Celebrating Jewish Literature: Out of the closet

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Academic study vs. memoir, objective analysis vs. subjective examination: these describe the difference between two recent works: “Queer Judaism: LGBT Activism and the Remaking of Jewish Orthodoxy in Israel” by Orit Avishai (New York University Press) and “Late Bloomer: Finding My Authentic Self at Midlife” by Melissa Giberson (She Writes Press). While “Queer Judaism” does offer personal stories, its main focus is an objective look at the shift in opinion about homosexuality in parts of the Israeli Orthodox community. The author of “Late Bloomer” takes a very personal approach in her memoir: she writes of what happened when, in her mid-40s, she realized she is physically and emotionally attached to women.

Avishai explores how members of the LGBT community in Israel are demanding equal rights in the Orthodox world. They counter the claim that there are no Orthodox gays or lesbians by saying that those who wanted to be open about their sexuality were forced to leave the community because they were not accepted. Although these demands might sound radical, Avishai notes that those making them are not. They are not looking to change anything else about halachah (Jewish law) except for it to allow their partners/spouses and children to be accepted as full members of the community. This includes being welcome in synagogues and religious schools. Some leaders claim that in every other way – religiously and politically – they are no different from other Orthodox. Many of them live in settlements in the territories, accept the rules separating men and women, and are politically conservative. All they want is a space in the community in which they grew up. 

While Avishai writes about the different Orthodox LGBT movement’s organizations – their development, disagreements and changes – for many readers it will be the evolution of the religious changes that is the most interesting. These only occurred because the LGBT groups and the social media websites she writes about allowed those questioning their sexuality to recognize they were not alone: for the first time, they realized there were others who felt the same way, including many who did not want to leave their home communities. The claim became, “I can be gay or lesbian and be fully Orthodox.”

Not everyone has accepted the idea that it’s halachically possible to be a practicing member of the LGBT community and remain Orthodox. For example, those who felt same-sex attraction were often told they were only going through a phase or were referred to unhelpful and unhealthy conversion therapy. Other options they were given included choosing a heterosexual marriage or remaining celibate. These choices were rejected by those Avishai quotes in her book. While parts of the Israeli Orthodox community have rejected their demands and are working to penalize those who are openly gay, Avishai notes that those in her study are not looking to change other community standards: most of her subjects reject the ideals of the liberal LGBT community, which seeks equal rights for everyone, including women and Palestinians. 

Avishai notes that the movement has had some limited acceptance, including support from some parts of the Israeli rabbinate. However, the author writes, “And yet this support is not unconditional because embrace, tolerance, and acceptance of the vulnerable do not amount to normalization... tolerance does not address the root cause of marginalization: an uncompromising cis and heteronormative social order.” It also does not acknowledge those who are bisexual or transsexual. Although Avishai generally manages to be nonjudgmental, readers looking between the lines can see that she wishes these groups were working against all types of oppression: she posits they will never receive full acceptance until all are fully accepted.

“Queer Judaism” includes excerpts from numerous interviews that show the heartbreak of those who have not been accepted by their families and/or community. However, these are the same people who are creating a new version of Orthodoxy simply by living their lives and expecting acceptance. Their use of Jewish texts has also helped them become more actively engaged in Judaism. “Queer Judaism” will inspire and challenge readers as it shows the active development of religious change in Israel.

While Avishai offers the personal voices of those she interviewed, in “Late Bloomer,” Giberson’s focus is on her own experiences and emotions. The author was in her mid-40s when she came to the shocking realization that she is attracted to women, something she refuses to fully accept at first. That’s because if she is a lesbian, it will completely change the life she is living. This includes telling her husband – the man with whom she’s been in a relationship for more than 20 years – that their marriage is over. Although she decides that she needs to explore her new identity, Giberson desperately wants to keep her family together. However, things change after she tells her husband about her sexuality and he moves out. (She stays in what was once their home with their two children.) However, she still does not want a divorce and is extremely upset when she’s served with divorce papers without first being notified by her husband. 

Giberson does not have an easy time dealing with the changes in her life. She talks to rabbis and cantors, which leads her to attending Jewish LGBTQ groups where she can share her feelings and learn how others are dealing with similar issues. She makes friends, attempts relationships and then steps back. It takes 10 years for her to finally feel comfortable in her new life and she records a great deal of what occurred during those years. This includes experiencing some very difficult losses and the mixed emotions she has about her own past. 
It’s interesting to note that Giberson’s now ex-husband was not Jewish, although he supported their children being Jewish and attending religious school. However, once word of what happens becomes public, Giberson feels less comfortable at her synagogue because she feels the clergy and her former friends are taking her husband’s side. (She seems unable to see that their support of her husband may have had more to do with the fact that she had an affair with a woman while she was still married than it did with her being gay.)

However, readers will sympathize with the difficulties Giberson faces, if only because she so struggles with everything that happens to her. The reason for this becomes clear toward the end of the memoir when the author learns she has a character trait that makes her extremely sensitive to change. People with this condition react far more emotionally than others to everything that happens in their lives. What is more difficult to understand is her lack of empathy for her ex-husband, although after her diagnosis, she does seem to offer him more to sympathy. Her expectations that somehow they could remain a happy family – including the two of them taking trips with their children – belies the shock he must have felt on having his family torn apart. Although she wasn’t ready for a formal divorce, that may have been an action he needed to take, one that allowed him to start his new life by cutting ties with his former world.

Reading “Late Bloomer” after “Queer Judaism” made the stories in the latter book come alive because Avishai could only offer brief selections from her interviews while Giberson gives an in-depth, almost step-by-step, portrait of someone affected by the realization they are gay. The two books compliment each other, even as they offer very different views of two countries and Jewish communities.