Looking Forward: Jewish Lesbians Connect Across Generations
Part II of an interview between Evelyn Torton Beck and Alexa Hulse on what it means to be a Jewish lesbian, then and now. In part I we heard from Evi and in this second interview, Hulse answers Beck’s questions.
ETB: Did you always know your mother was Jewish? What did she convey to you her background?
AH: I was raised by a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, neither of them felt particularly drawn to religion, so I was raised agnostic more than anything else. Growing up, I often attended church with my friends in the neighborhood (it was a requirement if I wanted to sleep over) but I can count the number of times I attended synagogue on one hand (literally).
My grandmother did not receive a Jewish education growing up because it was not typical for girls to receive one at that time. Since her girlhood was not saturated with traditional Jewish influence neither was my mother’s– and neither was mine. My mother grew up in a Jewish neighborhood outside of New York City so all of her friends were Jewish and I remember her memories of going to Hebrew school. In my own youth, we celebrated Hanukkah and Passover in our own ways — we made latkes, hid the afikoman, and read children’s books that told the stories of the holidays but we never had seders or went to services.
ETB: Have you thought about other ways of affirming Jewish identity than the synagogue?
AH: It has been challenging to build my Jewish identity while simultaneously figuring out who I am as an adult; it often feels like I am working backwards, trying to learn secrets that have been kept from me for almost two decades. Since I didn’t grow up with a Jewish education, going to synagogue is daunting and many Jewish texts are inaccessible and confusing for me. I have often shied away from engaging with the more “traditional” parts of Judaism. However, I am dipping my toes in by observing Jewish holidays in ways that resonate with me and recently, I’ve started keeping Shabbat!
I feel that my lesbian identity affirms my Jewish identity and vice versa. After I came to terms with one of my “closetable” identities, I was able to embrace the other. My Jewish-ness informs the way I look at my sexuality and gender and my lesbianism shapes my spiritual practices and the spaces I am searching for within both of these communities. And, of course, working at Lilith and connecting with other Jewish women, feminists, and lesbians has been extremely affirming, not only of who I am now, but of who I hope to become as well.
ETB: Did you choose your internship at Lilith because it was a Jewish space?
AH: My internship at Lilith found me by pure magic — it chose me more than I chose it. When I started, I was very disconnected from my Jewish identity; I remember after finishing the first week of my internship, I told my roommate “I don’t know if I’m Jewish enough for this.” She encouraged me to keep going and I’m so glad I did.
It has been the driving force behind me connecting with Judaism and it came when I was finally ready to acknowledge and honor this part of myself. Working at Lilith is the first place I’ve truly experienced Jewish community. Here, I am able to learn about the history, beliefs, traditions, and philosophies of my people in a way that is accessible and resonates with me. I think I have been subconsciously searching for Jewish spaces/connections since I was a child yet I never thought I would feel so irrevocably changed from simply being in the presence of and working with other Jewish women and feminists.
ETB: Is it important to you to retain the word lesbian? The word woman?
AH: What incredible questions! Both of these topics have been weighing on my mind lately; I am not sure I have a concrete answer (or ever will for that matter) but I do know that I feel more connected to the word lesbian than I do to the word woman. This may be because as I have embraced my identity as a queer person, I have felt myself drift away from the femininity that was expected of me in my youth. At the same time, I have started to define for myself what being a woman is and for me, being a woman is inextricably linked to my queerness. From conversations with friends who also identify as lesbians, I have found that many of us see our lesbianism as not only a sexual orientation, but a key part of our gender identity and performance as well.
I do find myself very attached to the word lesbian. In my girlhood I believed that lesbian was a dirty word and something I should avoid being at all possible costs so I think reclaiming it and using it, often and with pride, has been very healing for me. One of my favorite parts of being a lesbian is how our community is constantly evolving and growing. I see this becoming more and more relevant as we reconfigure lesbian and feminist queer spaces to include gender non-conforming individuals, trans folks, folks whose labels don’t match ours. While I think I will most likely continue to identify with the label of lesbian, I am open (and even hope) that my understanding of what this means to me will evolve with time.
ETB: You said your school was queer friendly, is there any antisemitism there?
AH: I feel very lucky to be at a historically women’s college where I am havened from patriarchy and the student body is majority queer. Campus culture is centered around fighting for change in the world and creating an environment where we can all feel safe and grow, since many of us may not experience as safe of a space as this one after graduating.
That being said, it’s a small school in the South. I have heard about at least two instances, in recent years but before I came to Hollins, where Swastikas were painted on campus landmarks. In my personal experiences, there is lots of quiet anti-semitism on campus — it usually comes in the form of people not including Jewish people in their activism and/or not being informed about Jewish culture and issues (and don’t put in the work to be either), just as you had addressed as an issue you were met with when you first entered lesbian and feminist spaces. It is rare to see Jewish issues being discussed in activist spaces by non-Jews. In the classroom as well, Jewish topics do not come up in discussion unless I am the one to bring them up. The Jewish Student Alliance on campus has died off since the pandemic and one of my goals for my next year and a half as an undergrad is to revive it and create the community on campus that I have wanted for so long.
ETB: What does it mean to you to have discovered old Jewish lesbians?
AH: Discovering old Jewish lesbians has been validating of who I am becoming and gives me hope and fuel for the future. Reading theory from Jewish lesbian feminists, such as yourself, is incredibly affirming and has taught me so much about how I wish to approach my relationship with Judaism, feminism, and queerness as I enter adulthood.
Of course, discovering Di Vilde Chayes was a huge part of my coming out as a Jewish lesbian feminist — I even got a vilde chaye tattoo last spring! I am eternally grateful for the work and existence of the Jewish lesbians who came before me, I would not be who I am without their bravery and love.
Alexa Hulse (she/they) is a junior at Hollins University. She is pursuing a degree in Gender and Women’s Studies and enjoys iced lattes and the moon. Alexa is Lilith’s current social media and archival intern. You can find her in “Salt and Honey”, an anthology from jGirls+ Magazine, and on Instagram @alexabhulse and @future.ghost.art.