“I’m a Queer Black Jew”: An Interview with Marques Hollie

Marques Hollie is an operatic tenor and facilitator of creative Jewish ritual with a focus on Jews of color. His LABA project, Go Down Moshe, is a solo show comprised of text from the Haggadah, Negro spirituals and devised slave narratives. (See an excerpt at LABALive on April 18, 2019, at the 14 Street Y — click here for tickets). I spoke to Marques about his life and his work. — Amy Handelsman

Q. Where did you grow up?

A. Bellevue, Nebraska.

Q. How did your family end up there?

A. My father was in the Air Force for twenty-two years. I was born in Florida, and shortly afterwards we moved to the U.K. for five years and then he got orders to go to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska and that’s where he retired.

Q. What was it like growing up in the heartland?

A. My husband is from Louisville and jokes that it’s a good place to be from. I agree with that with Bellevue. It was suburban. Most of my friends were military kids, but I knew early on that I had to leave.

Q. Did you go to school on the base?

A. I was in the public school system. There wasn’t much of an African-American community.

Q. Did you feel different?

A. Yes and no. Not growing up around a lot of black folks, I’d meet people and they’d say how articulate and well-spoken I was. It wasn’t until I got out that I realized that that was racist.

And now that I’m in New York City, I am finally understanding how it feels to be a black person in New York and what that means to me.

Q. You mentioned that you grew up in an evangelical family.

A. My parents were not atheist but never went to church — except when I came out as queer and all of a sudden, we needed Jesus in every way! We started at a church that advertised itself as non-denominational, but was really Pentecostal/Evangelical.

Q. How old were you when you came out?

A. Thirteen. Middle school is a weird time for all of us. I remember feeling different. I identified as bi-sexual, then full-tilt gay and then queer. I told my friends and then I told my parents.

Q. Were you scared to tell your parents?

A. I was, but I also felt that I couldn’t not tell them. I felt I had to be my full-blown self and be purposeful about it.

Q. Do you have siblings?

A. I have a younger sister; we’re ten years apart. We’re really, really close. I watched her as a teenager and she’d come to me with “Mom said this,” or “Dad did that.”

Q. What was your attraction to Judaism?

A. I was going to Pentecostal church and was two years into it. I was fifteen or sixteen, and I was finally believing all of it. I got saved. I became a youth group leader. In hindsight, I don’t think I believed everything.

I was on the Worship Team (we had no choir), when someone pulled me aside and said, “I heard you are struggling with homosexuality.  I want to talk about it.”  Now, I was always self-assured; I had no problems with [being gay]. This person then asked, “Are you active?”  I said, “I’m not dating anyone, but I would.”  That conversation was the tipping point for me.

When I was about twenty years old, I was sitting in a Pentecostal service. It’s very performative—not in a pejorative way. When you go, you’re very aware of people jumping up and down and talking in tongues and it occurred to me, “You know what? I don’t believe this.”

What I believe happened was seven or eight years ago, I heard Madonna talking in the news about Kabbalah. I read about it and I read David Cooper’s God is a Verb and so much of what Cooper talked about resonated with me. Then I bought Judaism for Dummies and read it cover to cover. It’s still on my book shelf.

I met a gay Jew at Omaha Pride and said, “I have a thousand questions,” and I got to know him. The first synagogue I went to was Reform, Temple Israel of Omaha. I remember sitting down with the siddur and part of me felt so at home.

There’s a phrase gilgul neshamot, “returning of the soul,” and I felt, “This is where I’m supposed to be.” It was really solidified when we recited the Sh’ma.

Q. How did your family react to your conversion?

A. They were pretty okay with it. They were relieved I believed in something. I had left the church, was living on my own. They had questions. I was the first Jew they every knew. I explained the difference between Judaism and Christianity and why Judaism doesn’t believe in Jesus as Mashiach.

Q. How did you get so educated about Judaism?

A. I moved to Boston for music school and I found my tribe. At the first High Holy Days, I met Chassidic Jews. I made a faux pas—I sat on the wrong side of the mehitza and I thought, “Oh, this is not gonna work for me!”

I found Temple Sinai in Boston and started co-cantoring at High Holy Day services. I moved to NYC six-and-a-half years ago and was starting to be well-versed. I bought more material. I read Anita Diamant’s Choosing a Jewish Life and I asked myself, “What does this mean?” I said, I’m going to do this formally and on paper. That’s when I converted to Reform Judaism. I took an Intro to Judaism class that met once a week on the Upper East Side and went through the life-cycle events calendar and basic Hebrew. I did a D’rash. After that, I kept reading and studying. I have a bookshelf full of Jew-cy books. Two summers ago, I went to Svara’s Queer Talmud Camp. I ask myself, “What do I want to learn more about?” I am an autodidact.

Q. What’s it like to be a Jew of color in New York?

A. In 2016, I went to my first Jews of Color National Convening. It was such an incredible experience. I didn’t realize how much I needed it and needed people like me. There were some who had converted and some whose whole family experience was Jewish.

There are a lot of Jews of color here—the Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and the Jews of Color Torah Academy.

Q. What was your experience like working with Deborah Fishman on the Haggadah?

A. Before LABA, I was a Fellow at Jew’V’Nation at the Union of Reform Judaism. Her organization is Fed, and we got to talking about “Go Down, Moshe.” We asked if there were an opportunity to collaborate and did an interfaith seder. We used a Haggadah focused on racial justice and racial oppression. She did the heavy lifting on text, and I supplemented it with spirituals. It was a huge hit and we did it again last year.

Q. How did you curate the various texts?

A. Deborah sourced several Haggadot—some from Harvard Hillel and some from the JCC in Atlanta that were racially focused. When we had a draft we said, “Music here might be very poignant.” For example, when we’re reading about the plagues, I sing, “There’s a Man Goin’ ‘Round Takin’ Names.” We curated moments like that.

Q. What other spirituals do you sing?

A. Deep River, about crossing the waters.

Q. What was your inspiration for using slave narratives?

A. I was attending a first-night seder with someone in rabbinical school who took the Passover narrative and framed it by human trafficking. I was struck by that—taking Jewish narratives and bringing new light and meaning to them by using new experiences. That was a game-changer for me. I saw a really powerful intersection between being Jewish and being black. I asked myself, “How do I explore that at Congregation Kol Ami (a Reform synagogue in Westchester)?” For the second-night seder, I used the issue of refugees.

Q. What’s happening with “Go Down, Moshe” as part of your LABA Fellowship?

A. It was a nascent idea. I tried to talk myself out of it; I thought, “Clearly someone has done this.” But no one had done this, and so maybe it was Divine Providence.

It was going to be a concert. Then I realized it had to be a one-man show. When we talk about Egypt, we’re very removed from it. I started thinking, “We have a history of slavery in the United States in relatively recent memory. How can I use that?” So I have Jewish text juxtaposed with spirituals as well as devised text from Negro narratives.

There was an Underground Railroad in New York City. There’s a tour that starts at the Museum of the American Indian and goes through the Lower East Side. Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights was the ground zero. I was going on these tours and then I realized that that was the setting and I almost fell over: I should be at a seder table on a stop on the Underground Railroad.

I have a side interest in slavery and Jewish slave owners. Once I get the excerpt on its feet, I want to do more research. A lot of slaves adopted the religion of their owners, and a lot of slaves became Christian, and that’s why we have spirituals and gospel.

Q. What does that look like when slave owners were Jewish?

A. Sometimes it was like that movie, Call Me by Your Name. Elio’s mother says we’re “Jews of discretion.” At the time of slavery, there were Jewish families who owned slaves, but they weren’t “out” as Jews.

Q. Can you talk about your musicianship?

A. I have a background in voice and opera at the Boston Conservatory. I moved to New York City after school and was a resident at a small opera company that no longer exists. Once I was in New York, I really became interested in new opera. You can do so much more to look at the human situation than La Bohème or Aida.

Q. Are there composers you are drawn to?

A. Felix Gerard premiered an exciting opera (Tabula Rasa) last summer at The Blue Building. Another opera that got me excited is As One, by Laura Kaminsky. It’s a two-hander—Hannah Before and Hannah After—about a transgendered person’s journey. I remember seeing it in a black box theater space at BAM. I was so profoundly moved by one scene that I was weeping and snot was coming out and I thought, Oh my G-d, how do I do more of this? How do I bring more of this into the world?

Q. What’s that like, to be married and doing your work?

A. Kevin is also a musician. He was trained as a percussionist but is now a writer. I always joked that I wanted to marry rich, but I married a musician, so I guess I married for love. There are parallels to what we do, but it’s also very different. There’s a lot of trading off. He writes all kinds of music. When he’s writing for a soloist or a choir, he’ll sit with me and say, “This is what I want to do; is this possible?” As opposed to drums or the saxophone, there are limits to what a voice can do. And, for me, interpreting newer music, I ask him, “What does this music mean to you as a composer?

As far as our personal lives together, it’s interesting. Kevin is not Jewish, but he’s very open to having Judaism in our home, like hosting Shabbat dinners. He’s learning Hebrew and when I came back from Talmud camp, he wanted to know everything we talked about.

Q. What’s the process of textual study at LABA like for you?

A. Well, I love textual study and have thought of going to rabbinical school. It’s wonderful to experience text study with other creative people. You get a lot of interesting viewpoints.

Q. You mentioned you identify as “queer” and not “gay.” Can you say more about that?

A. Life is so interesting. I identified as gay for a long time. A few years ago, my association with the word as an adjective didn’t feel right. I met other people who identified as queer and asked them what that meant for them. I identify as queer and black and Jewish. It added a layer of how I carry other identities. There’s another level of understanding how these levels intersect. It helped me stop thinking of separate hats. It helped me synthesize: I’m a Queer Black Jew.