Queer Judaism

  • Review
By – May 29, 2023

Orit Avishai, pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy and women’s, gen­der, and sex­u­al­i­ty stud­ies at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty, is not the first author to cov­er LGBT life and activism in Israel. Two sem­i­nal books start­ed this con­ver­sa­tion back in 2000: Lee Walzer’s Between Sodom and Eden: A Gay Jour­ney Through Today’s Chang­ing Israel focused on the pre­vi­ous decade’s impres­sive polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al progress, while Inde­pen­dence Park: The Lives of Gay Men in Israel by Amir Sumaka’i Fink and Jacob Press shared the per­son­al sto­ries of gay Israeli men from dif­fer­ent back­grounds. Avishai, how­ev­er, adds some­thing valu­able to the ongo­ing con­ver­sa­tion by spot­light­ing Israel’s Ortho­dox Jews — a com­mu­ni­ty where polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al progress have lagged behind, and per­son­al sto­ries have more sel­dom been told.

The bulk of Avishai’s research con­cerns gay men and les­bians, although there are occa­sion­al men­tions of issues spe­cif­ic to bisex­u­al, trans­gen­der, and non­bi­na­ry peo­ple; and she is pri­mar­i­ly talk­ing about reli­gious nation­al­ist,” or dati-leu­mi, Jews — rough­ly the equiv­a­lent of the Mod­ern Ortho­dox in the US. Part of the rea­son this com­mu­ni­ty war­rants its own dis­cus­sion is that its goals and strug­gles are unique: Most of the peo­ple Avishai dis­cuss­es have no inter­est in join­ing Israel’s already vibrant LGBT com­mu­ni­ty, cen­tered in Tel Aviv, because it is too sec­u­lar and too indi­vid­u­al­is­tic for them. They want to remain in their homes — their spir­i­tu­al homes (syn­a­gogues), their com­mu­nal homes (neigh­bor­hoods), and their lit­er­al homes (fam­i­lies) with­out hid­ing their iden­ti­ty. They demand a room of their own with­in the Jew­ish home,” and because of this, they have begun a bat­tle over Orthodoxy’s boundaries.”

Avishai’s open­ing chap­ter offers a his­to­ry and cul­tur­al con­text for this bat­tle. She dis­cuss­es films, events, online forums, and orga­ni­za­tions that only began to grow years after the country’s sec­u­lar Jews had already seen a full decade of progress in the 1990s. While it’s a use­ful resource, this open­ing is some­times over­ly dense and dry. But when Avishai turns to per­son­al sto­ries in the next chap­ter, the book comes alive. She describes fam­i­ly estrange­ments and rec­on­cil­i­a­tions — and the mid­dle ground, a con­di­tion­al recog­ni­tion” that one woman describes as a sim­mer­ing armistice” — in poignant detail. She reflects on the progress of rab­bini­cal author­i­ties — a halt­ing, par­tial, and grudg­ing progress, but progress nonethe­less. Inter­view sub­jects speak can­did­ly about their expe­ri­ences in con­ver­sion ther­a­py, unhap­py het­ero­sex­u­al mar­riages, and oth­er reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties where their sex­u­al­i­ty is accept­ed but their reli­gios­i­ty is ques­tioned. These per­son­al sto­ries allow points of entry for Avishai’s sub­se­quent exam­i­na­tion of the­o­log­i­cal issues, polit­i­cal activism, and cul­tur­al con­flict. The peo­ple we’ve come to know on a per­son­al lev­el can now walk us through the larg­er topics. 

The ulti­mate goal of Avishai’s sub­jects is not to reject Ortho­doxy, but to make space with­in it, to find an authen­tic way of being obser­vant with­out leav­ing this part of them­selves behind. In her con­clu­sion, Avishai doesn’t hes­i­tate to ques­tion or even crit­i­cize her sub­jects’ some­what lim­it­ed ambi­tions and con­ser­v­a­tive, nation­al­is­tic pol­i­tics. But to her cred­it, she lets them define their own strug­gles, their own aims. They are not out to start a rev­o­lu­tion,” Avishai writes, but the very exis­tence of Ortho­dox LGBT per­sons in Ortho­dox spaces is revolutionary.”

Wayne Hoff­man is a vet­er­an jour­nal­ist, pub­lished in The New York Times, Wall Street Jour­nalWash­ing­ton Post, Hadas­sah Mag­a­zineThe For­wardOutThe Advo­cate, and else­where; he is exec­u­tive edi­tor of the online Jew­ish mag­a­zine Tablet. The author of The End of Her: Rac­ing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Mur­der, he has also pub­lished three nov­els, includ­ing Sweet Like Sug­ar, which won the Amer­i­can Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award. He lives in New York City and the Catskills.

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