Sabbath Queen

"What makes this night different from every other night?"

"What makes this night different from every other night?"

Though I didn’t tell him, the guy sitting next to me knew I wasn’t a Jew. I also didn’t tell him I was not gay, but he must have assumed otherwise, which is by no means the first time that has happened. After clearing up that I wasn’t with the hipster guy in the U-Haul coat sitting behind me, he leaned in close throughout the performance of The Sabbath Queen to make sure I understood the jokes. The flirt. The hole cut in the sheet – did I know what they were talking about? Yes, I knew about doing it through the hole in the sheet, which on stage got called a Jewish “sex toy.” The punning on Kiddush and Kaddish – did I get it? Yes, I said. I got it. I’ve read enough Ginsberg to know what Kaddish is, and I’ve heard Kiddush recited while celebrating the Sabbath with observant friends, even attended a Passover Seder a few years back (i.e., I also got the joke about “what made this night different from any other night.” Answer: “Probably the airplane glue”).There were the long blessings that made clear who in the room knew his Hebrew (most everyone, it seemed to me, including, of course, my translator-friend). They were also the ones who made sure to don the doily-cum-yarmulke we received with our programs as upon entering the theater.

The Sabbath Queen is a piece of Jewish ritual theater currently running at the Belt Theater, 336 West 37th Street, New York City. Conceived and directed by Amichai Lau-Lavie, an Israeli-born mythologist, storyteller and teacher of Judaic Literature, TSQ is “a radical adaptation of the traditional Sabbath rites of passage” – and by “radical” Lau-Lavie means gay-themed and done largely in drag. The traditional source for the rite is a “Kabbalistic ritual welcoming the Sabbath as the feminine divine symbolizing the essence of sacred time.” Bored by traditional organized Jewish religion, Lau-Lavie tries something unorthodox in this performance, starring as Rebetzin Hadassah Gross, “Agent Soul,” the widow of six prominent rabbis and president of the International Co-Share Sex Society. The purpose of the evening – the prayer, the rite – is to summon the Sabbath Queen. And to prepare the audience for the coming of the Sabbath Queen, to ready our souls, the Rebetzin teams up with four other of her “Agents” – Madam Natasha Vaginovitch, Agent Sex (not drag); Hyman S. Agent Substance (drag); Agent Style, Co-Chief Inspector (not drag); Agent Seena Smile, Co-Chief Inspector (drag). They are joined by two other performers that my friend the flirt identified as the most “Aryan-looking” people in the place – odd, he thought, for a Jewish ritual performance. It took a Gentile like me to point out this groaner: They were the “Go-Goy Dancers.”

Moments of the performance are wonderful: Agent Sex jokes that intercourse on Shabbos is a double mitzvah because “on Friday night God likes to watch.” Agent Substance is a pill-popping pharmacist; he’s the one who makes the crack about airplane glue making the difference on this night. Near the end the five Agents pray a Shabbos prayer together in a circle that morphs (because it just has to) into Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” But then the Rebetzin recounts going to summer camp at Auschwitz, where “the other kids were nice, but the counselors were not so nice.” I turned to Mr. U-Haul who, along with most of the audience, screwed up his face at that one. And where “Like a Prayer” works because it catches the audience off guard and makes them laugh, closing with the music to “Dancing Queen” just seems hackneyed.

TSQ features impressive and original multimedia elements (live close-up shots of the drag queens, for example), some fine musicianship, an original idea, and more than a few good jokes. They break Challah and toss it into the audience. But when the performance fails to summon the Sabbath Queen it’s hardly a surprise. The performance lacks the energy necessary to arouse the pleasure and expand the soul to the point where even the most voyeuristic Sabbath Queen might want to come and have a peek. Granted, the evening is basically meant to encourage the audience to go home and screw; after all, it’s the human unions at home in bed that are supposed to arouse the Sabbath Queen to unite with the King of Kings. But, the Go-Goy Dancers seemed self-satisfied in their very subtle movements, and the drag queens (and kings) seem tame, considering the tradition they draw on. There is no one so bold as RuPaul in TSQ, nothing so funny as “The Kids in the Hall” or “Monty Python.” If I was meant to rush right out after the show, cut a hole in a sheet, and have myself a double mitzvah, TSQ missed its mark. And my friend must have been equally unmoved; after all his leaning and whispering, he didn’t even ask for my number.

Scott Korb is the author of Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine. He is also is co-author, with Peter Bebergal, of The Faith Between Us (Bloomsbury 2007).