Esther Goodhart goes by several nicknames: "Oriental Beauty," "Oriental Yenta," "Queen of the Jews." And then there's "Mom."
Goodhart will answer to any of the above, and quite happily. If you know who she is, what she's about, what she stands for and perhaps a bit about what she's overcome, then you'll understand why she earned those nicknames – and why she so wholeheartedly embraces them.
The Demarest resident is Korean, Jewish (she converted more than 20 years ago), an activist, a wife, a mother (to Isaac and Jacob), a comedienne and a Hebrew teacher; she calls her house "Temple Beth Esther" and mostly helps children with learning issues ranging from autism to Tourette's to the "worst possible learning disability," she says: "laziness."
Further, Goodhart hosts the PBS program Asian America and the WOR Radio show The Jewish Hour. She has also run for office (Demarest town council) and is among the subjects of the KYOPO Project – a contemporary collection of photos of people of Korean ancestry – now on view at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. And Goodhart has done it all while contending with dystonia, a neurological disorder she describes as "Parkinson's, M.S. and cerebral palsy all rolled into one."
"I wear whatever hat I need to wear whenever somebody calls," Goodhart explains. "Here's how I think you have world peace: Be good to your parents and your brothers and sisters, and do good within the community. If you do something as small as that, other people will see you and say, 'Gee, that's good.' They'll follow through and maybe pay it forward, and we could all be good to each other.
"I always feel that we're all in this life together. Why don't we just do good and try to make other people happy? So, yes, I have many, many titles, but the reason I have those titles is because doors open, people ask me to help them and – because I find life very interesting, because I happen to love people – I try to do what I can."
A large reason Goodhart feels that way is because she was in a wheelchair for a good part of her life. Although she still needs the wheelchair while in malls, she can get around most places.
"I figured that if God gave me this reprieve," she says, "if I can escape from my handicap a little bit, how much more can I do?"
Goodhart makes a good portion of her living as a comedienne. Humor, she admits, was her defense against the barbs hurled her way by kids – classmates in Fort Worth, Texas, and then in Brooklyn, N.Y – mocking her physical challenges.
"Kids are really mean, and I was bullied," says Goodhart, the daughter of a Korean Presbyterian minister. But after she moved to Flushing, Queens, she made a lot of Jewish friends.
"They taught me to use my head, to think outside the box," Goodhart says. "So I would laugh at my handicap before anybody could laugh at me.
"I became funny and I made friends because I was funny. I went to Francis Lewis High School, and we called it Francis Jewish High School because it was about 93 percent Jewish, and I was vice president of the Jewish Culture Club. There we learned to laugh, and I really learned to think outside that box and to find my voice."
At the time, Goodhart recalls, she paid attention to the fact that some of the world's leaders were women, including Golda Meir, who was not only a woman, but Jewish. She appreciated their chutzpah.
"I liked that they found their voice and that they were fearless," she says. "My teachers, who happened to be Jewish, not only helped me find my voice, but helped me to get out of the wheelchair and be able to walk. They helped me be able to be interested in the world outside of me. I discovered that I loved people, that I loved making stuff up, that I loved people more than they could hurt me. I discovered that laughing, and being able to make people laugh, brought everybody together."
Goodhart, courtesy of her portrait artist mother, had watched Borscht Belt comedians in action up in the Catskills. She yearned to follow in their footsteps. Goodhart honed her craft and took it on the road. It's a couple decades later, and she has performed shows all over the country, everywhere from small clubs to the White House. In the fall, she is hosting a fundraiser, dubbed "Chop Shtick," at Gilda's Club Northern New Jersey in Hackensack.
"I wanted to be a Borscht Belt comic and here I am, a Borscht Belt comic," Goodhart says. "It's funny because now I'm a member of the Friars Club, where all these comics are, and they accept me as one of them. I like bringing so many people together when I do comedy, because I talk about everything and we all have common experiences."
Quotable: "The quality of restaurants has grown exponentially. Baumgart's is number one. That's where I had my party after my bat mitzvah. I mean, come on, they're owned by Chinese and they serve Jewish food. The best thing is...I have handicapped parking. I don't have to struggle there, which is how I got my husband in the first place. No other person he ever dated had that handicapped placard. Believe me, it's fantastic."