Gay and Orthodox: Book charts the rise of a once unthinkable dual identity in Israel

A few weeks ago, the famous Israeli journalist Yair Cherki announced on social media that he was gay.

The news caused shockwaves, not only because of Cherki’s reputation as a reporter for the popular Channel 12 news, but also because he was raised in a conservative national-religious family and community in Jerusalem.

“I love boys, and I love God — and it’s not contradictory,” Cherki wrote in his coming-out Facebook post. “I live this conflict between faith and sexual choice all the time. There are people who have resolved this conflict [by saying] there is no God, and other people [by saying] there is no homosexuality. I know from my own experience that they both exist.”

In a move that would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago, Cherki has announced his intention to live his life publicly as a religious gay man – arguably the most famous Orthodox Israeli to come out of the closet.

The revolution among religious gay Israelis is precisely what academic Orit Avishai charts and explores in his new book, “Queer Judaism: LGBT Activism and the Remaking of Jewish Orthodoxy in Israel.”

Drawing on interviews with dozens of Israeli gay Jews and religious activists, experiences at Orthodox LGBTQ events and time researching and reading message boards, Avishai traces the history of gay activism in Israeli religious life and the rapid transformation of attitudes and advocacy.

Academic Orit Avishai and his new book, ‘Queer Judaism.’ (Courtesy)

“The movement is very young … the organizations don’t come together until the mid-2000s, and by the mid-2010s there’s just an explosion of activity, there’s a lot of organizations and there’s huge visibility and networks and language, and the Let’s do all this. coming on board,” she said in a recent interview with the Times of Israel. “Social movements and history – you don’t usually see it change so quickly.”

Avishai, an Israeli-born professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York City, shows the accelerated way in which Orthodox LGBTQ individuals in Israel have fought and achieved a certain level of acceptance from their communities.

Certainly, over the years, many gay Israelis who were raised religiously chose to leave their communities behind for a secular lifestyle – and many continue to do so. But now more than ever, there are people who proudly maintain their aspect of their identity without seeing any conflict, according to Avishai.

“They have gone from chat rooms and back rooms, from being afraid, anonymous and hidden, to creating and spreading personal and collective stories through viral Facebook posts with their faces, their names, their families and their stories to be proud of,” she wrote.

In the book – which is academic in nature but quite accessible – Avishai talks to many Orthodox LGBTQ Israelis who refused to admit that being gay meant they had to leave their religious communities and way of life behind.

One such woman told the author: “Life would be much easier if I became ex-Orthodox, if I was willing to give up my religious life. But I felt I couldn’t give it up. I really, really believe. I belong to the religious life, no matter what. But I also feel like I can’t be with men.”

A gay couple has a wedding ceremony under a hupa during the annual Pride Parade in Jerusalem, July 21, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The author said that during her research and interviews it was “extremely important to hear from people about their real life experience,” which led her to understand their “life experience in creating a new way of being Orthodox – which is merely a variation on its theme.”

She also explores some of the concerns and concerns that may be unique to religious gay Jews as they navigate the collision of their two worlds.

“Orthodox LGBT people say that their decisions about family formation take into account not only the interests and wishes of their children in the future – ‘Will there be a school that will accept them? Will we be able to celebrate his birth in a synagogue? Would they be able to bar mitzvahed then?,” she wrote. “On the flip side, children are so central to Orthodox Jewish life – reproduction is a mitzvah that is expected to be fulfilled. This mitzvah is so central that some rabbinical authorities have used it as an entry point to support same-sex unions.”

And while Avishai acknowledges that there is not a large religiously active gay Israeli community, the movement and changes also tell a broader story of changing attitudes in Orthodoxy.

“How the majority responds to these demands, these requests to be seen, to be heard, to be accepted, to be taken into account – it also shows a lot about the dominant group and its ways of thinking,” she said. . “This particular story is also a story about the Orthodox community or communities that are negotiating what it means to be Orthodox.”

While the job of any sociologist is to study groups, movements and communities, Avishai takes care to note in the book that she is neither Orthodox nor a member of the LGBTQ community.

“There is a real debate about whether one can and should study communities outside of one’s own,” she said. “The advantage of being an outsider is that you are not committed in the same way to a cause, to people, to a theory.”

A participant waves an LGBTQ rainbow flag with a Star of David during the annual Pride parade in Jerusalem on June 3, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

In a way, Avishai has written a fairly optimistic book in “Queer Judaism,” one that envisions a positive trend forward in terms of acceptance.

“The success of LGBT Orthodox people has been greatly affected by the cumulative impact of the actions of individuals who decided not to live their lives as a problem,” she wrote in the conclusion, “recalibrating their dreams; who demanded of their families, their friends, their religious leaders and their community that they are there and to make space available for them.”

But the professor admitted that she may have painted too sunny a view – as many Orthodox communities are still staunchly homophobic, and far-right anti-LGBTQ activist Avi Maoz has been given a government post, a few a month ago.

“Movements are always dynamic and they respond to each other – and there is always hindsight in this story,” she said.

However, she noted, “if you’re looking at the trajectory, there’s an increase in visibility… did they come? No, they haven’t come, and who knows what the much bigger renegotiation of Israel that we’re seeing right now, where that’s going to be at the forefront – but it’s part of the conversation.”

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