Jewish Drag Kings Reclaim Male Roles for Women

Why Redefining Gender Roles Can Be a Jewish Thing

In Her Father’s Footsteps: Zohar Weiman-Kelman’s drag persona photographed by her father, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, from the photo series ‘Jew-Wandering.’
Levi Weinman-Kelman
In Her Father’s Footsteps: Zohar Weiman-Kelman’s drag persona photographed by her father, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, from the photo series ‘Jew-Wandering.’

By Simi Horwitz

Published May 08, 2014, issue of May 16, 2014.

(page 2 of 3)

Drag kings and drag queens share much in common, though they are often perceived differently. Some continue to believe that drag queens are generally comic, campy and flamboyant, while drag kings are often political and have a more serious purpose.

Ezra Berkley Nepon, a drag king performer, finds the duality sexist and offensive. “It’s once again the idea that a man onstage [even if that man is a female offstage] is doing meaningful art, while a woman onstage [even if she’s a male offstage] is silly and trashy.”

Though a fair number feel that a man in a dress is far more subversive than a woman donning slacks, Margolin takes the opposite view, suggesting that n placing herself in the role of the more privileged gender, a woman who plays a man is especially transgressive. “We accept the idea of a man playing a nun far more rapidly than a woman playing a rabbi,” she commented.

Arguably, a man in a nun’s habit is a familiar figure of entertainment, while a rabbi as a source of comedy may be treading on sensitive territory for a variety of reasons. Following a London performance with Split Britches, Margolin recalls a theatergoer who was so enraged that she almost assaulted Margolin, asking how she dared to perform her rabbi on the continent where the Holocaust had occurred.

“I hadn’t thought of it and I apologized,” Margolin conceded. “I didn’t change the text, but the performance had to change in subtle ways.”

Israel-born Zohar Weiman-Kelman is keenly aware of where she is performing and how her act might be viewed. “You have to understand the context in which it’s perceived,” she remarked. When she played “Shabbos’dik” — a pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jew who sings in Yiddish — in Poland she felt that Jews were historically seen as “the other” but that they were still very much part of that country’s history. As such, her act was not interpreted as a caricature or an expression of self-hate, but rather a return to the Jewish past as glimpsed through the lens of a radical theatrical aesthetic. Bringing Shabbos’dik to Israel, where at least part of her audiences were queer, Weiman-Kelman found that giving voice to traditional Judaism was an eye-opener. “The Jewish and Palestinian queers were surprised to see Yiddish as part of contemporary queer culture,” she said.

Interestingly, Weiman-Kelman’s earliest drag creation, inspired by the men she had known in Israel, was militaristic and macho. She didn’t much like playing him and soon realized she was far more at ease playing a man who embodied the prewar stereotype of effeminate masculinity. Also, she liked the alternative politics that character evoked.

Weiman-Kelman is descended from a line of rabbis. In fact, her grandfather was the first hasidic rabbi in Toronto, where Weiman-Kelman is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. As Shabbos’dik, she is channeling her Jewish lineage, she says. Furthermore, she views traditional Jewish culture — a great part of which was lost in the Holocaust — and queer identity as profoundly allied in their shared marginalization.

Others also see a connection. Mocha Jean Herrup, a gender queer scholar based in Austin, Texas, believes being Jewish is inherently queer, pointing to the stereotype of the Jewish male as effeminate, and the Jewish female as aggressive. “You can interpret that as pushing gender boundaries,” she maintained. “Jews are gender-policed around these images.”

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