Kudos to The Forward’s Kathleen Peratis for getting this right–the profound infusion and long history of queer culture within Yiddishkeit. While Rokhl talked about the importance of the Klezmatic’s winning a Grammy award on a personal level, what interests me more is how The Forward really penetrated what is often the story left untold–the silencing and erasure of queer life as a bedrock of Jewish culture and Jewish life. So what a delight to click on Peratis’ piece to not only discuss the Klezmatic’s award, but to break this history open, and I emphasize history in this. Peratis is right, there is a longstanding tradition, which is not always neat or nice, but one does exist between Yiddish, secular politics, socialism and queer culture.

The presence of gay people and gay themes in Yiddish culture, however, is not new. Queer Yiddishists tell us, for example, that Yiddish cinema in the 1930s contained “encrypted messages? on homosexuality — think Molly Picon in her trouser role in “Yidl Mitn Fidl,? what Eve Sicular calls “cross-dressing in the service of family values.? She refers to the “gay subtext of Yiddish cinema during its heyday, from the 1920s to the outbreak of World War II, which reveals distinctly Jewish concerns of the time? such as “conflicted identity, passing, and same-sex attachments.?

With these and other examples, queer Yiddishists say that this movement is in no way a disjuncture with the Jewish past but is in fact old strands woven into a new and vibrant Jewish reality. With the Klezmatics as Exhibit A, they make a convincing case.


I think, though Peratis misses one important point, which is that queer Yiddishists would probably say that Picon’s representation was about more than variance in sexuality, but even more so in gender, gender expression, and the assumptions about how people present in public life.

And, just as Peratis writes about the formation of the National Yiddish Book Center, and as we continue to see today, there’s a long standing tradition to stamp out this history, to erase this, to try and prevent LGBTQ people from being in these leadership roles. As such, there aren’t people willing to be quoted in her article, nor names being named, because to say that on record means loss of jobs and loss of access, and to name names, in the end, isn’t really the point.

The point is how, even in the face and attempt of institutional repression, we thrive, and that people continue to build community spaces that reflect a strong sense of self and identity so often shunned by a Jewish establishment:

The affinities between gay people and Yiddish, and especially bundist, culture are, when you think about it, obvious: both are staunchly secular, cosmopolitan, progressive and often marginalized. “Queer Yiddishkeit gives me permission to go back to the world of my grandparents without leaving myself behind,? juggler Sara Felder said.

“It’s about alienation from the Jewish religious establishment,? said Alisa Solomon, a former staff writer for The Village Voice. “There’s a kind of analogy people make with the marginalized status of Yiddish itself. It’s an outsider stance.?

Whether or not this is recognized, many of us know that these spaces exist. We go to them–often. We fund them at the door when institutions won’t, when institutions rarely enter the doors we open and build for ourselves. We make them alive, and then, sometimes we even get to watch them become a larger cultural success and we applaud, not just because success should be applauded. We give our respect because we know– even when others fail to recognize, and even actively suppress–that our culture continues to live on, and how much of ourselves and queer culture shaped, and continue to shape Jewish life. And how much amazing, amazing energy and joy and life there is to be celebrated in these magical spaces. So kol hakavod to Peratis for rocking this in the Jewish press, and an even bigger, heartier kol hakavod and mazel tov to the Klezmatics for winning the award.