Nov 15, 2016
Since before Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” (1964), critics have attempted to map the relationship between Jewish culture in the US, gay culture, and theater.
Sontag famously wrote, “The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony. […] Jewish liberalism is a gesture of self-legitimization. So is Camp taste, which definitely has something propagandistic about it. Needless to say, the propaganda operates in exactly the opposite direction. The Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense. Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.”
In this interview with writer Ezra Berkley Nepon, we discuss the connections between these genres, examining questions of Ashkenazi and queer identity, anti-assimilationism, and new Yiddish performing arts—“Notes on KlezKamp,” if you will.
Ezra Berkley Nepon is a writer, grassroots fundraiser, and performer based in Philadelphia. They are the author of Dazzle Camouflage: Spectacular Theatrical Strategies for Resistance and Resilience (2016) and Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A History of New Jewish Agenda (2012). Dazzle Camouflage documents Jenny Romaine’s New York City-based Yiddish theater and the work of the EGGPLANT Players, an activist troupe in rural Tennessee. Both theater artists came of age during the height of the AIDS pandemic, which shaped their political commitments and aesthetics.
Your new book is a narrative ethnography of two spaces that reject assimilation while simultaneously embracing tradition. Why bring together these two theater cultures? Is there a shared aesthetic between Yiddishland and Fairieland?
These are two worlds that don’t exist on maps, but rather are conjured by people who make the culture together. They each have some regular gathering locations that I try to visit as often as I can, and in many ways I carry them both with me. There are just a few other people who bridge those lands, it’s not a big crossover in terms of people who actively participate in both Yiddish and Faerie culture-making. I was immensely curious about what I would find in looking at these different cultures “in the same room.” It served as a way to practice the kind of story telling I was learning from Jenny Romaine’s method of ethnographic surrealism, the alchemical experiment of the re-mix.
These cultures are very different from each other. For one thing, Faerie culture only emerged in the 1970s, though it builds on queer cultures with much deeper roots. One facet of overlap that I think about but didn’t include in the book has to do with an idea I saw in Itzik Gottesman’s book Defining the Yiddish Nation: The Jewish Folklorists of Poland. Gottesman writes of folklorist Yeshaye Zlotnick, who talked about holiday-related folklore being the “most ‘authentic’ and profound form of Jewish folklore.” Zlotnick said that on the Sabbath and holidays, “The Jew was able to relax, to feel more spiritual, and to create humor that ‘would be winged with true Jewish folks-genius.’” I think about the ways that so much of Yiddish culture (outside of Hasidic communities) and Faerie culture is collectively built around semi-annual gatherings which repeat each year. For faeries, this tends to follow a pagan calendar—May Day and Samhain being the two big gathering times. For Yiddishists, I think of how KlezKamp happened on Christmas week for thirty years, and KlezKanada about six months later. So much new culture evolves and emerges out of these gathering spaces, where people are able to really interface, engage, and build together.
Please introduce the main subjects of your study—Jenny Romaine, SPREE, MaxZine and the EGGPLANT Faerie Players. What are some ways their work engages with Yiddish or Jewish theatrical history?
Jenny Romaine is a theater artist living and working in New York City, who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking family and whose theater engages intimately with the Yiddish archive. After working in the YIVO archives’ sound collection for many years, Jenny developed a theatrical method of re-mixing and collaging archival content based on ideas of ethnographic surrealism. Jenny uses this method to design, direct, and steward collaborative theatrical productions in spaces like the KlezKamp Youth Theater Workshop, KlezKanada, the annual Jews for Racial and Economic Justice Purimshpil, and recently at Yiddish Weimar. Jenny is also a longtime and founding member of the Great Small Works theater collective, and the bandleader of Jennifer Miller’s Circus Amok. Jenny descends from and works within the tradition of avant-garde Yiddish theater and puppetry.
The Eggplant Faerie Players are a troupe founded in 1989 by SPREE Vance and MaxZine Weinstein. Eventually based in rural Tennessee, the troupe toured the US and Europe with shows like “Queens are Wild,” “Person Livid With AIDS,” and “Next Year in Sodom.” While the Eggplant Faerie Players are a mixed group, a number of Jewish performers have surely influenced the group’s content and style. Even the name is a subversive reference to Jewish revolutionary values; EGGPLANT stands for “Emma Goldman Gypsy Players Annual National Tour.” The play “Queens Are Wild” centers on two drag queens playing canasta with a character named Abby Fein, Jewish mother of their friend who has recently died of AIDS. In “Person Livid with AIDS,” the ensemble performs a version of “Dayenu” which traces all of the elements of HIV transmission and brings it home that seroconversion should not be about guilt and innocence. In “Next Year in Sodom,” the Faeries traveled to Israel and performed a satirical show critical of Israeli politics, also touring the show across the US. Aside from their Israeli tour (around 1997), the Eggplant Faerie Players’ queer and culturally Jewish theater has mostly been performed for non-Jewish audiences and most often in US Southern tours.
Tell me a bit about your ethnographic practice. I’m reminded of femme ethnographies like Del La Grace Volcano’s Femmes of Power, where each study is also a kind of love letter to the subject, rather than ‘objectively’ addressing an audience other than its subjects.
I really appreciate Esther Newton’s writing in “My Best Informant’s Dress: The Erotic Equation in Fieldwork.” Newton writes of her “best informant,” “If Kay had not existed, I might have had to invent her. For me, intellectual and creative work, including fieldwork and the writing of ethnography, has always been inspired by and addressed to an interior audience of loved ones like informants and mentors. The most intense attractions have generated the most creative energy, as if the work were a form of courting and seduction.” The Eggplant Faerie Players and Jenny Romaine are people I met in my early 20s who made me feel that the world I was yearning for was possible. In November I’m going to Tennessee for the weekend to celebrate SPREE’s birthday. When I had pneumonia, Jenny offered to come over and do my laundry. I’m not going to pretend to be objective about these people, they are really important friends to me—and I’m compelled to write about them in part because I love them.
My practice has been, in this book and the previous one about New Jewish Agenda, that I do as much research as I can online before an interview/oral history so I have a sense of the timeline and major events, and other issues that I might want to ask about. Then I do an oral history interview, and that often points me to further research to fill in the gaps in terms of historical context. With my previous writing about New Jewish Agenda, I was able to dig through the organization’s boxes at Tamiment Archives at NYU, but many people also pulled folders out of their basements to share with me. With the Eggplant Faerie Players, various members shared a lot of photos and files of old fliers and news clippings during a work week that included a documenting work group. Over the course of that week, we scanned and digitized a ton of images. One of the Eggplant Faerie Players, Leopard, also shared some sound recordings with me. And they let me take home their old VHS tapes to digitize. With Jenny, there was more documentation of her work online, and I had more materials from being in her shows over the years. I took a trip to NYC to meet with her and put a lot of her higher resolution images on my computer, but I did less digging in hard copy folders with her. She also has relationships with a number of professional photographers who have documented many of her shows over the years.
For me, the best part of this process was that Jenny and I travelled to Tennessee where she and the Eggplant Faerie Players met for the first time. That sensory experience of putting the two stories together and seeing where they met and diverged was both illuminating and really fun.
One piece that’s important to me is that I always share drafts of the interviews with the subjects, and often the full book as well, giving them editing power. I really identify with this quote from An Archive of Feelings, where Ann Cvetkovich writes about her process: “I consulted extensively with the narrators during the writing process and had them approve each quotation. This dialogue has been enormously important for my thinking. This group of women is extremely self-conscious about representation and highly motivated to make a contribution to the historical record, and their participation was thus very active. I would encourage others using oral history methodology to consult with their narrators as much as possible.”
And I have to say, all of these people have been extremely generous with me, in sharing their stories and allowing me to write about them. It’s a vulnerable thing to be written about, to risk being misunderstood. I think it has been important for all of us that I’m writing from the position of khavershaft.
Tell us about “dazzle camouflage.” What does this aesthetic principle mean, and how does it guide your project?
I first heard the term “dazzle camouflage” from a friend who was referencing that queer strategy of using big, bold aesthetics as a kind of protection spell for moving through the world. My friend had picked up the phrase from the book Cruddy by Lynda Barry, but the term originates from a way of painting war ships in a crazy-quilt pattern-mixed design that confuses and disorients a viewer’s sense of the ship’s speed and direction. In the book, I’m using “dazzle camouflage” to talk about the creative strategies used by theater artists who want to perform radical political intervention without losing the audience: camp, clowning, surrealism, satire, and spectacle. The Eggplant Faeries talked about “the three lavender shields of fun, friendly, and unexpected,” and Jenny Romaine talks about “truth in gay clothes”; these are their practices of wrapping up their political theater in a package so delightful that everyone wants to see what’s happening, and they may gain access to public spaces that might not welcome a queer, anti-capitalist, political intervention if they saw it coming.
Do you think dazzle camo, as a strategy, is related to the use of a minor language—a kind of creative subterfuge in plain view?
I heard a great talk by Michael Wex last winter about elements of Yiddish that function as “German to spite the Germans.” He talked about how “innocent-looking Yiddish terms and idioms express profound opposition to the German, i.e., Christian, worldview.” This facet of Yiddish culture is thrilling to me, the ways that resistance becomes embedded in language. So, as Wex explains, a phrase like “nisht geshtoygn un nisht gefloygn” 2 2 Idiomatically, the phrase means “nonsense.” Literally, it means “he [Jesus] didn’t get up [on the cross] and he didn’t fly away.” Thus, the speaker diminishes Christian theology as ahistorical fantasy. is a subversive dig at the idea of Christ’s resurrection. In the book I say that dazzle camouflage is “both a way in, and an escape plan.” How do you talk about the violence of dominant culture, or share the vibrancy of revolutionary fervor, without attracting retribution? You embed the message in a song, a metaphor, a joke that won’t be immediately legible to those who you aim to undermine.
I see another example of this in the history of Polari, a queer subcultural language which I understand also incorporates some Yiddish. Polari carries into my own common language with gay-given-meaning words like butch, basket, camp, drag, and fruit. I understand that this language mixes words from of all kinds of cultures that would want to function away from the dangerous gaze of the State: queers, carnies (circus people), sex workers, drug culture, and other criminalized groups. But the words aren’t subtle—they’re flamboyant!
One theme of the spectacular vernacular is costuming. You describe a protest moment when “some police officers […] placed white gloves on their hands, ostensibly as a protection against AIDS, prompting the crowd to shout “Your gloves don’t match your shoes!” That, to me, really epitomized camp protest in a poignant and hilarious way. And in In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003), Fred Moten writes about flamboyant aesthetics as a kind of amulet: “If something is to happen you have to come unprepared, unarmed; but you don’t come with nothing. You’ve got to bring something that adorns you even if it doesn’t arm you.” Can you talk a bit about the visual aspects of these performances and the importance of costuming?
That’s such a breathtaking quote. It brings me again to the Eggplant Faerie Players and their “three lavender shields of fun, friendly, and unexpected.” MaxZine says, “the object is to draw people to demonstrations by promising that they’ll have fun. That’s where the outfits, stilt-walking, creative propaganda, juggling, and make-up come in handy.” So, the Eggplant Faerie Players might be adorned with stilts and sequined outfits, juggling dildos.
Jenny’s Sukkos Mob comes adorned with matching green suit jackets and white hats made out of paper-mache that look kind of like those worn by Hasidim, only “a little more Vegas, a little more Sammy Davis, Jr.”—and embedded in this costume is a strategy for the street performers to evade police harassment as the cops are less likely to bust a religious group. As Jenny says, “we can point to the Chabadniks and say ‘Hey, we’re just doing what they’re doing!’” Meanwhile, they’re also carrying around giant cardboard pickles—the shield of unexpected.
Or, SPREE arrives to her trial for direct action with the ACT UP Affinity Group “Surrender Dorothy” wearing a dress and giant hat intended to conjure the power of Joan Collins in a scene from Dynasty.
I want to celebrate dazzle camouflage as a strategy, but I also want to feel what it’s like to not need armor. As MaxZine has said, “We end up putting on all these layers of skin . . . and we have to find places where we can peel off the layers. I can’t imagine what’s more important than learning how to be ourselves.” I remember the depth of yearning I felt in my first experiences of queer cultural space deep in the woods, first experiencing glamour that didn’t need to double as protection.
Many contemporary Yiddish artists draw from a beloved lineage of cultural figures—people like Nekhame Epshteyn, a YIVO researcher who collected 1,000 jokes and inspired Romaine’s creation of “a portable amusement park based on Yiddish ethnography.” What inspired Jenny Romaine’s Backwards March and the Sukkos Mob?
Jenny has a lot of relationships with people who act as “content providers” through their rich knowledge of Yiddish history and ethnography. The Backwards March at Klez Kanada is a great example of how this works. Jenny had heard Michael Wex kvetching that parades at Yiddish gatherings tended to replicate “goyish Mardi Gras” style instead of drawing from Yiddish culture. This sparked her curiosity, and she started researching Yiddish processionals. Itzik Gottesman, Jenny’s friend and former YIVO colleague, told her a story he had heard from a man named Aryeh Leish whose village in Stanashest (Stănișești), Romania had a 1920s tradition of gathering to greet the Sabbath at a body of water, and then, singing a melody and playing their instruments, marching backwards to town. Jenny says, “To me it’s so anti-militarist, it’s so Dada that in the 1920s they would be like, ‘We’re not marching in your fascist lines. We’re not marching in your fascist armies, we’re walking backwards.’” Jenny brought this tradition to Klez Kanada and ever since it has become a ritual annual activity—a gorgeous example of embodied engagement with anti-fascist Yiddish history.
The Sukkos Mob is “an intergenerational company of spectacle singers, artists, and scholars who investigate the ancient autumnal harvest and pilgrimage holiday called Sukkos through a noisy and lyrical street spectacle.” The spark for this theatrical intervention was a confluence of recognizing political urgency and identifying cultural tools. In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Jenny heard performer (and now Rabbi) Amichai Lau-Lavi talking about Sukkoth’s 3 3 Our style guide directs us to render the English name of the holiday, Sukkoth, as it appears in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, rather than the Yiddish-English rendering of “Sukkos” that Jenny Romaine uses. traditional rain dances and water libations. Jenny recognized Sukkoth as a holiday that is “undertouched” by secularists, compared to holidays like Passover and Purim, so she started to investigate the Sukkoth celebrations happening in the Hasidic neighborhoods of Williamsburg. From this exploration, The Sukkos Mob emerged as public performance art playing to audiences in parks, street corners, Jewish day schools, colleges, and beyond—all with the motto “Fun is not just for fundamentalists.”
You describe Romaine’s art practice as “rehearsing abolition,” a model in which theater prefigures a future world. This also reminds me of Walidah Imarisha writing, “All organizing is science fiction.” How are these theater collectives related to Jewish collectivity and futurity?
In the book, when I talk about “rehearsing abolition,” I’m describing a specific party Jenny organized for Milk Not Jails, a group she works closely with, which seeks to end upstate, rural New York’s dependency on the prison economy and to revitalize and invest in New York’s agricultural economy as a model alternative to the prison economy. At this party, they had a few carnival-type games including a map made of balloons and we could throw darts to try to pop the prison balloons. I talked about how the thrill of popping a prison balloon was just a taste of a future of decarceration and prison abolition. And that sweetness was amplified by the ice cream that Milk Not Jails had produced as part of their political strategy. It reminded me of the Jewish ritual of tasting honey in celebration of learning Torah, so that we grow up associating it with sweetness.
Some of the ways these theater-makers practice or rehearse for liberatory futures are simple: we often choose and write the roles we want to play, the scripts are written or informed by the words and ideas of impacted people. For Jenny, this might mean learning and teaching a Russian Jewish archival song about resisting police brutality, or partnering with Domestic Workers United on a purimshpil written from the perspective of the palace workers. In these shows, the end product is spectacle and often surreal—not politically didactic. But the process of building the show is a space of collective learning, grappling, looking for ways in; opening up to the synchronicity, meaning-making, and discovery that comes from collective process. For the Eggplant Faeries, the process is less rigorous but no less collaborative.
For me, the closest Jewish collective process I can think of to this co-designed theatrical process is Torah study. As a child, I remember feeling invited and valued as a participant in Torah study sessions. In my experience, collective Torah study can be a space where anyone present may hold a key to unlock new learning for the group. Shared analysis builds in a layered way. Questions are welcomed. Every year, cyclically, Jews look at the same lines from the same books and find new meaning based on the events that are happening in our lives and our world that week.
Another theme is coalitional art—Yiddish theater artists supporting Boricua, queer, anti-militarist organizing, prison abolition, etc. Yet people of color have also critiqued both spaces described in the book as “utopian.” I’m thinking of Jews of color attending Yiddish cultural spaces and being interrogated about their Jewishness—quite the opposite of what you describe as places where people can “show up with all of their identities.” I’m reminded, also, of new groups inspired by IDA 4 4 Idyll Dandy Acres for people of color. 5 5https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/31/xrysalis-festival-lgbt-radical-faeries As an ethnographer, how do you see spaces of Yiddishland and Fairieland respond to those experiences and critiques?
What a gorgeous article, I have tears in my eyes from reading about Xrysalis right now!
Partly in response to your questions after reading my thesis paper [in an earlier conversation], I added a little writing about the reality that I have been witnessing powerful critiques of how white supremacy and racism have played out in both of these (not-) utopian spaces. I wrote that “I see these subcultures being called to transform, to make the beautiful and healing parts of them just as joyful and re-energizing for all who enter.”
This process is very visible right now in the parts of Faerieland that I regularly visit—whether in the work of Valencia Wombone to create the Sojourners Land Movement or the Building Permanence Project or the processes that land projects and sanctuaries have gone into with anti-oppression and anti-racism trainings and workshops inviting residents, neighbors, and visitors to participate. These material spaces have been vast-majority white for a long time, and they are being called on to shift in a meaningful way, with a growing critical mass of people of color who are stewarding these transitions. And though I wouldn’t pretend that the shift is easy, I do witness that it’s a very active and engaged process across the community: the conversation is very present right now.
I have not seen that same process of active engagement in Yiddishland yet. I do witness that Jewish groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and Jewish Voice for Peace, are shifting and being challenged to center the voices and leadership of Jewish people of color, Mizrahim, and Sephardim. I would say that those processes seem to similarly align with my sense of the Faerieland transitions over the past couple of years. I would say that this work has been ongoing throughout the lives of these organizations, and that the national conversation about racism and dismantling white supremacy sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement has helped to jumpstart a new level of accountability and structural change.
Do the spaces you describe fit with Shandler’s idea of post-vernacularity, or is a different model needed?
I would say these spaces are post-vernacular in that you don’t have to speak the language to access the theater being created, and in fact the whole idea of dazzle camouflage is that the performances are not exclusive and instead are invitations and open doors for anyone to join the fun (and the movement). Jenny’s productions are learning spaces, designed to give participants some shared language, tools, and framework for engaging with the content (often Yiddish archival content) and co-creating new culture. The Eggplant Faerie Players created vehicles to perform their subcultural reality for people without access to the experience of, for instance, the hotline calls that came in during the first year of the National AIDS Hotline, or the experience of trying to find competent HIV care in Tennessee in the early/mid-‘90s.
I was struck by the omnipresence of AIDS art protest throughout the book, from Jenny Romaine’s involvement with ACT UP to the EGGPLANT production “Person Livid with AIDS.” There’s much mainstream Jewish art responding to AIDS, from Kushner’s Angels in America and the Klezmatics’ Shvaygn=Toyt to Sarah Schulman’s books and films. And there’s been a recent surge of writing on the Plague Years, like Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feeling and Kelly Cogswell’s Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger. How does your research contribute to or intervene in these conversations?
I’m in my late 30’s, and my exposure to ACT UP Philadelphia in my early 20’s had a huge effect on my understanding of organized resistance, building power through social movements, and the capacity of the people most impacted to change the world. I met ACT UP Philadelphia in 1998, after protease inhibitors had shifted the pace of mass death, although I didn’t understand that moment as a historical turning point at the time. ACT UP introduced me to the concept and practice of the affinity group, and exposed me to brilliant, caring people who were and are serious and also uproariously funny about their deep political urgency. I experienced the late ‘90s global justice movement largely through the lens of ACT UP Philly, which was targeting global trade as a new dimension of corporate greed impacting people with AIDS around the world. Because of that exposure to ACT UP and the wider AIDS activist community of Philadelphia, one of my formative questions in writing my other book—about the 1980’s activist group New Jewish Agenda—was “how did these Leftist Jews respond to AIDS”? In this book, I knew going in that MaxZine and SPREE and many of the other Eggplant Faerie Players had lived and made art through what many call “the Plague Years” (the emergence of the pandemic in the US), and had been active members of ACT UP New York and continued to make art and engage politically about HIV/AIDS through to recent years. I knew that Jenny Romaine had also lived in NYC throughout the emergence of HIV/AIDS, and had written her performance studies Master’s Thesis about ACT UP NY affinity group The Marys and their practice of political funerals. AIDS activism is one of the biggest crossovers in these two profiles, and in many ways I see it as the third major character in this book.
I would say that I intend this book to make two small contributions to the conversation: first, to make sure that the Eggplant Faerie Players as a troupe, and the specific individuals in the troupe, don’t fall off of the historical map of AIDS activism because much of their work was outside of NYC or other big cities. And, second, as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m interested in making sure that SPREE’s story is honored as part of a legacy of trans and gender nonconforming people who fought with ACT UP. SPREE’s stories about being locked up with Marsha P. Johnson after their arrests at ACT UP demos need to be part of the historical record. It’s important to acknowledge that trans people have always been part of the movements that impact their/our lives.
What has been your personal experience as a (literal) fellow-traveler and performer-participant in these projects? What does it mean to be a queer zamler 6 6 A zamler is the Yiddish term for a collector or compiler. It also carries the sense of an anthropologist or pro bono archivist. for you?
In part, it means that I’m thinking about the world around me as a source of ethnographic content for my writing, whether that means direct documentation or more creative writing models, and the world around me is very queer. I’m kind of obsessed with The Dybbuk and how it emerged from An-ski’s remixing of folkloric material from his ethnographic expeditions into Yiddish communities. Also, not for nothing, the queer longing underlying that play has been explored by many smart writers including Alisa Solomon and the biographer Gabriella Safran. In 2009, I co-created and produced a play called “Between Two Worlds: Who Loved You Before You Were Mine” which was a re-interpretation of themes in The Dybbuk about consensual possession. We called it “a love letter to the ghosts among us.” “Between Two Worlds” used craigslist ads seeking roommates as a way of talking about multiple souls sharing a body, and polyamorous connections between friends and lovers offered a way of talking about different generational relationships to the massive losses of the AIDS epidemic. After seeing the show, one person said to me “this must be what it’s like when straight people go to the movies!” because she saw elements of her actual life reflected.
More recently, I coordinated an archive exhibit called “Defiant Archives: Trans Histories of Existence, Resistance, and Brilliance” which was displayed at the Philadelphia LGBT Center and then at Philly’s City Hall, right outside of the Mayor’s office. For this exhibit, a group of trans people went through the Center’s LGBT archive seeking everything we could find about trans experience, and we also held two collective-curation events where we invited the community to come see what we had found, help to choose items for display, and bring elements of their/our own lives to add to the exhibit. The result of this open call was so moving—including the participation of legendary drag performer Les Harrison, who has been performing for over fifty years and who was the first Black drag performer to break the color barrier in many of Philadelphia’s clubs. Les shared a big stack of photos documenting everything from performances to family, and Les also performed at the opening event for the exhibit—a truly magical night.