jew on this

critical, progressive ideas from pondering jews

Tag: queer

challenging judaism’s spaces

by tobybee

of course, jewish communities aren’t always so good to jews. that’s kind of obvious, I suppose: communities make dividing lines, allowing some people in and pushing others out. Making others Other. and, in particular, in the last few weeks, we have seen in israel a move to make it even more difficult for jews who have converted to be considered jews – the so-called ‘conversion law’ that Yisrael Beitenu is trying to get made into law. The bill, as this article in the Jerusalem Post explains, “which passed the Law Committee last Monday and now needs to undergo three Knesset readings before becoming law, would enable city rabbis to conduct conversions, while putting the conversion issue in Israel under the legal jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate. Critics fear this would legally prevent any non-Orthodox conversion from being conducted in Israel, and would allow the establishment to also reject converts from abroad.”

Of course, there has been great opposition from within Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox movements around the world. Apparently (according to J-Post) Netanyahu has said that he would oppose this bill being made law; which has moved MKs from Y.B. and Shas to say that they would leave the coalition if he did indeed prevent it being made law. There’s been plenty of coverage elsewhere, in papers and throughout the blogworld (see, for instance the Union of Progressive Judaism site, which is keeping people up to date).

we’ve also seen the arrest of Anat Hoffman, a leader of Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel), during prayers at the Western Wall at rosh hodesh. she has been charged with praying with a torah at the Wall. (you can read an interview, which contains a detailed description of what has happened, with her here) which is all kinds of incredible, I think: that it has been made illegal for women to pray in the ways they want in what is supposedly a jewish state. you’d think that if there was anywhere that protected judaism, it would be there.. but no…

and, finally, from the worlds of orthodox judaism… a new edited collection, entitled “Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires” was released in America a couple of months ago. I’m in the process of reading it, and loving it deeply. i’m loving it for the spaces that it demands are opened up; for the ways it plays with preconceptions of what constitutes a lesbian, a queer woman, an orthodox woman, a woman. for its embracing of spaces of dissent and spaces of inclusion. i’d highly encourage you to listen to this excellent podcast of an interview with the editor of the collection, Miryam Kabakov, interviewed by Nadja Spiegelman (who, on a side note, I think is Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s daughter), available here, from the forward. She describes encounters she’s had with other orthodox lesbian women; the process many have been through in finding the language to describe who they are and what they do; the ways in which these women have remained inside their orthodox worlds or have left; and the possibilities that they endlessly create.

so in these three examples we can see different ways in which jewish orthodoxy is being challenged from within: we can see pushing for restrictions, for tightening of spaces; and pushing for wider spaces, for embracing of difference.

(you might also be interested, perhaps… in another of my roles as a ‘professional jew’ (as a friend and i have come to term ourselves), I’ve just had an article published in borderlands ejournal, entitled “‘We’re dealing with how do we live and work with this memory and what are we supposed to do about it’: Making use of Jewish liminality”. It looks at the ways in which liminal spaces are productive of new Jewish identities: it presents an analysis of a sign, created by left-wing Jews, which was attached to a pole on a street in the Lower East Side of New York in December 2006. By reading the sign—in all its multiplicity and complexity—we can unravel the ways in which Jewish identities in liminal Jewish/non-Jewish spaces, such as New York, are affected by memories of the Holocaust, knowledge of Israeli colonial practices, and Jewish religious identities. This sign can open up new ways of thinking through (Jewish) diasporic languages and identities: it points us to the uncertainties which can be a part of being a leftwing Jew in New York today. By examining the significations of this sign we can open up broader questions of the place of Jewishness(es) in relation to modernities, and the struggles which are continually played out in the diaspora in relation to the practices of the Jewish nation-state, and the ongoing effects of that thoroughly modern event, the Holocaust.)


‘speaking out’, and ‘the intimate politics of love and betrayal’

by tobybee

for the last few days i’ve been turning to some old jewish favourites for comfort: to melanie kaye/kantrowitz, ella shohat, ammiel alcalay, the boyarins, and assorted others who sit on my bookshelf. while spending much time scouring the interwebs looking for more analysis, i’ve also found it necessary to return to the words of jews who have asserted the importance of jewish diasporism: the creativity and the always-already liminality of living in the diaspora.

and then today in the mail (thanks to a certain online provider of books and cds, who i sadly had to use because these things aren’t available in shops here), came a parcel containing the new cd from the shondes, my dear one, and a new book, “Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires”, edited by Miryam Kabakov. in short, two amazing pieces of queer jewish creativity (well, i haven’t read the book yet (but it looks rad), but the cd is all sorts of awesome), which will nourish and sustain my soul in the coming days.

in the liner notes for ‘my dear one’, the shondes write:

A note to listeners. we didn’t set out to make a breakup album. but when every song you write seems to tell a different part of the same story, you begin to think it’s a story worth telling. so we spent this year thinking hard about the intimate politics of love and betrayal. the truth is, everything we believe about justice is directly reflected in the bonds of our closest relationships, in how we treat the people we love. we have to try to honor the strength and fragility of these bonds, the risk of trusting and being trusted, and the opportunity to be accountable to each other. let’s take our heartbreak and make it beautiful.

sigh. full points for importance.

and then, just now, i watched this:

* hat-tip to liz p

Melbourne Jews and queer sexuality

by tobybee

A friend of mine, Kate O’Halloran, has just had a pretty great article published in MCV about people in the Jewish community and queer/homosexual sexualities. It can be found here.

It reads in part:

On the evening of Saturday, August 1 this year a masked gunman injured 15 and killed two people at a queer support centre in Tel Aviv, Israel. The Australian Jewish News (AJN) ran several pieces on the incident, and quoted the Israeli Prime Minister as saying that “all people were created in God’s image”, and “every citizen has the right to be… free and proud”.

But not all readers were impressed. An anonymous blogger commented: “…the last thing […] readers are interested in is what is happening in Tel Aviv snake pits of dreck and perversion”.

The comment led Michael Barnett, head of Aleph – a Melbourne-based group offering guidance, support and companionship for Jewish, gay and bisexual men – to circulate other such material to prominent figures in the community. Barnett says he did this to raise awareness of what he sees as homophobia within the Australian Jewish community. This illustrates, that, if nothing else, non-straight sexuality remains as contentious within Jewish religious circles as elsewhere.

What is the Jewish community’s relationship to queer sexuality? Is the community divided, as AJN journalist Haviv Rettig Gur suggests of Israel: “along religious lines”, and for those who do identify as Orthodox or conservatively Jewish, how do they reconcile their religious beliefs with their sexual desires?

Shaun Miller attends a progressive lay-led synagogue called Kedem, based in Armadale. He spoke of his overwhelmingly positive experiences of the Jewish community. “My family and Jewish friends completely ‘accept’ [my sexuality] to the same extent that I ‘accept’ their heterosexuality.” This allows Miller’s Jewish and gay identities to be “completely relaxed with each other”. He in no way considers that his religion condemns his sexuality: “I was made in G-d’s image. I am gay. So G-d must have a little gay side too!”

Interestingly, both Progressive and Orthodox Jews share this positive outlook. Jessica Zimmerman, who attended an orthodox Jewish school, writes that while “you would assume I would have been a victim to homophobic hate… I was actually welcomed with kindness and understanding”. For Zimmerman, this positive experience has enabled her spirituality and sexuality to remain “very much intertwined”. Indeed, Zimmerman believes her sexuality has even enhanced her religion and spirituality: “I thank G-d for making me the person I am!”

Unfortunately, this is not the experience of all queer Jews. One man, who asked not to be identified, spoke of the “extremely trying circumstances” he undergoes as a homosexual frum (Orthodox, religious) man. He sees his religion as taking absolute priority over his sexuality, perhaps a necessary consequence of his belief that his religion “absolutely, certainly, and unequivocally” condemns homosexual acts. This is in no small part due to the frum or strict interpretation of the Torah.

Orthodox men as such find it near impossible to comfortably act upon their sexual desires. According to this person, “only a very small percentage of frum gays choose to abandon frumkeit, live a gay life and come out to their family”, while others, like himself, are able to function sexually in a marital [heterosexual] situation and choose to do so because of their commitment to an Orthodox Jewish way of life.

Religious Jews who attend progressive or reform temples or shuls regard the mitzvot as open to questioning and discussion. Sandra, who attends a reform shul, writes that Reform Judaism “has its own way of praying… allows women to become Rabbis [and]… play significant roles in the community” while still upholding many aspects of Orthodoxy, particularly laws such as fasting on Yom Kippur and the observance of Passover and Rosh Hashana. Sandra speaks of witnessing a “passionate” sermon “about acceptance… especially for gay Jews”.

It’s great that the particular experiences of queer/gay Jews are being explored within the wider community, and fantastic that Kate took the opportunity to write this article, which told a few peoples’ stories with such grace. Kate has another article about this stuff coming out soon in Cherrie. I’ll post it here when it comes out.


by tobybee

last sunday (June 28) was the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots in Greenwich village, nyc. the riots were, as most would know, a foundational moment in the modern gay liberation movement. I was in new york in February, and one chilly day with a friend we visited stonewall and the memorial in the park opposite. it was profoundly moving.

a couple of months ago i borrowed a book entitled ‘Queer Jews’, edited by David Shneer and Caryn Aviv, from the library. It’s sat on my shelf ever since, and i read bits of it every so often. I was reading it this morning, thinking about how, of course, there were Jews at Stonewall. Anyway, so i just wanted to recommend the book to everyone – there are bits that are challenging, lots that’s exciting, and many stories that make you hopeful, joyous and proud.
In the introduction Aviv and Shneer write “Queer Jews calls for integration are transformative rather than assimilationist.” They also write that they “hope that this book is part of the continuing move to action over reaction, toward self-definition, and to an era when queers, Jews, and queer Jews, who have always been social, cultural, and political leaders, will be able to lead as queers, as Jews, and as queer Jews.”

Inside, in a piece by Steve Greenberg (an openly gay orthodox rabbi), he writes that he visited a sage, Rav Eliashuv, in Jerusalem in 1976. Greenberg said to the Rav, “‘Master, I am attracted to both men and women. What shall I do?’ He responded, ‘My dear one, my friend, then you have twice the power of love. Use it carefully.'”
I like it.

activist, or just living

by tobybee

over on another blog (which I look up to a fair bit) called jewschool, a pretty great post has just been put up. it’s about coming out, and being an activist, and the scariness of being different in what feels like and often is a hegemonic community. Have a read

I like it because it rings true – having marginal identities or politics is hard and is constant work. it can be tiring. but it’s fulfilling.

what’s this all about?

by tobybee

We are unashamedly left-wing radical ratbags, diasporists, feminists, wanting to queery gender and sexuality, anti-racist, embracing of nuance, working within the academic and activist worlds, bringing the humour and entertaining writing, and wanting to do it all from and within our jewishnesses.

Our tagline—‘pondering jews’—points to two things: pondering and wandering. We want to embrace the idea that living in diaspora is the most significant way in which Jewishness can exist. When we’re in diaspora we’re without state power: this need not be disabling, but can be a source of empowerment and richness. As Daniel Boyarin has stated, “there is power to living on the margins”. Power here is not to be understood as ‘power over’—after Foucault we know that it is too simplistic to think of power in those terms. We’re thinking instead of power as productive of identities, languages and knowledges. In living in diaspora—living diasporist lives—we can interact with other peoples, ideas, cultures. Others need not be so other. We can learn from different peoples in open exchange. Diaspora is about movement and knowing that home is not about claiming exclusive territory, but about peoples and ideas.

Diaspora is about having opinions, but being open to change. Diaspora is about rejecting hierarchies and binaries.

Living in diaspora means, to us, being open to new ideas, to complexity, to challenges and change. We start from the position that there is never one truth—there are always many truths. Not that we agree with all of them. Diaspora does not mean eschewing history and politics. It’s about bringing the history and the politics to the fore.

It is these sentiments which we hope the blog will reflect.

Diaspora works for us because of our historical and material conditions—as left-wing Jews, descendants of Holocaust survivors, coming from traditions of movement, we embrace that tradition. We also deeply respect Indigenous peoples claims to sovereignty. The two systems can coexist. And so we acknowledge that this blog and our lives take place on stolen Indigenous land, primarily the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We take this seriously: not just the stealing of land which enabled our lives in Australia, but also the continuing colonial rule which exists in so many ways in Australia today.