January 24, 2018

A Usable Past, a Useless Present

A Piece of Kvetch

By Galina Zelenina

On a gloomy October day in Saint Petersburg, I was having coffee with a local LGBT activist at a half-clandestine queer studies conference. Just a few months before, the State Duma Deputy, Yelena Mizulina, had authored her infamous ban on “gay propaganda” (whatever that means). At the time, I was working on a series of essays for an independent internet journal, one of the few respectable venues in the Russian internet that straddles the boundaries between academic and socio-political debate. The series were supposed to delve into parallels between the queer discourse and homophobia in the USSR and that in contemporary Russia; my column on the Saint-Petersburg conference was meant for that series. In the end, the editors cancelled the project. “This is not our war,” they explained apologetically.

Now, sitting together in this coffee shop, I listened as this LGBT activist began praising academic work as a form of activism: “You don’t have to take to the streets or go out to Marsovo Pole (a usual venue for unpermitted protest marches in the city)—instead, you can make a bigger difference by just publishing an article.”

During my time as a scholar-in-residence at HBI, I have had a pleasure of attending two events Brandeis hosted recently. The first was an annual Simon Rawidowicz Memorial Lecture given by Elisheva Baumgarten of Hebrew University in Jerusalem who spoke on matchmaking in medieval Ashkenaz. The second was a panel discussion on how race, ethnicity, and religion intersect with sexual violence, organized by Bernadette Brooten, the Kraft and Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis.

Highly regarded for her invaluable achievements in scholarly activism (most importantly for her search for a usable past for Christian lesbians in her book Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism), Brooten organized the discussion to initiate a talk on the influence exerted by religions on people’s views on and practice of sexual crimes. Although religions change over time, becoming more sensitive, old laws still matter, and we need to study religious past in order to improve the present.

The timing of this discussion, part of Brooten’s ongoing Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, could not have been better as it coincided with the wave of recent accusations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein and several other “males of influence” followed by the hashtag campaign #MeToo flooding social media with stories of sexual harassment and assault.

Interestingly, this is not the first campaign of its kind. In spring 2015, the #NotGuilty campaign was launched in the British social media, and in 2016, a Ukrainian feminist kickstarted a similar Flashmob on Facebook under the hashtag #яНеБоюсьСказати (“#Iamnotafraidtospeak”) that went viral, spreading to Russia and Belarus. Judging by my social media newsfeed, the campaign attracted enormous attention, and was perceived as having potential for making a difference and leading to social change. Ironically, the only tangible response it has invoked in Russia was a law decriminalizing domestic violence, passed by the State Duma in the early 2017.

Unlike the participants of the #яНеБоюсьСказать campaign who predominantly shared their experiences of rape, the women responding to the #MeToo movement started in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal have posted accounts of sexual harassment and assault. The importance of the campaign in bringing the conversation of sexual assault into the mainstream cannot be underestimated.

After Brooten’s panel discussion about the intersectionality between sexual violence and race, ethnicity and religion, evaluation forms were passed out so that participants could “strongly or somewhat” agree or disagree with the assertions that both religious past and ethnic context influence sexual violence. While the degree of influence and other details may be subject to debate, there seems to be general agreement about one fundamental question: issues of sexual violence must be addressed.

Refuting the Karaites’ contention that frequent disagreements between the Talmudic sages rendered the rabbinic tradition untrustworthy, medieval Jewish scholar Abraham ibn Daud claimed that the sages disagreed not over commandments in principle, but only about details: “They did not dispute whether or not it is obligatory to light the Shabbat light. What they did dispute was with what it may be lit and with what it may not be lit.”

Blessed are those who are disputing the details once they have achieved general agreement on fundamental issues.

The lecture by Elisheva Baumgarten, although seemingly much less burning and time-sensitive, actually deserved no less attention by social-minded students. Not only because she is such a brilliant scholar. (I know one influential politician in Israel, likely to become a PM someday, who—to make the long story short—left academia for politics because he had always admired Baumgarten’s academic career and had finally faced the fact that he could never achieve an equal measure of success.) The true reason is that, being thoroughly medievalist, her lecture was nonetheless relevant for and connected to the present.

Unlike her predecessors in the study of medieval rabbinic responsa on family issues, Baumgarten takes a feminist stand, arguing and proving that women used to be much more active, powerful, influential and independent in medieval Judaism than later, in modern Orthodoxy. In her lecture, she discusses whether medieval Jewish parents, on a regular basis, married off their daughters as minors, or whether the daughters still had the final say. After considering responsa, moral exempla, and tales (and keeping in mind that all three genres, being written by learned men, represent the male perspective), she concludes that non-halachic genres offer a more realistic picture than the responsa and that we may assume that in medieval reality, girls had more choice, freedom, and final say than we are led to believe.

Baumgarten seems to belong to the same scholarly trend whose main spokesman, Daniel Boyarin, a talmudic scholar, Orthodox Jew, liberal, feminist, and LGBT advocate, refutes the common view of talmudic culture as androcentric and misogynist, purposefully and consistently discovering a usable past for his liberal Orthodoxy in rabbinic texts.

Blessed are those who search for a usable past once they have a usable present.

I highly doubt that in Russia, any Orthodox Jew wants to hear of medieval Jewish women playing “traditionally male” roles of rabbis, circumcisers, or ritual slaughterers. It seems even less probable that any Russian Jewish community would be willing to learn about the specifically Jewish masculinity and the long tradition of homoeroticism and homosociality. Queer scholarly activism is a risky affair in the city where, alongside the recently unveiled bike lanes—the unmistakable sign of a modern, civilized society—a chain of food stores displays a “No Entry for Sodomites” sign in its windows. But at this point, this is precisely where the activism is probably needed most.

Galina Zelenina is a 2017 Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar in Residence at HBI and an associate professor at the Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies at Russian State University of Humanities in Moscow.

In Sara Levy’s Salon

By Rebecca Cypess

When, in 1798, the Jewish writer Wolf Davidson published his treatise On the Civic Improvement of the Jews, he joined an ongoing discussion among both Jewish and Christian thinkers of the Enlightenment concerning the merits of Jewish emancipation in Prussia and the participation of Jews in civic and cultural life. By way of justifying his agenda of emancipation, tolerance, and citizenship for Jewish residents of the kingdom, Davidson cited a long list of Jews, from philosophers and educators to practitioners of the mechanical arts, who were already making significant contributions to Prussian society. Among these, Davidson mentioned a handful of musical “Dilettanten”— amateurs for whom music was an essential component of the moral and cultural edifying process known as Bildung. One such dilettante who, Davidson noted, had acquired a reputation as a “prodigious keyboardist here in Berlin,” was a certain Madame Sara Levy.

Sara Levy, née Itzig (1761–1854), was a Jewish woman, salon hostess, musical collector, patron, and performing musician whose long life spanned a dramatic and tumultuous period in German history, and her distinctive persona and historical profile offer a vista onto these historical circumstances that has remained closed until now. Through both research and performance, my work attempts to open this vista, and to understand Levy as a complete and complex individual—a Jew, a musician, a woman, a modern individual.

With the help of two research awards from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, I have recently brought one portion of my work on Levy to completion: a CD entitled In Sara Levy’s Salon, released in June 2017 on the Acis Productions label, which proudly bears the logo of the HBI. The second phase of the project is a collaboration with Nancy Sinkoff, my colleague in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers. Nancy and I co-organized a conference entitled “Sara Levy’s World” in 2014, and we have expanded that project into a book of essays with perspectives from musicology, Jewish studies, history, philosophy, and related disciplines. This volume is due to be published in the spring of 2018 by the University of Rochester Press. At the same time, I have undertaken a single-author book entitled Resounding Enlightenment: Music as an Instrument of Tolerance in the World of Sara Levy, which is in progress. My goal is to retell the story of Levy’s world by placing her at the center of the narrative.

Born into one of the few wealthy and privileged Jewish families in eighteenth-century Berlin, Sara and her siblings received the finest educations available—appropriate, of course, to their sex—including unrivaled musical training. The only known student of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710–1784), eldest son of the famed baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), Sara was performing as a harpsichordist for family guests by the time she was a teenager, and around the time of her marriage she began hosting a salon with musical performance at its center. Like other salons, that of the Levy home brought together family and friends, artists and intellectuals, philosophers and socialites, Jews and Christians. And she went still further, appearing in public performances as a concerto soloist at the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, a bourgeois amateur musical society with both Jewish and Christian membership, in an age when few aristocratic women would expose themselves to a public audience. By citing Levy’s musical skill as evidence of the contribution of Jews to society at large, Wolf Davidson asserted the power of music to act as an instrument of Enlightenment—as a bridge between diverse individuals within a tolerant society.

For some, like Davidson, Levy’s activities as a performer, patron, and collector of music fulfilled this idealistic promise. Yet for many of her contemporaries, Jewish participation in music was unthinkable: Jews, these detractors claimed, were inherently unmusical, and this unmusicality was both evidence for and a result of their immorality and errant ways. Levy’s connection to the Bach family highlights this tension: the legacy of J. S. Bach was fundamentally grounded in an orthodox, pre-Enlightenment Lutheranism colored by anti-Judaism, and his biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel, a close friend of W. F. Bach, included in his General History of Music (1788) a screed against modern Jews and their unmusicality.

Sara Levy knew of these tensions and debates, yet she left no written verbal testimony concerning them, nor any number of other pressing issues. She wrote no autobiography and no diary; all but a few of her terse letters are lost. Instead, what remains is the remarkable collection of some 500 musical scores that she assembled together with her husband, a banker and a proficient amateur flutist. Her collection did not appear by accident; instead, she cultivated it, shaped it, and left her mark upon it, inscribing each score with her name or stamping it with her distinctive ex libris. Seemingly in response to the accusation that Jews were inherently unmusical, Levy partook of German music and made it part of her own experience. In donating the majority of her holdings to the Sing-Akademie around 1815, she rendered her collection part of the Prussian patrimony and emerging cultural identity, and she inscribed herself—a Jewish woman—into that heritage. When her great-nephew Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy ignited the public “Bach revival” within the walls of the Sing-Akademie with his performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829, he was picking up on family tradition.

If Levy’s participation in the musical culture of Prussia set her apart from other Jewish women whose salons focused solely on belles lettres, she stood apart from them in another essential respect as well: in contrast to many of the other salonnières, who left Jewish practice and identification, assimilated into the predominantly Christian society around them, converted, and married Christian husbands, Levy continued to identify strongly as a Jew throughout her long life. She provided financial support to numerous institutions of the Berlin Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), including a Hebrew publishing house and a Jewish school and orphanage. She was intellectually, financially, and socially engaged with the Haskalah to an extent unmatched by other women.

Levy is known among musicologists as a transmitter of important German music, and among scholars of Jewish studies as merely a peripheral figure in the world of Jewish salons. Consideration of the relationship among these aspects of her persona—unexplored until now—sheds new light on her life as an individual, and on the story of this tumultuous moment in European history as a whole. I argue that through her salon, her public concerts at the Sing-Akademie, and the cultivation of her collection, Sara Levy forged a common cultural environment with music at its center in which both Christians and Jews could participate.

***

Rebecca Cypess is Associate Professor of Music at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, and an affiliated faculty member in the Rutgers Jewish Studies Department. A harpsichordist and musicologist, she is founder of the Raritan Players, whose debut recording In Sara Levy’s Salon was released in 2017 by Acis Productions. Her publications include Curious and Modern Inventions: Instrumental Music as Discovery in Galileo’s Italy (University of Chicago Press, 2016), and she is co-editor, with Nancy Sinkoff, of Sara Levy’s World: Gender, Judaism, and the Bach Tradition in Enlightenment Berlin, forthcoming in 2018 from the University of Rochester Press.

Sara Levy’s story is fictionalized in the novel, And After the Fire by Lauren Belfer, a book selected by several of HBI’s Conversations programs.

The Literary Equivalent of Eavesdropping

Note: This is one of an occasional profile of the expanding Jewish-Feminist collections at The Archives & Special Collections at the Brandeis Goldfarb Library. We previously wrote about the Lilith collection

By Violet Fearon

Before I gain access to the carefully stored correspondence of Esther M. Broner, I’m given a few instructions: no pen, keep the documents flat on the table at all times, file everything back exactly in the order you found it. In this quiet room, filled with books and cardboard boxes, it feels a little like I’m about to undertake some kind of secret mission. The first letter I examine is dated from the early 60s; it feels brittle and thin. Even if I hadn’t been briefed on proper handling procedure, there’s something about old paper that tells you to treat it with care.

As I place the designated cardboard marker in the box to hold the document’s place, two women across the room are having an intense whispered conversation. Their low voices mean it is something I am not supposed to hear; a private conversation. At the back of my brain – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – is a curiosity. We all want to be privy to things not meant for us.

Maybe that’s why I was excited to come here. Reading correspondence is, after all, the literary equivalent of eavesdropping. There’s a sense that you’re being a little sneaky – a little bit of a busybody. And, if I’m honest with myself, that’s where most of the fun of the whole endeavor comes from. You are reading something not meant for your eyes, something intended to be kept to the confines of friends and family. All of a sudden, the famous figures I remember reading about who instructed their diaries and letters to be burnt upon their deaths suddenly seemed like very forward-thinking individuals.

First, a little backstory. Esther M. Broner was a Jewish American author, whose works focused on fusing her feminism with her faith. She wrote ten books, among them renowned works like A Weave of Women and The Women’s Haggadah, which largely revolved around themes of creating new, women-centric Jewish rituals – forging a feminist identity within the confines of religion and tradition. In 1976, she held the first all-female Passover seder on the floor of her NYC apartment, surrounded by a horde of plants, with women such as Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Gloria Steinem (the founders of Ms. Magazine) in attendance.

In her correspondence, some of what I found was expected: evidence of a woman with an intense focus on Judaism and feminism (or, in her own words in a letter to a friend, “my Jewish thing”). But I also found something else – something that makes correspondence uniquely valuable to researchers: a human being. There is joy when babies are born, and sadness when relatives die. She commiserates with friends over the incompetency of various politicians. During a visit to London, there’s musings on her love for the picturesque gardens, though some cultural frustrations that still ring true today (“The British are quite relaxed, and to the impatient American it can be somewhat exasperating – it’s always “Would you have another cup of tea,” when you’re trying to get a steady stream of work done.”). A letter from a friend, Susan, who tells Broner to never forget to be cheeky, because “sass is so fine”. A note from a writing mentor, Professor Edward Albee, to “Work hard – you are so good.” Albee also talks about the process of writing his latest play; he hasn’t settled on a title yet, but he likes the sound of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

When we study an author’s works, it’s easy to see them as static creations – things that were always there, or that were summoned into creation in some frenzy of creativity. In reality, of course, writing is a long and gradual process, no matter who’s doing it. There’s no clearer way to find this out than by reading personal, casual writings. In a 1976 journal entry, Broner described the beginnings of the themes that would come to define her work, writing, “Michele and I talk about magic and the idea for my book becomes clearer – a ritual between women, holidays and rituals – births to deaths – and the weave of women who enact these occasions and what happens to them, Israelis and Americans – here and there – who live together and who returns, who dies by fire and who by hunger . . . I don’t like the idea of women and black magic – but women and ritual – and ritual deep in our roots and cultural origins, can organize the book.”

Working your way through years of a person’s life in the space of a few hours can be a strange experience. In the course of a few pages, her daughter, Nahama, has transformed from a little girl in the 1960s trying on trenchcoats and deciding to get her hair cut into “the most adorable bangs” to a 1970s teenager who “laughed nastily” at her father’s recounting of Esther and his honeymoon, prompting Esther to write a long passage on how difficult teenagers are.

(In the spirit of research, later I googled “Nahama Broner”, hoping to find some old family photographs so I could put faces to story. Instead, I found her RateMyProfessor page, with a stream of NYU undergraduates reviewing her skills in teaching psychology. She seems to be a very good professor, though now bereft of bangs).

In a way, it was much more – “disturbing” is too dramatic, but perhaps “perturbing” is the right word – than I expected, paging through decades of a life in a single afternoon. Years slip through your fingers; there is joy, then sadness, then anger, then joy again. In one of the earliest documents, Broner discusses an uncle who had just passed away; she muses over his life, wonders if he spent more time happy or sad. In closing, she writes: “And his death is painful because he had not realized all of his dreams. But then, who does?”

Violet Fearon, a freshman and Humanities Fellow,  is the HBI student blogger.

To learn more about the Jewish-Feminist collections or to make an appointment, contact Chloe Morse-Harding, Reference and Instruction Archivist, cmorseharding@brandeis.edu / 781-736-4657.

Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa

HBI recently caught up with 2010 Scholar-in-Residence Nina B. Lichtenstein, who earlier this year published Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa, a project she started at HBI.

HBI: How did you become interested in the topic of Jewish writers from North Africa?

NBL: When I was in graduate school working toward a master’s and then a doctorate in French, a large part of our reading was literature by writers from the former French colonies, such as the Caribbean, West Africa, and North Africa. I had a Bachelor’s in Jewish Studies and French, and anything from the intersection of these two disciplines interested me. Knowing that North Africa, especially Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, had been the home to a large Jewish population—nearly 500,000 at its peak and now mostly gone—I was intrigued to find voices that captured this rupture. But there were no Jewish voices on our reading lists, except one or two male writers such as Albert Memmi, and so, my project revealed itself, asking to be developed.

HBI: Why women writers, specifically?  

NBL: Women writers bring a different sensibility to their writing than men, and often one that observes and responds to a gendered experience of, say, trauma, as it is lived by a family or a community. We know that, historically, these experiences have been underrepresented if not invisible. I was eager to find them and put them in the forefront of a study about a unique moment in Jewish history.

HBI: There has been a burgeoning of Sephardic Studies in recent years, for example as seen by the growing numbers of sessions on the theme at the AJS and MLA. How has this affected your work and research?

NBL: In the early days of my research, in the late nineties, it was a lonely job. I was the only one at my University pursuing anything Sephardic, although the University of Connecticut had a Jewish Studies program, (I was one of their first majors) it focused on Ashkenazi history and culture. I recall speaking with a Moroccan sociologist and scholar in France who had doubts my project was going to fly, but he was the beginning of a network of engaging Sephardic writers and scholars that I slowly developed, and which eventually sprouted in the U.S. as well. This is not to say there were not important senior scholars here who had already paved the way—such as Norman Stillman, Jane Gerber and Aaron Rodrigue—but as far as a network for junior scholars who were entering the field, it took time. Now, the AJS has a separate caucus for Sephardic and Mizrahi studies as well as a large number of panels and sections dedicated to this rich and heterogeneous sub-genre within Jewish Studies. It has been fun to be part of and observe this growth.

HBI: Your book, Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa (Gaon Books 2017), is divided into two parts: the first is rich in historical and theoretical references, and the second is a literary and thematic study of specific texts by the women writers. What reader(s) did you have in mind when you wrote this book?

NBL: The book went through several phases. When it started out as my dissertation, it was my thesis-advisors and the academic community I imagined as readers. I knew revisions were necessary in order to publish it as a book and coming to the HBI as a scholar in residence in 2010 marked the beginning of that renewed energy and work. It took time and thought to reimagine the reader I envisioned. When the small, independent press, Gaon Books, finally published the book in January 2017, I was excited to have shaped it into a more accessible text.

Since then, readers who are not academics or scholars, but lay-people interested in Jewish history and culture, have told me they enjoyed its “readability,” which I take as a great compliment. My litmus test was when a dear friend, Dr. Calvin Mass, who at 95 years old read the manuscript and called me up from his nursing home the week after I had dropped it off and asked me over for lunch “so we could discuss the work.” He grew up as an Ashkenazi Jew in Hartford, CT in the 1930s, and had very little exposure to anything diverse within Jewish culture. But he was educated and curious.

HBI: What are some challenges, if any, you have faced with this project?

NBL: During the long research-phase, I had three young children and a husband who worked all the time, so travelling to France or North Africa was not possible. That felt compromising to me, but I found other ways to develop the content of the project. Aside from the seemingly endless revisions and the often-painstaking rounds of editing, the biggest challenge for me is always to “just sit down and do the work.” That means writing for some time, every day—except on Shabbat—uninterrupted by all the usual attention grabbers readily at our fingertips.

HBI: Tell us about how your relationship to the HBI began?

NBL: In the spring of 2010,I came to HBI as a SIR, and I vividly recall walking through the doors of the Women’s Studies Research Center feeling like I had come home. The warm and welcoming environment created by the supportive staff and all the folks who work and are affiliated with the Center was a game-changer for me. It was the first time in my academic life I didn’t get a blank stare when asked about my work. Jews and gender and fresh ideas, well, it was a match made in heaven.

While there as SIR, I applied for and won the HBI translation award that led to the translation from French of Chochana Boukhobza’s novel, For the Love of the Father. When my time as SIR ended I was welcomed to stay on as a Research Associate—a relationship that continues today. I have also been a member of the Academic Advisory Committee since 2011 and enjoy being a part of evaluating some of the annual research award applications as they relate to my field.

HBI: In what way is the translation project unique?

NBL: Throughout my scholarship, one of my primary goals has been to share stories of Sephardic/Mizrahi communities from Islamic lands, and especially its women. Among them, the Francophone writers —and there are many—are not generally known within the Anglophone world, as many if not most of their works are yet to be translated. Chochana Boukhobza—who is born in Tunisia—and whose work figures in my book, is a prolific Sephardic woman writer in France who has written with great rawness about the uprooting of North Africa’s Jews. This moment in history and its repercussions on a familial level is portrayed with sensitivity in the translated novel. I love that the novel is made available for free from the Brandeis Institutional Repository.

HBI: What’s next for you in terms of projects?

NBL: I have a couple of projects on the docket; both relating to Jews and gender in their own ways. The first is a novel inspired by a true story about a Norwegian non-Jewish woman who falls in love and has a child with a Norwegian Jew in 1933. She only reveals this part of her secret past to her family when she is on her deathbed, 55 years later. Shifting between time periods the story explores how one woman’s secret affects not only her life but that of future generations. The second project is a collection of first person essays by women converts to Judaism, tentatively titled, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish. I run a blog and a Facebook group by the same name, and I seek well-written stories that celebrate the diversity of converts to Judaism. Between these two projects I have my work cut out for me, and feel invigorated by the beginning of the fall season and cooler weather.

Nina B. Lichtenstein is a writer, teacher and storyteller. She holds a Ph.D in French and is a 2010 HBI Scholar in Residence, winner of an HBI Translation prize, member of the HBI Academic Advisory Committee and an HBI Research Associate. Nina is a recent empty nester, and now lives in Brunswick, Maine. She recently published Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa.

 

Ruach HaYam: Why We (Still) Need Queer Jewish Space

By Penina Weinberg

A few years ago I started a group in Boston aimed at providing space for LGBTQ Jews to gather for learning and worship in a way that would enable us to bring our full selves to the table.  We named ourselves Ruach HaYam, Spirit of the Sea, after the sea surrounding us in Boston, and for the sea across which Miriam and Moses led the children of Israel.  Ours was not a unique idea at the time, but as we are completing our fifth year at Ruach HaYam, I find it becoming harder, and therefore more essential, to find spiritual community dedicated to queer Jews.

As synagogues open up to LGBTQ Jews and make it apparently less necessary for groups aimed specifically at queer Jews, there is a tendency for queer congregations to become less relevant.  Many synagogues now attract queer Jews through LGBTQ outreach programs or through a greater tolerance of queer Jews (note the word “tolerance” – we’ll get back to that).  There remain specifically LGBTQ synagogues in larger cities, for instance Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York and Congregation Sha’ar Zahav  in San Francisco.  Yet in the Boston area, which is no doubt not unusual, the longtime LGBTQ Congregation Am Tikva founded in 1976, has had a falloff in membership. Nehirim, a national organization that provided programming and support for the Jewish LGBTQ community for nearly a dozen years shut down two years ago saying that its work was done.  As reported in the Tablet:

“The decision to close Nehirim highlights a significant shift in the American Jewish LGBT landscape. ‘When Nehirim began in 2004, there were a handful of LGBT synagogues, and only a few truly welcoming congregations outside major metropolitan areas,’ said Jay Michaelson, a Jewish writer and activist who founded Nehirim. ‘[Nehirim] met a pressing need for a place for LGBT Jews to build spiritual community together. In 2015, that need is no longer present outside the Orthodox community.’”

Despite what the Tablet reported, there is a problem. Tolerance and even acceptance is not the same as celebration. Allowing me in the room is not the same as understanding me.  And in fact, there are still many places where that most elemental of rooms, the bathroom, is closed or hazardous for my transgender and non-binary friends.  Wendy Chapkis, Professor of Sociology and Women and Gender Studies at University of Southern Maine, expressed it this way in a 2017 Portland Phoenix interview : “Tolerance doesn’t build community; tolerance doesn’t provide a mirror in which you can see yourself as fierce and fabulous. Queer space does that — and we’re losing those spaces…  We absolutely still need queer space. Gay-bashing and anti-trans violence is a very real threat in the streets.”    Wendy is talking about queer community, not necessarily spiritual community, but what she says is equally relevant for those who wish to be fierce and fabulous and unthreatened at the intersection of LGBTQ and religious identity.

When I was an active participant in the Nehirim community, teaching at two or three retreats each year, I absolutely loved the chance to learn and to practice ritual with other queer Jews.  My queer Jewish identity was celebrated, and the interaction with other queer Jewish seekers fed my soul and deepened my love and understanding of Judaism and diversity. I loved it so much that in 2013 I decided to create a retreat experience in the Boston area, modeled on the Nehirim program.  I did not know then that the Nehirim program was destined to fold, only that I wanted to have deeper connections on a local level.

I gathered a few local friends whom I had met at Nehirim women’s retreats and we founded Ruach HaYam in Boston.  Our purpose was to provide an ongoing and intimate way for local queer Jews to worship and study together.  We began with an annual retreat, we added one or two Shabbat lunch and learns during the second year, and by the end of the third year we added monthly queer Torah study sessions.  Our mantra from the beginning has been inclusion. We worship without a mechitza so as to make less observant Jews comfortable, but with acoustic music only in order to not to drive away those who are more observant.  We serve only kosher food at our annual retreats. We have put together our own inclusive siddur.  Our services and study sessions are warm, meaningful, collaborative, lead to deepening of friendships, and are simply fabulous. More than that, although Ruach HaYam speaks with a queer Jewish voice, we welcome persons of all gender and faith identities. As we complete our fifth year, I can proudly say that we include among our intergenerational members the newly Jewish, Jews by tradition, Christian, secular, pagan, and undeclared, those who are neurodivergent or disabled, with identities across the gender spectrum, including those who do not identify as LGBTQ.  We have evolved into a sort of havurah with two dozen people who come to at least one of our events during the year.

What makes Ruach HaYam work, I believe, is that we have succeeded in creating a community that celebrates and welcomes each identity, whether solid or in formation.  Each person is welcomed in their full and fierce self, not just tolerated. The text study I teach is full of nuance and ambiguity, and as such, we offer a soft space in which to be vulnerable and in transition.  In an era of crystalizing political doctrine, we have a community in which to share “I don’t know” and “I can see many sides.”   When we held our retreat on November 12, 2016, I thought that perhaps people who had been devastated by the election results would stay home and lick wounds.  Instead, we had a full turnout of compassionate souls who learned about journeying to ourselves (Torah Portion Lech Lecha), and who cried and laughed together while we held sacred space for a day.  If ever there was proof of the need for celebratory, not just tolerant, queer Jewish community, this was it.

I am particularly pleased that Ruach HaYam is co-host for Spiritual Sisters: A Poetry Reading by Lesléa Newman and Joy Ladin.  Joy was one of my first teachers at Nehirim and had a significant impact upon my queer Jewish journey and upon my valuation as a teacher for careful listening, story-telling, and compassion for students.  Through the years I have arranged readings for Joy, attended her talks and poetry readings, and attended Shabbatons which she has headlined locally.   The poetry reading by Joy and Lesléa, however, is Ruach HaYam’s first collaboration with HBI, and I hope not the last.

************************************

Penina Weinberg, MJLS Hebrew College ‘09, is an independent Hebrew bible scholar whose study and teaching focus on the intersection of power, politics and gender in the Hebrew Bible. She has run workshops for Nehirim and Keshet and has been teaching Hebrew Bible for 10 years. She has written in Tikkun, founded the group Ruach HaYam, where she teaches a monthly queer Torah study, and is president emerita and webmaster at her synagogue. Weinberg is a parent and grandparent.

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