“Rainbow Jews: Jewish and Gay Identity in the Performing Arts”– intersecting identity

Friedman, Jonathan C. “Rainbow Jews: Jewish and Gay Identity in the Performing Arts”, Lexington Books, 2007.

Intersecting Identity

Amos Lassen

I remember learning that “Rainbow Jews” was listed as soon to be published and trying to get as much information about the book as I could. The wait for it was well worth it. Jonathan Friedman has written an incredible look at gay and Jewish identity as reflected by American and Israeli film and theater from 1960 up to the present time. The scholarship of the book is all encompassing and admirable covers the subject. Friedman  explores the methodologies and theories of queer theory, the history and the linguistics of film and the stage and presents a picture of the influence that gay Jews have made to the world of the performing arts.

The book looks at the extent that Jewish gay voices have created various multidimensional expressions as well as a place for all aspects of GLBT life. Freidman went about his task by looking at numerous plays and films and then evaluates them with regard to convention and trope which contribute to the social reality of the connection between religion (Judaism) and homosexuality. Along with this, he looks at the contribution that Jewish filmmakers and playwrights present sexual norms within Judaism and how those norms are reflected in the GLBT community today.

Issues that have always mattered to the Jewish people–justice, love, acceptance and mourning are equally issues of the gay population and there are the major themes of both drama on stage and drama on film. Like the gay community, the Jewish community faces ideas and motifs that have little unity, victimization, persecution. Inclusion of the gay population—more specifically the Jewish gay population as a sexual and ethnic minority into the larger Christian heterosexual population gives a voice that needs to be heard.

If we look at what is considered by many to be the ban on gay sex as found in the book of Leviticus of the Old Testament, we can interpret the “ban” to be an alternative way for man to lose his humanity. Instead we can say that the “ban” is non-conclusive and can be interpreted in a variety of ways—one of which is to understand the true meaning of what Leviticus says. To exclude gay men and women from a religion that advocates social justice and acceptance would be a major misinterpretation of what the Old Testament really says.

If it is indeed the case that Jewish gay representation in the performing arts leans toward integration and redemption, we must understand why this is true. Redemption has always been a major theme in all of Jewish writing and within the idea of redemption is integration. The Jew and the gay have always yearned for a place in the larger society—in many cases by mainstreaming and assimilation. The acceptance of the gay community into society is a response to the reality that in many cases Jews have managed to find a place whereas gays are still struggling. We must not forget that for the Jews this took many decades of strife—of changing, in many cases, who they are and how they appear until society was ready to accept them. The same is apparently true for gays and lesbians. Gay Jews have to adopt the social paradigm of society and adapt to it or risk non-acceptance.

It is indeed important to remember that all we have today in terms of religious and sexual acceptance is because a long road has been traveled with many stops along the way. All we have today in the world of performing arts is dependent upon all that came before and ushered in the little that we have now. The basis of the visibility of gay Jews today is what has brought us to this point. Would we have been so lucky to have a movie like “Brokeback Mountain” being shown in mainstream theatres if other smaller movies had not made the attempt for acceptance before its breakout? The same is true for the success of Jewish themed projects. Taking gay and Jewish together and making these two visible has been a labor—a labor of love.

“Rainbow Jews” is an indispensable look at how far we have come and hints at how far we still have to go. It is not a book just about gay Jews but about any minority group that seeks to find its place in society.

Friedman’s scholarship opens our minds to the ideas that we may never have considered and his prose makes understanding of it simple and concise. I must personally thank him for writing some of the things I have always felt and doing so in a simple and concise manner. “Rainbow Jews” is a book and a study that has long been needed and now that it is here, it makes it that much easier for us to understand ourselves.

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