a film by Alisa Lebow and Cynthia Madansky
distributed by Women Make Movies
I have to admit, I was nervous to be sitting in a theater, waiting for the screening of a new Jewish lesbian film, with my parents, no less.
The film in question is “Treyf,” by Alisa Lebow and Cynthia Madansky, shown as part of the OutFest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Los Angeles and scheduled to premiere on the Sundance cable channel in May. A personal narrative and political critique of Jewish identity in the United States and Israel, “Treyf” maps the challenges of straddling disparate communities.
The film opens as Lebow and Madansky, a couple living in New York, shop for Passover items. As they scan the shelves for gefilte fish, matzo meal, and those awful jellied candies in rainbow colors, they recount how they met at a seder. Who knew it was possible to fall in love at first sight over Manischevitz wine and a bowl of charoset? Madansky reveals that she immediately started obsessing over whether they had too much in common.
In spite of their relationship’s auspicious (if neurotic) beginning, they turn out to have grown up in different circumstances. Lebow was raised on Long Island, in the middle-class ghettoes of Hadassah meetings, Israel Day parades and temple summer camps. Madansky’s parents raised her in an Orthodox framework that she rejected as a young adult. For several years, Madansky lived in Israel with a partner in a haredi neighborhood, while Lebow remembers Israel through the prism of childhood visits and Zionist youth programs. Both Lebow and Madansky recount how their emerging sexuality and yearning for gender equality clashed with their membership in Jewish communities, prompting deep soul-searching and existential angst. Needless to say, I could relate. And judging from the nodding heads and sighs in the audience, many others did as well.
For the filmmakers, treyf is a metaphor for belonging while standing on the margins. They begin with a hilarious 1960s filmstrip about kashrut: the definition of treyf includes a reference to lesbians and unpopular political opinion (this got a rollicking belly laugh from the audience). The filmmakers transform their “treyfness”—as feminist, leftist lesbians—into a source of strength by remembering the Jewish radical past through lesbian eyes. Walking through the tenement blocks of the Lower East Side, they name Rose Schneiderman and Lillian Wald as their activist precursors. They also gather together friends, acquaintances, activists, intellectuals and Orthodox dissidents to explore the multiple meanings of Jewish lesbian identity in America today.
The filmmakers also investigate tensions in contemporary Israel. They make connections between patriarchal religious practices and the unjust consequences of unbridled nationalism.
In the private space of their home, the filmmakers try to honor their love for each other, for their communities, and for other Jewish lesbian women’s struggles to be whole. As I struggle with my own discomfort of being out in my family’s Jewish community, I wanted to learn more about the filmmakers’ processes of coming out, of how they negotiate the borders between their parents’ worlds and the secular, activist world they have joined as adults.
Despite this gap in their narrative, I loved this film. I was so nourished that I wanted to invite Lebow and Madansky for coffee and a schmooze. When my parents asked me what I thought of the film, I told them it was the first time I had seen so many parts of my own story on screen. They said they had never realized how difficult (but rewarding) it can be to embrace being “out” as a Jew and a lesbian. Their comment spoke volumes about the consciousness-raising that needs to be done. I, for one, am deeply grateful to the filmmakers for making their “treyf” lives visible.
Caryn Aviv, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Loyola University Chicago, is writing her dissertation on gender, Zionism, and American aliyah. She lives in Jerusalem.