you wear this on stage, and you refrain from saying this, and you don’t do this accent.” So I was definitely limited, and there was structure within what I was doing, which is ultimately, by the way, why I made the changes that I did, because I’m an artist, and I feel like humor isn’t something that I could stifle, and I need to be able to do the accents that I want, and talk about current events, and…

David Bashevkin:

Was there a specific accent? Remind me, what was the accent they did not want you doing?

Leah Forster:

I had this Marlene character, she’s the girl that you see on the train, and she’s like, “He was talking to me, and I was like mm-mm and she was like mm-hmm .”

David Bashevkin:

So it wasn’t the Chasidish accent they didn’t want. They didn’t want the…

Leah Forster:

Oh, they love that. By the way, that’s another thing. People are like, “Oh my gosh, are people offended?” I’m like, “They love it. It’s them, they can relate to it.” If you understand the woman behind the tichel character, she’s the typical, lovable, blissfully naïve woman who runs 20 businesses out of her basement, of course off-the-books, and she really isn’t qualified to do any of them, but she’s the type that watches one YouTube video and now she’s a health coach, or she reads one Binah Magazine article on mental illness and now she’s a life coach, you know what I mean?

David Bashevkin:

I love the character and I love her websites. I love her musband’s websites are really great. Still in that world, what would you compare – because there’s something in the Hasidic world called a “badchan,” which is Hasidic performers who get up, and they make jokes. Were you adjacent, or were you in contact with the world of a badchan, because I don’t know if there’s a female parallel to that, because you kind of –

Leah Forster:

There is no –

David Bashevkin:

Blazed that path for yourself.

Leah Forster:

Because the job of the badchan is mostly at weddings, at Chasidish weddings. After the mitzvah tantz, which is the traditional dance between a bride and a groom, the badchan gets up and calls up the mother of the bride, the father of the bride, the grandfather, and he does these cute little rhymes and jokes about the couple, but where is the woman going to do that?

David Bashevkin:

So eventually you left the Hasidic community. That’s not where you live right now, that’s not where you identify. What I always find so striking about your comedy, and what I want to talk about, is there’s always this question when you see somebody doing an imitation: Are they laughing with them or at them? And I always have the impression when I listen to you that it’s with them. It’s not biting, it’s not cynical, you’re not tearing people down. There’s a warmth to it. And what I want to –

Leah Forster:

I feel like to me, which is why I have the tagline in my Instagram that says “relatable comedy”. Obviously a pun on my name.

David Bashevkin:

With a pun: “Leah”.

Leah Forster:

Yeah. But what I wanted was – and this is the messages I get all the time – “Oh my gosh, I know a girl like this.” Hadassah, the girl from Young Israel, baruch hashem, I’m telling you, it’s such a bracha, you know? She’s that woman with the little doily on top of her head, you know what I mean? And then there’s the frum girl that just came back from seminary, and she’s devastated because her mother eats chalav stam. So I feel like people who watch it are like, “That’s my neighbor, that’s my sister, that’s my cousin.” And to me, when I do that character, I’m just joining in on the fun. There’s definitely no evil intentions. And comedians don’t always get it right, it’s a very fine line to tread. I will occasionally get the message, “By the way, I found this offensive.” For example –

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, what’s an example where people felt that you were laughing at them? You almost recognized, “I may have crossed the line on that.”

Leah Forster:

This isn’t particularly to the religious audience, but I do a lot of accents, and I do a lot of different characters. One of them is my Natasha character. She’s in dental hygienist school. She’s becoming a dentist, and she’s dating, and it’s so hard to navigate. She’s next generation Russian. Her father is papochka from Moldova, real hardcore. She’s more sophisticated and next generation. So I did a bit where I was like, “Oh my god, when I go out these guys hit on me, and it doesn’t even matter if I say I have a man. So from now on I tell them, “I was a man.” I think that’s really funny, but I got messages from people in the trans community saying that I was making fun of them. When somebody messages me privately and says, “By the way, I found that offensive,” and they explain to me why it’s offensive, whatever it is, I’m happy to remove it, always, because my point is never to hurt anybody’s feelings. And like I said, we don’t always get it right. I have an issue with people that will publicly come on the page, and humiliate, and write “disgusting,” or whatever it is. For me I feel like, if you want to achieve something, package it properly in order to achieve the optimal result, like with parenting or anything. How are you going to get a –

David Bashevkin:

I feel like your comedy models that, in a way, where you package it by and large with a very sweet, playful lens, but it’s never coming at them. I want to dig a little deeper in this because –

Leah Forster:

Oh my gosh, that’s perfect that you said, because the perfect example would be this week, I did a Tichel Tuesday about, it’s called halachosandhadrachos.com.

David Bashevkin:

I love that one. I watched it.

Leah Forster:

I thought about this, because the way it works in Jewish law is, there’s the law, the letter of the law, the spirit of the law, and then there’s the local rabbi. Everybody asks their rabbi. But at the end of the day, there is always a way around the law, it just depends how you ask and who you ask and why you ask and blah blah blah. So I was in my head thinking, “Am I crossing a line? Because Halakha is Halakha. I don’t want to mess with Halakha, and I don’t want somebody to sit there and think that I’m making fun of that. But at the same time, I feel like it’s really funny that just even… And this is how I live my life, I always find the humor in everything.

Just like the way… I was divorced from my husband, who I was married to for 10 years. A really incredible person, it just didn’t work. But when we went to get our get, we were both laughing, because if you know anything about the way halachos of a get work, you have to bring in your own kit, a feather and ink. Come on, it’s 2020, who has a feather and an ink? So the guy who’s facilitating this, he hands you a feather and an ink and says, “I’m lending it to you,” and he makes this whole big spiel and acts out that he – and he plunks it in your hand. And my ex-husband was looking at the guy, “What? What am I supposed to do with this?” And he was winking at him, “Just hold it.” Then of course you give it back, kind of like you sell your chametz before Pesach to a goy who you know, right after Pesach, will sell it right back to you. Like I said, there’s always a loophole, and there’s always the line behind the line. I definitely do not want to cross it in my comedy, but if you think about it, the nuances are funny, and I have to be able to make fun of it.

David Bashevkin:

Let me dig into this a little more, because as you mentioned, you were divorced. You were raised in a Chasidish community, “ultra-Orthodox,” or whatever you want to call it. That’s very much not your life right now, and you have every reason… I’m fascinated by comedians and comedic personalities, especially their emotional character. You have every reason to be bitter, and frustrated, and more biting in your approach in looking back at the Jewish community that you left, but it’s so endearing. How do you manage to create comedy that doesn’t have that anger to it?

Leah Forster:

Let me just stop you right there. First of all, I think that everyone has a reason for things that they went through in life. We’ve all been through difficult circumstances and painful circumstances, but bad circumstances doesn’t excuse bad behavior, you know what I’m saying? This is not to knock anyone that’s been through terrible experiences, but the way that I personally choose to live my life is not to victimize myself. So yes, I’ve been through some tough experiences and sad experiences, but also, I’ve had tremendous good and gift in my life, and I see God’s hand every day. I may have left the ultra-Chasidish community, and I may not fit into mainstream frum labeling per se…

David Bashevkin:

Frum, Orthodox life, whatever you want to call it.

Leah Forster:

Exactly. But at the same time, I’ve found a really great community within the Jewish community, and my friends, who may not agree with everything that I have chosen in my lifestyle, because I don’t agree with everything they choose in their lifestyle, are warm and loving and accepting and I live in the center of Brooklyn, in the hub of the most Jewish area, and I have nothing but positive experiences from my neighbor, and my community, and the life that I’ve built around me is a very wholesome Jewish life, which is sad that you don’t get to see that in the media so much. You see people who have left, who have had terrible experiences, and they share their terrible experiences. I feel like I may have left one form or sect in Judaism, but I’ve discovered – Look at my Instagram page. If you come to show of mine you will be mind blown. It is full of Jews and non-Jews, and the Jews that are there are…

David Bashevkin:

Across the spectrum.

Leah Forster:

It’s a super colorful Jewish crowd. You have your Chasidish people that are in my audience, which I always laugh, especially in the summertime, I get much more Chasidish people when the wives are upstairs, which by the way, what are they doing? They’re going to get some laughs, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I’m, saying I have… Actually, when they walk to me after the show, they were 14 guys at a time, all in white shirts, with their peyos and all, and I literally started playing in my head the soundtrack, “They see me rolling,” because they looked like a posse. But I’ve had really diverse, beautiful Jewish audiences, to the point that right now, even on my Instagram, the people that hire me to promote their products are usually ultra-frum companies that are hiring me.

David Bashevkin:

Because they see that’s who you’re able to reach and that’s your audience.

Leah Forster:

Yeah. That’s my demographic, and I feel like the world changed a lot. Even the Jewish community changed so much for the better. It’s much more inclusive, it’s much more accepting. I don’t even want to use the word “tolerant,” because we tolerate lactose, you know what I mean? I just find that we’re all on a journey, and we’re all trying to get closer to God. You may do it your way, I may do my way, but we’re all part of the same group of people.

David Bashevkin:

I feel like it gets to the fact that you have a tool that a lot of other people who have had difficult experiences don’t have, and that’s comedy. It’s one of the skills that people who struggle with communal acceptance are… If you have comedy in your arsenal, what you’re really doing is, you’re able to form and create your own community of sorts, which is what you’ve done. Meaning, comedy isn’t just like… Would you agree with that or no?

Leah Forster:

I actually don’t disagree with you, but I will say this: like I mentioned earlier, I had lived the most successful life as a frum female performer. I was making good money, I was being flown all around the world, I was also a high school teacher in three mainstream Bais Yaakov high schools.

David Bashevkin:

What were you teaching?

Leah Forster:

I was teaching AP English, Shakespeare.

David Bashevkin:

Oh wow.

Leah Forster:

I headed their productions, and I was very involved in their shabbatons, I really was the pinnacle of a successful, frum, female woman contributing to the frum female community. I was a mom, a wife, the whole shebang.

David Bashevkin:

You were doing the whole thing.

Leah Forster:

The problem was that internally I was struggling with a lot of personal beliefs that didn’t align with the community that I was in, and ultimately I made the decision to walk away from it all. I was only able to do that, by the way, after many many years of help and courage and community and therapy, because it takes a lot when that’s all you have to walk away from that. I will say that when I walked away, I was prepared to never make another joke in my life, because I didn’t know that I would have a second chance at life or another opportunity. When I ripped that band aid off, it was the final band aid that I took off, and walked away. It was sad. It was a very sad time in my life, because I wanted to be authentic, and I also wanted to be able to make people laugh, but given where I belonged, it was impossible for me to do both.

David Bashevkin:

And where’s your audience now? Because once you left your community, who’s listening to your takes on the minutia of Hasidic life if you’re no longer in the Hasidic community?

Leah Forster:

That’s one part of it, but I’m a comedian. I perform in mainstream comedy clubs also, so that’s one small part of it. So I gave it up, and I took a break –

David Bashevkin:

From comedy altogether?

Leah Forster:

Yeah. And then one day, I’m scrolling through Instagram a couple of years later, and I’m watching –

David Bashevkin:

Years later? “Years,” plural?

Leah Forster:

Yeah. A couple of years. And I’m watching these female bloggers and influencers, they’re now cooking, and they’re fashion bloggers, and they’re modesty bloggers, and I’m thinking, “Where was this when I was in the community?” And all these super religious people are following.

David Bashevkin:

Frum people, yeah.

Leah Forster:

Yeah. I’m like, “I guess the world is evolving. I guess people are seeing that you can be a food blogger, and you don’t have to cover your elbows, or you can still show your collar bone. People are not so caught up in my personal life. And I was like, “Let me start putting up some jokes on my social media.” That’s all I started doing.

David Bashevkin:

And what did you start with?

Leah Forster:

I mean you can scroll back to my Instagram years.

David Bashevkin:

Did it start with Tichel Tuesday?

Leah Forster:

No, Tichel Tuesday came as a 12:00 at night, “Let me try to have fun with this,” type of thing. I didn’t think it would be what it was. But I was putting up some jokes, and before I knew it, one day I woke up and I had 5,000 followers, and then the next day I had 10,000 followers. I was like, “Oh my gosh.” I guess people were sending my stuff around, and people started following me. Then I started posting these cute little things every morning, little jokes that came to my head, just little things. Before I knew it, the opportunities presented themselves. All of a sudden, these Jewish organizations were reaching out: “We’re having a dinner, we’re an auction, I have a birthday party. Can you show up?” I was like, “Wow, people don’t really seem to care as much as I thought they would about my personal private life.” Obviously then things really blew up because I booked a restaurant, and I went –

David Bashevkin:

The famous restaurant. I teach public policy at Yeshiva University, and in my public policy course, we talk about how the Jewish community governs itself, and we have an entire section on the kosher industry, and I use what happened as a case study. It’s not why I wanted to reach out today, but it happens to be, I think it’s a fascinating case. There’s a great book by Timothy Lytton, who wrote a book on the kosher industry published by Harvard University, because the way they regulate kosher is a very strange way of regulation, because it’s not a private… It’s not government, and it’s not totally private, they’re interwoven with the community.

Leah Forster:

I also think, going back to halachos and hadrachos, there’s the law, and then there’s the letter of the law. A kosher restaurant’s responsibility is to provide kosher food.

David Bashevkin:

Let me just explain for those who don’t understand what we’re talking about, there was a major controversy on the front page of newspapers, and whatever it is was, where you were booked in a kosher restaurant, and there was a lot of pushback that you were inappropriate, that because of your personal life they felt that it was –

Leah Forster:

I’d love to give you my point of view on how it went down. Like, the truth.

David Bashevkin:

Please. Sure. I’m happy to talk about that.

Leah Forster:

I’ll just put 90 seconds to this. Basically, I booked a private restaurant for a New Year’s party, and for a comedy show, and I sold out tickets. A couple of days after I booked it, the restaurant owner texted me, a tzadik of a guy, and said, “Can you call me?” I thought it was weird when he said, “Can you call me,” because we had been only communicating via text, so why should I call you? Something in my brain said, “I need to record this conversation.” I never said that before, but something told me. Anyway, I call him, and he says, “Unfortunately, I can’t have you in my restaurant because of your private life.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” And he actually labeled it. He said, “You are a blank, and that is why we can’t – ”

David Bashevkin:

We can say that word, that you’re gay.

Leah Forster:

Okay, I didn’t know if I could say the word.

David Bashevkin:

No no, yeah.

Leah Forster:

He said, “You’re a lesbian.” For everybody that’s listening, I just want to clarify: my personal belief in general when it comes to religion, politics, sexuality, is: I don’t understand this desperate need to put people in boxes. You’re Yeshivish, you’re modern, you’re Chasidish, you’re a Democrat, you’re Republican, you’re lesbian, you’re gay, you’re straight. I just am a human being. I’m a Jew who loves God. I also love who I love.

David Bashevkin:

It’s not a central part of your act, I understand.

Leah Forster:

Exactly. And on top of that, a, I had been super private about my private life, and also, I was married to my husband for a very long time and loved him very much. I did not leave him because of any reason… We just didn’t work out. The idea that people are telling me now what I am was like, okay. So I was hurt, but I’m always one to take the high road, I think. I was like, “It’s over. I’m not making a big deal about it, I’ll find another restaurant.” I found another restaurant, and I warned the restaurant before: “I’m just letting you know, there could be an issue, and you might get pushback.” The woman, the owner, told me, “I don’t care, I do my own thing. I’m providing kosher food and that’s it. It’s a private venue, if you don’t want to come, don’t come.” So I reopened tickets, and I sold more tickets, and I told people we moved the venue.

Well, two days later, she calls me up hysterically crying. She felt awful. One rabbi who gives a certification quit, and said, “If you’re hosting Leah Forster, I’m leaving.” So she only had one rabbi left to give her kosher certification. On top of that, she was getting messages morning, noon, and night from people in the community, saying, “If you host her, we’re not showing up, we’re never going to support you, we’re never – ” and basically, she was going to lose her whole business. I don’t want her to lose her whole business, so I was like, “I totally understand.” But I went on my Instagram page, and I posted a sad post about how hurt I am, that this happened to me. I made sure to be clear that this has nothing to do with the restaurant owner, it’s just unfortunately the system. Well well, somebody sent a clip to the editor of the Daily News, and I came home after work, and there was a photographer standing there saying, “Smile,” 12:00 –

David Bashevkin:

And you didn’t send that to the Daily News?

Leah Forster:

No way. No way. It’s not my style. I post for me, that’s why my page is private. I only accept people that are legitimate. You know how many people try to request me, like “shtipmach123,” because they want to come on my page and gossip and talk bullcocka, and I’m not interested in that. I control my environment, and it’s a positive environment. So I said, “I understand,” to the newspaper, but I said, “I at least want to give you my side of things, because I don’t want you to print something that isn’t true, and make me seem like I’m, woe-is-me, and whoa the community is so terrible.” But media is media, they have a way of spinning things. And although I did my best, it still made people look bad, and of course, they slapped the label on the cover, “Lesbian Jewish comic kosher bla bla bla – ”

David Bashevkin:

Which was never your brand. Did that seriously, dramatically hurt – It’s been probably over a year since then, maybe two years – Did that dramatically hurt your ability to perform comedy inside of the community? Did you lose a lot of followers?

Leah Forster:

Oh my gosh. Lose? My followers doubled in a day. And then my eyes really opened up to so many beautiful Jewish communities. This Chasidish rabbi from Washington DC called me up the next day and booked me for a show, and New Rochelle, and Great Neck, and Teaneck, and all of a sudden, all these people were reaching out to me and being like, “You’re a really good person, you’re a really good Jew. We want you. Come perform for us.” And I ended up getting so much more business and gigs from that experience, and it was the most positive…

David Bashevkin:

Do you still get advertisements from within the Chasidish community? Businesses, private businesses?

Leah Forster:

In the beginning, there was definitely scandal attached it. But at the end of the day – and this is another thing about loopholes – money is money. If I have a following, and my demographic is a lot of frum people that tune in, then they’ll pay a few hundred bucks to advertise with me, because it’s worth it.

David Bashevkin:

Do you feel like you’ve healed since that incident? Because again, what I find so remarkable, and I keep on coming back to this, is the resilience of your spirit, even given all of the headlines and scandal about it. Here we are two years later, you were in the front page of a major daily newspaper… I don’t sense the bite, I sense the regular Tichel Tuesday. You’re not coming after people still. So after this, what did you use to heal?

Leah Forster:

I’m going to sound super preachy, but I really feel like, you’re not a failure until you start blaming others for your mistakes. I could sit and point fingers all day, “My parents don’t accept me, and people in my community dump me,” I lost my job. Back in the day when I had left, and I became an authentic person, I got fired from one day to the next. I was outed. One of the schools that I worked for literally told me, “Don’t come in the next day.” And I was a teacher for many many years, and my students loved me, and I gave my life to the job. Of course I was hurt, of course I was sad. You think I’m not sad that my mother said, “Don’t come to my levaya when I die,” and –

David Bashevkin:

Do you have a relationship with your mother now?

Leah Forster:

No. Well, it’s one-sided, does that count? I’ll text her, I’ll message her, I’ll call her, and I will still do that. I will do it until the day I die, until 120, because after I come up, I want to be able to stand in front of my father in heaven, and say, “I did my best. I did my part.” But also, with maturity, I have gained incredible compassion and understanding for the community, and for my parents, and for anyone struggling with a child or a friend or a family member that changed a lifestyle, because they’re very limited. They’re not capable, a lot of them, of grasping the change, or understanding it, and they blame themselves a lot, that they did something wrong, and I don’t have any hate in my heart.

David Bashevkin:

Where do you find the strength for all of this? We spoke about comedy. Your relationship to Judaism, which has evolved so much, obviously where you’re coming from… Do you still find strength from Judaism even though so many of its strictures and boundaries have been the source of so much pain for you?

Leah Forster:

Good question, and here’s the answer. The answer is, I personally don’t need to live by a label any more. Once I remove that from myself – When I grew up, the biggest threat my mother told me was, “You want to be considered modern?” “No! I don’t want to be modern!” Now it’s like, who really cares what people consider me? I have a relationship with God, and that’s it. Obviously if I’m hurting someone and if I’m speaking ill of someone then yes, that involves people, but I don’t hurt people just because –

David Bashevkin:

But are you able to remain connected to –

Leah Forster:

Oh my gosh. I mean…

David Bashevkin:

The rituals and the days of Judaism?

Leah Forster:

First of all, it’s super easy for me. I keep kosher, my home is a kosher home, and it’s super easy for me because I live in the center of Brooklyn, so I have 18 billion fruit stores, butchers, fish stores –

David Bashevkin:

It’s almost more effort to not keep kosher where you live, you have to walk farther.

Leah Forster:

I don’t intend to and I just… Kosher is something that I’ve held on to, same with Shabbos. Do I keep Shabbos the way my parents kept Shabbos? I will sit out –

David Bashevkin:

No, it’s evolved, yeah.

Leah Forster:

If I go Pesach to a hotel, I’m sitting by the pool on yom tov, and I’m chilling, and maybe for some that means that I’m, you know…

David Bashevkin:

That’s a misdemeanor. I thought it was going to be a lot –

Leah Forster:

Exactly. A slap on the wrist, you know what I’m saying? But my point is that, it has come to the point where Judaism to me is a choice, and I choose – Purim? My house is decorated a month before, it’s lit up in my house. And my shalach manos is a theme and a plan. And Chanukah? My house gets transformed a week and a half before Chanukah. I fast on Tisha B’Av. But again –

David Bashevkin:

I feel bad, I don’t need to give you a page-by-page –

Leah Forster:

No no, my point is, whatever I’m doing is because I want to do it, and because that’s my personal relationship with God, and community, and what it means to me, and I don’t feel that I need to answer to anyone other than God. So it’s easy to keep that connection and positivity, because I don’t get swayed because someone else is like, “Oh my god, she wears pants.” Yes, I do wear pants. Modern Orthodox people wear pants. No, I don’t cover my hair. Lots of Modern Orthodox people, a lot of people in Young Israel, don’t cover their hair. That’s fine for me, and that’s fine for where I am on my journey with God and Judaism. I’ll take it up with him after 120. That’s how I feel.

David Bashevkin:

Are you able to transmit this? You have a home. You have a child. Are you able to transmit this, meaning, this combination of joy, but still that deep-rooted connection that you have? Because you grew up going to a Chasidish school, so you have this reservoir. How have you been able to transmit this joy, and not the anger, or bitterness, or all that stuff come out? Because that’s usually all that people talk about.

Leah Forster:

I’ll be honest with you. When my daughter left, part of the reason why I did make the changes that I made is because of her: because she was incredibly unhappy, and it was my fault, because I was perpetuating the same double life and the same stuff that I didn’t necessarily believe in. We have a dog, and she had to lie at school about having a dog, and so did I, I was a teacher. My principal called me in one day –

David Bashevkin:

What’s your dog’s name? I feel like I have to ask.

Leah Forster:

Rosie.

David Bashevkin:

Rosie. Very typical, okay.

Leah Forster:

They called her in, and they would ask her and interrogate her. She would sing “Let It Go” from Frozen, and they would say, “Do you watch at home? Do you have a dog? What does your mother do?” All this stuff. It created a lot of bitterness inside of her, so I had to make a choice, so I ended up taking her out of this ultra-Orthodox environment, but I put her into a Jewish day school. So a day school experience, for many is a beautiful, for many it’s not, but for many it is beautiful experience. Coming from the world my daughter came from, she embraced it, because she was like, “Hey, I’m Jewish, I’m proud, I can celebrate all these beautiful things, but also, I don’t have to worry about the inches of my skirt below my knee.”

David Bashevkin:

You have such a fascinating story, and you’ve been through so much. I have two questions, big questions, and then we can end with some lightning round stuff. Number one is, do you have plans, and what are your thoughts, on the genre of Hasidic memoirs? Why haven’t you written a memoir? You’re a performer, you’re a communicator. You have this amazing story. Do you have plans to share your story? How do you relate to that genre?

Leah Forster:

A lot of people don’t know, because I was supposed to do a big promo for this, but on May 8th, I was supposed to have a Netflix special that came out, called “Hello Hello”. We were in post production, and I was doing reshoots, and unfortunately then Corona happened, so…

David Bashevkin:

It’s postponed. Was it canceled or postponed?

Leah Forster:

Right now it’s postponed. But the reason why I had the reshoots, because it was supposed to come out in October, is because, basically, these cameramen followed me around to a bunch of comedy clubs and then pieced together my old comedy, from when I used to perform for women, to my comedy now. It was a constant mirror and side-by-side, and it’s very funny, actually, because you see me in a shaitel, and you see me saying certain jokes, and then you see me saying the same jokes as myself now for a mainstream crowd, and it’s very funny. But the problem was that they put a lot of footage, black and white footage of ultra-Chasidish people in Williamsburg huddled over, and of course they did the whole, they were following me around by the whole restaurant situation. A lot of it came out in a way that I didn’t like it, because that’s their job: to put something out there that’s juicy and interesting for people to watch. Unfortunately, the way that I put it out there was, it was too positive and too happy.

David Bashevkin:

War. That’s not what they wanted, they wanted uh-huh.

Leah Forster:

Exactly. That is boring, and they told me. The producer told me, she’s like, “Leah, I get what you want to do, but it’s not exciting enough. What’s the hook?” I’m like, “Can’t the hook just be, you can make a change in your life and it doesn’t have to end in complete and utter abandonment and disaster?” So we’re still working through the kinks, I don’t know where it will go. But yes, I have been approached multiple times. I just don’t want to be known for my story, I want to be known for much more than that. I don’t want to be that girl, “She’s the one that left the community.” No.

David Bashevkin:

You want to be known as a comedian.

Leah Forster:

I’m a comedian. I’m funny, I’m a mom, I’m a person, I’m a friend, I’m a whatever, I’m so much more than just someone who made a change in their life. You know what I’m saying?

David Bashevkin:

It’s so interesting that comedy has the capacity – and I believe in this in my full heart – to tie together all these loose threads. When joy and laughing and smiling is the center core, then all of the little narratives that break off and don’t have these clear, happy endings are able to be tied together in that bow, and brought together. Let me ask you this, and you kind of answered it already, but in an interview, you said something that I do not believe. You said, “I’m not a role model, and I don’t want to teach anybody anything. I just want to live my life, make people happy, and break down barriers.” I almost think that’s a contradiction of sorts. I think you are a role model of sorts, and you are trying to teach people something. You are reframing the way people both look at yourself – because there are two lenses to all your comedy – and the way people look at Hasidic Jews. I want to give you a second opportunity to reflect: what are you trying to teach people?

Leah Forster:

I stand by what I said.

David Bashevkin:

You stand by what you said?

Leah Forster:

I stand by what I said. I want to be the face of where people turn on their phone in the morning with a cup of coffee, and they had a crazy day getting their kids up on a bus, and then they sit down, and they turn on my story, and they have a laugh, and their day starts with a smile. Or, I want to be the person that is stuck in quarantine, and they were supposed to have a birthday party, and they’re turning 85 years old in Australia, which just happened, and I was able to hop on a Zoom, and this woman watches my Tichels every week, and I was able to make her laugh, and she’s alone, surrounded by her kids on Zoom. That’s who I want to be. I don’t want to be a role model, meaning, I don’t want to teach anyone anything by preaching.

David Bashevkin:

In the sense where, exactly, meaning it’s not overt. I think there’s an under – There is nothing explicit that you are teaching, and you’re not being a role model that, “You should do what I did,” but I do find the character and the tone of your comedy to be extremely educational. It’s educational.

Leah Forster:

Thank you. But I will say this: it’s a little bit of a scary slope, I can’t even tell you how many hundred of messages I get. Young girls, boys, married women and men in the community, that are stuck and are closeted in various ways, and they’ll be like, “What should I do?” And I’m like, “I’m not a professional, I’m not a rabbi. You need to reach out to your therapist and you need to reach out to your rabbi.” The only thing that I will do is I will guide them towards resources, “Here’s a good organization to help you.” I will never say, “I did this, you should do that.” What’s safe for me was to be authentic, and living a double life destroyed me from the inside. But guess what: someone who has five kids and a parnassah in the community, it might not be safe for them to just –

David Bashevkin:

A profession, yeah.

Leah Forster:

So who am I to tell people what to do? I can just do what I do, you know what I’m saying?

David Bashevkin:

And you’re bringing a lot of joy. It’s something really special, and the fact that it comes from the story and your narrative I think gives it even more value, and it’s even more inspiring. Let me end with some rapid-fire, very quick questions. Your routine: do you good to sleep late at night? What time do you usually go to sleep, what time do you usually wake up?

Leah Forster:

I’m an early sleeper and an early riser.

David Bashevkin:

Really?

Leah Forster:

This morning, yeah, I already went for a run. I already did a bunch of conference calls –

David Bashevkin:

What time did you wake up? What’s early?

Leah Forster:

I was up 6:00 am this morning.

David Bashevkin:

I never would have guessed. And you go to sleep early.

Leah Forster:

You probably wouldn’t guess also that I run a home care agency.

David Bashevkin:

I would not have guessed that either, though I’ve done my research, so I do know about that.

Leah Forster:

It’s funny, because when the newspaper article came out, and I came into work the next day, all my employees were holding up the newspaper, and they looked at me and they said, “Leah, you’re a comedian?” They had no idea.

David Bashevkin:

They didn’t even know that? That’s great. Okay. Your comedic influences: who are your main comedic influences? You said something –

Leah Forster:

Easy.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, who?

Leah Forster:

Rodney Dangerfield number one, my favorite, hands down, because he’s the most self-deprecating schmuck I ever met, and closely followed by Jackie Mason.

David Bashevkin:

The legend.

Leah Forster:

I love him, he’s amazing.

David Bashevkin:

He should live and be well.

Leah Forster:

Amen. And those are my two tops. I love that, I love them both.

David Bashevkin:

Okay. If you were to go back to school and get a PhD in whatever subject you wanted, what do you think your dissertation would be about?

Leah Forster:

I have a masters in English, so I can tell you what my dissertation was on that.

David Bashevkin:

What was your masters dissertation?

Leah Forster:

Gosh. I spoke about gender roles in Shakespearean times.

David Bashevkin:

No Tichel relationship, directly?

Leah Forster:

But did you know that in Shakespeare’s times, all the characters of women were played by men?

David Bashevkin:

Yes, I did in fact know that.

Leah Forster:

There you go.

David Bashevkin:

Really fascinating.

Leah Forster:

Which is funny because in Bais Yaakov, all the men characters were played by women.

David Bashevkin:

Very Shakespearean. Leah – Do you prefer Ley-ah or Lee-ah?

Leah Forster:

Ley-ah.

David Bashevkin:

Leah, it is such a joy, and I’m so appreciative of you spending the time on the 18Forty Podcast. You have an amazing story. You’re inspiring so many, and most importantly, you are making so many people laugh, and bring joy every single morning. Thank you so much.

Leah Forster:

Thank you. Can I just say thing?

David Bashevkin:

Yes.

Leah Forster:

I have to say one thing to you. Your podcast is amazing, by the way. Before I went on I did a lot of research, because I don’t like to just do every podcast, I really like the messages that you put out there. And I also want to thank you for having me on here, because for me personally, it’s very validating. Obviously I get a lot of podcast requests, but it’s very validating that you are an observant Jew, and that you found me worthy to come on to your –

David Bashevkin:

Worthy? I am genuinely inspired from the way comedy and your life narrative combine together to bring joy to so many, when it could have been cynical, and tear-down, and you really bring joy. Thank you so much for joining, Leah.

Leah Forster:

Amen, amen. Let me leave the oilam with a bracha: You should be with mazel and simcha, and laughter is the best medicine unless you’re laughing alone. Then you probably need medicine.

 

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