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Jewish Drag Kings Reclaim Male Roles for Women

In “Floodlines,” a site-specific theater piece that took Jaclyn Pryor seven years to create, a Jewish funeral cortege travels through the streets of Austin, Texas. Each car sports a small Jewish star. The audience members, who have assumed the role of mourners in the cars, watch various enactments that take place on the streets. Later in the two-mile ride, the same actors are seen performing similar though slightly different scenarios — for example, a woman who had been pushing a stroller at the beginning of the performance is now being pushed in a wheelchair. A central theme is the nature of memory and its role in the collective Jewish psyche. But perhaps the most striking aspect of this gliding installation is the fact that Pryor is leading the cortege in drag. She plays an elderly hasidic man clad in black suit, a large broad-brimmed black hat, and tzitzit.

“Unlike other drag acts, there’s no wink, nudge, or reveal here — ‘Hey, I’m playing a man, but really I’m a woman,’” said Pryor, a scholar in theater and queer studies, who is currently doing a fellowship at a not-for-profit artist residency program in Oregon.

For Pryor, exploring Jewish themes in her work is second nature. Not too long ago, she joined a Lubavitch congregation. At the same time, she identifies as “gender queer,” and says that sporting men’s garb feels perfectly natural. Dressing in drag goes all the way back to childhood. “I coveted my brother’s bar mitzvah suit,” she recalled.

Drag king performances — gentile as well as Jewish — take various forms. Some, like Pryor’s, are long and heady; others are short parodies (with varying degrees of affection and derision) of male rock stars or generic men in all their macho buffoonery; still others are comic and sometimes not-so-comic skits that dramatize power dynamics between the genders.

Performing in drag may also serve as a personal opportunity to explore an alternative gender identity, a stepping-stone to becoming transmale offstage. (A transmale is one who identifies as male, regardless of whether or not he has undergone surgical and/or hormonal intervention.) More often than not, the performance is a confirmation of the artist’s already articulated gender identity.

Though drag king shows can be seen at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender events, experimental night spots, and mainstream clubs and festivals, they are less visible than those of drag queens. Some suggest that drag king performances — not including those that take place in Purim spiels — have only entered the mainstream during the last two decades because of the progress made by the feminist movement, as well as the development of medical technologies that support female to male transitions

Writer-performer Deb Margolin, an associate professor of theater at Yale University, says there are far more drag king performers than we realize, but that women are generally less visible than men. As far back as the ’80s, she was playing an Orthodox male rabbi with the lesbian group Split Britches, though Margolin was (and is) heterosexual. She says she joined the gender-bending collective because it was plain old fun, giving her the space to explore a theater devoid of boundaries, while allowing her to expose — and embody — the psyche of men who have hurt her.

“Orthodox Judaism discriminated against me as a woman, not allowing me, for example, to take part in a minyan,” she said. “I have a lot to offer and that hurt my feelings. By playing the rabbi I was making a critical comment, but in the end it was also an act of reclamation.”

Margolin is a bit of an anomaly, not only as a heterosexual who has performed in drag, but also as a feminist who now finds herself forced to reorganize her thinking in the face of how some drag kings —formerly butch or dyke lesbians — are now transmales.

Many identify as “gender queer.” While “lesbian” typically may describe a woman who is attracted to other women, “gender queer” includes the former, but also embraces those who do not necessarily define themselves or their lovers as women or men.

Drag kings and drag queens share much in common, though they are often perceived differently. Some continue to believe that drag queens are generally comic, campy and flamboyant, while drag kings are often political and have a more serious purpose.

Ezra Berkley Nepon, a drag king performer, finds the duality sexist and offensive. “It’s once again the idea that a man onstage [even if that man is a female offstage] is doing meaningful art, while a woman onstage [even if she’s a male offstage] is silly and trashy.”

Though a fair number feel that a man in a dress is far more subversive than a woman donning slacks, Margolin takes the opposite view, suggesting that n placing herself in the role of the more privileged gender, a woman who plays a man is especially transgressive. “We accept the idea of a man playing a nun far more rapidly than a woman playing a rabbi,” she commented.

Arguably, a man in a nun’s habit is a familiar figure of entertainment, while a rabbi as a source of comedy may be treading on sensitive territory for a variety of reasons. Following a London performance with Split Britches, Margolin recalls a theatergoer who was so enraged that she almost assaulted Margolin, asking how she dared to perform her rabbi on the continent where the Holocaust had occurred.

“I hadn’t thought of it and I apologized,” Margolin conceded. “I didn’t change the text, but the performance had to change in subtle ways.”

Israel-born Zohar Weiman-Kelman is keenly aware of where she is performing and how her act might be viewed. “You have to understand the context in which it’s perceived,” she remarked. When she played “Shabbos’dik” — a pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jew who sings in Yiddish — in Poland she felt that Jews were historically seen as “the other” but that they were still very much part of that country’s history. As such, her act was not interpreted as a caricature or an expression of self-hate, but rather a return to the Jewish past as glimpsed through the lens of a radical theatrical aesthetic. Bringing Shabbos’dik to Israel, where at least part of her audiences were queer, Weiman-Kelman found that giving voice to traditional Judaism was an eye-opener. “The Jewish and Palestinian queers were surprised to see Yiddish as part of contemporary queer culture,” she said.

Interestingly, Weiman-Kelman’s earliest drag creation, inspired by the men she had known in Israel, was militaristic and macho. She didn’t much like playing him and soon realized she was far more at ease playing a man who embodied the prewar stereotype of effeminate masculinity. Also, she liked the alternative politics that character evoked.

Weiman-Kelman is descended from a line of rabbis. In fact, her grandfather was the first hasidic rabbi in Toronto, where Weiman-Kelman is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. As Shabbos’dik, she is channeling her Jewish lineage, she says. Furthermore, she views traditional Jewish culture — a great part of which was lost in the Holocaust — and queer identity as profoundly allied in their shared marginalization.

Others also see a connection. Mocha Jean Herrup, a gender queer scholar based in Austin, Texas, believes being Jewish is inherently queer, pointing to the stereotype of the Jewish male as effeminate, and the Jewish female as aggressive. “You can interpret that as pushing gender boundaries,” she maintained. “Jews are gender-policed around these images.”

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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