Book Review: Writing by, and about, queer Jews

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Noam Sienna, the editor of the impressive “A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts From the First Century to 1969” (Print-O-Craft), notes that “queer Jews often feel like they are the first and only of their kind.” Their history is rarely featured in traditional day school or after-school religious classes, or acknowledged by many members of the Jewish community. Sienna’s “A Rainbow Thread” seeks to correct this neglect by offering a wide variety of texts – positive and negative – speaking specifically to, and about, queer Jews. 
Sienna writes that “the significance of [his] book resides in its recovery of a lineage which has been denied and withheld from the people who have sought it. History is important for everyone, but it takes on a special importance when evidence of one’s very existence has been manipulated and censored, forgotten, buried, and destroyed. This is particularly true for queer Jews and others with doubly- and multiple-marginalized identities who so often must fight for recognition and legitimacy on many fronts, both inside and outside the various communities to which they belong.” Sienna has collected texts from early rabbinic writing to 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots (which is regarded as a major turning point in the LGBTQ community). “A Rainbow Thead” includes 120 texts, a number considered significant in Judaism because it is said to be the age of Moses when he died.
The texts included come from a wide variety of sources, with some appearing in English for the first time. Sienna notes that his work is not a “listing of ‘Famous Gays in Jewish History’” nor does it serve as a guide to Jewish law, although legalistic writings are included. Reading primary sources can be difficult because, at times, it’s necessary to read between the lines or know the history of the particular text in order to understand its meaning. Fortunately, Sienna includes an introduction to each text, which places it in context and offers additional biographical or historical information when available. Sometimes his comments are as interesting, if not more interesting, than the text itself. 
According to Sienna, “The sources in this book fall into two categories. Many sources relate to intimate relationships, whether erotic or emotional, between people of the same sex or gender. Other sources are concerned with gender itself: with gender transition, with movement between genders, and with non-binary bodies and identities that do not fit easily in any gender category.” The texts appear in chronological order: “Pre-Modern Voices (First Century-1500 CE),” “Early Modern Voices (1500-1900)” and “Modern Voices (1900-1969).” This later section not only features the largest number of text, but the greatest number of pages. However, for those who are looking for particular types of text, Sienna offers lists at the end of work focusing on different genres, identities and geography. 
The book does include information that may make contemporary readers uncomfortable because some writing focuses on relationships of unequal power, for example, those with youth below the current age of consent. Questions remain about the exact nature of those featured in a text: one example is people who dressed as members of the opposite sex. They were not often asked about the motivation for their behavior: was it done for sexual, social or monetary reasons? Readers will differ on what texts are the most appealing or challenging, but some of the following stood out.
“What Was Adam’s Sex? A Midrash (Land of Israel, Fifth Century)” explores the meaning of the biblical verse “let us make man in our image.” (Genesis 1:26) Some ancient rabbis believed that meant the first human created was androgynous. Others suggested different gender possibilities.
A discussion of a sex change that occurred in the womb can be found in the midrash featured in “Dinah’s Sex is Changed: A Midrash (Land of Israel, Sixth to Eighth Century).” This story claims that when Leah found out she was pregnant with yet another boy (her seventh), she prayed to God to change the sex of her baby so her sister Rachel would be able to give birth to two boys.
Esther Brandeau/Jacques Le Fargue’s life is featured in “A Gender-Bending Jewish Runaway Arrives in New France (Quebec, 1738).” Brandeau/Le Fargue dressed as a man and worked as a male in France and on French ships. One journey took Brandeau/Le Fargue to Quebec, a colony that prohibited non-Catholics from settling there. When both identities (female and Jewish) were discovered, Brandeau/Le Fargue was sent back to France, where she disappeared from historical records.
A fascinating look at the legal rulings concerning a married woman who “‘changed’ into a man” can be found in “An Ottoman Sephardi Rabbi Rules on Gender Transformation (Izmir, 1896).” The questions discussed include whether or not the person needed a get (divorce document) from her husband and whether or not the person should say the daily prayer thanking God for not making her a woman. The rabbi offering the ruling decided the person did not need to receive a get because there was no longer a wife to be divorced (since the person was now male). As for the prayer, since God had originally made the person female, he should say a different prayer, one that thanked God for transforming him into a man. 
“‘Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years’: A German Jew’s Transition (Berlin, 1907)” is a captivating look at someone whose genitalia were nonbinary (neither specifically male or female). However, at birth, a doctor declared him female, an identity that did not fit. Karl Baer felt dissatisfied with life as a woman and transitioned to male. Reading Baer’s words offers insights unavailable in other texts.  
The poetry of Meir (Manfred) Lewis that appears in “A Young German Jew Writes His Boyfriend a Love Letter (Berlin, 1942)” was of less interest than the story of how Lewis not only tried to save his boyfriend from the Nazis by dressing as a Hitler youth, but joined the resistance.
“A Rainbow Thread” belongs on the bookshelves of anyone interested in LGBTQ Jewish history. It would make an excellent resource for discussion groups or classes, or a great gift for anyone exploring their sexual identity.