Leah Forster, 36, is an ultra-Orthodox female standup comic—a rare occurrence if ever there was one—and she has always been a controversial figure. During her nearly decade-long tenure (2006-2014) entertaining “for girls and women only” (Jewish law prohibits Orthodox women from performing in front of men) she amassed a large following, traveling across the world and on occasion doing her shtick for more than 3,000 distaff theatergoers. It was social commentary about Orthodox life, and she had her audience eating out of her hand. Still, her performance was not for all tastes. Within her own frum community some found her foreign impressions altogether “too Goyish”—for example, her impersonation of a Latina woman with a thick accent “who has new boyfriends every second day, and has an attitude”—while others, among the more mainstream, viewed her depictions of “others” as a tad patronizing and uncomfortably tribal with its us-vs.-them sensibility.
Now out as a lesbian and legally married to a woman with whom she is raising her 15-year-old daughter (born to Forster and her ex-husband, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who shares custody with her), Forster continues to be Shomer Shabbos, maintains a kosher home and fasts on Yom Kippur. Indeed, she’s never really seen herself as a rebel, though arguably she’s spent much of her life in conflict with herself, even if she does not dub it as such.
“I always teetered on the edge,” she admits to me in a kosher Flatbush bakery where we meet. She currently is taking a break from her day job as executive director at a health care home agency. “When I was a kid I was curious about the world. I wanted to read, see television and go to the movies, but I was full of guilt when I snuck out to see my movie Vanilla Sky.”
Sporting leggings, round glasses and, most strikingly, a trendy undercut hairdo crowned with a small shock of hair tied in a pony tail, she’s come to terms with the fact that her family has cut ties. The loss hasn’t been easy, but a necessary step on her road to “authenticity,” she says.
Her personal artistic journey has been a bumpy ride. For a couple of years she stopped performing altogether. Yes, she was ambitious, but because she could not perform for men (or with them), her opportunities for exposure and employment were limited. And then there were the creative roadblocks she faced, awash in dos and don’ts: No foul language, double entendres or risqué allusions.
Forster toyed with the idea of “crossing over,” saying any Orthodox performer who denies considering it is not being honest. But in the end, she decided that wasn’t an option. She didn’t want to hurt and betray the people she loved. It was just easier to give up performing. But ultimately, abstinence from the stage didn’t work. Neither did her life as a non-observant Jew stripped of all religion, a phase that lasted for a couple of years. “I missed it and realized there was no reason for me to throw it all away,” she recalls. “I’m a proud Jew and I love Judaism.”
Now she has returned to the fold—well, sort of—with the help of such support groups as Jewish Queer Youth (JQY), Eshel and Jewess Eve, and she performs in comedy clubs for secular audiences that include men, such as New York’s Comedy Club and the Comedy Cellar. And last year she took to the stage at Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue, where she talked about growing up as a lesbian in her Orthodox community. Forster also continues to land gigs for modern Orthodox crowds and molds her material and wardrobe accordingly. She may rant on about meter maids for all crowds, but her tattooed arms will be covered if the audience requires it. “I’m respectful,” she says.
Most interestingly, her Instagram account boasts close to 40,000 followers, the ultra-Orthodox numbering among them. She knows they’re out there because they privately message her to voice their appreciation of her amusing videos featuring an array of diverse characters, including an Israeli “Shoshana,” an environmentally conscious vegan who eschews vaccines. Mean girls, matchmakers, and the ubiquitous mother-in-law come in for their share of barbs too. “My mother-in-law and I did agree on something. We both thought that my husband should have married another woman,” she quips in one video.
Forster was brought up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, an enclave of ultra-Orthodox Jews, representing an array of sects, though her family was not identified with any one of them. Her father donned a shtreimel (the large fur brimmed hat); everyone (including Leah and her four brothers) spoke Yiddish at home and disavowed all secular culture. Still, Forster’s mother read Danielle Steel novels and, for reasons that still remain unclear, took Leah to see the Broadway musical Les Misérables when she was a teenager. At the same time she viewed any Jewish woman who wore red nail polish as a shiksa. Foster has subsequently come to believe that for some Jews, tradition and ritual may have more to do with maintaining communal standards and by extension a strong collective front than with deeply held religious beliefs.
From the outset Forster loved performing, and when her third grade teacher at Bais Yaakov Academy cast her to play the “clown,” a role that was created for her in the Purim play, she was hooked. Her mother was not at all pleased. “Do you want to be known as the fat clown so that no man will want you?” she asked her pre-teen daughter. Forster reflects, only half kidding: “In retrospect, I believe that might have been precisely the point.”
Forster attended a seminary and launched her career as a teacher (she taught for 13 years) while honing her comic talents at parties and doing voice-over work for local Jewish charities. Within short order, a well-known record producer in the community said he wanted to produce an album for her, and it wasn’t long before Forster was a regularly featured performer on the “for women and girls” circuit.
Her evolution did not happen overnight. The loss of religious belief coupled with her growing awareness of herself as a gay woman played their role. “You have to understand that when I got married—and my ex-husband is a wonderful man—I knew nothing about straight sexuality, let alone homosexuality,” she says. “While I was still married I had a couple of long-term relationships with women, one of them very much like the relationship portrayed in Brokeback Mountain.”
The disconnect between who she was and the persona she presented on stage (along with the artistic prohibitions she faced) had finally become untenable, and in 2014 she gave her farewell tour. She also left teaching at the religious school because she could no longer abide the pretense of being someone she wasn’t. She paid her bills by working at a home health care agency, though not the one she’s at now. Three years later, she tentatively returned to the entertainment sphere via social media, and that’s when the opportunities began pouring in from both the secular and Orthodox worlds.
Admittedly some among the latter did not welcome her with open arms when she came out. She lost gigs and her job. “It was hell,” she recalls, “and then it wasn’t. I realized there was nothing more to hide and I could be who I was.”
Still, this past December she found herself in the center of an even larger firestorm. She was slated to perform a New Year’s Eve gig at a kosher Flatbush restaurant when local religious leaders, who disapproved of Forster’s sexuality, asserted they would withdraw the restaurant’s kosher certification (without which the eatery cannot survive) if it hosted her. The restaurant disinvited her, and then a second restaurant that opened its doors to her changed its mind too, generating quite a bit of mainstream media coverage, which was at once liberating and troubling for Forster, inadvertently putting her on the map in a whole new way.
Forster wants it understood that she feels empathy for the restaurant owners, and that she is not bitter at all. “I’ve gotten enormous support from some of the most Orthodox members of the community, including the invitation to perform for a charity function, and when I asked if I could come as me, without a wig, they agreed,” she says.
Now, Forster has in some ways come full circle. At the end of June she will be honored at Israel’s annual ROI (Return on Investment) summit, a festive occasion that awards players across the professional spectrum who have had a positive impact on the Jewish community.
“I’m not a role model and I don’t want to teach anybody anything,” she says. “I just want to live my life, make people happy and break down barriers.”
In one video she plays the stereotypic-Jewish yenta introducing the world to her wife. Perhaps, that says it all.
Simi Horwitz is an award-winning feature writer based in New York.