As someone who is involved in Jewish LGBT work, I am often surprised people tell me that they had no idea that we Jews have queer clergy. Not only are we very proud of the work they do, but they’ve also been around (openly, anyway) for over a quarter century !
With this post, we’re launching a new column spotlighting a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender rabbi or cantor. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy will cover both those who have paved the way, and those who are the up-and-coming trailblazers. It can be hard to come out, and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very excited to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories.
In 1999, Rabbi Steve Greenberg became the first out Orthodox rabbi. Five years later, Rabbi Greenberg published Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, a book that is not only an new look at depictions of same-sex relationships in Jewish sacred texts, but also examines these relationships in Jewish poetry and case law.
We’re proud to partner with Rabbi Greenberg in his work to bring full inclusion to the full spectrum of the Jewish community.
How has being gay informed your work as a rabbi?
I’m not sure being gay informs anything. It conditions things. It conditioned my growing up in a way that was sometimes scary, and very often confusing and alienating—as in making me feel like an alien in my own family and community.
For some people the experience of alienation leads to spiritual searching, for others it does not. For me, it did. Seeking a haven in ancient books, in a “child of a survivor” historical consciousness, and in God made perfect sense when I didn’t feel so at home in the world. While it was not the only cause for my budding interest in Torah study, the promise of a world very different from the All-American hyper-hetero teen world of the 1970s was surely part of my story.
My decision to become a rabbi was all about my love of the learning and the living realities of a religious community. I was able to sublimate and not really attend to my inner life for years. When I was twenty and in a yeshiva in Israel I could no longer deny the power of my feelings. Confused and scared, I went to a Haredi rabbi, the recently passed posek (high-level decisor of Jewish law), Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashuv. Quite surprisingly, he calmed me and gave me hope by describing my illicit desires as a power of love. I felt at the time I was bisexual enough to make a life with a woman. For fifteen years I dated women hoping this is what would happen. Once the fantasy of this way out evaporated, I realized that my gayness was either going to end my rabbinic career or shape it. I chose the latter.
In January 2012, Keshet’s Director of Special Projects, Gregg Drinkwater, addressed audiences at Limmud Colorado, a conference dedicated to advancing new and innovative ideas in the context of Jewish learning. Below is an excerpt of a story Gregg shared about an Orthodox rabbi who recently came out as an ally of LGBT Jews. Gregg reminds us that while loving our neighbors is more important than judging them for whom they love, it’s still a big deal to hear that articulated in the Orthodox world.
Shmuly Yanklowitz, a liberal Orthodox rabbi in Los Angeles, recently wrote a blog post in which he recounted “coming out” during an interfaith panel discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. During the panel, he “[came] out of the closet … as an Orthodox rabbi who is a proud ally with those of LGBT orientation,” as he put it.
Friends of mine shared and debated Rabbi Yanklowitz’s essay in emails and on Facebook. In one such Facebook discussion, friends commented how glad they were to see an Orthodox rabbi speaking publicly as an ally of the LGBT community. One friend wrote: “davening in a shul with an Orthodox rabbi like [Rabbi Shmuly] has made Orthodox Judaism possible for me.”
Others, though, asked why this was so important. A Modern Orthodox rabbi saying he’s an ally of LGBT people? No big deal. It’s 2012 and this rabbi is only one among many Modern Orthodox colleagues (and entire armies of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis) known as supporters of inclusion of LGBT Jews. Some critics noted that his panel discussion and subsequent blog post took place in Los Angeles – not a place known as a hotbed of anti-gay sentiment. Where were the rabbis speaking out as LGBT allies in Monsey, one friend asked? Other critics noted that Rabbi Yanklowitz’s short essay didn’t tackle the halakha of homosexuality, or offer specifics about what being an ally meant to him.
The most striking comment came from a friend-of-a-friend who dismissed Rabbi Yanklowitz’s statement because, he argued, it’s already the case that anti-LGBT behavior is no longer tolerated in Modern Orthodox communities. And, he continued, most Modern Orthodox Jews today believe that Leviticus 19:18 trumps Leviticus 18:22.
Leviticus 18:22 famously forbids a man from “lying with a man as with a woman,” while 19:18 instructs each one of us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” In his comments on Rabbi Yanklowitz’s blog post, this friend-of-a-friend seemed to be suggesting not only that “love your neighbor as yourself” is, as Rashi has noted, citing Rabbi Akiva, the “great principle of the Torah.” But he was also arguing that in today’s Modern Orthodox communities, it is understood that it is not our place to judge our LGBT brothers and sisters, and that we ought to show LGBT Jews the empathy and support we ourselves would expect in the face of our own struggles and challenges with Torah and halakha, whatever they may be.
As an advocate for inclusive communities, I have personally engaged with Jewish communities around LGBT issues all over the world. I’m not sure that I can agree with this well-meaning friend-of-a-friend’s expansive suggestion that we’ve moved beyond Leviticus 18:22. I hear regularly from Jews worldwide who are eagerly seeking the support of people like Rabbi Yanklowitz. LGBT Jews regularly share stories with Keshet of demeaning, hurtful, homophobic and transphobic comments from their rabbinic and communal leaders. Too many Orthodox rabbis still do give voice to anti-gay rhetoric, sometimes actively maligning LGBT people – more often passively refusing to speak out when hateful sentiments are shared in Jewish communities or the wider world. Too few members of Orthodox communities see or hear from community leaders like Rabbi Yanklowitz.
It is still noteworthy for an Orthodox rabbi to publicly and in print “come out” as an ally. Very few Orthodox rabbis have done so. Many Orthodox rabbis (and many more non-rabbinic Orthodox leaders) speak privately to LGBT folks as allies, or make statements in workshops or conference sessions, or are known in LGBT circles to be allies. But public statements that are “on the record” are indeed rare.
This published statement from Rabbi Yanklowitz might be seen by a struggling gay or transgender Orthodox teen, or a closeted Jewish adult, or the fearful parent of a lesbian daughter, and it might give them hope or comfort. Private conversations and “in-crowd” knowledge about who is and who isn’t an ally are great but they aren’t visible to the vast majority of LGBT Jews, their families and their friends – people who need the guidance, support and affirmation.
As much as we aspire to live in a world in which Leviticus 19:18 guides our every thought and every action, we aren’t there yet. Until then, yasher koach to Rabbi Yanklowitz!
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Alex Weissman examines parashat Re’eh, which contains rules and directions for Temple worship.
This week’s parasha starts with the kind of moralizing binary we are quite accustomed to seeing in Torah. If you do X, great. If you do Y, curses. X and Y are then elaborated in great detail, including instructions on when to worship (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), how to worship (tithes, votives, sacrifice the firstlings of your herds and flocks), what not to worship (false prophets or dream-givers), and what not to eat.
The name of the parasha, Re’eh, means “See” as the first line begins, “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse” (Deut. 11:26). Here, we are compelled to see the acts, be they blessed or cursed, and to see each other, blessed or cursed, depending on those acts. We are to be mutual observers, holding our communities accountable to the laws of Torah. Like so many commandments, these are designed to make us kadosh – that is, both holy – and set apart.
Essentially, Torah is asking us to draw a line—a line between “good Jews” (those who follow the mitzvot) and “bad Jews” (those who do not). It’s certainly a line people draw all the time today, often in our own lives. How many times have we heard, “Oh, I’m a bad Jew,” from friends or ourselves as we’ve bitten into a bacon cheeseburger, skipped Shabbat services, or forgot to daven. What constitutes good Jew vs. bad Jew may be different for different people, but the very presence of that line is something that has been deeply embedded in our communal psyche. Today, while we may not be sacrificing the firstlings of our herds and flocks anymore, we still draw these lines in different ways, including lines around “good” and “bad” sexual beings.
As we “see” each other in our communities of accountability, what are the lines that we draw for blessings and curses for sexual practices? As queer theorist Leo Bersani reminds us in his book, Homos, “visibility is a precondition of surveillance, disciplinary intervention, and at the limit, gender-cleansing.” Being seen and visible may seem like a desirable goal, but it can also be dangerous.
As queer people, sexual moralizing has been used against us to promote violent systems of transphobia and heterosexism with painful impacts on our bodies, our lives, and our souls. But what happens when we respond to this external moralizing of our community’s sexual practices with a moralizing of our own? All too often we are pressured to represent ourselves reactively in an attempt to paint a sanitized version of our lives that erases the richness of sexual differences we could be proud of. Bersani again cautions us, “[In] our anxiety to convince straight society that we are only some malevolent invention and that we can be, like you, good soldiers, good parents, and good citizens, we seem bent on suicide.” Bersani is concerned that in our reactive desires to appear “respectable,” we risk further erasing the members of our communities who are already at the margins and do not have the ability to appear respectable even if they wanted to.
Imagine a contemporary version of Re’eh that enumerated the dominant sexual morals imposed on LGBTQ people. My guess is we would easily find practices that would place large portions of our communities at those erasable margins: protected vs. unprotected sex, with one partner vs. multiple partners, with a significant other vs. a stranger, in private vs. in public, not in exchange for money vs. in exchange for money, vanilla vs. BDSM, etc. Yet in our sexual lives, many of us engage in, or even desire to engage in, many of these marginalized sexual practices. How do we recognize the pleasures, risks, desires, and differences in our sexual lives in a way that does not buy normalcy at the cost of sacrificing our margins? The answer lies in Talmud.
“As the curse was pronounced by the Levites, so the blessing had to be pronounced by the Levites. As the curse was uttered in a loud voice, so the blessing had to be uttered in a loud voice. As the curse was said in Hebrew, so the blessing had to be said in Hebrew. As the curses were in general and particular terms, so must the blessings be in general and particular terms. And as with the curse both parties respond ‘Amen,’ so with the blessing both parties respond “Amen” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 37b.).
Blessing and curse are inseparable; if we utter a curse, so must we mutter a blessing. They both come from us in the same ways because we cannot and should not be ashamed of either—we say them both loudly, in Hebrew, and in relationship to others. Given their equal footing in ritual, I want to suggest that the blessing and curse are so intricately bound up with each other that curse and blessing actually bleed into each other so as to become one. In just a few chapters (Deut. 23:3-6), we’ll revisit the story of Balaam, whose curse for the Israelites turned into blessings three separate times! Blessing and curse collapse into each other as the boundaries between them are blurred.
If we see curses and blessings as such, perhaps we can see, as we are commanded, each other as Jews and as sexual beings who are simultaneously worthy of curses/blessings, which are determined not by the shaming practices of moralizing heterosexism, but by communities of righteousness and love who understand that, as Walt Whitman taught us, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Re’eh ends on a hopeful (albeit masculinist) note with more instructions on how to worship, “They shall not appear before Adonai empty handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that Adonai your God has bestowed upon you” (Deut. 16:16-17). If our holiness before God is determined “according to blessing that Adonai your god has bestowed upon” us, then God recognizes our holiness to include our curses as well. Let Re’eh be a model for us all to see the blessings, curses, and multitudes that exist within ourselves and each other as we celebrate the complexity of difference in our sexual and religious lives.
In the course of our work to create and nurture welcoming, inclusive, Jewish communities, we have the privilege of working with incredibly diverse people, institutions, and communities. And yet, over the years of doing this work, we’ve come across a few different messages and responses time and time again. We’ve collected five common things we hear from well-intentioned communities trying to be welcoming, but who aren’t sure where or why to begin. If you see yourself in any of these, don’t fret! We’ve all been there, or somewhere similar, before. Below each common message is some of our thinking about how to deal with this situation in your community, and we’d love to hear from you if you have other ideas, or additional questions!
1. “We don’t have a need for this kind of training; we don’t have any gay or trans people in our community.”
There are LGBTQ people, our families, and our friends in Jewish communities of every denomination, affiliation, size, political persuasion, and in every state and province of North America. (Abroad, too!) Living in a world that repeatedly tells us to be less than our full selves, a world marred by homophobia and transphobia, many of us learn to search for the subtle clues and indicators that it is safe for us to come out. If we don’t see them, we may stay silent about who we are – or who our family members and loved ones are – or we may simply leave in search of another, safer community. Often, when communities are proactive about creating welcoming, inclusive safe environments for LGBTQ Jews and our allies, we show up in unexpected places! (Like next to you in services, at your neighbor’s house for a shiva call, in your son’s Hebrew High class, and on the bimah.)
2. “We already have a lesbian on staff/in the congregation/on a committee/who came to an event once – so we’re already welcoming!”
It can be easy to see one LGBTQ person joining your community, or taking on leadership, and mark it as a harbinger of successful inclusion work. And it’s probably true that you’re doing some things right! But it’s important not to tokenize the one or two out LGBTQ people in your community. Tokenization is when we expect people of a particular identity to be the only folks speaking about, raising issues related to, or advocating for the needs of people who share their identity. Queer people shouldn’t be the only people carrying the flag of LGBTQ inclusion in your community. Because sometimes that flag gets heavy, and they might need to set it down, or hand it off to someone else. It can be exhausting to constantly advocate for yourself and your needs, and if you’re doing all of that work on your own, it’s easy to burn out. So while it’s important to make sure that LGBTQ people are connected to, involved in, and informing the work your community is doing for LGBTQ inclusion, also be sure to check in and see if it’s what they want to be doing, and be diligent about working to recruit other allies who care about LGBTQ issues to help out, as well.
3. “It’s fine to be gay here, we just expect people not to make a big deal about it.”
Try substituting “Jewish” in for “gay” in the above sentence. “It’s fine to be Jewish here, we just expect people not to make a big deal about it.” Hearing that would probably rub most Jews – and hopefully most of our allies – the wrong way! Does that mean we can’t talk about Hanukkah? Does it mean we aren’t allowed to daven mincha if we can’t find a secluded, hidden space? Does that mean we shouldn’t be too loud, or serve too much food, or have a nose that is bigger than yours, or in any other way too closely jive with your painful, damaging stereotypes about who Jews are and what we do?
What we hear when we hear phrases like that is that the people saying them are less interested in actually seeing and understanding the complex shapes and diverse realities of our lives as LGBTQ people than they are in appearing inclusive and welcoming to a disinterested outsider. How should we judge what it means to “make a big deal about it”? Often this kind of language is used to police our behavior so as to limit the risk that we discomfit others in the community by being our full selves. This means that we have to second-guess our rights to an authentic gender presentation, public displays of affection, talking about our partners and families, naming our identities, or otherwise ever giving hint to the full realities of our lives. This equation often gives a great deal of weight to the comfort and ease of straight people in a community, and is largely missing a consideration of the inherent risks in living in a homophobic and heteronormative environment – namely pain, fear, rejection, isolation, shame, and both emotional and physical violence.
4. “Well, we don’t talk about sex here/with the kids at this age, so I don’t think this discussion would be appropriate.”
Queer people’s lives are about more than sex, and to talk about LGBQ* people doesn’t necessarily mean talking about sex at all. The perception that LGBQ people are always talking about sex when we talk about our identities is usually rooted in heteronormativity, and an inability to see LGBQ people as vibrantly complex human beings seeking meaningful connections and relationships in many of the same varied ways that straight people do.
Sometimes people ask: “Well then, how do you describe being gay to a nine year old?” Probably if you asked everyone at Keshet, you’d get a different answer, but here’s one possible conversation you could have:
Adult: You know how your parents really love each other, and how they really love you?
Adult: They probably like to show you and tell you that they love you, and that they love each other, all the time, right?
Kid: Yeah! Sometimes my dad puts me on his shoulders so I can touch the trees because I love trees and he loves me! And my ima kisses my knees when I fall down and sings me songs at night because she loves me! Sometimes they kiss each other and cook dinner for each other because they love each other.
Adult: That’s so great! Isn’t it awesome to show the people we love that we love them? You know, as you grow up, you’ll probably love a lot of people, which is really nice! Some people find one person that they fall in love with for the rest of their lives, which is pretty exciting for them.
Kid: That sounds neat.
Adult: Yeah, it is. Have you heard the word gay before? Sometimes boys fall in love with boys, and sometimes girls fall in love with girls and when that happens, they might call themselves gay. It’s a word that people use to describe themselves if they love people of the same gender. Also, sometimes people fall in love with people regardless of their gender. What’s most important is that people who love each other are kind and caring toward each other, like your parents are to each other and to you.
There’s lots of ways to talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people without talking about sex, when we remember that our sexual orientation can describe the orientation of our mental, emotional, and physical attractions to people.
But also, LGBTQ people do have sex, and that’s a totally normal part of human sexuality. So when you are having conversations about sex (with adolescents, teens, or adults), it’s really important that LGBQ people’s experiences, needs, and sexual health is included and reflected. There are a lot of excellent resources and tools our there for LGBTQ comprehensive sex-education. Here are a few to start with:
- Sacred Choices, the Union for Reform Judaism’s sex-ed curriculum
- Planned Parenthood has a very large list of comprehensive sexual education curricula and resources, available here.
- Our Whole Lives sex-ed curriculum, developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ
5. “Well, we don’t let the boys wear the Esther costume on Purim because they’re just preschoolers, it would confuse the other students and we don’t want them to be bullied.”
Children begin to hear and absorb cultural messages about appropriate gender roles at a very young age, and they simultaneously express gender variance at a very young age. It can be easy to presume that other children will react the way many adults in our world react to seeing gender variance: with fear, hostility, ridicule, or violence. And yet, when we model a response to gender diversity that is safe, encouraging, and accepting, children follow suit.
One of the most powerful messages an adult can send to a young person is that they have the safety and security to take risks, including taking a risk with their gender. Gender play and exploration is a very natural and healthy part of a young child’s life and growth. While many children who experiment with gender at a young age never express a gender variant identity, for those children who eventually grow into a gender identity that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth, early messages of acceptance can be profoundly empowering
What would it take for your community to be safe enough for young people to take risks with their gender? What could happen if the next time Josh reaches for the Esther costume, instead of being told “remember Josh, boys dress up as Mordechai or King A,” Josh was instead told “remember Josh, it’s important to share. We only have one Esther costume, and Rachel, Zach, and Ariel all want to dress up as Esther too”?
*There are a lot of intersections in inclusion work between issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, but they aren’t identical. When it comes to sex, and assumptions about people based on whom we think they have sex with and how they have that sex, we’re often talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer people. Some lesbian, gay, bi, and queer people are also trans, but those are two distinct facets of their identities. In responding to this fear of talking about sex when we talk about gay people, we focused on issues of homophobia, and the stigmas facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people’s experiences with sex. So we’ve left off the T in our acronym for this response. Not because trans people don’t matter – but in fact the opposite, because it’s important not to conflate gender diversity with sexual orientation, or transphobia with homophobia. When we do that, trans people’s experiences get lost and collapsed into homophobia, and we all lose out.
Looking for a day school that offers materials listing “Parent 1/Parent 2” instead of “Mother/Father”?
Want to find a synagogue that offers all-gender or non-gendered bathrooms?
Seeking a JCC with LGBT events on the calendar?
Keshet’s new Equality Guide is a user-friendly database connecting LGBT Jews and their loved ones to inclusive institutions and clergy across the country. Already, over 700 synagogues, camps, JCCs, rabbis and cantors have listed themselves.
But we know there are more of you out there—just as we know that there are plenty of people already looking for an institution near them. So we invite you to come peruse, search, look around, and keep us in mind. Plus, please make sure that the inclusive institutions in your life get added to the Guide! Just click here to get started.
Plus, we’re always looking to add more information, making the guide a stronger and better resource all the time. So if you’re proud of the fact that your campus Hillel has out LGBT staff, if you’re a rabbi who would love to perform same-sex kiddushin, if your synagogue has programming for LGBT Jews—please let us know!
It’s not a stretch to call it an Internet sensation — a gorgeous music video about two (same-sex) swans who want to get married by a previously unknown band that’s now garnered well over 100,000 views on YouTube. Did we mention that the swans in question — along with everything else in the video — are shadow puppets? And that the video is a call for equal marriage rights? And that the (straight) talented musicians who put it together, including Jewish day school educated lead singer Gil Kline, are still in college?
Gil Kline of Bye June chatted with Keshet about their hit, “Shades of Purple”.
The shadow puppetry in this video is beautiful. What was behind the use of animals for this video? It made a number of things come to mind – swans mate for life, and at the end, it sort of feels like Noah’s Ark.
Aren’t they great? Before we came to the idea of using shadow puppets, though, we still knew we wanted to portray swans and ducks. We were thinking about the fable about the ugly duckling — how it’s only others’ perceptions that make him ugly. The video portrays many different kinds of animals, though, and that’s a metaphor for human diversity. If we can accept one another as different, we don’t need to judge each other so much.
The puppets, though — that was a lot of work! We’re a small group, so when we decided to go with this artistic vision, we knew that it was going to be tons of hours. It actually took a few months to film and edit. And some hand cramping!
This video is a lovely call for equal rights for LGBT folks. What sparked this project?
I wrote the song for friends of mine in the LGBT community. It just upsets me — they’re such wonderful people, and they can’t express themselves or their love. Sometimes, they can’t walk down the street holding hands. That’s just ridiculous. And on top of that, we have politicians making decisions in areas of people’s lives where they just have no business.
When your swans head off to get married, the building they approach has a crescent, a cross, and a Jewish star. What’s your Jewish connection?
Yeah, we wanted to incorporate all major world religions. All faiths, all people need to accept people in the LGBT community. And some people use religion to oppress others, but sometimes it’s the sign of when we’re embraced, too.
As for me, my parents immigrated to Israel when they were young, met in the Air Force, and, when I was little, moved us all back to the U.S. I grew up going to day school, and I’ve always been interested in people of many different faiths.
I’m not very religiously observant, but I definitely have a strong Jewish identity, and I definitely understand that religion and religious identity can be powerful.
What’s next for Bye June?
Well, we’re still in college, so we have to wait before we can do any real tours. And you know musicians, we’re always working on the next song, so that’s on our plates right now.
You know, we got a ton of feedback on “Shades of Purple.” Lots of people left comments on the video thanking us, and recently, what with the vote on same-sex marriage here in Maryland, there’s been a lot of debate. Not all of it has been nice. There’s been plenty of hostility to our ideas but I think it’s always good when people are able to speak to one another. If we contribute to that, I’m glad.
Watch “Shades of Purple” and let us know what you think!
Each week Jews read sections of the Torah, known as parshiyot, inspiring endless examination year after year. Each week we we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Dr. David Shneer, one of the editors of Torah Queeries, examines Parashat Devarim, which deals with the retelling of the Exodus story.
“Ale ha-devarim asher diber moshe el col yisrael be-ever hayarden…” (These are the words that Moses said to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan).
In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites and the now very elderly Moses have reached the Jordan River, the physical and metaphorical boundary between before and after, between wandering in the desert and being a Jewish nation, between a generation marked by the scars of slavery, to one that only knows slavery as memory told through the stories of the community’s elders-what some people in the context of the Holocaust would call the “2nd generation.” “Devarim” or “words,” the portion that opens Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, has Moses recounting a history of the Jews’ experiences over the past 40 years, a history of miracles, no doubt, but also a history of struggle, failure, and disappointment.
Why dwell on such a depressing history? Moses tells “all of Israel” the story of their Exodus from Egypt, the gaining of the commandments and the many struggles of their sojourn in the desert. It is not a glorious history, but it is, nonetheless, the history of this people. In some ways this is Moses’ tsavuah, or “ethical will,” to his community. As the elder, he has the responsibility to tell the Israelites their own story.
The ability to recount a history shows that a community has reached maturity. It shows that a community has, in fact, become a community. It is the birth of a collective memory, often retold by elders as oral history, and these collective memories include the painful recollections of struggle and loss. But delineating the hardships of a nascent community is one of the key ways of defining a community. These words are spoken to “all of Israel” suggesting that as much as it might be a series of acts, rituals, places, and people that define the community, it is also a series of words, stories, and memories that unite the Jewish people. The word “devarim” also means “things” in modern Hebrew, reminding us that words can become tangible. In some ways, words can mark and define our world more concretely than inanimate objects.
Moses’ retelling of the relatively grim history of 40 years of wandering (get a GPS, Moses) is a way of showing that the Israelites have literally and metaphorically arrived. In his speech, Moses spends quite a bit of time on the geographic details of where “all of Israel” finds itself at the moment of telling and also where they have been. The portion opens, “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, concerning the Wilderness, concerning the Aravah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazerot, and Di-zahab; eleven days from Horeb, by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea.” It’s a pretty long list of obscure places and landmarks of the history of this community. They have a history, a history of struggle, failure and disappointment, but nonetheless a 40-year history rooted in time and place.
National and communal histories almost always have mythic origins and battles to be overcome, and they are peppered with important names, dates and places that create time and space for the community. Moses, the elder, is not just passing on Israelite history. He is, like elders in other communities, creating that history. This opening portion of Deuteronomy shows the importance of both historical text (the first four books of the Torah) and oral history (the fifth book) to communal identity. Text alone is not enough.
This desire to have communal histories, defined by both a key set of texts and stories, in other words, by both history and memory, has reshaped the way history is taught in the United States today. Since the 1960s, new kinds of histories, particular histories, have been added to the curricula at universities, and sometimes in high schools, junior highs and even elementary schools. We now have African American history, women’s history, queer history, and others. At my university, I teach a class called “Queer in America, Now and Then,” a history and sociology course that takes Moses’ challenge seriously and blends history and memory to create a narrative of a particular community.
Each of these histories needs both the texts and the memories of their respective communities to carve out particular communal identities. Some historians have criticized this trend in history, calling it the splintering of history, the destruction of a history common to all Americans. Some of my colleagues claim that “queer history” is too much about identity and not enough about history. “Do you have to be queer to take your class, David?” I have been asked on more than one occasion. Such questions force us to reflect on the purpose of telling history. Some historians might say it is simply “to know the facts,” but as we’ve seen, it can also be about creating community.
So then we can go back to Moses and ask why Moses was telling “all of Israel” the story of the desert. He suggests that the primary purpose of history and memory is the making of community, and that one needs both history and memory, both text and voice, to create collective memories of events, places and people.
In lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, there are too few elders recounting our stories, too few elders creating those collective memories that help define a queer community. Perhaps it is because many of our elders are too quiet or too afraid to speak; more likely it is because “kol qvirim,” or “all of queerdom,” is not interested in hearing. Lucky for Moses that God didn’t give the Israelites a choice. They weren’t asked if they wanted to hear their own history or not. And so Deuteronomy, which comes from the Greek for “second telling” or “retelling,” reminds us that communities need oral history and memory before they can pass over the Jordan, even if those who pass on that history do not cross along with them.
It’s summertime, and the days are long —what better time to catch up a little on your reading? Writer Chanel Dubofsky has pulled together a quick list of great queer Jewish books for a lazy afternoon. What could be better? Enjoy!
The Delicious Reliables:
Odd Girl Out, Ann Bannon
I found a copy of Odd Girl Out one afternoon at the Brookline Booksmith for three dollars and by midnight, I’d read the whole thing. The relationship between Laura and Beth is melodramatic in the way of all relationships in which one or both parties is sheltered and/or confused and/or being pressured to be heterosexual. The book is a commentary on the sexual status and expectations of women in the 1960s, in addition to being some juicy pulp fiction. Get a copy with one of the salacious covers and read it in public.
Good Enough to Eat, Lesléa Newman
There are two things that make especially beautiful gifts — vegetable bouquets and a book that will make you think about everything differently. I read this book in college, and by that, I mean, I read it everywhere I went in college, including during class. It’s honest, snarky and complicated, exactly what a book about bodies, food, coming out to yourself, and being 25 years old should be. Lesléa is also one of Keshet’s LGBT Jewish Heroes—a role model for all of us.
New on the Scene:
Here Come the Brides: Reflections of Lesbian Love and Marriage, Ed. by Audrey Bilger and Michelle Kort
Two weeks ago, a very important friend of mine got married. At his tisch [traditional wedding "table," where guests gather for some sort of teaching] beforehand, he read excerpts from the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, reflecting on the importance of marriage as an institution, a stabilizing force and a civil right. When I came home from the wedding, I started reading Here Come the Brides, and instantly, the complexity, joy and pain that comes with the conversation about marriage in general, and marriage and queerness specifically, rose to the surface again. Bilger and Kort have collected voices that wrestle boldly with what it means to want to be married, to not be able to be married, to not want to be married, and to not know how you feel. It’s hard, brave, and deeply necessary.
God Versus Gay: The Religious Case for Marriage Equality, Jay Michaelson
I heard Jay Michaelson on public radio recently and almost all of the folks who bothered to call in to the show excelled at homophobia, thereby proving how necessary this book is. Michaelson’s argument is that the Bible doesn’t actually prohibit homosexuality, and that this whole idea that of G-d and religion being against gay folks and gayness is a fallacy. This book is important even if you don’t really happen to put much stock in religion or religious texts, or you don’t know what you think. It’s crucial to have fluency in the language of religion, and to understand what the arguments are, if you’re invested in justice and equality.
A retired kosher butcher, his young lesbian writing teacher, and a letter from the heart: Lesléa Newman’s short story, “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” has moved readers for over two decades—and now it hits Broadway! With songs like “What A Shanda” (listen here – click on the “music” tab), the show debuts at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, July 23-28, with music by Laura Kramer, lyrics by Ellen Schwartz and book by Jerry James.
We caught up with Lesléa to get the back story about how her short story became such a universal symbol, how it became a stage sensation, and what’s next for both it and her.
Learn more about Harvey Milk and Lesléa Newman, including behind the scenes photos, at lgbtjewishheroes.org.
It’s wonderful that a short story you published in 1988, as a letter to a public figure killed a decade before that, retains such resonance. What is it about Harvey Milk that still captures our imaginations and our hearts?
Harvey Milk was completely human. He was smart, kind, funny, honest, strong, vulnerable, and brave. He took many risks, and always did things with a sense of humor. He made himself very accessible – he was someone people felt they could sit down and talk with over a cup of coffee. Plus he was OUT at a time when there could be (and often were) grave consequences for that. I think many of us who didn’t know him personally still felt a sense of personal loss when he was taken from us in such a terrible way. With each new victory for the GLBT Civil Rights Movement (the recent ruling that DOMA is unconstitutional, President endorsing gay marriage, etc.) I often wonder, “What would Harvey Milk think of that?” Or, “What a shame that Harvey Milk didn’t live long enough to see that.” He lives on in our hearts and minds. He was a pioneer, and he deserves the status of hero.
At the same time that “A Letter to Harvey Milk” is fiercely Jewish, it emphasizes strongly how universal the man’s appeal was. In the musical, this is represented in lines like “You don’t have to be a Jew to love a bagel, or gay to love a leader who is gay.” How Jewish is the story of Harvey Milk? Versus how universal? What’s it like working with that tension?
“A Letter to Harvey Milk” was written out of the experience of being Jewish and gay, and it is about the human experience. Maya Angelou once said, “I speak to the black experience but I am always talking about the human experience.” I feel similarly about being a Jewish lesbian and writing about the human experience. If one’s characters are portrayed as fully human, anyone can relate to them, even when coming from a different background. Perhaps especially when coming from a different background.
“A Letter to Harvey Milk” went from fiction published in Lilith magazine to the titular short story in a collection, and now to musical on stage in New York City. What’s it like to shepherd a work through such changes? Does the message change with the medium at all? Does it reach a different audience?
The story was also performed as a one person show all over the world (including Israel and Germany), made into a short film by Yariv Kohn which was shown at many Jewish film festivals, read on the radio by Carl Reiner as part of a series produced by KCRW Santa Monica and hosted by Leonard Nimoy entitled “Jewish Stories: from the Old World to the New” and turned into a teleplay shown on Canadian Public TV which won a Gemini (the Canadian equivalent of an Emmy). I gave each project’s creative team full artistic freedom, and I am happy to say that all of them stayed very true to the original story, augmenting it with their vision and talent. The story has taken on a life of its own, and I am very grateful that it has reached such a wide audience because of that.
You’re quite famous as an author of children’s literature. What’s the relationship between writing work for kids and stories like “A Letter for Harvey Milk,” which is for an older audience?
As far as I’m concerned, writing is writing. I don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write for kids today” or “I’m going to write for teens today” or “I’m going to write for adults today.” I just start moving the pen across the page (yes, I still write with a Bic pen and a spiral notebook!) and see what happens. Then once a project begins to take shape, I stick with that piece of work until it’s finished. As the writer Gene Fowler so famously said, I go back to “staring at a piece of paper until three drops of blood appear on my forehead.”
After this incredible journey, what’s next for “A Letter to Harvey Milk”? What’s next for how we in the queer Jewish community relate to his memory?
Next stop, Broadway! (from my mouth to G-d’s ears)
The show is really incredible, with 18 (note that auspicious number) funny, touching, sad, inspiring, and original songs, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves. And Harvey’s dream and vision lives on through the Harvey Milk Foundation. The Foundation, through Harvey’s dream for a just tomorrow, envisions governments that celebrate the rich and universally empowering diversity of humanity, where all individuals – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, the young, the disabled – all who had been excluded can fully participate in all societal rights without exception.
And what’s next for Lesléa Newman?
On September 25, 2012 (erev Yom Kippur) my book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard will be released by Candlewick Press. The book explores the impact of Matthew Shepard’s murder upon the world in a cycle of 68 poems that are fictitious monologues written from many points of view including the silent witnesses of the crime: the fence Matt was tied to, the moon that looked down upon him, the deer that kept him company all through the night. My hope is that the book will inspire readers to erase hate and replace it with understanding, compassion, and love.
In June 2002, Queer Jews came out in a big way. A collection of essays, memoirs and cultural analysis co-edited by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, the volume explored everything from queer parenting to trans issues in traditionally gendered Jewish spaces to the creating of new rituals (including the ever-popular Queer Naked Seder). As part of a larger canon of queer Jewish writings, which first appeared on the literary scene in the early 1980s, Queer Jews marked an evolution in the form, as authors went beyond exploring their own stories to consider the impact queer Jews have on the larger Jewish community, and on Judaism itself.
Ten years since its publication, Keshet caught up with Dr. Caryn Aviv, Posen Lecturer in Secular Jewish Culture at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, author of three books and numerous academic and journalistic articles.
Since Queer Jews first came out, there have been many changes for LGBTQ Jews—legalized same-sex marriage in several states, the ordination of out gay Conservative rabbis, etc. If you were to reissue the book now, what would you want to see included? What change or changes do you think have been the most significant?
If we were going to reissue the book now, I think the most important thing to include would be a resource guide for rituals that queer Jews have created for marriages, for baby namings, that sort of thing. I’d love something like Ritualwell.org, but specifically for queer Jews. I’d even love to have one online, as a companion to the book.
I think it would be wonderful to include a piece on “Tales from the Front in the Battle for Marriage Equality.” I don’t want to lose people’s stories and memories, especially since those encompass both the legislative battles, but also the fights to change or update values within our own communities; I think it’s vital that those be collected somehow, that we create an archive of these for history.
You know, the whole idea of marking time through the anniversaries of books is really interesting. We just passed the 10th anniversary of Lesbian Rabbis [published in 2001], and that’s something that jumps out at me. We’ve now got a critical mass of queer clergy who are really visible. I think a piece—really you could write a whole book!—with perspectives on assuming positions of power would be a wonderful reflection.
If we were going to do it over, I’d love to include the voices of kids with queer parents, along with those of queer elders. Those are two sets of voices we really didn’t delve into in Queer Jews, and I’m fascinated by them. For kids, it’s this idea of, how did these multiple identities — being Jewish, and not necessarily queer themselves, but having this different point of view — how did that influence who they grew up to be? And the issue of queer elders is one I think about a lot these days. We have all of these established facilities for Jewish elders, and there are queer residents in them, but we have no programming specifically for them. I’d love to see a celebration of this group, and I’d love to get some of their voices published.
Speaking of Lesbian Rabbis, many of the essays in Queer Jews reference Twice Blessed, a seminal collection of pieces about being lesbian or gay and Jewish, published in 1989. Do you think Queer Jews now occupies a similar place in the queer Jewish canon? You must hear from people who use your book all the time–what has the feedback been like in the course of the last decade?
Well, let me give you this anecdote by way of an answer: I just got a $50 royalty check for Queer Jews in the mail the other day — and honestly, most of the time I can’t believe it’s still in print and people are still buying it. Who would have imagined, in 1989 when Twice Blessed came out, that there would be such a thing as a queer Jewish canon? Now I have a whole bookshelf!
I feel grateful and blessed to be part of a group that includes volumes like The Tribe of Dina, Nice Jewish Girls and Twice Blessed. They represent the first generation of authors and activists trying to integrate and deal with their Jewish and gay identities. We were influenced by them, of course, but we were also influenced by ACT UP and Heeb magazine — a little more in-your-face, edgier. Queer Jews, like those books that came before it, was of an era, and it used a particular generational lens.
I imagine that the volumes that will follow ours will stand on our shoulders the way we stood on our predecessors’.
What’s on your queer Jewish reading list like now?
To be totally honest, I’m preparing to enter rabbinical school through the Aleph program, so my reading list is a little less radical and a little more Rashi, right now. I must say, though, since I’m reading and writing about the Torah so much, I’ve been happily rereading my copy of Torah Queeries [edited by Keshet staff member Gregg Drinkwater, Rabbi Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer]. It’s a wonderful resource.
In another ten years, what do you think we’ll be talking about in the queer Jewish world?
Let me say this – I’d love to see Keshet go out of business. I mean that in the nicest way possible, of course. What I mean is that I’d love to see the mission of full inclusion fulfilled, that queer Jews are essentially a non-issue, because we’re so pervasively accepted, not because anyone is invisible.
I have no idea whether marriage equality will be settled federally. I think the most we can hope for is that the law catches up to where people are socially.
I’m a parent, so of course I’m also very interested in the visibility of queer parenting, and more conversation about the various ways that queer people parent. I’d love to see kid’s literature and Young Adult lit that nonchalantly incorporate queer families.
I really don’t know what we’ll be talking about, but I’m excited to see it!