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.