Blog

Whither Queer Yiddishkayt?

Alicia Svigals

INTRODUCTION

Ded­i­cat­ed to the mem­o­ry of Jew­lia Eisenberg.

I first learned to be queer by being Jewish. That is, by the time I came out as a lesbian I had already learned to love being part of an outsider community and to value the perspective it offered on the world at large. Being Jewish made coming out as a young lesbian that much easier. I am certain this oft-noted parallel is part of the reason for perennially large numbers of queers at Yiddishist gatherings. Yiddish itself has been relegated over time to the marginalia of an already marginal population, so Queerness and Yiddishism by now seem a natural shidekh.

I first wrote about queer yiddishkayt almost a quarter century ago in my 1998 essay and manifesto Why we do this anyway: klezmer as Jewish youth subculture. At the time the newly-named movement was mostly aspirational, just as the “Freyelekhe Felker” banner that singer Lorin Sklamberg and I created and marched with in the NYC Pride Parade that summer announced an affinity group that didn’t actually exist — nonetheless attracting a number of additional marchers along the way.

I myself have been busy in the meantime with my career, family, and simply being full-time gay. But when I looked into what is going on now in Queer Yiddishland, I was surprised, amazed, and delighted by what I found. Queer Yiddishists have been fruitful and multiplied. There has been an explosion of queer Yiddishist cultural production. When I was in The Klezmatics with Sklamberg and we named our first album “Shvaygn iz Toyt” (silence=death), we were young and pretty solidly lesbian and gay, and that was that, and saying so on stage was already quite a lot. Our counterparts today are much queerer: more overtly sexual, more trans, more varied and full of a spirit of openness and a love of flux and change.

Some feel to me like my artistic children and grandchildren, taking my work places it didn’t know it wanted to go. A video by the drag troupe Shmutzik Shmates called Queer Benkshaft offers an erotic retelling of the Dybbuk tale in which The Dybbuk’s Leah writes a love letter in Yiddish to a woman and asks her to meet her at the mikveh. As soon as I clicked on it I heard that the soundtrack was... me, playing a melody called the Dybbuk Shers that I wrote for (gay) playwright Tony Kushner’s adaptation of the play back in the ‘90’s. I like to think that it’s partly because of my identity as an out lesbian Yiddishist that I’m in there.

Some aspects of Queer Yiddishism feel constant, and possibly eternal. Queer Yiddishism is an act of integration — a poignant one because it isn’t just about integrating different parts of ourselves, as in lesbian poet Irena Klepfisz’s work (such as her iconic A Few Words in the Mother Tongue), but also about integrating our true selves into families and histories. As Zohar Weiman Kelman commented almost a decade ago on a photo of themself as their drag character Shabbos’dik: Having my father (also a rabbi) take that picture, I am able both to show him how far from the normative path I have strayed, but also how connected I still am.”

Queer Yiddishism is brazen and and it is funny, but the in-your-face attitude coexists with some deeply felt stuff. We’re joking and we’re not. We’re irreverent and strong, and also in pain from invisibility and/or placelessness in Jewish culture. The poignancy is not pathetic; it is human and easily obscured by a defensive, ironic, and bold self-presentation, all of which is there for a reason: historically it would have been dangerous to reveal vulnerability to the mainstream heteronormative world. To continue the Yiddish/queer parallels, this is true for both queers and Jews; in America, both have famously used being funny as a strategy for self-preservation.

Feeling excluded has always been a great motivation for Yiddishism: not liking when we weren’t in on the joke, feeling sadly shut out of the Yiddish punchlines we were overhearing from our parents and grandparents and comedians. Jeffrey Shandler describes a 2005 routine by the drag group the Kinsey Sicks that plays on this dynamic: a Jewish member of the group begins to sing the Yiddish theater song Papirossen, but is overcome with emotion and leaves the stage, asking the rest of the (mostly non-Jewish) group to finish it. The joke is, of course, that they can’t, and the audience couldn’t understand the Yiddish either way. The experience of growing up queer is suffused with exclusion too: it is an experience of missing out on the love, romance, and marriage that was all around us, in the media and in the real world.

Much as it can be difficult to admit, queer yiddishkayt is a longing for family inclusion as much as it is a demand for sexual freedom in the context of the Jewish world. Sometimes there’s even actual food involved, invoking the comfort and heymishkayt of ancestral and familial connections: examples include David Wise’s 2004 interactive drag show Momma’s Knishes, or my 1993 “Third Seder” show curated with the Klezmatics and featuring queer artists like Neil Goldberg, David Dorfman, Sarah Schulman, and Tony Kushner.

Queer yiddishkayt aims to radically re-include us. It is one thing, for example, to tell Jewish lesbian stories, such as say the one in Sholem Asch’s play Got fun Nekome as retold by lesbian playwright Paula Vogel in her musical Indecent. Contemporary queer Yiddishist author Jess Goldman has something larger in mind, though, and goes straight to the source: Genesis, the ur-exclusion, the mother of all queer exclusions, Eve and the advent of hegemonic Jewish (not to mention Western/Christian) heterosexuality. Jess’ story of Eve and Lilith having hot sex on the beach heals that original wound, bringing us queers into the tale of the very creation of the world. The story, Evelilith — imaginative, erudite, beautiful and funny — is from a collection of new folktales and legends entitled Schmutz, published in 2020 as a chapbook. This certainly is a different world than the one I came out into. Two hundred Yiddish words are italicized in the text and defined in a glossary, but not “enby,” for non-binary — the only term many Jews my age and older would have needed explained.

Jewish Studies scholar Jeffrey Shandler has come up with a fascinating and productive way of understanding the role of the Yiddish language in our Yiddishist world, describing it with a term of his own invention: postvernacular. In his telling, outside of the Hasidic/haredi world, Yiddish is no longer and cannot be a vernacular language: that is, one that is mostly invisible to itself as the native, everyday language of a community. Postvernacular Yiddish is artificially learned and used consciously for particular cultural, ideological and artistic ends. And there’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, we can go ahead and own and celebrate the postvernacular nature of our engagement with the Yiddish language.

I would posit that queerness is also postvernacular: a kind of self-conscious gayness. Gay is no longer just what a person is, as was the case for me and much of my cohort in the Shvaygn iz Toyt phase of Queer Yiddishism (and note that back then we used the word ‘queer’ simply as a reappropriated, defiant term for ‘gay’). ‘Queer’ (now) says that by being gay, someone stands for something larger: an alternative and more open way of being in the world, a ‘don’t pin me down’ ethos. In this way too, it is natural for Yiddishism and Queerness to get gay-married. 1 1 (I say that with a wink…) And it is in this way that queer yiddishkayt has become, over the years, much more queer.

Proudly post-vernacular Yiddish is fully on display in that Benkshaft video. The letter being penned by Leah is written in the same studied, newly-learned Yiddish script with which I did my Workmen’s Circle school homework as a child. It is so far removed from the Yiddish handwriting we see on old letters and postcards. The Yiddish is not always correct. Leah struggles to light a pair of shabes candles with a matchbook possibly wet from the bathtub. The work is suffused with both queer and Yiddishist longing. Troupe member Yael Horowitz has said: “What is expressed...in our performances is a feeling of benkshaft (longing), like the longing for a touch or a place that is over. The Shmates embody erotic desire and simultaneously desire for a place that never existed or exists only momentarily—Yiddishland.”

Queer yiddishkayt today is sex-positive and fiercely erotic (see: Jewlia Eisenberg). It helps us in our Yiddishism by opening an inner sanctum of vernacular Yiddish not generally taught to us in our academic programs. Queer yiddishkayt has also become a bridge between the Hasidic/haredi world where Yiddish is a vernacular, and the post-vernacular Yiddishist world, enriching Yiddishism and providing a safe haven for gay members and ex-members of ultra-religious Jewish communities. I saw an especially affecting example of this, and of the queer longing for family and community acceptance, in visual artist Shterna Goldbloom’s recent work Feygeles, which consists of Torah scrolls with depictions of queer haredi Jews.

Anony­mous Scroll,” from Shter­na Gold­bloom’s recent work Feyge­les.

My wish for Queer Yiddishism going forward is that the postvernacular Yiddish at its heart continues to be enriched by substantive study and knowledge of the language, and scholarship about the culture. My brief follow-up to my 1998 Manifesto is: let us always aim to expand beyond the best-known vocabulary and easy Yinglish! Ever forward and ever deeper with our beautiful Yiddish culture!

Below is a brief list of some queer yiddishkayt, both oldish and new, to check out in addition to the works already discussed.

---

Sasha Berenstein’s list of Yiddish transgender terms

Ellen Galford’s The Dyke and the Dybbuk

Eve Sicular and the Isle of Klezbos’ Yiddish Celluloid Closet

Miryem-Khaye Seigel’s Toyznt Tamen

Jewlia Eisenberg and Book of J

Morgan Bassichis and Ethan Philbrick’s Klezmer for Beginners

Diane Nerwen’s The Great Yiddish Love

Shmutzik Shmates’ Lifting the Veil

MLA STYLE
Svigals, Alicia. “Whither Queer Yiddishkayt?.” In geveb, October 2021: https://ingeveb.org/blog/whither-queer-yiddishkayt.
CHICAGO STYLE
Svigals, Alicia. “Whither Queer Yiddishkayt?.” In geveb (October 2021): Accessed Oct 24, 2021.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alicia Svigals

Klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals is a founder of the Grammy-winning Klezmatics, who she co-directed for seventeen years. She has received numerous commissions and awards for her compositions and was a 2014 MacDowell Fellow. Her most recent CD is Beregovski Suite, a duo with jazz pianist Uli Geissendoerfer.