By Ariella Assouline
On the Jewish calendar, September and October typically hold our most sacred times. On Rosh Hashanah, our new year, which just passed this weekend, the Book of Life is opened, giving us the opportunity to put our wishes and dreams for this year into words. For myself and many other queer Jews, the essence of my wish remained the same, even if the tone changed. “I wish I could stop liking girls” changed to “I hope I find my beshert (soulmate) this year” and has now become “I want us to be accepted by my family and live a beautiful Jewish life together.”
As I grew in my identity, and found the beauty of being Jewish and queer, I was able to enjoy this auspicious time again. The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even through Simchat Torah, is a time for rebirth. For making promises on how to better yourself and your community. For all my fellow queer Jews, I hope this holiday season is one of growth, of peace, of comfort. There is space for all of us to exist.
L’shana Tova, Ariella Assouline
Growing up, the motto our parents and grandparents instilled in my siblings and I was, “you are a Jew first, everything else second.” This belief shaped our entire lives, from the kosher food in our home to the beauty of the holidays and weekly Shabbat festivities, to our extra-curricular activities. We straddled the line between the fully Orthodox community a few streets away and the secular world, an identity we defined as close to Modern Orthodox. This meant I still attended local North Miami Beach public schools with a mix of everyone, including other Jews like me who lived in both worlds.
In high school, Wednesday night meant Latte & Learns, a program through our local NCSY (the Orthodox Union’s Youth Commission) chapter. Jewish teens attending public school would meet up for coffee or, since this was 2009, frozen yogurt, and learn from our rabbi and advisors about a different topic in Judaism. I’ll never forget the night where gayness was our topic. What did the Torah say about being queer? The conversation quickly devolved into debating the legality of gay marriage, which had barely been recognized in a few states let alone nationally. The classic rage-inducing word “abomination” was thrown around, teens quoting from Vayikra wildly. My queer identity was still in its infancy, but it held me back from fully engaging in the conversation.
Would they know I was queer if I was too passionate? If I showed my cards in this way, would I be ostracized from my friends and community?
This question of what it means to be Jewish and queer is one that has followed me my whole life. My parents’ words about being Jewish first burned in my ears, the beliefs of my rabbis and peers sowed doubt. Like so many queer people, leaving home for college was the first taste I had of independence. By attending a historically Jewish university, I was comforted that I would be able to find community and fulfill my spiritual needs. While Brandeis University was founded as the first Jewish university in the United States (since accepting Jews previously was either by quota or banned by most American colleges), the campus was a liberal arts haven. I was overwhelmed by my options, by meeting out queer people, by engaging in deep feminist conversations. Here was a place where I was finally allowed to question, with no one from home knowing what I was asking or who I was becoming.
Once I finally came out to myself and my friends that first year of school, I dove headfirst into the world of queer and feminist advocacy and learning. I was completely entranced — it became my entire world for four years.. But that same question followed me.
I was openly queer here, proudly Jewish at home, but the combination? That existed nowhere. I still found joy in these spaces separately, but the fracturing shattered me deeply.
I stumbled upon the documentary Trembling Before G-d doing research for a class. The documentary follows several Orthodox individuals and couples who are queer and maintain their religiosity. By the end, I was in tears. Here was the connection I was missing. Of course, there are no shortage of places to be culturally Jewish and queer. A love of food, parties, and a good shmooze makes for the perfect overlap of queer and Jewish events. But I was looking for people like me who found beauty and meaning in religious traditions and were openly queer. This led to years of collecting as many texts as I could.
My bookshelf is now filled with books like Mishkan Ga’avah by Rabbi Denise Eger, Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay, and Jewish, and Torah Queeries. These texts constantly remind me of my place in this beautiful tapestry of our shared history.
After college, moving around from city to city with my partner, we found what could only be described as a unicorn. A place where we can spiritually and religiously feel complete and be our full authentic selves. Congregation Rodef Shalom in Denver has been our home for this past year.
The Rabbi asked me to share my story…at the bima…for Pride Shabbat. Queer couples are married there. We have an ever-expanding table of young queer Jews at our weekly kiddush. A local organization building Jewish community for people in their twenties and thirties is led by a gay rabbi and his husband. Our local JCC marched in Denver Pride with signs like “Gay Away the Pray.” We host events for older LGBTQ+ adults to meet and connect with each other.
It’s a Jewish queer paradise. A place and community I never thought could exist, and one I now call home.
My experiences have shown me what I always felt to be true: being Jewish and queer is a complementary experience, not an oppositional one. My growth with my family has been a similarly beautiful experience. While there have been devastating moments, there have been more joyful and celebratory ones. The opportunity to grow together, the dedication to learning and teaching, and the love of a family brought us to a new place. Here are two cultures built on the act of questioning and belief, of community and tradition, of revering our ancestors and learning from our youth. Living a beautiful Jewish and queer life is not only possible, it is an enriching experience. I am and will always be a Jew first, but the and’s that follow will continue to enrich and define my life.
– Ariella Assouline is the Manager of Programs & Operations for the It Gets Better Project.