An Unorthodox Guide To Sexuality

Hebrew Union College Show Explores Boundaries of Otherness

Out There: Susan Kaplow and Trix Rosen’s “Abomination: Wrestling With Leviticus 18:22”
Courtesy Hebrew Union College
Out There: Susan Kaplow and Trix Rosen’s “Abomination: Wrestling With Leviticus 18:22”

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published November 19, 2012, issue of November 23, 2012.
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Photographer Trix Rosen has documented Kaplow wearing the tachrichim, which consist of pants, undershirt, kittle, bonnet and face covering, all printed with the Talmud’s rabbinic conversation. Two large photographs, powerful as artistic midrash, show an anonymous body inside the burial garments, writhing in what appears to be grief; from the back curled in the fetal position. They suggest pictures of a tortured prisoner.

“As soon as I had the garments on, I began to feel all sorts of emotions. I felt trapped and claustrophobic, scared, angry and sad,” Kaplow, who is a lesbian, said in an interview with the Forward. “Those feelings started to show through in the photographs. My body and inside those words started to feel like those words are all over my body — toevah, toevah, toevah [abomination, abomination, abomination]. It’s like my body is the proof text for the damage these words have done, and are still doing, to many people. This part of the tradition makes me feel not only dead, but dead and buried. There’s an invisibility, [a feeling that] you’re not even here, you’re not really part of us.”

A weak aspect of the show is how it is laid out. There is no natural flow or guidance to help the viewer understand the works, which are hung in no obvious order in HUC-JIR’s large lobby and in a few smaller galleries off to one side. Art is exhibited alongside such cultural artifacts as movie theater display cards from Barbra Streisand ‘s 1983 film “Yentl” a Keith Haring sweatshirt from an AIDS dance-a-thon and paper fans produced for Pride Week 2007 at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields showing a photo of two men’s hands clasped together.

There are enlarged snapshots of gay-liberation graffiti in Jerusalem, taken by Heddy Abramowitz, and one by Michael Harwood of a Midtown Manhattan street corner, showing the famous Mark Wahlberg underwear ad for Calvin Klein juxtaposed against a “No left turn” sign. But art is more than observation, and the strongest works combine insight with an understanding of Jewish texts and traditions.

Jacqueline Nicholls’s paper-cut doilies look like the kind that grandmothers used to line platters. But hers feature language from Gemara, specifically Rabbi Yochanan’s projection of an anonymous maiden’s prayer that she not cause men to sin. The words are bordered by evocative images of nude — but shamed — women, all of them delicately teased from plain sheets of paper. Nicholls’s beautiful work is midrash married to commentary on contemporary culture.

David Wander’s “Song of Songs” is another work that is compelling both artistically and Jewishly. The 20 foot-long unfurled scroll is a dreamlike amalgam of visual allusions to the text, which is laid over the imagery. Also worth noting is the show’s catalog, which is an educational piece as much as it is a guide to the work on display. It includes eight essays, by Reform movement scholars and a current rabbinical school student, on the evolution in approaches to inclusion of gay and lesbian members of the Reform movement. One is by Rabbi Rachel Adler on ways to understand the Leviticus prohibitions.

It is a curious moment for a show like “The Sexuality Spectrum.” To live in New York City, especially in Manhattan or much of Brooklyn, is to live in an admittedly progressive bubble where most — though not all — legal and cultural issues relating to sexual orientation seem to have been resolved. But step outside the area, and things surely feel far different for those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex. The works shown in “The Sexuality Spectrum” reflect how it has felt to be oppressed, to be trapped, to be limited by bias against those who identify as LBTQ or I. And it shows that while there may have been a recent change in attitudes, there remains a long way to go.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a Forward contributing editor and Haaretz correspondent, and author of “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant” (Jewish Lights).


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