Meet Avi, aka Aveira! Coming to DC via North Miami Beach, Florida, Avi has found a personal Judaism that is distinctly his own, one of reclamation through performance. Read on to hear Avi’s story of finding his Jewish DMV community, the creation and construction of Aveira, the power of drag performance to highlight Jewish inclusivity, and more!
Samuel: What brought you to the DMV?
Avi: I chose to go to University of Maryland because it had a large Orthodox community, which is how I grew up. I wanted an environment that had a vibrant, observant community, which is ironic because, once I got to UMD, I left that community. I discovered DC and fell in love with it right away. I knew I wanted to move here after graduation in part because it was so different from where I grew up, where everyone was Orthodox – the neighborhood I grew up in had ten synagogues and they were all Orthodox. There was no egalitarian option, and obviously no “out” queer people. The community in DC is a lot more diverse.
Samuel: What began that shift in your relationship with Judaism?
Avi: I think it is related to becoming more involved in queer community. I had no gay friends in the Jewish community so, at a certain point, I felt like I was hitting a wall where they didn’t understand what I was going through. They were nice – there was no homophobia or anything – but there was something that stopped us from reaching that level of relatability. Once I started making more gay friends, there was a natural transition; they were going out on weekends, on Shabbat, and it became difficult to play tug-of-war between those two worlds.
Eventually, I had to ask myself: Will this rabbi who I’m friends with officiate my wedding? No, he won’t. Will he make me a member of his community? Possibly, but at a certain point everything was going to be a fight or controversial. I didn’t want to do that my entire life. When I discovered traditional egalitarianism, like DC Minyan, I found it was a perfect medium for me where there were people who loved Judaism a lot but also prioritized creating a queer-embracing, fully egalitarian space.
Samuel: What got you interested in drag? How did you begin constructing Aveira as a character?
Avi: Through this character, especially during that transition time in my life where I felt like I had to start over socially and religiously, I needed an outlet to reclaim my Judaism. When I discovered drag, I realized it was a way I could combine those two parts of my life and, in a unique way, pay homage to the way I grew up.
I fuse a lot of Jewish texts and Orthodox references in my parodies and performances as a way to say: This is me, this is who I am. But I also do it in a way that’s true to drag culture and a little provocative, as social commentary on what it’s like to grow up queer and religious.
Samuel: I’ve seen you say that Aveira is “shamelessly Jewish.” What does that mean to you?
Avi: I say that because there are a lot of Jewish drag performers out there, but they don’t often infuse that in their art. Every performance of mine is going to have a ton of Jewish content, primarily for Jewish audiences. That’s what I enjoy in my art: showing Jewish people that there’s a drag queen who went to yeshiva, who knows Talmud.
If I were to go to any given gay bar and lip sync to Ariana Grande, that would be nice…but that’s not what drives my drag. I really only do it for Jewish holidays and events, like last year’s Rainbow Seder. There are obviously queer people out there who might be intimidated by religion, and think there’s no one who is going to be accepting, but I can use my Jewish education background to show people that Judaism can be inclusive.
Samuel: How do you compare Avi and Aveira?
Avi: As Avi, I have a lot of opinions about the way I grew up and how I cope with that, but I don’t talk about it. I use Aveira as an outlet where I can say what’s on my mind without censoring myself. I can use this alter ego to be more direct and express some of the struggles I’ve gone through, because I don’t like talking about those on a day-to-day basis. Aveira is me, but with a layer peeled off.
Samuel: You’ve also mentioned in the past that you view Aveira and your performances as subversive, something that’s even right there in the name [Editor’s note: “Aveira means sin. It also embodies the essence of my drag, which is reclaiming the slurs that are used against us in a positive way. I’m flipping the negativity on its head, beautifying it, through my art,” Avi says]. What do you see your work as subverting?
Avi: It challenges the idea that queer people don’t belong in Orthodoxy, or that we’re not knowledgeable within our identities. When we come out of the closet, we don’t give everything up and leave Judaism behind. I’m challenging the idea that we don’t belong by showing them this thing that they usually have not seen before, speaking the language of Orthodoxy with a queer lens.
Samuel: We’re in a moment culturally and politically where drag is being demonized and attacked, literally and legally, as part of a larger push against LGBTQ+ rights and visibility. What is it that drag is challenging, in your estimation, that has inspired that reactionary backlash?
Avi: Gender was a huge part of my Orthodox social fabric growing up. Everything you did, there were expectations based on whether you were a man or woman. When you challenge your gender expression, it threatens to implode that whole system. It’s the same reason people were so scared by the legalization of gay marriage. It challenges those ideas of strict gender roles, especially within a heteronormative community with the expectation to get married and have kids.
Samuel: Tell me about performing with GLOE and DC Minyan in the spring. How were those experiences?
Avi: It brings me so much joy and happiness every time I get to perform for a Jewish audience, especially at DC Minyan. I never thought the synagogue I could be attending would have a drag queen perform, let alone me. Everything came full circle and I finally found the Jewish community where I could not just be tolerated, but fully embraced and celebrated. Seeing people’s positive reactions, I feel like people saw a side of me that they hadn’t before, and really got me for the first time.
For a lot of people, even if they’re more socially and religiously liberal, gay culture and religious culture are very separate. It was really affirming to give them an opportunity to see those combined.
I do a lot of GLOE’s programming, which is amazing. Performing for them feels like a great way to give back to that community, so I try to say yes whenever they ask. I love the DC queer Jewish community.
Samuel: Whether it’s live performance or the songs you’ve released, there’s a lot of creativity that goes into your performances. What does that process look like?
Avi: I never thought of myself as an artist or creative person. I never did that growing up. I usually find an instrumental of a popular song, then choose a Jewish topic – a holiday or a certain tract from the Talmud – and start from there. I include a lot of double entendres that are fairly niche. I want that effect of people listening and being like: Wow, this person had twelve years of Jewish education and now is rapping in drag about this one argument in the Talmud on page 72 of whatever.
Samuel: Okay, just a few more. What are you feeling proud about right now?
Avi: I’ll be competing in the Nice Jewish Boys Pageant in August. I’m really excited to showcase my drag and be a part of this big event.
Samuel: If you could invite any three people to Shabbat dinner, who would they be?
Avi: Jinkx Monsoon, Harvey Milk, and Theodor Herzl.
Samuel: Last one. Finish the sentence for me: When Jews of the DMV gather…
Avi: I have a funny answer: Moshiach [Editor’s note: the Jewish Messiah] comes a little bit faster. Growing up, we were taught that the more we followed Jewish law, the more “good” we were, the closer Moshiach would get. As an adult, I no longer believe in that as a literal concept – but I also do believe that Jews of the DMV gathering is a really good and beautiful thing.
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