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The sacred and the profane


Like a lot of people cobbling together a living in a still-recovering economy that hasn't been kind to the middle class, Irwin Keller is a man with two jobs.

In one life, this former attorney and serious student of the Torah, who speaks fluent Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish, wears slacks, a shirt and a yarmulke as spiritual leader for the progressive Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati. The gentle Reb, or teacher, sermonizes and presides over bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings fulfilling, in some measure, his lifelong dream to be a rabbi.

In his other life, the 53-year-old Keller prefers structured dresses, a red beehive, gloves and pearls — always pearls — as a drag Winnie, the prim good-girl of The Kinsey Sicks musical performance group. An award-winning "Dragapella Beauty Shop Quartet" with a wholesome "Hairspray" look, the outrageous "girls" have been singing naughty satire to largely adoring audiences in four-part harmony for 20 years.

So how to explain the dichotomous roles that sound more like the punchline for a joke than a real life resum?of the seriously funny Reb Irwin Keller?

"I'm lucky," he says. "I walk this balance in my life between sacred and profane, sublime and ridiculous. The Kinseys push people to think in new ways, and on the pulpit I try to do the same."

Lynn Keller says her whole family is funny, but she believes her bookwormish, Tolkien-devouring baby brother's biggest "funny bone" came from their father, a band leader in the Chicago area where they grew up.

"He was hysterically funny," she recalls, "and Irwin absorbed him like a sponge."

The rich inheritance includes the elder Keller's repertoire of funny faces, which Irwin reanimates in Winnie, "the awkward, controlling, Jewish, lesbian den mother of the group," during extended pauses that always draw big laughs.

But Keller says his father's humor was physical and never mean, a non-caustic style he carries on in both his roles, whether he's putting a contemporary spin on an old lesson during services at the synagogue or singing his heart out to "Oh Tranny Boy," a parody of the poignant ballad, "Oh Danny Boy."

On Monday night, Keller brings his campy Kinsey Sicks — the name is a play on Six, the far end of the Kinsey scale of sexual orientation signaling homosexuality — to The Person Theater at Sonoma State University.

A benefit for Congregation Ner Shalom, it will be the only U.S. performance this year of their irreverent, evergreen, ecumenical holiday romp, "Oy Vey in a Manger."

"It gives us an opportunity to retell history in irreverent ways and silly ways and to make fun of both horrible holiday music and beloved holiday music," Keller says.

Wanted to be a rabbi

Keller never set out to be a performer. Raised within a German-Jewish family in a progressive Reform synagogue, his first wish was to be a rabbi.

"I loved my Judaisim right from the start," says Keller, who as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois spent a year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, studying Biblical Torah, Aramaic and Hebrew as well as Classical Egyptian, Yiddish and archaeology.

"I crammed a tremendous amount of learning into that year," he says.

But he ran up against a wall. At the time, openly gay men were not permitted in rabbinical school. After doing graduate work in linguistics and near-Eastern languages, he enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School, figuring that a law degree would give him more muscle as a gay-rights activist.

While in law school he wrote Chicago's 1989 gay-rights law.

Keller later came to San Francisco to hone his skills at a corporate firm, which he hated. He wound up as a staff attorney and later executive director of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel in San Francisco, which provides low-cost legal services to people with HIV and AIDS.

Harmonic chord

It was during that period that The Kinsey Sicks were born. They seemed to strike a harmonic chord at a sensitive time.

"I think people were in such an ongoing state of grief that they were forgetting how to laugh," he said.

He and three friends decided on a lark to dress in drag for a Bette Midler concert. They drew so much attention they starting jerking social chains by going out for drinks dressed in drag at tony spots like the Mark Hopkins Hotel.

That led to their first performance before 100 onlookers at the Muni Station at Castro and Market and eventually offers of paying gigs.

Since then they've performed in 41 states and three continents and have starred in their own Off-Broadway show at New York's Studio 54.

Keller's humor is gently evident but toned down at Ner Shalom, an inclusive synagogue affiliated with the progressive Reconstructionist Judaism that is rather poetically housed in what was once the Cotati Cabaret.

He joined the congregation seven years ago after moving with his spouse, Oren Slozberg, to Penngrove, where the couple co-parent two children with another couple in an arrangement he likens to a Kibbutz.

The congregation at the time was looking for a rabbi and Keller started filling in, incorporating music, poetry and what is called "Storah telling" to make old stories feel more relevant to contemporary ears.

"We realized we didn't need a rabbi, we needed Irwin," says Shari Brenner, past president of the board, who calls him "brilliant," whether he's being Reb Keller or Winnie.

Since taking over the spiritual leadership of the congregation, it has more than tripled in size to over 100 family members, up to one half of whom are gay or lesbian.

He's deeply serious about his Judaism, but is not afraid to bring gentle humor into the synagogue to break up an awkward moment.

As he says, "You just have to dare to do it."

You can reach staff writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.