Watching Drag Queens with the Rabbi

“Do you think that one’s Jewish?”

“Probably. She’s from New York and she’s hairy.”

Suzie and I were watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, and we were looking for hints of Jewish drag queens.

For some reason when find out a celebrity (or famous scholar) I admire is Jewish and/or queer, I get a certain satisfaction in being able to count them as “one of our own.” It doesn’t actually bring me any closer to people like Natalie Portman or Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, but it makes me happy to imagine that I understand a part of their existence and to imagine that we’ve engaged in similar religious practices and cultural experiences throughout our lives. I like to imagine what it might be like to bump into them at synagogue or to invite them over for Shabbat lunch. (You never know!)

As it turns out, on this season of RuPaul’s drag race, the hairy New Yorker Thorgy Thor is not Jewish. However, another queen this season, Acid Betty, is Jewish.

We know this for sure because immediately after a fraught moment wherein Acid Betty was at risk of elimination, Acid Betty says to RuPaul and the judges, “I’m Jewish, but I’m praying to all the gods right now!”

To which RuPaul replies without missing a beat, “Mishpoche, you may join the other queens.”

RuPaul’s Drag Race is an amazing show. It has campy contest judges, petty reality TV rivalries, and some of the best costumes you’ll ever see in your life. RuPaul herself wears more sequins and false eyelashes than I thought humanly possible, and through it all, s/he is a great teacher of a beautiful and holy art form.

Why do I think drag is holy?

I’m so glad you asked!

There are two Jewish values which lead me to believe that drag is holy.

The first is B’tzelem Elohim, the concept that people are made in the image of Gd. This goes back to the Garden of Eden story in Genesis, where humans are created separately from all of the other animals; we are Gd’s special creatures created “B’tzelem Elohim,” in Gd’s image. The rabbis teach us that this is why we each have a soul, a spiritual essence–because we are all made of magic, and we all have Gd’s divine spark inside of us.

Because of this, just inhabiting our bodies is a holy act. We are here on earth, and we are created with the divine essence inside each and every one of us. How beautiful!

This leads me to the second Jewish value related to the holiness of drag queens–Hidur Mitzvah. Hidur Mitzvah literally translates to “enhancement” or “beautification” of the mitzvah, and it means that a mitzvah is even more pleasing to Gd if extra care is taken to make it beautiful. For example, when making tzitzit (the fringes on the four corners of the prayer shawl), there is a required number of strings and knots involved to complete the mitzvah. However, if you want to make the mitzvah EXTRA beautiful, you can put a blue string in there along with the white ones. Such care, such loving attention to detail and aesthetics, is pleasing to Gd.

I think drag queens are enhancing the mitzvah of inhabiting their bodies. They pay such loving attention to the details–they so carefully paint their faces with a variety of brushes and colors, they carefully stitch together their costumes, applying beads and feathers one by one–it’s a wonder to behold. And when they perform on stage, they are so fully inhabiting their bodies! Dancing and strutting and LIVING, every inch of them so alive! When you see them walk down the runway in full regalia, it’s not a stretch to think they’re getting bonus points with Gd in the “inhabiting their bodies” department.

Though RuPaul has certainly made mistakes with the show in the past,* I think s/he has achieved something remarkable in bringing this dancing, strutting, sparkling art to a more mainstream audience. The queens on the show are amazing performers–true artists–who play with gender as a part of their medium. They heighten our consciousness, they confound our expectations, and they are absolutely amazing in their performances.

Watching Acid Betty, Thorgy Thor, and all of the rest of the queens as they dazzle audiences on the show is an entertaining experience that I would recommend to anyone, and imagining any of them at my seder table is just gravy on top.

To Ms Acid Betty, I’m sure your bubbe would be proud of you, and I’m proud to even have the most remote association with you. You’re welcome to my Shabbat table anytime!

*RuPaul and other drag performers have gotten in trouble with the trans community for using derogatory slurs against trans people in a misguided attempt to reclaim the terms–but in order to reclaim a term, one must actually be of the identity in question. RuPaul is a drag performer, but is not transgender.

It is important that drag never be confused with being transgender. Drag performers play with gender and performance, while transgender people connect with gender as an essential part of their identities. Drag and trans are not mutually exclusive categories, but they approach understandings of gender in fundamentally different ways.

One thought on “Watching Drag Queens with the Rabbi

  1. Drag queens are AMAZING! My 2 personal favorites are Trixie Mattell & Katya who have their own new show on Viceland. They are unbelievably hilarious. Especially Katya. You should definitely check it out if you haven’t already! I record them all so I’m not sure what time and day they air every week but I’m sure you could just Google it real quick. Ok thanks for taking the time to read!! (Another great show on Viceland is “Hate Thy Neighbor”..I’ve read a lot of your stuff & you should definitely check it out!) Ok..later!

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