Arts & Culture

Ari Gold: Gay, Jewish, and Talented

The first word I’d use to describe singer Ari Gold is "confident." Perhaps being an openly gay R&B musician who has spent most of his life combating anti-Semitism and homophobia in the music industry and elsewhere had given him a … Read More

By / April 2, 2009

The first word I’d use to describe singer Ari Gold is "confident." Perhaps being an openly gay R&B musician who has spent most of his life combating anti-Semitism and homophobia in the music industry and elsewhere had given him a seemingly effortless inner strength. Last week, Gold hosted a Shabbat dinner at 92YTribeca. He spoke to Jewcy about coming out to his Orthodox family, being a child performer, and (sort of) doing a duet with Boy George.

 

My favorite song of yours is "Bashert" [see YouTube clip below]. I feel like most of your music isn’t necessarily Jewish, but then you did this song which is steeped in Jewish culture. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I understand why you might say that my music isn’t Jewish, but I think it really is. It may not be overt, and it’s certainly not klezmer, but I feel like my Jewishness is intrinsic to everything I do. There’s soul in my voice and in my music. Yes, it may have had to do with the fact that I grew up in the Bronx listening to R&B music, but it also has to do with the soulfulness of the Jewish experience. The song "Bashert" – I’m proud of that song, it’s a love song, and the subtext of the love song is that it’s about another man. I certainly think it’s different to use a Yiddish term to describe the love between two men. Even the concept of having a soulmate – I think that concept has been so heterosexualized.

Oh, and my first girlfriend just asked me to perform this song at her lesbian wedding.

You’ve mentioned that your parents spoke Yiddish at home. Was your family Orthodox?

Yes, I grew up Orthodox. My parents used Yiddish at home when they didn’t want [the kids] to understand, unfortunately, otherwise I’d speak it a lot better. I do know a good amount of words; I usually tend to out-Jew my Jewish friends in the use of Jewish words in everyday conversation. My parents’ parents were immigrants. My dad grew up in the Bronx, my mom was born in Israel and grew up on the Lower East Side. That’s where I live – not in the same apartment, but on the same block.

Do you feel that living on the Lower East Side connects you to your Jewish identity?

Oh, definitely. It’s right there in my building. There are a lot of Hasidim in my building – they’re of the very friendly variety, which isn’t always the case. They’re very nice. There’s a Shabbos elevator in the building, there’s a kosher butcher on the corner, a kosher bakery right around the corner, so it’s kind of hard not to think that it’s still pretty Jewy. My mother grew up there and my bubbe lived on the Lower East Side, so I was there every week. One of the most torturous things was having to shop on Orchard Street every Sunday and buy, like, pillows or something.

Going back to "Bashert" for a minute – what I loved about it is that it pulls from this very rich Jewish tradition, but that you’re also frank and open about your sexuality. Have you run into any trouble with your interplay of religion and sexuality?

I’ve certainly had a lot of problems with my expression of my sexuality in the world of pop music. It has not been an easy road – I guess blazing a trail is challenging. I went to yeshiva. Apparently the year after I went to high school when I came out of the closet there hadn’t really been any other people who came out at my school. I think there had been some years and years before me, and there were lots after me, apparently there were some jokes being made by the rabbis. I was kind of a joke after I came out for awhile. As soon as I left yeshiva, I had my first bacon cheeseburger and went to my first gay bar.

How did your family react when you came out?

Their initial response was actually really positive.  I wrote them an 18-page coming out letter and I read it to my whole family out loud. We all started crying at the end of it, and my dad said, "The only reason we’re crying is because of all the pain we caused you." It was so nice for that to be the first reaction.

Now after that is when the shit went down. After that is when a lot of their other feelings came out. They’re Orthodox parents – this was not what they signed up for. I think it took a long time for them to reconcile the pressure and the embarrassment of the community with the process. The truth is that I have been through a lot of difficult times with my parents, but when it came down to it, any time I needed support they would be there.

How would you define your current Jewish identity and practice?

I’m still very close to my family. My mom just convinced me to give a d’var Torah to the beginners’ minyan at Lincoln Center Synagogue. We’re all going to celebrate Pesach soon, and do a seder – our seders are very raucous, with lots of singing in a three-part harmony. [Editor's note: Gold has two older brothers, both of whom are also in showbiz.] I’m very much connected and involved, but at the same time I definitely feel that I have left Orthodoxy. I don’t think that [Orthodoxy] is how I experience Judaism anymore. Last week I had Shabbat dinner with my parents. I don’t think a week goes by in my life where I’m not doing something Jewish. Or gay.

What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about you and your work?

Maybe there are two misconceptions. One would be that because I have kind of a sexy image and sing pop music, that there’s nothing deeper and philosophical and intellectual that I’m exploring. The second misconception would be that because I am so insistent on stressing the two aspects of my identity, being gay and being Jewish, that somehow what I have to say isn’t universal.

In terms of your music, how did you get started? Who do you look up to? Who are your favorite artists?

I was discovered while singing at my brother’s bar mitzvah. From that performance, I was put into the first annual Jewish Children’s Song Festival, which is kind of like "American Idol" for the Orthodox world. My two brothers and I won first prize and I got cast on a CBS childrens’ record at six years old. So, that’s how it all began.

I love my R&B. Madonna, obviously, has been a big influence in terms of being someone who had something to say. She was the one who, while I was in yeshiva, who taught me it was OK to be who I am. And now, she’s trying to Jewish like me!

I would love to do a duet with Brandy. She just had an album out recently and I got to interview her for a music blog I write for Logo. She was the first person I interviewed for that. She’s had a great career and she continues to make good music. I’d love to do a duet with her, or one with George Michael. I have done one with Boy George, but it never got released. He was … having some trouble, so we never got to finish it.

Could you ever see yourself not living in New York?

I think that I’m always going to have a base here. I’d certainly love to live somewhere else and have multiple homes, but New York really is my home. It forces you to stay grounded because you’re faced with every part of your life at all times, from the rabbi you had in elementary school to the person you just fooled around with the other night.

If you met a young Orthodox kid who was coming to terms with being gay, what would you say to him?

The thing I would say is – don’t worry, it gets better. Be patient. I would also suggest that you plan your coming out with your parents very carefully, it’s best not to blurt it out. It’s best not to be financially dependent on your parents by the time you tell them, it’s good to be out of the house. Even if they have a bad reaction, it will get better. They have to go through their process just like you’re going through yours.

 

For upcoming shows, videos, and more, check out Ari’s website. You can also watch the queer Jewish films Hineni and Trembling Before G-d at 92YTribeca.