Queer Jewish Texts in the Americas
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0223
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0223
Queer Jewish American texts study and express perspectives related to alternative experiences of sex, gender, and sexuality among Jews in the Americas. By the late 1960s to the 1980s, a body of creative writing, exegesis, and criticism from gay, lesbian, and bisexual Jewish viewpoints began to appear more broadly and explicitly, gaining new cultural power in the wake of social liberation movements and the emergence of gay and lesbian Jewish congregations. By the 1990s, these voices more consistently featured in edited collections on gender and sexuality across religious denominations, cultural contexts, and scholarly disciplines; such volumes include Miriam Peskowitz’s and Laura Levitt’s Judaism Since Gender, Danya Ruttenberg’s Yentl’s Revenge and The Passionate Torah, Nathan Abrams’s Jews and Sex, and (more recently) Rivka Cohen’s Monologues from the Makom. The last decades of the 20th century saw entire anthologies devoted to queer Jewish concerns, including more transgender voices, as well. Transgender Jewish writers like Leslie Feinberg also pioneered empathetic portrayals of trans Jewish characters by the 1990s. A tension runs throughout the history of LGBTQI+ literature between assimilationism and the cultivation of pride in social difference, in some ways paralleling Jewish American literature more broadly. The term “queer” is an evolving placeholder that applies unevenly across historical and social contexts. For example, while for most of the 20th century gay and lesbian white people were considered queer (i.e. stigmatized on the basis of sexuality and denied legal protections), recent social progress has changed this reality in a number of contexts—with federal protections of same-sex marriage and positive mainstream media representations of cisgender same-sex marriages and parenting, a new “homonormativity” exists in which some sexual minority identities are assimilated into social norms at the expense of others who remain disenfranchised. “Queer,” by this logic, is now more the domain of trans, nonbinary, non-monogamous, disabled, neurodiverse, and other currently stigmatized iterations of gender and sexuality, including those experienced by many LGBTQI+ people of color. Accordingly, a significant amount of recent queer Jewish texts in the Americas avoid “homonormative” depictions and prioritize a focus on those LGBTQI+ Jews who continue to lack social safety or cultural legibility. Approaches and subject matter vary widely across this body of texts. While some authors reinterpret Jewish theology or scripture through queer lenses, others posit the queerness of Jewish experiences in diaspora, or the queerness of being a non-normative Jewish subject in normative Jewish contexts. Some texts focus on a singular queer Jewish American perspective, while others chart collective histories or advocate for new ways of thinking about queerness and Jewishness as they inform each other in creative, scholarly, or political realms. Generally speaking, this article charts a shift among creatives and intellectuals from envisioning American Jewishness and queerness as conflictual elements to appreciating their various points of overlap and synergy. As a final note, the author thanks Ori Tsameret for assistance with gathering and organizing sources in preparation for this article.
This list offers broad collections of historical, political, aesthetic, religious, and autobiographical writings. Among the first of such collections, Beck 1989 emerges both in relation to American second-wave feminist politics and as a reaction against the exclusion of explicit Jewishness sometimes experienced in that movement. Alpert, et al. 2001 follows the official admission of openly gay and lesbian rabbis to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (1984) and to the Reform Hebrew Union College (1989). Building on Beck’s example, it assembles the voices of lesbian rabbis grappling with congregational and personal questions of relevance here. Balka and Rose 1991 is the first noted collection of both gay and lesbian Jewish voices published together. Slomowitz and Feit 2019 offers nuance to Orthodox queer and trans experiences, expanding on Chaim Rapoport’s 2004 landmark study, Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View. Shneer and Aviv 2002 and Boyarin, et al. 2003 focus mainly on non-Orthodox experiences and theoretical figurations of “Jewishness as queerness” with regard to broader concerns of diaspora, acculturation, minority politics, and theology, as well as with regard to Yiddish and other Jewish-majority languages, rituals, and customs. These paved the way for later works like Brown 2004, as well as Dzmura 2009 and Zeveloff 2014, the first bound collections of trans Jewish writing on congregational, ritual, and personal life across denominations. More recently, Sienna 2019 pioneers the first anthology of its kind: a broad collection of critically framed historical documents of queer Jewish experiences from across the globe, spanning from the first century to 1969. Beyond this list, meta-analyses that survey queer Jewish life, art, or culture have been published as searchable journal articles by Rebecca Alpert, Ronit Irshai, Yaakov Ariel, Marla Brettschneider, and others. Additionally, journals with articles by and about specific queer Jewish American texts or figures include Judaica Librarianship; Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends; Sinister Wisdom: A Multicultural Lesbian Literary & Art Journal; Off Our Backs; Sojourner, Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility; Journal of Women and Religion; Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal; Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies; Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues; Studies in American Jewish Literature; Journal of Lesbian Studies; Transgender Studies Quarterly; GLQ: A Journal of Gay & Lesbian Studies; Journal of Homosexuality; and Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Lastly, newsletters and magazines to have prominently featured queer Jewish contributions include Gesher, Lilith, Tikkun, Davka, The Advocate, The Jewish Gaily Forward, and G’vanim.
Alpert, Rebecca T., Sue Levi Elwell, and Shirley Idelson, eds. Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
Alpert showcases perspectives by lesbian rabbis on being called to their work, on obstacles and insights at seminary, and on how they navigated their personal and professional lives. These include stories of coming-out and of survival, such as Rabbi Benay Lappe’s experience in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that existed during Lappe’s time at Jewish Theological Seminary. Authors also reinterpret scripture and traditional approaches to building Jewish family and community.
Balka, Christie, and Andy Rose, eds. Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay, and Jewish. Boston: Beacon, 1991.
In this book, queer Jews and allies condemn the institution of the closet, considering Jewish historical circumstances such as the conversos of early modern Spain and the mutual endangerment of Jews and homosexuals in Nazi Europe. Demanding Jewish change, they probe the ethics of forcing loved ones to hide themselves. They also offer more inclusive prayers, resources for combating homophobia, and stories of reconciliation and of alternative kinship models.
Beck, Evelyn Torton, ed. Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology. Boston: Beacon, 1989.
Reflecting the politics of lesbian feminism, writers critically confront taboos around lesbian identity in Jewish contexts, drawing from various Jewish legacies, such as fleeing Nazi Europe or growing up Sephardi in Askenazi-dominant contexts. The authors align such historically informed experiences with their desire as lesbians to be recognized but not monitored or endangered, to be included but not assimilated. Poetry, fiction, dialogues, and other formats accompany more traditional essays.
Boyarin, Daniel, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini, eds. Queer Theory and the Jewish Question. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Contributors ask how, why, and to what ends Jewishness and queerness have overlapped in literary, semiotic, political, and other cultural registers, from biblical and medieval sources to works centered on Freud, Ansky, Leopold and Loeb, and Barbra Streisand. A reprint of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s classic chapter on “the closet” uses the biblical Queen Esther to illustrate the paradoxical “double bind” experienced by those who are condemned both for hiding themselves and for revealing themselves.
Brown, Angela, ed. Mentsh: On Being Jewish and Queer. Los Angeles: Alyson, 2004.
From growing up in the South to partaking in a trans Jewish wedding ceremony, this broad, anthology collects personal stories of queer struggle, chutzpah, and triumph by a variety of authors, including both emergent voices and such previously established ones as Lesléa Newman, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Jay Michaelson, Faith Soloway, and Daniel M. Jaffe.
Dzmura, Noach, ed. Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2009.
This landmark collection begins with compelling firsthand accounts of trans Jews seeking meaningful Jewish lives despite structural barriers and erasures. The second section provides trans Jewish rituals and pathways to foster trans belonging in Jewish spaces. The final section broadens and deepens the study with scholarly and communal reflections that contribute to building a history of trans presence in Jewish scripture and within the Jewish future.
Shneer, David, and Caryn Aviv, eds. Queer Jews. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Embracing the fluidity and powerful possibilities of “queer,” this sometimes-provocative volume progresses beyond the careful apologetics that characterized some earlier essays. It gathers expansive perspectives on literature, film, and theater, meditations on politics and nationalism, and discussions of lived religion, including queer Jewish rituals and milestones. Authors include such notables as Eve Sicular, Joan Nestle, Lesléa Newman, Steve Greenberg, Jane Rachel Litman, Jonathan Krasner, Sandi Simcha Dubowski, and Marla Brettschneider.
Sienna, Noam, ed. A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969. Philadelphia: Print-O-Craft, 2019.
This groundbreaking international anthology spans two millennia of creative, journalistic, documentary, rabbinic, public, and individual records. Fascinating examples range from a gender-bending French Sephardi runaway to Canada in 1738 to the same-sex romantic poetry of Emma Lazarus and a rabbi’s counseling on homosexuality in 1950s Alabama. In addition to comprehensive and accessible prefaces to each source, an appendix offers thematic groupings through which the included texts might be analyzed.
Slomowitz, Alan, and Alison Feit, eds. Homosexuality, Transsexuality, Psychoanalysis and Traditional Judaism. New York: Routledge, 2019.
With erudition, empathy, and creativity, this pathbreaking anthology chronicles the difficulties and sometimes the gradual signs of progress LGBTQI+ Jews have experienced halachically, socially, and personally in the Orthodox world, whose adherence to traditional Jewish law and to the value of binaries is detailed and analyzed in context. Contributors are rabbis, clinicians, activists, and social scientists steeped in the Orthodox world and sensitive to the predicaments of queer and trans Orthodox Jews.
Zeveloff, Naomi, ed. Transgender and Jewish. New York: The Forward Association, 2014.
With a foreword by Joy Ladin, this clear and concise publication addresses a broad readership, introducing histories of progress and ongoing challenges experienced by trans Jews living and working professionally across Jewish communal contexts. It also offers names of leaders and organizations engaged in building a more affirming Jewish existence for trans Jews.
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