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Cabaret Nights: Tales of One Rabbi’s Short-Lived Pulpit in Paradise

For a month before and a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks, I was the southernmost rabbi in the continental United States or, as my brother liked to say, the “Key Vester Rebbe.”

My memories of those days resurfaced recently when I read “Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret” (University of Chicago Press, 2003), by two University of California at Santa Barbara sociology and women’s studies professors, Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor.

The 801 Cabaret — at 801 Duval St., on Key West’s main drag, excuse the pun — is a place whose inner walls I once knew well.

It all began when I answered an ad — interestingly enough, it had appeared in the Forward — that announced “Rabbi Wanted in Paradise.” For a rabbi with only three years of experience, it was a great opportunity, especially in light of the ennui that ensconced me then, a side effect of my divorce. Key West did indeed sound like “paradise,” especially when one factored in the $50,000 salary — and the free apartment.

I was hired by the nondenominational Bnai Zion synagogue to do outreach to Key West’s citizens, be they Cuban exiles, “snowbirds” from the North, Jews who “immigrated” from Miami, gays, lesbians or drag queens.

While I had briefly attended the interdenominational Academy for Jewish Religion in New York City, I was ordained by an Orthodox rabbinic court in Manhattan. Basically, I’m a Conservative rabbi with nondenominational feelings, that comes from an Orthodox family background. All of this means that I’m a fairly radical rabbi, maybe even too radical for Key West, but forgive me for getting ahead of myself.

Known alternately as the “Conch Republic” (after those fibrous mollusks), “the Rock” (as in “I need to get off the Rock”) or simply “Paradise,” Key West is closer to Cuba (90 miles) than to Miami (154 miles). For years, it has provided a haven to writers, kooks, smugglers, artists, intellectuals and tourists.

It’s not perfect, of course, but it does come pretty close. Even so, I only lasted two months there.

My mandate from the synagogue board was to try to increase shul membership, and one great untapped source — the synagogue and I agreed — was the gay and lesbian community. One way to reach out was to do kiruv to the heroes of that community — the drag queens.

To Rupp and Taylor, drag queens are not simply gender benders; they are social protest personified. Every night, on stage at the 801 Cabaret they educate the public about what it means to be a man or a woman in our society. To be a drag queen is not for the fainthearted; as some say, it takes “balls.”

My goal was to reach out to these men, or at least to the Jews among them — and to get them into synagogue. As jobs go, it wasn’t unpleasant. It was certainly colorful.

At the 801, there were Inga (Roger), Kylie (Kevin), Sushi (Gary), Milla (Dean), TV (Timothy), Scabola (Mathew), Gugi (Rov), Desiray (Joel) and Margo (David). Other Key West favorites include Lady V, Mama Crass, Baby Drag, Krystal Klear, Raven, Mr. Randy Roberts and the Bitch Sisters. Of them, only Margo, Mr. Randy Roberts and possibly the Bitch Sisters were Jewish.

At first, there was some confusion on my part. But the folks at the 801 were more than happy to clarify for me.

“Jack, I could go to shul as Margo,” David told me, “but what would be the purpose? It would be a bit of a shock at first, and Bnai Zion would accept me, but I would most likely go to shul as David, not Margo. Margo is my stage act. It would serve no purpose except for entertainment value to go as her. I’d go as David.” But in the end, he never came.

I got into trouble with Mr. Randy Roberts when a Boston Globe reporter writing about my outreach efforts ended up calling him a “cross-dresser” in the article. He is an entertainer and a female impersonator, he told me, and don’t you forget it.

I was told that I was the first rabbi to come to a drag show. While that is not entirely true, I was pleased and honored. At one show, I was a “victim” of Randy’s humor, no matter that I was a rabbi. I had gone to the bathroom during his act; when I returned, he asked me in front of the entire audience: “Did you wash your hands, rabbi?” Dutifully, I responded, “Yes, I did.”

While dressing in drag goes against the halachic prohibition of men dressing in women’s attire, drag queens could certainly bring some much-needed energy and spirit to synagogues and schools. Plus, they could teach lessons about tolerance, diversity and sexuality.

However, it would take a very liberal congregation indeed to have drag queens teaching Hebrew school. Despite its tolerance, I doubt even Bnai Zion would allow men in drag to teach Sunday school, although out of drag would be a different story — albeit one that never came up.

Well, this rabbi may have been too radical or simply just too “inexperienced” for Key West; I was fired after two months. It turns out I’d become too involved in Key West’s nightlife, neglecting my duties. Among the side projects I poured myself into instead was a screenplay: “Key West Rabbi.”

That’s Key West for you.

Jack Nusan Porter is the author of “The Jew as Outsider” and “Sexual Politics in Nazi Germany,” and editor of “The Sociology of American Jewry” and “Jewish Radicalism,” among other books, and an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.

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