Sexual mores were a primary concern of alternative Yiddish culture in the last century, and so it is perhaps no surprise that they are prominent in contemporary alternative cultures as well. It was indeed quite striking how many events and lectures dealt with queer themes. From performances like Amichai Lau-Lavie’s The Rebbetzin’s Tisch to the Queer Jewish Wedding concert; from lectures like David Schneer’s Queer is the New Pink to Ann Pellegrini’s After Sontag: Notes on Jewish Camp; queerness took on a central importance at the conference that was completely atypical to most Jewish settings that are not specifically queer-oriented. Why so much queer content?
Perhaps queerness is prominent in this new cultural discourse because it is, so to speak, the last great sexual taboo. The battle is a current one. For example, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical college in which Professor Roskies teaches, remains bitterly opposed to same-sex marriage and, for the moment anyway, to ordination of gays and lesbians. And echoed throughout the conference was the sentiment that New Jewish Culture must remain rooted in or connected to the past. Thus Professor Roskies’s affiliation with JTS (and, for me, there mere fact that he wore a kippa) was a reminder that no matter how “radical” or “left-wing” or “queer-positive” New Jewish Culture becomes, it must contend with religious roots that, at the very least, require innovative rereading.
Or perhaps queerness is prominent because it is among the last social frontiers facing the American Jewish community, and is a stand-in for cultural change generally. Homosexuality plays a disproportionate role in the rhetoric of U.S. political discourse. It is one of the last major social issues on which the reform and conservative rabbinates strongly differ. And it is perhaps the last major area in which legal, sanctioned discrimination still exists in most Western countries. Because this situation is quickly changing, acceptance of queers has become in some circles a litmus test for Jewish adaptation to the twenty-first century, giving it an importance that is disproportionate to the numbers of gays in the Jewish community. While some gay activists may believe that the queer events at ReJEWvenation were welcomed out of radical-chic mystique, a sort of Queer Eye for the Jewish Guy, I feel more optimistic, and see its centrality and visibility at the conference as a sign of social engagement. Sexuality is, deservedly or not, the social issue of the day.
Two queer-themed events at the conference stood out. The first was Queer Jewish Weddings, which combined cross-dressing, Jewish wedding rituals, gay versions of traditional Yiddish songs, the rollicking rhythms of klezmer, and the juggling and comedy of lesbian performer Sara Felder. (The musicians themselves, incidentally, were both straight and gay.) The mishmash of several media was perhaps difficult for many in the audience to absorb. Though I thought it worked, the friends with whom I attend said it lacked polish; however no one in the audience could deny having laughed at Sara Felder’s joke about the custom of breaking the glass under the chuppah, a ritual that marks our sadness at having lost the temple even at our most joyous of moments. “God forbid we should have one day just to be happy,” Sara said.
The reclamation of klezmer by disaffected Jews, including gays and lesbians, has been described by Eve Sicular, a Yiddish film historian and klezmer musician, in her essay “Outing the archives: From the Celluloid Closet to the Isle of Klezbos,” published in the anthology Queer Jews, edited by Caryn Aviv and David Schneer (the latter of whom spoke at the conference). Once again, the confluence of old-new Yiddish culture and new/queer Jewish culture is striking. Sicular's essay highlights the centrality of queer Jews in the klezmer revival in New York in the late eighties and early nineties, and their disproportionately high numbers at Klezcamp, a klezmer retreat in the Catskills held every year. Sicular cites the Klezmatics’ debut CD, “Shvegn = Toyt” which is Yiddish for “Silence equals Death,” a popular AIDS activism slogan. (Two of the performers in Queer Jewish Weddings were from the Klezmatics.)
Why queer klezmer? As a form of Yiddish folk music, klezmer has become a way to honor Jewish life in the Diaspora, and to celebrate Jewish outsider status. Perhaps it was klezmer’s diminishment and marginalized status after the holocaust, along with its flamboyant rhythms, that initially attracted queer musicians like Klezmatics' Lorin Sklamberg: a doubly marginalized group seeking a marginalized art form makes sense, and culture, unlike religion, may provide a more inclusive 'rootedness' in the past.
It may be more politically open as well. In her last footnote, Sicular mentions the large number of queer klezmer musicians who play on the sidelines of New York’s Israeli Day parade for the “Two Peoples, Two States” contingent every year, opposing the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Frank London of the Klezmatics has performed with Palestinian violinist, Simon Shaheen. Musicians from The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band and Pomegranate, two Toronto-based Klezmer bands, have brought their art into pro-Palestinian peace activities. Thus a Diaspora Jewish art form has been transformed into a medium with which to counter the extremes of Zionism, merging queer identity (in both senses of the word) with left-wing politics. If there is anything that was missed at the conference, it was a verbal formulation and analysis of the queer, pro-peace klezmer phenomenon and its connection to the older Yiddish culture of the Bund, a Jewish socialist, staunchly secular labour rights group active in pre-holocaust Eastern European Jewish communities. The Bund was not only adamantly anti-Zionist but adamantly pro-Yiddish and ahead of its time on women’s rights.
If Yiddish is a European Jewish linguistic homeland, then klezmer has clearly been transformed into queer Jewish homeland, and not just queer as in gay, but queer as in its older definition, “strange,” as evidenced by Josh Dolgin’s (a.k.a So Called - see review) self-labeling as a “weird Jewish kid.” Dolgin, who combines hip hop and klezmer, also performed at the conference, and while he does not deal with queer issues thematically, the slim, hippy-ish Dolgin, in his mad scientist “Jew-fro,” himself embodies an alternative masculinity to the hyper-sexual, hyper-masculine ideal of mainstream commercial hip hop.
All this queerness has precedent in the old new Jewish culture, although then, sexual transgressiveness meant not just homosexuality but a defiance of prescribed gender and sexual roles. For example, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s memoir, In My Father Court, recounts the antics of Singer's rebellious older brother Israel Joshua, who leaves his ultra-Orthodox home and joins other bohemians in the artistic milieu of Yiddish secular culture in Warsaw. During a visit, the junior Singer’s eyes widen in shock as he meets Polish and Yiddish-speaking art students, male and female, all of whom are friends with his older bother. Here, for the first time, he learns about the body as a beautiful form and meets women comfortable with undressing and posing nude for an audience. Singer writes, “Although they spoke Yiddish, these young people acted as freely as gentiles.”
More risqué was God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch. The play, originally staged in 1907, exposed sexual hypocrisy among Jews when the daughter of a Jewish brothel-owner, innocently unaware of her observant family’s source of wealth, becomes seduced by one of the prostitutes in her father’s employ. Vengeance is thus attained against a Jewish pimp for his exploitation of young women, portraying lesbianism and prostitution as a reality amongst religious Jews. There was also a queer subtext in Yiddish classic films such as The Dybbuk, which was even included in Sandi Dubowski’s famous documentary on Orthodox Jewish gays and lesbians, Trembling Before G-d.
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