When I was in college in the late 1980s, I devoured the work of Jewish feminists like Ellen Umansky and Judith Plaskow. They unearthed for me the previously hidden voices and experiences of Jewish women and helped build my sense of not just belonging but entitlement. For me to be my whole self as a Jewish woman no longer required me to translate the tradition to my experiences – my experiences were in the tradition, and it was mine to claim.
In that era, LGBTQA+ people were even less acknowledged – let alone integrated into community life – than they are today. While I know that the Jewish community in which I grew up had just as many LGBTQA+ Jews as there are today, sexuality and the queer spectrum were not on the communal agenda.
The thick physical presence of A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969 (Print-O-Craft, 2019) is a statement of the amount of history we need to recover. Edited by local scholar Noam Sienna with an introduction by the same Judith Plaskow who educated me 30 years ago, the book traces the threads of queer Jewish life from our earliest written records.
The book is organized historically in three sections: Premodern (first century CE-1500), early modern (1500-1900) and early 20th century (1900-1969). Each section includes legal documents, poems, essays, memoirs, letters and more about queer experiences and queer Jewish identity. Sienna introduces each text with commentary, placing each piece in a cultural context and linking themes between texts.
A fascinating text in the premodern section is a translation by Noach Dzmura of “Intersexed bodies in Mishnah,” dated from the 3rd century:
“Rabbi Yosi says, ‘Androgynous is a being created in zir [sic] own image and the sages could not decide whether he was a man or she was a woman, but tumtum [an indeterminate gender category] is judged either a doubtful man or a doubtful woman.” (p. 31)
Who knew tumtum was a thing? And discussed by rabbis in Mishnah, back in the 3rd century! We could use that concept today.
Moving into the early modern era, the texts become longer and the language more familiar. Here are stories of transgender Jews, exploration of the homosocial environment of the Beit Midrash and Hasidic communities, more legal condemnations but also rulings in support of the rights of queer Jews.
Not surprisingly, rabbinic thought has something to say about the application of Jewish law and tradition to LGBTQA+ Jews, just as it has something to say on every other aspect of life. In the late 19th century, a Sephardi rabbi ruled on the necessity of a get to divorce a woman who had transitioned to a man:
“Regarding our question, it seems that a get is not needed, since he is a man now and not a woman; for the format of the get is that a man gives it to his wife and writes, ‘You were my wife,’ but [in this case] there is no ‘wife,’ but a man.” (p. 185)
As we approach the end of the 19th century, included texts trace the new field of psychiatry and document work with LGBTQA+ Jews in institutions or private practice.
From 1889, we get a couplet from poet Amy Levy, which presages the wit of Dorothy Parker born only a few years before:
“I lounge in the doorway and languish in vain
“While Tom, Dick and Harry are dancing with Jane.” (p 174).
The 20th-century texts reflect the increasing interests of LGBTQA+ Jews in claiming their visible presence in the Jewish community. A 1965 essay by queer activist Leo Ebreo (who, incidentally, was also a Twin Cities local) calls on Zionist history to draw parallels with the activism required to create the state of Israel, and makes the case that it is no less critical to the health of the Jewish community to accept LGBTQA+ Jews fully into communal life.
He skillfully presents a dialogue in which an Everyman Jew argues that they “don’t want to be a member of a homophile organization.”
“My full sympathies. Neither do I. But I do belong, just as I belong to the USA, to the NAACP. Being in the Zionist movement, like being in the homophile movement, was to some extent a burden to me. It is a trial to pay dues, to attend meetings, to hear lectures and – most of all – to have to deal with so many people with their many, many faults.” (p. 384)
Whenever we add to our knowledge and expression of Judaism and Jewish life, we add to the value of our community. Just as feminist scholars, writers, and artists turned their rethinking of history into an entitlement for new generations of Jewish women, works like A Rainbow Thread help us close the gap between institutional Judaism and lived experience for LGBTQA+ Jews.
We still have a long way to go to fully weave this thread into the tapestry of our community. Jewish history is all of our experiences; we are all entitled.