Letter From New York: Bad Girls
Down two flights of stairs, through a narrow hallway, and past the kitchen of the restaurant above, you’ll find a dimly lit, low-ceilinged room lined with long tables facing a small stage. This is Fez, a trendy downtown New York nightspot known for avant-garde music acts and the occasional burlesque show.
So…what’s a nice Jewish girl doing in a place like this?
Well, first of all, that’s girls - and if you have to ask, you obviously didn’t see the sign outside: Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad.
Every week this month, performance artist Susannah Perlman - that’s “Goddess Perlman” to you - hosts a rotating revue of Jewish women who one by one take the stage to talk, sing, dance, and scream at the audience. The personalities include spoken-word artist Vanessa Hidary, a.k.a. “The Hebrew Mamita,” a regular on HBO’s Def Poetry, and stand-up comediennes Ophira Eisenberg and Poppi Kramer. There’s musical theatre veteran Allison Tilsen, who dons a Britney Spears school-girl getup to sing about weight-loss issues (”Oops, I ate it again…”), and belly dancer Mimi Giggles, who performs an exotic strip-tease to pulsating Hebrew house music.
There’s a point here: “Jewish women get a bad rap,” reads Perlman’s official press release. “From JAPs to Jewish Mothers, we could use some improvement from the kvetching clichés that people have come to know, love, and hate.” Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad, then, is a forum to expose - quite literally, in some cases - “the gals who learned to smoke at Hebrew School, got drunk at their Bat-Mitzvahs, and would rather have more scht**pa than the chupah.” On the poster, one nice Jewish girl drinks Manischewitz straight from the bottle while another lights her stogie off a Hanukkah menorah - using the shammes, of course. “These badass J-girls boldly dare to deconstruct years of tradition, expectations, and guilt in a fast-paced vaudeville extravaganza.”
Between acts, Perlman warms up the crowd, emerging each time in a more outlandish outfit, from her red firefighter/mini-skirt ensemble to a shiny, Statue-of-Liberty-inspired shroud to a gaudy, leopard-print track suit (with a different wig for each). On this particular night, a goateed character in the back yells, “You’re sexy!” every time she reappears.
“Honey, I wish you would just follow me around all the time,” the Goddess answers back. “I mean, I could be on a date, and right when things aren’t going well - I would love to hear that!”
True, this show has attracted all kinds, people of all backgrounds brought in by curiosity and good word of mouth. And while there’s nothing particularly hamish about Perlman singing “Oprah for President” in a tight, short Cub Scout uniform, she’s found that Jewish patrons are also drawn to the show’s tribal vibe. “It’s not like we’re getting up there, singing ‘Hinei ma tov,’ but there’s still that feeling of coming together in a community,” she explains afterwards. “It’s still cultural, and brings you together to feel like you’re part of something.”
As Perlman chats, Tilsen walks up in a huff. “Those two guys [in the audience] from Connecticut - they know my uncle, the one who’s a rabbi,” she says. Tilsen, who’s performed in national tours of Chicago and Grease, has just closed the show with her own version of The Wizard of Oz. While belting out “Somewhere, Over the Rainbow,” she stripped down from her Dorothy costume to ruby-slipper pasties and a well-placed Toto. “I was, like, ‘Okay, don’t tell my family you saw me naked.’”
What makes the whole routine work is that all of them really are nice Jewish girls. Perlman grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and remains very close with her large family (”We do the holidays up!” she says). Her brother is a Conservative rabbi in Massachusetts - he’s quite supportive, though he hasn’t seen the show.
After moving to New York, Perlman started as a stand-up before evolving into a “comedian/chanteuse” and finding her true (stage) identity as “The Goddess Perlman,” the raunchy, reflective diva she inhabits here and in the one-woman cabarets she’s performed across the country and overseas; in her act, the Goddess describes herself as the love-child of Mick Jagger and Liza Minelli, adopted by a middle-class Jewish family. Her debut CD is entitled, “Beating Around the Bush.” It’s a political statement of sorts, though perhaps not the way you’re imagining. It features tracks like “Rabbi on Prozac” and “Perky Nipples.”
On the club circuit, Perlman found herself befriending other Jewish women with a wide variety of talents, from stand-up to folk-singing to belly-dancing. She invited several of them to perform with her last year, and quickly decided this was more than a one-night-only idea.
After several successful performances around town, NJGGB took their show on the road (”five of us stuffed into my ‘89 Honda Civic with no A/C,” Perlman explains). Having finished a triumphant tour of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., the girls are heading west this fall, to Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and, hopefully, beyond. While the show seems at home in a place like Fez, Perlman sees no reason at all to stay underground…so watch out for her band of “badass J-girls” at a JCC near you.
“The great thing about the show is that the title pretty much says it all,” she says. “People will ‘get it’ and at the same time, it’s not expected. It’s kitschy, it’s funky, it’s fresh, and that’s what people react to. The most important thing is, we’re all having fun.”