Moses, as illustrated by Max Chernley in Saul Sugarman's "Gay Passover: The Gayest Version of Exodus Ever Told"
Moses, as illustrated by Max Chernley in Saul Sugarman's "Gay Passover: The Gayest Version of Exodus Ever Told"

An only-in-S.F. gay haggadah reflects writer’s own journey

Saul Sugarman is a performance artist, journalist, event planner, photographer and apparel-maker. He created a mirror-covered disco helmet that caught the eye of singer Miley Cyrus, who wore it onstage. Oh, and he likes to cook and throw dinner parties, sometimes with his own brisket as the centerpiece.

The 32-year-old San Francisco resident clearly has his finger in a lot of pies, but none that could have forecast his newest endeavor, producing a gay-themed haggadah.

“Gay Passover: The Gayest Version of Exodus Ever Told” takes more than a few liberties with the Exodus story. In Sugarman’s telling, openly gay celeb Neil Patrick Harris is Moses and Cher is the godlike leader. Liberace, little dogs and leather onesies represent three of the plagues. (For suburban straight people, plagues include glitter bombs and skinny jeans.)

Sugarman drew on his personal experience as well as popular cultural references and stereotypes from the 1990s and 2000s to craft his innovative take on the Jewish holiday, according to his project website.

“I wanted to take the best traditions of Passover and recast them for gay audiences,” he recounts. “Seder for Jews is about remembering our shared cultural heritage and road to self-discovery. Now it can be for the LGBTQ community, too.”

His take on the Jewish liberation from Egypt is part parody and part social commentary.

a man in a glittering silver jacket with a disco ball bicycle helmet taking a selfie
Saul Sugarman

“This book is personal to me,” he said, because like countless other members of the LGBTQ community, he struggled to achieve his own sense of liberation. “I identified a lot with the story I wrote.”

In “Gay Passover,” a beleaguered young Neil leaves a homophobic Middle America where residents have “totally basic hair-dos” and leads his LGBTQ community to the Promised Land “of muscled men and overpriced lattes” — aka San Francisco — with a little help from his allies, who include Cher and Oprah.

To make the expanded haggadah as he imagined it, Sugarman commissioned one of his Facebook friends, artist Max Charnley, to do full-color illustrations. He then embarked on a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a professional printing of what is now a 46-page book.

Born and reared in Sacramento, Sugarman said that he was the balebusta — the super host — in his Reform Jewish family. “I was the person who made sure the seder and Hanukkah would happen,” he said.

As a closeted gay youth, he was plagued by “awkwardness and outsiderness,” along with a bad case of acne. “The girls asked me to play on their team because they were missing a girl,” he said, recalling a painful episode from his school days.

Sugarman found some comfort at his family’s synagogue, Temple Or Rishon, where he bonded with “progressive peers, some of whom were questioning and gay, although we didn’t talk about it.” He also felt a “personal connection” with the rabbis who led the congregation when he was an adolescent.

cartoonish illustration of the exterior of a strip club called "The Burning Bush"
The burning bush as illustrated by Max Chernley in Saul Sugarman’s “Gay Passover: The Gayest Version of Exodus Ever Told”

After graduating from UC Davis, where he studied philosophy and political science, Sugarman went overseas to teach English in mainland China. He earned a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Hong Kong and found his way back to the U.S., where he worked for the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, Bay City News Service and the San Francisco Daily Journal.

Sugarman put his homespun haggadah together in 2015 to share the seder story with his non-Jewish friends and LGBTQ community. It became kind of an obsession for his network of friends and social media followers, many of whom connected with the narrative.

In addition to the Neil Patrick Harris story, Sugarman’s haggadah features a “gayder plate” with symbols of the LGBTQ community, an autobiographical piece about his own coming out story, songs and games and, at the end, a number of recipes, including his brisket, matzah ball soup and some Passover-appropriate cocktails.

He says the story is not religious and only loosely resembles the one found in a traditional Passover haggadah, but nevertheless believes people can use it as the main haggadah.

“You can also just buy it to read and enjoy a humorous story written by me,” Sugarman suggests on his website.

Most of his nearly 200 Kickstarter backers earned a haggadah, which is available at gaypassover.com. He is planning a May 4 launch event and belated seder at the Academy, a private gay club in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood. The event is a limited-capacity dinner for Academy members and guests, but those looking for a ticket can email Sugarman at  info@gaypassover.com. The dinner will run about $80 per person. n

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.