Noam Sienna ambitiously collected texts from throughout Jewish history and produced a work that illuminates the wider spectrum of gender and sexuality. The 120 texts in the anthology, many of which have never been translated into English before, range from rabbinic responsa and poetry to newspaper articles and personal reflections; they include a poem by Emma Lazarus, which expresses her desire and love for another woman; a witness in a sixteenth century rabbinic trial in the Ottoman empire, incidentally known throughout the community for his liaisons with other men; a nineteenth century Sephardic rabbi in Smyrna who rules on a divorce case in which the wife has “become male.” Together, these stories demonstrate a multiplicity of non-normative experiences across millennia and across the globe, from South Asia to the Lower East Side.
Sienna doesn’t refer to the subjects of these texts by modern terminologies such as “gay” and “transgender.” This offers readers of many identities a chance to forge their own connections with the past, while not limiting the inhabitants of that past with terminology alien to their cultural contexts. The fluidity of this interpretive approach is also reflected in the structure of the book. Although the overall arrangement is chronological, the author also suggests reading along a number of paths linked by subject, or even opening the book at random. Citations to further reading are included after each primary source which makes the anthology both a joy to read as a single volume, and a potential starting point for further exploration. In fact, Sienna encourages readers not only to read the texts, but also to create from them, whether by doing deeper research into history, or drawing inspiration for fiction and art from the anthology’s stories.
As Judith Plaskow’s introduction notes, memory is central to Judaism and to the Jewish people. The challenge of maintaining queer memories from one generation to the next has always been a difficult one, and for Jews, whose records have so often been threatened, the challenge is even greater. A Rainbow Thread is an aid to memory both for those who need to find themselves in the past, and those who need help understanding that expansive concepts of gender and sexuality are nothing new. This book will be a treasure on any shelf, whether in a Hebrew school, a synagogue or community center, a university library, or the home of anyone who needs to remember that the Jewish world, and the Jewish past, are full of more wonders than we can count.
Note: Sacha Lamb and Noam Sienna have been acquainted for several years through their mutual interest in Jewish history.
Sacha Lamb is a 2018 Lambda Literary fellow and author of queer Jewish novella Avi Cantor has Six Months to Live. Sacha is represented by Rena Rossner at the Deborah Harris Literary Agency and can be found @mosslamb on Twitter.