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Reb Irwin Keller

Biography

Reb Irwin Keller was born in the northern suburbs of Chicago in 1960, to a tight-knit family consisting of his mother, father, older sister, grandparents, great-grandmothers, and many aunts, uncles, and cousins. His father came from a German-Jewish Reform background, while his mother came from an Eastern European immigrant family that had gravitated towards Conservative Judaism. Although both parents were Jewish, the opposing family cultures of each made it feel like a “mixed marriage.” When the two married, they had to negotiate their differences. For example, his mother agreed to not keep a kosher home, in exchange for his father not insisting on having a Christmas tree.

His mother, Marilyn Keller, held deep ancestral roots in Lithuania. Her mother was born in a shtetl in what’s now the Poland-Belarus border, while her grandparents lived in that shtetl or across other places in Lithuania. Her father was born in Chicago. Irwin’s father’s side of the family had been in the United States for longer, as early as the 1850s. However, Irwin discovered this only in adulthood, and had grown up adopting the deep-rooted Eastern European immigrant narrative of his ancestry.

When he was four, his family joined a brand new Reform congregation called Beth Elohim. His earliest memory of institutional engagement with Judaism was with this new congregation that was just starting out and full of excitement. It didn’t have a building, and so they held shabbat services in a church just down the block from where he lived. The congregation managed with a Temple office above a bowling alley, and young Irwin found this all very exciting.

His childhood was characterized by a love of Jewish learning, and a deep connection with family. His mother and father both had lots of cousins in Chicago, and they were very connected to all of them. He felt very held by both of these things.

Also during this time he had a growing awareness of being queer, which emerged in his play when he was quite young. His best friend David lived two doors down, and they would play ‘house’ together, with him as wife and David as the husband. David would pretend to come back from work and they’d kiss each other ‘hello,’ as Irwin pretended to cook and bake. Irwin’s father – sorrowfully, Irwin thinks –– took him aside and explained that they were not supposed to play that way. Afterwards, the two tried to play ‘house’ as brothers, but it did not feel interesting anymore.

This conversation with his father stuck with Irwin, as it was the first time he had any indication that something wasn’t right with him, that something that felt normal to him would bring disapproval from others. His parents were loving and generous, and Irwin believes that any gender boundaries they drew for him were not out of inherent objection, but out of a desire to keep him safe. After this conversation, any play that was gender-defiant, Irwin did in secret.

From the time that he could remember, Irwin always loved to learn. He remembered loving what he learned in Sunday religious & Hebrew school, hearing stories, learning various topics in Jewish history and culture, as well as the modern Hebrew language. Irwin was in third grade when he decided he wanted to be a rabbi. He was inspired by a famous talmudic story told over in Sunday school: When the ancient Bablylonian sage Hillel could not pay the cost of entry into the House of Study, he climbed up onto its roof to press his ear and listen to the learning. He was so captivated by the teachings that he continued listening as a snowstorm gained intensity, and was rescued and found there only the next day, having almost frozen to death [BT Yoma 35b]. This was the first time it had occurred to Irwin that learning in and of itself was a privilege— not just a means to gain knowledge of a particular subject, but something to be done for its own sake. This desire to become a rabbi stayed with him for many years, but would only come into fruition at age 60.

While the family did attend synagogue, the depth of the family’s synagogue involvement and home practice was ultimately at young Irwin’s instigation. He remembers watching his mother light candles every week, and putting her hands over eyes, she would give a long silent prayer before she turned and kissed her kids. His mother modeled a personal devotion, the only model of this spirituality that he saw with regularity as a child.

In school, Irwin was often bullied. This became another reason why his synagogue and summer camp life were so important to him. Both of these Jewish places offered a much wider range of accepted behavior among boys, and a more expansive definition of masculinity. While there were ‘jocks’ at camp, he wasn’t bullied by them. His peers and community there valued what Irwin brought as a smart, nerdy kid. This softer masculinity made these places much safer for Irwin to be himself, and was much harder to find in mainstream secular spaces. His summer camp cohort gave him a swath of community that was Jewishly engaged. This was the cohort he applied to and attended college with, and that was later applying to rabbinical school together. As an adult in his 60s, Irwin retains no connection to his former high school, and has never gone to a reunion. However, some of his best friends today were those he met in summer camp 50 years ago.

 When he was at summer camp around age fourteen, his older sister Lynn wrote him a letter, coming out to him. What she wrote resonated with him, and after this he had the sensation of being able to breathe a little better. Shortly after, eighteen-year-old Lynn came out to their parents. This news was so hard for them that the two siblings later decided that Irwin could never come out to them. They believed it would kill them.

In his early teen years, Irwin was growing more aware of his sexuality. When bullies kept accusing him of being gay, Irwin started to realize that they were right. His sexuality began bubbling up as a problem he needed to deal with once he started college. Irwin had had a girlfriend in his senior year of high school, whom he adored. However, his lack of sexual interest became apparent to him. Still, the thought of living as a gay man represented significant loss. At that point, there were no publicly open queer parents. Irwin had grown up assuming he would eventually become a father. Realizing he was gay involved grieving the loss of having his own family, as well as not being able to give his parents grandchildren.

The closer Irwin came to coming out, the more he began to feel apart from his close Jewish friends. With few people to talk to and a growing desperation, Irwin worked up the nerve to buy his first gay book— Loving Someone Gay by the psychologist Donald Clark. He had gone to the bookstore three times before he worked up the courage to walk up to the cashier with it. Although Irwin had support from his sister, he was very uncertain about his path forward.

Irwin did his undergraduate at the University of Illinois, graduating in 1981. He spent his sophomore year abroad in Jerusalem at Hebrew University. While studying in Jerusalem, he began to long for gay connection. While he had no rational explanation for this belief, he was convinced that there were no gay people in Israel. Longing for community, Irwin joined the Ligo de Samseksamaj Geesperantistoj, the International League of Gay Esperantists. Because the magazines were in the constructed language Esperanto, he was able to read them openly without raising any suspicion from his Israeli roommate. Through these magazines, Irwin was able to connect with a few gay pen pals, corresponding in Esperanto. After returning from this formative year abroad, Irwin began to come out to his friends.

Irwin had taken so many classes in Israel that he had unwittingly set himself up to graduate a year early. He did not feel ready for the transition, only discovering his love of linguistics by his last semester. He enrolled in the University of Chicago’s graduate program in linguistics in the fall of that same year, figuring that he would do research in semitics. Once at UChicago, he found a roommate by writing to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GALA).

Within his first three months of grad school, he met his first boyfriend Jonathan, a relationship that lasted almost ten years. Also as a first year graduate student, Jonathan was running GALA. However, Irwin could never attend those meetings since he was teaching Israeli Folk dancing for the campus Hillel on those nights. But one night in November, folk dancing conflicted with UChicago’s annual Latke-Hamentaschen Debate, where professors would satirically debate the relative merits of these two Jewish foods. No one came to dance, so Irwin closed up and headed to the GALA meeting, where he met Jonathan. Jonathan was also very Jewishly-oriented, and on that night, the two conceived of a campus Gay Jewish discussion group.

Their first date centered around planning the first discussion group meeting, looking over Jewish texts and deciding upon discussion topics. They proposed this idea to the campus Hillel rabbi, asking that the organization sponsor this group. The rabbi, Danny Leifer of blessed memory, loved the idea, and broadcasted the meeting information to students right away. Leifer did this without first presenting the idea to his Board of Governors, willing to take the flack for having approved it rather than risk its delay or rejection by presenting in advance. The group met in Irwin’s apartment.

Irwin’s relationship put increasing pressure upon him to come out to his parents. He had spent a stressful year pretending that his boyfriend was his roommate, while he did not think anyone was particularly fooled. One night, Irwin’s parents called saying that they were on their way to visit, and the couple scrambled to take apart their apartment, hiding anything that might reveal the nature of the relationship. After this night in August 1982, Jonathan said that he just did want to spend all this effort hiding anymore. Despite his fear, Irwin agreed, and he came out to his parents shortly afterward.

In 1982, Irwin began to look into rabbinical school along with his cohort of childhood summer camp friends. He was only really considering Hebrew Union College (HUC), as it aligned well with his Reform Jewish background. However, he heard that not only was HUC rejecting openly-gay students by policy, but they were actively seeking to identify gay students among their ranks and expel them.1 At the time, he knew of only one openly-gay rabbi in the country.

Irwin called him seeking advice, hoping to discuss what might be the emotional weight and damage of pursuing the rabbinate in that climate. In the ensuing phone call, the rabbi assured that Irwin would be fine in rabbinical school, advising that he stay in the closet and seek anonymous sex at a park nearby. However, Irwin could not stomach going back in the closet. As such, while his friends were applying to the rabbinate, Irwin privately grieved the loss of his childhood dream.

Within a year, the AIDS epidemic had started. Suddenly, Irwin felt like there was so much else to do. He took ‘incompletes’ in many of his classes, spending his time organizing as an activist. He ran a guerilla clinic in his apartment, where he brewed medications with a chemistry set. In those first couple of years into the AIDS epidemic, there were no HIV-related magazines, and medical information was shared through underground networks. What became the publication AIDS Treatment News was initially just one man, John James, collecting information and mailing them to his contacts. Eventually, AIDS activism began to include protests, and UChicago’s GALA solidified around that.

In the mid 1980’s, Irwin’s boyfriend had an AIDS misdiagnosis. The diagnosis and its reversal affected them both deeply, personally and socially. It was during all of this that Irwin realized that he needed to be an activist, and he should attain a credential that will help him do good work. After a couple years of grad school in linguistics, he applied and was accepted to law school at UChicago. Irwin’s law school years were wrapped up in activism. While a student, he helped author and pass an equal rights law alongside other activists including Bill Williams, Katherine “Kit” Duffy, Rick Garcia, and Sarah Craig.

There had been one Chicago gay rights ordinance languishing since 1973 un-passed, further frustrated by complicated internal politics in the gay community. Once Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor was elected, the activists held greater hope for change. Previously, the issue of gay equality was a lot more hidden from mainstream awareness. It was the bar owners who had strong relationships with city council, while the gay public did not. The activists correctly figured that even if the bill publicly lost, it would engage and inspire others to act. When the bill was pushed to the floor and failed in 1986, activists perceived it as the opportunity they’d been waiting for.

Galvanized by increased publicity, the activists formed a new organization. Because Irwin was a law student, the newly-founded Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting looked to him to review the language of the failed bill. He found the bill’s language too general— in his words, the bill “was so offensively asking for nothing.” Working with Tom Stoddard at Lambda Legal,2

Irwin obtained copies of other equal rights bills from New York and San Francisco, and built upon those more comprehensive frameworks. Further, his professors at UChicago were eager to help him do research and review drafts. They turned the old bill into a new omnibus equal rights ordinance, covering discrimination not just on the basis of sexual orientation, but disability, gender, marital status, and other grounds. This new bill passed in late December of 1988 and is still in effect as of 2024.

Irwin describes the activism and coalition-building of this period to have been very exciting. He remembers that at one hearing, an alderman proposed to take out the sexual orientation clause from the bill, in order to allow the other equality stipulations to pass. In a profound act of allegiance, the disability activists went on record stating that the disability community would actively oppose the bill were it to disinclude gay people from its protections.

Also during law school, Irwin created and ran a national meeting called the Chicago Conference on Sexual Orientation and the Law, hosted at the University of Chicago in April of 1987. By that time, it was only the second conference to have been held on this topic, and people attended from all over the country. It was there that Lavender Law, what is still the national queer bar association, formed. Irwin asked colleagues from the National Center for Lesbian Rights and National Gay Rights Advocates how he could participate in the groundbreaking work that they were doing. Acting upon their advice, Irwin sought work at a corporate law firm which would pay Irwin to learn lawyering.

Upon graduating, Irwin moved to San Francisco to join a law firm— the only one which offered him a job after reading his openly-gay resume. Irwin describes this time as a moment when this law firm was trying to become more diverse, and recounts that when they later downsized, they fired virtually every diversity hire they’d made in the previous years. Irwin worked there for two years, from 1989-91, until he got laid off during what later became known as the “Lavender Sweep.”

While in San Francisco, Irwin was active in Queer Nation and in AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). He volunteered as a lawyer for the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, a group which offered low-cost legal help to those with HIV-AIDS. He applied there for a public policy job which he did not get, but they called a few months later offering a position as Staff Attorney they thought would be a better fit. After a few years there, Irwin became Executive Director of this organization. He worked at the AIDS Legal Referral Panel from 1992-2000, eventually leaving when his drag performance troupe secured a contract for an Off-Broadway show.

This drag group, called the Kinsey Sicks, was conceived in late December, 1993. He and his friends decided to dress in drag for a New Years’ Bette Midler concert, and their impromptu performance delighted the other attendees. Seven months later, they held their first performance on an iconic San Francisco street corner: Castro & Market. At its conception, the group was composed of Ben Schatz, Maurice Kelly, Jerry Friedman, and Irwin Keller, with Irwin performing as “Winnie.” While Irwin was with the group, they performed in 41 states, across 3 continents, and released 6 albums. Irwin stayed with the group for 21 years until he retired at the end of 2014.

Irwin as "Winnie" of the Kinsey Sicks, performing at Sydney Mardi Gras, 2010.  Photo: Erez Ben-Or

Irwin describes his time with the Kinsey Sicks as “happy-making,” particularly delightful and exciting in their early years. Two out of the four were lawyers, working in the AIDS epidemic and navigating much grief in their work. Irwin recounts how it was so easy to see the cultural role that the Kinsey Sicks played for the community at the time. When people were hurting so much, they needed badly to gather in rooms together, laughing together. Irwin describes how their performances were “a kind of ministry,” giving voice to frustration, condemning injustice, and also sharing the possibilities of hope. Another piece of what made it exceptionally exciting in their early years was how they expressed themselves purely for fun— all money they received from gigs went right back into the group for costumes and sets for the next show, since all four members were working full-time in their professions.

Irwin met his to-be husband Oren in 1994, a couple months after The Kinsey Sicks started. Their meeting was both fortuitous and covertly arranged by Irwin’s then-ex-boyfriend Jonathan. Jonathan had met Oren on the first night of Passover, and knew immediately that he and Irwin had to meet. Suspecting that Irwin would refuse to be set up, he invited Oren to the following night’s seder, which he would be co-hosting with an unsuspecting Irwin. By the time they reached Ha Lachma Anya (Trans. This is the Poor Man’s Bread), a passage from the Passover Haggadah, Oren had caught Irwin’s interest. In their first conversation, Irwin learned that Oren had also gotten a degree in linguistics, and that they were both interested in doing graduate work in the same dialect of neo-Aramaic. As of writing this in January 2024, the two are celebrating thirty years together.

Irwin and Oren raised two children with another couple, whom they had met through Oren’s work. Oren met his best friend Anne at their workplace LYRIC, the queer youth center in San Francisco. When Anne and her partner Suegee had a baby, they accepted Irwin and Oren’s offer to babysit. After the two began spending a lot more time with both the baby and the new parents, Anne and Suegee invited the couple to take a more active role in child rearing. When they were ready to have a second baby, they invited the other couple to be biologically connected to their second child. After Suegee went to medical school and Anne to law school, the four moved up to Sonoma County in Northern California in 2006. They bought a plot of land, which they still live upon together as of today in January 2024.

Throughout his adult life, Irwin’s connection to Judaism had never flagged— he was always a part of some Jewish community, leading rituals, studying by himself or with others. Since Irwin wanted to send the kids to religious school, the group had joined Ner Shalom, a local progressive Reconstructionist synagogue. Just as the family arrived, the synagogue was undergoing transformation. Ner Shalom had shrunk to just 35 families, the rabbi was leaving, the shul had no funding to hire a new rabbi, and were set to close the religious school. The parents organized to provide for religious school themselves as volunteers, and Irwin got swept in to “do the rabbinics,” leading singing, telling Torah stories, offering interpretations for the children and parents together.

One month before the High Holy Days, the interim rabbi left the shul, frustrated with the highly mixed positive and negative responses he received from the congregation. To a much-relieved board, Irwin stepped up to lead the services. He brought every part of himself to the service—expressing everything he had been saving up over the years. It meant as much to the congregation as it did to Irwin. When he stepped off the bimah (raised platform from which the cantor leads) after Yom Kippur services, the board asked if Irwin would come on staff permanently as Spiritual Leader. With a life-changing response, Irwin accepted.

Irwin and Oren under the chuppah, Oct. 11, 2008.  Photo: Mick Sheppard

The day after that Yom Kippur was also the day Irwin and Oren got married! When Yom Kippur ended, they cleaned their house and prepared to hold a small marriage ceremony in their home. The guests came on short notice, and a rabbi friend officiated. Despite the chaos surrounding high holiday preparations and family arrangements, this was the best time for the wedding amidst California’s changing political landscape. In the spring of 2008, the California Supreme Court had legalized same-sex marriage. But opponents of same-sex marriage got a state-wide referendum banning same-sex marriaged, called Prop 8, onto the November ballot. It was becoming clear how popular the ban was, and that by November 8th, they would lose the right to marry. Like many other gay couples, Irwin and Oren sought to get married in a hurry before the window of opportunity closed. Fortuitously, the couple’s parents and siblings were flying in for the High Holidays, to hear Irwin lead these services for the first time. Their at-home ceremony was conducted in the nick of time— one day before Oren’s parents were scheduled to fly back to Israel.

From 2008 to 2014, Irwin was known to his congregation as the singing-drag-queen-rabbi. Since Irwin had stepped up as spiritual leader, Ner Shalom began to grow rapidly— as of this writing in 2024, the synagogue has 160 member households. Many people who otherwise felt religiously alienated could take solace in this community and rabbi that were just as unconventional as them. As he continued his work, friends and congregants would ask if Irwin wanted to go to rabbinical school. While a part of him had deep longing for rabbinic studies, his queer self was more critical: Irwin’s whole outlook thus far has been an outsider’s outlook, and this was what Ner Shalom congregants so responded to.

Irwin leading song at Ner Shalom's annual Havdalah with the Horses, an event for young people with disabilities and their families.  Photo: Lorenzo Valensi

After his mother passed away in 2013, he retired from the Kinsey Sicks and space opened up in his life. Ner Shalom’s rabbinic intern was receiving ordination, and she invited Irwin to the ceremony, which was taking place as part of a much larger week-long rabbinic conference. The conference was hosted by ALEPH, an alliance of organizations part of the Jewish renewal movement, with whom Irwin had already studied a decade back. When Irwin asked his teacher if he could join the larger conference, she gently replied “we don’t allow spectators, but if you can get me a rabbinical school application by Tuesday, then you can come as a prospective student.” Upon hearing this, something shifted in Irwin’s mind. It felt both as if rabbinical school had never occurred to him before, and as if everything had led him to this. He cranked out his application in three days, still not fully believing that he would end up a student again. He graduated from the program in 2021, fulfilling his childhood dream at age 60.

Irwin continues to serve as Rabbi, teacher, writer, and hope-monger for his community. He is especially appreciated at Ner Shalom for his musical gifts and his challenging, humorous and unorthodox sermons, or drashot. You can read many of these – about Torah, Israel, God, community, disillusionment, hope and finding inspiration on the fringe on his blog, Itzik’s Well, found at irwinkeller.com. He has spearheaded “Of One’s Soul,” an initiative of the Interfaith Council of Sonoma County, working to defend the rights and dignity of the Muslim community and others who are under threat. He has co-founded the Taproot community, designed to provide Jewish text study, embodiment practice, and lineage tending for Jewish activists, organizers and artists. He aspires to make the Jewish experience welcoming for everyone, including himself.

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1 This was later verified by a 2022 independent report.
2 A national organization founded to establish and protect the civil rights of LGBTQ clients

(This biographical statement was written by Charlie Feuerman from an interview with Irwin Keller on December 29, 2023, as well as the sources listed below and was edited by Keller.)

Sources
Jones, B. C. (2014, December 9). Kinsey Sicks’ drag queen-turned-rabbi passes on the crown. SFGATE.
https://www.sfgate.com/performance/article/Kinsey-Sicks-drag-queen-turned-rabbi-passes-on-5943272.php
Reflections of a retiring drag queen. (2014, October 9). Irwin Keller. https://www.irwinkeller.com/itzikswell/2014/10/reflections-of-retiring-drag-queen.html   (N.d.). Retrieved February 6, 2024, from https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/the-sacred-and-the-profane-2/

Biography Date: February 2024

Additional Resources

Tags

Jewish (ethnic, Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox) | Clergy Activist | AIDS | Artist/musician/poet | Chicago | Illinois | San Francisco | California | Jewish (Reconstructionist)

Citation

“Reb Irwin Keller | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed May 30, 2024, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/irwin-keller.

Remembrances

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