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“There’s also that Jewish rhythm,” he added. “It’s ‘Look at me. I’m saying something you’re going to like.’ Even though Jews are assimilated, feeling like an outsider remains, and ‘Pay attention to me’ comes from that.”
Feeling like an outsider is a repeated theme among the performers. “As a kid, when everyone was into the Top 40, I was listening to heavy metal,” Real Man recalled. “And now I’m the only sideshow performer around who doesn’t wear a tattoo. But if I did wear one, it would be a giant Star of David on my chest, and in the middle it would say ‘Jew Boy.’”
Amazing Amy has truly lived the outsider’s life — not as a Jew, but as a mature woman. Indeed, she feels she is not getting a lot of work because she’s “not young, glamorous or sexy. But I’m constantly challenging age and gender stereotypes,” she said. When I saw Amazing Amy performing at “The Gong Show Live,” she was doing ”Yoga Trek,” proclaiming “to boldly stretch where few seniors have stretched before.”
Many of the variety artists I spoke with may not be making much money, but they seem to be enjoying themselves nonetheless as performing members of theatrical communities. The clown Jeff Seal — who defines himself as a cultural heir of Charlie Chaplin — has converted part of his loft in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg into a theater where he and his roommates produce variety shows regularly.
Israeli-born Natalia Paruz, aka The Saw Lady, plays the saw on subway platforms and says she loves busking almost as much as performing with Zubin Mehta and the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra.
On one Holocaust Memorial Day on a subway platform, as she played “Eli, Eli” — meaning “My God, My God,” based on a poem written by Jewish icon and martyr Hannah Senesh — a black man dressed in long-flowing biblical garb approached. Paruz had seen him many times in the Times Square area, loudly spouting theological nonsense with no shortage of anti-Semitic rhetoric. She was frightened of him.
“I didn’t tell him anything, but he stood there, listening to the music, mesmerized by it,” Paruz noted. “‘This is the real thing,’ he kept repeating. ‘This comes from the soul.”
“Consciously or unconsciously, being Jewish affects how you think. It’s always there. I’m influenced by Jewish art in general. I think of my music as similar to the paintings of Chagall’s animals and people floating in the air. The paintings are inherently Jewish. It’s that mixture of humor and sadness — that’s exactly what I express on the saw.”
She says she looks for a historical thread between her art and that of the ancient Levis, “whose job it was to sing and dance in praise of God in the Holy Temple. We know they used instruments, but don’t really know which ones; however, the musical structure in the Gregorian chants, which came later, is similar to the saw’s musical structure, with each phrase starting loud and then gradually diminishing in volume. The Gregorian chants are the oldest record of music in existence and are believed to be depictions of the music used in the Temple. I’d like to imagine the Levis playing the saw in the Holy Temple.”
Talk about roots. You can’t go much deeper than that.
Simi Horwitz writes frequently about show business for the Forward.