Orthodox Women and Unorthodox Desires

The ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish community closes itself off to outsiders and will only accept new ideas if they fit within their space constructed by religious law. As gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people become more visible around the world, religious Jews of the modern era try to shield their children from these influences. Due to the increase in LGBT visibility, homophobia in the modern ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish community has increased. While homosexuality is condemned in the Old Testament, traditional Jewish holy books neither punish lesbianism with death nor completely accept it as an option.

A woman’s identity in ultra-Orthodox society is traditionally determined and controlled by men. Women in the ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish community must conform to the role of wife and mother that religious law and custom dictate. Even a woman who attends university to prepare for a career will accept an arranged marriage and bear as many children as her husband will give her. Women born and raised in this culture believe that this is the path that G-d intended for them. Women who do not conform to this path become pariahs within the society, especially if they bear no children. Lesbianism goes against the tradition of high fertility in ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities, encouraged by the Israeli state as well as Biblical mandate, to ensure that there will be sufficient Jews to populate the land of Israel as defined by the Israeli government. As early as the Middle Ages, Maimonides and other medieval Jewish scholars recognized the existence of lesbians and their sexual behavior, and believed that it was the responsibility of fathers and husbands to separate daughters and wives from potential female love interests. This is why Miryam Kabakov titled her collection of fourteen essays written by queer ultra-Orthodox women Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women and Unorthodox Desires.

Kabakov, who has a background in social work and co-founded the support organization New York Orthodykes, was inspired to create Keep Your Wives Away from Them when she read Lesbian Nuns: Breaking the Silence as a student at an Orthodox Jewish women’s college. Kabakov gathered personal essays and scholarly articles from ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender, androgynous, queer, or male. Some remain married to a man, others are in relationships with women, and some have children. Only two of the fourteen contributors remain part of their ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic community (otherwise known as frum), and write anonymously. One of the frum contributors has eight children. Of the remaining twelve contributors, nine have advanced graduate degrees, and roughly half work in academia. With that said, some of the pieces in this anthology may show the frum community in a negative light, and others may present inaccurate representations of lesbian existence in frum communities due to faded memories or the use of creative license to spin an engaging story.

One positive coming out story stands out. In “Coming Out in the Orthodox World,” Tamar Prager expresses her fear of coming out to her ultra-religious family, particularly her father, who held extremely conservative social views and was one of the religious leaders of the community. When she gathered the courage to tell him, he did not judge—instead, he tried to find an answer in the holy texts, and told his congregation that, in the original Hebrew, G-d wished to make a “helpmate” from Adam’s rib. As “helpmate” is a gender neutral term, Prager’s father reasoned that a “helpmate” does not necessarily have to be the opposite sex or gender.  Prager’s family accepted her as a lesbian, accepted her partner Arielle, and attended their wedding.

As not all ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic women have access to the Internet or alternative publications, it is hard to determine how many women who perceive themselves as “different” from others would even have the words to identify themselves, and so it is hard to say how many women outside of academia would have come forward to write about their queer experience. According to Kabakov in an interview for the blog The Sisterhood, the frum are not raised talking about LGBT people and issues, and she wants to take the book on a “You Are Not Alone” Tour through different frum communities in order to help women come out and find each other. One of the best features of Keep Your Wives Away From Them is a resource guide at the end of the book which includes websites of synagogues, schools, and Jewish organizations that provide education, support, and socialization opportunities for religious LGBT Jewish people. Many frum women in the process of “coming out” still find an anchor in Judaism and will often maintain their religious identity, so reading of religious texts and observance of ritual and holidays play a major role in support groups such as Orthodykes.

The two academic essays in the anthology—“ ‘Women Known for These Acts’: Through the Rabbinic Lens: A Study of Hilchut Lesbiot” by Elaine Chapnik (the other co-founder of Orthodykes) and “Regulating the Human Body: Rabbinic Legal Discourse and the Making of Jewish Gender” by Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert—present the ways that lesbians and transpeople were represented in the Old Testament and other holy Jewish texts, and how that influenced Orthodox Jewish attitudes toward them. These are some of the first well-researched articles to present information on these subjects, and will provide a paper trail for LGBT Studies or Jewish Studies scholars to build upon when writing about the history of the expression of gender identity and sexual orientation in Judaism.

Keep Your Wives Away From Them is neither a collection of case studies that would benefit social workers or counselors, nor is it a book that would appeal to a wide audience (although Kabakov does provide a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms used throughout the book to help guide those unfamiliar with frum and mainstream Jewish culture). The anthology is a record of frum and former frum queer expression that would serve as a mirror for Jewish women and girls in similar communities. For this reason, libraries with large LGBT and Jewish Studies collections should have a copy of this book on hand, and a nice Jewish grrrl brave enough to visit the Chabad or Lubavitcher house should present the rabbi with this book as a thank you gift in exchange for bringing them back to religion.

Ed. by Miryam Kabakov
North Atlantic Books
ISBN: 9781556438790
Paperback, $16.95, 192pp

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8 Responses to “‘Keep Your Wives Away From Them’ ed. by Miryam Kabakov”

  1. 6 August 2010 at 7:18 PM #

    One important footnote to Ms. Wexelbaum’s thoughtful and nuanced review: although this book presents itself as the voices of Orthodox Jewish lesbians, in fact (as she does note), only two of the contributors currently self-identify as Orthodox, and many of the contributors do not seem to have ever self-identified as Orthodox Jews. In truth, a more honest description of this book would be “the voices of lesbian/bi/trans/genderqueer Jews who have interacted with Orthodox Jews.” This is no small distinction, and it is bitterly ironic that a book that sells itself on the backs (and at the very real expense) of lesbians who actually are Orthodox (and against whom any backlash from the Orthodox community will be directed) in fact erases us.

  2. […] Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women and Unorthodox Desires by Miryam Kabakov was reviewed at Lambda Literary. […]

  3. 18 August 2010 at 11:12 AM #

    Although I disagree with most of Ms. Sternglantz’s comments, I do agree that Ms. Wexelbaum wrote a very thoughtful, well-written and interesting review of Keep Your Wives Away from Them. Having said that, after reading Ms. Sternglantz’s comments, I wondered if she and I had read the same book. As a contributor to the book, I personally or professionally know almost all 14 writers and can attest that Ms. Sternglantz is mistaken when she states that only two of the contributors currently self-identify as Orthodox. Actually, if she had read every chapter, she would have counted three such women, not two. Ms. Wexelbaum herself notes that two of the fourteen contributors identify as ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic, and refers to a third, Tamar Prager, who identifies as Modern Orthodox.

    Equally mistaken is Ms. Sternglantz’s claim that many of the contributors do not seem to have ever self-identified as Orthodox Jews. In fact, ten of the writers were or still are Orthodox, as is clear from their respective chapters. Another three authors have or have had significant connections to the Orthodox world and their essays reflect their unique perspective and insight into that world. (One essay, consisting of a discussion of relevant Talmudic texts, is purely academic without any personal references.) Hence, Ms. Sternglantz’s claim that the book is mis-described – that it should have been called “the voices of lesbian/bi/trans/genderqueer Jews who have interacted with Orthodox Jews” – is simply wrong.

    More fundamentally, there is an inherent contradiction with respect to her concern that the book may cause a backlash in the Orthodox world against Orthodox lesbians. If most of the authors are not, as she says, Orthodox or ever identified as Orthodox, why would there be a backlash against truly Orthodox lesbians? If her claims were true, the book would likely not inspire such a backlash since the Orthodox would simply assert that few if any of these authors are really Orthodox and dismiss the book as having nothing to do with their community. It is only if all or most of the contributors are or were Orthodox that there could be a backlash against Orthodox lesbians like Ms. Sternglantz. She can’t have it both ways.

  4. 18 August 2010 at 12:06 PM #

    As a current orthodox woman raising her children frum, this book has made me visible.

    I have given this book to my children’s therapists and they each commented how important it was for them to read this and understand the unique issues that my children face by being raised with an orthodox parent who dates / is attracted to women.

    This book is about us – all of us – each of us having a different experience and practicing orthodoxy in our own unique way.

  5. 18 August 2010 at 2:13 PM #

    Thank you all for your comments on this review!

    After reading everyone’s comments, I re-read my review, because I did not remember saying that only two or three of the women identified as ultra-Orthodox. And sure enough, I did not…here is what I said (in the 3rd paragraph):

    “Only two of the fourteen contributors remain part of their ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic community (otherwise known as frum), and write anonymously.”

    I realize that this sentence can be interpreted in many ways…what I meant to say was that only two of the contributors (from what they presented in their article) still live in a physical community of ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic people. I did not say that any of the contributors gave up their faith or traditions. In fact, it seems as if the majority of contributors still saw Orthodox Judaism as very important in their lives. Though the contributors may identify as Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, or Hasidic, not all of them may be living with others who identify as such at this moment.

  6. 20 August 2010 at 1:57 AM #

    I began my first comment by complimenting the review. Let me add here that I think many of the essays are moving and powerful and painful. And I apologize for referring to only two Orthodox voices, when indeed there are three.

    I wrote a long response to Ms. Chapnik’s comment (in which she somehow manages to both agree that the overwhelming majority of her fellow contributors are not now observantly Orthodox, and to say that I am “simply wrong” in my assertion that the book misrepresents itself as the voices of Orthodox lesbians) when I realized that the problem comes down to a definition of terms.

    To me, “Orthodox Jewish lesbian” (as opposed to just “Jewish lesbian”) implies current observance. It seems from her comment that the reviewer made a similar assumption. Although I hesitate to put words in Ms. Chapnik’s mouth, I suspect that she would define that term more broadly, to include the formerly-Orthodox. Life is too short to debate this point.

    Many parts of the Orthodox Jewish world are, as I suspect Ms. Chapnik knows very well, not predisposed to believing that a creature such as an observantly Orthodox lesbian (or gay man) can exist–that coming out is necessarily a prelude to leaving observance. A book that represents itself as the voices of Orthodox lesbians that turns out to largely be the voices of lesbians who are not, or are no longer, observantly Orthodox, irrespective of how moving or painful or brilliant those voices may be, merely serves to reenforce that predisposition. That’s what I meant when I referred to erasure and to a potential backlash. There is no contradiction.

  7. 20 August 2010 at 7:19 AM #

    A brief additional comment, that will I hope explain more clearly the locus of my frustration, which never was with the essays themselves.

    The description of the book from the publisher’s website includes: “While a number of films and books have explored the lives of queer people in Orthodox and observant Judaism, only this one explores in depth what happens after the struggle, when the real work of building integrated lives begins.”

    Based on this description, I expected a series of essays by queer observant Orthodox Jews who have built or are building “integrated lives” as observant Orthodox queers, not a series of essays the bulk of which look at or reminisce about observant Orthodoxy from the outside.

    Maybe this is a distinction without a difference to most readers. It doesn’t make the collection less important or valuable, but it does make it not what I reasonably expected based on the marketing materials, i.e., the post-struggle “integrated lives” of queer Orthodox Jews. I’m still waiting for that book.

  8. 20 August 2010 at 10:45 AM #

    Ms. Sternglatz,
    Forgive me but I must jump in and offer my opinion as well. Firstly, your interpretation of ‘orthodoxy’ is WAY more narrow than what the world considers orthodoxy and which in fact it is. If someone is shomer shabbat and keeps kashrut – they are orthodox. I hope you did not expect a book written BY hasidic lesbians FOR hasidic lesbians – we have a LONG way to go before that occurs.
    The important thing is that many orthodox women are finally speaking out and sharing their experiences, observations, growths and feelings. Although I did not submit my piece (this time), I found myself identifying with so many of the authors and even assisted with titling the book itself! Do you realize that people can be orthodox and still wear pants?! Modern Orthodox is STILL orthodox! Do you consider people of the Carlebach Shul orthodox? They most certainly are!
    So, instead of feeling ‘invisible’ or ‘erased’, why not broaden your lens to the term orthodoxy and applaud us as we all embark on never before stepped territory.
    Are you a part of the Tirtzah community? This is geared ONLY toward frum lesbians – perhaps you will feel connected in that way, and meet other orthodox lesbians that may not necessarily be hasidic.
    I am orthodox, religious, frum – whatever term you prefer to use :)

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