On a chilly Monday evening in January, Yugntruf, a New York-based not-for-profit designed to promote Yiddish, assembled a panel to address the question “What Attracts Us to Yiddish?”
Mostly in Yiddish, but with occasional forays into English for the benefit of the uninitiated, the evening’s seven panelists gamely tackled the question with a range of thoughtful linguistic, political and religious explanations.
After the speakers had made their respective spiels, a member of the audience raised her hand. “In the last two decades,” she said, “we’ve seen a huge growth of interest in Yiddish among gays and lesbians. Can you explain why?” A spirited discussion ensued — one that occupied the panelists, and the audience, for the bulk of the time that remained.
“I felt like I had to ask,” the questioner later said. “Half the panel was gay. It was like the elephant in the room.”
It’s an elephant — a pink elephant? — that’s been making the rounds.
Even as an affinity between gays and Yiddish has become a common feature of the secular Yiddish landscape, many in the Yiddish-speaking world have followed the development with sealed lips — with some too shy to ask about it and others not wanting to hear the answers. (To say that news of the phenomenon would be greeted coolly in the world of Hasidic Yiddish speakers is most likely an understatement.) And yet, while the topic has been studiously avoided in some quarters, it has, in others, given rise to sustained scholarly scrutiny. But even among scholars, the gay-Yiddish nexus has prompted wildly different reactions, with some calling the development a dynamic new synthesis and others saying that the “queering” of Yiddish is a perversion, a debasement of a once noble tradition. One thing is certain: The intersection does not lend itself to easy explanation. Indeed, it’s every bit as complex as the question “What makes one gay?” or, for that matter, “What attracts one to Yiddish?”
Among the early theorists of the gay-Yiddish link was journalist Alisa Solomon, who, in a 1997 article in the magazine Davka, made a case for the concept of “Queer Yiddishkeit” by enumerating a series of parallels: Both communities, she argued, share a sense of marginality, of rootlessness, of defiance in the face of a majority culture.
A number of those at the Yugntruf event echoed Solomon’s sentiments, putting particular stress on feelings of placelessness felt by many Jewish gay men and lesbians vis-à-vis the organized Jewish world.
“I feel very strongly the conservatism of the American Jewish community,” said Faith Jones, a Yugntruf panelist and a librarian at New York’s Mid-Manhattan Library. “I don’t mean political conservatism — though there’s that, too — I mean socially. There’s this incredible pressure to get married, and not just among the Orthodox. I’ve known a lot of women who get hysterical if they’re 35 and not married — and not bimbos. There are lots of people who are left out by the model we have of what being Jewish is.”
For Jones, who was raised in a secular environment in Vancouver, Yiddish served as a gateway to Judaism. But for Chana Pollack, also a Canadian, from Montreal, Yiddish served a very different function. Pollack, photo archivist for the Forward Association and life partner of Yugntruf executive director Myra Mniewski, was raised in an Orthodox home, but she found its strictures incompatible with lesbian life. In the community of New York’s Yiddish speakers and in the world of Yiddish literature, however, she has been able to find a home. “With Yiddish literature,” Pollack said, “I don’t feel I have to twist myself to be Jewish. It’s very open to me.”
In 1996, Jonathan Rosen, creator of the Forward’s arts section, wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine on the state of Yiddish. In it he quoted playwright Tony Kushner on the new vogue that Yiddish was enjoying among young gay Jews. Kushner grounded its appeal in the fact that Yiddish is “less butch and macho” than Hebrew.
Jones kept with Kushner’s formula. “Yiddish is really associated with women,” she said. “That’s probably one of the reasons why it was kicked out of Israel. Israel was a place for men. The Desert Jew. You couldn’t be the effeminate, unempowered Eastern European Jewish man. You had to be the New Jewish Man.”
The equation of gays and Yiddish has not been without its critics. In an article published in Commentary in 1997, Harvard Yiddishist Ruth Wisse took aim at those “gays and lesbians” who “freely identify their sense of personal injury with the cause of Yiddish.” For Wisse, gay Yiddish enthusiasts “commit a double fault”: They distort the past and call into question the Jewish future.
According to Jones, Wisse’s sentiments are hardly unique in today’s Yiddish-speaking world. There are those, she said, who feel that gay men and lesbians are hijacking Yiddish. “But these are her own students she’s writing about,” Jones said of Wisse. “Her response is that it would be better for the language to die. That kind of thing is very hurtful.”
Among the most incisive contemporary writers on the theme of Queer Yiddishkeit has been Jeffrey Shandler, a Rutgers University professor who devoted much of the final chapter of his 2006 book “Adventures in Yiddishland” to the topic. For Shandler, “the most provocative implications” of the gay-Yiddish nexus “are the alternatives that it proposes to a biological model of intergenerational cultural transmission.” In gay culture, Shandler writes, generations are determined not biologically but by “coming-of-age cohort groups.” The distance in time between generations is thus narrower, and language and culture are energized as a result. Indeed, Shandler argues, Yiddish in the modern era has long strayed from a tidy model of biological linguistic transmission. To buttress his case, he points to the writers S.Y. Abramovitsh, Sholom Aleichem and Y.L. Peretz, none of whose children spoke Yiddish, and to a number of prominent Yiddishists who came to Yiddish not from birth but later in life. With Shandler’s framework in mind, it becomes easier to see just how unique many of today’s secular Yiddish speakers are. These are people who come to the language not by accident but by choice — a linguistic community of writers, poets, scholars and artists.
It is perhaps in the realm of music that gay-Yiddish linkages have been at their most dynamic. And perhaps nowhere are the two sensibilities better coupled than in the title of the Klezmatics’ debut album, “Shvaygn = Toyt” — a direct translation of “Silence = Death,” the slogan of the 1980s AIDS activist group Act Up. Indeed, Pollack said, the gay-Yiddish intersection may have less to do with deep affinities than with historical coincidences. “The early years of gay pride, feminism and the Yiddish revival were roughly contemporaneous, and all had a socialist component,” she said.
In fact, Pollack suggested, the gay-Yiddish marriage may be relatively short lived: “For some of us, being gay and Jewish, going into Yiddish was the only way to make a Jewish family. Nowadays I see there are a lot more opportunities.”
Another pioneer in the Queer Yiddishkeit movement has been Eve Sicular, who is both a film buff with a passion for finding gay echoes in the Yiddish cinema and the drummer for Isle of Klezbos, a klezmer band. In a 2002 essay anthologized in the book “Queer Jews,” she charts both her own path and that of Queer Yiddishkeit more generally. She writes about how exploring Jewishness became for her a kind of second “coming out.” Finding her Jewishness, she writes, was like discovering submerged parts of the self.
Like Sicular, who equates the assimilated Jew’s fascination with spotting other Jews with a kind of “gaydar,” Pollack and Mniewski combined the languages of Jewishness and gayness in discussing their own trajectories. Pollack, for instance, said that for her Zionist Modern Orthodox parents, her fascination with Yiddish was “just as much of a shande as my gayness.” But, she continued, “my parents are actually quite closeted about how much they love Yiddish.” In describing her attraction to Yiddish, Mniewski said it was “something I didn’t really choose. Just like you don’t choose to be gay.”
Queer Yiddishkeit is a movement short on history, but some of its practitioners have nonetheless tried to stake some out: gay-inflected productions of Ansky’s “The Dybbuk,” images of Molly Picon in drag, “Yentl.” Was there perhaps a “gay-friendly” message in early Yiddish literature and film? In returning to Yiddish, are gay Jews going “home” again? Jones thinks not. “There’s not a lot of evidence for a gay-friendly shtetl,” she said. “It’s really, really hard to read in an ‘It’s okay to be a lesbian’ message.”
And yet, Jones hesitates. “Whether or not the portrayals of gays and lesbians were intended to be positive, and I would argue that primarily they were not, these portrayals do show that gayness can never be completely extinguished, silenced or ignored,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Forward following a telephone interview. “There is said to be a ‘pintele yid’ — a spark of Jewishness — inside even the most assimilated Jew. Perhaps there’s a ‘pintele feygele’ — a gay spark — inside even the straightest of cultures.”