History of Jewish Lesbianism

A chronological outline of Jewish views of lesbianism from biblical to modern times.

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Gertrude Stein

During the early part of the twentieth century, women, including Jewish women, began to live openly as lesbians. Gertrude Stein (pictured) is perhaps the best-known example. Pauline Newman, an organizer of the Jewish labor movement, lived openly with her partner in Greenwich Village, where they raised a child together. But for the most part, women who loved women prior to the 1960s neither identified publicly as lesbian nor had the opportunity to live openly in partnerships.

The example of Lillian Wald, noted Jewish social reformer, was more typical of this period. Wald’s relationships were crucial to her social world, yet remained hidden from view. It is still considered controversial to label Wald a lesbian, despite considerable historical evidence.

One result of the feminist and gay liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s was that large numbers of women began to claim lesbian identity. It was in the context of these movements that lesbians began to explore Jewish identity as well.

The early 1980s witnessed an explosion of small groups of lesbians who were beginning to make connections to their Jewish identities. The members of these groups identified their simultaneous rejection as Jews in the lesbian community and as lesbians in the Jewish community. Evelyn Torton Beck made these issues visible in her groundbreaking anthology of writings by Jewish lesbians, Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (1982). Many lesbian novels with Jewish themes were published by women’s presses. Progressive Jewish organizations like New Jewish Agenda began discussions of how to incorporate the needs of gay men and lesbians in Jewish life.

This exploration of the connections between lesbian and Jewish identities was continued in Tribe of Dina (1986). Edited by leading secular Jewish lesbian thinkers Irena Klepfisz and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Tribe of Dina included essays by heterosexual and lesbian feminists exploring Jewish identity. In 1989, Christie Balka and Andy Rose edited Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation. The volume is edited by three rabbis who identify as lesbian, Rebecca Alpert, Sue Levi Elwell and Shirley Idelson, and includes autobiographical essays by eighteen Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist lesbian rabbis ordained in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s.

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Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert

Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert is Co-Director of the Women's Studies Program and Assistant Professor of Religion and Women's Studies at Temple University.