Slightly Un-Orthodox

Tova Rosenberg (not her real name) lives in Rosh Pina, a little hippie town in the Galilee region of Israel that overlooks the Hula Valley. She is pretty in an unadorned way -- her long red hair is cut in a blunt straight style, her glasses are wire and speak to function over form, and her face is bare of makeup. She wears a zip-up sweatshirt and cargo pants, and she looks more like an American teen than a 26-year-old woman who has endured years of anxiety and bitterness.

Rosenberg is a lesbian from an Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem. Her parents were hozrei b'tshuvah -- secular people who “returned” to faith in their late teens. It took her years to come out; she felt she was “evil” and went out with at least “20 guys” on pre-arranged matches hoping something would spark. When she finally did come out to her family, her mother tried to send her to “change therapy,” the Jewish equivalent of programs run by Christian fundamentalists in the United States. “[My mother] calls it the end of her life,” says Rosenberg, who fled Jerusalem for Rosh Pina only a few weeks ago. It is about as far away as one can get from one's parents in this tiny country. She is here because she is in love, and her girlfriend, Noga, hovers near her throughout an interview. Rosenberg's parents have told her that they will cut off all contact with her if she moves in with another woman, so she has not told them about Noga.

You might think, given the rejection of her parents and her Orthodox religious community, that Rosenberg would have rejected her upbringing. But she is still Sabbath observant, still kosher, still Orthodox. Indeed, she is part of a growing movement in Israel of gay and lesbian Jews who refuse to reject Orthodoxy and are trying instead to force Orthodoxy -- and the secular gay world -- to accept them as they are. “It's not a question to be religious,” Tova says, noting the same of being a lesbian. “It's just what I am.”

* * *

Some 25 percent of Israeli society is considered dati, or Orthodox. But that designation is hardly monolithic. There are “modern” Orthodox Jews who observe Shabbat and Kashrut but also dress and interact in a way that, for the most part, “blends” into mainstream society. Then there are ultra-Orthodox Jews who, to varying degrees, refuse to compromise with the secular world. But even these distinctions are simplistic; modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews are themselves divided into innumerable sects.

The one thing that the branches of Orthodoxy share is a devotion to the word of the Torah, the five books of Moses. For those who know their Leviticus, this makes the question of same-sex love very, very complicated. “God also created lesbians,” says Tova, simply, articulating a sentiment repeated over and over again, from Rosh Pina to Tel Aviv.

“There is certain amount of [religious] compromise that every single Orthodox lesbian that I know has made,” says “Miriam-Esther,” an ultra-orthodox lesbian mother of 10. Miriam-Esther was featured (though never shown) in the 2004 film Keep Not Silent, which shadows three Orthodox women struggling with what it means to be lesbian. The question for gay men and lesbians who want to remain religious, she says, is, “How does one make peace with religious doctrine which denies legitimacy … and at same time be nourished by religious doctrine?”

This dilemma often leads to a period of extreme self-denial to the point of severe mental trauma, says Russian-born Zeev Shveidel, now a lecturer on gay issues in Orthodoxy. As for himself, he explains, “I prayed and prayed it would go away. Then I searched the Internet for a cure and went to change therapy.”

In the last few years there has been a surge of newfound openness and political awareness among Orthodox gay men and lesbians in Israel -- even the willingness to use the terms “gay” and “lesbian” is revolutionary. “I grew up in the States,” explains Miriam-Esther. “I'm already in a whole different place from the Israeli ultra-Orthodox.” Israeli Orthodox Jews have traditionally been more closed than their American counterparts. But -- prompted in part by films on gay Orthodox Jews and the widespread use of the Internet (even though ultra-Orthodox rabbis have uniformly condemned the use of the latter) -- this world has started to change.

“Until I was 20 I never heard the word ‘lesbian,'” says 32-year-old Avigail Sperber, the daughter of a prominent rabbi and the founder of Bat Kol, a new political and social group for Orthodox lesbians that has made her a media darling in Israel. Even after she met her first girlfriend, Avigail assumed they were alone in the world. The secular gay community provided no comfort. It was not something they could relate to, so they had to form their own gay liberation in a context that did. Sperber has made a point of welcoming publicity in an effort to give women and teens the chance to know that support exists.

What's particularly amazing about the sense of isolation these activists and others have felt is the prominence and political successes of Israel's secular gay community. In the early 1990s, a series of court battles granted legal rights that dwarf those enjoyed by gay men and lesbians in the United States. In 1994, El Al Airlines flight attendant Jonathan Danilowitz won a decision in Israel's supreme court granting him the right to extend spousal benefits to his longtime partner. Three years later, the court ordered the Israeli Defense Forces -- which already allowed gay men and lesbians to serve openly -- to give Adir Steiner the pension benefits after the death of his partner, Lieutenant Colonel Doron Maisel. Today, a handful of Israeli couples are awaiting word from the court about whether their Canadian marriage certificates will be honored in Israel. (There is no civil marriage in Israel because all matters of family are decided in a religious context.)

But even if you happened to miss these major legal milestones, it would be hard not to notice the parades every June. Tel Aviv Pride regularly draws tens of thousands of people into the street. But Tel Aviv is a secular -- to the point of hedonistic -- city with gay bars, gay gyms, and gay coffee shops. Jerusalem Pride is as much a political demonstration as it is a parade, and it has survived attempts to ban its existence as well as violence; last summer a marcher was stabbed by an ultra-Orthodox protester. (Next summer Jerusalem will host World Pride, an international gathering that already has garnered an ecumenical condemnation from Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders.)

But the progression of gay rights in the secular world has occurred, like most everything else, in stark contrast to what happens for religious Jews. In Israel even the school system is divided into dati and hiloni, or secular. Children brought up in an Orthodox context -- modern or otherwise -- go to religious schools where they study the Talmud and the Torah as well as algebra and English. Recognizing that, Sandi Dubowski, the American director of the groundbreaking film Trembling before G-d, which was among the first to expose the dualities experienced by gay Orthodox Jews, took his film into the Israeli religious school system two years ago. He launched a program called Petach Lev (Open Heart). The film wasn't aired for students but for school counselors, administrators, teachers, and rabbis. Tanya Zion, the Israeli administrator of the program, calls the effort an attempt to change the culture from the inside. “We heard stories of teachers saving [suicidal] students after seeing the film,” says Zion.

“Those that will make the revolution that can happen in the Orthodox world are not secular Jews like me,” says Hagai El-Ad, the director of the Jerusalem Open House, a gay-rights organization. But El-Ad has observed the advancement. “Compared to Israel five years ago, you see the beginning of a different kind of language being used by significant Orthodox rabbis in this country. There is no doubt with regard to where this process is going. It's a process that needs to be nurtured, and we need to be patient about it, and also be aware of the anti-religious attitudes that sometimes exist within the gay community. There is some mutual responsibility here.”

It's a sentiment echoed by those in the Orthodox gay world. “Judaism has been around 3,000 years; it's not going to change overnight,” says Miriam-Esther. “And yet, things are changing. Orthodoxy is changing. Even the most closed and insulated communities. They are starting with empathy.”

Empathy is also what Tova Rosenberg is hoping to encourage: “I just feel if three parents read this … this is what I can do to make this better.”

Sarah Wildman is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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