In my memory, my mother learned to speak English from Joan Rivers. When we moved here from Israel, my mom was a muted version of herself, never quite sure what to do with her natural Israeli bluntness in America. Then she discovered Joan Rivers, who, throughout the 1970s, was a guest and sometimes guest host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. “She wasn’t afraid of anyone,” my mother told me. “She would make a joke about anything.” Soon enough, my mother was telling the neighbors and the handymen and the teachers exactly what she thought of them. Within a year, my mother was the president of the tenants association and the boss of our Queens block. She actually opened conversations with “Can we talk?”
This July my mother came to Washington, D.C., to see me interview Rivers about her new book, Diary of a Mad Diva. Rivers walked into the greenroom with an entourage, a jewel-encrusted leather jacket, her bizarro mask of a face denuded of all its ethnicity. But she did not stink like a diva. She dispensed dating advice to the two stylists on hand to touch up her hair (no sex on the first date), and instantly bonded with my mother about Gaza. (The Palestinians started it. Hamas was re-elected “by a lot of stupid people who don’t even own a pencil.”) Given how Rivers talked, it would be absurd to say she was nice. She was, however, tribal. If she judged you to be on her team, she could relax, act like she’d known you forever. In this case, my mother and I were in, largely because we were New Yorkers, Jews, and in my mother’s case at least, on the right side of the war.