Published in The Jewish Daily Forward Publication on August 31, 2011
When I was first coming out 25
years ago, there were precious few books about being gay and Jewish.
Thankfully, that’s not the case today. There are enough to fill whole
bookcases. But will anyone who isn’t gay read them?
Conventional wisdom in the
publishing industry says that non-gay people won’t read books with gay
themes — with the notable exception of works by humorists, such as David Sedaris
or Augusten Burroughs, who play their lives for laughs. Straight people
can’t relate seriously to gay life, the thinking goes; they don’t know
from such things, and they don’t want to know.
Even if there’s a kernel of
truth in that notion — and I fear, sadly, that there often is — straight
Jewish readers in particular should be able to bridge this culture gap
by choosing Jewish gay books: While some of the gay content might be
unfamiliar, at least the Jewish content will provide a point of
Where to start? Well, my own book, of course. (Here comes the plug.) “Sweet Like Sugar”
includes characters representing a diverse array of Jewish practice,
from secular to Orthodox, engaged to alienated. It’s a story of a young
man named Benji Steiner, who’s rejected the Jewish traditions he grew up
observing, searching for a place where he can still connect to his
community. But it also follows Benji on his search for Mr. Right. If
you’ve never read a book with gay characters and themes, I hope this’ll
be your first.
But I also hope it won’t be
your last. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of books on gay Jewish
subjects. At the risk of leaving out many books and authors whose work
is worth your time, here’s a brief list of GLBT books that non-gay
Jewish readers will relate to. This list isn’t comprehensive, or
representative of anything more than my own bookshelf, so feel free to
add your own favorites.
Start with an anthology —
it’ll give you a broad survey of what’s out there, and turn you on to
authors whose work you’ll want to read more deeply. “Nice Jewish Girls,” a lesbian anthology edited by Evelyn Torton Beck, was the first of its kind, published in 1982. “Twice Blessed,”
edited by Christie Balka and Andy Rose, came out a decade later, and
includes dozens of personal and topical essays on everything from
community to spirituality. “Queer Jews,”
edited by David Shneer and Caryn Aviv, came out several years after
“Twice Blessed,” and shows the continued evolution of thinking around
GLBT issues for Jews. These three together provide a great historical
background, as well as an introduction to some of the most important
thinkers on these subjects.
Once you’ve got that foundation, check out a few more recent collections. “Mentsh: On Being Jewish and Queer” edited by Angela Brown, features essays by some of the biggest GLBT literary names around. “Found Tribe,” edited by Lawrence Schimel, collects coming out stories from Jewish authors. And “Balancing on the Mechitza,” edited by Noach Dzmura, is the first Jewish anthology to focus specifically on transgender issues.
If you’ve got a particular
area of Jewish interest, there’s probably a gay-themed book that’s right
for you. If you enjoy reading about Israel, check out “Between Sodom and Eden,” by Lee Walzer, about the (mostly positive) situation for gay Israelis. If you’re drawn to Holocaust tales, read Gad Beck’s “An Underground Life,”
the true (and truly amazing) story of a gay Jew who survived the
Holocaust in hiding in Berlin. If you’re invested in cultural politics,
Jay Michaelson’s persuasive “God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality” comes out this fall. Prefer books about spirituality? “The Choosing,”
by Andrea Myers, recounts the unusual personal journey that led her
from a Lutheran upbringing to an adult life as an ordained rabbi — and
out lesbian. If memoirs are your thing, here are three to start with:
Lillian Faderman’s “Naked in the Promised Land,” Stanley Ely’s “In Jewish Texas,” and Lawrence Mass’s “Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite.”
Lots of us prefer reading
fiction. “Sweet Like Sugar” isn’t the only novel about gay and Jewish
subjects. Two of my favorites are “The Same Embrace” by Michael Lowenthal (about twin brothers divided by religiosity and sexuality), and “Faith for Beginners”
by Aaron Hamburger (about a mother and her gay son on a journey of
surprising self-discovery in Israel). Other great family-focused novels
include “The Lost Language of Cranes” by David Leavitt (set in New York City) and “Light Fell” by Evan Fallenberg (set in Israel).
Sarah Schulman has written daring and complex books — fiction and nonfiction — for decades; start with her novel “Rat Bohemia,” which will make you look at “family” in a new way, and then work your way through her other titles. T Cooper’s “Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes”
is one of the more unusual novels in recent years, combining an
old-fashioned Jewish immigrant story with a modern-day gender-bending
tale of troubled youth. Leslie Feinberg’s “Stone Butch Blues”
blazed a trail for other transgender stories almost 20 years ago, and
remains a classic. There’s much more. When in doubt, pick up almost
anything (fiction, nonfiction, essays, mysteries) Lev Raphael ever wrote
— beginning with his short story collections “Dancing on Tisha B’av” and “Secret Anniversaries of the Heart.”
Now I’m going to throw in
someone who usually doesn’t make this kind of list: David Feinberg. His
books — two novels and one collection of essays — aren’t “about” being
Jewish in the way that many of the titles above are. But his stories are
steeped in Jewish identity and culture, and focus on Jewish characters;
if you think Woody Allen makes Jewish movies, you’ll understand why
Feinberg’s books are Jewish, too. Sardonic yet earnest, enraged yet
hilarious, Feinberg was also one of the finest chroniclers of the AIDS
epidemic, until his death at age 37 in 1994. (I think of him as a cross
between Larry Kramer and Paul Rudnick — a front-line activist, but
always on the lookout for something to laugh about.)
Follow his neurotic
Jewish protagonist B.J. Rosenthal through “Eighty-Sixed”
Feinberg’s dazzling debut novel, which contrasts gay life in New York
before the epidemic to a time when gay men started dying in droves.
Follow B.J. again in the sequel “Spontaneous Combustion,” in which he continues his search for love and sex in what has become an unrecognizable war zone. Or pick up “Queer and Loathing,”
Feinberg’s biting collection of nonfiction essays, published weeks
after his death, to get a sense of just how horrible things became — yet
how humor, coupled with resolve and anger, helped so many people endure
and even resist for as long as they could. That’s something every Jew
should be able to understand.
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