Sisterhood Blog

Q&A With Miryam Kabakov: Editor of Anthology on Orthodox Lesbians

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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North Atlantic Books
The cover of Kabakov’s new anthology. (click to enlarge)

A new anthology, titled “Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires,” includes essays by 14 women who identify themselves as part of the GLBQT community. Some remain part of the frum community, and write anonymously. One is from a prominent politically conservative family and talks about her family’s gradual acceptance process of her and her non-Jewish partner. One woman easily passes as a man in Israel, while she doesn’t in America. While most of the essays are personal coming-out stories, one is a scholarly review of Torah sources and Jewish legal literature on lesbianism.

The book is edited by Miryam Kabakov, a founder of New York OrthoDykes. Kabakov now lives in St. Paul, Minn. with partner Mara Benjamin and their two daughters, who are 4-years-old and 10-months-old. Kabakov directs the Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival and calls herself “post-modern Orthodox,” attending Conservative movement-affiliated Congregation Beth Jacob.

She answered a few questions for The Sisterhood, and will be the subject of a forthcoming episode of our podcast interview series.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen: What inspired the book?

Miryam Kabakov: Originally, what inspired this was reading “Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence” when I was a student at an Orthodox women’s college. I felt then that there ought to be something similar for Orthodox women.

Later I encountered what I call subterranean communities of GLBTQ Orthodox Jews and some not so subterranean. I believed that for every individual I had met, there must be so many more. Each has a unique story to tell and I believed some would agree to share it with others.

As long as Orthodox Judaism exists, there will be GLBTQ Orthodox Jews. Because we cannot ignore this fact it’s important to give voice to their experiences so that people in similar situations can know that they are not alone and should never feel isolated. Within the Orthodox world a constant re-education is necessary, keeping the need for the discussion up front.

Orthodox people are not raised talking about this and may never be. So in order to make it easier for GLBTQ Orthodox Jews to come out and live healthy lives, educating the Orthodox community consists of a beginner’s course that may never end.

Are things different today for religiously Jewish lesbians than they were, say, 10 years ago?

Today there are more groups that have officially formed and represent themselves on the internet. There is Bat Kol in Israel and Tirtzah in the U.S., for example. So it’s easier for people to find one another and find support, albeit sometimes just virtual.

In some parts of the Orthodox world I believe there is more awareness and language and openness to the GLBTQ experience.

Has life changed much for Orthodox lesbians within the Jewish community?

I hope so, but many still remain closeted or living two lives. Some are out in their communities and are okay. I think most are resolved as to who they are and are at great peace.

But, in general, because there is no built-in conversation about this in the Orthodox world, each person’s experience has to start from scratch as opposed to in the queer secular world, where experiences build one on top of the other and create a history of responses and ways of understanding.

One of the most interesting chapters, I thought, was by a masculine woman who passed as a man much more easily in Israel than she does here. Why do you think that is?

In Israel there is more of a desire to see things in black and white, ambiguity is not as tolerated, explored or celebrated. In that story the Israelis could never imagine a woman who looks, acts and talks like a man and still be a woman. It’s not that they didn’t think, maybe in the back of their heads, hhhmm, there is something different about this person. It’s that they refused to “see” that and let it become part of their landscape.

It’s also a metaphor for the Orthodox world’s inability to recognize any deviations from the norm of sexual orientation, not just gender presentation. In other words, if you would only open your eyes, or put on a different set of glasses, you’d see these Nashim mesolelot (literally, women who rub) that the Rambam was not afraid to see in his community.

What are the biggest issues facing observant gay Jewish women today?

Loss. There is loss for the individual and for the Orthodox community as well. For the individual there is loss of identity, loss of who you are in your community, possibly your home, your children, your family of origin. If everything in your life hinges on your relationships to your community and there is no place for you within that community once you come out, then you are really in trouble.

I suppose self-esteem is a big one and you can imagine your self esteem could take a nose dive after losing your stature and place within your community.

The next question that needs to be addressed is: Where do we go from here? Knowing what we know, that one cannot really change one’s orientation through therapy etc. how do we live lives that are meaningful to us? If Orthodox Judaism is our meaningful path, then why can’t we continue to have everything we did have?

The Orthodox community also loses out on some of its best members.

Because of all this, I am taking the book on a “You Are Not Alone” Tour. What I want most of all is for more GLBTQ Orthodox people to find each other. I am hoping this book will bring people out of the woodwork to meet each other and help form community. The Orthodox GLBTQ community has going for it the celebratory moments of observant Judaism as well as those that come along with being GLBT or Q.


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