Summer’s here and the city child’s heart turns to Coney Island. This is a Jewish paper so here’s the Jewish angle. Jennifer Miller may not be the only bearded lady but she’s the only Jewish women in the Coney Island Freak Show Hall of Fame. You don’t want to know how many of the men in this Hall are Jewish.
I met Jennifer a while back, while doing a story on Coney Island, and I enjoyed her intelligence and company.
Her "Hall of Fame" honor sent me back to look at old notes.
She recalled that Dick Zigun, the Jewish guy who runs Coney Island’s wild side
was walking along the boardwalk when he spotted Jennifer, and he invited her into his Coney Island sideshow.
"I decided to try it," Jennifer said, She was wary of "the sideshow imagery, not wanting not to be a freak. But this has brought out a strength I didn’t know I had. I’m not so afraid now. I come from this vulnerable introduction as the bearded lady that people want to jeer at, and I turn it around and develop a loving exchange with my audience."
Jennifer, who grew her beard as part of her flair for "queer" assertiveness, also juggled machetes — doing a vaudvillian turn by dropping the machetes as part of her act — as she Houdinis her way out of a strait jacket and several layers of chains. She does a comedy bit about how much all women have to pluck, as she pluck-pluck-pluck-plucks like a chicken.
"Its not enough for me to grow hair on my face anymore," she explained. "You have to have several acts to make a living."
An afficianado of Yiddish culture and a frequent visitor to Klez Camp, Miller said, "I would have liked to have been a rabbi, if only I started my education earlier."
Anyway, she asked, what do rabbis have that women rabbis don’t? "A beard," laughed the bearded lady who lives in chasidic Williamsburg. "I’m almost a Satmar. If only they would let me."
I asked Jennifer to tell me something Jewish about the freak show. "I am," she smiled.
But more than that. Unlike other cultures that bullied the unusual, or left freaks to die on the edge of town, or to float away down the river, or to even be killed as a way of expurgating the devil, religious Jews understood that freaks were just another of God’s creations — created in the image of God, as much as any of us. There is even a blessing to be said when seeing an exceptionally strange looking person: "Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who makes the creatures different."
"I talk to God now and then. Especially when I need help," she said laughing. "I’m like everybody else. What I say to God is, `God, please help me get through all this little day of terror.’ Other times I have to thank God for the gloriousness of it all."
It doesn’t get more Jewish than that.