Chanukah Season San Francisco Style
Thu, 12/01/2011
Travel Writer
The Kinsey Sicks, a wisecracking barbershop quartet of drag queens.
The Kinsey Sicks, a wisecracking barbershop quartet of drag queens.

It’s Chanukah season in San Francisco — and in a city where every weekend features some one-of-a-kind festival, you can expect a lot more than candle lightings and latke parties. Try Yiddish drag queen caroling, a pop-up Jewish record store, Chinese-food comedy on Christmas, and a historic tribute to one of history’s wiliest Jews, Harry Houdini..

Traditionalists will still find menorahs and latkes. But San Francisco embraces the holidays with the same blend of hipster irony, earnest identity-probing and wacky originality that are its trademarks.

In other cities, Jews line up at Chinese restaurants on Christmas. In San Francisco, Jews spend Christmas at Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, where the Jewish jokes come with egg rolls, and the fortune cookies come with Yiddish proverbs.

A beloved local tradition, the 19th Annual Kung Pao Kosher Comedy is a send-up of holiday rituals, featuring some of the country’s top Jewish comics. Elayne Boosler headlines this year’s show, which runs from Dec. 23-25 at the New Asia restaurant in (where else?) Chinatown. You can go for the full Chinese menu — not as kosher as the jokes — or opt for the cocktail show, with vegetarian egg rolls (and those fortune cookies).

Kung Pao’s audience is full of Asian-Jewish families, and that’s no coincidence: Bay Area Jews have fun with their region’s cultural syncretism. In this spirit — and in the grand tradition of Jewish musicians crooning Christmas carols — there’s the hilarious Kinsey Sicks.

The Sicks are a virtuosic, wisecracking barbershop quartet composed of drag queens, and the pride of a certain set of Jewish San Franciscans. Billing themselves as a Dragapella BeautyShop Quartet, the Kinsey Sicks have built a national following around their kitschy musical satires — which lampoon everything from Republican politicians (an easy mark these days) to the Christmas story.

The latter, “Oy Vey In A Manger,” is the holiday offering on tour around the country next month, featuring numbers like “Don’t Be Happy, Worry” (the Virgin Mary was, after all, a Jewish mother). You can catch the “girls” in their hometown on Dec. 17, when they perform at San Francisco’s historic Herbst Theatre.

Ground Zero for hipster culture is the Mission District, which had a substantial Jewish community in the mid-20th century before it evolved into a largely Latino neighborhood. Today, the fast-gentrifying zone is attracting a new influx of Jewish professionals.

And on Dec. 1, the Mission will be home to the world’s first Jewish pop-up record store. Tikva Records, at 3191 Mission St., is the brainchild of David Katznelson — an organizer of San Francisco’s Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, and a guest curator for “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations,” currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Given that show’s popularity, Katznelson sensed that the moment was ripe for a modern incarnation of the Mission’s bygone Jewish record stores. Tikva Records will be open for just 28 event-packed days; connoisseurs of Jewish cool can squeeze into the vinyl listening stations, browse hard-to-find albums and mingle at daily concerts of popular groups like Ozomotli and Dengue Fever. The space is small, the acts are big and the concerts are free, so be sure to reserve: http://idelsohnsociety.com/tikvastore).

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, the Mission Minyan is a non-denominational prayer group and community with a devoted local following. All are welcome to the Shabbat Chanukah dinner on Friday, Dec. 23 following services; reservations are required (www.missionminyan.org).

Over at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, crowds are pouring into “Houdini: Art and Magic,” which runs through Jan. 16. Organized by New York’s Jewish Museum, where it closed earlier this year, the exhibit is the first major show about the fin-de-siècle escape artist — and son of a Hungarian rabbi. It features vintage film footage, handcuffs and straightjackets, a recreation of Houdini’s famous water torture cell, and 26 contemporary artworks that explore the magician’s lasting influence.

All right, so we have handcuffs and drag queens and achingly hip vinyl. But there’s still an alternative for those who want their Chanukah straight up, minus the irony.

That’s the annual lighting of the Bill Graham Menorah, a 25-foot mahogany lamp at Union Square. The opening ceremony will take place on Dec. 20 at 4:30 p.m., with sundown lighting to follow on every night of the holiday — a magical sight in San Francisco’s grandest public space.

As in past years, there will be a Bill Graham Menorah Day Festival in early December, with a concert of Jewish music and dreidel crafts for the kids; check the Chabad of San Francisco website, chabadsf.org, for event details.

It’s not exactly a Jewish event, but I can’t resist mentioning “Dance Along-Nutcracker: Clara’s Magical Mystery Tour,” presented by the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band.

This psychedelic re-imagining of the “Nutcracker” tale — featuring ’60s music, lava lamps, ballerinas and the Lesbian and Gay Chorus of San Francisco — is for all those who miss singing along to the “Sound of Music.” In between show numbers, audiences can channel their inner Sugar Plum Fairies and improvise their own pirouettes in what’s billed as “the crazy great-grandmother of flash mobs.” Tickets to the Dec. 10-11 shows are available at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts box office ([415] 978- 787).