A red hot yiddishe mama

While burlesque is surely not a conventional choice for graduates of JTS’s Davidson School of Jewish Education, striptease performer Minnie Tonka makes it educational

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Minnie Tonka. (photo credit: Clint Hild)
Minnie Tonka. (photo credit: Clint Hild)

Alyssa Abrahamson, like so many other Jews around the world, is hard at work right now preparing for the upcoming Passover holiday. But while others are trying to figure how they will retell the story of the Exodus this year in a way that will keep people’s attention, Abrahamson has a surefire audience-captivating plan. She’ll be donning her pasties and G-string to recount the journey of the Hebrews from slavery to freedom through striptease in “The Burning Bush vs. The Second Coming: A Hot and Holy Burlesque Showdown” in Midtown Manhattan.

Abrahamson, 39, is mainly known these days by her burlesque moniker, Minnie Tonka (a tribute to her hometown of Minnetonka, Minnesota). Possibly the only burlesque performer to have a Masters in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary and to have studied at other leading Jewish institutions in the US and Israel, she brings a unique Jewish flavor to her solo act, as well as to her work as one half of The Schlep Sisters duo, in which she performs with a partner known as Darlinda Just Darlinda.

Following many years of thirsting for Jewish knowledge and searching for Jewish identity after a childhood devoid of a Jewish education or bat mitzva, Abrahamson feels that she has finally arrived at the right place for her.

Kosher for Passover. (photo credit: Clint Hild)
Kosher for Passover. (photo credit: Clint Hild)

In an interview with The Times of Israel in a café near her home in Brooklyn, Tonka, as she likes to be referred to, said that at this point her burlesque persona is “who I am.” To her, this makes complete sense, given that for the past couple of years she has focused mainly on burlesque, after having worked full-time for five years as the Director of Arts and Jewish Culture at the 14th Street Y, followed by a year-and-a half stint with Birthright Israel NEXT.

She still does some educational consulting to a number of New York-based Jewish institutions and organizations. “There’s not a lot of money in burlesque,” she admitted.

‘It took me three years to get down to a g-string. It’s kind of like public speaking — the more you do it, the easier it gets’

Tonka’s journey into burlesque has been gradual. “It took me three years to get down to a G-string,” she shared. “It’s kind of like public speaking — the more you do it, the easier it gets,” she said, referring to getting used to taking her clothes off in public.

Back in 2004, she met Darlinda at a New York party for people who had attended the Burning Man art and fire festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Darlinda was excited about the prospect of getting into burlesque, and she convinced Tonka to give it a try — which she was willing to do so long as they would perform together. Thus, the Schlep Sisters, the only explicitly Jewish burlesque duo act, was born. And thanks to a progressive and supportive boss at the 14th Street Y, Tonka was able to not only launch her own burlesque career without fear of losing her day job, but also to bring a “Kosher ChiXXX” burlesque show to the community center.

“I do strip, but I prefer to be referred to as a burlesque performer. It’s not really the same thing as striptease,” Tonka asserted. “There is so much more to burlesque than just taking your clothes off. It’s about the act, the storyline, the character you are playing.”

Although she has developed over 20 different solo acts and eight Schlep Sister ones, she remains Minnie Tonka throughout.

“She has a very singular style, and there is no mistaking that Minnie Tonka is essentially Jewish and that she is informed by Jewish heritage and tradition,” burlesque M.C. Bastard Keith (aka Abe Goldfarb, 32) said of his colleague. He described her as a very positive and giving person, whose wild enthusiasm and oblivious cheerfulness come across to the audience. “She is so thrilled to be onstage, and that joy really translates,” he said.

Tonka’s 4-5 minute acts run the gamut from parodies of Mary Tyler Moore and Barbra Streisand to a cookie-baking mother to Manischewitz wine and matza queens. “Some burlesque performers identify more as performance artists, but on stage, I’m more theatrical, more geared toward the comedic,” she explained.

It’s hard work coming up with each concept and then choosing the music and creating the choreography (the combined dance moves and striptease) to express it, she said. She rents space at a studio near the Brooklyn Academy of Music to rehearse, and she either scavenges through thrift shops or works together with a clothing designer named Garo Sparo to create her costumes. But, “I make all of my pasties and I decorate and bedazzle all of my bras and undies,” she said.

‘I’m a burlesque performer, but I could be an Orthodox Jew with all the wigs that I own’

Her wardrobe also includes countless wigs of every color, length and style that she wears over her own blond tousled bob. “I’m a burlesque performer, but I could be an Orthodox Jew with all the wigs that I own,” she joked.

While burlesque is surely not a conventional choice for graduates of JTS’s Davidson School of Jewish Education, Tonka contends that she has received nothing but genuine interest and support from her contemporaries in the Jewish educational world.

One of her JTS professors, Carol Ingall, would only say that “she was a wonderful student — very imaginative and a pleasure to have in class.”

However, others were more effusive in praising her and her work. “Alyssa is a wellspring of creativity that is a gift to the Jewish community,” according to Jewish educator and musician Naomi Less, who has known Tonka for years. “What she does is not stripping. It’s always with a wink or a nod to pop culture, and it’s art. What she is doing is expressing content knowledge through an innovative approach.”

Rabbi Daniel Brenner, who was Tonka’s boss at Birthright Israel NEXT, recalled that he “saw her perform once in a theater in Los Angeles in a piece that was about kashrut. The piece was a comment on how she, as a Jewish woman, craved bacon. In reality I knew that Alyssa didn’t eat bacon, but she used a package of bacon as a prop in her dance performance and as a metaphor for the forbidden.”

Suggesting that his colleagues see more nudity in R-rated movies than they do at burlesque shows, Brenner recently recommended that a group of visiting Jewish educators interested in cutting edge Jewish expression go watch Tonka perform.

“I’m incredibly open and proud about what I do,” exclaimed Tonka, who was voted #34 in the Top Burlesque Industry Figures in 2011 and is the recipient of several New York Burlesque Golden Pasties awards. Single with no children, she loves the busy schedule of travel to festivals and clubs that is involved in the work, as well as meeting and learning from other performers that hail from all over the US and Canada. “I’m going to Missoula, Montana soon!” she said excitedly.

Even though burlesque has gone far more mainstream in recent years, some of Tonka’s fellow performers have to hide their burlesque personas. “But not, me,” she said proudly. She said her parents are very supportive and appreciate how she not only feels empowered, but also believes she is empowering other women — who often make up over half of the audience at shows. Less remarked is that these women feel better about themselves from seeing other women with cellulite and average bodies like theirs confidently taking their clothes off on stage.

‘People come from such different places in understanding Judaism and I feel so confident and proud in my decisions’

“I never really considered myself a Jewish educator. My approach has always been about creating community and giving people opportunity to express themselves and to explore Judaism,” Tonka said. “People come from such different places in understanding Judaism and I feel so confident and proud in my decisions.” And in the same way that she believe that she helps women feel good about themselves, she also “know[s] how important my identification with Judaism and burlesque has been validating for so many Jewish people.”

In the big picture, she sees herself as part of the long history of Jews in vaudeville and burlesque. Bastard Keith, too, perceives something eternally Jewish about Minnie Tonka. “She plays to the stereotype, but transcends and subverts it by sexualizing it,” he said. “Although I only met her relatively recently, I feel like I know her from my old days as a boy in synagogue — only now she’s taking her clothes off. Minnie Tonka is the rabbi’s hot, kooky wife.”

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