Arts and Culture | LGBT | Religion & Jewish Life

Pride Month isn’t the focus for LGBTQ Jews this year

From left to right, Lesléa Newman, Michael Twitty, Joy Ladin, Daniel Atwood and Yelena Goltsman reflect on celebrating Pride in 2020. (Header image design by Grace Yagel)

(JTA) — Rick Landman still remembers how nervous he felt. Just 18, he had traveled to downtown Manhattan from his parents’ home in Queens for a march to mark the one-year anniversary of the violent police raid on the Stonewall Inn gay bar — an event that had kicked off extended advocacy for gay rights in the United States.

Landman feared that the anniversary event could also turn violent, as protests he had joined in the previous year had — he had even been tear-gassed.

“I didn’t want to tell my parents I got arrested or something,” Landman recalled in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I started walking on the sidewalk from Christopher Street, then we turned up Sixth Avenue, but by the time we got to 13th Street, everyone was screaming ‘Off of the sidewalk and into the street.’ So I got off the sidewalk and walked into the street.”

That evening became the first Pride march, an event that has been repeated annually for 50 years and replicated in hundreds of cities around the world. Landman, 68, has missed only a handful.

This year is one of them, but he’s not alone: New York City’s Pride march, like all others, have been canceled or made virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, the international movement for racial justice that reignited last month is driving the current conversation about equality. Together, the pandemic and protest movement mean that the 50th anniversary of Pride is unlike anything that Landman or others might have predicted.

We reached out to LGBTQ Jews to ask them what’s on their mind during this unusual Pride month. Here’s what they told us. Their answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Daniel Atwood is the first openly gay person to be ordained an Orthodox rabbi.

This Pride month definitely feels different than other Pride months both because of the pandemic and because of the awareness of racial justice that has really been on the forefront for the past month or so. I think this is a good opportunity for the LGBT community, the Jewish LGBT community, to make sure our movements are also committed to things like racial justice and social justice in America more broadly.

Rabbi Daniel Atwood (Courtesy of Atwood)

In the Orthodox community, it feels like we’re at a bit of a stasis. I haven’t seen much movement to really embrace queer people as something that needs to be at the forefront. We’re still in this era of tolerance in the Orthodox community — and not all of the Orthodox community but more the one that I come from — there’s still the sense that queer people are a side thing. “You can come to our space, you can come to our synagogue and we’ll include you. We need to debate your existence. We’re still not sure about whether you can be a role model or a leader in the community.”

I’m a little disappointed. If you would have asked me five years ago, I would’ve said I think we’re going in a really great direction, and then there has been a more conservative voice over the past few years. That’s been the cultural context in America — having Donald Trump as president — in a cultural milieu where it’s cool to push back against being politically correct and it’s seen as acceptable in society to discriminate now. So I think there isn’t as much of a push from parts of the Jewish community to really take those steps, and to be frank it doesn’t feel like there’s an urgency.

Yelena Goltsman is a Kiev-born activist and the co-founder of RUSA LGBT, an organization for queer immigrants from Russian-speaking countries.

This Pride is obviously so, so different from any other Pride of recent history because we are in COVID world, which is very different from the world we knew and the world we enjoy. So everything is now from this perspective.

Yelena Goltsman (Courtesy of Goltsman)

Pride for the Russian-speaking community and also the Russian-speaking Jewish community is always colored with a lot of feelings, including anxiety, because in Russia and other post-Soviet countries it is not allowed.

So for Russian-speaking immigrants it’s the only time to be at Pride, and we have marched since 2012 in New York City Pride as a group and every time we march there’s always a group of people who cry when we walk because it’s such an overwhelming feeling. When I walked the first time I also cried because we don’t take the freedoms like this for granted. So it’s a very different feeling to march in Pride.

Four years ago, we decided to have a Russian-speaking pride on Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. This year we did it virtually.

Joy Ladin is a professor of English at Yeshiva University and the first openly transgender person at an Orthodox institution.

Pride is not the most pressing thing that I’m thinking about. Last Pride month it was kind of a crescendo of attention — it was the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. I had so many invitations from Jewish communities to talk that I actually had to turn some down. This year, I’m still doing some talking definitely but I think everybody is focused on — what are we focused on, are we focused on the pandemic? Are we focused on the killings of Black people? Are we focused on the demonstrations and efforts to bring about social justice and overthrow white supremacy? Are we focused on the upcoming elections on which so much depends?

Joy Ladin (Courtesy of Ladin)

Last year I felt that it was a lot easier and it felt right to focus on the LGBTQ community and situations and struggles. This year it doesn’t feel right or even possible to me to maintain that kind of narrow focus.

Because I teach in an Orthodox Jewish school and travel to and through a lot of different Jewish communities, I feel like I’ve gotten a sense of how the Jewish world in general is changing in terms of LGBTQ inclusion. And everywhere, including in my Orthodox school, there is movement, there is change. It’s extraordinary and it’s something to remember because it’s pretty easy these days to feel overwhelmed or hopeless.

Rick Landman is a New York-based tour guide and educator who teaches about LGBTQ and German Jewish history.

I’m a child of two Jewish German refugees. My grandfather brought a Torah to America. I was supposed to donate it on my bar mitzvah in Queens, but I had a fight with my Hebrew school teacher over gay marriage, in 1965, because I didn’t want to marry a girl. And they yelled at me, so I said to myself they’re not getting the Torah. I was beaten four times and twice severely for being so openly gay back in the ’60s and ’70s. I couldn’t be a lawyer until 1980 because openly gay people like myself couldn’t pass the moral turpitude requirement because we were criminals.

Rick Landman, center (Courtesy of Landman)

This year was the 50th anniversary of the first Pride march because the first march was the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and yes I was there. I was 18. In the beginning I was nervous, even though I had been tear-gassed and went to Washington for anti-Vietnam War protests. I didn’t want to tell my parents I got arrested or something. I started walking on the sidewalk from Christopher Street, then we turned up Sixth Avenue, but by the time we got to 13th Street, everyone was screaming “Off of the sidewalk and into the street.” So I got off the sidewalk and walked into the street.

Of course it’s better now for most lesbians and the gay community. Bisexuality is still not really understood or discussed, but a lot of people are bisexual and they exist. And the transgender community right now is under attack; especially trans women of darker skin are being murdered. So they’re not at the same point as the other parts of our community.

Lesléa Newman is the the author of “Heather Has Two Mommies,” which was published in 1989 and was one of the first children’s books to feature lesbian characters.

Truthfully, it’s been a bit difficult to focus on Pride Month this year, as I continue to be preoccupied with current events surrounding the pandemic, police brutality, Black Lives Matter, the upcoming election and the state of the world. As a Jewish lesbian, I have never felt so much fear in my life. I realize that I have the privilege of unintentionally passing, i.e. it is not obvious that I am a Jew or that I am a lesbian, which gives me some degree of safety in the world. However, when we have a president that refers to the Secret Service as the “S.S.” and publishes ads using Nazi symbolism (the upside-down red triangle once used to identify political opponents), all bets are off when it comes to my feelings of safety.

Lesléa Newman (Courtesy of Newman)

I am of an age where I have enjoyed many Pride marches and events. I feel sad for LGBTQ youth who are coming out at a time when we can’t hold in-person events to celebrate our community. And I feel angry that we have fought so hard for so many years, only to be where we are today, with the Trump administration planning to roll back health care protections for transgender people. And I feel hopeful because the Supreme Court has recently granted federal job protections to LGBTQ workers. So my emotions are all over the place. I find solace and strength in the Jewish community, as we believe passionately in putting health and the sacredness of life above all else, we have always held social justice as a high ideal, and so many of us are working so hard to make the world a better place because as Emma Lazarus so famously said, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

Abraham Riesman is a bisexual, Brooklyn-based journalist writing about arts and culture.

Pride Month has been the last thing on my mind. The world just seems so scary and off-kilter right now that it feels almost like it doesn’t have a real manifestation this year. Pride for me has to do with actual communal activity and, sure, you can be communal online, but there’s something about the presence in a physical space of other people who don’t quite fit into a normative box that can really create something special and we just can’t have that this year.

Abraham Riesman (Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage)

I only came out to myself and the world when I turned 31, so that doesn’t mean I wasn’t engaged in queer stuff prior to that, but it was always perceiving myself as an outsider. Usually Pride is something where I maybe go out to a party, maybe go to a parade.

What I pray for in the Jewish community is greater egalitarianism, and I get why that’s a really hard lift for people who are more traditional in their beliefs. I get where it comes from that people are reluctant to allow people who don’t fit into a gender box, or people who are quote-unquote the wrong gender for a given event. I dream of a world where everybody can participate in every kind of Jewish experience.

Michael Twitty is a James Beard Award-winning food historian and the author of the “Cooking Gene,” which explores his Jewish, Black and gay identities as they intersect with food.

Michael Twitty (Clay Williams)

There’s a teaching about Sukkot that has always struck me. Every part of the lulav has a purpose and without them you don’t have a kosher lulav. The same goes for the spice mixture that was made for incense in the holy Temple. If one ingredient was missing, it was incomplete. We have to look at LGBTQ inclusion in the Jewish community the same way. We have been here, we will be here, we are here. Not one Jewish soul to be lost. And just like the lulav bundle and the holy incense our community, our people, our family is not whole unless we stand together for each other and don’t shut people out.

Krystle Wright is a Black queer, nonbinary Jew working for a furniture company in Salt Lake City, Utah.

I have been silently observing what is happening in the world. I have been watching the protests against police brutality, and silently doing my own work. I have been watching what is happening with the current pandemic and trying not to panic as the U.S. is opening its economic door recklessly. I have been cheering along with the decision of the Supreme Court to decide that I cannot be fired for my queer identity — a common-sense ruling, to be honest. I have been silently watching the Jewish community, my chosen family, reeducate itself on racism in America and join its voice in the fight against police brutality. With all of this happening, I am exhausted. There are too many things calling for my immediate attention.

Krystle Wright (Courtesy of Wright)

The Jewish concept that reminds me to take a moment to enjoy Pride is “tselem Elohim.” What does it mean that I am — that we are — tselem Elohim, the image of G-d? My idea is that each of us has a G-d-like quality to our lives. What I mean is this: We are each in control of our common human destiny. When we look at ourselves and each other, we are looking at the only creatures who can make life on this planet better for everyone. I am proud that each part of my identity has a history, albeit imperfect, of striving to make this planet a good place for everyone to live.

This Pride Month, I am reminded that there is no reason for me to be ashamed of any part of my identity. Each part of me can and does work to make the world a better place so that all can be liberated. This Pride Month, I take a moment to raise a glass to the potential in each of us to make this world a place where my Black self, my Queer self and my Jewish self can live out loud — or live quietly, with a good book and lots of restorative naps. Either way, L’chaim!