(New York Jewish Week) — Subscribers of The New Yorker opened their mailboxes this week to a hard-to-miss hot pink cover with an illustration of a drag queen with a mohawk, large blue earrings and extravagant makeup.
They were looking at “The Look of Pride,” a self-portrait by a Brooklyn-based Jewish drag queen and artist named Sasha Velour. Velour, 35, is featured in the June 12 issue in an interview about how she is celebrating Pride month and why drag has been lifesaving for her.
“Drag is an antidote to shame,” she said.
Velour was the 2017 winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and is currently on tour for her new book, “The Big Reveal: An Illustrated Manifesto of Drag,” which intertwines her own personal history — including her Jewish identity — with the history of drag as both a revolutionary art form and cultural practice.
Velour’s Judaism and Jewish family upbringing is a recurring theme in her book. “For years I studied Jewish history and Hebrew language after school and on the weekends,” she writes. “I was bar mitzvahed at 13 and even taught Sunday school when I was in high school, reenacting Jewish fables with puppets that I made myself,” writes Velour, who was raised in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Chicago suburbs.
Velour, whose out-of-drag last name is Steinberg, also writes about the influence her Jewish ancestors had on her — even those who she never knew. In “The Big Reveal,” Velour writes that her great-grandmother, Goldie Rabinovitch, was working at the at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in on March 25, 1911, but was spared from the deadly fire that day because she was late to work — window shopping, as the family lore goes, or possibly buying a pickle in Cooper Square.
“This is a story about snacks!’” Velour writes. Or, as her grandmother Dina would tell her: “Remember Grandma Goldie’s lesson… window-shopping can save your life!”
That same Jewish grandmother also first put Velour in drag when she was a child. “When I visited her house as a little kid, she would always encourage me to channel my inner diva,” Velour writes. “Beating out a drum rhythm on the arm of the couch, she would coach me to walk dramatically into the room, drop my coat, and reveal the look. ‘Fabulous!’ she’d whisper, knowingly.”
“When I was a kid, I loved dressing up with my grandmothers, putting on makeup, staging shows. I didn’t even know it was ‘drag’ but it just made sense to me,” Velour tells The New Yorker in the interview published Monday. “Later, learning more about drag and understanding the existence of queer and trans people around the world quite literally saved my life.”
In her book, Velour also credits the Talmud with showing her how to hold multiple ideas — and, by extension, identities — in her mind at the same time. “According to Talmudic thought, in order to find the truth, we must be able to hold multiple possible meanings as true at the same time,” she writes in her book. “That’s the kind of book I always liked best — a scrapbook that brought many things together in conversation.”
“Both comics and drag come from strong independent traditions that enable artists and performers to develop a more unique and recognizable style, and to address a wider range of political and personal topics,” she tells The New Yorker. “All you need to make art is your own self.”