Orthodox Lesbians

Searching for a livable compromise

The contributors to the anthology Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires struggle to find a livable compromise between traditional Judaism and an openly lesbian life.

Edited by Miryam Kabakov (North Atlantic Books, $16.95), the book’s primary draw comes from the dozen personal essays that make up its bulk. Some are joyful: Tamar Prager describes her traditional two-bride wedding attended by her whole family [featured in Lilith in 2006]; Mara Benjamin finds true love during a rooftop study session. But Ex-Yeshiva Girl finds only partial acceptance from her family, while Geo Bloom in “You Lose These…” suggests a possibly suicidal outcome for her protagonist in her riff on Joyce’s Ulysses. Still others are focused on gender rather than sexuality, such as Sasha Goldberg’s wistful and funny tale of unintentionally changing genders in Jerusalem, or Yeshiva University professor Joy Ladin’s equally funny and far more arduous transition from male to female on the streets of New York.

Despite the individual successes, most American women in the book end up living outside the communities of their childhood or early heterosexual married life. In Israel, the greater density of observant Jews seems to enable more women to slip under the radar and live as lesbians while maintaining traditional observance.

Although the conflict between patriarchal tradition and lesbian self-knowledge is painful and intractable, there are considerable spiritual gifts to be wrested from the struggle. This is beautifully illustrated in “Jerusalem Voices,” where Devorah Miriam writes as an Israeli member of Orthodykes, a group with, at one point, New York and Jerusalem branches, which is mentioned frequently throughout the book. She tells her story alongside those of other Orthodykes, who appear in italicized counterpoint. Naomi Seidman’s “Love in the Women’s Section” explores women’s spaces in Jerusalem and points to the connection between homoeroticism and gender segregation: “The eroticism of the women’s spaces I had experienced at Michlalah [her Jerusalem yeshiva] and among the Orthodykes was not the aberrant product of modernity…but rather a perfectly traditional extension of the cultures from which they arose.”

In addition to the personal essays, two discursive essays act as an intellectual anchor for the book. Of these, Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert’s piece on how intersex people are described in the Talmud fits less easily in the volume, although some will find eye-opening reading here. Elaine Chapnik’s “Women Known for These Acts” explores talmudic and biblical references to lesbians with clarity, vigorous research, and depth of feeling.

Keep Your Wives Away from Them, perfect for women just coming out or for their families, has an honorable and useful place in the evolving history of our people.

Elizabeth C. Denlinger is at work on her second novel. She attended the last meeting of the New York Orthodykes and their last Sheitelstock.