Jay Michaelson
Hasidism and Homoeroticism, p.4

The dominant American model, wherever it comes from, seems to be to completely deny that these attractions exist, and to flee from places where they might come into play. Where men are in potentially sexual or erotic situations together - i.e., any situation with intimacy, or without clothes - fear predominates. Witness the hysteria around gays in the military - a pathology which seems all the more bizarre in light of the extensive homosexual abuse, by "straight" officers, of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Likewise, the homoeroticism of American sports is simultaneously denied and displayed. To find out more about the 'manly love of comrades,' look into the social dynamics of any baseball team, a phenomenon explored by the recent Broadway show "Take Me Out." In these environments, where locker room nudity is part of the job, homophobia runs extremely deep. The fear seems to be that queers would take something which actually isn't sexual at all (naked men horsing around in the locker room) into some kind of sex play, or that they would look at the straight men as sexual objects. These fears are not entirely without merit - a commonplace in gay erotica is exploiting the physicality of a locker room (or military barracks) for erotic benefit. But the fears are often so intense that many gay people think the straights doth protest too much.

Each of the hasidic environments I entered, however, defied this model. There were heterosexual men, they were being erotic with one another, and yet, they were not "gay." In a way, they were validating the queer claim that if we all just acknowledged our queerness, it wouldn't be such a big deal.

And yet, at the same time, they seemed to undermine the second part of the gay claim: that, if we all just got in better touch with our homosexual sides, homophobia would disappear, or at least lessen in intensity. This doesn't seem to be the case in the haredi community. The open homoeroticism of the Mea Shearim shvitz does not in any way seem to have lessened homophobia. On the contrary; the haredi community remains much more homophobic, at least on an official level, than other sectors of society.

Unofficially, however, haredi homophobia is a complex phenomenon. The haredi world seems to be mainly one of "don't ask, don't tell, get married." There have long been well-known homosexuals within the haredi world, often leading lives that are best described as open secrets. People know, and they may whisper, but then again, everyone has their sins, as long as they don't make a parade out of it. There are also traditional Jewish heroes who never married, or who married only at a late age, notwithstanding the Jewish norm to marry and have children. And, perhaps most importantly, there is the longstanding Jewish valorization of the effeminate scholar and the denigration of the muscular athlete. Before Zionism, the ideal Jewish type was that of Jacob: a wimpy scholar who didn't hunt.

Outside of haredi society, in Israel generally, one sees much more healthy intimacy between men than in America. Arab men, and Jewish men from Arab countries, regularly hold hands on the street. Like Europeans, they often kiss. Such cultural practices, combined with the Jewish ideology favoring the effeminate man over the masculine one, and combined in the haredi case with the near-total single-sex society, change the rules.

Is it precisely because of all this homoeroticism that Israeli men are often so macho, and that official homophobia persists with such vigor? Does haredi homophobia exist because the haredim, on some deep level, know that what they are doing is erotic? It seems to me that, once again, the phenomenon is a subtle one. On the one hand, private homosexuality is known about and expressed, and the homosexual tendencies of heterosexual men are expressed much more than in mainstream America. On the other hand, perhaps precisely because of the private expression of desire, public acceptance is not forthcoming. Homophobia exists not only where homosexual impulses are repressed. It exists where they are expressed also.

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Image: Andy Alpern

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:

Davening with Joe
Michael Shurkin

Are we all asleep?
Jay Michaelson

When I Met Humility, I Saw Letters
Niles Goldstein