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 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.