The first time I saw Dana Friedman was at Suddenly Standup, the weekly Wednesday comedy open-mic at The Duplex. As part of her five-minute set, she did not shy away from the word “tranny.” It’s a fun word. It rhymes with “fanny.” She’s fine with “transgender.” It rhymes with “fender bender.” She draws the line at “person of transgender experience.” She also takes aim at Jewish people, her own, so political correctness is right off the table.
I sat down recently with Dana before her set at Funny Ha Ha Funny Queer, Garry Hannon’s monthly queer comedy show at the Metropolitan Bar. I asked Dana if she is, in fact, the only Orthodox Jewish trans comedian. Are there others who occupy that slot, or is she one of a kind?
“I’m the only one I know of,” she says.
Dana is on the board of Eshel, an organization with a mission to “create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities.”
“You think there aren’t that many of them?” Dana dares me, referring to LGBT Orthodox Jews. “There are a lot!”
While trans voices are beginning to be heard in the mainstream, they are not yet heard comedically in the Orthodox world. There’s a concept in Orthodox Judaism of “modesty,” of not making an issue of oneself.
“So of course,” Dana confesses, “I get up on stage and talk about all this stuff. That’s not modest behavior. And I realize that. But I also realize that you can promote awareness in a bunch of ways. You can be ‘politically correct’, and talk about what terms to use, or you can attempt to convince people with comedy.”
She tried her stuff out for the first time in front of an audience with an open mic.
“And of course, Ortho-Jew-tranny material died.”
She chalked it up to the “first time”, and gave it another go. She was on an Eshel retreat where a talent show was offered as the Saturday evening entertainment. Growing up Orthodox Jewish, she’s a memorizer by nature.
“A lot of blessings,” she specifies. “Blessings for different occasions and types of food. The Grace After Meals was about two-and-a-half-minutes long when said really, really fast.”
“You speak Hebrew, right?”
“Um, I’m a little out of practice, so I can’t speak fast – not on-the-street-in-Israel fast. I can hear fast. But I certainly speak Biblical Hebrew and enough Aramaic to get me through a lot of Talmud.”
She prepared five minutes. And in front of a friendly audience where she spoke their language and they wanted her to succeed:
“I destroyed. It was addictive. There’s about a hundred people in the audience, and I’m ten minutes old in comedy, and I do great.”
Was there something that particular audience was just very ready to hear?
“Well, with LGBT Orthodox people, you got the political correctness stuff and the Jew stuff. And a lot of the LBGT folks are willing to let go of more of the Jew stuff because they were oppressed by that community. So, you know, polite jabs kinda get even. And there’s nobody talking about trans stuff in the Orthodox world.”
Does Dana have a role in challenging that community? She takes a beat to contemplate her answer.
“So here’s the deal,” she segues. “At the top of the food chain is God. Because in religion, assuming you subscribe to religion, it’s never God that’s the problem, it’s always humans mucking it up. And generally the humans mucking it up are going for a power grab of some kind. Control of information, control of people, control of money, control of sex acts, whatever.”
“So, yes, I want poke fun at the leadership when they deserve it. There are a lot of people who are trying to do the right thing, a lot of their voices get covered up, and they are often forced into silence for fear of ostracism. So, for God’s sake, of course I’m gonna make fun of that. Any comedian is going to make fun of the power structure.”
I ask her about something she’d posted on Facebook regarding “conformity of thought.”
“Oh, God, that,” she deadpans. “Some people took that the wrong way.”
“What was your point with regard to conformity of thought?”
“That leaders have it easier when everybody falls into line. They like to be unchallenged. We don’t have many leaders today who are willing to face challenges, answer the questions honestly. How the hell do you lead a fulfilled religious life, in any religion, when you see these bizarre things going on, and you want to ask why, and you’re told to shut up? So of course I wanna speak to that.”
She once had a pivotal conversation with “one of the great leaders of Judaism.” She spoke to him after having met with a different leader, a “great Rabbi” in Bnei Brak, Israel:
“I went to him,” she says-referring to the Bnei Brak Rabbi-“for a blessing. And his response to my request for a blessing was that I shouldn’t go to college. And the horrible things would happen to me if I went to college. I came home from Israel, and I talked to the big guy here, and the big guy here said ‘He wasn’t talking to you, he was talking to his people in Bnei Brak.'”
Her point: “He taught me that rabbis are human. At seventeen years old, I did not know that. He was 78 years old at the time, and he could say what he thought. He could tell me ‘always look for the agenda before you listen to the person.’”
Orthodox Rabbis are not Dana’s enemy, but power-grabs are.
“You know,” she confides, “a natural leader basically does their thing and people follow. When you have to enforce it with the whip, that’s not really leading, that’s enslaving. And so yes, I would like to challenge the power structure. But the power structure is really powerful, and they would come down really hard on me.”
She’s Not Cait
Dana offers that while a few people in the Orthodox community know she’s trans, most people probably don’t.
“Til they read this,” she drily observes.
She cites an unspoken tradition of “don’t ask don’t tell”, and she’s decided that if anyone makes an issue of it and says they are uncomfortable with her presence, she’s not going to fight them.
While there are some rabbis who open up their synagogues and are very specifically welcoming, “I’ve seen some really nasty things in Orthodox communities said about trans people, especially trans women. The trans men, thank God, are very stealth. You know, ‘cuz they grow the facial hair and their voice changes.”
“Absolutely not,” she answers, and the unavoidable breakdown of Cait ensues:
“Caitlyn Jenner has two sides to her,” Dana riffs. “On the one hand, March 24th I think it was, she goes on Diane Sawyer, not even completely in transition, because her name is Bruce, and she went by male pronouns. That’s March 24th. June 1st Vanity Fair hits. On March 24th she’s not a representative of the trans community. Meanwhile she’s on Diane Sawyer, of course she’s a representative of the trans community. And at the time, it wasn’t “her” it was “him.” And of course the average person is “wait, he’s a – ”, and they have no idea what to do with that. And then six weeks later, they see Caitlyn as Caitlyn, all decked out. It was not well thought out. It was not sensitive.”
Dana does not want to go on TV.
“When you appoint yourself a leader and a role-model, you’re an asshole. If somebody decides after seeing me on stage that they want to ask my advice, well, I’m fifty. I’ve seen a little bit. And I know at least some of what I don’t know. If people wanna seek me out, that’s great. I’m speaking about my own experience. But no, I’m not a leader, I’m not a representative, and I’m not going on Diane Sawyer.”
A lady at a show once told her that her comedy is “not very mainstream.”
“Well, what did she want me to talk about?” Dana wonders. “The differences between men and women? ‘Cuz I got that one covered from both sides.”
That’s only a joke. She doesn’t feel she ever made it to “man”. She got as far as “boy”.
“What age were you when you transitioned?”
“Twenty-five. I met this support group of transsexuals. And I had looked around at everything else, and I realized, okay, this is the closest fit. And, you know, they didn’t have the term ‘genderqueer,’ and that’s not what I identify with. It’s like maybe there isn’t exactly a label for what I am. But ‘transsexual’ comes close. So okay. I’m getting up on the stage, I’m speaking about my experience. Your mileage may vary.”
The writing of trans author Kate Bornstein speaks to her deeply.
“Kate refers to us as ‘freaks,’” she tells me. “And she doesn’t mean that derogatorily, but we’re vastly different. I find it ironic that transsexual women – many transsexual women – opt for the most radical physical change in order to conform. I find that ironic. But they desperately need that particular piece of physicality to happen and, um…”
And here’s where I bomb.
“Where many cis females,” I innocently pitch, “hate to be under pressure to conform to those same standards.”
“Well, having a vagina is something cis females don’t have to worry about!”
“Yeah, that’s true,“ I stammer. “That’s true. But sometimes it feels like there’s a template that you need to sort of fulfill.”
“Well, and, you know” Dana graciously allows, “what you have between your legs should not be at issue unless you’re at a doctor’s office. But if you challenge the norms of gender-presentation in this society, America’s really uptight. So we’re gonna make comments, especially in, you know, Iowa. Even in New York, people will say ‘what the hell is that?’ And it’s not derogatory.”
“They’re genuinely wondering. New Yorkers are not generally shockable, but we’re curious, just like anybody else. In Alabama, they’re scared of things that are different and will shoot at it.”
Truth to Power
Speaking of which: “I’ve seen you post a lot of stuff online about anti-semitism. What’s your deep dark fear around that?”
“It’s a given that they’re gonna come for us again,” Dana answers matter-of-factly. “It happened in 70 C.E. It happened in the Crusades. It happened in, oh my God, in pretty much every century, somebody somewhere has come after us to drive us out of wherever. We are a wandering people.”
“Is that something you think Jewish people just feel overall,” I bone-headedly inquire, “in general?”
“Well, ‘feel’ implies that there’s no evidence to back it up.”
“No, I don’t mean that, I mean that it’s a concern or that’s it’s something…”
“I mean the idea that…” I’m in a flop sweat by now. “The words that you used, the idea that it’s just, that it’s gonna happen. The thing is gonna happen. It’s coming for you at some point.”
“Of course. Now, that doesn’t mean that every Christian and every Muslim and every non-Jewish person is gonna hate all Jews. But of course it’s always gonna be a factor. The Westboro Baptist Church hates gay people. And if trans is ever on their radar, they’re gonna hate trans people. The Christian right funded Jews For Jesus. They don’t like Jews either. I’m pretty sure that Bush 2 was only a staunch defender of Israel so that we’d be there come the Rapture, and we’d have to convert or die.”
Alright then, so what’s Dana’s aim? What does she hope to achieve as a comedian?
“Oh God, this is gonna sound so corny – “
Now it’s her turn to stumble.
“I mean, short term I got down,” she recovers. “I want to be the go-to girl for the Jews, the queers and the Jew-queers.”
Beat for laughter (mine).
“That’s for now. For longer term, I don’t really have the right words for it yet, and it would all come out real corny. But it’s something like, you know, to speak truth to power. Uh…”
“To challenge a narrative?”
“Yeah, okay, but I’m not mocking the ritual. To me the ritual is meaningful. A lot of hack comics who believe the ritual to be ridiculous mock it. And that’s just…I dunno, too easy. But the humans are funny. People are funny.”
“Is there a ritual that is especially meaningful to you?”
“Well, prayer, I guess. If I feel my prayers are being heard, it’s good to know that there’s a direct pipeline to God.”
Dana’s been developing her comedy for four years now, but maybe she’s only scratched the surface.
“To tell you the truth, the best comedy comes from pain. And I have not dug into the deepest recesses of pain yet. I know what they are, and I still…I’m beginning to face the fear of the really deep stuff I haven’t talked about yet. And I know that there’s comedy there, I’m just still afraid.”
“Do you fear it’s just not amusing?”
“There’s humor in everything.”
“I was always a wise-ass,” Dana adds. She’s not closing on a downer. “Even in my bar mitzvah speech, I said ‘today I am a man.'” Pause. “Tomorrow…?”
Dana often appears at Broadway Comedy Club and The Stand. She is also a regular at the fabulous Suddenly Standup open-mic at the Duplex - Wednesday evenings, 7pm - $4 beer! Dana is also a musician. She plays guitar and electric bass, but mostly she prefers to write. She once arranged music for a queer big band called Hot Lavender Swing. And she’s a computer nerd, in charge of her own company, Dragonfly Technologies, where she will help you figure out all that techie-computey stuff that boggles you. (What, just me?)