Queer Jews – Review

Gender Agenda
Gender Agenda

Issue 4 Lent 2003

The magazine of


Women's Union

Queer Jews

D. Shneer & C. Aviv

Routledge, Inc. 2002

Review by Rachel Berger

The intersection of Jewish and Queer identities, a topic swept out of the spotlight for
decades, has recently come under investigation within various forums of Jewish culture. Sandi
Dubowski’s 2001 film Trembling Before God, which delves into the lives of gay and lesbian
Orthodox Jews, and has inspired a dialogue both inside and outside of the Jewish community
about the ‘deviant’ sexualities and the regulation of identity amongst Jews; the film has been
screened all over the world to rave reviews and numerous prizes, and the makers of the film
have received a grant from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation for a community
education and outreach project. At the other end of the spectrum is Ruthie and Connie: Every
Room in the House, a film released in 2002 and directed by Deborah Dickson, about a Jewish
lesbian couple reflecting on their life together as they get ready to celebrate their 25th
anniversary together with a commitment service at the Gay & Lesbian synagogue in New York
City; this film was pioneering in its depiction of older couples, as well as its focus on
lesbian Jewish women, and also won rave reviews at festivals around the world. Jewish Studies
conferences are abuzz with researchers working on queer issues, and synagogues across the
world are engaging in discussions about queer identity in the Jewish community. The current
climate of debate and discussion has made the publication of Queer Jews: An Anthology (New
York: Routledge, 2002), edited by Caryn Aviv & David Shneer, all the more timely.

A collection of academic writing, personal experiences, and popular historical pieces, the
anthology deals with topics ranging from the experiences of a transgendered teacher’s
experiences in front of his Hebrew school class, to the debate between two lesbian moms over
whether to circumcise their son, to the history of lesbian and bisexual identities in Yiddish
literature and the Klezmer movement. Amongst the most interesting pieces in the collection is
a conversation between an FTM and a butch dyke about their experiences of gender-bending at
the Western Wall, as both negotiated rejection/acceptance on either side of the mechitzah, the
barrier placed to divide women from men during prayer; the politics of ‘passing’ take on a
whole new meaning when performed at one of the Jewish tradition’s most famous sites, notorious
for the policing of gender by various levels of Israeli and Jewish authority bent on
maintaining the separation of men from women. Several entries also deal with the
re-invention of Jewish ritual in a queer context, including Jane Rachel Litman’s reinvention
of the traditional marriage ceremony at the Michigan Womyn’s Fesitval, and Hadar Dubrowsky’s
excellent take on ‘Jewish Dyke Baby-Making.’ Much discussion is made of traditional – and more
radical – Jewish edudation, and the process of both studying and teaching Judaic and Rabbinic
studies, from both sides of the classroom. The last section deals with queer Jewish issues in
the media, and alternately inscribing a queer history onto Jewish media, as witnessed in Eve
Sinclair’s reconsideration of Yiddish film, and Jewish history onto ‘Queer’ productions, as
proposed by Jyn Lynn Feldman in her chapter on Angels in America.

Also present in this collection is a discussion of current Israeli political situation, as
well as the relationship between the Jewish community and the North American nation
state. Ruti Kadish explores the role of masculinity in the history of Zionism, and evaluates
the appropriation of gay male identity by the Israeli army & state, and ultimately challenges
queer-identified Jews to contest the narrowness of these ideologically-constructed gender
norms. In an interesting essay on the first queer protest at the New York City’s Israel day
festivities, Jonathan Krasner explores the ways in which the Jewish community reacted to the
presence of ‘dissident’ Jewish youth wanting to participate in communal life on their own
terms. In an essay on queer Jews in Canada, oscar wolfman explores the linkages between the
community and the state in providing support services & resources for Queer Jews, and
concludes that while both fall short, the vocal and visible presence of this group has had a
great impact that is beginning to be felt.

The anthology also tends toward the comical and the inspirational. In a provocative piece
entitled “Queer Naked Seders,” Jill Nagle pushes for the invention of new traditions from a
sex-positive feminist perspective. And speaking from another time and place, queer
liberationist Joan Nestle recounts her experiences of coming out as a Jew and a lesbian in the
early post-war era, and gives voice to a long and rich history of Queer & Jewish North
American identity.

The contributors are almost entirely North American academics or individuals involved in
some capacity with the North American academy, and their concerns reflect that reality, thus
rendering the book an interesting take on middle-class Jewish identity. On the other hand,
there is a real engagement with issues of identity that are normally discussed with regards to
race and ethnicity, and it is interesting to see principles of anti-racist, pro-feminist and
critical theory applied to a predominantly white community; to the credit of the contributors,
the discussion of these issues and application of this theory is done both carefully and
critically, and will set the standard for more investigations of this sort. Lacking is a sense
of the experiences of queer Jews of different class backgrounds, as well as outside of the
community of Ashkenazi/European descent; an evaluation of the lives of Jews of Sephardic
(North African) or Mizrachi (Non-Western/Asian) descent would have been interesting. Overall,
however, the collection has taken important strides in redefining the boundaries of Jewish
America, as well as the Queer community, by insisting that the voices of Queer Jews be heard –
and accounted for.

 


 

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