Non­fic­tion

A Rain­bow Thread: An Anthol­o­gy of Queer Jew­ish Texts from the First Cen­tu­ry to 1969

  • Review
By – June 11, 2019

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 part-time librar­i­an, part-time writer and part-time goat-herder. Sacha has pub­lished a num­ber of short sto­ries fea­tur­ing gay and trans­gen­der Jew­ish teenagers, and will be a Lamb­da Lit­er­ary Writ­ers’ Retreat fel­low in 2018.

Discussion Questions