I don’t believe in organized religion. To me, Jewish identity is about history, family, tradition. It’s less about a preset order of prayers to absolve one of sin. I attended Shabbat services a few months ago at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST)—the nation’s largest LGBTQ synagogue. During services, my friend Josh ran in and plopped down beside me. Josh looks like the long-lost son of Al Pacino—if Al had shacked up with a Hebraic woman.
We agreed to catch up over coffee a few days later. As I approached Ninth Avenue, I saw Josh waiting for me, waving wildly from across the street with a toothy smile. He removed his baseball cap to reveal a yarmulke. He told me he wears the baseball cap to avoid the stares he gets. In addition to being an Orthodox Jew, Josh is also openly gay, but if you didn’t know him, you would think he was a perfectly secular mensch living in Hell’s Kitchen.
Wearing his Jewishness on his head, Josh has a difficult time dating. As soon as he tells a boy that he keeps kosher and has separate sets of dishes (one for meat, one for dairy), the guy says it’s not going to work.
“Do you think it would be the same for observant Christians?” he asked me as our cappuccinos arrived. I honestly didn’t know. Christians didn’t have separate dishes. It felt to us like there was an ick factor if you were an observant Jew.
“We are gay with our Jewish friends and Jewish with our gay friends,” was the comment one congregant offered at CBST. I was 18 at the time and this was my first Yom Kippur attending services. Indeed, this insight illuminated feelings I never realized I had.
The people Josh meets or sees don’t overtly discriminate. They would never tell him they don’t date Jews or ask him to leave a bar (not yet at least), but there is just something there they can’t put their finger on. That ick factor.
Look, I get it. I’m a comedian and a writer. I’ve heard all the “cough it up, you cheap Jew” jokes and I take them on the chin because I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t. My sense of humor has always teetered between tasteful and offensive. When I talk about anti-Semitism, I always look at intent not content. I don’t refer to the stupid ribbing friends give each other, but more overt prejudices.
Social apps offer anonymity. An acquaintance of mine encountered this on Scruff: “Are you a white Jew or like a Jew-Jew? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a white Jew before. Maybe in a picture. But don’t Jew-Jews live somewhere else? Real Jews live in Virginia? I’m confused.” (He’s confused? I can’t even begin to unpack these series of nonsensical, offensive questions.)
I saw another Scruff profile that read—with no other qualifications—“Anti-Zionists only.”
Then there was a friend of mine who was dating a boy whose uncle collected Nazi memorabilia. “Why is he collecting Nazi memorabilia?” I asked him. “Does he admire them?”
“It was a long time ago,” he said to me, “you need to move on.” He was not the only friend who told me this. A boy I used to sleep with—a liberal hipster who lived in the East Village above a neon-lit Indian restaurant sign—told me the same thing.
“It was a long time ago. We need to forget about it.” He said something similar about the Stonewall riots. (Kids today.)
“Jews are a drain on the economy, living off taxpayer money,” another friend of mine once said to me while we were in Provincetown. His comment was not even an accurate stereotype. If anything, we are constantly accused of being greedy and overly ambitious, running the news and media. But how do I correct a stereotype without strengthening another one?
“What are you talking about?” I asked him, my face contorting in self-righteous confusion.
“They get tax breaks for homeschooling their kids and we have to pay for it.” He seemed genuinely upset by his Jewish conspiracy. He kept saying they when he knew very well he should be saying you. Perhaps separating me from them alleviated some guilt.
At a birthday party, one attendee (who had been hitting on me) told me that Jewish people were less attractive than other races. This was not the first time I heard this. Yet another friend said to me, point-blank, that Jewish people were ugly.
“You’re obviously an exception.” Another exception. To another disgusting stereotype.
What’s more horrifying is that the idea that Jews are ugly is a descendant of Hitler’s propaganda that we are genetically inferior. It should terrify all of us that the effects of his propaganda were so effective and convincing, we still experience them today on a global scale.
I randomly ran into a group of non-Jewish American acquaintances in Paris, all of whom were gay men. We were discussing the Jewish neighborhood in the Marais and they were complaining how terrible it was that Jews had their own enclave. It was laughable to them that religious Jews should have a safe space to exist, despite their unique dietary and religious needs that made living close to a synagogue and kosher supermarkets a necessity. Jews have their neighborhoods for the same reasons queer people have ours: for safety; to walk down the street wearing a yarmulke without worrying someone will rip it off and punch them in the face; to send their kids to schools where they won’t be bullied for being Jewish, like I was.
I discussed these experiences with CBST’S Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies and New Jersey Pride’s Ally of the Year. Rabbi Mike (as he prefers to be called) is somewhat intimidating, with a big black hat and grizzly beard. He is, however, a compassionate, spiritual person, with a voice that’s tough but honeyed.
“LGBT people often feel tension between their queer and Jewish identities,” he patiently explained. Queer people from all over the world message him for support and guidance. (One person is out as transgender, but closeted as an observant Jew.) When I asked him his observations on my experiences, he spoke with the eloquence and guidance I would expect of a much older rabbi. “I am not shocked, but disappointed. When we say those things, we dehumanize each other. ‘The others’ are less, and it makes it easier to put them in cages, to buy and sell them, to kill them. Justice never means Just us.”
In 2017, Jewish lesbians were kicked out of the Dyke March in Chicago because some marchers were offended that they carried a rainbow flag with the Star of David on it. They claimed it promoted Zionism—except they weren’t carrying an Israeli flag. It was a rainbow flag. However, the symbol made some people feel uncomfortable, a smokescreen for more serious prejudices. Imagine a white male saying they didn’t feel comfortable marching with a black person or a cisgender person saying they were uncomfortable marching with a trans person.
Tyler Gregory is the executive director of A Wider Bridge, an organization that focuses on advocacy of LGBTQ rights in Israel and opening dialogues with American organizations about the state of queer people in Israel. He recounted to me what happened when he organized a panel called “Creating Change” in Chicago. He invited Jerusalem Open House (JOH)—an Israeli LGBTQ organization—to speak about the anti-gay attack during Jerusalem Pride.
About 200 mostly LGBTQ protesters showed up chanting “Zionist racist pigs and motherfuckers” and “from the river to the sea.” Gregory pleaded with them, but they drowned him out with loudspeakers. The protesters became physically violent, commandeered the stage, and confronted JOH leaders, who had to be evacuated via a back entrance. Gregory and others had to barricade themselves in a safe place. Sadly, the protesters had perfectly legitimate points of view, but the message was lost in its own delivery.
“We don’t isolate ourselves from the LGBTQ residents of other countries with whose governments we disagree. They don’t isolate themselves from Russian LGBTQ people because of Putin. Why Israelis? That is an anti-Semitic construct,” he explained to me. “Anti-Semitism evolves over time [like any ’ism’] and this was today’s manifestation.”
On the other hand, I am well aware that some Jewish communities aren’t accepting of the LGBTQ community, either. I understand that they would shun me for being gay and having tattoos. I am well aware of the hypocrisy of organized religion demonizing anyone. As a result, I am uncomfortable around Hasidic Jews, or any Christians, Catholics, or Muslims so religious that they are condemned to hate sexual minorities. It is not a discomfort of which I’m proud, but I’m working on it.
When I am faced with my own prejudices, I tell myself, Think of the X-Men. They protect humans, the very same humans that discriminate against them and tried to register every mutant. They believed that war with them was not the answer—that there was hope, that communities could live together in peace.
I believe in this. I believe if oppressed communities—people of color, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ folk, immigrants and refugees—could set aside their differences and come together, we would have the upper hand in politics and take down a racist executive administration. But it seems we have not found that common ground—at least, not yet.
But I see hope. I see CBST defending their Muslim neighbors as they attend services at their mosque. I see Muslim men and women raising money for the Tree of Life synagogue.
The reason I am able to sit here writing this article is because my family escaped the Nazi invasion into the Ukraine. Friends and family members that could not make the boat perished among the millions of Ukrainian Jewish victims. It is one of the most horrifying thoughts to enter my mind that I almost didn’t exist. But that’s where I was born. My family and I were refugees in 1987, escaping from systemic antisemitism in the Soviet Union, along with tens of thousands of other Jews in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.
I once met Diane Von Furstenberg after she spoke on a panel at the YMCA and she opened up about her mother who was a Holocaust survivor. She was in several Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz. She weighed 49 pounds when she was liberated and was told she could never bear children. But she did. She had Diane.
“My life is a miracle,” Diane told us, “and I treat it like that every day.”
We would all be wise to do the same—for ourselves and for others.