Left: A nice Jewish boy. Right: A bad Jewish man. Photo by Jason Lloyd Miller
I’ve known Ari Gold since we were ten. We went to an Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva together. He was my first big crush because he sang jingles for TV commercials and we both loved Madonna, which, in the Orthodox community, automatically made us freaks. And which, as I of course didn’t realize at the time, made Ari gay. Flash forward 20 years and I’m working at a magazine called Vice while Ari is a successful, dance-chart-topping, out R&B singer who is inclined to perform topless, greased-up, and in a wrestler’s mask, while singing songs with Yiddish lyrics. Like our parents often say, “Oy! Why us? Everyone else grew up normal, why do you have to be so different?” Well, let’s find out.
Vice: Remember how, in eighth grade, we wanted to hold hands but we couldn’t because we were super religious at the time?
Ari Gold: Right, we were shomer negiya.
Which is the law that boys and girls can’t touch at all—so we held the ends of a rolled-up paper towel together.
I remember that. I love that there was a whole system in place, like a policing of affection between a man and a woman, but since I’m gay, that’s not even where I would be turned on anyway. Like the whole concept of the machitzah in shul [the wall separating men and women in synagogue]. The whole point is so that you’re not turned on by the person sitting next to you. How’s that supposed to work if you’re gay?
One of my coworkers asked me the other day, “What are those strappy things Jews wear when they pray?”
Tefillin. Phylacteries are what they’re called in English.
But they were like, “Why?” and I really had no idea. People ask me that kind of stuff all the time.
I kind of know. Want me to tell you?
Well, you put the tefillin around your head and your arm so it points to the heart and it’s supposed to represent a complete immersion in prayer—your mind, your body, and your heart are all focused on prayer... And that’s why we wear leather straps too. But you know, leather straps in an all-male environment, tied tightly around biceps? It’s totally hot to me.
You would look at people in high school during prayer?
Yes. Yes, I would.
Who did you think was hot in high school?
Ha! Yeah, he was fairly hunky. So here’s the big question: How do you go from being a nice Orthodox Jewish boy to a topless, greased-up, gay R&B singer? And what’s more—unlike me, who has pretty much shunned Orthodox Judaism—you still use words like mishegas [nonsense] in regular conversation and you wear a chai necklace and you wear tefillin in one of your music videos and there’s Jewish lingo in all in your music and stuff. How can you still be involved in Judaism?
Well, everybody has to figure things out for themselves, obviously, and everybody makes their own choices, and everybody has a different set of trauma around growing up religious.
Your best friends are all black drag queens and yet you use Yiddish words all the time. Isn’t that weird?
First of all, the black drag queens love the Jews and they love all things Jewish, so it only ups my cachet. Also, I didn’t hate everything about growing up Jewish, and if I had just completely negated or rejected all of it, then I’d have let them win in a sense. Orthodox Jews don’t own it. I mean, this thing is a tradition and a culture that’s existed for thousands and thousands of years, but the Orthodox think that they hold the copyright or something. I want to show people that you can be Jewish and you can be gay and you can do both at the same time.
So you still want to be involved in the Jewish community?
I don’t want to be involved in the Orthodox community, but when I think about the three things that are running through every part of me, they are being Jewish, growing up in show business, and being gay. Those three things influence everything about me and I can’t separate them. I have much more of a nostalgic concept of my childhood than you do. You have completely blocked shit out. I reached a huge pinnacle of my career at age 12, so I have a whole different relationship to my childhood because of that.
Right. Can you give us a quick summary of what you mean when you say you grew up in show business?
I was discovered singing at my brother’s bar mitzvah. They put me into a Jewish children’s song contest that was sort of like American Idol for Orthodox Jews, and I won first prize. Then, the engineer there was doing this children’s story record and asked me to audition, and that was “Pot Belly Bear.” Remember “Pot Belly Bear?”
Oh yeah. That one is very pedophile-y.
I’m singing to a bear, “I love my potbelly bear.” And there was another song, “Spend lots of time together, we sit and talk, share toys and pretend.”
Oh my God. And then the bear’s voice is all low, like, “Helloooo, young man.” It’s so sick.
It is. And after that, one thing led to the next.
Give us a little rundown of your most famous childhood jingles and appearances.
[singing] “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid!” “Kids are big and kids are small, Kids ‘R’ Us!” “A is for apple, J is for jacks, cinnamon crunchy Apple Jacks!” “Look what they’ve done to my oatmeal!” “The good time, great taste of McDonald’s!” “Gatorade is thirst-ade for that deep-down body thirst!
Cabbage Patch Kids, Jem & the Holograms, My Buddy.
My Buddy! That’s the big one. “My buddy! Wherever I go, he goes!”
Jem & the Holograms is the one most people are impressed by. I’m impressed because I love Jem.
Yeah, you were obsessed with it. You would draw her in your notebook over and over and over. And weren’t you on a soap opera too?
Briefly, on All My Children.
You were very skinny and scrawny as a kid, but once you came out you got all beefy. Now you look like a buff Hispanic guy.
Well, good. Yeah, I’ve gotten in touch with my masculinity later on in life. But as a child, I was a pretty effeminate gay boy.
Remember how everyone thought Shuli Weiner was such a slut in seventh grade because there was a rumor that she showed her boobs to her boyfriend and put a pubic hair in a locket for him? I mean, who came up with that? A pubic hair in a locket? And it was the scandal of the century.
It was like, “Will we ever speak to her again?” It was a moral outrage.
It’s so twisted! I always tell people these stories, and they’re like, “Are you serious?” It’s shocking to them.
And all the rules. Just how many rules there are. There isn’t a single second of your life that you aren’t doing something religious.
And the fact that nobody questions it. This is what I always tell people is the quintessential experience of growing up Orthodox Jewish for me. Remember that class Rabbi Weiser taught? One day he was trying to prove that God existed based on the existence of the dung beetle. The dung beetle is so amazing that only God could have created it, was his reasoning. I raised my hand and I was like, “But…” and I started saying something to argue with him, and suddenly Michael Kule, the most popular kid in our grade—I’ll never forget this—he turned around in his seat to face me, and shouted, “Just shut up and accept it!”
That’s like something out of a bad teen movie.
That’s it in a nutshell, right? That’s exactly how I feel about religion. Do you keep kosher now?
I keep antikosher. I still get pleasure out of a lobster. It still feels sinful.
That’s interesting because I hate shellfish. And it’s not because I won’t eat it cause it’s not kosher, but if you put a lobster in front of me, I’m like, “That is a giant roach with an exoskeleton.” Same thing with crabs, shrimp. They’re bugs, and they’re gross! And everyone thinks that I’m crazy. I guess it’s somehow in my mind, because I didn’t grow up with it, now it’s foreign to me. But there’s lots of other things I didn’t grow up with that I like now.
Ha. But yeah, something was internalized in me that these are disgusting things. They’re dirty, they’re bottom feeders, they eat their own shit.
But I would watch Red Lobster commercials and think it looked incredible and wish that I could eat at Red Lobster. Red Lobster to me was like, “Wow.” And McDonald’s and Burger King cheeseburgers. I remember my first cheeseburger very, very clearly. It was at Cozy’s on Broadway. Near NYU. It was quite a good cheeseburger.
Mine was at McDonald’s.
That’s a good cheeseburger to have.
It made me queasy. But anyway, whenever there’s an article about you in Jewish Week, my mom clips it out for me. Do you have any gay Jewish fans?
I definitely have gay Jews who love what I do, and who appreciate what I do, specifically.
But you could easily not do this Jewish thing. You could also not do the gay thing and just be a normal R&B singer.
Yeah, and I’ve worked with a lot of big-name producers and record-company executives who all told me not to be gay. They said, “I’ll make you a star, but don’t be gay and don’t be Jewish.” This one time, this big-name record producer, who shall remain nameless, told me I should go in the closet and he’d make me a star, and he also Photoshopped the chai necklace out of all my press photos. Oh, and he told me I should change my name to Snake.
What? Change your name to Snake?
From Ari Gold to Snake. By the way, aren’t we gonna talk about the Entourage Ari Gold thing?
I hate that show. Whenever I see that guy, I think, hey, he stole my friend’s name.
After everything I struggled with to keep my name, keep my chai, and trying to prove that a Jewish man could be a sexy pop star, there comes this character on HBO, who’s a sleazy agent, which is a typical Jewish stereotype. It’s so annoying.
Yeah, it’s a shame—a real shanda!