For Lesbian Visibility Week, A Lesbian and Her Laptop will be releasing a series of 8 lesbian guest posts all week long! This post by Shira reveals the challenges of settling into her lesbian and Jewish identities. Read all identity posts here.
When you grow up in a place like I did, there’s no room for individuality. Religion comes before everything, following the laws and commandments is of utmost importance, and no decisions are made if a religious authority figure hasn’t given permission for it first. It is a society where appearances are everything, problems are swept under the rug for fear of someone finding out, religious life is the centre of every single thing people do.
Growing up as an Ultra-Orthodox Jew there wasn’t much room to question my identity.
And yet no matter how hard the people around us try to hide the truth from us, the truth always finds a way of getting through. I didn’t hear the words “gay” or “lesbian” until I was 12 years old, but even before then I remember sitting in primary school one day with my friends, talking about the boys in our class that they liked. I was 10 years old. I still remember the active thought process of “well I better pretend I like one of them. I don’t want to look strange.”
Growing up as an ultra orthodox Jew, I never had any male friends. In primary school, our classes were separated by gender, and in high school there was never any question that I wouldn’t be sent to a single sex school. It is ironic then, that close female relationships are so looked down on and shunned.
I always felt different. It’s clichéd but it’s true. Even when there were no words to describe the feelings I felt, that didn’t make them go away. I knew that the things I was taught were the ultimate responsibility of a woman; to find a man, a learned man, and settle down with him to produce his children, was never what I wanted.
I played the part perfectly. I looked the look; I talked the talk. But I was fiercely argumentative, and yet unable to pinpoint what I was arguing against.
The first time someone told me what being gay meant, I shuddered. The word felt dirty, unclean. I felt like I had intruded on something impure just by knowing about it. That simple conversation, the sneer on the girl’s face as she told me what it meant, led to years of internalised homophobia. Homophobia I sometimes think I will be unlearning for years to come.
I was 13 when I finally connected the dots and realised that the way I felt and the definition of the word lesbian that I had heard the year before were connected. But I was 16 before I ever admitted it to myself again.
That didn’t stop other people making the assumption for me. I was kicked out of my youth group for having “inappropriate relationships with my female peers” and harassed in school by teachers, so much so that it all came to a head when I was 14.
My teachers would remove me from their classrooms before they even started teaching, leaving me to wander the hallways, ducking and hiding from the headteacher. Because when she caught me outside the classroom, well, that was when I knew I was really in trouble. She would call me into her office, interrogate me from every angle, trying to find the root of all my problems and sins. She would question me on the length of my skirt (ultra orthodox Judaism requires women and girls to wear skirts which end several inches below the knee) and the functions of my phone, assuming that access to the internet (which was of course, forbidden by the school’s standards) was the reason for my behaviour. I joked it about it with the few friends I had, but inside I was broken. Nothing cements the feeling of being different than your headteacher standing up in assembly and shouting at you whilst 200 of your peers look on.
Several weeks after that incident I came into school one day to find my science folders removed from my locker. I searched for them to no avail, and was kicking myself for presumably leaving them on a bus. Suddenly a friend rushed up to me, breathless. “ Your file is on the rabbi’s desk!” she announced loudly “he wants to see you!” my breath hitched. I wondered if I could ever get through just one day with my head down and without finding myself in someone’s office, explaining an imagined crime. I walked in, head down, resigned to accept whatever was thrown my way. I was 14 years old, and already totally broken. The rabbi explained to me, not unkindly, that the headteacher had searched my locker and confiscated them. Why? Because I had decorated my files with some stickers from my favourite TV show. They were shiny miniature images of the main character, an outspoken woman with bright red hair and a short denim skirt. She was my favourite character, I had her every line memorised, all her scenes burned into my brain. I loved her, and obsessed over her in a way that can only now be described as “my gay awakening”. My headteacher had suspected as much, and had handed the folder over to the rabbi along with a request to suitably discipline me.
To this day I don’t know why she searched my locker. All I know is that she found what she wanted. She finally had the proof that I was someone undesirable, wicked. I was a sinner. She knew it, and she made sure that I knew it too. It was not long after that when I was once again called into the rabbi’s office, this time for the last time. We had a conversation during which he delicately suggested I might be better suited for a different school. I cried bitterly. I asked if I was being kicked out. No, he said, I just don’t think you fit in here.
I was crushed. If I had just tried harder, blended in a little better, argued a bit less, then this wouldn’t have happened. If I had just been less like me and more like the other girls, I could have stayed where I thought I belonged. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me. Why, where other classmates learnt diligently about the role we play in Judaism, was I distracted by pretty red headed TV characters? Why, at the young age of 14, when my friends were already dreaming of the day they could leave school and start a family, was I living in a fantasy world where I was free to do exactly what I wanted? I felt trapped, like the walls had closed in around me and I couldn’t find my way out. I wanted to shout but how could I, when all I was allowed to do was whisper?
A week later I moved to a new, more moderate school, where I was finally free to breathe. But I was still terrified, and unable to be myself.
Nobody ever discussed sexuality with me, nobody ever even uttered the words out loud, but here I was, bullied and shamed for a truth I hadn’t even admitted to myself.
That sort of thing takes a toll on a person after a while. I prayed to god that something would change. Just one boy, I just wanted to look at one boy in the street and think that he was cute. My childish prayers went unanswered. I realised nobody was going to help me. So I decided to live a lie. I’d heard so many “inspirational” stories over the years, about men who fought their urges and married women, to live unhappily ever after, but in the way that god had commanded. These stories were never spoken about out loud of course. They were whispered at the back of the classroom during religious studies lessons, or gossiped about in the way only teenagers who think they know all the answers are capable of. Sometimes our teachers, our rabbis, would get involved too. That was even more scandalous. They would talk about it conspiratorially, as if sharing the secrets of the universe. “I once met someone…” they would start. The story would always unfold in the same way. A lost soul…a broken man, driven to sin. They were always broken men in the stories. They were never proud of who they were, never happy. Far from it. They would seek the rabbi’s help, begging for a cure, looking for someone to lead them away from their life’s great temptation.
Of course the story always had a “happy” ending. The rabbi would propose a beautiful woman for him to marry, someone to guide him onto the path of light. And marry they would. Ah yes, the rabbis would agree, of course the man was still tempted. But he knew better than to act on it. He knew this sin would be the gravest of them all. So he controlled his urges, and he will be rewarded for it in the next life. So the story would conclude. The girls in my class ate it up. “so brave” they would say “such a beautiful story”.
I sat in the back of these classes, heart pounding, body frozen in my seat. Is this really the price I would have to pay? Would I too, turn to a rabbi one day, heart in my mouth, shattered soul in my hands? Would I knock on his door begging, begging to be redeemed from my own sins? Was I destined to live an unhappy life in a lukewarm marriage with some luckless man? I willed time to slow down, dreading the day it would be my turn to accept a marriage proposal in exchange for my soul. The taste in my mouth grew even more bitter.
I can do this. I thought. Nobody ever needs to know my secret. I can marry a man, I can do everything everyone expects me to do, because that’s what is good and natural. I was carrying a burden no 16 year old should ever have to carry.
I could do this.
I could do this.
I could do this.
Until I couldn’t anymore.
In December 2015, I stumbled onto a YouTube video, made by popular lesbian youtuber, Hannah Hart. She was talking about her experiences as a gay woman. I found myself drawn to her.
The damn burst. The secret I had locked inside of myself for so many years burst out. I could lie to the world, but I couldn’t lie to myself.
I realised that I had to choose between the life I lived as an orthodox Jew and the one I wanted to live as my authentic self.
Only I couldn’t. How could I live as myself when the people I was surrounded by rarely acknowledge my existence, and when they do it is only to remind everyone that we are sinners who will burn in the next life?
I distanced myself from my Judaism completely. I still went to school, I still sat in classes given by Rabbis insisting that trans people are mentally ill, and still had friends who thought there was no difference between gay people and paedophiles.
But something had changed. Although their words hurt me deeply, they didn’t impact me anymore, not personally. Because I wasn’t one of them anymore. I knew that as soon as I was 18, I would leave their community forever and quietly cease to exist, at least for them.
But even the best laid plans have holes. Someone found out. And with that, my whole world came crashing down.
By this point I was in my second to last year of high school, a different one to the school I had started in. I had eventually left, some years previously, when the bullying I endured at the hands of my teachers became too much. The attitude was different here, we could acknowledge that LGBT+ people exist, but we were still forbidden and looked down on.
I remember sobbing uncontrollably, cursing the social media page she had stumbled upon, my one safe space. I deleted it, urging the secret back in, wishing I could get rid of it.
To her credit, she never outed me, and we never discussed it again.
But something changed when she found out. I realised that the world hadn’t ended. I found the courage to tell more people, one friend here, another friend there. And almost all of them reacted with love and with support. Some didn’t. I lost more than one friendship. But friends who refuse to accept your identity were never real friends anyway.
It takes a long time to unlearn the sort of ingrained homophobia I had been exposed to. But with each person I spoke to, each person who said they loved me just the same, a part of me healed. The harsh words, the disgusted faces of people I once knew, the relentless feeling of being different faded away, leaving me content, at peace with myself.
Only something was still missing. I had been raised in a community opposed to my existence. I had distanced myself from that. But in the process of doing so, I realised I had distanced myself from all the incredible, warm, inspiring traditions that Judaism brings along with it. I had found myself in one aspect of my identity, but completely lost myself in another.
How could I bring the two together, when all my teenage years I felt like they were fundamentally opposed? There was no space for me in the community I had been a part of, that was certain.
So I did what all LGBT+ people do when part of our lives have been taken away from us because of who we are. I made my own traditions.
I found courage in songs, searched for new meanings in ancient prayers which I could relate to. Distanced myself from the parts which were harmful, discussed and debated until I could apply alternative definitions to texts and traditions which for so long I had hated.
In the springtime, Jews around the world celebrate Passover. It is a defining holiday of our people, a celebration of our exodus, of the freedom of our ancestors who left Egypt after hundreds of years as slaves. The underlying theme of the holiday is one of freedom. Of escaping whatever is holding us back, and forging ahead creating our own narrative, instead of the narrative others want to place on us. That is the essence of Judaism.
And perhaps, as well as that, that is the place where my identities merge. It is there that I realised I can be proud of both my identities, and the ways in which they merge together. The celebration of freedom, of being able to live authentically, is a quintessential part of me, both as a Jewish woman and as a lesbian woman.
As a Jewish woman, I was brought up celebrating the historical freedom and the forging of new paths by my ancestors. But as a lesbian, I am forging my own new paths every single day.
Shira is an aspiring lesbian journalist who in her spare time can be found making vegan banana pancakes and cracking bad jokes to anyone who’ll listen. You can follow Shira on Twitter and spare her a little cash to show your appreciation!
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