Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
May 15, 2012 by Amy Stone
This past week was a good one. President Obama finally came out in support of same-sex marriage. In contrast, homophobia still holds sway in the worlds of Orthodox Judaism, even within the enlightened academic stronghold of modern Orthodoxy — Yeshiva University (YU) and its women’s undergraduate school, Stern College, both in Manhattan.
Two days before Obama made his announcement, a crowd of more than 100 piled into the offices of JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) for the book tour of the anthology Keep Your Wives Away from Them – Orthodox Women Unorthodox Desires. The event was sponsored with Eshel, an organization working to build support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in traditional Jewish communities.
You’ve got to love a book whose cover looks like a photo from yesteryear of a sweet looking dyke in drag, straight out of the shtetl. The book’s essays speak personally and halachically (according to Jewish law) of lesbian, bi and transgender sexuality within Orthodox Judaism. The book tour’s goal is to connect traditionally Jewish and Orthodox lesbian, bi, trans and queer people to each other and to raise awareness in the Jewish community about being LGBTQ and Orthodox.
Since the book’s publication in 2010, this was only the fourth time the book tour had entered an Orthodox institution, none of them mainstream. Good for JOFA. Bad for YU.
Things haven’t been the same at YU since the gay panel of three YU grads and one current YU student moderated by a YU spiritual guidance counselor in December 2009. Back then, some 800 students filled the YU venue to overflowing. Rabbinical faculty protested the event and the great chill set in when at least one wealthy donor threatened to stop donating.
At last week’s JOFA event, the panel of six of the anthology’s contributors included its editor, Miryam Kabakov, a graduate of YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work and Eshel co-director from St. Paul, Minn.; Leah Lax, a former Lubavitch mother of seven from Houston; and transgender Stern professor Joy Ladin. Panelists and audience, many from Stern, spoke of the need for courage in pushing for acceptance within Orthodox Judaism.
What’s strange is the seemingly parallel universes between student perceptions that YU, including Stern, is a dangerous place for openly LGBT students and the YU authority’s insistence that this is a place of tolerance. It took Mayer Fertig, YU’s senior director of media relations, several days to come up with a statement on whether the school requires students to observe halacha, including a ban on homosexuality. He finally said: “Undergraduates at Yeshiva College, Stern College for Women and Sy Syms School of Business are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that is respectful of the values of Yeshiva University, which are, of course, firmly rooted in halacha.” Student comments at the JOFA event to the contrary, he insists no one was ever expelled for homosexual activity. And there’s certainly no ban on gay programming.
What can we say? Jina Davidovich, JOFA’s Stern College campus Fellow who organized the book tour event, ended up holding it at JOFA, not Stern. She explained, “I wanted to sidestep the fallout of a ‘scandalous’ event which would generate conversation about scandal rather than the important issues addressed. There’s no policy banning gay events but there is a board that looks at all the speakers that are brought in and the content of the events. For this reason, I surmised that this event would not have been permitted.”
To hold the event at Stern she “would have to package it as something else to fly under the radar – such as ‘What feminists are writing about Orthodoxy.’”
One woman who identified herself as a Stern alum said she didn’t come out as a lesbian till after graduation and being openly lesbian had resulted in two students being expelled while she was there. She wanted to know if things had changed.
Davidovich assured her that they have. Stern students are comfortable with classmates’ spectrum of sexuality. But, she added, of the “800 women in the dorm, I don’t know if anyone is publicly out.” She later fine-tuned her response: “Coming out is not a matter of putting a poster on your door saying ‘Guess What? I’m gay!,’ but rather, telling close friends who can act as a support system.” Sounds like the big chill remains in effect.
Protected by Fertig’s official statement that YU does not ban gay programming, how about openly bringing the dangerous dyke book tour of Keep Your Wives Away from Them on campus? And how about an event for the latest publication of Joy Ladin, The David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University? Her new memoir is Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders.
Book tour info: www.keepyourwivesawayfromthem.