When One Family Member Comes Out, the Whole Family Goes on a Journey

LABA fellow Yochai Greenfeld will be performing at LABAlive, Saturday, 2/2, 7.30pm at the Theater at the 14th Street Y. (Buy your ticket now!) Below, Greenfeld writes about his life as a performer and creating his Jewish mother character, Abbi Gezunt.

About Me

I was born and raised in Jerusalem. All through high school, I trained in gymnastics, acting, dancing and singing. I loved performing, but I never thought about it as a career.

After high school I studied for two years at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, a Modern orthodox yeshiva in northern Israel. Following that, I served an intelligence officer in the IDF. It wasn’t anything too exciting, but it was paving my way towards a career in the roaring Israeli hi-tech world.

After five years of service, my wise commander told me that even though my potential in the tech industry was as promising as my artistic potential, the latter was bound to make me happier. With his blessing I left the army at twenty-five and went to study at a dance academy. Eventually, I got a contract with a dance company, and I did musical theater in Tel Aviv.

About two years ago I moved to New York City to pursue my career here.

About My LABA Project

Since our theme this year is life and death, I thought I’d bring up the issue of families who sit shivah for a relative who went off the derekh, meaning left the traditional path. I’d been working with this character Abbi Gezunt, a Jewish mother, in a more improvisational context, and I thought it would be interesting to explore these ideas through her, so I’m working on a monologue for that character.

Abbi is a frum (religious) Jewish mother whose son has come out as gay. She goes through what many parents do when their children come out, which is mourning the loss of the dreams she had for her son’s life. She’s torn between sympathizing with her child, and fearing the social implications that his sexuality might have on the entire family.

In the draft I’m working on, she recalls sitting shivah for children who go off the derekh, and gets deep into how that works halakhically, the technicality of mourning for someone who is actually still alive. She discusses why this kind of symbolic disowning might actually be a good solution since her son’s sexuality is threatening the family name, and might directly harm her daughter’s shidduch (match).

I learned once that when one family member comes out, the whole family goes through a journey, because it makes them ask themselves about the components that make up their own identities.

I’m hoping that discussing this as an Orthodox mother who eventually chooses not to sit shivah will convey the message that accepting your gay children doesn’t have to come between you and your faith.

This isn’t my story. Abbi is nothing like my mother, and my family’s faith, as my own, were never threatened by my sexuality. I feel that portraying such a mother, and doing it as comedy, can inspire parents who are dealing with their childrens’ coming out, or at least help them take things a little less seriously.

About Abbi Gezunt

She’s a character I’ve been giving a voice to for years. I made her up during officer training in 2008. I had a running buddy, and Abbi was his imaginary dominating Jewish mother. I used to tease this friend in her voice and boss him around with it, and all my friends and commanders loved her.

Being Abbi is more female impersonation than drag, in my opinion. She’s not necessarily larger-than-life in terms of appearance, and she’s not about selling the cross-gender body illusion—she’s a religious woman, and this is important to me. It’s a voice that does not get heard usually, and can be just as sassy, sexy and invigorating as any drag queen.

I want to send a message that sexuality and gender fluidity belong to everyone: religious, secular and in between. While it may be associated with academic and liberal discourse, I love showing a religious woman coming to terms with herself as a sexual being and even a sexy person in her own way. There’s so much more to being sexy than just short skirts and a cleavage. Now imagine all these messages coming from a man in a wig.