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Mazal Tov, Amigos!

Jews and Popular Music

in the Americas
Edited by

Amalia Ran and Moshe Morad


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List of Figuresviii
List of Contributorsix
Amalia Ran and Moshe Morad
1 Is White Christmas a Piece of Jewish Music?11
Ellen Koskofff
2 The Musical Worlds of Jewish Buenos Aires, 1910194025
Pablo Palomino
3 Tristes Alegras: The Jewish Presence in Argentinas Popular Music
Amalia Ran
4 Jacob do Bandolim: A Jewish(-)Brazilian Composer60
Thomas George Caracas Garcia
5 Walls of Sound: Lieber and Stoller, Phil Spector, the Black-Jewish
Alliance, and the Enlarging of America78
Ari Katorza
6 Singing from Diffference: Jewish Singers-Songwriters in the 1960s
and 1970s96
Jon Stratton
7 Toca maravilloso! Larry Harlow and the Jewish Connection to
Latin Music109
Benjamin Lapidus
8 Roberto Juan Rodriguez Timba Talmud: Diasporic Cuban-Jewish
Musical Convergences in New York122
Nili Belkind

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Yiddish Song in Twenty-First Century America: Paths to

Abigail Wood


Fight for Your Right to Partycipate: Jewish American Rappers153

Uri Dorchin


Gypsy, Cumbia, Cuarteto, Surf, Blah Blah Blah: Simja Dujov

and Jewish Musical Eclecticism in Argentina171
Lillian M. Wohl


Queer Jewish Divas: Jewishness and Queerness in the Life and

Performance of Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, and Olga Guillot188
Moshe Morad


Third Diaspora Soundscapes: Music of the Jews of Islam in the

Edwin Seroussi
Closing Notes: The Soundstage of Jewish Life, North and South237
Judah M. Cohen

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Queer Jewish Divas: Jewishness and Queerness

in the Life and Performance of Barbra Streisand,
Bette Midler, and Olga Guillot
Moshe Morad

The divas have to make us believe that they live in their own sphere
and that the norms and conventions that apply to everyone, do not apply
to them.1
The intersection of Jewishness and queerness has been investigated by several Queer theorists.2 This essay looks at a particular musical/cultural aspect
of this intersectionthe great American Jewish divaswho became gay
icons and subjects of female impersonations in drag shows. In the following
pages, I will present three such Jewish divas who have risen from and become
immersed in the two popular music cultures that this volume looks atthe
North American and the Latin American. This essay explores their popularity
and particular gay appeal covering the entire spectrum of American popular
music. From the United States, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, both in their
seventies now, are global divas and gay icons idolized and drag-impersonated
in both Latin and Western cultures; less known for her Jewish roots due to the
particular circumstances of her Cuban background is pan-Latin bolero diva
Olga Guillot.
All three divas have a life story and performance that resonate well with
Miras descriptions of the diva and the way she inhabits her own myth.3
Camp, drama, and over-the-top performance are typical of the stage personas of all three divas, from Streisands vocal melodrama, via Midlers outrageous comedy and camp, to Guillots heartbreaking boleros and quivering lips.
1 Vanessa Knights, Performances of Pain and Pleasure (Divas Sing the Bolero), paper
presented at the Institute of Popular Music Seminar Series, University of Liverpool,
November 15, 2001, 45. (accessed
March 12, 2008). My translation from Spanish.
2 Many of them of Jewish descent, such as Judith Butler, Eve Kosofky Sedgwick, and Daniel
3 In Knights, 45.

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2016|doi 10.1163/9789004204775_014

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Queer Jewish Divas


But there are other common factors relating to their biographies, careers, and
interaction with the audience that make them typically Jewish and queer.
I begin this essay by reviewing the historic connection between queerness
and Jewishness and by studying the cases of the three Jewish divas who became
major gay icons in their respective cultures. My objective is to examine and
to compare issues of gender, social acceptance, Diaspora, Jewish fatalism
and camp, religious and political non-conformism, and queerness.

Jewishness and Queerness, Judeophobia and Homophobia

In the introduction to their edited volume Queer Theory and the Jewish
Question, Boyarin, Itzkovitz, and Pellegrini draw an interesting comparison
between Jewishness and queerness and claim that they are bound up by one
another in particularly resonant ways.4
An interesting aspect of this queer/Jew connection is discussed by Boyarin
in a 1997 study entitled Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the
Invention of the Jewish Man, in which he identifies expressions of soft Jewish
masculinity in the Talmud and succeeding rabbinical texts, and claims that
a certain kind of male efffeminacy helped maintain Jewish self-afffirmation
against the hegemonic gentile (Roman at the time) virtues of male masculinity.5
This soft Jewish masculine tendency continued throughout the history of life
in exile and, according to Boyarin, was challenged by Herzl and the Zionist
movement with their idealized muscular Jew, which later became part of the
macho ethos of the State of Israel.
This soft masculine behavior and presentation became one of the triggers for the feminization and queerification of the Jew, as presented by
European Judeophobes. Another factor was circumcision: ...little boys hear
in the nursery that Jews have something cut offf their penises and thereby conclude that they are men who become women.6 This lack of penis is another
trigger for contempt toward Jews, associating them with femininity, deviance,
and homosexuality.

4 Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini, eds., Queer Theory and the Jewish
Question (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 1.
5 See in Daniel Boyarin, Homophobia and the Postcoloniality of the Jewish Science, In Queer
Theory and the Jewish Question, Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini, eds.
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 95.
6 Boyarin, 169.

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Historian Diane Owen Hughes describes this Jewishness/deviance connection in Italy, during the Renaissance, when Jews and prostitutes in the city-states
were forced to wear earrings: a deliberate and powerful campaign of degradation and re-marking.7 However, at the same time, these two minority groups
were conflated into a single class,8 a single sumptuary category...construed
for the service of the state.9 This special role of Jews and deviants in society
can be found in many cultures; for example, the role of Jews as musicians in
early twentieth century Iraq,10 or the role of homosexuals in religious practice
in Afro-Cuban santera.11
In his essay about Marcel Proust, Jonathan Freedman pinpoints the fin
de sicle and the early years of the twentieth century as the period in which
Jewish and sexually transgressive identities were molded in each others
image.12 Just as the figure of the homosexual came into full crystallization
in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in psychiatric and sexological discourse, so too did the Jew as a new social type, not as [a member]
of a religion...or a culture...or a nation but in pathological terms that served
the purpose of managing the proliferation of ambiguities from which the very
concept of the Jew emerged.13
It is no historical coincidence that both the modern Jew and the modern
homosexual emerged in the same period of time, and that both anti-Semitism
and homophobia flourished simultaneously, culminating in both bearers of
pink triangles and yellow Stars of David being sent by the Nazis to concentration camps.
Marginalization and discrimination led to the emergence of resistance
movements and academic disciplines investigating their sources and subjects, and strengthened the groups identities and agendas, also in a similar
timeframe. Anti-Semitism led to the Jewish emancipation movement and to
Wissenschaftthe science of Judaismfrom which modern Jewish studies
have emerged. Likewise, lesbian and gay studies evolved in the United States

Marjorie Garber, Category Crises: The Way of the Cross and the Jewish Star, in Boyarin
et al., Queer Theory and the Jewish Question, 28.
Garber, 28.
Diane Owen Hughes, Distinguishing Signs: Ear-Rings, Jews and Franciscan Rhetoric in
the Italian Rennaisance City, Past and Present 112 (1986): 47.
Moshe Morad, Kol Hashalom MiBaghdad (The Voice of Peace from Baghdad), Musaf
Haaretz, February 1, 2008: 52.
Morad, Invertidos in Afro-Cuban religion, The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide 15, no. 2
(2008): 2628.
Jonathan Freedman, Coming out of the Jewish Closet with Marcel Proust, in Boyarin
et al., Queer Theory and the Jewish Question, 335.
Freedman, 336.

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Queer Jewish Divas


following years of discrimination, marginalization, and homophobia. In both

cases, there is a closetassimilation and a tendency on the part of group
members to hide their ethnicity or sexual inclinationas well as a coming
out of the closet process, which can be personal and/or social/political.14
Visual and Environmental Studies scholar Marjorie Garber takes the queer/
Jewish connection even further and draws a connection between transgenderism and modern Jewishness in her essay Category Crises: The Way of the
Cross and the Jewish Star. According to Garber, both are subjects of a category
crisis;...a failure of definitional distinction, which allows boundary crossing
from one (apparently distinct) category to another;15 male to female, black to
white, and Jew to Christian. Garber looks at the case of Yentl, as one of category
crisis. Streisands performance in Yentl is discussed further in this essay.
The connection between Jewishness and sexual deviance was a theme
exploited by the Nazis in their anti-Semitic propaganda; for example, when
excerpts from the 1927 film Der Frst von Pappenheimin which a famous
German Jewish actor plays a vaudeville entertainer who performs in drag
were used to show that Jewish men minced about in womens clothes.16
Jew-as-woman (or as an efffeminate man) is an archtype that has other
aspects, too. One that is particularly relevant to the subject of this essay is the
voice. According to Garber, the way Jews supposedly spoke, with a break in the
voice and a sing-song manner, set Jewish men apart, and linked them to feminized men or castrates.17 The voice-identifying stigmata were used both in the
context of Jews and homosexuals in the nineteenth century, further associating
Jewishness and perversion: The voice became itself an indication of unmanliness, a kind of aural clothing that linked Jew and woman, Jew and emasculated
man, Jew and degenerate male homosexual.18 According to Garber, this feminization of the Jewish manthe voice, the shrug, the small hands, the extravagant
gestures, the Oriental aspectmanifests itself in the lexicon of cross dressing.19
This typecasting can explain, or comprise, the background to the Jewish/
queer diva connectionlarger-than-life Jewish women or rather women with
extravagant gestures and performance, who became gay icons and subjects for
female impersonations. In our case, the Jewish queer divas are maybe outcasts
due to both their religion and their controversial behavior and over the top

Obviously, unlike African or Asian ethnicity, Jewish ethnicity can be hidden, as can
Garber, 19.
Garber, 27.
Garber, 29.
Garber, 30.
Garber, 30.

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performance/musicality, but this is what makes them such important musical

figures in their respective cultures.
Hysteria is another common connection associated with both Jews and
homosexuals, and with the performance of our three divas. Pioneering French
theorist of hysteria Jean-Martin Charcot, who inspired Freuds work, mentioned the especially marked predisposition of the Jewish race for hysteria.20
A similar deviant cross-gender stigma has been attributed in the United
States to Jewish women, namely, in the Jewish princess stereotype, where
the fantasized Jewish woman crosses over into the space of masculinity
which is put in question by the ambivalent cultural status of the Jewish man.21
The Jewish princess is not only spoilt and demanding, but pushy, bossy, and
neuroticas are divas, especially Jewish divas.
Streisand is described by theater and performance scholar Stacy Wolf as
the diva of divas with a well-publicized terror of live performance, Streisand
is gossiped about equally as an egomaniacal, control-freak perfectionist...and
as a frail, anxious slip of a girl.22
Wolf mentions that as Streisands career has evolved:
[H]er star-self takes on increasingly more masculine signs. Like [Sarah]
Bernhardt, Streisand is bossy, and as each acquired money and power she
was seen as voraciously ambitious, egotistical, and acquisitive, the epitome of the avaricious Jew...Like Bernhardt, Streisands inappropriate
femininity was seen not only to be a sign of her Jewishness but to be
caused by it.23
Midler, likewise, has a reputation for being diffficult to work with or, as she puts
it: I am a bitch!24

The History of Jewish American Divas

Divas are an important and characteristic component of performance arts
(theater, ballet, and vocal music) in the cultures of both Americas (and worldwide). There have been the opera divas (such as Maria Callas and Montserrat

Garber, 20.
Garber, 33.
Stacy Wolf, Barbras Funny Girl Body, in Boyarin et al., Queer Theory and the Jewish
Question, 246.
Wolf, 260.
Mark Bego, Bette Midler: Still Divine (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002), 98.

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Queer Jewish Divas


Caball), as well as divas in popular music, and theater and comedy divas
many of whom were Jewish and, not surprisingly, based their diva-ness on
humor, mostly self-humor and self-ridicule, from Sophie Tucker, Belle Barth, and
Totie Fields, to Joan Rivers, Bette Midler, and Barbra Streisand. Nevertheless, in
this essay I concentrate on three musical divas known for their voices, as well
as for the drama, humor, and camp incorporated into their performance.
While looking at the history of Jewish vocal divas in America, it is important to mention two sets of sisters who predated and inspired the female
vocal group phenomenon of early 1960s Motownthe Andrews Sisters and
the Barry Sisters in the late-1930s and the 1940s. The Andrews Sisters were not
Jewish (but daughters of Greek and Norwegian immigrants; I will relate to the
immigration/Diaspora factor in the following pages). Yet, their first and biggest
hit was an English version of the 1932 Yiddish song Bei Mir Bist Du Schn (To
me you are beautiful), which became a Jewish-American hit and, subsequently,
a pan-American hit, especially among the American troops in World War II.25
Following the success of Bei Mir Bist Du Schn, Jewish musician and composer Sam Medofff started his Yiddish Melodies in Swing program on New Yorks
radio station WHN and introduced to the American public two Jewish siblings:
the Barry Sisters, who from 1937 until the mid-1950s performed jazz and popular songs in Yiddish.26
The biggest post-1960s musical Jewish American divas are undoubtedly
Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, who just like Sarah Bernhardt embody and
enact the irresolvable but culturally useful contradictions of a queer, Jewish

Barbra Streisand: Queer Representations and Diva-ness, from

Funny Girl to Yentl
According to Wolf, Streisand represents gay mens love for American musicals,
post-feminine mystique ambition, and above all, late twentieth-century Jewish



It is also rumored to have become a favorite of the Nazis, until it was discovered that
the song was in fact Jewish. It was also a popular song enjoyed in secret among Jewish
inmates in concentration camps. This information was given to me as hearsay, and also
appears in an uncited source in Wikipedia (
Sisters), (accessed January 2, 2015). So I refer to it as rumor.
From The Rise of Yiddish Swing.
(accessed January 2, 2015).
Wolf, 261.

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American femininity.28 This Jewish femininity portrayed in body (her nose),

voice (frequent yiddishisms), and behavior (aggressiveness)29 contradicts the
feminine ideal in American culture, and is therefore queer. According to New
Testament and Jewish studies scholar Amy-Jill Levine, the Jewish woman on
stage is more and less than woman,30 and, as stated by art historian Carol
Ockman in her essay about Sarah Bernhardt, she represents a womanhood
gone awry.31 Consequently, this is exactly what makes American gays identify
with Jewish women and love the Jewish divas, from Sophie Tucker to Barbra
Moreover, Jewishness is what Barbra does claims Wolf, albeit a Jewishness
with a diffference.33 Her refusal to have a nose jobmuch publicized
in the mid 1960swas seen as an act of resistance to the desire of invisibility,
the desire to become white, [which] lies at the center of the [Diasporic] Jews
flight from his or her own body.34 This insistence on maintaining the mark
of diffference35 and resistance to assimilation is reminiscent of the gay-rights
movements fight for visual recognition, with the waving of the rainbow flag,
defying the dont ask, dont tell policy, and furtherthe queer movements
insistence on visuality, even if it is outside the male-or-female norms.
In the 1968 film Funny Girl, Streisand plays the role of early twentieth-century
vaudeville star Fanny Brice, and knits together queerness and Jewishness to
create a woman who, in body, gesture, voice, and character, is indeed a funny
girl.36 Via the story of Fanny Brice, the film looks back at the history of the
American musical theater (in its earlier form; the Vaudeville), and sheds light
on the queerness of the genre and its queer/Jewish connection.


Wolf, 246.
Wolf, 247.
Amy-Jill Levine, A Jewess, More and/or Less, in Judaisn since Gender, Miriam Peskowitz,
and Laura Levitt, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1997), 151.
Carol Ockman, When Is a Jewish Star Just a Star? Interpreting Images of Sarah Bernhardt,
The Jew in the Text: Modernity and the Construction of Identity, Linda Nochlin, and Tamar
Garb, eds. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995), 138.
Personal Interview: Joel Cohen, a gay American Jewish actor, 2014.
Wolf, 251.
Sander Gilman, The Jews Body (London: Routledge, 1991), 235.
Wolf, 251.
Wolf, 247. The use of woman in quotation marks here, and on other occasions in this
essay, is not incidental. In Notes on Camp, the 1964 essay by Jewish-American writer
Susan Sontag, who defined camp as a gay sensitivity celebrating artificiality and exaggeration, Sontag writes: Camp sees everything in quotation marks. Its not a lamp, but a
lamp; not a woman, but a woman.

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Queer Jewish Divas


It should be noted that the twentieth-century American musical theater

genre, known as the musical was created by Jews (with the exception of Cole
Porter who was not Jewish, but was gay). The genre as a whole offfers queer
spectatorial interventions, with overt displays of vocal aptitude and physical
prowess, that is, by its own pleasure in its own performativity.37
The gayness and gay appeal of musicals is articulated by gender studies
and communication scholar Alexander Doty who writes about their feminine, or efffeminized, aesthetic, camp, and emotive genre characteristics
(spectacular dcor and costuming, intricate choreography, and singing about
romantic yearning and fulfillment), with reference to the more hidden cultural
history of gay erotica centered on men in musicals.38
In between Funny Girl and Yentl, in 1979 Streisand took a step further into
gay territory and strengthened her connection with the global gay community with a disco hit; a duet with disco diva Donna Summer, which became an
instant gay club anthemNo More Tears (Enough Is Enough), a sentimental
ballad intro, which turns into an over-dramatic, pulsating dance-floor hit. She
has never performed this song live with Donna Summer, but it became one of
her best-selling hits and added another dimension to her musical gay appeal.
In the 1983 musical film Yentl, Streisand took the Jewish/queer connection
further with a story involving cross-dressing/cross-gender in the Orthodox
Jewish sphere. Based on Isaac Bashevis Singers short story Yentl the Yeshiva
Boy, Streisand plays a Polish Jewish girl who decides to dress and live like a
man so that she can become a yeshiva boy and study the Talmud.
In this connection, Boyarin, Itzkovitz, and Pellegrini raise the ultimate
queer question relating to the historic stereotypes described above: If a Jewish
woman can pass as a man, [is] this...because, at least according to stereotype,
she is already a man?...or, perhaps, and just as well, a Jewish girl can be a
Jewish boy, because Jewish boys are already girls?39
Streisand as Yentl added another dimension of queerness to Bashevis
story. In her own Jewishness and stage persona as described above, Streisand
constantly portrays the non-typical American woman; a self-made phallic
woman, the one who refused to decapitate or castrate herself.40 Furthermore,
in Yentl, Streisand proves that she can be not only a phallic woman but also a


Wolf, 248.
Alexander Doty, Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 10.
Boyarin et al., 7.
Garber, 24.

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Barbra Streisand, 2003. Manns
Bruin Theater / Westwood, CA, USA.
Photo: Lee Roth / RothStock /
PR Photos.

cute boy, as Hollywood producer Howard Rosenman once told her: You were
fabulous as a boy. Anshel was very sexy.41

The Divine Miss M

Bette Midler started her musical career as an entertainer in the Continental
BathsNew Yorks notorious gay saunain 1970, well before the AIDS era,
performing to gay men wrapped in towels in between their sexual activities.
The gay patrons made Bette a cult figure.
Midler describes how, in order to keep the attention of the boys in towels,
she mixed her singing with high camp comedy. In what was meant to be a negative review, Arthur Bell of the Village Voice wrote that she resembled a woman
impersonating a man impersonating a woman.42 Still, most patrons loved her
sense of humor and were raving about the Jewish girl in the baths who spoke


Graber, 21.
Interview with Bette Midler by Roger Ebert, 1980. http://www.Rogerebert.Com/Inter
views/Interview-With-Bette-Midler (accessed January 2, 2015).

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Queer Jewish Divas


our language.43 In an interview Midler says: When I was working at the baths
I could go there and feel right at home. I picked up the gay sense of humor,
almost like a sponge.44 In another she said: I think I just have a queer eye.45
It is no coincidence that Jack and his fellow patrons at the Continental
Baths described her as the Jewish girl. Midler was and remained a typical
Jewish girl, mixing a Jewish sense of humor with a camp/queer one. When
I went to see her performance in New Jersey in 1993, the audience was clearly
divided into two distinctive groups: middle-aged Jews and gays. Midler played
throughout the performance, making hilarious comments on both audiences
and frequently bringing up their common connection to fate and humor. She
combined a sense of tragedy and drama in her songs with camp and humor
in her patter, interspersing Yiddishisms with gay language. When speaking
of Streisand, Midler described her as that over-priced yenta (yenta meaning a gossipy old woman and also referring to Yentl) to the laughter of the
audience, but then quickly switched to tragic mood and began singing a heartbreaking ballad from The Rose, her 1979 film debut in which she portrayed a
doomed, drug-addicted, rock n roll singer.
Midlers gay appeal encompasses her full rangefrom vulgar/high camp
to her dramatic singing from The Rose. I have seen many drag-queens impersonating both the funny Miss M. and her various stage characters, as well as
her powerful, heartrending performances from The Rose.
More than any other diva, Midler represents the duality (and sometimes
conflict) between being an American Jew (she observes some of the religions
practices in her personal life) and a gay icon. In a 2003 interview on CNN,
Midler hesitated when asked about her views regarding gay marriage, a much
discussed topic at the time in the United States:
...when it comes to religion, I dont really know what to say because
ImIm in my tribe, and I try to be a good Jew, but on the other hand, I
dont know what thehow people feel. My feeling is, well, whos it really
going to hurt? But then, if youre a religious person, youre get all knocked
out because of the things that...[sic]46


Private interview, 2011; Jack, 64 years old, a regular patron at the Continental Baths at the
time Midler performed there.
Interview with Bette Midler by Roger Ebert, 1980.
Interviewed by Larry King on CNN, 2003.
lkl.00.html. (accessed January 2, 2015). (accessed January 2, 2015).

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Bette Midler, 2014. Its the Girls album cover.

Courtesy of Lev Group Media & Warner Music Group

La vida es una mentira (Life Is a Lie): Queer Bolero and Olga

In my doctoral dissertation and subsequent monograph about music and gay
identity in Cuba, I argue that bolero music, which had its heyday in the 1930s
and 1940s, re-emerged as an important emotional musical space among gay
men in Cuba during the Special Period, an extended open-ended era of economic crisis, austerity, depression, and radical social and cultural changes,
which began in the early 1990s with the loss of financial support due to the fall
of the USSR.
One of the greatest heroes of the genre is Olga Guillot, a gay icon and diva,
who left Cuba in 1961, due to her opposition to the Castro regime. Olga was

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Queer Jewish Divas


one of the most popular subjects for impersonation in numerous drag shows
I attended in Cuba and in the Cuban gay diaspora. I found her cassettes in the
music collections of all gay bolero fans whom I met in Cuba, although they
were banned for years due to her political dissidence and betrayal.
Spanish American literature scholar and author of Tropics of Desire:
Interventions from Queer Latino America Jos Quiroga describes the audience at Olga Guillots concert in Madrid in 1998 as a sentimental community, constructed around La Guillot as signier.47 One might say that in Cuba
there exists a virtual sentimental community composed of a network of
Olga Guillot fans who listen to her CDs and cassettes in the privacy of their
homes. Cuban gays, who have never had the chance to see her perform live,
have adopted her as a symbol of escapism, fantasy, drama, and resistance to
oppression. Many gay bolero fans told me that they identify closely with the
lyrics of her songs, such as La mentira (The lie), and Minteme (Lie to me),48
since they reflect their way of life. Many of them live a lie: they lie to others
and accept that others lie to them.
During my fieldwork in Cuba, I kept hearing rumors about the Jewishness of
Guillot. I could not find any offficial evidence in the Cuban literature or press, or
in the Jewish community files. Yet many of my informants insisted that ella era
juda (she was Jewish). One of them showed me an old album cover showing
the young Olga wearing a Star of David necklace. Apparently, she wore such a
necklace many times throughout her life, both before and after leaving Cuba.
I came across various pictures of Guillot wearing a Star of David necklace,
taken in diffferent periods of her life. An uncited list of Jewish Latin American
singers on Wikipedia mentioned her, but that was about the only reference
I could find online to Olgas Jewishness.
It is important to understand that Cuba became offficially atheist during
the Revolution. This caused the Jewish community, as well as other religious
communities, to go underground for many years. Therefore, as in the case of
the Soviet Union, Jewish roots are sometimes diffficult to trace. Only recently
I came across an interview which Olga gave in 2003 to the Argentinean newspaper Clarn,49 in which she clearly says that the reason she wears a Star of
David is to honor her biological father who was Jewish, and that at the age of
ten she converted to Christianity (perhaps meaning that the whole family con47

Jos Quiroga, Tropics of Desire: Intervensions from Queer Latino America (New York and
London: New York University Press), 148.
The title of this section, Life Is a Lie, is from the lyrics of this song. (accessed January 2, 2015). Many
thanks to Graciela Dyzenchauz for bringing this interview to my attention.

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verted and obtained a Christian identity). Uncited sources in Wikipedia and

in the US-Hispanic Contacto magazine (2001) claim that Guillot performed in
Israel in the early 1960s. I found out that Guillot visited Israel in 1986 as part
of a delegation of the Free Cuban Community in Exile of Miami Beach for the
plantation of a JNF forest in honor of Cuban poet Jos Mart.50
Being of Catalan origin, it is probable that Guillots father (and heritage) was
Sephardi, unlike most Cuban Jews who are of Ashkenazi/Eastern European
descent. Whereas her Jewish origins are obscured and barely discussed, due
to the particular circumstances prevailing in Cuba, Guillot, like Streisand and
Midler, symbolizes a certain rebellion and dissidence against the normative
hegemony. In her case, it is both a political (anti-Castro) and (homo)sexual dissidence, adding further appeal to Cuban gays. As Juanito, a 55-year-old Cuban
gay activist and drag queen told me, in a personal interview:
I always kept my cassette of Olga, even when I was hiding from the police
in the UMAP51 days, and still have it. Its in my collection, together with
the pictures and love-letters from my lovers. It is in my little secret homosexual box, a little safe storing my true identity, even when I have to pretend to the outside world that I am something else.
Her Jewishness adds another layer of non-conformism and secrecy, as
expressed in the almost whispered comment from Juanito in my ear: Ella era




olga100.htm (accessed January 5, 2015). I could find no further written or recorded evidence regarding the concert in Israel. Regarding the JNF visit, I wish to thank Graciela
Dyzenchauz and Shoshana Levin for the information, and to Sharon Freedman at the JNF
for digging up the detail about the delegation and the plantation.
UMAP, Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Produccin (military units to aid prduction),
were notorious labor camps operated by the Cuban government from November 1965 to
July 1968, as an alternative form of military service, for anti revolutionary Cuban men
including pacifists, hippies, and homosexuals. Life in the UMAP was deccribed in Renaldo
Arenas book Before the Night Falls and the film based on it (directed by Julian Schnabel,

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Queer Jewish Divas


Olga Guillot, 2007. 8th Annual Latin
Grammy Awards, Las Vegas, NV, USA.
Photo: PRN / PR Photos.

Common Factors: Camp, Tragedy, Diaspora, and...What-a-Voice!

There are a number of common factors in the life and performance of our
three divas, which I will bring now as a way of conclusion. When it comes to
their look, none of them convey typical sexist criteria for female attractiveness: Streisand has her uncompromising long nose and phallic woman image;
Midler and Guillot were quite chubby during most of their career, portraying if anything a motherly rather than a sexy image, based on both North
American and Latin American sexist show business standards.
Perhaps compensation for the non-conventional look, or part of it, is the
larger-than-life voice, full of emotion and drama, which is a factor common
to all three divas; more obviously, in the case of Streisand and Guillot, but also
in that of Midler, as demonstrated in The Rose. Wolf pinpoints a certain duality/
contradiction in Streisands performing vocality: if Barbras spoken voice, as in
Hello, gorgeous? continually reperforms her Jewishness (conflated with New
York, Brooklyn, working-class, urban and East Coast), her singing voice takes

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her elsewhere: to the blues of African American women singers, to the belting
of Ethel Merman, to the crooning of the developing rock n roll.52
The same can be said about Midler and Guillot: a singing voice, which has
a life of its own, transcends the day-to-day, and the spoken voice, which
often, in the case of Midler, is harsh, loud, and vulgarso diffferent from her
emotional singing voice, as demonstrated in The Rose. A review of her performance in the New York Daily News describes it thus: when the current is
on and that oh-so-clever patter is offf, she is very special, for her voice goes deep
and her voice gets throaty, her voice goes folksy, and her voice goes bluesy.53
Indeed, in the cases of all three divas, the young girls growing up in immigrant families of European origin adopted singing voices and genres typical of
the Afro-diasporic musical heritage of their host countriesblues and soul for
Midler and Streisand, and bolero for Guillotand perfected them to a voice
with a life of its own, which has the ability to empower and create an emotional space, so necessary for their gay audiences.
Drama and tragedy constitute another common factor in the performance
of the three singers. Tragedy is an important component of Yiddish/Jewish but
also of queer culture, with an ongoing dialogue between Tragedy and Trash,
as indicated by the title of Moons essay about the common themes of Yiddish
theater and Queer theater:
What the great tragic and comic performance traditions of Yiddish and
queer theaters remind us is that in this new millennium impulses to
curse and lament and impulses to laugh and play do not necessarily arise
at any safe distance from each other. Impulses toward grief and toward
mockery and self-mockery disorient our ordinary sense of distance and
diffference between the playhouse...And scenes of death and loss
between the house of mirth and the house of mourning.54
I attended a performance of Bette Midler in which she said in order to demonstrate the strong connection of Yiddish culture to tragedy: us, Jews, we love
to say how bad we feel. Do you know that in Yiddish there is only one word to
say you are happy, Freilech, and dozens of words to say how unhappy you are?


Wolf, 251, 2.
Michael LaChetta, Not Divine...but Miss M Is Very Special, The New York Daily News.
December 4, 1973.
Michael Moon, Tragedy and Trash: Yiddish Theater and Queer Theater, Henry James,
Charles Ludlam, Ethyl Eichelberger, in Boyarin et al., Queer Theory and the Jewish
Question, 288.

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Queer Jewish Divas


Feeling victimized, whether justified or not, is typical of Yiddish culture and

many Yiddish songs.
Barbra Streisand is known for her melodramatic performance, as too is
Olga Guillot, with her quivering lips on the verge of crying, and tragic expressions, when singing about being betrayed, heartbroken, and victimized, the
typical themes of bolero lyrics.55 Being victimizedas in many aspects in
the life and performance of the divacan sometimes cross from the stage to
real life and vice versa. This essay is not about the personal life stories of the
three singers, but about what they represent for their audiences. Still the title
of the previously cited interview with Olga Guillot in Clarn, quoting her as
saying Me maltrataron mucho (I was much mistreated) represents this selfvictimization cross-over.
The connection between Jewish, camp and queer has a strong presentation in
Funny Girl; as Wolf puts it, once Fannys rise to fame begins, each rise to her success finds Jewishness undermining.56 This is presented via a parody of femininity and heterosexuality, and ridiculing heteronormativity by way of Jewishness,
such as the Yiddish chicken dance version of Swan Lake (Schvan Lak), mocking
the ethnic normativity of a white, European, high-art form.57 Interestingly, this
take-offf of Swan Lake has since become a standard in gay culture, with maleonly versions of the ballet, such as Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. So, in
a way, a Jewish parody of the ballet turned into a queer version.
Finally, queer Fanny is heterosexualized by the Arab prince, Egyptian
heartthrob Omar Sharif, who reafffirms: You are woman. I am man. Lets kiss.
Streisands own Jewish camp humor was noted by Sharif at a press conference
I attended as a journalist in London:
When Funny Girl came out, just after the Six Day War with Israel, I was
attacked by virtually the whole Arab press for kissing an enemy woman.
When I called Barbra to tell her about the headlines in the Arab press, her
reaction was [imitating a Jewish princess accent]: Well, do you think
only the Arabs were angry? You should hear what my aunt had to say
about that.



See the section Like a Knife Stuck in the Heart, about bolero lyrics, in Moshe Morad,
Fiesta de diez pesos: Music and Gay Identity in Special Period Cuba (Farnham & Burlington:
Ashgate, 2015), 193200.
Wolf, 255.
Wolf, 255.

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Diaspora is essentially queer, claims Boyarin.58 The Jewish/queer connection is therefore reinforced by the diasporic factor and is strongly reflected and
represented in the life stories and artistry of the queer Jewish divas. Streisand
and Midler are both second generation Americans of Eastern European Jewish
originMidler born in Hawaii to a Jewish family who migrated from New
Jersey; Streisand, born in Brooklyn, is the daughter of Jewish immigrants from
Poland, Ukraine, and Russia.
In the case of Olga Guillot the diasporic factor is double and even triple,
constantly present in her life and psychology until her death in Miami in 2000.
Perhaps her Jewishness is doubtful but her life story fits well into the wandering Jew image: born to immigrants of Catalan Jewish origin, migrating from
Santiago de Cuba to Havana at an early age, and then following the Revolution
to Venezuela, later moving to Mexico, and ending her life in Florida, where
she became both an icon-in-exile for gays in Cuba and an icon to Cuban
Adding to her own life story, her music, bolero, has its own diasporic nature,
as the genre itself migrated from Santiago to Havana, and from Cuba to
Mexico, and onward.59

Epilog: Viva La Diva Sionista!from Dana to Madonna

A further strong connection of diva/Jewish/queer/US/Latino was evident
following the 1998 win of Israeli transgender singer Dana International at
the Eurovision Song Contest, with a song appropriately titled Viva La Diva.
Danas achievement gave a major boost to the gay pride and gay rights movement in Israel, and had an impact, too, on European and even global gay and
transgender acceptance and rights.
The spontaneous winning night party of gay Israelis in Tel Avivs streets with
rainbow flags echoed throughout the gay Jewish world. Dana International,
born as Yaron Cohen in 1969 to a Jewish family of Yemenite origin, indeed
became an international diva and gay icon, with a particularly strong influence on Hispanic gays in the United States.


Boyarin quoted in Aisa Solomon, Viva la Diva Citizenship: Post-Zionism and Gay Rights,
in Boyarin et al., Queer Theory and the Jewish Question, 160.
Morad, Fiesta de diez pesos, 1867.

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Queer Jewish Divas


Many years after the 1998 win, the song Viva La Diva still is a hit in La
Escuelita, a Latino gay club in Manhattan, and Dana is the subject of endless
impersonations by Latino drag queens.
During my visit to La Escuelita in the early 2000s, I saw Latino gays watching video clips of Dana with admiration, and the dance floor instantly filled
with dancers with elaborate camp movements when the DJ played a dance
remix of Viva la Diva. Later in the evening, another highlight of audience
enthusiasm was when a Puerto Rican drag queen, impersonating Dana, mimed
a Spanish version of Viva la Diva. Interestingly, with Danas rise, the macho
Israeli image, which contradicted the Jewish efffeminate one as described
above, has turned into a camp/in-your-face, queer chutzpa.
On the gay Hispanic US and Latin American scenes, Dana became a gay
icon, resonating with Latin American drag queens and transgenders, with
her dark/ Latino look and use of Spanish, Spanglish, and Spanish/gibberish
expressions in her songs (such as Viva la Diva and Loca). Madonna added
another Jewish/queer/diva connection with her much publicized interest in
Jewish Kabbala and support of Israel. In 2004, the press announced that she
had decided to adopt the Jewish Biblical name of Esther as part of her adoption of Kabbala, triggering a major wave of Jewish delight/pride and even
more gay/Jewish pride. The news about Madonnas transformation to Esther
was also spread in the Spanish language media in the United States and Latin
America (such as the headline in the popular Mexican newspaper El Universal
on June 18, 2004: Madonna cambia de nombre, ahora se llama Esther).60 In
2009 during her concert in Tel Aviv to kick offf her Sticky and Sweet world
tour, Madonna/Esther wrapped herself in an Israeli flag, bringing yet another
dimension to the American/global queer/Jewish/diva connection.61 The
Israeli flag wrap was published in the media around the world, including
the Spanish media in the Americas (La bandera israel de Madonna enfurece
a los palestinos, in El Mundo).62 As indicated in the headline, it enraged proPalestinian groups around the world, but was welcomed by Jewish gay groups
in both the United States and Latin America, and even celebrated in some
gay parties I attended in both Americas at the end of 2009, with drag queens
impersonating Madonna wrapping themselves in the Israeli flag.

62 (accessed January 5, 2015).

Haaretz Service, Associated Press and City Mouse Online, September 1, 2009, 9:27 pm, (accessed on January 5, 2015).
(accessed January 5, 2015).

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In one such drag show at a party of Latino gays in Miami I attended,

following a drag queen impersonating Madonna, the compere presented a
Dana International-look-alike by hailing: Viva la diva sionista! (Viva the
Zionist diva!)

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