The Gordon Center for Performing Arts is gearing up to host its second annual Queer Jewish Arts Festival.
Sponsored by the Grandchildren of Harvey M. & Lyn P. Meyerhoff Philanthropic Fund, the festival, from June 16-26, aims to celebrate Pride Month and put a spotlight on gender, sexuality and Jewish identity.
The festival is a hybrid event, with viewings of featured plays and movies being held online and at the Gordon Center. Last year, the festival was entirely virtual save for one outdoor screening. This year’s Queer Jewish Arts Festival aims to provide a more personal experience with an in-person play.
“It’s true that because of the pandemic, fewer artists are able to get their art produced and disseminated, so there’s [fewer films and performances] available to choose from,” said Sara Shalva, the chief arts officer at the Gordon Center. “But I feel that our selections are excellent this year.”
Shalva founded the festival in collaboration with Iron Crow Theater, a queer performance group from Baltimore. She came up with the idea in a meeting with Iron Crow’s Artistic Director Sean Elias, and the two formed a committee to pursue the idea.
This year’s lineup features two films and a play.
The play, a one-act drag play called, “It Gets Bitter,” kicks off the festival on May 16. It is an exploration of rejection and acceptance of queer identity in the Jewish community. A Chasidic teenager (Aaron Latta-Morissette) leaves conversion therapy and comes home where his drag queen mother, played by scriptwriter Yochai Greenfeld, is sitting shivah for him as though he is dead.
Greenfeld has personal experience with going through conversion therapy in Israel. Though a traumatic experience, he felt that it was important to share his story.
“The opportunity I was given to bring a full story to the stage of a festival made me feel that it was the time to tell my story in a way that was easier to tell it and for the audience to hear it,” Greenfeld said. “Conversion therapy is an indigestible topic, it’s very hard to hear.”
“It Gets Bitter” started out as a 20-minute play performed in New York, but Greenfeld added additional scenes about the main character’s conversion therapy for the Queer Jewish Arts Festival. He pulled from his personal journals to relay his experiences.
He described it as feeling “like I was drinking poison… but I was able to bring the memory to life by reading things out of the notebooks and putting them in the play. It was a very empowering and healing experience.”
The festival’s two film selections will both screen virtually from June 20-26.
One is the documentary “Transkids,” about four Israeli teenagers undergoing gender transition. The narrative explores the complicated relationship between gender identity, Orthodox Judaism and Israeli law. The characters navigate an increasingly complicated world as their upcoming military service looms overhead.
Hilla Medalia, the documentary’s director, had a big void to fill when she started planning the film. “It was the very first time trans youth were seen in Israel in such a way,” she said. There are few Israeli movies with major transgender characters, and even fewer with teenage transgender characters.
“Nobody chooses to be transgender,” Medalia said of one of the lessons of her film. “You don’t wake up in the morning and decide that. It’s bigger than yourself, it’s not a choice.”
The other film available for viewing is the Israeli-made “Marry Me However.” It follows five gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews as they enter into heterosexual marriages to fulfill religious and societal expectations. Director Rabbi Mordechai Vardi details their struggle to determine whether their sexual or religious identity is worth more to them, and whether they can coexist.
Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the founding director of the LGBTQ Orthodox organization Eshel, helped to distribute the film in the U.S. “As soon as I saw [the film], I contacted the director… and I suggested to him that we work together,” he said.
The climate surrounding LGBTQ rights is much different in Israel than it is in the U.S., Greenberg said. But Greenberg still believes the conversation is an important one — not just for LGBTQ Jews, but also their parents.
“It’s especially moving in circumstances where either friends or family members see for themselves what the circumstances [of the subjects] are, and it’s either eye-opening or confirming,” Greenberg said of the film. “It can help parents understand their children’s challenges. We’ve shown it to groups of Orthodox parents with LGBTQ kids and it’s very confirming for them. They understand in a clearer way why their voice is important. While Vardi didn’t get any parents to speak, it’s clear from the story that the perspective of a parent would be that they want their children to be happy.”