, 2 0 0 5
I V E N E Z
I S PA R M
DC A S S A
I O N E
, D O N A Z
C A M E R A P H OTO E P O C H E
A R C H
, F OTO
. G U G G E N H E
RS O LO M O N
I O N E
F O N DA Z
L E V
I C H E L E
P E T Z A L
I C A
; M O N
YO S E F
: TO M E R
C OV E R
T H E
4 YOUR SAY… 6 WHAT’S NEW
Art kibbutz Creativity is blooming at a New York initiative that features the world’s first Jewish artist colony.
The only Jew in town Steven Derby is a novelty at an interfaith conference in Islamabad.
Should we welcome more refugees? David Goodhart and Edie Friedman debate the thorny issues around Europe’s refugee crisis.
30 WHAT’S HAPPENING
Listings Our exclusive three-month guide to art, books, film, music, theatre and other cultural events in the UK and beyond.
Try this! Liam Hoare joins the feisty discussion at the Abraham Debating Club.
THE QUEENS OF GEFILTE FISH
They pray by day and dress in drag by night. Rachel Delia Benaim meets the Jewish drag queens who are trying to reconcile their Orthodox upbringing with their irreverent stage acts
Last November, at Midtown Manhattan’s New World Stage, the audience were treated to a startling performance. A tall, glam, drag queen dressed in a sky-blue hospital gown proceeded to enact giving birth to a plastic baby doll right before their eyes.
Her number gained laughs, some cheers, and even a few gags, and it won her a spot in the finals of So You Think You Can Drag, a competition to decide the hottest drag queens in the country.
The queen in question was Lady SinAGaga (if you can’t guess, a play on ‘synagogue’ and US music idol Lady Gaga), who is making a name for herself as one of a new breed of drag artists: the Jewish drag queen – queens whose personas are based on their Jewish upbringing.
stage act is the fact that Lady SinAGaga’s real-life alter ego is Moshiel, 23, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew and only came out as gay three years ago.
Moshiel grew up attending Jewish day schools in his Orthodox community in Long Island, New York. After high school he studied at a yeshiva (religious school) in Israel for a year, before returning home and coming out to family and friends a few months later.
Moshiel’s interest in drag was a gradual one, starting with dressing up occasionally in dramatic dresses and makeup for parties. But in September 2014 he debuted as Lady SinAGaga at a High Homo Days party, an event organised by Hebro, an organization that throws parties ahead of the Jewish High Holidays to celebrate being Jewish and gay.
best Jewish drag wear” – mostly largerthan-life caricatures of Jewish mothers in fake fur and gold bling.
And Lady SinAGaga is not alone. Take Sherry Vine, otherwise known as Keith Levy, who is gaining notoriety for his parody acts: think Graham Norton meets the Borscht Belt. Or New York native Yudi K, whose stage person Silvia Sparklestein is a big blonde Jewish mama from Queens, New York, who celebrates all the Jewish holidays, often with a new song (All I Want for Christmas Is Jew), cooks gefilte fish,
From Jewish holiday-themed songs to chicken soup references and her Twitter hashtag JAPRealness (for Jewish American Princess), Lady SinAGaga’s jokes and commentary are largely riffs on the Jewish lifestyle. But more surprising than her
“It’s hard to estimate how many Jewish drag queens there are in New York,” said Jayson Littman, 36, Hebro’s founder, but he says that at most Hebro parties there will be some guests who come in “their
12 JEWISHRENAISSANCE.ORG.UK JANUARY 2016
Clockwise from left: Lady SinAGaga; Silvia
Sparklestein; JoyVeh; Silvia Sparklestein and other queens, and centre,
I N O
Z; V E R E D
; TO N Y
I P E / H E B R O
F E L
I AG O
S A N T
kugel and challah, and loves sequins, and fake fur, and whose trademark one-liner is: “Being a Jewish drag queen has it’s ups and downs. On the upside, I get to be a mother figure to people. The downside? I’m constantly ruining my manicure rolling matzah balls!”
The trend is even gathering pace in Israel: the elderly Jewish Orthodox widow Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross is in real life Amichai Lau-Lavie – the nephew of Israel’s former chief rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau. The Rebbetzin has recently retired from performing, but there’s a glorious online clip of her wading into the Red Sea to free the shekhina (Hebrew for female spirit), dressed in a blue dress, complete with blonde wig, and long white gloves. As she goes in she says she’s doing it because she wants, “No more women waiting for divorce. . .no one behind fences. . .except when it comes to Business Class, of course.”
perform. And Hebro’s Jayson Littman is planning a competition called Oy Drag! where international Jewish drag queens will compete for a “dragowitz” trophy.
“Some of the gayest parts of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi and transgender) culture
“Some of the gayest parts of LGBT culture are
Jewish: Broadway, Barbra Streisand and big hair”
are Jewish: Broadway, Barbra Streisand and big hair. Being in drag is all about creating an exaggerated personality, and gay Jews have the perfect role model: our mothers!” said Littman, who has been described as “the mayor of the Jewish gay party scene”.
But surely the Orthodox world can never accept such behaviour as Jewish? It’s no secret that Orthodox Judaism condemns homosexuality – the Torah expressly forbids such relationships in Leviticus 18:22. Orthodox Jews also cite the Talmud as condemning cross
Then there’s Shahar Hadar, an ultraOrthodox performer also from Israel, whose drag persona is Rebbetzin Malka Falsche (Rebbetzin False Queen). Hadar’s philosophy draws on the Breslov arm of ultra-Orthodox Judaism: embrace life’s challenges with joy.
Bars such as Evita in Tel Aviv, or New York staples like Lips and Barracuda, have regular nights where Jewish queens dressing. Recently the ultra-Orthodox movement Agudath Israel of North America petitioned the Supreme Court against legalizing gay marriage. When the Court passed the ruling in favour of gay marriage in June 2015, Agudath Israel issued a statement saying, “The Torah sanctions only a union between a man and a woman.”
The Agudath, like other proponents of right-wing Orthodox ideology, believe that, according to the Torah, to be gay is not a legitimate identity. Those who are should try to change it through therapy.
In July 2015, when Yishai Schlissel stabbed six people at the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade, ultra-Orthodox leaders in Israel condemned the violence but refused to call the parade by name, instead referring to it as a to’evah – an abomination.
So how do Jewish drag artists reconcile their religious beliefs with their sexuality? Moshiel said he has a “don’t ask, don’t tell relationship” with his family —they don’t ask about his religious observance, which no longer follows the Orthodoxy of his youth, and he doesn’t bring it up when he goes home to visit. He no longer uses the black leather phylacteries he once wrapped around his arm daily. “But I still believe in God,” said Moshiel, adding that his issues with religion are communal not spiritual.
Last spring Yudi K (Silvia Sparklestein) married his boyfriend beneath a chuppa, with the couple’s own rewritten version of the Hebrew Sheva Berachot (Seven Blessings) under the marriage canopy. When he performs he does it “as a proud Jew”, he said. For him, it is a way to celebrate his two identities, the LGBTQ side and the Jewish side. “The best thing about being a Jewish drag queen is that I can draw on my upbringing.”
Performing has also been liberating for Yudi K, who says he comes from a community where uncomfortable topics were passed over in silence. “Being a drag queen frees you up to say whatever you want.”
But Yudi K can’t quite say whatever he wants. Neither he nor Lady SinAGaga have told their parents and communities about their glamorous personas. “Imagine coming out to your Jewish parents as gay, and then having to tell them, ‘By the way, my nightlife name is Lady SinAGaga,’” says Littman.
Coming out of the closet is one thing, but coming out of the closet in women’s clothes is still a leap too far for many gay Jews to contemplate. n
Moshiel and Yudi K are pseudonyms. See: www.myhebro.com.
JANUARY 2016 JEWISHRENAISSANCE.ORG.UK 13
The queens of big hair and gefilte fish Why would a nice Jewish boy want to wear his mother’s faux fur and pearls? Rachel Delia Benaim finds out as she uncovers the surreal world of Orthodox Jewish drag queens?
14 A haven of Schubert and chickens A new book sheds light on the European refugees who found a haven in rural Buckinghamshire during World War II.
Warhol’s Jews David Herman deciphers Andy Warhol’s pictures of Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe at New York’s Jewish Museum.
A tale of two cities Monica Petzal’s striking images of Dresden and Coventry also mark the history of her family’s own journey.
Venice: 500 years of ghetto life JR editor Rebecca Taylor visits the Venice ghetto (above) as its residents prepare to mark 500 years since its founding.
21st century Shylock Judi Herman speaks to Howard Jacobson about recalcitrant teenagers, bereaved fathers and memories of Cheshire, which all form the background to his new novel, Shylock is My Name.
Inky waters Printmakers Sophie Herxheimer and Andi Arnovitz embark on a remarkable trip to recreate a contemporary haggadah.
ON THE COVER Desert rock Danielle Goldstein interviews all-girl band A-Wa as they break with tradition and go global with their Yemenite beats.
Priceless Peggy Jason Solomons speaks to the director of a new film about the life of the rebellious Peggy Guggenheim.
Thou shalt read! We highlight the best events of this year’s Jewish Book Week.
From shtetl to burlesque A new book uncovers surprising photos of New York nightlife by Roman Vishniac. The invention of the Nazis Rebecca Wallersteiner reviews a clutch of books focusing on the personalities who created the Nazi image.
Red Rosa A new graphic novel reveals the complex life of the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Tough love Liz Cashdan reviews the collected poems of Jon Silkin.
Vilna veggie Agi Erdos reports on a pioneering 1930s vegetarian cookbook.
58 LAST WORDS
Ghetto talk David Herman traces the dark history of the word ‘ghetto’.
JANUARY 2016 JEWISHRENAISSANCE.ORG.UK 3
C O N T E N T S