Hanukkah's Hottest Hebrew Hotties
Minnie Tonka and Darlinda Just Darlinda , a.k.a. The Schlep Sisters , will soon be lighting their Hanukkah candles … on stage and in various states of undress. The Brooklyn-based burlesque performers (who prefer to be known only by their stage names) will be appearing in the 6th Annual Menorah Horah at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom on December 9. This will not be your usual holiday party. As we are warned: “Drop that dreidel and hold on to your latkes. We’re heating up the holidays with Hanukkah’s hottest Hebrew hotties!”
Tonka, a Minnesota native with a Masters in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Darlinda, an actress and performance artist originally from California, have been doing striptease together for nine years. Recently, they have devoted themselves full-time to performing and teaching burlesque. They also produce a number of national burlesque tours and shows, including the Menorah Horah and a Passover show titled, The Burning Bush vs. The Second Coming. Both women were named among the Top 50 International Burlesque Industry Figures in 2011.
The Schlep Sisters recently spoke to the Forward about how they got their start in the business, the upcoming Hanukkah show, and what it means to be on the cutting edge of “Jewlesque,” or Jewish burlesque.
THE FORWARD: When did you start performing burlesque, and how did The Schlep Sisters get their start?
MINNIE TONKA: We just celebrated the ninth anniversary of The Schlep Sisters. We met in November 2003 at a social event. Darlinda had recently arrived from California and we were talking about performing, and she was really interested in experimenting with burlesque and I was really intrigued by that. We’re both Jewish, and we decided we wanted to work and perform together, and we wanted to explore our Jewish heritage in a playful way.
Do you always perform as a duo, or do you also have solo careers?
MT: I was more bashful and wanted to have a dance partner to be more comfortable. So I was slower to pursue my solo performance career. It took me a few years to go beyond The Schlep Sisters. Now we perform solo and together…
What’s really unique about us is that separately and as a package as the Schlep sisters, we bring three totally different performance styles. Schlep Sisters are fun and campy. And then our own personalities come through when we do our solo stuff.
How would you describe your individual styles?
DARLINDA JUST DARLINDA: I think Minnie incorporates a lot of ‘80s rock and roll and I tend to more performance-art style. We each have over 30 solo acts. We are both incredibly diverse, which is not the case with every burlesque performer.
How does your Jewishness come through in your Schlep Sisters acts?
DJD: We have 10 Schlep Sisters acts at this point. All of them have some kind of Jewish connection. A lot of it is the music… We use a lot of Barry Sisters .
MT: We’ve done Purim, Passover and Hanukkah shows. We also have an act that references Shabbat dinner. It’s really more about family shenanigans, but we passed out Manischewitz and challah to the audience.
How does Hanukkah lend itself to burlesque?
DJD: With Hanukkah, you’ve got your miracle, latkes, menorah, dreidels. There’s a lot that you can play with there. We’ve been doing the show for six years, and we’ve come up with a different act every year.
MT: With Hanukkah, the symbols are part of American culture in a way. People are familiar with the menorah and the chocolate coins, whether or not they know the meaning. It’s a bit different from our Passover act, where the symbols are even more meaningful.
What is the concept behind the Menorah Horah?
DJD: When we started it six years ago, it was a very simple show. Everyone came up with an act, and we just made sure that everyone had a different theme. At first it was a burlesque Hanukkah party, but since moving it to the Highline Ballroom in recent years, we’ve added whole storylines to the show. This year we came up with the idea of a pageant and everyone is competing in classic — but comedic — pageant categories.
MT: It’s going to be hysterical and funny. We’ve always had eight performers in the Menorah Horah.
DJD: Eight for eight nights of Hanukkah!
Have you ever had any concerns about the propriety of taking your clothes off on stage while engaging with Jewish themes?
MT: I would say 99% of everyone we have ever encountered has been so inspired, excited and validated by the fact that we celebrate our Jewish heritage in this very unique, artistic, creative, fun and engaging way. It’s really been incredibly meaningful to present and showcase this celebration of our Judaism and make it accessible to everyone from every kind of background. It’s encouraged people to have conversations about their own backgrounds and their affiliations with their heritages, whether it’s Judaism or not. It’s something we’re known for, and something that we’re very proud of.
DJD: Jews have had a rich history in comedy and theatre, and show biz has always had lots of Jewish people involved. So I see this as a continuation of our Jewish heritage and history. We never really misappropriated. We really try to have as much fun and be as playful as possible, and all our acts are really well thought out. So in that sense we don’t worry about it, because we come from and are continuing a long line of Jews in showbiz who created the path of what comedy is in the United States today. There is not a lot of Jewish burlesque out there, and we’ve been at the forefront of it.
What advice do you have for women interested in pursuing burlesque?
MT: Burlesque has become so popular in the past five years. There are burlesque shows every night of the week in New York and shows in cities all over the country. I recommend going to see shows and checking stuff out online.
DJD: You can learn so much from seeing shows. There are many burlesque schools throughout the nation and the world. I’m very into education in terms of burlesque, because that’s the only way it can become a serious art form. With theatre you have theatre schools, with burlesque you have burlesque schools. Both Minnie and I teach because we want to help people become better performers.
"I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind; already my own body is no longer mine: my belly is swollen, my limbs emaciated, my face is thick in the morning, hollow in the evening; some of us have yellow skin, others grey. When we do not meet for a few days we hardly recognize each other."— Primo Levi, "Survival in Auschwitz"
"This holiday we take for ourselves, no longer silent servers behind the curtain, but singers of the seder, with voices of gladness, creating our own convocation, and leaving ‘The Narrow Place’ together."— E.M. Broner
"The idea of opening the door is that we hope Elijah might actually be there this year – that we might actually have done enough to change the world to have had him arrive. And, if we don’t have even the tiniest bit in us that thinks he might be there, that thinks we have tried our hardest to bring around a messianic time, with no hunger, no war, no conflict, no pain – if we don’t believe that we have tried to end those broken parts in the world – well, then I tell my students – don’t do any of it."— Rabbi Leora Kaye
"The whole seder, for me, is the tension between two statements: We say, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and now we’re free,' but before that, we pick up the matzoh, we invite the hungry in and we say, 'This year we are slaves, next year may we be free.' We are the most fortunate, liberated Jews in history. But on the other hand, there are lots of things that enslave us."— Rabbi Arthur Green
"To tune of "Mack the Knife": "Enter Haman ben Hamdasa, /And he’s claimin’, he’s an Agagite. /Better look out, oh Hadassah/For that Haman—he’s an Amalekite./And though Haman, he’s in power now, That old Mordy, will not bow down. /Haman’s ego, it takes a powder now. And just like that—Amalek’s in town!""— By Rabbi Jan Uhrbach
"Do you know that every shepherd/ has his own tune? / Do you know that every blade/ of grass has its own poem?/ And from the poem/ of the grasses,/ a tune of the shepherd/ is made./ How beautiful and/ pleasant to hear/ this poem!"— Reb Nachman of Breslov's Likutei Moharan
"Tu B'Shvat is more than a New Year for Trees -- it is a call to action. To observe Tu B'Shvat isn't to read and pray, but to do, to plant, to place one's hands in contact with the Earth....While we may mark Tu B'Shvat as a Jewish Earth Day once a year, we are responsible as Jews to act as environmental stewards every day."— David Krantz - Aytzim: Ecological Judaism
"Donniel Hartman said the miracle of Hanukkah is not just that the oil lasted 8 days; it’s actually that it lasted more than one. Would we have said, 'Dayenu,' (to mix metaphors,) if it had lasted two days? Would we have had a holiday? Probably, yes. The idea that we as a Jewish community, even in our darkest moments, hold out the hope that a candle is going to keep burning, I find very powerful."— Rabbi Rachel Ain
"“We would all argue vehemently and work tireless against assimilation. But the Hellenists and we Reform Jews didn’t assimilate. We acculturate, and by doing so, provide a portal for continuity unavailable to those who continue a quasi-ghettoized existence with all the ramifications thereof, good and bad. The irony, rarely mentioned by those who use the Hanukah story to justify Orthodoxy, is that the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) lasted a century and a half before they disappeared, having taken on Greek names as High Priests and Kings. And Rabbinic Judaism, the first ‘reform’ movement, birthed all of us.”"— Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein
"I find it refreshing to go from carrying the decomposing lulav and etrog in our hands in procession for 7 days (save for Shabbat), to carry absolutely nothing on Shemini Atzeret, to then carry a Torah on Simchat Torah. It’s like Judaism’s way of saying… ‘What you are carrying with you on this journey — Torah, lessons, stories, values, covenant, a connection with a higher power and history — all of the intangibles, you carry them with you on the tangible, tentative, twisting path of life."— Rabbi Paul Jacobson
"Shemini Atzeret is conceptually an attempt to maintain the holiday relationship with God without any specific rituals. In modern times it has been become eclipsed by the joy and dancing of Simchat Torah. This speaks to the difficulty in a pure relationship without concrete modes of expression. It could be a reminder that our close relationships exist even when we don't exchange presents or cards."— Rabbi Yosef Blau
"Sukkot is the reminder that it doesn't take two days or even two years to go from darkness to light. It might take an entire lifetime to get there and you have to constantly walk with the belief that it's possible."— Rabbi Sharon Brous
"Yom Kippur: God is our judge. Sukkot: God is our shelter. Yom Kippur: you sit cooped up for endless hours. Sukkot is about space and breath. Yom Kippur, it’s all about, ‘What have I done?’ And Sukkot is, ‘What can I do in the world?’"— Rabbi Naomi Levy
"The Rabbis in the Talmud spoke of the necessity of both sinai and oker harim, that is both those who collected traditions that were handed down and also those who literally “overturned mountains.” Essentially, the one group would not survive without the other. It is in the radical interpretations of the given traditions, and in the broad and fluent knowledge of the traditions that one is able to create radical new interpretations."— Dr. Aryeh Cohen
""I have never felt that repentence, prayer, and tzedakah would change my fate. Rather, I feel that through honest reflection, refinement, and a sense of responsibility, I do have incredible power to affect the decree for others.""— Cantor Ellen Dreskin
"Teshuvah does invite us to begin again, but not from the beginning. Part of what it means to be human is to learn how to begin again and again – from right where we are, right in the messy middle of things. The Torah, according to an ancient midrash, reminds us of this truth by opening the story of creation itself with the letter Bet…Even when we have rolled the parchment scroll as far back as it will go, the letter Bet meets us there -- insisting that this story cannot be told from the very beginning. No story can. Beginnings elude us."— Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld
"This year our theme at Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills is “If not Now, When?” and we asked congregants to tweet their responses to #innwtebh or to fill out cards filling in the blanks :“If not now, when will I….” We will prepare these ‘intentions for the year” in a similar way, as a power point presentation scrolling quietly on the screen facing the congregation as individuals come forward silently in front of the open ark before neilah."— Rabbi Laura Geller