The Shapeshifting Vulnerability of Queer Jewish Artist Boychik

Ben Levi Ross, the nonbinary performer behind Boychik, spoke with Hey Alma about their new album and the queerness of Yiddish terms of endearment.

Nonbinary Jewish actor and singer Ben Levi Ross is perhaps best known for understudying and later starring in “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway, as well as having a featured role in the movie “Tick, Tick… Boom!” Their latest project, however, isn’t bound by a Broadway stage or streaming service. And, technically speaking, the project doesn’t even star Ben.

Let me introduce you to Boychik, a queer, shapeshifting solo musical artist whose self-titled debut album is dropping today.

Featuring ten songs and at least three music videos, “Boychik” is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. The vulnerable lyrics explore religion, nature, love, sexuality and existence, while the music features lush orchestrations and expertly controlled vocals. As if that were not enough, the visuals (including Boychik’s costuming and make-up) are glamorously theatrical and gender-defying. In short, Boychik the performer creates a world of the queer sublime — one I find reminiscent of 20th century queer Jewish artist Claude Cahun’s work. Every time I engage with Boychik’s work, I am submerged, mikveh-like, in that world. And frankly, I never want to leave.

I caught up with Ben a few weeks ago about Boychik, why they’re taking on this moniker and the queerness of Yiddish terms of endearment. 

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Can you tell me about your Jewish background and identity?

I grew up in a Jewish household in LA — both of my parents are Jewish and relatively Reform. I was bar mitzvahed when I was 13 at an amazing temple community that I’m still a part of called IKAR. It’s a very politically active community, including its rabbi, Sharon Brous, who was actually arrested last year for protesting in Washington. She gives these incredible fiery sermons about what’s going on in the world.

I think being raised in a community where I wasn’t forced into anything really drew me into Judaism. It was my decision to stay and to work and to learn. And since then, since my Hebrew school days ended, my connection to Judaism really has been through family, tradition, food and culture, and even coming back to Brooklyn. My dad grew up in Brooklyn in the ‘50s. There are ghosts of Ross Jews everywhere in Brooklyn. It’s definitely more of a cultural significance to me at this point in my life rather than a going-to-temple-every-week type deal. And IKAR is a very queer Jewish community, which was amazing. I’m incredibly blessed, because a lot of people don’t have that.

At this point, your most notable role is as Evan Hansen in “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway. What made you want to pursue solo artistry?

It’s something that I’ve been doing my whole life, but it was very much a hobby for me. I didn’t really share any music with anyone for a lot of my adolescence. I wasn’t someone who was going out to coffee shops and performing the music that I wrote.

And then during the pandemic, like many of us, I had more time and was like, I think that this is something that I actually want to pursue more fully — I don’t even mean career-wise, just in terms of creation. Everything that I write is just piano and vocals, and I feel like that was what was holding me back from ever making any bigger moves. I’ve always had sort of grand ideas about instrumentation and orchestration and the soundscapes that I wanted to create, but I didn’t know logistically how to expand the music into the world that I wanted and needed it to be in in order to release it.

But I was connected to Jake Luppen and Nathan Stocker of Hippo Campus through my friend Samia, who’s an amazing singer-songwriter and artist, and it all sort of fell into place. I went to visit Jake and Nathan in Minneapolis, and I brought a bunch of the music that I have written over the years — I wanted to see what we would do together. It ended up being this incredible collaboration. I feel like we spoke the exact same language. It was a leap of faith to randomly go to Minneapolis having never met these people before, but it was so rewarding. When we started, I didn’t even set out to make an album — to make Boychik. We were just making this music. And then it slowly evolved into what it is now. Now, these 10 songs that make up the album are a time capsule of the last five years.

So what is Boychik? Or, who is Boychik?

Boychik is me. Boychik is a moniker that allows me to share things that maybe I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing if they were coming directly from Ben Levi Ross. There’s something about using this persona, or even just this name, not as a barrier, but as a lens through which I can share, that allows me to be more vulnerable with what I’m singing about. This whole album is basically like… you open up a page of my journal.

And then, you know, I have an acting career. So I think I wanted to have something that was separate. I wanted to be able to transform physically into a lot of different things. It’s representative of the multitudes that I contain within myself, and so I wanted something to delineate that separation between Boychik and me.

I’m still figuring out what this project will be. This album is truly its first step into the world, and I think it’s going to continue to evolve. Truly, the possibilities are endless. It’s super exciting to me that I finally made a space where I’m in total and complete creative control of every little aspect of it. My taste and the things that I’m interested in exploring are going to change over the years. Now I finally have this apparatus to be able to express that.

That’s amazing. Why did you choose the Yiddish word “boychik” to encapsulate that?

It’s something I’ve been called my whole life, by my dad specifically. My dad was raised by his grandparents, Goldie and Benny Kirschenbaum, in East Flatbush in Brooklyn, and they mainly spoke Yiddish in the household. So my dad also speaks Yiddish, and he and my godfather, who was like his best friend from childhood, specifically always used to call me “boychik.” And it’s cool, too, because I am nonbinary and there’s sort of a play on words there: boy-chick. I knew that this project was going to explore different types of aesthetics in terms of gender presentation. So when I was in Minneapolis, we were making the music and halfway through, I was like, “I have this name, I was thinking about using Boychik.” And I told them the story a little bit. And Jake and Nathan were like, “You have to do Boychik! That’s perfect.” And I was like, there you go! Done deal. It also feels like a nod to any Jews who understand what it is.

It’s interesting to me, too, because Yiddish terms of endearment feel very queer to me. I’m not sure why.

Totally. It’s because they’re playful and buoyant and don’t take themselves too seriously.

Exactly. So you spoken about shape-shifting in terms of your queer identity. Has shape-shifting played into your Jewish identity?

That’s really interesting. More than anything, the idea of shape-shifting in my Jewish identity plays a lot more into my acting career. Because this project is fully for me, I’m not transforming at my core who I am as a person with this. I don’t feel like I am shifting any of that: [My Jewish identity] is fact and blood, and that’s who I am. But recently, I’ve had a couple of auditions and two of them were to play Nazis… like, me playing a Nazi. And it’s like… what do you do with that? What do I do with that? There’s nothing about my Eastern European Polish face that I can change. This schnoz is not playing Nazi, I don’t know what to tell you. But at the core of who I am as a person, it’s hard to think about doing that, even for just an audition.

That’s obviously an extreme example in terms of shape-shifting. But there are certain roles that make me question how much my Jewish upbringing and culture plays into the way that I play any role. I still haven’t figured out or nailed down exactly what it is. But I do think that there would be a difference if I had not been raised Jewish.

What would you say it means to you to be a queer Jewish artist?

This sounds kind of silly, but the future is now. Jews come in lots of different shapes, lots of different forms, lots of different genders, lots of different sexualities, from lots of different backgrounds. This is how it has been for hundreds of years. Queer Jewish artists have always existed. And all I could ever hope and dream is to continue on that legacy of queer Jewish artists pushing form and boundaries. It’s really special and important that we recognize that that is a part of Boychik. It’s not something that I’m flippant about. It’s very much a part of who I am and this project.

And it shows through in the music. Some of the singles I’ve released, “Next to You” and “Bombed Out Building,” are anxiety-ridden and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Maybe that’s specific to my household, but that is a very Jewish thing to me. It’s like, be careful. Don’t get too comfortable because we’re going to have to pick up and move at some point. I’m singing about this relationship, the first time I fell in love, and all I can think about is it being pulled away from me. And I know that that came from my Jewish household. So it’s just ingrained. It’s all ingrained. There’s literally a niggun in “Bombed Out Building,” which was totally unintentional. The whole chorus is just “lai da dai da dai da dai da dai.”

I’m really intrigued by the fact that you identify more as a cultural Jew but there are so many religious references in the album. Could you speak about incorporating more religious lyrics in your music?

Religion, and my relationship to God as a whole, has shifted into being very non-specific to Judaism. That is not to say that I don’t still identify as a religious Jew, but I’m inspired by a lot of different writings from different religions. I’ve been reading a lot of Thích Nhất Hạnh and the Buddhist idea of the cyclical nature of existence, which has been really inspiring to me. And it’s interesting to see how religions are all basically saying the same thing. So when I sing or write about God and the universe, that’s all one and the same.

I am very much still in the early stages of my religious journey. My relationship to religion is shifting. So at the end of the day, cultural Judaism is really the thing that drives the more present Jewish part of Boychik.

What were your influences for the costuming, the makeup and generally creative direction of Boychik? 

I worked with my friend John Novotny early on in the process, who is a genius at hair. All of the wigs are done by John — if you go to their apartment, it’s walls of wigs. I was trying on different hair, and the orangey, Hollywood glamor wig that’s in the “Dust After Rest” video really spoke to me for some reason. There is something about the thin eyebrows and red lip that is definitely reminiscent of 20s Germany or Europe to me — maybe that’s in my head because of “Cabaret,” Joel Grey is a huge influence as Master of Ceremonies.

What were some of the challenges of balancing Boychik with “Dear Evan Hansen”?

2022 was a really crazy time because I was going back into “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway. I would film a music video for Boychik during my day off and then go back into rehearsals. Since I’m a totally independent artist, no label, nothing, everything has to be organized through me — this is a passion project.

How does it feel to share this very vulnerable album?

I haven’t even spoken about this, but from 2017 to now, I was in a romantic relationship with someone. That relationship has now shifted into something else. That person was really instrumental in pushing me to make this music in the first place — and not just make it, but to actually get Boychik to what it is right now. I did not have the confidence to wake up one day and be like, “I’m going to do this.” It was because of my partner, who was like, “This is really, really good. You should actually take the time to dedicate yourself to this more, because I believe in you and I love it so much.”

And so the album, really underneath all of the other things that I’m singing about, is a time capsule of this relationship. It’s crazy, and for me, it’s going to forever be an incredibly powerful and touching reminder of that relationship and this time in my life.

People are going to interact with it in different ways. But at the end of the day, this entire thing was for me. It was very therapeutic, and it’s always going to be therapeutic to me, even though what I feel about the sound is going to change and evolve.

That’s beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing that. So what do you envision as being next for Boychik?

I will hopefully have some live situations coming up soon. But really, what I want is to make more. That’s all I want to do. I’ve already been writing, and I want to collaborate with different people, new teams of people for visuals for the music. I want to expand this sound, and I want to sharpen into focus who I am as a musical artist. I’m not trying to pretend that this is a shiny, polished musical project that’s coming out. This is the beginning, and this is a work in progress. I just want to make more and grow.

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