Life & Culture

Have you heard the one about the female rabbi?

An Iman, A Rabbi and a Priest Walk Into a Comedy Club is at JW3 on December 4.


The labour room was frantic with preparations moments before Debbie Young-Somers gave birth to her first child. It was at that moment she decided it was a good idea to tell her midwife what she did for a job.

But with hindsight, it is not something she would recommend to other expectant rabbis.

"People don't like to think of spiritual leaders pooing and farting on them as they push out a baby," she jokes.

It is tales like this that the 36-year-old mother-of-two may include in a 10-minute stand-up routine next week. She's also pondering whether she can swear and "get away with it."

With no prior experience, unless you count standing on the bimah, the rabbi will take to the stage next Friday as part of this year's Jewish Comedy Festival at JW3.

"I hope no one falls asleep. It is not going to be anything like synagogue," she says, sitting in her office and going through plans for her upcoming show, in which she will perform her routine along with a priest and an iman.

She was approached by the organisers a few weeks ago and Young-Somers is nervous about "how funny" she can learn to be in so little time. She's been given a coach to help her make the transition from pulpit to stage, helping with timing and gag-writing.

"When we met for our first session, the American election had just happened, and he said 'I don't know how much coaching we are going to get done, I think I'm going to need spiritual counselling.'"

She agreed to take part in the festival in part for sentimental reasons.

"My dad died 11 years ago in January, and he was always my biggest fan.

"I read him my Chanucah sermon just before he died and he couldn't communicate very much, but when I finished he banged on the bed and said: 'More jokes!'

"That has stayed with me."

She was part of the rabbinic team at the West London Synagogue, and is now community educator at the Movement for Reform Judaism. She says her life as a woman rabbi lends itself to comedy.

"I once had an elderly gentleman on Yom Kippur afternoon put his arms round me and say 'Isn't it nice to have something pretty to look at on the bimah.'

"I came away from that thinking, wow. I haven't helped him meet his goals for Yom Kippur at all, he has just been enjoying the view."

She wants to challenge the way people view their rabbi through her comedy. "Being a rabbi doesn't make me magical."

She is often surprised by things that some people think are appropriate to say to her.

"There is something about the way people feel they can access you physically and what it is OK to comment on, in terms of your body, or your weight loss, or your children.

"My husband and I spent six years having IVF, and a congregant of mine once said, 'Oh you young couples, you all rush into IVF, you don't give it enough time.'

"Some of it is offensive, but you have to laugh when people put their foot in it.

"It is true as a woman you have to name your flaws before someone else does.

"I think a lot of comedy is self-deprecating, but I think there is something about that for women in the world in general.

"I remember before I started training at the college, a female rabbi sat me down and said: 'You will always be known as the young, overweight woman.'

"Unless you name what it is, someone else will take the p*** out of you."

Her marriage is one area which provokes comment and sometimes criticism. Her husband is both Orthodox and Sephardi.

"We are strictly kosher and shomer Shabbat and it confuses a lot of people. My life straddles the Jewish universe in some interesting ways."

How do the couple manage the religious chasm?

"I think it works because I am a very observant person and my husband and I wanted that life," she says.

"I think as long you can agree on kashrut, Shabbat and niddah - I know we're back onto blood again - it can work."

She loves learning about her husband's community.

She says: "He comes to shul with me and I do go to shul with him, mostly because someone will look after the kids and I can have a doze."

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