A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts From the First Century to 1969 by Noam Sienna is a new collection of over a hundred sources on the intersection of Jewish and queer identities. Originating from a broad range of geographic and chronological contexts, these texts, many of them appearing for the first time in English, offer the reader a broad vision of what it has meant to be a queer Jew throughout history — even in contexts where queerness has traditionally been assumed absent. Academic and lay readers alike will discover an astonishing variety of personal stories, poems, and midrashim in the anthology.
A Rainbow Thread is a passion project, completed alongside Noam’s doctoral dissertation. As an acquaintance of Noam’s for some years, having met him through online discussions of Jewish history and queer identity, I have been following the project since Noam first decided to publish it as a book — and was delighted to discuss it with him in more depth.
Sacha Lamb: A Rainbow Thread includes letters, newspaper articles, poems, and midrashim. How did you gather all of your sources, from such a wide variety of places and times?
Noam Sienna: I want to acknowledge first and foremost that I learned so much making this book. I don’t want people to think that I went into this project with the encyclopedia of Jewish history already in my head. I’m a doctoral candidate in Jewish history so this is the one thing that I have some kind of official authority to speak about, but I was shocked to discover that there are huge, huge swaths of ignorance in my own knowledge of our history.
Maybe a year into the project I had about seventy texts that I was considering including. I made a list of the texts and organized them chronologically and geographically. Where I saw gaps I thought, Okay, where could I go to look for that material? Often that meant reaching out to other scholars and academics and activists who are from those communities and work in those communities. I’d them know I wanted to include material from the Persian Jewish community or from history in the early modern Ottoman Empire — have you come across anything? In the acknowledgments of the book, I think there are sixty people thanked for providing material or assisting with research queries — people who made the book so much richer than the material I could come up with on my own.
I also looked to see what are the demographics, as it were, of the sources in the book: how many sources came from a male perspective, from a female perspective, from a nonbinary perspective, how many were about transgender or gender transition. And I looked for sources to fill those gaps. I also hope that the book might help inspire other people to continue filling those lacunae. There are a hundred and twenty entries in the book, and out of those maybe two or three of them deal with North Africa, only about twenty or thirty of them are written by women. Out of all of the sources that deal with Jewish lesbians, only handful of them are from before the nineteenth century, and none of those are by women. But that doesn’t mean material isn’t out there. It means that this is an area that needs a lot of future work.
Another thing that I hope this book does is help convince Jewish historians that they should always be paying attention to gender and sexuality, and that there are more intersections. There are really two connected threads that run through this book. One is about gender — movement between genders or defining one’s own gender — and the second is about moments of connection and encounter, both in terms of physical intimacy and in terms of social and romantic intimacy between people of the same gender. But all of these sources also have many other facets, so I don’t want only scholars of gender or of the history of sexuality to read it. I think there are a lot of sources in this book relevant to the history of Jewish migration and labor history, for example.
SL: Was it a challenge at all to maintain an academic editing eye for a subject that’s so personal, both for you and for the subjects of the sources?
NS: It was definitely a tension that I was very mindful of throughout the whole process, even if I don’t know if I would say it was a challenge. Perhaps an opportunity! I think it’s really important for academics to acknowledge that so much of our work (and maybe even all of it) is rooted in personal, emotional, powerful experiences. So in this project, I tried to balance between presenting each entry in a way that was accurate enough to satisfy a scholar of that period or topic, but also clear enough to be accessible to a broad variety of readers. I actually would imagine myself finding this book in my middle school library as an adolescent, and then I would write as if addressing myself at that age. So it was extremely personal, in that sense!
At the same time, though, it was important for me that this book be more than a personal project, and not get bogged down in trying to validate my individual identities or experiences. Many of the sources were so painful for me to learn about, but I had to allow my readers to go through their own experiences, without dictating for them the exact same emotional reactions that I had … So I did a lot of processing on my own, and with my family and close friends, so that I could let those feelings out and allow them to be acknowledged, and then move on with the book project. Overall, I would say yes, this was an issue that I thought very consciously about the whole time I was writing, and I hope I found the right balance.
SL: Is there any life story you ran across that really sticks with you?
NS: I’ll give an example of one of my favorite stories, which really demands so much more research. The source is a 1915 article in the Chicago Daily Tribune and the story is as follows: Ben Rosenstein, Polish Jewish immigrant married to Helen Rosenstein, twenty-five years old, dies of tuberculosis. So far, nothing so unusual. But after his death, the doctor reveals that Ben Rosenstein was “really a woman” named Ida Weinstein, and Ida and Helen had met in New York while they were both living as women. Ida had transitioned in some way — it’s not clear what that meant — but Ida began living as Ben, and they either got married or just decided they were married; they’re listed as married in a census that I found. They move to Chicago, and Ben works in a factory then gets tuberculosis and dies in February 1915.
We could read this story as being about a butch/femme partnership in which Ben has decided to take on a male name and live in the world as a man in order to allow for the relationship to exist; we could read it as a story of trans identity; we could read it as a story of nonbinary identity; and we could read it as a story about labor. It’s a story about the social and material conditions of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in industrial East Coast cities around the turn of the twentieth century. If you were teaching a course on Jewish immigration and economic history in the early twentieth century, this would be a really interesting source to work with.
SL: What are your hopes for the book now that it’s been published?
NS: There’s almost no area of the Jewish world or aspect of Jewish life that is not touched upon in some way in the book — rabbinic literature, Hebrew poetry, Jewish immigration, secularization, modernization, and the development of the field of sexology. I really want other scholars to run with all of those different directions. The hope I have moving forward is that more people will be able to open up these historical fields.
There’s definitely more academic work to be produced from the book. About a third of the material in the book has never been published in English translation. Some material, sourced from archives, appears in this book for the very first time.
One reason why I chose to publish it with a trade press rather than an academic press is because I also wanted it to have a wider audience than just academics. I wanted a high school, even middle school, student to be able to read it, and I very consciously tried to write in a way that was accessible to laypeople. I’m excited to see the book serve as a resource for nonacademics: artists, filmmakers, playwrights, graphic novelists and people who are doing other kinds of Jewish programming. The stories included in this book could make wonderful plays, art installations, documentary films, comic books and graphic novels, children’s books, et cetera. I’m not the person to do that, but I’m really excited to put out the raw material for other people to work with.
SL: There’s a lot of talk right now among Jewish authors about what is out there for that represents the full spectrum of Jewish experiences.
NS: It so rich and so much of it is unknown, and so really this book is an excuse to get people to read primary sources from Jewish history. If the fact that it’s about lesbians or about cross-dressing stowaways or about Yeshiva students sleeping with each other gets people excited to read that, great — but what’s equally exciting to me is that this might be a conduit for someone to learning about Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire, or life in colonial Brazil, or in medieval Iraq.
The intent of this book is to broaden the horizon of Jewish history — in terms of sexuality, gender, temporality, and location. I think people might be surprised to discover just how many areas of Jewish life can be enriched through the incorporation of these marginalized voices.
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.