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How one Jewish community celebrates with sparkles and drag queens

This end-of-Sabbath celebration was unforgettable

Photo Credit: Lander Grinspoon Academy

Havdalah — the Jewish ceremony that closes out the Sabbath and welcomes the coming week — is usually a small, lovely celebration with wine, sweet smelling spices, a special braided candle, and singing of prayers and songs. But a couple of weeks ago, my local Jewish community decided to kick things up a notch. “Sparkle Havdalah” promised it all: a traditional ceremony, but with sequins, storybooks, and… Drag Queens! This unconventional celebration brought our community together in a very special way, while also drawing some criticism from folks around the globe.

A sparkle mama and her sparkle kiddo at the event. Photo credit: Avital Norman Nathman

When I first heard that my son’s Jewish Day school would be hosting a Drag Queen Havdalah (along with a local Jewish preschool, two synagogues, and a local children’s Jewish book library) I was stoked. I attend a monthly drag queen bingo, and the bingo host, Jenayah, would be the Queen of the hour at the Havdalah event. I was already looking forward to seeing how this fabulous performer would reign in her penchant for F-Bombs for the family-friendly event. The buzz from the local community was strong, and I knew my son and his friends were also excited (My son may have lamented the fact that his wardrobe is seriously lacking in sequins).

In the week leading up to the event — which is based on Michelle Tea’s non-religious Drag Queen Story Hour  — it started to generate some buzz, and was even written about in national and global  online Jewish outlets like JTA and The Times of Israel, and even the conservative site, The Daily Caller. … And that’s when everyone (who doesn’t live here) had to weigh in with their two cents. Some folks couldn’t believe that a Jewish school and various Jewish organizations would get together to promote something “like this.” Others were aghast that we would “expose” our children to Drag Queens, as if the amount of sequins and glitter surrounding them are toxic. And there were even those who outright said we were clearly not “real Jews” for turning Havdalah into some sort of farce.

Thankfully, our community didn’t listen to the naysayers. We know that there is no harm in allowing our children to dress up in sparkles. We know that allowing our children to hang out with Drag Queens will not harm or impede them in any way. If anything, perhaps they’ll pick up some makeup tips along with a heaping dose of tolerance. Children like to laugh and smile and be entertained — they are the perfect audience for an energetic drag queen!  

The lovely audience. Photo credit: Avital Norman Nathman

What we did expose folks to, however, was a Jewish celebration and a fabulously good time. The all-purpose room at the school was packed to the brim with families — many of whom were new faces to me. When you’re a tiny Jewish day school in an area with a small Jewish population, you tend to get really excited when events like these draw big crowds (so THANK YOU to all the crankypants internet commenters who instead of convincing folks to stay away, probably made our crowd grow bigger!). To look over the audience and see faces young and old singing traditional Havdalah songs together beneath all the twinkle lights we could amass was a special thing.

After the traditional prayers and songs were completed, Jenayah and local author Lesléa Newman (of Heather Has Two Mommies) read some books. Families floated in and out of the main room to the library where a face painting table and a photo booth had been set up. Parents and kids alike may have had way too much fun in that space.

Photos of photo fun! Photo credit: Avital Norman Nathman

Havdalah is a special time. It’s Shabbat — but not quite Shabbat. It’s the start of the week —  but not fully. It’s a wonderful in-between time where anything could happen and time is almost fluid. What better way to mark that than with Drag Queens? After all, their art is also incredibly fluid and full of wonder.

At the end of the event, I looked around, thrilled that an event like this would bolster our small Jewish community in this special way. It felt powerful, being among so many people — both friends and strangers — who were celebrating the end of one week and the beginning of the next. It felt full of possibility, hope, tolerance, and love.

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