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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

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).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.