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.
KEEP YOUR WIVES AWAY FROM THEM: ORTHODOX WOMEN AND UNORTHODOX DESIRES
Ed. by Miryam Kabakov North Atlantic Books
Paperback, $16.95, 192pp