By Lev Gringauz
Roughly 130 people dressed up and came out to the Urban Artifact brewery on March 3 for “Glitter, Groggers, and Glam: A Drag Purim Spiel,” where drag performers retold the story of Purim, and how the Jewish people were saved from annihilation in ancient Persia.
Later that night, a costume contest proved to be extremely on brand for the celebration of queer and Jewish life. The winner?
A woman dressed as Ms. Frizzle, the beloved teacher on the ‘90s show “The Magic School Bus” – and an unofficial mascot in the LGBTQ community widely recognized as being a Jewish lesbian.
The winner “came up and was like, ‘Yes, I'm actually a science teacher, and yes, I did wear this to school today,’” said Elliot Draznin, the co-founder of Elech: Cincinnati’s Queer Jew-Ish Community, which organized the event.
The Purim event marked the first showing for a revamped Elech (formerly known as Cincinnati’s Queer Minyan), which recently transitioned from running monthly Shabbat services to focusing on larger quarterly experiences for queer Jews.
For Draznin, the drag spiel was a runaway success, proving that Elech’s new model was the right step for the group.
“We got some incredible feedback; folks that didn't think there were other queer Jews in Cincinnati and were just so excited to get involved,” they said. “Someone told me that [the event] really nourished their soul, and that just made me feel so full” of joy.
Elech is fiscally sponsored by ish, the Jewish cultural engagement organization, and is supported by the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati through its Reflect Cincy initiative.
Reflect Cincy funding is meant to increase engagement with underrepresented parts of the Jewish community. (Cincy Jewfolk is a recipient of Reflect Cincy funding.)
The Purim spiel was written by Eric George Tauber, a veteran of professional theatre and a longtime arts and culture journalist.
“My original concept for the show was to have much more of a Broadway influence,” Tauber said. “I wanted to play Haman and I wanted him to sing, ‘You've got to be carefully taught’ [from the musical South Pacific]. But instead of being descriptive, he's being prescriptive: ‘I have to raise my sons to hate the Jews, to be hateful bigots,’ essentially.”
Tauber instead took on the role of Mordecai, the uncle of heroine Queen Esther. The musical numbers also evolved, shaped by the fact that Tauber was the only non-drag performer among the five people in the show.
“Broadway, that's classically queer – Broadway is not where drag performers are today in 2023,” he said. “It's just a whole different songbook.”
Instead, the performers chose their own songs. For example, Esther sang “I’m Every Woman” by Whitney Houston, and Haman sang a song called “Killing Time.” At certain points throughout the show, the drag performers also had breaks for their actual drag shows and to earn tips.
The drag performers, like the audience that came to see them, have varied relationships to Judaism. Some identified as Jewish; others had Jewish family but had not spent much time exploring their own identity; and one was not Jewish but had spent time around the Jewish community.
The spiel also proved appealing beyond Cincinnati – two drag performers were from Columbus, and a good 20 or so people in the audience came from Dayton.
“We weren't expecting it,” Draznin said. “It wasn't necessarily part of the marketing that we were putting out, but we had a good amount of people that came down from Dayton.”
For organizers, putting on a drag event felt like an act of resilience in the face of danger, mirroring the perseverance of Esther and the Jews in the Purim story and bringing a deeper meaning to the holiday for queer Jews.
“This idea that we’re under attack in all sorts of ways for just being who we are, and being able to say, ‘Fuck that, let’s celebrate,’ is so unique,” Draznin said.
Most Jews say that antisemitism in the U.S. has increased over the past decade, and the LGBTQ community has faced hate crimes and anti-queer legislation, particularly from right-wing politicians targeting transgender individuals. Both communities have lost people to mass shootings.
Drag has been a focal point for anti-LGBTQ activists, with performers and venues that host drag events facing threats and harassment. Kentucky is soon likely to pass a bill that will restrict drag shows and criminalize some performances. That bill, and others like it, could also affect the Purim practice of dressing up – often in drag.
For Tauber, the ability to work on, and perform in, the Purim spiel is a form of resistance to those trends.
“Back in the ‘30s, when the Nuremberg laws were first passed and the Nazi Party was on the rise, there were a lot of people who told themselves, ‘We'll just be small and ride this out,'” he said. “Well that didn’t work. So we absolutely need to be visible out there because we cannot let [anti-queer activists] win.”
Given the safety concerns, Elech worked closely with SAFE Cincinnati, the Jewish community’s security agency, to look out for potential threats.
“They were keeping an eye on everything for us,” Draznin said. “The day of the event, we were getting updates from the SAFE Cincinnati team with, you know, ‘We still haven't seen any major threats, we're good to go.’ That was really nice that we had someone looking out [for us].”
Draznin is still riding the high after the successful spiel night, and is handing the Elech reins over to their spouse and Elech’s co-founder, Zak, for the next event. Zak Draznin will be representing Elech in the planning for the second annual community-wide Rainbow Shabbat, which will be in late June, organized together with Jewish organizations and synagogues.
Reflecting on the Purim event, Draznin said the drag spiel filled a niche for many Cincinnati Jews as a free Purim event not affiliated with any Jewish institution. The turnout and level of engagement was also a step up from last year’s monthly Shabbat events.
“The Shabbat pieces were successful in their own way,” Draznin said. “But this, we had never seen a response like this.”