Jay Michaelson
Hasidism and Homoeroticism, p.2

The full body contact in an undulating, dancing, ecstatic, sweaty, loud, and extremely excited crowd of men was only the beginning. Men were dancing with each other, embracing one another, laughing and celebrating, singing at the top of their lungs. Bonfires were burning. And the dancing was erotic, sensual. Two men, captured on video by a friend of mine -- the stills on this page are from that video; click here to watch and hear it for yourself -- performed sensual yichudim (unifications) using each other's bodies as the medium for the Divine. They ran their hands a few inches from one another's bodies - imagine the hand- gestures a sailor might make to show the outline of a curvaceous woman, except the woman is actually there, except the woman is actually a man.

The two man made eye contact, slid around one another like a pair of belly-dancers, with seductive expressions on their faces. Had I not seen it myself, I would not have believed it. This was not the deracinated 'simcha dancing' popular in more moderate Orthodox circles. This was ecstatic, erotic, and as embodied as any of the experiences I had at GSC. Now, these were haredi men living in a virtually all-male environment, seeing their wives only a few hours each day and avoiding conversations with all other women. They had been educated in single-sex yeshivas. But it still was surprising, to me, that they seemed aware of and untroubled by the eroticism of other male bodies. Of course - and I will return to this point later - all of this eroticism exists within the context of extremely negative attitudes towards homosexuality, and I have no doubt that the dancers I saw did nothing more than dance. But this seems beside the point. Eroticism is not about sex; it is about the vital energy in every person, and the experiencing of one's own and other people's life-force in an open, excited way. Lag B'Omer was not mere physicality - it wasn't just a basketball, or even a football game. It was a knowing, deep presence with the dynamic energy of other people. And since in this case, the other people were of the same sex, the interpersonal eroticism defied the strict gender conventions of heteronormativity. It was as queer as a three shekel coin.

A second bit of evidence, to me even more surprising than the love-dance of the Lag B'Omer hasidim.

There is a longstanding Jewish custom to immerse in the mikva, the ritual bath, before the sabbath and holidays. Some hasidic men do it every morning before prayer or study. According to halacha, only women are required to immerse in the mikva, after menstruation, as a purification rite. But it is a custom which has become widespread. The mikva is seen as purifying one from an array of sins - but most importantly, that of shichvat zera, or spilled seed. Jewish law is very concerned with the discharges of the body, chiefly blood and semen, both of which were believed to contain the life-energy of a person. By returning to the womb of the mikva, the body is returned, symbolically, to a state of integrity and innocence.

Of course, the irony for queer Jews is that the mikva is a place simultaneously of abnegation and eroticism: one must become completely naked to immerse, and generally there are other men there at the same time. But consider how different the world of the hasidic man is from that of the typical American man, who rarely sees other men naked, and who spins paranoid myths about faggots in the locker room. Boys grow up seeing their fathers, friends, and brothers naked every week - some every day. Given the small size of most Hasidic communities, it is safe to assume that, over time, every man gets naked with every other man. And, at least in my experience, there is none of the fear-driven machoism which I have witnessed in locker rooms and school showers.

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Images: Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit

July 2004

Jews, Goddesses
and the Zohar
Jill Hammer

Hasidism and Homoeroticism
Jay Michaelson

Lag B'Omer:
Sound & Image

Andy Alpern and
Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit

Ari Belenkiy

One Ring Zero
Paul Fischer

Josh's Jury Duty
Josh Ring

Our 480 Back Pages

David Stromberg

Zeek in Print
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From previous issues:

Avi Levy

The Other Rally
Samuel Hayim Brody

The Hamas Class of 1992
Michael Shurkin