I grew up as a Reform Jew active in every possible aspect of the movement. When I made aliyah, I was certain to connect with Reform communities- I would never live in a city without one.
Another reason I chose to live in Tel Aviv was because of the queer community. It is a city that is arguably gayer than anywhere I’ve ever lived- and I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., Fort Lauderdale, Madrid, and Barcelona.
Oftentimes, I felt like my sexual identity and my Jewish identity had to be separate. When I was in one community, I was almost always still a minority due to my other identity. While Reform Jews are largely accepting of LGBT people (in particular the NFTY youth group), I faced sometimes intense homophobia in my community. I once had a Reform clergy person tell me bisexual people don’t exist and a Hebrew school teacher who giggled about which person was the “real man” in a gay relationship. I even had another Hebrew school teacher posit that there was something strange that caused more Jews to be gay than non-Jews. When visiting a Reform synagogue in another city, a 30-something rabbi told me all about how he likes gays to help with his fashion because that’s what we’re good at. Not to mention my toxic relatives. And all of this isn’t even including those among the more conservative elements of the Jewish community who twist texts to guilt and harm people like me.
And in the gay community, I also at times faced anti-Semitism or felt excluded. I remember going on several dates with a non-Jew and everything seemed to be going well and then suddenly he broke off the relationship because I didn’t eat pork. At the time I didn’t really care if he ate pork, so it seemed rather odd and when I pressed him on it, it was clear there was an anti-Jewish sentiment behind it. One guy implied he couldn’t date me because I was “really Jewish”. A non-Jewish ex-partner’s father – to my face – defended the KKK as an organization supporting Confederate soldiers, not racism and anti-Semitism. His son, my ex’s brother, dressed up as a Hasidic Jew for a college Halloween party- peyos and all. In addition to the more recent political anti-Semitism in the LGBTQ community, I think it’s just hard to be a minority within a minority. Oftentimes LGBT events are scheduled without regards to Jewish holidays and people don’t necessarily know about Jewish culture. It’s not necessarily malicious, but it does make it hard. And sometimes, I felt like the gay community really prized white “straight-acting” gay men above other members of the community, including physically. Above blacks, Latinos, bisexuals, trans, and- in my experience- Jews. While I strongly believe that most LGBT people in the U.S. are not anti-Semitic, I can’t deny that at times I felt uncomfortable or out of place in the community.
Which brings us to tonight. Tonight, as usual, I went to Reform Shabbat services which were lovely. We had a communal dinner and then I went home. When I got home I realized it was only 9:15pm and I was bored as hell. It can be hard to make plans for Shabbat when you’re new to Israel and don’t know a lot of people. And it can feel lonely.
I found a friend going to a gay pop music party. I usually just chill with friends and eat on Shabbat and walk around. But having no great alternative tonight and having the itch to get out of the house, I made a move and I went.
What a great decision. First of all, it was my first Tel Aviv gay party. And it was fun. The music was also great. Hearing a bit of American pop music was a nice escape from the stress (even the interesting stress) of everyday life here. Also there were some cute guys- not the super muscle-y ones you see on the beach, more like cute nice Jewish boys. It felt comfortable. Also, pretty much everyone was Jewish- a completely unique experience. I really felt this when the music switched from Britney Spears to Israeli pop. Even to the first Israeli singer I ever got a CD from at age 13- Sarit Hadad. That felt powerful.
For Sabras – Israelis who grew up here – there is absolutely nothing novel about what I just said (which in and of itself is kind of cool). But I’d like to remind them of something. There is nowhere else in the world where a queer Jew can hear Hebrew on the dance floor all around him. There is nowhere else in the world where every weekend there are gay dance parties and most of the people in the room are Jewish. There is nowhere else in the world where when you take a picture with a drag queen (my cover photo) you say to them “todah”.
Only in Israel – only in Tel Aviv – do I feel my queer and Jewish identities meld. Not at a conference, not at an event, but rather in my day-to-day life. I don’t have to compromise on either important aspect of my self to live here. And that is a gift – one that I hope I can inspire my Sabra friends to recognize and my American Jewish friends to respect.
There are some beautiful things about being a minority. The solidarity, the awareness, the empathy you can develop for others. The secret codes we use to find each other and protect our culture. But honestly, a lot of the time it sucks. And being a double minority makes it that much harder to feel at ease.
On a Friday night, I’m almost always at Reform services. And oftentimes at a dinner afterwards, sometimes even with Orthodox friends. Frankly, I feel more at ease at a Modern Orthodox Shabbat meal than with a lot of secular Jews. I love zemiros and I love the many hours of chatter and fun. As I see myself, I’m an “all-Israel Jew”. I like to find the beauty in every community of the People Israel (and even the non-Jewish communities of the State of Israel).
And tonight I added a new community. The queer Tel Avivi community is also my community- and also a part of my spirituality. It’s a place I feel affirmed in every way and it’s a fun way to blow off steam after a long week.
I’m a Reform Jew because reform is a verb. When Judaism or any religion becomes too static, its vitality withers. Today I reformed my Judaism. And I realized that while some Shabbats I’ll want to do long meals with singing and just be in the moment, sometimes, after a good hearty sing at services, I might just want to slip out at one in the morning and dance my heart out till the sun comes out.
That’s my Judaism too.