What is Jewish about the Mentsh writers? Well, at a minimum, these writers are Kaplans and Cohens and Rosens; from day one their lives have been different from O’Briens and DeVitos and Garcias, even if they don't articulate it. Perhaps these writers don’t need to emphasize the Jewish aspect because they embody it: it’s part of them whether or not they attend shul. Indeed, in Mentsh, Judaism manifests itself more often as an intangible cultural value rather than a practice. For example, it guides the writers to choose a Jewish mate (or in Harlyn Aizley’s case, an impotent Jewish sperm donor she calls “Baldie”). It also functions as a kind of catch-all ethnicity: When Lesléa Newman tells her siblings that she’s a lesbian, they say, “You’re not going to tell Mom and Dad, are you?” When she tells her parents, they respond, “Don’t you dare tell your grandmother.” (Which she does.) My family reacted the very same way to my coming out, and so it sure feels like a typically Jewish reaction. Then again, how different is it from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"?
If the writers are content to slide their Jewish identities to the background, why are their queer ones so prominently displayed? Judaism is only the motif over which a queer life can be acted out, but queerness rides front-and-center. (A better subtitle to Mentsh would have been “Jewish Writers Write About Being Queer.”) Maybe it's just the thrill; as an identity with a largely sexual basis, stories of love at first sight, giving blow jobs to Palestinians and masturbating in a movie theater are far more delicious than the staid, typical world of Judaism we’re presented.
Beyond being a lot racier and reader-friendly, though, I wonder if these writers’ queer identities dominate because they find themselves compelled to enact them constantly, whereas their Jewish identities simply exist, without effort and without threat of disappearing. Barring conversion, a person born a Jew will remain that way forever, but a queer person often grows more and more into queerness. Are we always searching for the next stage of a queer life, whether it be coming out, a relationship, lifelong commitment, or children?
If the stories presented in Mentsh are representative of American Jewry (and that’s up for debate), the dominance of the sexual over the religious begs the question of whether most Jewish identity in America is just something in the background, a sounding board for other, more interesting identities. Does Jewishness need to be acted out in the way that queer identity seems to? And if not, why not? Certainly, past generations struggled to maintain Jewish identity, as their culture was attacked in Europe and gained a foothold in America, but these essayists don’t seem so compelled. The book feels very complacent, Jewishly; there really is little struggle left with being a Jew, at least in places I’ve lived, and it's reflected in these pages. When I came out to my father, he said, attempting empathy, that it was just as hard to be Jewish as gay -- and trying to be accommodating in an awkward situation, I agreed. But I knew it wasn’t true. When a Jew is confronted with an antisemitic slur in a big city, it’s shocking because it’s a relatively rare event. When a gay man is beaten for raising an eyebrow at a homophobe, it’s sad and frightening but not as shocking. Some gay men I know never let their guard down.
In a political-social climate colored by the demonization of all things gay or lesbian, queer identity is still contested in a way Jewish identity no longer is. And because homophobia slaps us across the face every day, we have to fight to maintain our queerness -- sometimes quite literally.
Do we only actively identify with a group when the group is in danger, or when there’s a struggle? In my case, perhaps yes. Because I assume, naïvely, that Judaism isn’t under attack, outward expressions of Jewishness seem superfluous. Not so with gay pride. It’s more uncomfortable for me to wear a yarmulke in public than to hold hands with my boyfriend, because the yarmulke has no moral imperative behind it. Going bare-headed doesn’t make a statement about whether or not it’s not OK to be Jewish. Whereas feeling ashamed to hold hands in public is something that I need to fight if I want to live healthily in a homophobia-free society. If something tangible were at stake, either psychologically or politically, maybe I'd wear the kippa too.
Where GLBT people will be a generation from now is anyone's guess. On the one hand, the progress has been rapid; it's easy to imagine queerness as becoming just as uninteresting as Jewishness is for this group of writers. Then again, maybe one day soon it'll be illegal for me to kiss my boyfriend in public.
I tend to think that social change is more powerful than political reaction, and that the thrill of queerness, along with much of the pain, will ebb away in the years to come. As with Judaism today, there will have to be more than hatred to keep us together.
Maybe this process is happening together. In a piece on knowledge as the currency of eroticism, Jay Michaelson writes, “I feel a lot of the time like that last queer of my generation, the last one to go through the pains for rejection and repression. Some of the kids I teach, they’re gay or have gay friends, and they couldn’t care less.” Maybe the dream of the boring queer essay will come sooner than we think.
What to make of the recent spate of Jewish theater productions?
or, The Opposite of Sex
Sex, drugs, and God in all
Sex, drugs, and God in all
Dan Friedman & David Zellnik
When Dialogue Harms
Friday Night Poetry
A Jewish Perspective on the Museum of the American Indian
with Esther Nussbaum on Yad Vashem
What, me Tremble?
Jonathan Vatner on Mentsh
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