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 Journal, Washington Post, Hadassah Magazine, The Forward, Out, The 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.