Dear Editor,

It’s fine to open up a conversation about drag shows and Judaism, but it should be done thoughtfully.

As Jews with an awareness of history, we should be wary of scapegoating, misinformation, lies, and accusations against a small group of people. Anti-drag activism has skyrocketed in the past 18 months. A recent study found “that the actors behind anti-drag activity are not just traditional anti-LGBTQ+ groups but include growing numbers of assorted other actors, from local extremists and white supremacists through to parents’ rights activists, members of anti-vaxxer groups, and Christian nationalists” (Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2023). These groups target events, try to intimidate venues, and their followers incite violence. Last November, a gunman killed five people at a drag show, which inspired American Neo-Nazis to ramp up their anti-drag activism.

To understand the fear that’s being incited against LGBTQ people in the last few years, I recommend the work of Nachman Ben-Yehuda, an Israeli expert on moral panics.

As Jews, let’s be especially careful to not spread or publish false accusations of harming children and pedophilia, since this was an antisemitic trope that we’ve experienced, from medieval blood libels, to the Leo Frank lynching in America, to Nazi propaganda, to QAnon. As early as 1929, Nazis focused on “degenerate Jewish sexuality” to incite fear and disgust. 

The Nazis used similar accusations against gays and lesbians, Jews, and trans people. Should we stand idly by when such accusations are made? As conservative Jewish commentator, Charles Adler, said, “I feel a special affection for the LGBT community because so many of them shared the same chimney as my grandparents and other ancestors.”

It’s also worth noting that Jews have long engaged in occasional cross-dressing, i.e., drag, on occasions like Purim, weddings, and Simhat Torah. As scholars (Yaakov Shmuel Spiegel, Ronit Irshai, Tzvi Sinensky) have shown, such Jewish cross-dressing was tolerated through opinions by leading medieval and early modern authorities on rabbinic law.

It is understandable that some men may feel their masculinity or sexuality threatened by gender non-conforming people and their culture(s). Perhaps Jewish men are especially vulnerable, both due to antisemitic threats and our own supposedly “effeminate” love for Torah study and learning in general.

Nonetheless, we should exercise maturity and empathic restraint in our analysis and discussions.

Sources include:

Irshai, Ronit. “Cross-Dressing in Jewish Law and the Construction of Gender Identity.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, Number 38, Spring 5781/2021, pp. 46-68.

Sinensky, Tzvi. “Lo Yilbash and Gender Difference: A Rejoinder to Moshe Kurtz.” The Lehrhaus, March 16, 2022.

Sales, Ben. “QAnon Is an Old Form of Anti-Semitism in a New Package, Experts Say.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, September 18, 2020.

Hillel Gray, Ph.D. 

Amberley, OH