Slightly Un-Orthodox In Israel

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This column was written by Sarah Wildman.
Tova Rosenberg (not her real name) lives in Rosh Pina, a little hippie town in the Galilee region of Israel that overlooks the Hula Valley. She is pretty in an unadorned way — her long red hair is cut in a blunt straight style, her glasses are wire and speak to function over form, and her face is bare of makeup. She wears a zip-up sweatshirt and cargo pants, and she looks more like an American teen than a 26-year-old woman who has endured years of anxiety and bitterness.

Rosenberg is a lesbian from an Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem. Her parents were hozrei b'tshuvah — secular people who "returned" to faith in their late teens. It took her years to come out; she felt she was "evil" and went out with at least "20 guys" on pre-arranged matches hoping something would spark. When she finally did come out to her family, her mother tried to send her to "change therapy," the Jewish equivalent of programs run by Christian fundamentalists in the United States. "[My mother] calls it the end of her life," says Rosenberg, who fled Jerusalem for Rosh Pina only a few weeks ago. It is about as far away as one can get from one's parents in this tiny country. She is here because she is in love, and her girlfriend, Noga, hovers near her throughout an interview. Rosenberg's parents have told her that they will cut off all contact with her if she moves in with another woman, so she has not told them about Noga.

You might think, given the rejection of her parents and her Orthodox religious community, that Rosenberg would have rejected her upbringing. But she is still Sabbath observant, still kosher, still Orthodox. Indeed, she is part of a growing movement in Israel of gay and lesbian Jews who refuse to reject Orthodoxy and are trying instead to force Orthodoxy — and the secular gay world — to accept them as they are. "It's not a question to be religious," Tova says, noting the same of being a lesbian. "It's just what I am."

Some 25 percent of Israeli society is considered dati, or Orthodox. But that designation is hardly monolithic. There are "modern" Orthodox Jews who observe Shabbat and Kashrut but also dress and interact in a way that, for the most part, "blends" into mainstream society. Then there are ultra-Orthodox Jews who, to varying degrees, refuse to compromise with the secular world. But even these distinctions are simplistic; modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews are themselves divided into innumerable sects.

The one thing that the branches of Orthodoxy share is a devotion to the word of the Torah, the five books of Moses. For those who know their Leviticus, this makes the question of same-sex love very, very complicated. "God also created lesbians," says Tova, simply, articulating a sentiment repeated over and over again, from Rosh Pina to Tel Aviv.

"There is certain amount of [religious] compromise that every single Orthodox lesbian that I know has made," says "Miriam-Esther," an ultra-orthodox lesbian mother of 10. Miriam-Esther was featured (though never shown) in the 2004 film "Keep Not Silent," which shadows three Orthodox women struggling with what it means to be lesbian. The question for gay men and lesbians who want to remain religious, she says, is, "How does one make peace with religious doctrine which denies legitimacy … and at same time be nourished by religious doctrine?"

This dilemma often leads to a period of extreme self-denial to the point of severe mental trauma, says Russian-born Zeev Shveidel, now a lecturer on gay issues in Orthodoxy. As for himself, he explains, "I prayed and prayed it would go away. Then I searched the Internet for a cure and went to change therapy."

In the last few years there has been a surge of newfound openness and political awareness among Orthodox gay men and lesbians in Israel — even the willingness to use the terms "gay" and "lesbian" is revolutionary. "I grew up in the States," explains Miriam-Esther. "I'm already in a whole different place from the Israeli ultra-Orthodox." Israeli Orthodox Jews have traditionally been more closed than their American counterparts. But — prompted in part by films on gay Orthodox Jews and the widespread use of the Internet (even though ultra-Orthodox rabbis have uniformly condemned the use of the latter) — this world has started to change.