October 16, 2018

The LGBTQ Jewish Anthology

By Violet Fearon

There is a tendency to closely associate LGBTQ identities with the modern era, as enormous strides in visibility and acceptance have been made in the past few decades. This was certainly Noam Sienna’s experience: growing up in a “very accepting Jewish community” in Toronto, he felt welcome, but also “like my identity as a queer Jew was seen as innovative or novel.”

This worldview was turned upside-down when, while an undergraduate at Brandeis, Sienna attended a talk by Peter Cole on his book, The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain (Princeton University Press, 2007). After Cole discussed the medieval homoerotic poetry of Jewish scholars like Yehuda haLevi and Shmuel haNagid, Sienna was struck by the sudden possibility that there was a vast history of LGBTQ Jewish topics that had been neglected or obscured in his own Jewish education; he wanted “to learn about Jewish history in a way that respected all the facets of my identity.”

A decade later, Sienna—now a doctoral candidate in Jewish history at the University of Minnesota—is publishing a groundbreaking work with the support of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, tentatively titled: The LGBTQ Jewish Anthology: a Reader of Primary Sources from the Talmud to Stonewall. Over his years of research, Sienna has shifted from a simple desire to share these primary historical sources with others to a hope that they will serve as “raw material for further work.”

But The LGBTQ Jewish Anthology is not meant just for academia. Sienna hopes “people will take all the stories in this book and use them to write other books and articles, incorporate them into college courses or classroom activities, design summer camp programs or synagogue lectures with them, make films and write poems and paint pictures about them.”

The entries in The LGBTQ Jewish Anthology are varied; about one third of them have never before been published in English. In totality, they form a collection of documents relating to a wide variety of same-sex relationships and homoerotic desires, transitions between and across gender identities, and ambiguity in how bodies are gendered. As an example, Sienna relates a particularly compelling entry: the story of Esther/Jacques, the first recorded Jew in Canada. Born Esther Brandeau in early 18th-century France, as a teenager they chose to live as Jacques La Fargue, a Christian boy. After traveling around Europe, Esther/Jacques reached present-day Quebec; but when their birth identity was revealed (and they refused to convert to Christianity), Esther/Jacques was deported back to France.

The story of Esther/Jacques reveals the uncertainty inherent in exploring these texts. As Sienna explains, “one way to read this source would be through a trans lens, looking at Esther/Jacques as someone who understood themselves to be a different gender than they were assigned at birth. Another way would be to imagine why else Esther/Jacques might have chosen to live as a man: to pursue marriage or partnership with a woman? To seek new professional, economic, or social opportunities? To leave a restrictive or oppressive family life? Some combination of all the above? All these readings are possible, and they can all co-exist.”

A tempting question arises: which interpretation is the truth? But Sienna steers us away from that line of thought, and towards a more complex perspective. “I’m not suggesting that I know the “true” story of Esther/Jacques’ life,” says Sienna, “but I do believe that reading their story alongside our own contemporary experiences and identities adds a richness and depth that had been previously ignored.”

In  The LGBTQ Jewish Anthology, Sienna has assembled a rich historical exploration of the intersection between Jewish and LGBTQ identities. His work documents the persecution faced by LGBTQ Jews (multiple entries concern individuals who died in concentration camps, who not only faced harsh treatment from Nazis, but were socially ostracized by other prisoners; other entries document the execution of Jews convicted of sodomy by the Inquisition, and the difficulties faced by gay and lesbian American Jews in the McCarthy Era), but also the outpouring of creativity which emerged from this pain. The many examples of poetry, drama, memoir, art, and midrash presented in the book all celebrate the richness of LGBTQ Jewish identity, and the important (and unacknowledged) role that LGBTQ lives and experiences have played throughout Jewish history around the world.

More personally, Sienna himself views his own queer identity as “inseparable” from his Jewish identity. Being queer and Jewish have both directed him in similar ways:  “towards a social orientation that pays particular attention to individuals and communities left marginalized and vulnerable; towards an appreciation of ancestry and family, both biological and chosen; and towards building a safer and more loving world for all people.”

Sienna’s anthology will be published in the fall of 2018 through Print-O-Craft Press, but pre-orders will begin within the next few months. For information, sign up at printocraftpress.com.

Learn more about the HBI Research Awards.

 

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

Noam Sienna, Brandeis ’11, is a Jewish educator, artist, and doctoral candidate in Jewish history at the University of Minnesota. His anthology of LGBTQ Jewish history is slated for publication in 2018. He received a 2016 HBI Research Award in their newest category, LGBTQ Studies.

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.

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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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