From Hanukah Lewinsky to Pink Pancake, these Jewish drag queens are celebrating their identity

(New York Jewish Week) — At the time Michael Witkes, 30, was doing his bar mitzvah, he described himself as a sweet, quiet, effeminate 13-year-old who was also severely bullied by his peers.

At his bar mitzvah night, the DJ played Pink’s “Get The Party Started” as Witkes walked into the room — and the lyrics “I’m coming” were misinterpreted by his classmates as “I’m leaving.” Assuming that was how Witkes came out as gay, the event led to even worse bullying that lasted throughout high school.

Memories of a day that should have evoked pride and celebration were marred by feelings of embarrassment and shame. While Witkes eventually came out as gay in college, he said he never had a chance to heal from the trauma and bullying he suffered at his bar mitzvah — until now.

These days, Witkes has a fully developed drag character, Pink Pancake, performing around New York City. So when Jayson Littman, founder and director of Hebro, a gay Jewish nightlife event company, asked Witkes to be part of an upcoming drag show featuring queens of the Jewish experience — which Littman calls ” Hanukkah in July: A Spectacle of Jew”. ish Drag” – the answer was an “absolute, 100% yes,” Witkes said.

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“My Jewish identity in general is very important to me,” Witkes, who was raised in the Reform movement, told New York Jewish Week. “After everything we’ve been through as a people, it’s really crucial to wear this with pride.”

Wednesday’s 100-minute show at Slate, a Flatiron nightclub, will feature seven Jewish-experienced drag queens. They will all perform content related to Judaism, including remixes of classic Jewish childhood songs and choreography to Israeli music.

As Pink Pancake, Witkes will lip-sync to his 13-year-old as he sings his portion of haftarah — an audio recording he’s kept for 17 years. “It’s an ode to my bar mitzvah and all bar mitzvahs in general,” Witkes said. “It will also touch that time in my childhood where that wonderful and incredible event also had a lot of trauma behind it.”

The goal of “Hanukkah in July,” Littman said, as with all Hebro events, is to bring a celebration of Jewish identity to the queer spaces he occupies around the city.

“Because our audience at Hebro really caters to a very secular gay Jewish community, I was interested in finding drag talent who doesn’t necessarily identify as Jewish through their drag identity,” Littman told New York Jewish Week. “Damn it – it’s an exaggeration of gender roles for entertainment purposes. I was curious to see how they would take a tiny connection to their Jewish identity and exaggerate it on stage through formative art for the audience .

“I had reconciled my Judaism and my homosexuality myself, and found that there were a lot of amazing gay Jewish groups in New York, but those groups were always about reconciling the two identities,” Littman said, 45, who grew up Orthodox in New York. Washington Heights. “For me, I was okay being gay and I was okay being Jewish, and I wanted to celebrate both identities, not just reconcile them.”

It took a while for Littman to get there, he acknowledged. “I know when I came out I really struggled to figure out what type of Jewish practice I wanted to do. There was a time when I decided ‘OK, I’m just going to assimilate into the gay world and put Judaism aside,'” he said. “But I realized that when I came out of the closet and put my Jewish identity in the closet, I would always be in the closet in a way. or another.”

“What I thought was the healthiest thing for me was to embrace this Jewish part of me, even if I had to find a new way to be connected to Judaism,” he added.

For Littman, that meant infusing the gay spaces he loved in the city with some Jewish culture and celebration, as well as finding queer spaces at Jewish community events. In 2007, Littman wanted to find an alternative to the Matzo Ball, the infamous Jewish singles party on Christmas Eve, and so he held his own rally on Dec. 24 at a local gay bar near his apartment.

The following year, Hebro was official and over 500 people showed up at Chelsea’s now closed Splash nightclub for “Christmas Eve Jewbilee”. In recent years, according to the Hebro website, the Jewbilee, held at nightclubs around the city, has become a signature event and has attracted more than 1,000 attendees.

Other Hebro events mainly involve holidays related to Jewish holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashanah. But now, Littman says he’s turning to Jewish nightlife events that contain more structured programming and can be a bit more challenging, but still fun.

Originally, Littman thought he would host a roundtable with Jewish drag queens who would talk about how their Jewish identity fits into their drag. But better yet, he realized, instead of telling the audience, why not show them?

On Wednesday night, each queen will perform a song related to their Jewish expression, he said – and Littman emphasized the word “expression” rather than identity, to include the spectrum of connection and of observance that each performer feels towards Judaism, he said.

Between performances, the queens will be interviewed by Shequida, a drag queen who is not Jewish but has performed in Israel and had many Jewish experiences, Littman said. After the show, the event, which costs $23, will turn into a nightclub.

Hanukah Lewinsky, another performer on the show whose content tends to focus on Jewish themes, said “it’s really amazing” to be able to perform with so many other Jewish queens.

“[My Jewish identity] is an inherent part of me,” said Lewinsky (non-drag name David), who will perform a song about learning to dreidel and a song that celebrates being queer. “He’s an extension of me out of drag…so why shouldn’t he be part of me in drag?”

By contrast, as a performer, Witkes, as Pink Pancake, never focused on Jewish themes or expressions – although, as he explained, “Judaism is definitely part of my point.” sight,” in drag, and to be able to recover from his trauma the experience of bar mitzvah as something empowering, is “so meaningful,” he said.

“I can turn it into something joyful and celebrate that,” Witkes added. “As drag performers, if we’re able to make people smile and make them think a little bit, I think we’ve done our job.”

“Hanukkah in July: A Spectacle of Jew’ish Drag” is a 21+ event on July 26, 2022 at Slate NY (54 West 21st St). Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets and more information here.


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