A Jewish Myth Reimagined as a Vaudeville Dominatrix: Julie Weitz Interviewed by Jennifer Remenchik

Self-discovery through a performative critique of fascism and bigotry.

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Julie Weitz, My Golem as The Great Dominatrix, 2018. Film still. 

There is a distinctly Angeleno quality to Chicago-born artist Julie Weitz’s work. With saturated colors, exaggerated performances, and its focus on both the seductive and repulsive aspects of the image, Weitz highlights themes that cast an ever-present shadow on the perpetually sunny city. By emphasizing the sensorial, virtual, and historical, Weitz’s work transports the viewer into her body through an amalgamation of the moving image, sound, and time.

For Los Angeles Nomadic Division’s Wild Art Party, Weitz will be performing a live version of her ongoing character My Golem in addition to a concurrent online exhibition of her video The Great Dominatrix, also hosted by LAND. In the following interview, the artist and I discuss her use of Jewish folklore, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, contemporary politics, and the particular personality traits of her “golem.”

—Jennifer Remenchik

Jennifer Remenchik My Golem as The Great Dominatrix takes its source material from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), which Chaplin made as a direct response to the political events of his time. What connection do you see between the context in which The Great Dictator was made and the time we are living in now?

Julie WeitzIt’s easy to make the analogy of Trump and the rise of fascist dictators globally to Hitler and the Third Reich. Chaplin began filming in September 1939, at a time when most Americans still resisted intervening in World War II. Hollywood had not yet released a film overtly criticizing Hitler, and Chaplin had to fully fund his project himself. That’s actually how I became interested in The Great Dictator—after reading Steven J. Ross’s book Hitler in Los Angeles (2017) and learning about the German consul’s censorship of anti-Nazi films in Hollywood. Chaplin’s courage was exceptional, as was his influence. He had seen Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) at the Museum of Modern Art and was fascinated by Hitler’s performativity. Though he wasn’t Jewish, he had many Jewish friends and had been labeled “a disgusting Jewish acrobat” by the Nazis.

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Julie Weitz, My Golem as The Great Dominatrix, 2018. Film still.

I grew up with the motto “Never Forget.” My mom currently works at the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, IL, and she interviewed holocaust survivors for Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation in the nineties. As a family, we’re always drawing comparisons to the past. From the moment Trump began his candidacy we were alarmed. It’s impossible not to hear the fascist implications of today’s anti-immigration rhetoric and, worse, the inhumane separation of families at the border. If the U.S. government had not let my family enter in the early twentieth century, they would have all ended up in the camps. So I’m concerned and angry. I personally don’t feel threatened as an American Jew, but I’m keenly aware of the vulnerability of immigrants and people of color in this country. For white supremacists, “Jew” is a just retro-Nazi term for unwanted other. With this in mind, I made The Great Dominatrix as my absurdist, schmaltzy protest to what is happening today. 

JR Both the character “My Golem” and the film The Great Dictator reference Jewish culture and anti-Semitism. How do you handle the ethical challenges of using culturally specific references in your work and what political thoughts or questions, if any, do you hope to provoke in the viewer?

JWA few years ago I was called out for using rap music in one of my performances. I felt incredibly foolish that I had not been more sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation. I started thinking about the dissonance between my Jewishness and whiteness. My upbringing was steeped in Jewish culture, and there had always been a distancing from white “goyishe” America. But by all appearances, I’m white and not overtly Semitic. My family benefited from assimilation by not speaking Yiddish, hiding their religious garb, and eventually moving out of the ethnically diverse neighborhoods of Chicago and into the waspy northern suburbs. Despite anti-Semitism, my family could “pass” as white according to racial categorizations in the United States. 

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Julie Weitz, My Golem as The Great Dominatrix, 2018. Film still.

As the “My Golem” character, I paint my face and hands with unfired porcelain slip to exaggerate my whiteness. It’s uncomfortable. I also design costumes that accentuate Jewishness—the shtreimel, tallis, tefillian, tzitzit—clothing normally worn by religious men. Growing up I watched with envy as teenage boys wrapped leather straps around their arms and heads before prayer. I sat by my grandfather at shul and braided the strings of his tallis. For me, these were articles of spiritual power to which I had limited access. So, there’s something titillating and transgressive about wearing stylized replicas of religious clothing. It’s my version of drag.

In The Great Dictator, Chaplin plays oppositional roles that come together when the Jewish barber is mistaken for the dictator and gives a speech about citizenry and the good of humanity. Perversely, to fight hate, his character must disguise himself as its leading proponent. The Great Dominatrix overtly references anti-Semitic propaganda about Jewish global domination. In the comic tradition of American vaudeville, my character is the self-deprecating Jew. I needed to visibly embody my identity to contextualize my concerns about xenophobia and racism in this country. After the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, I felt impelled to expose myself. That might sound strange, but historically speaking, Jews hide. It’s an act of survival. In contrast, I started asking myself how I was complicit.

JR The golem is a somewhat enigmatic and mysterious symbol in Jewish folklore. How do you see your specific golem character? What kind of character traits do you attribute to her?

JW Researching innumerable golem stories is fascinating, as is the secular incarnations of golems in popular culture. For centuries across Europe and Russia, golem stories circulated as empowerment fantasies for Jewish communities threatened by state-sponsored violence. Out of clay, the mystics purportedly shaped giant figures into being and directed them to defend justice and secure protection for the Jews. Over time, however, golems superseded their creators’ authority, and like Frankenstein’s monster, came to represent the destructive power of human creations. Nowadays in technology circles, golems are used as metaphors to warn about the unknown potential of artificial intelligence.

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Julie Weitz, My Golem as The Great Dominatrix, 2018. Film still.

With all that in mind, “My Golem” is a highly exaggerated version of myself. She is sassy, sexy, witchy, bossy, and, ultimately, out of my control. In fact, I have little performance experience, and I find myself channeling my family when I perform. It’s sort of like code switching for me; I gesture and exaggerate my facial expressions intuitively, in a distinctly Jewish way. It took me awhile to recognize that I come from a performance tradition influenced by vaudeville and Yiddish theater. Over a century ago my family formed a “cousin’s club” that performs talent shows for each other and celebrates the holidays together. I have amazing photographs from the early fifties of my grandfather and great uncles in drag. One family member is actually infamous for her sense of humor—my great aunt Clara is the woman who said “Where’s the beef?” in the 1984 Wendy’s commercial.

JR As you mentioned before, there is a self-deprecating streak of humor running throughout your practice. How do you use self-deprecation as a force for empowerment?

JW Embarrassing myself is easy; the sexy clown is an archetypal role for Jewish women. Owning that role through physical humor, without depending on my voice or writing, is the challenge. Being from Chicago, I was exposed to improv at a young age, but I’m not quick with words or vocally commanding. Chaplin’s style of slapstick comedy, and other silent film acting techniques, are ideal to me because they involve wordless, embodied theater. In that sense, preparing for this video and my performance at LAND implicitly requires that I’m physically strong and self-aware in my movements. As much as my performance might appear self-deprecating, it actually demands a lot of self-care behind the scenes.

Drag is also a huge inspiration for me. Men dressing as women and exaggerating female stereotypes gives me permission to do the same. Perhaps because I’ve always been self-conscious about performing femininity in real life, my alter-ego allows me to openly express it. Transforming into character by painting my face, applying fake nails, strapping on my costume, and zipping up my go-go boots is surprisingly powerful. That’s what I love about drag; it’s a hyperbolic and satiric disguise for self-love and personal freedom. As my character, I’m boss; “My Golem” liberates my inner dom.

Julie Weitz will be premiering The Great Dominatrix on the Los Angeles Nomadic Division website on October 15. Weitz will also be performing her character “My Golem” live as a part of LAND’s Frame Rate: Wild Art Party on October 20.

Jennifer Remenchik is an artist, writer and curator living and working in Los Angeles. She has published her arts writing in Hyperallergic, Contemporary Art Los Angeles and is a finalist for this year’s Art Writing Workshop hosted by the Andy Warhol Foundation’s Art Writers Grant Program in partnership with the International Art Critics Association. Currently she is putting the final touches on Reasons to Live (New Episodes), a video essay on life after grief told in the form of letters to a deceased former lover, making a painting about Caravaggio and working on her art world memoir.

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