An anthology of Orthodykes
by Marene Gustin
Twenty-five years ago, Miryam Kabakov, a student at a Jewish Orthodox women’s college who was just beginning to come out, read a book called Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence edited by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan. Reconciling religion and sexual preference is often difficult, and the 1985 book was a revelation for lesbian Catholics. “Why isn’t there a Jewish version of this book?” Kabakov wondered at the time.
Well, now there is. Kabakov, 46, has recently published her anthology Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires, a collection of essays by Orthodox Jewish lesbians—some who are out, some who are still closeted. She was in Houston in November for a reading at the Jewish Community Center’s 38th Annual Jewish Book & Arts Fair.
When Kabakov, a St. Paul-based writer and arts administrator who helped start an Orthodyke support group in New York City, finally decided to compile the Jewish version of Lesbian Nuns, she was surprised by the many replies to her call for submissions. “I thought I would hear from all of my friends,” she says. “I was surprised how many people I didn’t know responded. It confirmed my theory there are a lot of GLBT Jews out there.”
One of the people she didn’t know was Houston’s Leah Lax. The 54-year-old Lax holds a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Houston Creative Writing Program and wrote the libretto for Houston Grand Opera’s 2007 The Refuge, an opera that tells the story of Houston’s Mexican, Central American, Indian, Pakistani, Soviet-era Jewish, African, and Vietnamese communities.
“When I saw the call for stories for this anthology I’d never heard of anything like it in my life,” Lax says. Her essay wound up being the lead one in the book, and she’s now working on her own book, a memoir of her struggle. “I spent 30 years of my life as an Hasidic Jew,” she explains. “I entered the community as a teen before I even understood myself. I had an arranged marriage and seven kids in 10 years. I wore a head scarf, stayed home, and didn’t drive on the Sabbath.”
But she knew something wasn’t right in her life. Despite her faith, and trying to follow the Halakha (Jewish law), she knew she had to break away from the community. “There is absolutely no place in this system for lesbians,” she says. “In some communities the women aren’t even allowed to drive. I was ostracized when I fell in love with a woman.”
But the secular Jewish community received Lax with open arms. Today she and her partner of seven years, Susan Baird, live as Jewish lesbians, following their faith and embracing their love. They share their home with their kids, terriers Maggie and Charley. As for her human children, they are still in her life. “Not all of my kids are Orthodox,” she says. “The ones that are, are a little embarrassed—but I have warm relations with them all. For a while I didn’t have contact with them, but I realized, Hey, I’m still the mom—I get to decide, not them. So I made the decision to contact them and to stay
Not all of the 14 essays in Keep Your Wives Away from Them have such resolution. Some writers are still in the closet, leading double lives or suppressing their natural desires in order to fit into the Orthodox world. “I’m hoping, with this book tour, to reach out to those women,” says Kabakov. “Mostly I’ve been to bookstores and community centers that are supportive, but the next phase would be to get into those places where we can have those difficult conversations with Orthodox Jews. “I’m not an idealist about ever being accepted in the ultra-Orthodox world, but I think someday we will be able to talk about these issues.”
In 2004, Kabakov and Mara Hillary Benjamin affirmed their partnership at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, with Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg officiating. “It was a big Jewish-style wedding,” she says. “Only not a wedding, because Orthodox Judaism is very specific about what a marriage is. According to Orthodox Jewish law, a marriage is between a man and a woman. And I’m okay with that, I identify with Orthodox faith—it’s a big part of who I am. But I wanted to be recognized as a couple. I believe in same-sex civil unions.”
Besides her book, Kabakov is the director of The Sabes Foundation Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival, which last year screened the award-winning Israeli film Eyes Wide Open (see page 72), the story of an Orthodox Jewish married father of four who falls in love with his 19-year-old male apprentice. “We see maybe two films a year about Jewish gays,” Kabakov says. “But that seems like an explosion to me. There is at least a presence in the gay Orthodox world now, and that’s the biggest difference over the years.”
Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires (North Atlantic Books) is available on Amazon.com and at local bookstores.
Marene Gustin is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.