Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay, and Jewish

Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay, and Jewish
edited by Christie Balka and Andy Rose Boston: Beacon Press, 1989 305pp., $24.95

In Spain during the Inquisition, many Jews who did not flee the country “outwardly converted to Christianity while privately observing Jewish practices!’ These Jews, called Marranos (a term related to “pig”) kindled Sabbath candles in the cellar. They were closet Jews.

Christie Balka and Andy Rose, editors of Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay, and Jewish, point out another sort of closeted existence. In many of the two dozen-plus essays in this anthology, lesbians and gay men speak their desire to participate in Jewish community and religious life and to be accepted in the synagogue with full identities.

“It feels scary to break the silence,” Felice Yiskel writes. She and others tell convincing stories of hiding, exclusion, and joyous return and acceptance. Whatever silence these Jews observe in their workaday lives, passing as straight (and also sometimes as gentile), they long for wholeness. When they can be open, they feel, as Eric E. Rofes, says, “as if all of who I am has a place in the world.”

Hiding is “unhealthy for the soul,” asserts an Arab Jew who grew up in Asia and now lives in the U.S. Another writer literally trips as he enters the shul, “stumbling” into the heart of a new community. Some speak about the tyranny of a heterosexual inquisition. “So when are you getting married?” families ask. Except in a few synagogues, there is no access to lesbian or gay marriages; yet even if they cannot marry “according to the law of Moses ” many of the writers long for some ceremony to legitimize and celebrate commitment to partners.

A few of the essays are by homosexual parents, parents of homosexuals, gay and lesbian rabbis. A heterosexual rabbi describes working at a gay and lesbian congregation in California. Another rabbi, still closeted, adopts a Spanish pseudonym — “La Escondida”, the hidden woman — whose dream of integration seems tragically not likely to be fulfilled. She lives a “bifurcated lifer tormented by secrecy, honest with the occasional lesbian or gay in her congregation, and longing to be “safe and valued in a world” that will “fully accept” her. She shares her traditional Jewish prayer with the reader: “May this day come speedily and in our time.”

These narratives are painful, but, by and large (“La Escondida” aside), they are all “success stories.” People come out and find God and community again. I miss, in the terrible earnestness of these essays, a leavening sense of humor. I miss ambiguity. I miss the raw edges of Nice Jewish Girls, Evelyn Torton Beck’s 1982 lesbian collection.

Just as humor is missing, so too is anger. Only Rofes speaks much about his anger, which he attempts to defuse. (“I wondered whether Jews were simply angrier than others.”) But anger — given these accounts of homophobia and rising anti-Semitism — is precisely the appropriate response. Were Balka and Rose afraid of scaring off straight readers? The Broadway musical tone in many of these essays (suggesting a suppressed anger) makes the book somewhat bland and repetitive. The very omission of anger is, paradoxically, the volume’s most poignant characteristic.

The essays on Jewish tradition are quite powerful. Rebecca T Alpert analyzes Leviticus 18:22 which calls homosexuality an abomination (to’evah). Interestingly, the term applies to men and not to women — lesbians are, as so often women are — invisible. In an impassioned, witty essay that expresses the heart of Twice Blessed, Judith Plaskow claims that “we cannot suppress sexual feelings without suppressing our capacity for feeling in general…. Sexuality is profoundly connected to spirituality The bonds of community are erotic bonds.”

“Unlike the garden of Eden,” she writes, “where Eve and Adam are ashamed of their nakedness and women’s subordination is the punishment for sin, the garden of the Song of Songs is a place of sensual delight and sexual equality!’ In that garden of tolerance and celebration, the reader — gay or straight — can find solace. Now that we are revising prayerbooks to deemphasize the masculine god of previous generations, texts should also be revised to include homosexuals. For example, the prayerbook of New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah translates the much-used word yeshua (redemption) as “liberation’,’ making overt “the connection between the liberation of gay and lesbian people and Jewish messianic hope!’ writes Rabbi Yoel H. Kahn.

The volume ends with an extremely valuable list of resources, workshop suggestions, and bibliographies — of great value to teachers, rabbis, and fair-minded congregations. Twice Blessed convinces us that we can all be enlarged by reaching out to embrace our Jewish diversity.