Friday, June 21, 2019

Queer Yiddishkayt

It’s June! Happy Pride!

My new GOLDEN CITY is up and it’s on the theme of Queer Yiddishkayt. I realized, too late for the column, that this is the 30thanniversary of the Klezmatics’ first, landmark album, Shvaygn iz Toyt (Silence = Death.) Though musically it was quickly surpassed as the band matured and delved deeper into Jewish music (and made many exuberant collaborations), it still stands as bold statement on who the band was and what they were about. Taking the album name from the AIDS activist ACT-UP slogan, the Klezmatics asserted their sexual-political commitments and suggested that if silence was deadly to gay and lesbians, so to was silence a kind of cultural death. Yiddish would be silent no more. 

One of the things I note in my piece is that not only has the intersection between Queer and Yiddish been an important site of new art and scholarship, Queer Jews (and non-Jews) have been wildly over-represented in the klezmer (and Yiddish) ‘revival’ from the very beginning. Naturally, people both within and without the scene have asked Why? Is it because Yiddish cultural spaces are less tied up with the heteronormativity and misogyny of traditional Judaism? Is it because they are an escape from the macho bs of Israeli culture? Or that they exist outside the exhausting battle between American Zionism and the Israel-skeptical?

To be honest, I think the answer is a little of all of those, and maybe more. More importantly, I’m not sure I’m so interested in the question. I think spaces where queer Jews are underrepresented should be more concerned with what is keeping folks away

Of course, queer Jews, and queerness, have always been with us. Before our time of sexual liberations, though, Yiddish queerness was often submerged and sublimated in a galaxy of ways that will no doubt keep scholars busy for another hundred years. When I set out to write my column on Queer Yiddish I remembered something that piqued my straight-girl gaydar a few years ago.

If you imagined Fellini’s Satyricon as a documentary about Jews and narrated by David Attenborough, you’re in the general vicinity of Peter Davis’s oddball documentary The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt. Shot in the early 1980s, it’s mostly about a particular crew of old timers at Sackett Lake and their desire to cling to their summer ways, even as their children abandon the old traditions.

I found a bad bootleg of the movie on YouTube a few years ago. What really got my attention was its depiction of a Catskills ‘mock wedding.’ A man and a woman (each in drag) are married in a parody of a Jewish wedding, to the positively bacchanalian screams of their ‘guests.’ 





According to the not-David Attenborough narration, the mock wedding, once found all over the Catskills, and now out of fashion for twenty years, is being revived today (1983), with a mix of Jewish and Christian elements. At the khupe, the ‘bride’ suddenly gives birth to a plastic babydoll. The scene is extremely weird, and the terrible quality of the video heightens the eeriness. You could easily cut it up and pitch The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Beltas a found footage folk horror movie, the story of an isolated group of Ashkenazi Jews on a lake hiding a secret pagan fertility cult.

The transgressive qualities of the mock wedding make it a natural for contemporary reappropriation. Fittingly, at least one drag wedding happened at Klezkamp, itself a reworking of the Jewish Catskill experience.  The participants were an eclectic Klezkamp mix, with music by an actual Hasidic band leader and dancing led by a scholar of Hasidic dance. The bride’s dress, made of paper, was constructed by another dance leader, moonlighting as a designer.  

In 2005, the klezmer punk band, Golem, staged a drag wedding at the Knitting Factory. It made enough of a stir to be featured in the national edition of the New York Times.

Band leader Annette Ezekiel discovered the tradition in a book about the Catskills. As to the impulse behind it, she told the Times, "I suspect they did it in the Catskills for the very reasons that we are: that carnivalesque desire to make fun of social rules and hierarchies. After all, these were new immigrants trying to assimilate into American life, and yet they had their Jewish traditions. I think this was their way of letting loose, turning tradition on its head, celebrating it, making fun of it."

In The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt, mock weddings are explained as being an easily produced piece of amateur theater, especially suited to the more frugal hotels with smaller entertainment budgets.

It struck me as curious that drag would be considered standard fare for Jewish entertainment. Today, in an era when many working within Yiddish are especially alert to the queer subtexts of Ashkenazi culture, I wondered if the Castkills drag wedding was another piece of that queer history, hiding in plain sight.

Turns out, it’s not quite that simple. Mock weddings are found all over the United States. Often, their purpose is not to ritually let loose lurking alterity, but to reinforce existing norms. In the South, mock weddings were associated with blackface performance and both were used to reinforce boundaries of race and sex.

Pleasure is subjective. It's possible the Catskills drag weddings were about all these things: negotiating the demands of tradition and assimilation, reinforcing and subverting gender roles, as well as providing cheap entertainment. Perhaps, as in the American South, Catskill mock weddings were a way of expressing anxiety about social norms and reminding everyone how absurd it looks for men and women to trade roles. And, surely, some of the participants simply enjoyed dressing in drag.

Is the mock wedding a mostly forgotten vein of Jewish gender playfulness, still awaiting further investigation? Absolutely. Would I go so far as claiming it as a site of historic Yiddish queerness? Probably not.  

Then again, I shall reserve final judgment until I read the definitive paper in In Geveb.

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