What It's Like to Be Young, Gay, and Jewish

I'm gay and I'm Jewish, but rarely do I think about the intersection between these two big parts of my identity.

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Nov 29 2016, 4:10pm

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Growing up queer isn't easy. As a child or an adolescent, the sense of isolation can feel all consuming, and unlike most marginalized identities, it can be difficult to turn to a family member for support: Being queer doesn't run in the family. Add all this to a religion with scripture that labels same-sex relationships "detestable," and you'll see why the early years can be hard for young, gay Jews.

Granted, it's not like all British Jews grow up particularly well-versed in the Torah, or the endless other commentaries that make up Jewish teaching. But open your Bible to Leviticus, and there's a pretty strong signal there in front of you: "If a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed a detestable act: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them."

This may no longer be the way that our community deals with gay relationships, and even in biblical times the death penalty was rarely dished out for same-sex sexual acts (according to Jewish Oral Law, there would have to be two witnesses to anal penetration, and the witnesses would have to warn the guys multiple times that they were breaking the rules, and then the guys would have to keep on fucking anyway)—but the reality is that those words are still there: God says being gay is bad.

It's a difficult concept to grapple with.

Therefore, for young gays like me who grew up Jewish in traditional communities, it's easy to end up compartmentalizing each aspect of yourself. There's little to no crossover between the gay and the Jew.

So when I hear about a new gay Jewish club night in London—"Butt Mitzvah" (like Bat Mitzvah, but with the word butt, because gays like butts)—it gets me thinking about the intersection of these two identities.

Butt Mitzvah organizer Josh Cole (center)

"Part of the reason for doing Butt Mitzvah is to try and help boys find nice Jewish husbands—to be a fiddler on the roof matchmaker on a really grand scale," says organizer Josh Cole ahead of the night.

"It's not the primary reason, though. I think it's more about bringing together people who feel alienated, without even realizing it, from the Jewish community. People who have a strong Jewish identity maybe in their familial zone, and a strong gay identity in their social or romantic life, but have never had the space to reconcile the two."

The Glory—a gay pub in Haggerston run by some of London's most celebrated drag queens—is usually busy, but it's not even ten yet, and the place is packed. A line snakes down the street, and bouncers inform soggy patrons that it's already one-in, one-out.

As I approach the door, I'm feeling surprisingly uncomfortable. I know it's not an actual religious celebration, but often events where I'll be mixing with lots of other Jews can put me a little on edge. As a gay Jew, it's easy to feel slightly separated from everyone else in traditionally heteronormative spaces like bar mitzvahs or weddings.

Inside, the place is heaving: A drag queen dressed as Amy Winehouse is losing her shit on the stage ahead of me; there's a bagel buffet in the downstairs dance area; and a klezmer band playing traditional Jewish folk music is whipping up the crowd, many of whom are wearing Star of David necklaces.

Outside in the smoking area, I chat to a guy named Simon. He's 24, and he too is a London-based gay Jew. "When I first heard about the night, it felt weird," he says. "But it feels strangely liberating now I'm here."

It's not just Simon having these thoughts; nearly every person I speak to talks about reestablishing a connection with their heritage, finding comfort in meeting people with a shared experience as niche as their own. Some talk of hoping to find a nice Jewish partner; for others, it's a chance to share their culture with non-Jewish friends.

Standing at the bar, I overhear two guys in front of me talking. They're sharing coming out stories while cracking jokes about their respective Jewish moms. Later, a drag queen dressed as Israeli pop singer Dana International is up and about, and two guys in skull caps are locking themselves in a cubicle. The rest of the night is made up of more performances, traditional Jewish dancing, and, like any Jewish event, a lot of heavy drinking. At first, I might have been guarded, but by the end, I'm relaxed and having fun.

For me, the best part of being Jewish is the sense of community, and the same can be said for being gay—but until now I'd never really consolidated these two important parts of my identity. Nights like Butt Mitzvah may well serve as a "Jew 4 Jew" mating ground, but they're also providing a space for catharsis. Navigating my sexuality as a young Jew is something I've never really talked about, and like so many people I ended up speaking to at the Glory, I now feel it's something worthy of discussion.

A few days after the club night, I jump on the phone to Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, chief rabbi of the British Reform Judaism movement, for advice. "They can say fluffy things, but they don't accept LGBT people," she says of the orthodox Jewish community. "It's night and day—it really is. And I want to say they are night."

Reform Judaism is a denomination of the religion that emphasizes progressiveness and evolution, focusing on maintaining ethical traditions over ceremonial ones. In Britain, it's made up of more than 16,000 households. "For us, [being gay] is completely normal," says Rabbi Janner-Klausner. "We are communities of different genders and sexualities: gay, straight, bisexual, and trans."

The Reform world is a lifetime away from the kind of Judaism I'd grown up in, so I ask the rabbi how her views reconcile with what's written in the old Jewish scriptures. "There are things in scripture that are very time-specific and are outdated; the fact it's in scripture doesn't make it applicable today," she says. "The idea of interpreting Leviticus to mean that loving, safe, caring relationships across the board are wrong is morally repugnant. I'm not accepting it. It's not about otherness. It's simple: This is who we are."

Ingrained homophobia might be part of many traditional Jewish congregations, and it's likely that's not going away any time soon. But there is support out there for young queers in religious communities. Organizations like Keshet—a Jewish LGBTQ charity—are vitally important, providing support and comfort alongside education and outreach, and voices like that of Rabbi Janner-Klausner need to be listened to.

There's undoubtedly already a generational shift happening—acceptance is becoming more widespread, as it generally is in wider British society. But conversations still need to be had about how scripture is interpreted in the modern age, and to whom it's applied to, and how queer voices and faces are welcomed in communities—or else little gay Jewish kids will spend their childhoods thinking they won't be welcomed by the big guy upstairs—which is just unnecessary extra stress when you've already got all your other insecurities to deal with.

I won't be running to an orthodox synagogue on Saturday morning, but maybe next time there's a gay Jewish club night on I'll invite my (and my non-Jewish boyfriend's) family along, too.

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