At the Carbon Arc Bar in Chicago, a familiar story unfolds amid the tables full of colorfully costumed families and servers shuffling by with breakfast pizzas and mimosas. King Ahasuerus enters, donning flawless makeup, a cartoonish pearl necklace, and a crown of gold flowers, the slight hint of gold nipple pasties peeking from beneath a long floral jacket. Queen Esther talks like your bubbe’s canasta friends and leads the crowd in a high-energy send-up of Lizzo’s “Good as Hell.” Haman, wearing a cape adorned with the words “BOW DOWN,” prowls around the room to David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire).”
The intergenerational crowd is loving it. They join in, laughing, booing, tossing dollar bills and even getting up to join Queen Esther in an ecstatic conga line to Sara Bareilles’ “Brave.”
Welcome to Schpiel the Tea, one of many drag-centric Purim spiels and Megillah readings being held around this joyous holiday across the United States and Canada. Drag interpretations of Purim are nothing new — the Second Megillah even upends the specific law barring men from wearing women’s clothing on Purim — but more Jewish drag performers than ever are bringing their creativity and spirit to holiday rituals and celebrations. From libraries in Vancouver to brunch hot spots in Chicago, a university Hillel in upstate New York and an art gallery in Jersey City, these celebrations meld the popular trend of the Drag Queen Story Hour with the rituals of Megillat Esther, something simultaneously steeped in tradition and thoroughly modern, intergenerational and personal, wholly Jewish and wholly queer.
“The whole holiday is larger than life, and a lot of queer entertainment and culture is very larger than life,” says drag queen Merriam Levkowitz. “It’s just dress-up, and to take this wonderful, joyful art form and throw it into a joyful holiday all about getting dressed up and celebrating is a truly wonderful pairing.”
Schpiel the Tea is part of the Shabbat Shalom Variety Show, the brainchild of Levkowitz and fellow drag performer Faux Pa. For Faux Pa, whose first exposure to performing came from participating in his synagogue’s elaborate Purim spiels like Les Meshugganables and Goys and Dolls, the variety show is an opportunity to teach, learn, and build community around Jewish traditions and rituals while working with Jewish creators who normally don’t get to express that facet of themselves on stage.
As Chicago’s “Drag Bubbe,” even before co-founding the Shabbat Shalom Variety Show, Merriam Levkowitz wanted to pursue Jewish and queer work that gave visibility to both communities. She has built a body of work around introducing a diverse audience to Jewish traditions and culture. With her family-friendly musical show, Merriam: A Matzah-Ballin’ Good Time!, audiences come in wary of the concept of a drag bubbe and leave with a smile and “schvitzing” and “kvetching” on their lips. It’s an expansion of her upbringing, where her family had an open-door policy with friends of all faiths for Jewish holidays.
“Judaism to me means opening your doors and welcoming people in,” Merriam says. “It’s a similar relationship to what the LGBTQ community stands by, [creating] a safe, open space that anyone can come into. That makes a beautiful pairing, especially on Purim.”
For the members of Boston Jewish drag troupe Turmohel, one of the great joys of the holiday is getting to perform for members of their community who are queer, Jewish, or both, as well as bring people together through their art. “For a lot of drag performers, you have to build a base, you have to build an audience, break into a scene and perform for strangers, and we’ve been able to find these platforms and spaces that have shown us that other queer Jewish people in Boston are really excited about this,” says Turmohel member RivKilla. “When I have a show and I’m interacting with the audience, I’m interacting with people I have seen at Shabbat potlucks and phonebanks. It’s wonderful to see people that we know and feel like they’re right there with us.”
Turmohel have a busy holiday, participating in a drag story time and Purim carnival and, this past weekend, performing at the Boston Workers’ Circle’s Jewish folk magic-themed radical Purim party. Turmohel’s drag is highly collaborative and multifaceted, drawing inspiration from the wide spectrum of the Jewish experience, from the ugly history of blood libel and the mythology around Jewish demons (shedim), to, as Eli Gerzon recounted at a September 2019 Turmohel show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Cynthia Nixon’s controversial bagel sandwich order.
“We are creating something we desperately wanted to see as queer Jews but couldn’t find, taking these symbols and ideas that we’ve learned about forever or recently and making them weird or sexy or uncomfortable or fun,” says Turmohel member ch’ai treason. “Because we didn’t see it, we decided to create it. A huge part of our process and excitement is finding things that intrigue one or all of us about being Jewish.”
Turmohel member Prince Shpilkes says what makes Purim in particular so ripe for drag performance is not the content of the Megillah itself, but the traditions that come through this holiday and the way our culture has interpreted the story. “There’s a culture that says ‘Purim is the time for gender-bending,’ and what we’re trying to do is say, ‘No, Purim is not the only time for gender-bending,’” they say. “Every day is a good time for gender-bending. Every holiday is a good time to be queer.”
RivKilla notes how the specific combination of survival and joy within Purim and the Megillah lend themselves to queerness and drag. “Most of our stories are about survival but not about joy,” she says. “Purim is about joyful survival and defiance and celebration, and we get to make a mockery of those who tried to oppress us, and that energy that we try to bring to our drag performance.”
The impetus for Purim drag celebrations comes not just from performers, but from spiritual leadership as well. Rabbi Bronwen Mullins of B’nai Jacob, a “progressive Jewish community committed to tradition and creativity, social justice and human connection” in Jersey City, New Jersey, had wanted to organize a drag Purim event for years. This year for Purim, B’nai Jacob is partnering with SMUSH Gallery and New York queen Sister Mary Helen to bring an intergenerational Drag Queen Megillah Hour to her community.
There’s a spiritual value of looking at the ways the presentations we choose tap into aspects of ourselves, Rabbi Mullins says. “Drag queens of all shapes and sizes and backgrounds are role models in embracing the art form that is identity,” she says. “Our identities are not calcified idols. We’re not golden calves to be worshipped. We’re human beings made in the image of our Creator, the fluidity and diversity of many facets of ourselves.”
Rabbi Mullins created the event in partnership with her longtime friend, Sister Mary Helen (whose wedding she officiated), for an interfaith as well as intergenerational experience. She sent Sister Mary Helen several translations to find one that resonated with her, and Sister Mary Helen says she was given “free rein” in building the performance around what inspired her. The resulting collaboration is a mix of traditional and contemporary, with Rabbi Mullins bookending Sister Mary Helen’s interpretation with the first two and last verse of each Megillah chapter in Hebrew and trope, including the brilliant choice of using TLC’s “Case of the Fake People” to reenact the palace guards plotting against the King.
A queer, Jewish reading of the Purim story feels particularly prescient in Jersey City, where B’nai Jacob is working to protect a state law requiring public schools to teach LGBTQ history, and the Jewish community is still reeling from an anti-Semitic mass shooting at a kosher supermarket this past December. Part of the queerness of the Purim story, Rabbi Mullins notes, is how it illustrates that when you are part of any marginalized group, you are responsible to your community and to work in solidarity with other marginalized folks.
“I think Esther is a queer icon,” she says. “She lives a dual identity and has to come out in the most vulnerable way to support her community. Here in Jersey City, after what our city has gone through, it can’t be more relevant than to put the story of Esther in a queer voice to recognize that the real power in our city doesn’t come from financial or political power, but from marginalized people coming together.”
For Turmohel, creating spaces for queer Jewish joy is a necessary practice beyond one holiday. Before their Halloween show this past October, a white supremacist opened fire during Yom Kippur services at a synagogue in Halle, Germany, killing two people. A member of their community had been in the synagogue at the time. There was no question as to whether or not they would do the show or acknowledge the shooting.
“One thing we said in that moment is that anti-Semitism is real and scary and threatening us, and one of the many ways we live and survive with it is creating spaces for queer Jewish joy and creating spaces to be publicly Jewish,” Meshuggemama says. “It felt even more important to be doing weird, queer, sexy, funny Jewish things.”
Drag expressions of queer, Jewish celebration and joy may appear more frequently during Purim, but they build an important, welcoming community all year round. For Austin Reid from Ithaca Hillel, that call to action to hold queer-affirming Jewish spaces and events is personal. “I grew up in the Catholic faith and converted to Judaism, and I didn’t initially know if my new congregation would be accepting of this side of myself,” Reid says. “For students like me whose whole selves are not honored by their communities growing up, we need to, as a community, continually, in a very public way, demonstrate that yes, queer people are affirmed here.”
Images by Daniel Gelles, courtesy of Ithaca College Hillel.