It’s a Jewish story, but the themes are universal


What do you do when you’re a non-binary, gender fluid performer obsessed with a Jewish Drag King legend of a century earlier? Why, make a film about it, of course! Winner of the 2021 Pears Short Film And Jewish Film Festival awards, Make Me A King is the pitch perfect story of Ari – a young non-binary Jewish Drag King in contemporary London. Ari models their performances on their idol Pepi Litman: a pioneer of Yiddish vaudeville among the Jewish communities of early 20th century Eastern Europe.  

But the joy and liberation Ari experiences on stage is tempered by their sadness at rejection by their conservative Jewish family; and in particular their father.

Writer Natalie Arle-Toyne explains the genesis of the project: “I found Pepi through the Drag King community of America. In the UK, there are very few Jewish drag king performers – but in the US they’re thriving, and they’ve preserved the memory of a folk hero.” 

“Pepi sang serious and comic songs in Yiddish dressed as a khosid – an ultra-Orthodox Jewish male with big fur hat and ringlets. She was a leading figure of the Broderzinger movement – itinerant Jewish performers who travelled and played wherever they could. They championed Yiddish culture rather than religion and were often frowned upon for singing outside of religious occasions and even poking fun at their religion. Pepi sang a song about the Messiah arriving in an automobile, for example.”

Make Me a King was made by Unleyek, an award-winning, female-led production company based in London, and had its premiere on 7 November 2021, as part of the Jewish Film Festival, at the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley. 

“We’ve had tremendous support, both in the UK and internationally, to get the film made,” adds Natalie. Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Montreal, who was the first lesbian Rabbi, was instrumental in getting the Kickstarter going. “We’ve also had enthusiastic backing from the Pink Peacock in Glasgow, which has to have the best strapline of all time, being a ‘Queer Yiddish Anarchist Pay What You Can Café’ – and the amazing Ledwood Centre in Brighton.”

“It’s a Jewish story, but the themes in it are universal,” she concludes. “I really hope it inspires people to start their own digging. There are Drag Kings in every culture.”

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