On being Jewish and queer, even when you don’t feel like it

If I think about myself (which, let’s face it, I do just slightly more than I think about death and a tad less than I do about sex) the words “Jewish” and “queer” rarely come to mind.

Growing up, I was one of few Jews in my suburb.

“Did you really kill Christ?” My schoolmates would ask. “Where’s your tail and your stripes?”

OK, not really, because my life wasn’t actually a Woody Allen movie. (However, my love for early Woody Allen movies is probably the most Jewish thing about me.) I’ve always felt disconnected from Judaism, even fraudulent.  See, I celebrate Christmas, never attended Hebrew school, and my motto is “treif is a girl’s best friend.” I’ve never felt part of a Jewish community, except sometimes when I donate money to NPR.

As for my queerness, when I first came out,  I did my share of navel-gazing, but since then I’ve been privileged not to think much about my sexual identity. Aside from what I do in bed (or car or movie theater or while listening to NPR), I don’t feel all that queer, not culturally anyway. I’ve ventured into probably four gay bars in the last 15 years, hated nearly as many lesbian films as I’ve grudgingly seen, and my motto is “I left my pride in my other pants.” Lesbians ignore me or regard me with detached amusement, sometimes suspicion. Maybe because I’m feminine. Maybe because they can sense my hatred of Keens.

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In short, I was born Jewish and often have sex with women, but aside from feeling pumped to have something in common with both Bette Midler and Ellen DeGeneres, I’m more likely to define myself as a neurotic than a Jew or a queer.

Still, the holidays tend to bring my religious and sexual identities to the fore. Meeting the parents is loaded enough (Will I insult the family matriarch by refusing a second helping of mashed potatoes? Will I accidentally substitute the word “cocksucker” in my effort not to say fuck?), but as a minority, I’m heaped with imposed expectations. (Will I don a prayer shawl and begin chanting in Hebrew? Will I arrive wearing a strap-on and deliver a lecture about the misogynistic nature of the dairy industry?)  It’s nerve-wracking to be called on to represent two groups, both of which I circle, forever on the outside looking in.

Ironically, I’m consistently the first Jew my significant others’ families have met. I’ve learned not to be offended when a father asks what tribe I’m from or a doddering aunt tells me compassion is a Christian concept, nonexistent before Jesus came along. On the plus side, with no real adherence to my Judaism, I’m happy to genuflect with your giant Italian family, or attend midnight mass with your Lutheran clan. The only time I’ve felt actively uncomfortable was back when I dated an Episcopalian parish administrator. As her partner, I was expected to take communion. Kneeling before the priest, I thought of what my mom says when she’s forced to throw away leftovers: “Oy, your grandmother is turning over in her grave.” My grandmother was probably half out of her casket right then. I held the wafer in my mouth until I could spit it into my hand.

Twice now I’ve also been the first queer brought home to meet the parents. Despite my tendency to tell new parents their baby looks like Gollum and my inability to dress up without looking like a slutty kindergartener, I actually make a pretty good impression.  Especially when you’re expecting Coach Beiste. I’m hardly a homophobe’s worst case lesbian scenario, not a hulking Harvey Keitel or strident Andrea Dworkin. I’m also ridiculously traditional, happy to head for the kitchen while your dad shoots clay pigeons and your brothers text strippers pictures of their penises or whatever it is men do to celebrate the holidays. In all instances, I’ve felt utterly accepted, even when my last girlfriend’s Italian cousin asked if he could come home with us after the wedding we were all attending. Wait, did I say “even when?” I meant especially when. We said no, but let me tell you, it was an honor just to be nominated.

Gay Pride Parade In Jerusalem

Still, it’s odd to have my least essential aspects presented as my defining qualities—like if Rachel Maddow was introduced as that bespectacled woman from Castro Valley. I’m always caught up short when it’s assumed I side with the Zionists or, god forbid, enjoy camping. Of course it could be worse. (The Jew in me is knocking wood.) Like I said, not being forced to think much about my religion or sexual orientation is a privilege, one granted through the struggles of lesbian foremothers and Jewish babushka’s alike. Even a generation ago, I might have been kicked out at 16 like my ex, or clamped shut my mouth like my mom when her boyfriend’s mother joked her son was dating a Jew for the easy sex.

This year Hanukah comes early—on Thanksgiving to be exact, and I’m thankful not to have faced more pernicious prejudice. It’s too soon to meet my current’s family. But when I do, here’s hoping I’m introduced as that chick who never stops thinking about death.

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