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Woman’s History, Old and New

Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation edited by Rebecca T. Alpert, Sue Levi Elwell, Shirley Idelson, Rutgers University Press, $24

In 1972, Sally Priesand graduated from Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College and became the first woman to receive smikha (ordination) from a rabbinical school. Priesand threw open the heavy doors of tradition, and the dreams and rabbinic aspirations of countless women and girls flooded out. Although the HUC leadership performed a just and courageous act, they were hardly prepared for the consequences. After all, where there are women, there are lesbians, and lesbians in the rabbinate was an issue that Jewish leadership was clearly not prepared for.

Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation gives voice to the women who followed Priesand in making history: the lesbians who marched bravely into an unfriendly sea and forced an open passage. In eighteen personal essays, their stories emerge as joyous, heartbreaking, and historical, outlining where Judaism has been and mapping where the future lies.

This book could just as well have contained eighty essays as eighteen. “Every Jewish act is a political act,” writes Sidney Mintz. Simply being a Jew, or a woman, or a lesbian, can and must be seen as political. Encompassing all three is downright revolutionary, and Judaism is blessed to abound with such revolutionaries. But missing here are the stories of bisexual and transgendered rabbis, as well as those in Israel, or who work in settings other than movement leadership and congregations. The focus is on the experiences of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, with just three essays by graduates of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Given the Seminary’s and the movement’s track record on the topic, it goes without saying that these three essays are devastating, enraging, and encouraging all at the same time.

As a young Jewish woman, I grew up well aware of the battle scars my elders bore to ensure a place for women in America, in Judaism, in the clergy. As a lesbian with very serious aspirations to the rabbinate, I found my foremothers anew in these stories. Writing of her work on college campuses, Shirley Idelson notes that “what distinguishes this new generation from all those who came before are their assumptions—the of course women can be rabbis, and of course rabbis can be queer.” I was grateful, reading, not only to be a part of the new generation, but also to have finally found the names and voices at which to direct my gratitude.

Arielle Derby recently graduated from Smith College and lives in Brooklyn, where, she says, she is pursing justice, equality, and good books for all.