If it weren't for Santa Claus, the world may have missed out on the comedy of Judy Gold.
The actress and comedian was a freshman at Rutgers University and took part in her dorm's version of "secret Santas." To collect her prize, Gold's Santa instructed her to perform a stand-up comedy routine, and her jokes about her dorm-mates were an instant hit.
Fast forward to 2006, and Gold, whose career has spanned everything from stand-up to TV and film, is about to embark on her latest project, a one-woman show called "25 Questions for a Jewish Mother" that opens today in New York. A venture five years in the making, Gold and co-writer Kate Moira Ryan traveled the country to interview more than 50 Jewish women from a wide range of backgrounds about their lives and to discover if there really is a stereotypical Jewish mother.
"I had been ridiculed by a lot of Jewish press over the years for promoting the stereotype of the Jewish mother because I talk a lot about my mother in my act," Gold said. "So [Kate] suggested we go out and interview Jewish mothers to see if the stereotype is really true. It's been the most fascinating journey.
"A lot of it was dealing with my conflict of being a practicing Jew and being gay and being a mother and being a comedian because nothing I do fits into any conventional 'lifestyle,' yet I have a very traditional home with my kids. I've always identified myself first and foremost as a Jewish person. That is the core of who I am."
And after all her research, what was Gold's conclusion?
"There are stereotypical things, one might say, but behind that 'What do you want to eat?' and 'You didn't call me' is a story, is a life," she said. "There was only one thing that they all had in common, and that was that 95 to 100 percent spoke to their kids every single day."
Gold's Jewish upbringing has always been an "enormous" part of her career. In addition to hosting gigs on HBO's "At the Multiplex with Judy Gold" and Comedy Central's "100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time" and writing and producing "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," for which she won two Emmys, she has been featured in Comedy Central's "Bar Mitzvah Bash" and "The Heroes of Jewish Comedy." Even when critics have said she's "too Jewish," Gold feels she made the right choices.
"That is who I am, and I'm proud and I'm not going to hide it," she said. "A lot of people, I think post-Holocaust, have been like, 'Hide it. Don't say anything,' and I think it's so important to treasure it and talk about it. It's a major, major part of who I am."
Though she grew up in a traditional Jewish home when her family kept kosher, observed Shabbat and went to synagogue every week, Gold pulled away from her background while in college. But celebrating Shabbat with her Orthodox neighbors in New York City years later led her to re-examine her practice of Judaism.
"It was the most amazing feeling. I decided that I would keep Shabbat when I have kids because I want them to have that experience," Gold said.
When it comes to her own meaningful Jewish experience, Gold recalls the period after her father passed away and she was traveling the United States and Canada for performances. She decided to say mourner's kaddish for her father each week at a local synagogue, where her connection to Judaism became even stronger.
"No matter where I was, I would find synagogues to go to on Saturday, and I realized that I could be in any one of these people's kitchens and have a conversation with them, and they're singing the same songs that I sang 5,000 miles away. To me, it made me feel I was part of an unbelievable community," she said. "You often feel alone and lonely on the road, and I felt at home for those two, three hours that I was in those synagogues. I felt taken care of."
Catch "25 Questions for a Jewish Mother" at the Ars Nova Theater in New York from Jan. 18 to Feb. 12.