January 2020

Zol er Krenken un Gedenken (May he Suffer and Remember)

Our productions are acts of queer Yiddish world-building.

by Julia Havard and Yael Horowitz[1]

Zol er Krenken un Gedenken (May he Suffer and Remember)…And May We Remember and Rejoice[2]

Ashkenazi, white, Jewish performance has a fraught history of existing in the liminal spaces of the other with close proximity to whiteness. By appropriating Black music, donning blackface and generally collapsing the struggles of a racialized other, Jewish performers throughout history have leveraged their proximity to whiteness for assimilatory success while undermining potentials for real solidarity. The Shmutzik Shmates (Dirty Rags) pushes back against this legacy of universalizing whiteness and appropriation through an embodied reclamation of Yiddish culture, while simultaneously organizing across queer communities toward racial justice. The Shmutzik Shmates, a Yiddish burlesque troupe based in Washington DC, is made up of three characters, Brenda Roses, Bikher Dik, and Kasha Varnishkes, devised from different temporal contexts across Jewish history. Brenda is a labor organizer’s wet dream—Emma Goldman’s lover, based in New York in the 1910’s. Bikher Dik is from an old country shtetl, a yeshiva boy, a nebbish (bookish) daddy. Kasha is a time traveling glitter Jew. Together they conduct performances, classes, and direct actions that aim to carve an anti-racist Jewish future out of a Yiddish past through a revitalization and eroticization of historical Yiddish performance.

The Shmates on a stage lit in blue light. Kasha and Biker are on either side and are wearing scarves around their heads like babushkas. They are looking in towards Brenda and holding Brenda’s hands. She is wearing fishnets, a corset, and a white button up and looking down.

In queer Yiddish cultural production, termed queer Yiddishkeit, queer Yiddish scholar Jeffrey Shandler explains that the Yiddish language often takes a post-vernacular form, “a strategic engagement by the creators of Queer Yiddish culture with the language’s problematic, destabilized state as a semiotic system.”[3] Yiddish exists in queer performance as an accent, a fragment, a sense, or a secret, all forms of clandestine ephemeral visibility that resonate across queer culture.[4]  The Shmates’ performances follow this legacy, invoking Yiddish language and culture in many small, disparate, yet evocative ways—the use of Yinglish, sound bytes from Yiddish films, choreography, food, music, ritual, gestures, costume, and characterization.  By invoking these many feelings of Yiddish into contemporary burlesque performances, the Shmates animate their history, and in doing so provide the context for radically reimagining the present.

Performing Jewish racial mimicry

The dance form of burlesque evolved out of the minstrel show in the late 19th century and has a deeply rooted history of racial appropriation and exotification.[5] Jewish women performers within and outside of this genre have a specific relationship to burlesque’s “racial mimicry.”[6] From the period of 1890-1920, many white women performers would sing Black music either in blackface or borrowing the musical trappings of sonic Black stereotypes.[7] Jewish performers were considered farther from whiteness and were often cast in blackface by producers.[8] Sophie Tucker, Jewish star of the early burlesque stage, writes in her autobiography that she performed in blackface reluctantly, though she and many other non-Black performers generated significant wealth from their fame performing in this genre.[9] According to historical narratives of Tucker’s work, Sophie Tucker surprised audiences when she first appeared out of blackface before an audience, who thought of her as a Black performer.[10] This affective audience experience of confusion speaks to the ways that racial mimicry both functioned as a method of sedimenting racial categories in the service of white supremacy and to some extent disrupting them.

Tucker’s performances included multi-ethnic vocal resonances as she would often sing in Yiddish in blackface, performing her famous “Yiddishe Mame” song in Yiddish.[11] Sophie Tucker and fellow Jewish vaudevillian Stella Mayhew were known for their characters that exploited the trope of the “mammy.”[12] Scholars have pointed to some resonances between damaging Jewish and Black stereotypes, specifically around the desexualized, tireless mammy figure.[13] Perhaps similarities in stereotypes are a reason that, as historian Pamela Lavett writes, Black music performed by Jewish performers “found currency in and capitalized on the suppressed identity of these Jewish performers.”[14] Jewish bodies, existing in a tenuous relationship to whiteness, served as a vehicle for the spread of Black dehumanization. The material success of these type of performances made them profitable and desirable for performers at the edge of whiteness.

Photo of Sophie Tucker circa 1920. Via Getty Images.

The perceived and performed proximity between Jewish and African American identities in the United States has historically resulted in anti-racist solidarity movements, but has also motivated purposeful distancing toward assimilation. The history of Jewish minstrelsy in early vaudeville that seeps into contemporary burlesque serves as important motivational material for performers to urge themselves to work differently today toward an anti-racist performance practice. 

Today, Yiddish drag is described as having a centuries-long history of problematizing gender in Ashkenazi culture.  The artists of Shmutzik Shmates suggest that Yiddish burlesque also has the possibility to problematize the construction of race as well. Jewish performance has historically held a contentious relationship with performances of race, setting the stage for the Shmates’ contemporary work of using Yiddish to challenge racism.

Longing for Yiddishland

The Shmutzik Shmates refuse legacies of appropriation through their specific research on Yiddish dance and culture, which is then used as a baseline for performance in direct contrast to the racial drag that often appears in burlesque performance. In a video about Celia Dropkin, the early 20th century Yiddish poet and erotica writer, one of the commentators says “here she was Jewish, yet she wrote these shocking sexual things,” as if being Jewish precluded her ability to be a sexual, erotic being.[15] The Shmates integrated that sound byte into one of our first pieces, manifesting through sexual performance a direct challenge to the notion that Jewish erotics cannot exist.

In the physical expression of these desires, the Shmates are not sexy despite being Jewish, but in fact our eroticism stems from our relationship to Ashkenazi Jewish identities. The troupe locates these physical expressions in the collective devising process, where we aim to capture the soul of Yiddish movement.[16] We watch source material together, ranging from Yiddish movies made in Poland in the 1930s like Yidl Mitn Fidl, to videos of celebrations, witnessing movements that feel vernacular or tied to tropes. From these sources we pull both themes and specific movements. We move through these sequences together until we land on a variation that feels like it fits our troupe, the specific piece, and our characters. Returning to these sources from distant and recent pasts allows us to regain connections that have been lost through centuries of assimilatory violence. We bring our imagined and real queer Jewish ancestors into our work, radically imagining the queer shtetl Jews who would be verklempt (overcome with emotion) in seeing us on stage. Our productions are acts of queer Yiddish world-building.

What is expressed in the poetry of Celia Dropkin and 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.[17] In the performance of fantasies of place through fragments of Yiddish language and choreography, the Shmates rework a Jewish erotics that undoes Jewish stereotypes from within. This historically situated performance purposefully avoids the appropriated performance of a sexualized other so rooted in burlesque performance. The sexual works as a form of political resistance as unrooted diasporic desire with explicitly Yiddish roots.

In connecting to these diasporic roots and realities, the Shmates work is explicitly anti-Zionist, working to undo Zionist constructions of Jewish gender and sexuality that serve colonialism and preclude racial solidarity. Deviant queer Yiddish performances of gender, such as Bikher Dik as a coy, shy, and bookish Daddy and Brenda Roses as a dominant powerful femme, reclaim Ashkenazi Jewish gender performances in stark contrast to Zionist gendered ideals of dominant militaristic masculinity.[18]

By centering Yiddish culture while grappling with its proximities to whiteness and ashke-normativity, we are challenging whiteness’ homogenizing and presumed universal nature. Yiddish burlesque carves its own niche from a specific, rooted, and radically imaginative queer place. In many ways queer place operates in the same way as Yiddishland, an idea forever in diaspora, unrooted from statehood or colonial conquest of land but experienced relationally, in whispers and protests, in glances and gestures, in community.

Practice for Oylem-Habe (the world to come)

The Shmates actively cultivate partnerships that materially benefit our immediate community, who we see as local and not just Jewish. We hosted our Shabbos Show at a community space in Anacostia called Check-It Enterprises.[19] Check-It is a business run by Black queer youth in Anacostia, born out of a need for safer spaces and opportunities. By hosting our show there we were able to expose more people to the space and charge a pay-as-you-can admission to raise money for Check-It. Our vision for Yiddish burlesque is not for it to exist siloed in Jewish community but for it to create communal connections as audiences recognize their own desires in the action onstage.

The Shmates also partnered with the organization WERK for Peace to stage a Yiddish dance party protest outside of Stephen Miller’s house. Miller is a fascist senior political advisor to Trump who pushed for many of the most violent immigration policies of the last three years. We protested with a banner that said “Shande Shande Stephen Miller, You Racist Ahistorical Asshole” and hurled Yiddish curses his way. The protest addressed him from the vantage point of shared Ashkenazi roots[20] despite extremely different lived realities. We utilized our devised choreographic methodology to create movements that could be used in the streets and outside of his apartment by all participants.

The image is taken behind the backs of the three Shmates as they lead a hora on the side walk in Washington DC at dusk. One protestor carries a sign that says Stephen Miller is a white nationalist (so is his boss).

We began by teaching the moves to a group of Queer and Trans activists and community members and then paraded down the street full of righteous anger and resilient joy, blasting Yiddish music with long legacies of resistance to fascism like “Daloy Politsey.”[21] The recitation of Yiddish curses, among them the title of this article, Zol er krenken un gedenken (May he suffer and remember), was a linguistic activation of embodied past fragments by present strategies of disrupting business-as-usual, activating this language toward action.[22] The public nature of this erotic action effectively queered the streets, smearing public space with targeted Yiddish and sexual performance, which spread across social media as well, disrupting binaries of private and public in pulling from queer activist tactics of high visibility and spectacle.

As early queer activism against police brutality led by trans women of color was by necessity intersectional, incorporating anti-racist and anti-homophobic movement building, the Shmates’ work to undo racism through queer Yiddishkeit aims to reclaim queer Jewish culture, away from nationalist Zionist appropriations, such as pink-washing, toward the roots of “queer’s” legacy as politically, socially, sexually non-normative and toward dismantling systems of oppression.[23]

The Shmates, through their intentional work with sources, their re-writing of stereotypes, their purposeful engagement with the construction of Jewish whiteness toward undoing it, and their efforts to materially benefit Black queer youth, offer a model of nonnormative burlesque and Yiddish performance that ripples across queer Jewish community and beyond. The Shmates cultivate not only care of but desire for the past such that it emerges into a future shimmering with the possibility of something new, holding the value that we must desire Oylem-Habe (the world to come), long for Oylem-Habe, and practice Oylem-Habe in order to manifest it. 

Julia Havard is a genderful disabled white queer femme and PhD candidate at University of California Berkeley in Performance Studies. Their scholarly, activist, and performance work deals with sexual culture as a site of world-making and breaking, embedded in the interstices of race, gender, queerness, and disability. Her dissertation is on queer, disabled, and anti-racist burlesque histories, practices, and futures. Her burlesque stage name is Juju Sparkle, and she is a founding member of the all-disabled Bay Area Disabled Dance Collective.

Yael Horowitz is a white Jewish femme performer, poet, organizer, and educator. She lives in DC by way of Queens, New York. They are currently getting their masters in Museum Studies and spend a lot of time thinking about time, the archive, radical imagination and potentiality. On stage they are known as Brenda Roses (ig: @brendarosesdc) and are 1/3 of the Shmutzik Shmates, DC’s only queer Yiddish burlesque troupe. 

Further Reading

Jewish Music Research Center. “In Ale Gasn\ Hey Hey Daloy Politsey.” 2010. Accessed January 8, 2020. https://www.jewish-music.huji.ac.il/content/ale-gasn-hey-hey-daloy-politsey.

Shandler, Jeffrey. “Queer Yiddishkeit: Practice and Theory.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 25, no. 1. September 20, 2006. 90–113.

Austin, J.L. “How to do things with words.” The Performance Studies Reader. Bial, Henry, ed. 2nd Ed. New York: Routlege. 2007.

Shandler, Jeffrey. Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture. University of California Press, 2006.

Brown, Jayna. Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2008.

Ammen, Sharon. May Irwin: Singing, Shouting, and the Shadow of Minstrelsy. University of Illinois Press, 2016.

Allen, Robert C. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 1991.

Tucker, Sophie with Dorothy Giles. Some of These Days. Garden City Publishing. 1945.

Borden, Anne. “Sophie Tucker.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. Accessed on January 8, 2020.

Horsburght, Beverly. “Jewish Women, Black Women: Guarding Against the Oppression of Surrogacy.” Berkeley Women’s Law Journal. No. 29. 1993.

Lavitt, Pamela Brown. “First of the Red Hot Mamas: ‘Coon Shouting’ and the Jewish Ziegfeld Girl.” American Jewish History. Vol. 87, No. 4. Performance and Jewish Cultural History. December 1999. 253-290.

Rossen, Rebecca. Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

“Watch: The Beautiful Erotic Imagery of Celia Dropkin’s Poetry.” The Yiddish Daily Forward. May 26, 2017. http://yiddish.forward.com/articles/203937/watch-the-beautiful-erotic-imagery-of-celia-dropk/.

Check it. “About Us.” Accessed January 8, 2020. https://www.checkitenterprises.com/trainers.

Puar, Jasbir. “Rethinking Homonationalism.” International Journal of Middle East Studies Vol. 45. No. 2. May 2013. 336-339.

Boyarin, Daniel. Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1997.

Notes

[1] This piece is co-written by Julia Havard and Yael Horowitz. Throughout, we/they switch between voices. Horowitz writes mainly as a member of the Shmutzik Shmates and performer and Havard as researcher, scholar and cross-continental audience member. We switch between using we and they accordingly.

[2] Yiddish curse used in the Shmutzik Shmates 2019 performance action outside the house of Stephen Miller.

[3] Jeffrey Shandler, “Queer Yiddishkeit: Practice and Theory,” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 25, no. 1 (September 20, 2006), 109.

[4] Shandler, “Queer Yiddishkeit,” 108-109.

[5] Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2008), 100.

[6] Brown, Babylon Girls, 3.

[7] Sharon Ammen, May Irwin: Singing, Shouting, and the Shadow of Minstrelsy. (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

[8] Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 272.

[9] Sophie Tucker with Dorothy Giles. Some of These Days. (Garden City Publishing 1945).

[10] Anne Borden. “Sophie Tucker,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, 20 March 2009, Jewish Women’s Archive.

[11] Tucker, Some of These Days.

[12] Ammen, May Irwin.

[13] Beverly Horsburght, “Jewish Women, Black Women: Guarding Against the Oppression of Surrogacy” Berkeley Women’s Law Journal, no. 29, (1993) 33.

[14] Pamela Brown Lavitt, “First of the Red Hot Mamas: ‘Coon Shouting’ and the Jewish Ziegfeld Girl” American Jewish History Vol. 87, No. 4, Performance and Jewish Cultural History (December 1999), 253-290, 253.

[15] “Watch: The Beautiful Erotic Imagery of Celia Dropkin’s Poetry.” The Yiddish Daily Forward. (May 26), 2017. http://yiddish.forward.com/articles/203937/watch-the-beautiful-erotic-imagery-of-celia-dropk/.

[16]This practice of radical historical imagination  is not unique to the Shmates and in fact evolves from a legacy of anti-racist Jewish dance methods. Dvora Lapson, early 20th century Jewish ethnographer and choreographer, researched and performed Hasidic dances, not with the end goal of documentation but toward capturing the soul of the Jewish people. Her 1940 essay “The Dance and Intolerance” argued that dance was an “effective means of combating the growing problem of intolerance.” She pointed to the connections between her work and African American dance artists like Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, whose work was deeply grounded in research of African dance forms, arguing that dance could combat racial oppression. Rossen, Dancing Jewish, 53.

[17] Line taken from a poem written by Shmates’ member Bikher Dik for our Shabbos Show.

[18] Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, Berkeley: University of California Press, (1997).

[19] “About Us,” Check it, accessed January 8, 2020, https://www.checkitenterprises.com/trainers.

[20] Miller’s great-grandparents were Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated from Belarus after a series of pogroms, they arrived speaking only Yiddish.

[21] “In Ale Gasn\ Hey Hey Daloy Politsey.” Jewish Music Research Center, 2010, Accessed January 8, 2020. https://www.jewish-music.huji.ac.il/content/ale-gasn-hey-hey-daloy-politsey.

[22] Curses linguistically speaking, are termed, “performatives,” which according to mid-20th century philosopher J.L. Austin’s classic text “How to do things with words,” are a construction of language such that “in saying something we are doing something” (eg. the recitation of “I do” at a marriage is Austin’s central example of a performative). In this way, the practice of cursing is an example of language that does something, that acts as it is spoken. J.L. Austin, “How to do things with words.” The Performance Studies Reader Bial, Henry, ed., 2nd Ed. (New York:  Routlege, 2007), 177.

[23] Jasbir Puar, “Rethinking Homonationalism,” International Journal of Middle East Studies Vol. 45, No. 2, (May 2013), 336-339.

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