Ezra Furman: The Indie Music Scene's Most Unorthodox Jewish Star

Furman, who often takes to the stage in a dress and a tasteful string of pearls, brings his show to Tel Aviv on Tuesday.

Ezra Furman.
Cantwell Faulkner Muckenfuss IV

When Ezra Furman’s broken voice merges with the trumpet blasts, shoo-ba-doo-wop and dirty bass line of his band, the Boy-Friends, cacophony reigns. But when the background noise fades to permit a telephone conversation, Furman sounds rather sad, hesitant.

About a week before arriving for his first performance in Israel (on Tuesday at Tel Aviv’s Barby club), this dress-wearing, observant Jewish man who counts Iggy Pop and Chrissie Hynde among his fans was still in shock over the Orlando massacre.

“I was just writing a Facebook post about the shooting in Orlando and how the tour that I’m about to go on is dedicated to its victims,” he says. “I’m devastated. I take it hard whenever anything happens that makes, I guess, queer people feel less safe and less welcome in the world. I think a lot of us have this thing, like, ‘The world is against me, the world doesn’t want me to exist,’ or something.”

There were attacks on the gay community in Israel as well. Yishai Schlissel went to the Pride Parade in Jerusalem last year and stabbed a teen girl to death.

“I hope people know that this stuff happens all the time on a smaller scale, you know? People get killed for not being straight,” Furman says. “The Facebook post was kind of trying to say again that we’re strong and my shows are like a counterattack.” He adds that his music is for anyone who wants to listen, especially queer people.

When asked if there’s any way to make sure a show is safe, Furman says it’s “the venue’s job” to guarantee security. “I think it’s clear that I welcome queer people,” he says. “I am queer, and if [you have] some kind of a problem with that, then you’re not really welcome at our shows.

“I think there’s a lot of messages that are given out subtly everyday to people that are not straight that you’re not welcome, in various ways,” he continues. “Sometimes there’s a day where I don’t feel good being out in the world, and I feel unsafe in the world in general. And an anxiety about just showing up in the world. It’s kind of irrational, but people do say things to me out in the street about how I’m dressed.”

Vintage skirts and a kippa

When Furman wears women’s clothing, he goes for vintage skirts that show off his pale legs, dramatic makeup and fake pearls that bounce against his flat chest, rather than red-carpet gowns and high heels. Sometimes a kippa completes the ensemble.

He says becoming more religiously observant “was another kind of coming out of the closet – you know, ‘I actually care about this stuff more than I told anyone.’ It’s all part of the past five years or so. I just started to be much more confident, much more honest with people around me about everything in my life, and I think [my] music has gotten a lot better since I did that actually, and more popular.”

In an opinion piece he wrote for British daily The Guardian, Furman counts himself among nonheterosexual or non-gender-conforming musicians such as Grace Jones, Boy George, Anohni (formerly known as Antony or Antony Hegarty), as well as his greatest hero, Lou Reed.

“Far from being a showbiz gimmick, for me dressing as I please has signalled the end of a lifelong performance of straightforward masculinity,” he wrote.

In an earlier blog written for the same newspaper, journalist Michael Hann wrote that Furman “answers a question you didn’t know you were asking,” and notes that “those who know him think he’s one of the most compelling artists working at the moment.”

Any idea what you’re going to wear at the Barby?

“Oh God, I don’t know. I don’t know. Don’t ask me that. Maybe I won’t wear anything – naked show, Red Hot Chili Peppers-style. I don’t like to think too hard about it; it just stresses me out sometimes.”

This is Furman’s first professional visit to Israel. However, he previously visited as part of a Taglit-Birthright tour 12 years ago.

“Actually, we went to Europe first. We went to Poland. We went to concentration camps, then I went to Israel and it was very powerful,” he recalls. “It was also very indoctrinating, kind of like, ‘Support Israel ... you’re on our side.’ It’s an amazing thing, actually, to just be at a concentration camp and then fly on a plane the next day and just be in Israel.”

Did Taglit have any impact on you religiously?

“Well, I was kind of being Orthodox before that trip, and around then is when I stopped being Orthodox. But I don’t think it was related. No, it was powerful in some religious way or in some ethnic way. It felt like this is where my people are, and I’ve never been around all Jews before. But no, it’s been a long, strange trip with Judaism and observance.

“There’s a lot of things in my life that don’t line up with Orthodox observance,” he adds, “but I like all of the parts of it I love: I just love keeping Shabbos in a very Orthodox way. I’m into Torah study, but I’m also queer and I’m finding places [where] I was both the most socially progressive and the most traditionally Jewish – that’s where I want to be.”

How do you observe Shabbat and keep kosher on an international tour?

“I just didn’t think it was going to be possible. I thought I was going to have to stop touring and get a different job, because Friday nights are such a huge going-out night. But I [thought], ‘Why don’t I just say what I need and see if that’s possible,’ and it has been possible.

“Shabbat is the one that I focus on first,” he says. “In terms of keeping kosher, I’ve basically just been vegetarian. I want to be fully vegetarian anyway, though sometimes my mom makes chicken soup and I have to eat it. I just love it.”

Are you influenced by Jewish scripture? Who are the main Jewish influences on you?

“It just all seeps in, you know, like my whole worldview is just informed, and I read a lot. I like Abraham Joshua Heschel, he’s my main man,” says Furman. “I put in these little Jewish hints, little references that I think people don’t notice that much, but they’re all over the place.”

You know that progressive Orthodoxy barely exists in Israel. Actually, those concepts are on a collision course.

“I think that’s close to true. ... Probably Americans coming to Israel have some of those places. But yeah, it’s so split in Israel.”

Because we live in a country that’s defined as Jewish before democratic...

“If I lived in Israel, I would probably not be religious, honestly, because of that. Just because of how it goes that you’re either one or the other, and I am not good at being one or the other.”

Aren’t you afraid of getting Jerusalem syndrome?

“Well, I don’t know, that doesn’t sound so bad. Sounds kind of fun,” he says, adding that it would be interesting if he were to keep shouting “Mashiah” (messiah) during the Tel Aviv show. In any event, he says, the gig will be great.

Life-changing bar mitzvah present

Furman is single, 29 and was raised in a nonreligious environment in a Chicago suburb. As a young teen he began studying Judaism, while at the same time he started exploring his sexuality and getting involved in music. At 12 he discovered punk rock through Green Day and The Ramones, and at 13 received a life-changing bar mitzvah present: a guitar.

He released three albums with The Harpoons and a further three with the Boy-Friends. Furman sings openly about dealing with depression and emotional crises. On “Watch You Go By,” one of the songs on “Perpetual Motion People” – his most recent and very well-reviewed album – he sings, “I’ve got a bright future in music / As long as I never find true happiness.”

He also writes and sings about prejudice, loneliness, faith and being different.

His Tumblr account offers a “Guide for the Perplexed” to his life, and also includes requests for help from young people coming out as bisexual, reports from his concert tours, and quotes from Kurt Cobain and Yoko Ono.

Tell me about life now you’re famous.

“It’s amusing that there’s all this attention and everything. But what I’m really doing is trying to make something that’s truly great by my own standards – because I listen to music and think about it all the time. I have my own standards of greatness, and that’s what I’m going for. I don’t think that getting [a] response and praise means that much; I don’t think that in itself really means anything, because there’s a lot of bad music that’s really popular. So I just try to ignore it. I mean, not ignore it – I enjoy it, I love it, but what I’m really doing is trying to be great, and trying to make the perfect record and put on the perfect show by my own standards.

“Maybe perfect is the wrong word,” he adds. “My standard of perfect is very weird. ... I think the last record is just a total mess, and I like it that way because I’m a mess of a person. I’m all over the place emotionally and socially and spiritually and sexually – all this stuff is just kind of a mess.”

How do you feel about the Trump-Clinton fight?

“Well, I mean, I don’t think Trump stands a chance – but I didn’t think he was going to get nominated, so now I’m a little bit scared. Hillary Clinton all the way, I love her. I mean, I don’t love her, but we have to pretend we love. ... I am really excited that a woman will be president of the United States, it makes me so happy.

“It’s hard to remember that it’s a symbol of the strongest kind,” he says. “We got to stop that other guy. He’s the worst. He literally is the worst person ever to run for president. ... I just believe in voting. Not voting is like voting for the person you don’t want. There’s really no such thing as not voting.”