On July 31st, one lucky man was crowned Mr. Nice Jewish Boy of DC 2022.
First held in 2013, the Mr. Nice Jewish Boy Pageant is a rambunctious night of drag, dance and drinks in Washington, DC. It is the only pageant of its kind, unique in its celebration of both Judaism and queerness, and it’s put on by an all volunteer-led social club called Mr. Nice Jewish Boy which brings together gay, bisexual and trans Jewish men in their 20s and 30s. They host happy hours, Shabbat dinners and an annual Shabbaton; they also organize the local Stonewall kickball team, the Matzo Balls. But their annual Mr. NJB pageant had been on hiatus since 2019 due to the pandemic.
The event’s triumphant return was held at Union Stage, an event space on DC’s Wharf, before a sold-out house. Walking into the event with my fiancée, a queer Jewish convert, I knew I was in for a great night.
The room was buzzing. Audience members — mostly men on the LGBTQ+ spectrum — waved at people across the room, the drink line was at least 45 people long for most of the night and club music pumped through the speakers. You could tell some of the attendees had been to this event before: They made a beeline to the tables at the front to get the best view of the stage. Others were new, just excited to be out and about and have a good time with their friends.
The event started late, but no one seemed to mind. Drag queen extraordinaire and host for the evening Venus Valhalla came onstage in one of the most amazing dresses I’ve ever seen. Covered in blue and gold sequins in an Art Deco-inspired pattern, she first introduced a video of the four contestants talking to the cameraman, 73 Questions-style. When asked what the most interesting thing was in his apartment, Herb pointed and said, without hesitation, “My cat!” really making a strong case with the other lesbians and queer women in the room — like my fiancée and me, who are the proud owners of two feisty felines.
During the pageant, the four contestants — Alejandro Bolivar-Cervoni, Toreno Herbert, Herbert Meisner and Alex Melnick — each had to compete in three rounds of activities. The first round involved a group dance routine, featuring very tiny gold lamé shorts, to Lizzo’s “About Damn Time.” The four contestants shook their tucheses and got the audience on their feet. Herb even tossed his kippah to the audience before strutting offstage. Props to Janine Baumgardner, the choreographer, on creating a dance that made all of the contestants shine.
They then had to field two rounds of questions from the judges: Amram Altzman, Youth Programs Director at Keshet; Dani Stoller, a local DC actress and playwright; and Marci Chaves, a speech pathologist specializing in working with trans youth who described herself as the “Professional Jewish Mother” of one of the event’s organizers.
When asked what his drag name would be if he were to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Alex responded immediately with, “Gefilte! I’m salty, I’m fishy and I have a lot of things in me.”
The questions weren’t all silly, however. When asked what being a part of NJB meant to him, Herb stripped off his button-down, revealing a “DC is Pro-Choice AF” tshirt — which earned him wild applause from the audience before he could even start speaking. “I’ve learned so much about myself and the DC queer community. Strangers are now friends. We have power here in DC as a queer, Jewish community, and those intersections are strong and mighty. This is my chosen family now.”
For the talent portion, Herb was up first and serenaded us with the song of our b’nai mitzvah dreams. He started with the beautiful first verse to “Wagon Wheel” while he strummed away at the ukulele before jumping into “3-6-9, damn you fine/Hoping she can sock it to me one more time.” By the time he got to “get low, get low, get low,” the audience was singing along until we were all screaming the lyrics together. With one final chorus of “So rock me mama like a wagon wheel,” he left the stage to a standing ovation.
Next, Alejandro presented a hysterical and very thorough Powerpoint called How to T.O.P. (take their breath away, open up and put it all together) featuring pickup lines in Spanish that translated to, for example, “Are you a yarmulke? Because you’re a kippah,” with the goal of getting us all laid.
After that, Alex dazzled us with a drag cover of “Let Me Be Your Star” from “Smash,” wearing a Marilyn Monroe wig, kitten heels, pearls and a red lip. Right when he got to the final refrain — “Fade up on a star with it all in her sights” — he stripped off his dress and tossed it into the eager hands of the audience, revealing a white bathing suit underneath.
And finally, Toreno ended the talent portion with a self-defense demonstration with a member from the audience that quickly spiraled into an erotic and sexy lovefest (at one point, he asked his volunteer to choke him harder). The audience member was revealed to be his partner, to the “awwwws” of the audience.
“It’s incredible getting to see the contestants strut their stuff, and get to see a different side of them,” said Niv Elis, a member of the audience and friend of the organizers.
With witty commentary and just a hint of thirst for the contestants, Venus Valhalla kept us rapt the whole evening. She brought the house down after intermission with a lip sync routine to “Circus” and “Stronger” by Britney Spears, with a jump from the top of a stool — in six-inch stilettos — into a split. You may think you’ve seen an impressive death drop before, but this was something else.
The night did more than just crown a pageant winner. It also raised over $6,000 for Keshet, a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life. Led and supported by LGBTQ Jews and straight allies, Keshet cultivates the spirit and practice of inclusion in all parts of the Jewish community.
It came time to choose the winner. Voting was, as Venus put it, a lot like Congress, with the judges acting as the Senate getting 50% of the vote and the audience as the House with the other 50%. After 15 tense minutes of waiting for the votes to be tallied, Alejandro was named runner-up… and Herb was crowned Mr. Nice Jewish Boy of DC for 2022.
“I feel great,” Herb told me later in the evening, after taking dozens of pictures with the audience members who lined up to meet him.”I was hoping to raise money for such a good cause and saw so many smiles and laughter. I’m so glad the audience got to enjoy this unique culture.”
Indeed, that was a sentiment shared by many in attendance.
“Being able to represent the Jews of DC at this intersection of essential identities, and celebrate them, is wonderful,” said Mr. NJB 2019, Larry Komrower.
“[Herb] embodied what it means to be a ‘Nice Jewish Boy,’” said Amram Altzman. “He believes in social justice, community, tikkun olam, all while having fun.”
“It’s all the more necessary to celebrate queerness while these identities are under attack. People are scared of us, but seeing people laughing and celebrating queer Jewish joy, we won’t back down,” said Herb.
Indeed, at a time when queer rights are under attack from all angles and antisemitism is on the rise, celebrating queer Jewish joy felt almost sacred at Union Stage that evening. While there was no kiddush over the sangria and no hamotzi over the pizza, we came together to do what queer people and Jewish people have done best throughout our unique histories. We laughed, we drank and we all felt like winners while we celebrated a mensch getting crowned Mr. Nice Jewish Boy 2022.