The Fine Jewish Art of Burlesque
Sometimes they hold hands; other times they dance by themselves. But make no mistake: The Schlep Sisters— Minnie Tonka and Darlinda Just Darlinda — are emotionally committed to each other as they peel off their clothes in a burlesque parody of sibling love gone demented. To the tune of The Barry Sisters warbling in Yiddish, “I did it my way,” they slither about, beaming slyly as they strip down to pasties and finally g-strings featuring Stars of David on both their groins and tremulous butts.
It’s the midnight show at the Slipper Room, a trendy hotspot on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and the young audience is howling at the anarchic comedy that is taking place onstage. Titillation is secondary.
The Schlep Sisters represent a new breed of Jewish burlesque artists who not only bump and grind and celebrate their bodies and sexuality — it is a postfeminist era, after all — but also incorporate their ethnic heritage into their sexual shtick. Colleagues of The Schlep Sisters include Little Brooklyn, Lady Aye and Cherry Pitz on the East Coast, along with Honey Lawless, Odessa Lil and Miss Indigo Blue on the West Coast.
Depending on your viewpoint, these performers are marvelously liberated or suffer from psychopathology, extol their Jewish lineage or deride it, feel like outsiders and point to themselves as Jews (before someone else does) or are wholly self-accepting.
Most of those I interviewed have little doubt that their burlesques are the ultimate expression of Jewish self-acceptance. Indeed, Minnie Tonka contends that she is simply extending the notion of Jewish identity. “It’s healthful and playful, and many women thank us,” she said.
“Seizing upon and representing Jewish identity onstage makes perfect sense,” said burlesque show master of ceremonies Bastard Keith (aka Abe Goldfarb). “Jews are still a minority and reflect a minority viewpoint. Christians don’t have to point to themselves on the stage, because they have cultural hegemony and primacy.” Meanwhile, Catholic burlesquers are known to gussy themselves up as virginal parochial schoolgirls for their naughty acts. But then they, too, are minorities.
Growing up in Northern California, Odessa Lil knows something about being part of a minority. As a child, she says, she was pushed around because she was Jewish in a non-Jewish community. Now she is a leather-clad, whip-toting dominatrix.
“Visibility is very important even if you’re presenting a negative image,” she said. “You don’t want to be cheap, but you want to remind audiences that Jewish women are sexy, empowered and mean business. But this is not just for Jews. All women could use a punishing image. At the end of the show, women will come up to me and say, ‘I get it.’”
Audience demographics run the gamut, though the dirty old man who wants to cop a feel is largely a creature of the past. These days, women make up a majority of the audience. On the East Coast, many performers report a strong Jewish following, especially during the holidays. At other times — and outside New York — it’s not always clear who (ethnically speaking) is in the theater.
Seattle’s Miss Indigo Blue says her audiences know very little about the Jewish holidays and so she makes a point of teaching even as she performs an epic Purim or Passover striptease; she sports a giant Seder plate on her head and retrieves hamantaschen as they drop out of lower-body orifices.
Not all families encourage their daughters’ career choice — and in some instances, family members refuse to attend a performance — but in the majority of cases, they are supportive. Darlinda Just Darlinda says that her mom was “a child of the late ’60s and very much a feminist. She loves what I do, and so does my rabbi.”
Each comes with her own baggage. For Kinky Demure, burlesque offered a perfect outlet for a sexuality that had previously been repressed. “I love making audiences uncomfortable,” she said. “I also do a number about a girl looking for a Jewish husband, which talks to a lot of women.”
Cherry Pitz’s foray into burlesque was almost an act of rage against the medical establishment that kept urging her to have a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy as pre-emptive measures against breast and ovarian cancer. She carries the BRCA gene, a genetic mutation common among Ashkenazi Jews that puts her at a higher risk for developing those deadly diseases.
“It would have destroyed my sexuality,” she insisted. “Burlesque was my reaction to those doctors. I wanted to celebrate my sexuality and create a vision of myself that was light and fun and sexy.”
Ms. Pitz believes that sexuality and spirituality are allied for Jews. She views her act as a kind of mitzvah to herself and others. “Sex is positive,” she said. “It’s not about being bad. I’m not bad. I’m being good without getting on a soapbox.”
Jews are not grappling with sexual shame, agreed Lady Aye, a variety-burlesque-performer mistress of ceremonies. They celebrate their sexuality, though “the punch line is the comedy, not nakedness. The nakedness is a vehicle to the comedy.”
As a lesbian who dubs herself “Seattle’s Sapphic Semitic Sweetheart,” Miss Indigo Blue is not convinced that all Jews wholly endorse her sexuality, despite the comic elements in her burlesque. So, her performances have an added layer of purpose: “To express my own confidence about who I am while utilizing the very Jewish idea of tikkun [repair].”
Scotty the Blue Bunny, a high-camp burlesque comic dressed in, yes, a blue bunny outfit, always found being gay far more defining than his Jewish identity. In fact, for a long time he had little patience for those performers who felt compelled to point to themselves as Jews; he said it felt strained and dated. When he moved to Berlin last year (on an artist’s visa), the reality of what had happened there hit him like a sucker punch.
“I looked out the window and had a moment of horror,” he said. “I saw the cars driving down the street and imagined the swastikas. I could hear the knock on the door. They were coming for me. All over Berlin there are reminders. The echo is there. I was truly ignorant. We were culinary Jews; ate bagels, lox and cream cheese. My brother and I had bar mitzvahs, but never stepped inside a shul again, and the Holocaust was something that had happened on TV.”
Blue Bunny is now thinking about how he can incorporate Jewish-identity politics into his shtick: “Maybe I’ll wear a yarmulke or grow peyes or wear a Jewish Star. But the star will have rhinestones — I still need bling!”
For some, his dual identity might seem tacky, while for others he’s an embodiment of Jewish contradiction. Blue Bunny sees himself as a member of the latter camp. “It wouldn’t be Jewish if there weren’t conflict and inner turmoil,” he said.
Laying it all out there is also fundamentally Jewish, notes Goddess Perlman, producer of Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad. “We are trained to be assertive, strong, outspoken and not to worry about the consequences.”
Playing with stereotypes is central to the performers’ aesthetic. Raven Snook, who co-produced (along with Minnie Tonka) the now defunct Kosher ChiXXX, recalls how her company both subverted and embraced stereotypes. “We dispelled the myth of the zaftig, hairy, frigid Jewish girl,” she said. “We don’t all have big noses. And even those of us who do are equally hot.”
Still, there are lines in the sand that most of the performers won’t cross, such as playing tightwads or JAPs. Comedy about the Holocaust is off-limits for most of the performers, despite their love of “The Producers” and Mel Brooks.
“My goal is not to offend, but to provoke conversation,” said Honey Lawless, an Oakland, Calif., performer known for over-the-top productions and colorful tattoos, including Jewish-themed icons.
“It’s a fine line between glorification and mockery,” Little Brooklyn said. “I’ll do what I’m comfortable with. If you’re insulted, leave. If we’ve confirmed your stereotypes and you take home racist thoughts, then that’s your problem.”
Jews will occasionally tackle Christianity in their burlesques. Odessa Lil created an old-time religion themed burlesque show several years ago, portraying Jesus as the first Borscht Belt comedian. “He was Jewish, after all,” she quipped. “So I created Shecky Christ, a mash-up of the spirits of Joan Rivers, Don Rickles and Jesus. I entered the stage to the ‘The Tonight Show’ theme, and did about 10 minutes of standup as Christ. The jokes were pretty blue. Tasteless? Yes. And the audience loved it, because Christ belongs to both Jews and gentiles in this rather uncomfortable way.”
Dick Zigun, who runs the sideshow in Brooklyn’s Coney Island and was a major player in offering a platform to neo-burlesque performers, also sees comedy as a central element especially among Jewish performers, but believes burlesque is “post-religion.”
It may be post-religion, but never post-Jewish, at least among those I interviewed. Nobody foresees or even welcomes the prospect of “Look at me, I’m Jewish” ever becoming obsolete.
“Jews will always be pointing to themselves onstage, Darlinda Just Darlinda insisted. “Unless there is an absence of culture completely… maybe after the zombie apocalypse.”
Minnie Tonka concisely summed up her act: “It’s Jewish pride, baby!”
Simi Horwitz writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.