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Queer Jewish Texts Across the Ages

Monday, May 20, 2019 - 07:00

I was excited to hear about this book because material on Jewish topics has been sadly lacking in my research materials. Alas, it's still sadly lacking. This collection is quite extensive in scope and nature but there is very little material of lesbian relevance, and what there is adds little new information. If you know someone who's interested in researching male homoerotic experiences in western Jewish history, I think it would be a valuable resource. I suspect that if a work of this type had focused specifically on queer female experiences, there might be more to dig up. I sometimes get the impression that imbalances of this sort in general works derives as much from the researchers taking an "equal effort" approach as opposed to an "equal coverage" approach. Finding historic information on women can take more work--especially for a researcher whose primary interests are male topics and doesn't have leads on female topics already at hand. The result can often reinforce the impression that the data isn't there to be found. I suspect that there is more material on queer Jewish women out there in the world, but it will probably only be found by those who are working on that specific topic.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

SIenna, Noam (ed). 2019. A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969. Print-O-Craft, Philadelphia. ISBN 978-0-9905155-6-2

As might be predicted from past experience with general survey works, the amount of material relating to female same-sex relations in this book is low. And like most surveys that cover all of history up to the present day (1969 counts as “the present day” for practical purposes), more than half the page count covers the 20th century. Out of 120 entries, I counted 14 that were in any way relevant to the LHMP (and that includes anything ambiguous between lesbians and trans men). Furthermore, except for the works of a couple of 19th century poets, those entries are written by men and view the topic with an unmistakably male gaze--including legal, religious, and medical texts that view female same-sex love as pathology.

Given that, even though this collection is obviously sympathetic to the queer experience, it’s hard for me to recommend it as a useful reference for someone working to write queer female characters into history. Here is a brief summary of what I consider to be the relevant contents.

1st to 15th century

Entry 1 - Sappho’s fragment 31 (“he is like a god to me”) was preserved in a Greco-Jewish treatise on literary esthetics. The author discuses the literary techniques that express the sublime.

Entries 2, 3, 5 - Various 1st-3rd century religious texts discussing general topics of transgression of gender and sexual roles.

Entry 9 - Midrash of the 3-5th centuries that expands on Leviticus 18:3 (“don’t do like the Egyptians and Canaanites do”) by discussing the specific cultural practices being forbidden, including same-sex marriage (by both men and women) and poly marriages of various types. [This has been interpreted by scholars such as Brooten as evidence that same-sex marriages existed in Egypt during that era. Otherwise why would Jews need to be warned away from them?]

Entry 11 - The only explicit mention of sex between women in the Talmud (Babylonia, 6-8th c) which occurs in the context of a scholarly dispute over whether women who have had sex with women are allowed to marry into the priestly caste. [The evident conclusion, as echoed in the next item, is that sex between women wasn't important enough to have consequences.]

Entry 27 - Law codes of Maimonides (Egypt, 12th c) call sex between women “a detestable act” but note that there is no legal or social penalty for it. Associates the practice with Egypt and refers to women “known for this” implying it may have been considered an something approximating orientation or preference.

Entry 33 - A male Jewish poet (Spain, 14th c) expresses desire for an Arab girl that he sees “in the company of other young women, all kissing one another.” He wishes he were a girl so she’d kiss him. [Although there are many entries about poetry expressing homoerotic desires between men, the lack of inclusion of female poets in this section--no doubt due to their works not being recorded and preserved--means there are no similar works expressing female desire]

16th to 19th century

Entry 40 - A 16th c Kabbalistic discussion of reincarnation of male souls into female bodies. The only consequences discussed are to fertility. Sexual desire and gender presentation are not mentioned in the excerpt.

Entry 43 - A Portuguese converso (convert to Christianity) doctor writes in 1603 of the “enlarged clitoris” theory of lesbian desire. [This is part of an extensive and pretty much interchangeable literature making this association. There doesn’t appear to be anything uniquely Jewish about his version.] He reports on women tried for lesbianism in Turkey and Portugal.

Entry 51 - A young Jewish woman in France, separated from her family, begins living as a man and as a Christian and eventually ends up emigrating to Quebec in 1738. A detailed account of their life history is given. In regards to concealing their Jewish origins they testify it was “to enjoy the same liberty as the Christians” but no reason is given for the decision to cross genders.

Entry 59 - A sexological “case study” (Germany 1875) of a Jewish maidservant who experienced depression and suicidal desires which were attributed to her unrequited desire for a woman.

Entry 61 - Two poems by Emma Lazarus (New York, 1876, 1880) with homoerotic themes.

Entry 63 - Several poems by Amy Levy (London 1889) that express same-sex desire, though in heavily coded terms. Levy had an unrequited passion for author Vernon Lee and dedicated several poems to her.

1900-1969

The second half of the book covers the 20th century. The rate of lesbian-relevant material is about the same, but a little more of it is from female authors.

Event / person: 
historical