African American humorist, filmmaker and stage artist Gina Gold grew up in a New York neighborhood thinking “oy vey” was something all black people said.
And why wouldn’t she? Her mother used that expression — and many more Yiddish terms — quite regularly. In her household, Gold picked up Judaism by osmosis.
Gold’s backstory figures prominently in her set at “You’re Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish,” a standup comedy show scheduled to take place Oct. 18 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.
The show has been road-tested before, at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley and at Berkeley congregation Chochmat HaLev, both times before sellout crowds.
The haimish setting couldn’t be more apt. “You’re Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish” features four Bay Area Jewish comedians — Indian American Samson Koletkar, Vietnamese American Joseph Nguyen, Italian American Mike Capozzola and Gold — none of whom fit into the Seinfeldian mold, all of whom use ethnic diversity as fodder for humor.
She is a Jew-by-choice, but came by it in a most unusual way. As a child in 1940s-era New York, Gold’s mother lost her own mother at an early age. A kindly Jewish woman took the child in, serving as a surrogate parent. She taught her Yiddish and the fundamentals of Judaism.
In turn, Gold’s mother went on speak Yiddish to her daughter, imbuing Jewish values while pretending to be Baptist like the neighbors.
“I lived in this crazy world of a mom who was an undercover Jew, but pretending she wasn’t,” Gold recalls. “My mother studied Jewish culture but never told anybody.”
Gold, 49, says her mother never explained the strange Jewish threads in her life, which made it all “crazy-making for me.”
She put the crazy to good use. Gold became an artist and filmmaker, launching her own show on a New York cable access channel. Calling it “The Gina Gold Show,” she filled the airtime with comedic, sometimes surreal, Saturday Night Live-style sketches and short films.
Some of them dealt with her time spent as a professional stripper. “It was the best five years and worst five years I ever had,” Gold recalls. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. A lot of women had customers who were all about sex. I never got those customers. I always got men who wanted to talk. I made my money from people who wanted to have conversations. That’s my strength.”
Several years ago, Gold moved to Oakland with her 9-year-old daughter, picking up where she left off by making experimental comedy films and mounting a live version of “The Gina Gold Show.” It isn’t quite standup, but more akin to storytelling, though laughter is the goal.
As for her lifelong flirtation with Judaism, Gold decided earlier this year to stop dating and get engaged. She met with Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin at Oakland’s Temple Sinai to get the conversion process underway.
“I figured she’d be good,” Gold says, referring to the Reform rabbi, whose mother is Chinese American. “She would understand some of the stuff I have to deal with. I was at a party where a black person said to me, ‘I don’t understand why a black woman would have to go outside her culture.’ Judaism is my culture.”
The same is true for the other comedians on the lineup. Comedian and organizer Mike Capozzola has admired Gold, Ngyuen and Koletar for some time. Last year, he came up with the idea of a night of comedy from four not-so-obviously-Jewish Jewish comedians.
“In the end it’s four funny people doing their thing,” Capozzola says, “but the idea of identity is weaved throughout. There’s been a laughter drought in California and we wanted to do something about that.”
For Gold, who does not normally do standup, performing in the show has been “healing because I get to see Jews of color that I don’t normally see. And to able to work with them is healing in my journey of claiming Judaism.”
Oh, and there’s another reason she enjoys doing “You’re Funny But You Don’t Look Jewish.”
“They’re super funny. And I like that they’re all men.”
“You’re Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish,” 7:30 p.m. Oct. 18 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. $25. www.brownpapertickets.com/event/895359