Not-So-Nice Jewish Girls
Published July 30, 1999 in Scope

From Gertrude Stein and Adrienne Rich to Sandra Bernhard and Annie Sprinkle, Jewish lesbians have a long and venerable (not to mention loud, pushy and neurotic) place in American cultural history. But despite the large number of Daughters of Abraham who are also Friends of Dorothy, the Jewish religion itself -- particularly on the Orthodox end -- still regards playing Naomi and Ruth as a big fat no-no.

See also...
... by D. R.
... in the Scope section
... from July 30, 1999

In the Torah, male homosexuality is explicitly prohibited, but lesbianism isn't discussed at all. However, the omission doesn't sanction girl-on-girl action in the eyes of the Jewish Orthodox; its taboo status is generally extrapolated from the male counterpart. That the holy books are silent on the subject of female incest doesn't, rabbis argue, mean that it's OK for two sisters to get it on. And since the injunction to "be fruitful and multiply with a husband who's a scholar or at least a doctor, a lawyer, or a CPA" is the Bible's very first commandment, it's taken pretty darn seriously in the Orthodox sectors.

But this is life at the millennium; of course, there are women in frum (that is, pious) sectors who assert that even though they covet the neighbor's wife, they can still obey the Law to the letter. Enter Orthodykes -- a network of Orthodox Jewish lesbos who, in an online mailing list and in real life (in Jerusalem and New York), stare down the face of tradition and refuse to blink. In deft feats of Talmudic reading and subversive inversions of rabbinic edicts, they manage to make several thousand years of strictly interpreted law work for them, on their own damn terms.

Discussions on the list cover the range. There are feminist readings of modesty customs, debates over artificial insemination and Jewish ethics, musings about what the Torah might say about a lesbian marrying a gay man, and attempts to negotiate purity laws in which sexual activity is linked to the wife's menstrual cycle (those laws become stickier when there are two wives in the house).

The O-dykes are, not surprisingly, quite adept at justifying apparent paradoxes, and can offer a barrage of arguments about why a teensy little deviation from the ironclad norm (Orthodox Judaism regards the Torah as fixed and unchanging; there isn't a whole lot of room to barter) is actually kosher. "I have absolutely no problem telling my children that homosexual relationships are forbidden to heterosexuals," one frum dyke asserts, "just as I would tell them that it is [a breach of Torah] for a person with sight to pretend that they were blind."

Needless to say, not all Orthodox folk are of the same mind. The ordination of queer rabbis is still prohibited in the significantly-more-moderate Conservative synagogue; the hardcore worlds in which the Orthodykes live are even less enthusiastic about having members who consider San Francisco to be the other Holy Land.

Many of the O-dykes regularly face harassment, shunning, judgement, and ostracism in their communities; it's not always easy. But some see their presence as a chance to strip the institutionalized dogma from the goods of the religion itself. As one Orthodyke notes, "There's a point at which one has to question whether what they were taught was rhetoric or Judaism." She, for one, is not so interested in having friends who can't think for themselves.

Figuring out how to be a pious lesbian in the world of the ├╝ber-Jew is like discovering the secret of the Manischewitz-brand ham and cheese sandwich. Will the Orthodykes become a mighty and powerful force with which to reckon (like the Barbra Streisand fan club?) Will their subversive Torah tactics dismantle generations of heavy-handed social edicts? Will purity laws become all the rage with hipster dykes bored with Ani DiFranco and vibrator jokes? The future remains to be seen, but this writer finds the thought of growing up with two Jewish mothers somewhat mind-boggling. Really: that's a lot of chicken soup.

D. R. is a San Francisco-based writer whose work has appeared in Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, Sojourner, and on the occasional public bathroom wall. She also fights crime in the subway.