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He lays tefillin on his tour bus

  • Furman Ezra
Ezra Furman is a gender-bending, genre-crossing, observant Jewish rocker who is the next big thing - see his amazing “Perpetual Motion People” video…
by ANT KATZ with JTA | Apr 26, 2016

Ezra Furman’s acclaimed indie rock video. The gender-bending, genre-crossing, frum rocker has been known to lay tefillin while hanging on his tour bus



The 29-year-old is probably the only musician who navigates the worlds of Orthodox Judaism and gender nonconformity. Though Furman doesn’t identify as strictly Orthodox, he observes Shabbos and reads the Parsha on tour every week.

But he doesn’t do shows on Friday nights and doesn’t travel on Shabbos — the most prime times for working musicians. Furman’s typical getup is also striking: The singer and guitarist often eschews the standard millennial indie rocker uniform — skinny jeans and a tight tee — in favour of lipstick, pearl necklaces, colourful dresses and baseball caps with every conceivable pattern.

Furman himself is the first to admit he’s a work in progress, trying to figure out how to encapsulate his gender identity. Though he described himself as “gender fluid” in an essay he wrote for the Guardian, Furman told the JTA news service his preferred term is “gender nonconforming.”

Furman Ezra 2He says he doesn’t carry torches, “but I like being known as Jewish and I like being known as queer because I like to be an example to show this is possible,” he said from his home in Oakland, California.

“I like to say this is a way to be Jewish, and this is a way to play rock and roll that you might not have expected.”

What Furman does have down are his song writing skills. After quietly releasing two scantly reviewed solo albums and three prior albums with his former band The Harpoons, he was signed by the British indie label Bella Union last year and released the genre-bending opus “Perpetual Motion People” last July.

His music is a blend of playful, bluesy modern rock with piano, saxophone and doo-wop vocals

Furman is thin and boyishly handsome. He says that his faith and gender identity are not onstage gimmicks. He has a soft, meticulous voice and has earned significant critical (if not mainstream commercial) applause and established his rep as “the most compelling live act you can see right now.”

Furman’s parents attended a Reconstructionist synagogue and he went to a Conservative day school and middle school. In high school, a friend introduced him to the idea of becoming Orthodox, but he didn’t consider it seriously at the time.

Furman has become a very 21st Century
baal teshuva in his very personal way

However, a few years ago, Furman started being Shomrei Shabbas, calling it “too important to put aside for career reasons.”

“To me, Shabbat could be called the essence of Judaism, in a way,” he said. “It’s a time to love the world as it is instead of trying to change it — the way you do the rest of the week.”

Furman Ezra 2When he’s on the road, Furman reads books by Jewish thinkers like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jonathan Sacks and Alan Lew. He even incorporates some of their ideas in the fabric of his songs, which tend to be achingly personal. His website, “A Guide for the Perplexed,” is named for Maimonides’ famous text.

Going Kosher

His “next frontier” is going kosher

Furman eats an “improvised vegetarian kosher” diet when on tour. He will be back on the road in June, hitting the European festival circuit as well as Israel — a country Furman hasn’t visited in over 10 years, he said, and can’t wait to see again.

As for his gender identity, Furman has come a long way from secretly trying on dresses as a teenager. The first time he wore one in public was on stage in 2011 with The Harpoons, which he had formed while attending Tufts University in Boston.

“I was hiding behind the idea of it being a rock and roll show,” he said. “It was like, there are no rules — on stage, it’s not the real world, so no one will bother me about this.”

 “Over the course of my late 20s, just in every area of my life, I’m more self-assured,” he said. “And I think it has done wonders for me as an artist and as a human being.”

But he still avoids dressing “too feminine” in the Orthodox shul he regularly attends in nearby Berkeley when he’s home.

 “What bothers me is that I feel uncomfortable wearing a dress to an Orthodox shul,” he said. “It’s not a problem with Judaism, it’s a problem with homophobia and transphobia in [American] culture, which includes Jewish culture.”

Furman doesn’t hide the fact that his religious practices can be difficult to keep up on tour, and sometimes he feels alienated from the largely nonreligious guys in his backing band, The Boy-Friends.

“I’m in an environment where there’s no support for it or understanding of it, except for just the kindness of my band mates,” he said. “I wish we would talk more about it really. It’s such a big thing in my inner life.

“I think of Judaism as something similar to being an artist, that it’s a non-capitalist thing to be. I think it’s a form of protest … To answer to a higher authority is, like, very radical.”

4 Comments

  1. 4 Matthew Lily 14 May
    asdfas
  2. 3 Marc Lipshitz 23 Jun
    It looks like he is confused about more than just his identity if he thinks cross dressing can conform with the Torah!  The Torah is very clear on the issue: 
    Devarin Chapter 22
    5A man's attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman's garment because whoever does these [things] is an abomination to the Lord, your God. הלֹא יִהְיֶה כְלִי גֶבֶר עַל אִשָּׁה וְלֹא יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כָּל עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה:

    So he really needs to come to terms with if he wants to be observant, in which case he cannot crossdress.  The halachah as defined by the Torah does not support people choosing their gender identity- it sees people as being the gender they were born with.
  3. 2 Jp 23 Jun
    I like - I think this is wonderful!
  4. 1 Hilly 24 Jun
    Maybe SACRED can ask him to sing at their events, would the BOD object?

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