a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Schmekel-The Interview

Posted on: May 10, 2011

I’ve been hinting at it for weeks and finally it’s done.  A few weeks ago I sat down for pierogies and beers with 3 of the 4 members of Schmekel, a Trans Jewish band out of Brooklyn, NY.  Ricky, Nogga, and Simcha met my partner and I in the East Village to talk about being Jewish, being Trans, and being in a Trans Jewish band.  Lead singer, Lucian, and I caught up last week to round out the interview.

I had a lot of questions for them about Judaism, how they navigate through the Jewish world as transgender folks, and how the four of them found each other.   Schmekel is the first of what should be many interviews on Black, Gay, and Jewish.  I hope you enjoy learning about them as much as I have.  I’m happy to say that because of this, I’ve found 4 more amazing Jewish people to call friends.

Erika-When I thought about my site and its almost one year anniversary I decided that it would be good to start talking with other Jews who were LGBTQ, Jews of Color, or Jews who are actively politically and socially aware.  I wanted to start with ya’ll because you embody so much diversity while having a lot of fun.  My first question is, what does it mean to be a Trans Jewish band?

Schmekel-It means exactly that.  It’s a lot and it’s the obvious.  It’s interesting because being a part of the Queer community, especially in NYC, has made us  more involved in our Judaism.  Being in the band has allowed us to be more socially active and more politically active.  Especially with organizations like JFREJ, you see people who are Queer and involved in their Judaism.

There is this sort of Queer Diaspora that allows you to feel more included in Judaism, whereas there’s a kind of boundary around Traditional Judaism because of the lack of a Queer community in traditional congregations.  Because of that boundary it’s more likely to see a Queer person as “one of our own” than a Jewish person, but being in the band has allowed for re-imagining our Jewish identity.  We play traditional Jewish music that people are familiar with but give it a punk sound with really fun lyrics that make people think.

E-How long have ya’ll known each other?

S-Back in Hebrew school Nogga and Ricky had a band.  Ricky and Simcha met at Willy Mae Rock Camp for Girls.  Lucian met Ricky and Nogga in late 2009 at the New York City LGBT Center’s Trans-Masculine drop-in support group.

E-What is a Schmekel show like?
S-It depends on whether we’re doing a college show or a punk show.  A lot of shows around NYC are punk shows so they’re wild and crazy and a bit chaotic.  We had 200 queers at a show moshing and doing the hora which was awesome.  The college shows tend to be a bit more educational.  We do our set and then do a bit of a Q & A afterwards where the students will ask us questions about our life.

E-Your lyrics are insane, where do the songs come from?
Nogga-Well Ricky and Lucian are genius.
Lucian-Basically the whole time I was going through physical transition, whenever someone would say something to me that was really offensive or fucked up I would immediately go home and write a song about it.  I would get it out of my system, laugh at it, make fun of it and throw it back to the world instead of feeling like crap because someone was rude to me.  A lot of the songs came from people making fun of me, or Ricky, or someone else we know.  We decided to make fun of them and turn it into a song.
Sometimes we’ll be sitting around as a band and something will just come up.  All of the ones about Craigslist men-for-men personals are in some way based on reality, just the shit people have said to us when talking on the internet. Everything in “Tranny Chaser” is based on real life-just the really messed up stuff people have said.

E-Are all of your Tranny Chasers dudes?
L-Most of the people who say bizarre chasery things to try to get into our pants are straight dudes who are confused or queer women who are also unclear on what our deal is.  I sometimes have queer women interpret me as “actually” an extra-butch dyke, which is really funny because I was never a lesbian and never a part of that dating culture.  I’m a gay guy, and my boyfriend is a cis (non-trans) gay guy, so being treated like an ex-lesbian is weird and totally out of left field for me.  Though I should add that I’ve also had cis gay guys who are ostensibly interested in me say random misogynistic things to me in order to “prove” their gayness, or ask me irrelevant, awkward questions about my internal organs.  It’s pretty gross.  

E-Do you think there’s a navigation that occurs when discussing your Jewish identity and your Trans identity?
L-It was interesting watching some of the reactions of family members and friends of the family while in transition.  Before I started my physical transition there were a lot of typical Jewish sentiments about not changing your body, similar to not getting tattoos.  I had a lot of negative feedback and people telling me over and over that I shouldn’t be changing my body, it was a sort of cultural thing.  Interestingly, after I physically transitioned those same people would tell me that they just wanted me to be happy, “We accept you!”  There’s this weird double-sided thing where in a Jewish family you love your family no matter what, but at the same time there are the cultural norms around not altering your body.

N-Whenever the Mechitza was up, the separation wall designating a male section and female section, I would stand on the border of it where the gap was. So kind of at the very back of the men’s section and the very front of the women’s section and off to the side closest to a wall or the exit. So no one was really clear which side I was on. One of the rabbis was mystical-Kabbalah recognizes 6 genders, and there are specific laws regarding those who are deemed androgynous, which he deemed were the laws I would possibly have to follow.  There is no Halachic rules or word for transition specifically,but a big time Hasidic rebbe told me that if I were to transition I had to follow all 613 laws and fulfill the rules and regulations of manhood.

Ricky-It depends on who I’m discussing it with. I’m pretty open about my Trans identity with progressively-minded Jews, especially if I’m going to out myself anyway by virtue of being in Schmekel. It’s important that they know that people like me exist so that their spaces are safer for Queer and Trans people. Around Jews on the more conservative side, I’d rather not put myself in a vulnerable position just to educate them. I just go with however they’re reading me. As for discussing my Jewish identity with anyone, I’m always up for that. A navigation does occur – if it’s someone I’m not out to as Trans, then I might leave a few things out at the places where my gender history and my religion and culture intersect.
Also, before I answered this question, I had thought that you meant this one: “How do you navigate your Jewish and Trans identities?” and here is my answer to that:  I used to actually feel like a Jewish identity and a Trans identity were mutually exclusive, even despite the fact that I had friends who were Queer and also practicing Jews. My family prefers to go to a shul where men and women daven separately, and they have strong beliefs about the different roles of women and men. I doubted my Judaism a lot because of that. I actually know way less about Judaism than people expect me to, being from an Orthodox family and all. Part of that is because of not wanting to stand behind a mechitza and wear a dress, part of it is that I just didn’t care at the time. Since then I’ve talked to all kinds of people with all kinds of opinions, interpretations, and ways of practicing and I’ve worked through that stuff.

S-You have to make your own traditions;make your own family and adjust traditions.  We have a 3rd night Seder for Pesach called Queer Seder for that very reason.

E-Define Jewish Community
S-When you think of a traditional Jewish community you think of everyone helping one another out.  All of the denominations would agree on that.  We have a Queer Family, a Queer Jewish Community where everyone helps one another out.  The Queer Jewish community is inclusive rather than exclusive.
L-A potluck; warmth, homeyness, food, sharing, and a family feeling even if it’s sometimes not your blood relatives.

E-Who is your better audience; Queer or Jewish?
Schmekel-A Queer Jewish Audience!  But a Jewish audience is more likely to freak out with joy hearing our songs.   If we play a room full of Jewish fairly liberal-minded straight people they will probably love us.  If we play a room full of non-Jewish queer people they’ll probably like us but they won’t be as enthusiastic as the straight Jews.  I think it’s because there’s something really pleasing for people to hear or see something they recognize and resonate with culturally, but see something wacky and unusual done to it.  We’ve had straight Jewish moms come up to us after shows telling us how much they love it.  We get a bigger reaction of crazy elation from some of the non-queer Jews that we play for.  We had a really positive reaction at the JFREJPurim Schpel.  We had a lot of people really like us who weren’t queers, but just lefty Jews.

L-We definitely get the biggest reaction of happiness from Queer Jews.  We’ve never really played for an audience that’s a more conservative Jewish audience.  I’m sure it will eventually happen and I’m not sure what will happen.  I don’t know if people will be offended or what. It remains to be seen.

E-What’s your long term goal for Schmekel and why is what you do important?
L-If the world lets us, I would love to quit my job and tour for years.  I don’t know if it will happen but I’d drop everything in a heart beat.
S-There are a few different ways that the band fills an important function that isn’t being filled.  First and foremost it’s important to be a queer band that’s fun, cheerful, and humorous and not combative, angry, or depressing.  While those kinds of bands are important, in the queer community it’s important to also have music or to have a thing you can go to and laugh, to be critical-minded while keeping a light-hearted spirit.  It’s also important to have fun and celebrate and not always be depressed and talking about oppression all the time.  In terms of morale for the queer community it’s important to have that and there aren’t that many bands who do that.  We’re a queer-fronted acts that combines comedy and music in a real way.  We take a look at serious topics and make them relate-able while keeping the message clear.  It’s also important for there to be a platform for queer and trans conversation that’s a counterpoint to the more educational, less-human trans education that’s out there.  Sometimes our shows are a point of entry to the trans community in a more organic way.

In terms of the Jewish community as a whole, it can be dangerous when the Jewish community tells itself that it’s of one mind and one culture because it’s not.  It’s important to diversify how Jews present themselves to each other, to themselves, and to other people.  We fill a lot of functions at once in terms of Judaism, Queer stuff, and Trans stuff.

E-What’s Up Next for Schmekel
S-May 20th is Lucian’s Bar Mitzvah Show
GenderReel NYC in July and we’re booking a lot of college shows currently in the works on the East Coast.  A show with Yiddish Princess in August at some point.  Hopefully recording an album as soon as humanly possible.  

Sneak preview of songs coming up: The first is called “Dumpster Dive” which is about rim jobs.  It’s framed as a love song about meeting a vegan punk and dumpster diving, but it’s really about rim jobs, done like a 1950′s do-whop song.  There’s another one Ricky and Lucian are working on called “You’re Not the Only Bear I’ve Fisted.”  Ricky wrote a song called “Shomer Negiah” about meeting a girl at a party and will involve Ricky rapping ala Beastie Boys.

E-Awesome, I can’t wait to hear them.  Thanks so much for taking time to meet with me!  I’ll see you at the Bar Mitzvah!

2 Responses to "Schmekel-The Interview"

[...] I interviewed Schmekel last year, one of the things that struck me was Lucian’s comment about seeing queer people [...]

[...] my buddies Schmekel continue to get amazing press.  First my interview (clearly) then the Times (oh, them) and now the Canadians over at Shetel have posted a new [...]

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