Picture yourself on a Tel Aviv beach: A parade of tanned, toned Israelis marching past like some alternative half-nude army, flashing butt cheeks in string bikinis as you revel in a paradise of sand, surf and Semitic good looks.
Who were the first Jewish potheads? The Old Testament seems filled with early precursors: Daniel, the interpreter of colorful dreams; Ezekiel, with his visions of flying chariots; perhaps even David, whose tunes of ethereal majesty were conceivably inspired by some seriously bitter herbs. Other scholars might go back to Genesis — Adam and Eve in that ripe, green pleasure-palace, hungry enough to eat forbidden apples. And then there’s slightly more recent history: Allen Ginsberg extolled the virtues of marijuana in pulsing, desperate verse, and Leonard Michaels wrote short stories about Jews on New York City’s Lower East Side getting stoned with sweet-smiling shiksas and then devouring leftover kugel sent over by their own mothers.
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.
Here’s a confession: I grew up in deep East Coast suburbia, with a song in my heart and a synagogue on every corner. As expected, I furthered my education at a local, semi-prestigious private university with a bunch of wannabe dentists who were bitter about not getting into Harvard. As an aspiring writer with a Raymond Carver obsession, these were not the humble beginnings for which I longed — beginnings that would inevitably lead to a romantic life of manual labor, alcoholism, domestic violence and transcendent minimalist prose. So after college, I decided to shed my suburban skin and move to Texas to be isolated and poor.