Sept. 22, 2006
Oy!hoo revives N.Y. scene
We all know names of Jewish comedians, but Jewish strippers?
"Ma nishtanah ha'laila ha'zeh mikol ha'lailot?"
asked Susannah, aka "the Goddess" Perlman, as she opened
a sold-out night of edgy comedy and spoken word in New York City's
East Village on Sept. 15. It was definitely a night different from
all other nights.
Held at the venerable restaurant-lounge Mo Pitkin's House of Satisfaction,
Hebrew School Dropouts was just one of the Oy!hoo New York Jewish
Music & Heritage Festival's many events. The weeklong showcase
ran Sept. 10-17 and featured as many as 60 groups in 17 venues around
New York City.
The rain did not keep an eclectic crowd from showing up for drinks
and laughs at Hebrew School Dropouts. Well-known funny ladies Ophira
Eisenberg, Vanessa Hidary, aka "the Hebrew Mamita," and
Rena Zager billed as "Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad"
were joined by comedians Joel Moss and Todd Levin. Several
tables of 20-to-50-somethings were thoroughly entertained by the
performers and Perlman, the hostess, whose costume changes included
a wedding dress paired with a JDate T-shirt. The artists took their
turns at the microphone, trading familiar riffs on a sister's plastic
surgery, prying mothers, looking Jewish, Hebrew school high jinks,
Jewish summer camp follies and the ubiquitous JDate horror stories.
The next night, the 14th Street Y downtown Jewish community centre
hosted Kosher ChiXXX, featuring "the Big Apple's juiciest Jewesses
strut[ting] their ample tucheses in a bawdy burlesque revue for
folks who like to keep their fantasies kosher," according to
Oy!hoo's promotional material. Hosted by performers Allison Tilsen
and Raven Snook, the revue featured dancer Minnie Tonka, rubbing
herself down with a package of bacon to the Joan Jett song "I
Hate Myself for Loving You"; Rose Wood, a Veronica Lake look-a-like
drag queen strutting and shimmying, revealing a distinctly different
nude tableau; Dottie Lux as a bawdy clown; Little Brooklyn, exposing
her inner Richard Simmons; and audience favorite Gypsy Wood, an
award-winning dancer from Australia, embodying the dark-haired pin-up
girls of yesteryear.
The audience could have used a stiff drink they seemed to
have forgotten sometime between buying their tickets and watching
the women undress that ostensibly this was a striptease with pasties
and g-strings, not a classical concert at Lincoln Centre. The audience
looked alternately startled and embarrassed to be watching the women
shed their clothing and it was hard to tell if the occasional hoot
and holler from the floor was heartfelt. Many in the crowd enjoyed
the show, but a community centre theatre should never be used for
burlesque, which deserves an atmosphere more conducive to the artform.
Both Hebrew School Dropouts and Kosher ChiXXX are representative
of the Jewish offshoot of the much-documented "downtown scene"
in New York City, which has been experiencing a revival in recent
years. Known for its icons Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, Richard
Foreman and Richard Hell, among others and revered institutions,
like the famed CBGBs, the revitalized downtown scene of today is
taking on a distinctly Jewish flavor. The Village and the Lower
East Side once served a vibrant and prolific Jewish community and
the cultural products of the neighborhoods were diverse and legendary.
Yiddish theatre and vaudeville, the comedy of Lenny Bruce and the
Beats, all played a part in building a distinct New York Jewish
culture, with downtown and the Village as its locus.
Today, Jews live scattered around New York and this surge in avant-
garde Jewish culture is not limited to downtown, but the counterculture
flavor of the downtown scene persists. Various troupes and progressive
congregations have formed over the past several years and include
such diverse syndicates as Storahtelling and the New Schul. This
Jewish New York embraces all identities, chosen or ascribed, and
festivals like this year's Oy!hoo play a part in the cultural awakening
and presentation of alternative Jewish narratives one replete
with enough anti-establishment humor and gender-bending performances
that it is guaranteed to make your mother blush while earning an
For example, other Oy!hoo highlights included Hip Hop Sulha, with
Palestinian and Israeli hip-hop artists, Frank London's Hazonos,
the first annual New York Yiddish Singalong, an homage to Lenny
Bruce and free speech, a Sephardi Music Festival preview and the
Jewish Music Awards. The festival also coincided with the Sidney
Krum Conference on Jewish Arts and Entertainment's Influence on
American Culture. The Oy!hoo finale on Sept. 17 was Jewzapalooza,
a free outdoor concert at Riverside Park, with a scheduled lineup
of well-known Israeli and American artists, including David Broza,
Hadag Nahash, Neshama Carlebach and New York's own very busy Pharaoh's
Oy!hoo honored the diversity of New York City's Jewish experience,
mixing the downtown with the uptown, the high and the low. In a
project of community-building and renewal, these Jewish artists
are helping to rediscover a Jewish identity that fully recognizes
and pays tribute to the cultural identity that many of us, living
in two worlds, as North Americans and as Jews, seek to bridge. When
Tilsen and Snook declared Jewish burlesque to be "just what
the doctor prescribed," they were right.
Basya Laye is director of programs at the Foundation for
Ethnic Understanding in New York City.