Growing up in the 1980s, I could not escape Fiddler on the Roof.
I sat through professional theatrical productions as well as amateur productions at our local public school—my brother’s girlfriend played Tzeitel—and the private Jewish day school I attended through eighth grade. I watched the movie at home, in school, and at Jewish summer camp. The musical numbers were a staple at major life events, like the song “Sunrise, Sunset,” a popular wedding alternative to “Here Comes the Bride,” verboten because of its antisemitic composer Richard Wagner.
So as a teenager attending Hebrew School, I wasn’t exactly happy to hear we’d be watching Fiddler to learn about the shtetl life of our ancestors. Then again, I rarely felt happy in Hebrew School, since my parents had only sent me there hoping I might finally date a nice Jewish girl. They didn’t know about my passionate if hopeless crush on a non-Jewish male classmate at my secular high school.
Perhaps out of frustration, I spoke up, volunteering that my grandparents had grown up in an actual shtetl, not a Hollywood set, and they had thoughts. “When they saw Fiddler, they said, ‘Not enough mud, and we didn’t dress that nice.’”
Our teacher’s face brightened. “Do you think your grandparents would come talk to our class?”
Why had I raised my voice instead of sitting silently in back as usual? I was a gay kid trying to survive his teenage years. The idea was to deflect, not attract attention.
Though I hoped she’d forget the whole thing, our intrepid teacher called my mother, who accepted the invitation on my grandparents’ behalf. Somehow this visit morphed into a special event held in the library, with three other classes invited to join.
I remember my grandparents, then in their late eighties, clutching elbows while shuffling carefully down the slick tile hallway floors in their best shoes, pausing to beam goodwill at every kid they passed. “Darling kinder, darling,” my grandmother kept saying, dressed as always in a formal skirt and blouse. I prayed none of the other kids would tease or mock them.
In the library, my grandparents sank slowly into plastic chairs at the head of the room, my grandfather ensuring my grandmother was comfortable before sitting down himself. Though they were born in the same shtetl, my grandparents didn’t become a couple until arriving separately to the U.S., where they reconnected at a family wedding. Now they were an indivisible unit, exemplars of heterosexual Jewish married bliss.
Unprompted, my grandmother announced in a hoarse emphatic voice, “I want to say to you all, welcome, I wish you all good things. Be in good health. Sei gesund. Take care of each other, dear kinder. That’s the most important thing. Take care of each other.”
“She takes good care of me,” said my grandfather. “For sixty years, she’s been taking care of me, right?”
“Sure, sure,” said my grandmother.
“Who has questions for Aaron’s grandparents?” asked our teacher.
No one did. Seated in my plastic chair in the front row, I folded my arms, dug my chin deep into my chest, trying to will myself to disappear during that awful initial silence. I had clearly committed an awful teenage faux pas.
Finally, one of the more popular girls burst out with, “They’re so cute!”
The rest of my classmates followed her lead. Within minutes, my grandparents were peppered with questions.
My grandfather, a natural storyteller, was in his element, describing the antisemitic violence and abject poverty he’d endured in Tsarist Russia, followed by World War I and the Soviet Revolution, before coming to America. My grandmother occasionally interrupted with bits of her story. By the time she left their shtetl, the U.S. government had changed its immigration laws, shutting out Jewish immigrants like her. Instead she went to Cuba. After six months, she paid an American couple to smuggle her to Key West, but was arrested immediately upon getting off the boat and eventually deported back to Cuba. After another three months, she made it into the U.S.
At the end of their talk, my grandparents were far more popular than I had ever been. We were filing out of the library when my grandfather gestured to a blonde girl, “You’re a beautiful girl. Come here, beautiful girl, I want to kiss you.”
Later, in the hall, a boy grabbed this girl by the arm and said in an Eastern European accent like my grandfather’s, “Come here, beautiful girl, I want to kiss you.”
In return, she smacked him, saying, “Get away, asshole.”
I felt ashamed, as if I deserved that smack, in part for exposing my grandfather to my classmates’ ridicule, in part for exposing this girl to my grandfather’s lechery, and in part because I felt something was deeply wrong with me for not wanting to kiss beautiful girls.
Shortly afterward, I dropped out of Hebrew School.
Thirty years later, as I began writing my grandmother’s life story as a novel called Hotel Cuba, I felt that I once again deserved a smacking, this time for not asking my grandmother more questions, better questions.
I’d never imagined that I would write her story. At this point, I had written three books, all fiction set in the recent past, all featuring gay characters struggling with issues of faith and identity. No need to be Freud to see my personal connection to this material.
In the wake of the election of 2016, I was appalled the harsh portrayal of immigrants in our political discourse. Telling my grandmother’s story felt like my own personal act of resistance.
Still, I wondered, how would I as a gay writer connect to this devout, straight-laced, heterosexual woman I thought I knew as my grandmother, with what I perceived as her conventional values, limited outlook, and lack of sophistication? Had she ever heard of a gay person? In my mind, she might well have been a character from Fiddler.
My thinking changed upon finding a picture taken in 1922 of my grandmother dressed in full male drag. Here was my demure Bubbie, who sang me Yiddish lullabies and fed me dry kosher cookies, dressed in a man’s shirt, tie, and pants, and smoking a cigarette, looking like a butch lesbian.
As I dove into more research, I quickly realized how stories like Fiddler had distorted my vision of my grandparents and their fellow shtetl dwellers. These were not simple ignorant villagers performing Broadway dance numbers while yelling “Tradition!” Many shtetls, including the one where my grandparents lived, were hotbeds of socialism. Their synagogue choir put on concerts featuring selections of operatic arias. Local theater groups performed Shakespeare. The town had two libraries that carried the latest books.
Sexuality and queerness were far from unknown in shtetl life. Yiddish slang expressions abounded with references to sex, including phrases for sugar daddy and sex addict, as well as “faygele” or “little bird,” meaning a gay man. I found evidence of queerness in Yiddish culture as well. Molly Picon, one of the stars of early Yiddish cinema, often dressed in male clothing and portrayed butch female characters. Isaac Bashevis Singer, of “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” fame, wrote a story called “Two” about a pair of shtetl men who leave their wives and run away to be a couple.
This current of queerness continued as I researched life in 1920s Cuba. This was the time of Prohibition, when Americans visited Havana to let loose and get drunk.
As I read about the city’s nightlife scene, which included live sex shows in Havana’s red light district, I kept bumping into gay people. Like a tough tomboyish female bar-owner who beat up rowdy customers. Or an out and proud gay man famous for having the meanest left hook in town—no one dared mess with him.
While studying women’s fashions of the 1920s, I was struck by the prominence of androgyny. Women wore outfits in muted palettes and flowing fabrics that blurred the body’s contours. Their hair was tucked into tight-fitting hats like bathing caps or else cut short in blunt pageboy styles. Women also wore men’s neckties and pants with flowing pantlegs that on first glance might pass for skirts. I also learned that undocumented women trying to get into the U.S. from places like Cuba would cross-dress as male sailors, whose papers weren’t checked at port.
In short, I realized that queering my grandmother’s story was not just wishful thinking but historically accurate. And so I wrote my novel Hotel Cuba as an un-Fiddler on the Roof. My protagonist Pearl makes and wears pants. She works for a suffragist, visits a gay bar in Havana, and falls in with a crowd of lesbians in New York. And she harbors feelings of attraction to both sexes. Today we might label her bisexual, though her character likely would not have used that language.
As I reached my book’s conclusion, I faced a conundrum. In real life, my grandmother married a man. What would I have my character of Queer Pearl do? Wouldn’t marrying a man be a kind of cop-out?
Ultimately I decided to allow Pearl the freedom to do as she pleased. My definition of queerness is the freedom to choose, whatever that choice may be.
I’ll never know my grandmother’s inner feelings, why she chose to wear male clothing, or which gender she might have fancied. But I do know that she was a woman who didn’t suffer fools, someone not to be toyed with.
What could be more proudly queer than that?
By Aaron Hamburger
Published May 2, 2023
Aaron Hamburger is the author of the story collection THE VIEW FROM STALIN'S HEAD (Rome Prize in Literature), and the novels FAITH FOR BEGINNERS (a Lambda Literary Award nominee), NIRVANA IS HERE (winner of a Bronze Medal from the Foreword Indie Awards), and HOTEL CUBA. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Crazyhorse, Tin House, Subtropics, Poets & Writers, Boulevard, and O, the Oprah Magazine. He has taught writing at Columbia University, the George Washington University and the Stonecoast MFA Program.