Jewish burlesque seems, in a way, only natural. Sex and humor are inextricably bound in Jewish culture (or at least in certain precincts of it); potty-mouthed, voluptuous women are celebrated. The burlesque tradition took root in the Yiddish theater nearly a century ago when Jewish thespians, not content to be restrained by a single medium, decided that their plays would include a bit of everything: song and dance, sentimentality and comedy, romance and raunchiness. This is precisely the logic employed by the burlesque troupe Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad, which performed a three-week run this month at The Zipper Factory, a funky off-Broadway theater in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen.
The Zipper Factory, one of the few off-Broadway theaters that maintains a full bar in its lobby, is the perfect venue for NJGGB. The evening’s vibe — one of communion and cleavage — was set pre-show. Performers and audience members alike congregated at the bar and drank He’Brew beer, while one of the show’s dancers, an Amy Winehouse look-alike but with fake tattoos instead of real ones, warmed up on a stripper pole in the corner.
NJGGB is the brainchild of actress/songstress/comedian Susannah Perlman, a buxom 30-something with a seasoned performer’s command of the stage. She started the group five years ago because, as she explained in her opening monologue, there’s “no shortage of Jewish women going: ‘Look at me! Look at me!’” The show’s humor is often local (“I’m glad I flier-ed [the ultra Orthodox enclave of] Boro Park”). To be a Jewish insider in New York, it seems, is also
to be a New York insider. This was fine with the audience, filled primarily with 20- to 30-year-old New York Jews, but one wonders how the material plays in other cities. A later act, Rena Zager, riffed on the differences between Manhattanites and Brooklynites — a Jewish twist on the African American “How black people are different from white people” routine.
The show — five parts standup comedy, two parts bawdy song and dance — puts a new spin on familiar themes. These are modern Jewish women who spend time not only looking for husbands on JDate but also looking for booty on Craigslist. “You get dinner on JDate and laid on Craigslist,” Perlman explained to a nodding, knowing audience.
Other recurring motifs included common Jewish physical attributes (Mindy Raf, who came off as a more mature Sarah Silverman, described her uni-brow as a “Jewni-brow”) and the loquaciousness of the Jewish people (Zager: “Jews are like an emotional weather channel — reports every 10 minutes”).
Mixed in between the standup acts were song-and-dance routines that were often led by Perlman, who made more costume changes than Britney Spears at the MTV Video Music Awards. At one point, Perlman emerged wearing a shiny, blue, low-cut, one-piece pantsuit that looked like it was left over from a 1970s Jewish-singles roller-disco. “I’m bringing camel-toe back!” Perlman proclaimed before launching into a routine involving spinning dancers dressed as dreidels.
Perlman has deep roots in the Yiddish stage — her ancestors were prewar players in Romania — and so she clearly understands the dynamism necessary in building an effective Vaudevillian show. There were a few near misses, such as an un-ironic poetry slam that seemed to belong in another show, but most of the acts gelled nicely. One dance number, a “Fiddler on the Roof” parody, involved stripping Hasidim wearing Star of David pasties beneath their tefillin; another was a song called “What’s in Gefilte Fish?” in which Perlman offered audience members spoonfuls of canned gefilte fish and declared, “It’s ‘Fear Factor’ for Jews.”
The show’s high point arrived toward the evening’s close, when Second City alum Rebecca Drysdale emerged in a red wool Santa-and-Rudolph cardigan and launched into a pitch-perfect monologue that parodied a bat mitzvah speech. Drysdale kept a remarkably straight face as she hit each note like the wobbly-voiced adolescent that she must have been. “The Torah portion I read today,” she deadpanned, “means as much to me in English as it does in the original Hebrew.” She closed her performance with an “American Idol” auditions-worthy rendering of the opening of her Haftorah, before announcing to the congregation, “Now would everyone stand for no reason.” Some audience members chose to rise — but out of appreciation rather than obligation.
The show closed with the entire cast forming a chorus line and singing songs: a Yiddish drinking song and some Hebrew school classics. Audience members were encouraged to sing along, and many could be seen mouthing the Yiddish and Hebrew words. The finale seemed to embody thespirit of the evening — a coming together of young Jews, unsure of their place in Jewish culture but having a lot of fun figuring it out.
Adam Wilson is a writer living in New York. He mainly writes about Jews and sex.