To be a Jewish dyke in the 21st century

Sinister Wisdom 119 reviewed by Molly Kraus-Steinmetz

What does it mean to be a Jewish dyke, a Jewish lesbian, a queer Jewish woman, right now?

It’s not a question any one person can answer. Who would be the authority on such a subject, and who would claim to speak for such a notoriously argumentative crowd? But dozens give their answers and counter-questions in this volume 119 of the Sinister Wisdom lesbian literary and art journal, and I’ve felt privileged to  read it and write this review. Privileged, and somewhat terrified, because despite being a young Jewish lesbian myself, many of the contributors to this volume are luminaries. Among such company, it’s easy to wonder if you are enough.

Who among us ever feels Jewish enough, though? No matter how many parshot I’ve chanted or seders I’ve planned or Jewish co-ops I’ve lived in, I’ll probably always cringe when strangers on Facebook call me self-hating for criticizing Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians, and wilt under the potentially-judgmental eyes of the Orthodox Jews who live in the neighborhood just west of mine. Growing up in the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation, I remember a group discussion at the JCC where one Jew after another confessed the guilt they felt as assimilated Jews for not knowing enough, not observing enough, not being enough. Finally, one wry congregant remarked that experiencing those particular guilts and anxieties was one of the most Jewish experiences there was.

It’s hard to describe a varied body of artistic works about being a Jewish lesbian, just as it’s hard to describe “the experience” of being a Jewish lesbian – though the contributors to this volume describe their own experiences in rich, joyous, and heart-aching detail.

Some highlights of the volume for me included:

  • An imagined moment of intimacy between anarchist speaker Emma Goldman and labor organizer Rose Schneiderman (Kate Raphael)
  • A scene of a butch mikvah attendant and her married lover in a 1905 shtetl, imagining a future of abundance (Terry Baum)
  • A cataloging of the physical sensations Kelsey Jannerson is submerged in as she converts to Judaism
  • Thoughtful words by Amy Horowitz on how she works to be in coalition with dedicated feminist activists whose circles or coalitions also include anti-Semites
  • A eulogy for the proud, socialist, accepting, inhabitant-less Israel that Jyl Lynn Felman had once believed in
  • A sudden, wrenching moment of Bonnie Morris realizing the anti-Semitism of her girlfriend’s volleyball team
  • The powerful line “I want to kiss mezuzahs and I want to kiss girls” in Abbie Goldman’s lists on how she’s reconnecting to Judaism
  • A plea from an anthropomorphized tub of sour cream (Judy Freespirit)
  • Yael Mishali’s struggle as a Mizrachi lesbian in an Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli culture that pushes her to assimilate and disavow her cultural heritage
  • Tovah Gidseg’s poem about finding her place for prayer as a dyke in her gender-partitioned synagogue
  • Karen Bender and Lisa Edward’s narrative and reflections on being the country’s first out lesbian rabbis
  • And of course, our own Clare Kinberg’s exploration into the mostly-erased history of her aunt who married a Black man, and the parallels to her own journey to find a city in which to raise her African-American children. 

It’s a powerful volume. Reading it, I experienced both the tender familiarity of recognizing my own experiences, and the awe of learning from those who came before me or elsewhere. My list of favorites, biased as it is towards written rather than visual art, only scratches the surface of the vast collection of stories of queer Jewish women, across continents and generation, across race and ethnicity and gender presentation, across class and profession. I still don’t know what it means to be a Jewish dyke in the 21st century, but I am honored to be figuring it out alongside this community.

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One Comment

  1. Seems like we have generations to have discovered and generations to come. Yet another Jewish lesbian, I am heartened to hear emerging Jewish queer voices. Ken yehi ratzon. May the world know yours.

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