Hebro Travel ad
The image is a little jarring. On the left, a bearded, shirtless guy in sunglasses stands on a beach, the Israeli flag reflected in his mirrored aviators. On the right, a pink Star of David hovers over an ancient building in Prague.
But for Jayson Littman, the pictures make perfect sense. As the founder of Hebro Travel, a new tour company serving “gay Jews and those who love us,” he’s serving up trips that blend historical exploration, cultural discovery — and some serious partying.
The travel venture is an outgrowth of Hebro, Littman’s hugely successful party promotion and social-networking outfit, which hosts events with names like High Homodays, Jewbilee, and Sederlicious. “A lot of organizations exist to help gay people feel comfortable in Jewish spaces,” he told the Forward. “I exist to help Jews feel comfortable in gay spaces.”
An Israel trip timed for Tel Aviv Pride in June will take travelers to a famously gay-friendly environment. But it’s Littman’s latest tour offering that’s generating attention — and raising eyebrows.
The history-making Poland & Prague Pride Trip, August 8-16, includes a Jewish heritage tour of the Kazimierz District and Schindler’s List route; visits to historic synagogues; and stops at Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. It ends with parties and a parade — Prague’s Gay Pride festivities take place the final Saturday of the trip.
“Some people did say, ‘How can you go from touring concentration camps to celebrating Pride?’” he said. “I look at it the same way as Jewish trips that go from the camps to Israel to celebrate continuity.”
Eliad Cohen is Israel’s top gay icon / Haaretz
Some people visit Israel for the holy sites. Some visit Israel as a political statement. Some visit Israel because they think Israelis are “hot.”
Disagree? Well, the Israeli Tourism Ministry and City of Tel Aviv do not. Recently, Israel’s economic capital held a Winter Gay Festival advertised using not just a sand-snowman, but also posters and videos replete with muscular Israeli men, armed with bursting biceps in tank tops. You could be forgiven for thinking Israel was advertising the virility of its menfolk, from both the posters and admiring European tourists on the city’s beaches this winter.
This trend is not just a one-time fluke. Witness the various posters and advertisements it has produced replete with the images of the strong, muscular, Israeli men of the IDF, or the beautiful women of Tel Aviv’s beaches. Of course, many countries use the attractive bodies of their citizens to invite tourists — but in many ways, this effort for Israel is political as well: it is sexy hasbara.
It is no secret that a certain type of hasbara operates below the belt buckles of Jews and Gentiles alike from Brooklyn to Birobidzhan. From the shirtless, muscular frat brothers in Birthright ads to the landscapes of bikini-clad female combat soldiers in the IDF, Israel not infrequently uses its sex appeal to garner support. The goal? Well, it seems to be that if enough people have “hot” associations with Israel, they will then support its government’s actions.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest at Jerusalem’s gay pride parade / Getty Images
I’ve written about the successes and shortcomings of my fourteen years of Modern Orthodox day school education before, from religious, secular, and Zionist perspectives. I’ve also written about the thought processes behind my decisions to leave the Modern Orthodox world and join — at least for now — egalitarian communities that fall more in line with my (ever-evolving) vision of what my Jewish community should be.
The way I saw (and still see) it, my decision to leave the (Modern) Orthodox world was not one of choice, but of necessity. And, perhaps, it was also a reaction to the ultra-Orthodox community of my youth, a community which ultimately cut off all ties to my family after I was outed as queer, a community which had, previously, told my mother, a pediatrician, not to answer pages from non-Jewish patients on Shabbat, and where I was ridiculed for attending a co-educational high school and not wearing a black hat. Yet I still find myself inexplicably drawn to the Modern Orthodox world.
My decision to leave came not out of choice, but out of the realization that, right now, I do not and cannot exist in the context of Orthodox Judaism. As a queer person, most Modern Orthodox rabbis would not allow me to marry another man. Orthodox Judaism is nowhere near close to finding ways to include (or even recognize, despite the fact that the Talmud readily does so) the existence of those who identify outside of the gender binary. It allows for less, if any, literary criticism of the Bible and historical contextualization of rabbinic codes of law, and is frightened to think critically about God.
When I posed these questions to Orthodox rabbis, I felt shut down. The conversations I needed to have, particularly in high school, were not ones that I could have with my Orthodox educators. And so I chose to ask those questions elsewhere. I’ve begun to answer some questions, but others remain unanswered.
Drek’s ISIS-inspired party poster / Facebook
Advertising is a tough business. People are busy. Getting them to come out to your event can be hard. But does that justify using ISIS imagery to gain publicity for your party?
Tel Aviv’s popular gay party organizers, Drek, apparently think so. In recent advertising, they used imagery from the gruesome ISIS beheadings — an executioner swathed in black hovering over a kneeling victim in an orange jump suit — to draw crowds to their Haoman 17 Club last Friday.
Wow. Just wow.
Someone actually woke up one day, went to work, and decided it would be a good idea to borrow infamous execution imagery — even as ISIS is going around grabbing chunks of Syria, and even as the group’s victims are being mourned by their families. Including one Jewish family — that of slain journalist Steven Sotloff.
You’d think the organizers would have been a little more sensitive, considering that this victim is one of their own.
But they weren’t — and they still aren’t. Amiri Kalman, one of the Drek’s founders, stands behind the design choice: “We are trying to react to current events. We have been doing it for a number of years. But we reject violence in any form and that includes the (execution) videos intended to scare the world.
“Therefore we also refuse to participate with this fear and refuse to become hysterical. This is satire, and our way of showing our contempt of them and their videos,” he told Ynet.
Kalman also pointed out that the party itself did not feature any ISIS-inspired imagery or props.
Oh good. Everyone feels better now. Right?
Wrong. Oh so very wrong. On social media, Israelis are furious.
Oh, and by the way, “Drek” means “s***” in Yiddish. Pretty perfect, huh?
Young Jewish professionals have started taking action against The Jewish Press in response to their advertisement for JONAH International, the Jewish gay “conversion” therapy organization.
Yesterday, as the social media outrage towards the JONAH ad on The Jewish Press’ website continued, Chaim Levin, a former JONAH participant and witness in the infamous lawsuit against the organization, commented on Facebook that he had initially discovered JONAH from the long running Jewish Press ad in question.
In July 2010, Levin and another former participant of JONAH, Ben Unger, alleged in an interview that as part of JONAH counselor, Alan Downing’s therapy, he requested that his participants strip off their clothing in front of a mirror and touch their genitals in his presence.
Both Unger and Levin encouraged the current social action.
Since Levin issued his comments yesterday afternoon on Facebook, Sarah Gross, a board member of Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization, publicized a Facebook group entitled “Jewish Press: Stop Enabling Abuse.”
Within hours of its launch, the page had 152 likes.
The Jewish Press has yet to issue a response.
The Jewish Press’ advertisement for JONAH International, an organization dedicated to gay “conversion” therapy, sparked outrage on social media today.
The ad, featured on the site’s homepage, prominently displays the organization’s navy and white logo in the foreground, with their tagline mission statement — “Institute for Gender Affirmation: Overcoming Homosexuality” — and organizational website just below it.
Tovah Silbermann, a New York City resident who identifies herself as “a loyal reader,” was outraged by the ad. “This organization has caused so much pain and suffering,” she tweeted.
Sarah Gross, a young Jewish professional, took the campaign to Facebook. Using strong language, she shared a CNN article from 2012 that outlined the lawsuit in which gay men sued JONAH counselors who promised to make them straight. “It’s offensive,” she writes of the organization, and “I will officially not be reading articles on TheJewishPress.com after seeing an ad for JONAH [on their site].”
Both medical professionals and rabbinic personalities across the spectrum have denounced JONAH’s work.
A Jewish gay couple takes part in the annual pride parade in Jerusalem / Getty Images
“Mazel tov on your engagement! Oops — actually, strike that. No mazel tov for you.”
That’s essentially the message Israeli yeshiva Ma’ale Gilboa conveyed to one of its former students and his partner this week, upon realizing that the couple consisted of two gay men.
On the public notices section of its website, the national-religious yeshiva posted: “Congratulations to Uri Erman on his engagement to Daniel Jonas.” But it soon retracted the statement, chalking it up to an error on the part of the website’s student editor. “This is a mistake; we thought [Daniel] was a woman rather than a man.”
Can we talk?
Gay men have always loved our outsized female heroes, and Joan Rivers was right up there with the best of them. It’s no coincidence that a disproportionate number of these divas are Jewish (Rivers, Barbra Streisand) even though many (Judy Garland, Madonna) are not. In fact, gay men love strong women for very Jewish reasons.
First, gay icons (divas, glamour queens) and Jewish women both tend to be strong, outspoken, and assertive – models for drag queens like Bianca Del Rio and RuPaul. Once again, of course, Rivers was among the best. Her humor was almost always blunt, occasionally offensively so. (In a good way – people who get offended by humor are usually taking themselves too seriously.)
This strength of spirit is, itself, a rebuke to patriarchy – or, if that’s too lofty, to macho chauvinist jerks who subjugate women and persecute gays.
But Rivers was not merely a strong person; she was a strong woman. Here, again, gay men cheer on the sidelines as powerful women stand up to institutions of sexism and the individuals who uphold them.
Rivers, like Streisand, broke barriers – ethno-religious ones as well as gendered ones. The night-time talk show circuit was an old boys’ club until River broke that glass ceiling. And while Jews were omnipresent in the television world of the 1950s and 1960s, they often stayed behind the scenes as writers, or closeted their Jewishness, or were limited to comic relief. Rivers was brash, in your face, female but not ‘feminine,’ and also aggressively Jewish.
Congregation Beth Simchat Torah’s Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum / WN
Claiming “Hamas propaganda” has infected the pulpit, a director of the nation’s largest LGBT synagogue resigned in an angry e-mail this week, igniting a firestorm on social media.
But the rabbi of New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah is calling the resignation letter “a twisted perversion of the facts.”
In his e-mail, Bryan Bridges claimed that CBST and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum had been more sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians than to the risks facing Jews in Israel.
“Recent events have demonstrated that CBST is far more committed to a progressive political agenda than to the Jewish people,” Bridges wrote. “This raises a question for members: Why belong to this synagogue instead of a different religious group such as the Unitarian church or an activist organization such as Queers Against Israeli Apartheid?”
Bridges claimed his ire grew after he “heard that Rabbi [Sharon] Kleinbaum had read the names of Gazan casualties on the same day that Hamas violated the sixth humanitarian ceasefire by kidnapping a soldier,” and that Kleinbaum had “invited a group advocating BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel to host an event at the synagogue.”
An undated family handout picture of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.
Now that Israeli police have arrested six Jewish suspects for the kidnap-murder of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir, it’s safe to say that the teen was not killed by his own family for being gay.
Of course, Mohammed’s family has been saying that all along. They’ve been saying it ever since the burned-alive teen’s body was found in the Jerusalem Forest on July 2. “Our family is not involved in any disputes and he was a good boy,” one cousin told Haaretz. “This is not a family problem. This was a kidnapping and everyone has to know that.” So why did Israeli media outlets insist on floating the “honor killing” theory?
It’s not clear who started the rumor that Khdeir’s family murdered him for being gay. Many believe that it was the Israeli police who first fed this line to journalists — primarily in off-the-record briefings, and primarily to right-leaning outlets who would be willing to quote them as unnamed sources.
Whether or not that’s true, the media’s willingness to play along, combined with the police’s insistence on keeping the true details of the investigation under strict gag orders, allowed a baseless theory to spread far and wide among a credulous public. It was particularly popular with those Israel supporters who would rather believe this grisly murder was the work of Palestinians (“see, they even kill their own family members!”) than of fellow Jews.
What’s the upshot? Well, let me put it this way. The next time a pinkwashing conference rolls into town, I can pretty well guarantee that there will be a panel discussion with the name “Mohammed Abu Khdeir” in the title.
“I knished a girl and I liked it.”
That placard, waved by a member of Toronto Jewish gay group Kulanu, captured the spirit of yesterday’s massive WorldPride parade in Canada’s largest city: Joyful, fearless and boisterously irreverent.
About 100 Kulanu participants joined an estimated 12,000 marchers cheered by more than a million spectators on Toronto’s Yonge Street, according to reports this morning. The parade capped ten days of cultural and social-justice programs whose Jewish components included several Shabbat dinners, prayer services and a panel featuring Shai Doitsh and Itay Harlap, two leading figures in Israel’s LGBT movement.
Doitsh told Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy that his WorldPride experience was “amazing… The Canadians not only played a very important role in our fight for equality [in Israel] but our communities and our journey is quite similar. We can work together and learn from each other.” Levy — an out lesbian Jewish political columnist at the right-leaning Sun — wrote that she herself marched with Kulanu, wife in tow.
The march’s exuberance overshadowed controversy around a group called Queers United Against Israeli Apartheid, which marched despite protests by Jewish groups and some Toronto legislators. QUAIA has pushed for a place in the march for years, and the group got a boost in 2013 when a City of Toronto panel ruled the organization’s message did not represent discrimination towards the Jewish community. Stakes were also higher this year because of the global stage that WorldPride provided.
Transgender Jews celebrate Shabbat at a California synagogue
My friend and colleague Jay Michaelson’s op-ed “Include Me Out of This Jewish Community” calls into question the value and utility of “LGBT inclusion” in the mainstream Jewish community. I agree with some of Michaelson’s overarching points that being included in the mainstream without participating in fundamental change lacks meaning. But my experiences working for full equality and inclusion for LGBT Jews for the past 14 years as Executive Director of Keshet have led me to a radically different conclusion than Michaelson’s.
I do not believe that inclusion of LGBT people simply translates to the status quo with queer window-dressing. When LGBT Jews get a seat at the table, we have the chance to change not just the seating order, but the very structure of the table itself.
When a transgender rabbinical student is brought on as the rabbinic intern at a traditional Conservative shul, the look, feel and structure of the institution starts to shift.
When a Jewish film festival turns to a transmasculine Keshet leader who grew up poor to speak on a panel about Israeli women’s films, I see rigid conceptions of gender start to soften.
When a federation hosts a Keshet program and our staff explain why we are putting “All-Gender” bathroom signs up, the Jewish establishment begins to look different.
This month, I will be speaking at several Pride Shabbat services around the country and will challenge the congregations I meet to think critically about who is absent from their community and why; who is seen and who remains invisible. When people remain engaged in these conversations, the gulf between the margins and the mainstream begins to close. I believe LGBT Jews can change the Jewish community from the inside out. It is happening already.
Idit Klein is the Executive Director of Keshet.
Israelis take part in Jerusalem’s annual gay pride parade in 2011 / Getty Images
What do you reckon is the busiest time of year for Tel Aviv’s hotels — maybe the High Holidays? Perhaps Christmas/New Year’s, when America’s families are on vacation? How about Gay Pride Week?
With the annual Gay Pride parade scheduled for this Friday, Tel Aviv’s hotels are doing booming business, and anyone who didn’t book a room in advance is probably out of luck.
The Marker, Haaretz’s daily business section, reported on Wednesday that
Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride parade… is expected to bring 5,000-7,000 gay and lesbian tourists to the city…. Hotel occupancy rates are high, with prices rising accordingly.
… “[Gay tourists] live well and they eat well, in particular they eat healthier,” says Omer Miller, co-owner of [two Tel Aviv restaurants] that fly the pride flag every year. “Gay tourists also leave really big tips. Not every tourist in Israel comes to celebrate; [Pride Week visitors] really come for a week of partying.”
… According to a hotel manager in the city, “It’s the busiest time of the year…. There are guests who made reservations six months ago. I’ve known for three months that I’m completely full.”
City Hall has gotten in on the act, cooperating with local hotels to promote Tel Aviv as a gay travel destination, not least because — unlike visitors who come on pilgrimage — Pride tourists tend to stay in boutique hotels, rent cars and go shopping. Moreover, life on the Mediterranean presents an opportunity for year-round event planning that’s impossible in Europe. If Tel Aviv plays its cards right, folks who visit in June might very well come back in January.
An Israeli lesbian dressed up as an ultra-Orthodox Jew at the annual Gay Pride event / Getty Images
What do you do if you’re ultra-Orthodox and gay? You almost certainly hide.
On Thursday, Israeli daily Yediot reported new figures released by religious-gay support group Hod indicating that “two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox homosexuals [in Israel] have chosen to marry women despite their sexual inclination”; almost all of the more than 1,100 men included in Hod’s report admitted to having sex with other men at least once a month.
According to Hod founder Ron Yosef, an Orthodox rabbi and gay activist:
The situation of homosexuals in the Haredi society is much more difficult because of the social isolation they live in. A gay Haredi man cannot share his situation with his friends in the community or the yeshiva, his family members or rabbis, and “coming out of the closet” is definitely inconceivable.
It should be noted that Hod’s statistics are based on information received from gay ultra-Orthodox men who turned to the organization for help — which is to say: They reflect a self-selecting population, men who have heard of the group and reached a level of stress, or degree of openness, that would allow them to reach out. It’s hard to know how much the two-thirds figure actually tells us about the lived reality of gay Haredi men, but then, that’s a community about which it would be particularly hard to produce solid polling results.
“A nice girl came to me and expressed interest in renting my apartment. She also informed me that she was in a relationship with a woman. Given her relationship status, is there a Jewish law preventing me from renting the apartment to her?”
When this question was recently posted to one of Israel’s popular religious internet forums, Ramat Gan’s chief municipal rabbi Yaakov Ariel had this to say:
“If the two women want to rent the apartment together, don’t rent it to them. If just one of them wants to rent it, you can let her — but only if you have no better option.”
There you have it: proof that housing discrimination is alive and well in Israel, the country that likes to bill itself as a haven for the LGBT community.
It’s an incredibly disappointing response, of course. Disappointing to think that prominent rabbis are going around saying, as Rabbi Ariel did in a follow-up interview, that lesbian relationships are “unnatural” and that property owners don’t need to make themselves party to such “strange things.”
Disappointing to think they’re inculcating in Jews the belief that “Jewish law doesn’t look kindly on couples like that,” without bothering to add any sort of nuance, like the fact that lesbian relationships don’t really become an issue in Judaism until Maimonides gets around to them in the 12th century.
Disappointing to think that if my girlfriend and I were to try and rent an apartment in Israel, daring to be as honest and forthcoming as the would-be tenant mentioned above apparently was, we could easily be discriminated against.
Disappointing — but not at all surprising. Because this rabbi’s don’t-rent-to-lesbians policy is just the latest in a series of similar rabbinic responses coming out of Israel over the past few years. Remember the don’t-rent-to-Arabs policy? Or how about the don’t-rent-to-Ethiopians policy?
Freedom is always a primary theme on Passover, but this year, after travelling in Uganda for ten days as part of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Global Justice Fellowship, the idea is heavy with real-world implications.
The Haggadah instructs: “In every generation, everyone must think of him or herself as having personally left Egypt.” And yet, some of the people we met in Uganda remain trapped in their own Egypt: LGBT people are ostracized, threatened and assaulted for being who they are; women and girls are beaten and raped; people living with HIV and AIDS are isolated and abandoned by their families and communities.
The idea that all human beings are of infinite value and are created in God’s image — B’tselem Elohim — is a pillar of Jewish tradition. And yet, so many of the struggles we witness every day — in the United States, in Uganda, and elsewhere around the world — require that we pursue human dignity in a global context.
As I prepared for the trip, I studied materials about Uganda with the other Global Justice Fellows in my group, drawing upon my own experiences growing up in Colombia and travelling in many parts of the world. I read about the activists and projects in Uganda that AJWS supports and brushed up on facts. But nothing could have prepared me for the courage, ingenuity and dignity I encountered once I arrived.
Tania Ward and Nicola Pettit / Courtesy of Nicola Pettit
(Haaretz) — Tania Ward and Nicola Pettit will make history this Saturday when they become one of the first same-sex couples to legally marry in Britain.
More than that, their marriage will be among the first to receive a Jewish blessing, as Liberal and Reform streams prepare for a flurry of simchas to follow the change of law.
Since 2005, the United Kingdom has allowed civil partnerships which give the same rights and responsibilities as traditional marriage.
Campaigners, however, continued to lobby for full equality, facing opposition from conservative politicians and religious communities despite broad public backing. The new law comes into effect on Saturday March 29.
The couple, who live in southern England’s seaside Brighton resort, one of the country’s most bohemian centers of LGBT life, met when a mutual friend set them up on a blind date six-and-a-half years ago. “And that was that, really,” says 27-year-old Nicola.
Demonstrators in Nairobi, Kenya rally against wave of anti-gay legislation in Africa. Getty Images.
The ancient rabbi Hillel famously asked: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” I feel it is important to answer the first two questions in the way Hillel hoped—that we must stand up for both ourselves and for others. (After 40 years as a legislator, my answer to the third is “as soon as we have the votes.”)
On Purim, Jews remember the oppression we faced and overcame in ancient Persia and throughout our history. With Hillel’s questions in mind, we must rededicate ourselves to combating anti-Semitism throughout the world and to combating the oppression of others.
Today one of the most important ways to combat the oppression of others is to work against the terrible wave of homophobia that is oppressing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in several African countries. While this prejudice is powerful, we should not paint the whole continent with this brush. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela demonstrated his unsurpassed commitment to defending human rights for all by including in the South African constitution recognition of the right of LGBT people to be free from discrimination. But sadly, Mandela’s example is not always honored.
As a member of Congress, I did what I could to combat the oppression of LGBT people in Africa. I was successful in getting my colleagues on the Financial Services Committee to adopt an amendment urging the U.S. Treasury Department to oppose World Bank loans to countries which — like Uganda at the time, and Nigeria since — denied the basic humanity of LGBT people. I am proud to note that my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, despite their understandable strong support of aid for Africa, agreed that we should not support loans to countries that sanction bigotry.
(JTA) — The line between respecting diverse religious beliefs and violating the rights and dignity of gays and lesbians is at the center of a debate between gay advocates and the PJ Library over a children’s picture book featuring a family with two fathers.
“The Purim Superhero,” by Elisabeth Kushner, was published by Kar-Ben Publishing last year after the manuscript won a contest for Jewish-themed books with LGBT characters sponsored by Keshet, a Jewish LGBT advocacy group. It’s about a boy who turns to his two fathers for advice after his Hebrew school classmates tell him he can’t dress up as an alien for Purim.
PJ Library, the popular program that distributes free Jewish children’s books in North America and beyond, selected it as one of its featured books this month, but as an extra book distributed only to those who requested it — which, apparently, many parents did: All 2,200 copies PJ had purchased were requested within 36 hours, according to an article in The Boston Globe.
The Jewish community should feel a sense of déjà vu as it witnesses the government-sponsored persecution of LGBT people in Russia. We should respond with a statement of determination nearly as familiar to us as the Shema: Never again.
In the 1960s, with our awareness of the Holocaust very fresh in our memory, American Jews took seriously Soviet scapegoating of Russian Jewry and the efforts to destroy the Russian Jewish community. In 2013, in Putin’s Russia, gays are the new Jews.
In his assault on democratic institutions in Russia, Vladimir Putin is counting on xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Western and anti-immigrant sentiments to turn the Russian people against anybody perceived to be different. Government-run media supports these policies. The precious few independent media outlets cannot compete with Putin’s huge propaganda machine. This, along with the infamous new law banning the spread of “nontraditional sexual relations,” all but silences LGBT people in Russia.
Act Up’s slogan “Silence = Death” comes from recent U.S. history, when coming out and speaking out were essential to changing public views of homosexuality and to mobilizing response to the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s. If you are gay in Russia in 2013, it is no longer lawful to affirm who you are, even in front of your own children.