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Photo by Chloe Foussianes, Courtesy of PICA

On the first night of Rosh Hashanah and the two days preceding it, artist, activist, and writer Gregg Bordowitz delivered three personal, sermonical lectures at Reed College’s Eliot Hall Chapel. The series—titled Some Styles of Masculinity—spread masculinity (specifically Bordowitz's) into three categories: Rock Star, Rabbi and Comedian. It then blended into those concepts snapshots of cultural history to posit how, Bordowitz thought, masculinity must broaden.

Just a short walk from the lectures, Reed's Cooley Gallery had on display a retrospective of Bordowitz’s body of work (through Sun Oct 21). The show, titled I Wanna Be Well, collects sculptures, art films, personal artifacts, interviews, installations, and previous lectures from Bordowitz’s decades of activism and art practice. It includes a large yellow banner with red lettering that reads “The AIDS Crisis is Still Beginning” and Bordowitz's 1993 film Fast Trip, Long Drip for which he is best known in the art world.

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Still from Fast Trip, Long Drip, Courtesy of PICA, Courtesy of Video Data Bank, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Bordowitz came up with the idea for Certain Styles of Masculinity after he learned that a crowd of white supremacists chanted the phrase “Jews will not replace us!” at a fascist demonstration in Charlottesville, VA last year. That moment (compounded with the subsequent death of activist Heather Heyer), inspired him to “go on the road and be a queer, Communist Jew.”

ROCK STAR
Bordowitz's opening lecture, Rock Star, discussed global plagues (like typhus and cancer) and the differences in treatment those global plague patients receive compared to the treatment of patients with HIV/AIDS. Major takeaways from the talk were: That our global south is much more impacted than our north and that increased HIV education by governments and global health organizations is extremely important—which makes Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s silence all the more egregious. Mixed in with those heavy subjects, Bordowitz incorporated listening sessions for his notes on queering punk and the evolution of radio's portrayal in rock.

RABBI
The second lecture, Rabbi contained a wide-spectrum look into Jewish, Hebrew and Yiddish culture. Bordowitz declared that he simultaneously was and was not performing his ethnicity for outsiders and that reactions to his performative and authentic Jewishness varied across the U.S.

Bordowitz pointed out that music is central to most religious observance and how its first duty (like theater) is to entertain. He outlined a history of racism by legendary Jewish comedians like Buddy Hackett and Shecky Greene. The racism of Hackett and Greene, Bordowitz contextualized, came from an era that existed before Jewish and Italian ethnicities were consolidated into whiteness. Hackett and Greene grew up in segregated New York and fought in WWII. He compared them to the cast of Seinfeld who he described as ”four Jews mocking brown people and people with accents!”

“Seth Rogan doesn’t need a Jewfro," Bordowitz continued. "He doesn’t need to perform his ethnicity. He can own the country club!” Bordowitz closed by explaining that traditions and representation are important for members of diasporic communities. The traditions build remote fellowship via the knowledge that other people are doing the same thing all around the world.

COMEDIAN
Comedian began as a deep dive on topics from Rabbi, and explored the origin of mid-20th century humor tropes. Bordowitz associated the lampshade on the head at parties with post-Holocaust shock humor. He explained that there was no worse rebellion for a post-Holocaust Nice Jewish Boy than to get a swastika tattoo.

According to Bordowitz, Jewish humor intends to put people in their place. He described his family as “hilarious, or if I wanted to survive childhood, I had to find humor in it.” He talked about how Jewish humor pushes the boundaries of acceptable language, and mines cultural neuroses for humor, like cutting legends Joan Rivers and Shelley Berman—the latter of whom Bordowitz was dressed like throughout the series. Bordowitz reminded the audience that questioning and the pursuit of answers can be more important than the answer itself. Bordowitz then called his Judaism—Judyism: the Judaism/Judyism of joy and change.

He closed by comparing allegorical notions of Moses—an Abrahamic prophet who led the post-slavery Israelites through the desert and parted the Red Sea—Bordowitz separated him into two eras. He pitted the passion of "kind Moses" who may have been a creative narrative for Egyptian royalty founding a monotheistic cult among slaves against "angry Moses" who watched, abandoned, as his people left him to enter the Promised Land. I wondered where Bordorwitz, who has grown from a righteously furious activist to a critical elder statesman in the gay community and who survived the loss of a generation of brilliant minds fit himself into this allegory.

Support The Portland Mercury

Gregg Bordowitz reads a selection of poetry TONIGHT Thursday, Sept. 13, at 6:30 at Reed College’s Eliot Hall Chapel.


We'll be blogging about TBA 2018 every day of the fest! Keep up with us at: portlandmercury.com/tba