Gefilte Fetish: Meet the Jews at San Francisco's Annual S&M Festival

Leather, but no tefillin: Haaretz thrashes out the details with two of the event's Jewish organizers.

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Hundreds of men are walking around with their penis exposed, but Amelia Nahman insists on talking about the connection between the event and charity, benevolence and Jewish values.

Among us are dozens of women and men with bleeding backs and signs of pain, but Jacob Richards explains to me that his rabbi is not against it, and that a few guys from his synagogue even came over this morning to say hello.

On the various stages, brutal lashings are being administered, people are hanging from chains attached to their nipples or are just bound to revolving wheels. But the girls from the Jewish community at the Exiles group booth invite me to join them for Friday-evening prayers, to be followed immediately after by a really kinky leather party.

On September 29, the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco − the world’s biggest BDSM event ‏(referring to erotic practices involving dominance and submission‏) − celebrated 30 years of leather, with more than 300,000 wildly enthusiastic fans who dressed ‏(if that’s the right word‏) especially for the festivities.

It’s the biggest exhibition of sexual deviations ‏(or fetishes, to stick to the local, politically correct terminology‏) on Earth. Held annually, it represents the peak of the events of “Leather Week,” which are held in tandem. The fair, which is identified with the homosexual community, has extended its range in recent years. There is now also a special area for women who love women, and quite a few straights ‏(in couples or alone‏) are also enjoying the scene.

If you chance on the event with no prior preparation, you would do well to stick to a few basic rules issued by the organizers:

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1. Don’t stare too hard. Yes, everyone is here in order to be looked at, but we’re not talking about animals in a zoo. By the same token, don’t point or giggle.

2. Taking photos is not always welcomed. This being a public space, there are no legal restrictions, but quite a few photographers have been forced to learn the hard way that they’re not wanted. To avoid problems, ask for permission; if it’s a porn star, though, feel free.

3. If you run into your boss, or recognize someone you know well in a position you know less well, pretend you didn’t see and try not to gossip about what you saw ‏(the first rule of “Fight Club” is also the first rule of Folsom‏).

4. The bottle with the yellow liquid? Don’t drink from it ‏(unless that’s your thing‏).

5. Be ready for crowding of a kind you have never experienced before. This is the second-largest event in San Francisco, so if you’re not into rubbing up against masses of people, some of them naked, without any real possibility of escaping quickly, you might want to think again about attending.

The yellow bottles thing is internalized quickly, but refraining from prolonged staring turns out to be something of a challenge. It’s not that you can’t take your eyes off one element or another ‏(such as a completely naked elderly man who is screaming loudly because he’s tied to a lamppost and someone is hitting him on the penis with some sort of electrical device‏) − it’s just that there’s no safe place on which to fix your gaze. Gaze where you will, your eyes will fall on a ring-pierced penis, a pair of breasts that show signs of caning, or just people being whipped or tied up. There are also quite a few snazzy costumes void of sexual elements, but the vast majority of the crowd is hard-core.

Even though what’s on view is a modern illustration of the term “Sodom and Gomorrah,” the people in the event’s control room are convinced the Shechinah is with them. What you find there is a group of young Jews who regularly attend synagogue, share Shabbat meals and consult with rabbis. They take pride in their Judaism and believe wholeheartedly that their distinctive sexual preferences are consistent with the values of the Jewish religion − with most of them, at least.

For the past three years, 30-year-old Jacob Richards − a proud Jewish lawyer whose baby face would not raise the slightest suspicion of his sadomasochistic side − was the president of the event’s board of directors. This is a volunteer body, which works throughout the year to ensure that the event comes off. This year he decided to rest and vacated the presidential throne in favor of his deputy, Rae Goldman, who is also Jewish. ‏(She could not be interviewed, because of restrictions relating to her real job.‏)

“I don’t have a formal role right now, but as you can see there’s no shortage of work,” Richards says, as he calls a mechanic to extricate a truck that’s stuck. “In the end it’s mostly menial work, logistics. It’s not easy to organize an event for hundreds of thousands of people, with so many booths and stages.”

How long have you been involved in this?

“I’ve been one of the organizers of the event for the past eight years. We have this fair and another march that we do in the summer, in south San Francisco. There is also a Folsom fair in Berlin, but we’re not involved in that. We sold them the license; we own the rights to the brand.”

How does all this jibe with your Jewish way of life?

“The Jewish community in San Francisco is very progressive, and friends from shul even came this morning to say hello. I go to shul regularly. I even have a rabbi, and he knows about this. It’s not that he would give it an official kosher seal, but he also didn’t say anything negative about it. Of course, not everyone in the Jewish community is like this, but there are many who are just fine with it. Quite a few of the organizers here are Jews, with strong ties to Judaism and religion.”

Healing the world

The origins of the Jewish involvement in the fair are attributed, in part, to the event’s history. Its beginnings lie in an attempt to connect between the different groups in the area and prevent, or at least slow down, a spiraling process of gentrification. “At the time, the pride activists were looking for a way to bring the different population groups in the area together, to create a joint neighborhood celebration,” Richards says. “Times were tough. A lot of low-income people simply couldn’t live here anymore and were evicted from their homes. That upset people in the pride community. They started to organize community activities in order to help those who were being forced out of the neighborhood, even if they were not from the pride community. The march wasn’t so kinky at first, and leather wasn’t the main thing − it was always there but it really wasn’t the central thing. Over the years, leather and kinkiness became the hub of the event.”

Still bent on realizing its original goals, the event also serves as a fund-raiser for organizations that engage in community activity. Entry is free, but you will be solicited to donate a few dollars for the cause. The event has raised $5 million in this way since its inception. “Everything that goes on here is 100 percent charity, it’s the strongest tie there is to Jewish values and tikkun olam,” explains Nahman, 32, using a Hebrew term for the healing or repair of the world. Like Richards, she, too, pursues a Jewish way of life; she is in charge of organizing the volunteers for the event.

“We have 2,000 volunteers from the organizations to which we will forward all profits from the event,” she says. “They are absolutely not only pride groups − we are open to all. This year, we even have an organization that feeds pets of low-income people. Sometimes people have enough money to buy food for themselves but not enough for their pet.”

Last year, she adds, the event raised $400,000, while this year the target was $700,000.

“We have to do it − after all, we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary.”
In her teens, after growing up in a totally secular home in San Francisco, she insisted on being called to the Torah in the synagogue − a common practice for girls from the Reform movement of Judaism here. “I thought my parents hated me and therefore didn’t give me a bat mitzvah, like all my girlfriends had. But actually they just didn’t know I wanted it. When I asked them for a bat mitzvah, they sent me to a rabbi and I stayed on for three years to study with him. I finally did a bat mitzvah when I was 16 [instead of the usual 12, for girls].

"By then I already knew I was a lesbian, and I wanted to find out if I could go on being a Jew. The rabbi told me that I can do what I want, but today I understand that it was easy because it was in his house, not the house of God, and I was just a teenager.”

She broke away from Judaism in her twenties ‏(“I saw what the Jews were doing in the world, with all the prosperity and money, and that was hard for me”‏), but was unable to free herself completely. “I went to a female rabbi from Oakland, and for the first time in my life felt I was home. Afterward, I also consulted with Elliot Kukla, the first transgender rabbi, who is part of the community in San Francisco. He let me understand that I could go on being who I am and remain a Jew. Suddenly I found Jewish pride and queer communities, something I hadn’t encountered when I was younger. I started to be active in the synagogue and in charitable activity, and now this is a significant part of my life.”

Do you understand the disparity between the Jewish values you are talking about and the event that is taking place around us?

“Yes, and obviously not everyone accepts it. There are many people in Judaism for whom gays and lesbians are a problem. But I had a special moment earlier on, when I met my Jewish friends. One of my female friends gives regular sermons in the synagogue, and the woman who is her partner underwent conversion to Judaism so they could be married. They were even written up in The New York Times. Or a very religious friend, whose conversation is filled with quotes from the prayers. Then I suddenly realized that my whole community is here: The friends from the synagogue, the people I eat the Shabbat meal with, and also people I go out with at night. In fact, they are the same people, and we have a very special community.”

How widespread is BDSM in the Jewish community here?

“There are a lot of Jews and a lot of groups. I don’t even know them all. There is a community center in San Francisco where all kinds of groups are active. It’s open to the public. One of the biggest groups there is called Exiles, and they also have a booth at the fair. Every Friday evening they organize a leather group for women. People pray, have a Shabbat-eve meal, and then a bunch of us go down to the basement for a party. It’s amazing. Upstairs we pray, and down below there are bindings and lashings, things that are so different and intensive. Everyone greets you with ‘Shabbat shalom,’ even if they are not Jewish and even if you happen to be in some weird position just then.”

Do you understand that this is a very unusual Jewish community, which you will not find elsewhere in the world?

“I have relatives who are very religious; if I’d been raised in their home it probably couldn’t have happened. But I’m glad I went through this whole path and found a place that does make it possible. Next summer I am marrying a woman, and even those religious relatives support me in that and will come to the wedding. They don’t actually know about everything that goes on in this specific march, but their support is very important for me and makes me very happy.”

If it’s important, maybe it’s best for them not to be exposed to this march. How did you find yourself so involved in the event?

“I found myself here for the first time when I was 25. What turned me on the most was actually the aroma of the cigars that people smoked here. I always knew I liked it, even though I personally don’t smoke, but here I realized I had a real fetish for it, that it turns me on sexually. Until then I wasn’t aware of all this. I knew I liked being spanked − which is fine, because everyone does that − but here I discovered that to say the smell of a cigar turns you on is also alright. I love this event, because no matter what you do, it will always be alright, and no one will come and tell you you’re disgusting. And even I, who grew up here and worked in a sex club and thought I had seen everything, manage to be constantly surprised. They’re good surprises, because you discover that people are always finding new and original ways to connect with one other.”

Attempts to understand the pleasure of pain usually elicit invitations to try for yourself, accompanied by exact directions for getting to booths that offer instruction and samplings for beginners ‏(bindings, lashings, hangings − whatever takes your fancy‏).

“There is also a booth with books and written information,” Richards tells me, with a certain disappointment, when I say that a theoretical explanation will do just fine at this stage. “This is a good place to be exposed to many things that you won’t see in your everyday life. Also, because it’s in a public place, there is an opportunity to see things up close that might have aroused your curiosity but which you were too shy to check out,” he adds.

Does everything have to include elements of pain?

Richards: “No, it doesn’t always have to involve pain. We are open to everything. Some people just like to be tied up or just to wear kinky costumes, things that don’t necessarily involve pain. There are two trends which have become popular in the past few years. One is ‘puppy play,’ in which people dress up as puppies. You find that mainly among gays who like to play with their partner like with a puppy. And there are also ‘pony people,’ which is more common with straights. You see someone harnessed to a cart in which a woman is usually sitting. It’s hard to explain why one kink or another becomes popular among a particular population, but those two things, for example, don’t always involve pain. On the other hand, being hung by the nipples has become very popular, and there is even a booth here where you can try it out.”

Sounds extremely painful to me.

“That’s the thing: some people like that.”

It’s beyond me.

“The simplest biological explanation is that physical pain releases endorphins, just like running does. And the same way people get a running high, they do the same here.”

Why are there mainly men here?

“Men just like to show themselves; women like to do the kinky things more privately. So this year, for the first time, we opened a closed space for them. We want everyone here.”