Gefilte Fetish: Meet the Jews at San Francisco’s Annual S&M Festival

Omer Shubert
October 13, 2013


Hundreds of men are walking around with their penis exposed, but Amelia Nahman insists on talking about the connection between the event and charity, benevolence and Jewish values.

Among us are dozens of women and men with bleeding backs and signs of pain, but Jacob Richards explains to me that his rabbi is not against it, and that a few guys from his synagogue even came over this morning to say hello.

On the various stages, brutal lashings are being administered, people are hanging from chains attached to their nipples or are just bound to revolving wheels. But the girls from the Jewish community at the Exiles group booth invite me to join them for Friday-evening prayers, to be followed immediately after by a really kinky leather party.

On September 29, the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco − the world’s biggest BDSM event ‏(referring to erotic practices involving dominance and submission‏) − celebrated 30 years of leather, with more than 300,000 wildly enthusiastic fans who dressed ‏(if that’s the right word‏) especially for the festivities.

It’s the biggest exhibition of sexual deviations ‏(or fetishes, to stick to the local, politically correct terminology‏) on Earth. Held annually, it represents the peak of the events of “Leather Week,” which are held in tandem. The fair, which is identified with the homosexual community, has extended its range in recent years. There is now also a special area for women who love women, and quite a few straights ‏(in couples or alone‏) are also enjoying the scene.

If you chance on the event with no prior preparation, you would do well to stick to a few basic rules issued by the organizers:


1. Don’t stare too hard. Yes, everyone is here in order to be looked at, but we’re not talking about animals in a zoo. By the same token, don’t point or giggle.

2. Taking photos is not always welcomed. This being a public space, there are no legal restrictions, but quite a few photographers have been forced to learn the hard way that they’re not wanted. To avoid problems, ask for permission; if it’s a porn star, though, feel free.

3. If you run into your boss, or recognize someone you know well in a position you know less well, pretend you didn’t see and try not to gossip about what you saw ‏(the first rule of “Fight Club” is also the first rule of Folsom‏).

4. The bottle with the yellow liquid? Don’t drink from it ‏(unless that’s your thing‏).

5. Be ready for crowding of a kind you have never experienced before. This is the second-largest event in San Francisco, so if you’re not into rubbing up against masses of people, some of them naked, without any real possibility of escaping quickly, you might want to think again about attending.

The yellow bottles thing is internalized quickly, but refraining from prolonged staring turns out to be something of a challenge. It’s not that you can’t take your eyes off one element or another ‏(such as a completely naked elderly man who is screaming loudly because he’s tied to a lamppost and someone is hitting him on the penis with some sort of electrical device‏) − it’s just that there’s no safe place on which to fix your gaze. Gaze where you will, your eyes will fall on a ring-pierced penis, a pair of breasts that show signs of caning, or just people being whipped or tied up. There are also quite a few snazzy costumes void of sexual elements, but the vast majority of the crowd is hard-core.

Even though what’s on view is a modern illustration of the term “Sodom and Gomorrah,” the people in the event’s control room are convinced the Shechinah is with them. What you find there is a group of young Jews who regularly attend synagogue, share Shabbat meals and consult with rabbis. They take pride in their Judaism and believe wholeheartedly that their distinctive sexual preferences are consistent with the values of the Jewish religion − with most of them, at least.

For the past three years, 30-year-old Jacob Richards − a proud Jewish lawyer whose baby face would not raise the slightest suspicion of his sadomasochistic side − was the president of the event’s board of directors. This is a volunteer body, which works throughout the year to ensure that the event comes off. This year he decided to rest and vacated the presidential throne in favor of his deputy, Rae Goldman, who is also Jewish. ‏(She could not be interviewed, because of restrictions relating to her real job.‏)

“I don’t have a formal role right now, but as you can see there’s no shortage of work,” Richards says, as he calls a mechanic to extricate a truck that’s stuck. “In the end it’s mostly menial work, logistics. It’s not easy to organize an event for hundreds of thousands of people, with so many booths and stages.”

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