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 3 of 3)

Herrup suggests that a common denominator between gender queers and Jews is the fluidity of self-definition. “Expanding and redefining the meaning of being Jewish is a very queer idea,” she asserted. “Deconstructing and re-constructing Judaism is similar to keeping open the definition of gender and sexuality, which is also constantly re-created and re-imaged.”

Herrup has little doubt that being Jewish informs a drag king’s onstage aesthetic, regardless of whether the performer is playing a Jewish character. Herrup, who cofounded Kings N Things, a theatrical collective dedicated to exploring gender issues, was known for her comic spin on rockers Lance Bass and Billy Idol. She believes she brought an intangible Jewish sensibility to her performances.

“I believe Jews have a certain comic DNA,” Herrup said. “Also, it’s very Jewish to get up and present, starting at an early age at the bar and bat mitzvah. You are called upon to perform.”

Bar mitzvahs can serve as interesting fodder for drag kings. Consider Nepon’s alter ego Ben Hesherman, the nerdy bar mitzvah boy who, on the day he allegedly becomes a man, proudly states he wants to be a heavy metal rock star. The piece could be interpreted as a sly commentary on the absurdity of the bar mitzvah ritual, but it’s also a serious spin — with a campy flair — on the nature of transition. The character of Hesherman makes it clear he’s not a traditional Jewish man. “It was really a playful comment on being a woman in her ’20s who looks like a bar mitzvah boy,” Nepon wryly noted.

Nepon provocatively observed that at this point, “It’s more fun to do drag as a female character. Being gender queer, what does drag mean? I love performing big powerful women onstage.”

The future of drag king performance is anyone’s guess, though no one thinks it will disappear. Nepon hopes the art form moves to the “edge of weirdness, politically, theatrically, and culturally.”

Pryor believes that has already occurred and celebrates the shift. “The distinction between performance and everyday life is blurring,” she said. “Drag performance onstage for an audience will continue to happen. But there’s more drag happening informally at gatherings and in everyday life. Dragging it up, queering it up when we go into the world. We are playing with gender and aware of it as a performance. What’s the Jewish element? Once a Jew, always a Jew. It’s intrinsic in the performance.”

Simi Horwitz writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.

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