The sacred and the profane

  • Irwin Keller, a former attorney who is the spiritual leader at Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, also is “Winnie,” the prim good-girl member of the popular drag musical satire performance group, The Kinsey Sicks. (KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat)

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 resumé 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.

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