Review of A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts From the First Century to 1969

Gregg Drinkwater

Noam Sien­na, ed. A Rain­bow Thread: An Anthol­o­gy of Queer Jew­ish Texts From the First Cen­tu­ry to 1969 (Philadel­phia: Print-O-Craft, 2019), 426 pages, $24.99

Since the late 1990s, scholarly work at the intersections between the fields of Jewish studies and queer theory has profoundly enriched our understandings of Jewish history and culture. Daniel Boyarin’s groundbreaking work in Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), for example, sparked a significant shift (at times contested) in scholarly perspectives on the history of Jewish masculinity and the role of a feminized, homosocial world of Torah study as a centuries-long Jewish practice of resilience and resistance in the face of competing masculinist cultural norms. In addition to Boyarin’s interventions, students of Jewish studies can find ample interplay between queer theory and Jewish studies in works by Ann Pellegrini, Naomi Seidman, Jay Geller, Ben Baader, Charlotte Fonrobert, Sander Gilman, Ofer Nur, Eve Kosofky Sedgwick, Janet R. Jakobsen, Jonathan Freedman, and many others. 1 1 See especially: Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance (New York: NYU Press, 2003); Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini, editors, Queer Theory and the Jewish Question (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Benjamin Maria Baader, Sharon Gillerman, and Paul Lerner, editors, Jewish Masculinities: German Jews, Gender, and History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012); Jonathan Freedman, “Coming Out of the Jewish Closet with Marcel Proust,” Gay and Lesbian Quarterly, Fall 2002; Naomi Seidman, The Marriage Plot: Or How Jews Fell in Love with Love, and with Literature (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2016); Ofer Nordheimer Nur, Eros and Tragedy: Jewish Male Fantasies and the Masculine Revolution of Zionism (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2014).

Much of this work brought queer theory and Jewish studies together as a methodology, using queer theory to challenge culturally constructed norms, to destabilize binaries, and to illuminate moments that subvert established expectations for male and female Jewish subjects. Rarely, though, have these authors engaged deeply or directly with LGBTQ lives or histories, either in their modern manifestations as identity categories that emerged in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, or in earlier examples of same-sex erotic behavior. They similarly did not explore the experiences of people who self-consciously defied the gender categories they had been assigned at birth. When engaging with sexuality and gender, many of the authors who first introduced queer theory to Jewish studies and began the process of queering Jewish history and culture centered homosocial or sexually ambiguous moments within Jewish contexts – spaces ripe with sublimated or indirect erotic energy – rather than documenting Jewish histories of explicitly homoerotic or homosexual experiences – embodied sexual encounters between men or between women. And although these earlier authors highlighted Jewish individuals or cultural types who troubled gender norms in their dress, behavior, or life trajectories (such as Boyarin’s celebration of rabbis and Torah scholars as “feminized” males), they rarely drew attention to transgender Jews or to the historical antecedents of contemporary trans and non-binary identities.

Queer theory, thus, is a much broader intellectual enterprise than LGBTQ studies or LGBTQ history. In contrast to the wide use of the insights from or methodologies of queer theory within Jewish studies, the interventions of LGBTQ studies within the field of Jewish studies remain strikingly few. Far fewer scholars have actively told the stories of LGBTQ Jewish lives or attempted to document genealogies linking historical cases of same-sex sexuality and gender transition with contemporary LGBTQ identities (for some of the most accessible examples of such work, see in particular, the work of Warren Hoffman, Moshe Shokeid, Shaun Halper, Zohar Weiman-Kelman, David Shneer, Caryn Aviv, Miryam Kabakov, and Rebecca Alpert). 2 2 In addition to the many volumes and essays by activists and communal leaders, scholarly work in the field has emerged sporadically over the past twenty years. See especially: Warren Hoffman, The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009); Moshe Shokeid, A Gay Synagogue in New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); David Shneer and Caryn Aviv, editors, Queer Jews (New York: Routledge, 2002); Shaun Jacob Halper, “Coming Out of the Hasidic Closet: Jiří Mordechai Langer (1894–1943) and the Fashioning of Homosexual-Jewish Identity,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, 101 (2): p 189-231, March 2011; Miryam Kabakov, Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2010); Zohar Weiman-Kelman, Queer Expectations: A Genealogy of Jewish Women’s Poetry (Albany: SUNY Press, 2018); Noach Dzmura, editor, Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2010), and Rebecca Alpert, Like Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). Noam Sienna’s new volume, A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts From the First Century to 1969, does exactly this. Sienna’s book attempts to correct the imbalance in existing scholarship by bringing together and deeply annotating 120 diverse Jewish texts that each shed some light on Jewish LGBTQ lives, Jewish histories of same-sex eroticism, and Jewish experiences of gender transgression.

Sienna’s work may be the boldest and most comprehensive attempt yet to create a Jewish LGBTQ genealogy from biblical times to roughly the present. The volume includes sources from throughout the Jewish world, from Philo and Sappho, to rabbis, activists, and poets writing on the eve of the Stonewall Rebellion of June 1969, and notably pushes against the Ashkenazi-centric focus of much other work linking queer and Jewish lives. Sienna has expressly left out biblical texts and much rabbinic responsa. Biblical texts have been examined through a queer lens in multiple contexts by other scholars, and as Sienna notes, the rabbinic responsa largely centers on the same small selection of Biblical and rabbinic texts, addressing each to their contemporary circumstances. 3 3 See especially: Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer, editors, Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible (New York: NYU Press, 2009); Steven Greenberg, Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004); and Deryn Guest, Robert Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache, editors, The Queer Bible Commentary (London: SCM Press, 2006).

As Sienna writes in his thorough introduction, the book recovers a “lineage which has been denied and withheld from the people who have sought it” and a history that has been “manipulated and censored, forgotten, buried, and destroyed” (3). Sienna attempts to build connections across time, centering queer Jewish texts that invite us to imagine legacies of same-sex erotic and intimate relationships, and of Jewish ancestors who moved between genders or defied gender categories altogether. Sienna never avoids the ambiguity or complexity of the sources he is presenting, and studiously avoids claiming any list of “famous gays in Jewish history” (or famous trans Jews, for that matter), encouraging readers to engage with the “diversity of individuals and identities without erasure or homogenization” (7). Sienna reminds readers that we “cannot assume anything about how [the people in this book] saw or would have seen themselves” (7). But Sienna also persuasively argues that if it would be irresponsible to project our contemporary identities onto the past, it is equally irresponsible to “ignore the shared practices, behaviors, and experiences that link these stories to other places and times” (8).

Of particular interest to students of Yiddish culture will be such texts as a newly-translated excerpt from Mendele Moykher Sforim’s 1878 classic Travels of Benjamin III, and a lengthy excerpt from Sholem Asch’s celebrated 1906 play Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance) with its love affair between two women. After performances worldwide in Yiddish and multiple other languages, an English-language staging of Asch’s play was famously shut down on Broadway in 1923 when the entire cast and the play’s producer were arrested on obscenity charges. Sienna also includes a 1923 open letter from Asch attempting to correct misunderstandings of the love between Manke and Rifkele in the play. Yiddish studies scholars will also appreciate Sienna’s inclusion of homoerotic poems from obscure figures such as Dina Lipkis (born as Dina Kipnis-Shapiro in 1900 in the town of Slovechno, now in Ukraine) and celebrated writers such as Anna Margolin (born Rosa Lebensboym in 1887 in Brest, now in Belarus).

As attentive to gender as to sexuality, Sienna encourages us to reconsider the queer possibilities of a number of relatively well-known figures, such as the Maiden of Ludmir (die Ludmirer Moid), also known as Khana-Rokhel Verbermakher, a woman who functioned as a Hasidic rebbe in mid-nineteenth century Russia (Ludmir is in the Volhynia region, now part of Ukraine). Sienna offers a new translation of several pages from Samuel Abba Horodezky’s 1909 Russian-language study of the “Ludmirskaya Dyeva.” In addition to noting the multiple social and religious practices marked “male” that Verbermakher engaged in, Horodezky wrote that another Hasidic master had suggested that the soul of a male tzadik had been reborn in Verbermakher, thus accounting for Verbermakher’s behavior. Marriage to a man failed to “recast the soul of this woman into a lower, normal state,” thus leaving Verbermakher’s gender trouble unresolved (213).

Sienna, like some other LGBTQ activists and writers, invites us to consider how Verbermakher’s “male”-coded behavior, as well as this claim to a “male” soul, might allow us to imagine a crossing of gender boundaries that puts Verbermakher in some loose genealogy linking Verbermakher with contemporary trans or intersex identities. Others have claimed Verbermakher as part of lesbian genealogies. But Sienna is careful not to claim an ahistorical trans or intersex (or lesbian) identity for Verbermakher, noting that to do so would be anachronistic and also can not be based on Verbermakher’s own self-conception of gender, about which we known nothing. But Sienna’s open-ended speculation encourages us to consider the possibilities, even without certainty, of expanding the frames of gender and sexuality that we apply to Jewish history. 4 4 Verbermakher is not the only gender-transgressive figure in the historical world of Hasidism, of course. Justin Jaron Lewis has made similar observations about Eydl of Brody, another “female” Hasidic rebbe, in a 2008 article that proposed reading Eydl as trans. Sienna is here introducing readers to a small subfield of the study of gender boundaries in Europe’s Yiddish heartland. For more on Eydl of Brody, see: Justin Jaron Lewis, “Eydele, The Rebbe”: Shifting perspectives on a Jewish gender transgressor,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, Volume 6, Issue 1, 2007.

Readers interested in Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish experiences will find even more to consider in Sienna’s volume, including strong selections of homoerotic poetry from Jewish writers in medieval Spain, and a wide range of accounts of same-sex activity in Sephardic and Ottoman contexts (for complex reasons, such texts are quite rare from predominantly Ashkenazi regions). Largely from rabbinic sources, the bulk of these texts discuss evidence of same-sex intimacy (primarily between men) as halachic or communal problems and are thus anything but sympathetic. But they do offer insight into how communal authorities navigated questions of same-sex intimacy, particularly in the early-modern Jewish world.

An example of a particular gem among Sienna’s sources includes accounts from 1908 of a raid on what we would today call a “gay” bar that was owned by an Algerian Jew in Paris. Moïse (Maurice) Zekri was born in Algiers in 1879 and opened Maurice’s Bar after moving to Paris. The sources, translated from the French by Sienna, indicate that during the April 1908 raid on his bar three drag queens were “found in indecent positions” and that the bar was suspected of hosting regular “disgusting orgies” (190-192). The scandal over the raid on Zekri’s bar, Sienna tells us, raised issues of French anxieties around non-normative sexuality, gender, Jews, and Arabs (Zekri was misidentified as “Mohammed” in one source, 193). After the closure of Maurice’s Bar, Zekri went on to open a gay café and then lived in several other countries before returning to Paris after World War I. During World War II, he was deported to Auschwitz and murdered there in 1942.

Sienna also offers many compelling examples of gender-transgressive figures in the Jewish world, such as the little-known life of Ben Rosenstein. Born Ida Weinstein in Poland in 1889, Rosenstein came to the United States in 1908 and began living as a man. He took the last name of his wife, Pauline Rosenstein, and the couple lived in Cleveland, then Detroit, and finally Chicago after Ben Rosenstein became ill. He died there of tuberculosis, leading to the discovery of Ben Rosenstein’s physically female body. Rosenstein was buried in a dress (the first he had worn in seven years) despite his desire to be buried in a suit, and was derided in press reports as a “girl husband” (227). In an article on Rosenstein, a Dr. Isadore M. Trace of the Jewish Aid Society offered a surprisingly sympathetic take on Rosenstein. Trace noted that when treating Rosenstein while he was ill, Trace did not reveal Rosenstein’s physical sex to anyone (although he was aware) and felt that the lengths Rosenstein had gone to “earn a man’s wage to enable herself (sic) and Pauline to live” showed “heroic courage” (228). Sienna suggests multiple ways to interpret Rosenstein’s life, noting that we might see Rosenstein as someone committed to living as a man and thus a potential transgender ancestor, but also possibly an early forerunner of the “butch/femme” relationships common among working-class lesbians in the United States in the mid-twentieth century, relationships most famously documented by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis in their classic Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The history of a Lesbian Community (New York: Routledge, 1993), (224). Interestingly for Yiddish studies scholars, Sienna notes that Rosenstein may have been radicalized by the Jewish labor movement, attending Yiddish socialist lectures on the Lower East Side before his move to the Midwest (223). Could this Yiddish socialist milieu have contributed to Rosenstein’s bold choice to live a gender-transgressive and self-affirming life?

Sienna’s deftness in dealing with multi-lingual sources surfaces throughout the volume. The anthology includes sources from over a dozen languages, many newly translated into English by Sienna himself or translated expressly for this book by Sienna’s colleagues and friends. The annotations for each text embed it within relevant historical and scholarly contexts, while demonstrating the depth of additional research Sienna did on the authors or events surrounding each source. Each source also includes a brief bibliography of relevant secondary scholarly literature – itself a treasure trove of references to work in the field. This anthology was clearly a labor of love for Sienna and deserves a wide readership.

Drinkwater, Gregg. “Review of A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts From the First Century to 1969.” In geveb, October 2019:
Drinkwater, Gregg. “Review of A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts From the First Century to 1969.” In geveb (October 2019): Accessed Jun 23, 2024.


Gregg Drinkwater

Gregg Drinkwater is a doctoral candidate in U.S. history and Jewish studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.