Reflections on Queer Jewish Identity: Ruth Gresser and Barbara Johnson
June 15, 2022
In honor of Pride Month, we spoke with Central members Ruth Gresser and Barbara Johnson about their experiences in Jewish spaces, their reflections on queer Jewish identity, and more.
Why are you proud to be queer and Jewish? What does the intersection of these identities mean to you?
Barbara: I am not comfortable with the words "proud" or "pride" when it comes to my identity. I am who I am. I am content in both my Jewishness and my queerness. In both cases I had a choice, not of who I am, but of whether I would accept those identities and be my true self. The act of being authentically myself allows me to have a happier life and a higher understanding of the world. And a deeper understanding of myself. If anything, I guess I’m glad. I’m glad I’m a lesbian and I’m glad I’m Jewish.
Is there a queer Jewish figure (past or present) who inspires you? Why do you admire them?
Barbara: Joan Biren, also known as JEB, is a friend and a well respected photographer who has spent her life making images of lesbians visible. We know visibility increases understanding and familiarity, leading to acceptance both for lesbians (self acceptance) and others. Her book of photographs, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians was life changing for me and Ruth back in the early 1980’s, well before we met Joan. Growing up queer in a mostly straight world (and mostly straight family) meant that there were few representations of women that felt reflective of our experiences and feelings. I think that’s improved with social media and the righteous younger generations, but when I came out in 1980, finding other lesbians— or even images of other lesbians—was not easy. The danger of coming out was real, the consequences included losing your family, your job, your apartment, and frankly, being killed.
Can you describe your experiences in Jewish spaces/institutions/organizations? Have you seen any changes in your lifetime, for better or for worse?
Ruth: I left Judaism when I was in my twenties back in the 1980s. As I recognized myself as a lesbian and a feminist, I no longer saw a place for myself in Judaism. I felt this as a great loss. I tried to find a home in gay Jewish spaces, which also didn't suit me because many of the gay Jews I met at the time were closeted and I was not. It seemed that there wasn't a safe space to be a lesbian in the Jewish community or a safe space to be out in queer Jewish spaces. I have seen that change—from my Uncle Bob the Cantor saying the wedding blessings at Barbara and my "illegal" wedding in 2004 to the faces and voices of the lesbian Clergy that led services at Central when I first became familiar with the synagogue through livestreaming. Seeing myself represented on the bimah announced that Central was a welcoming safe space where I could find a home again in Judaism. Without them, I don't know that I would have found my way back. I am very thankful they were on the bimah in 2016.
Is that why you chose Central Synagogue as your spiritual home?
Barbara: In what was a completely fortuitous chance event/Google victory (or Divine intervention), we found Central's High Holiday livestream on Rosh Hashanah in 2015. We searched for services for Ruth, a Jew from birth who was feeling a longing for a meaningful service but was spiritually without a home. Rabbi Buchdahl's sermon stirred in me what I now understand to be my Jewish soul. I recognized immediately that she was supposed to be my teacher, my rabbi. I was a Buddhist in 2015 and had been Buddhist for 20 years. Rabbi Buchdahl referenced the Torah as being attainable to each of us and not “on the other shore for someone to bring back to us.” This reference to attainment on the other shore resonated with a Buddhist teaching with a similar message. I experienced in her sermon a bridge to get to my own other shore; that shore led to my true homeland in Judaism. Her Yom Kippur sermon “Inviting God Back to the Garden” brought me such relief. In that sermon I heard an intelligent mixture of science and faith and I recognized Rabbi Buchdahl as a questioning and wrestling faith leader. That this place was a place where a teacher could say such things, this place would surely be a place for me to learn and become.
In the months following the 2016 election, Ruth and I made a plan to gather friends on a monthly basis to our home in Maryland to join us in participating in Central’s livestreamed Shabbat services. This was our answer to the fear and isolation that the election had brought into our lives. The joy and soothing I felt in those services quickly went from monthly to weekly, with or without others present. In 2017 I began my journey to conversion and in 2018 I became a Jew. It was important to me that, although we live in Maryland, I converted through Central. Studying with Rabbi April Davis was exactly right for me. It was clear that Rabbi Buchdahl’s approach was not unique at Central, but in fact, the Central way of being Jewish.
When we come to New York I always do a social media post where I refer to our visit to Central as returning to “the Mothership” with great joy. I always stop, just across Lexington, and take a moment to take it in. This sanctuary and these people are truly our home, our base, our source. I feel a constant pull to be here with my mishpachah (family).
Have you experienced any milestones or lifecycle events at Central? Why was it important to you to observe these moments in a Jewish way?
Ruth: Barbara's conversion to Judaism in 2018 was through Central. She had the honor of her first aliyah to the Torah and an invitation to speak to the congregation on her first full day of being a Jew. Barbara felt completely embraced by the congregation as she spoke from the bimah and told the story of choosing her Hebrew names. Shortly after that Shabbat, we were both deeply moved to be contacted by a lesbian living in Minnesota who had seen us on the bimah together. Just as we had felt so seen and represented when we saw Rabbi Kolin and Cantor Cadrain on the bimah, it was deeply humbling to have the opportunity to provide that visibility and a comforting impact for one of our queer siblings.
Barbara: In May 2020, my sister died from COVID-19. The embrace I experienced from our clergy was swift and deeply felt. My sister was not Jewish and did not have a faith community of her own. My family didn’t know what to do because we were living life virtually and without any clues as to how we could honor Beverly and care for ourselves. I’ve been with Ruth for almost 30 years, and Jewish funerals feel most comfortable for me. It was such a gift to me and my entire family that our clergy would perform her funeral and that clergy and soon-to-be friends would hold space for virtual shiva gatherings. It is so important to those of us with non-Jewish relatives that Central holds space for them in our lives and in their deaths.
How can allies in all spaces – including Jewish ones – support queer individuals, couples, and families?
Barbara: There are two things in particular that I use to guide my own behavior and to help me be an ally to those who express different identities than my own. First, by welcoming the stranger. I welcome our differences even though I may have no idea what it’s like to be in their shoes. I am hungry to understand what the world is like through their eyes because I think no one of us has the one true perspective and by understanding the realities of others, my life and our world are richer. Second, and an important follow up to the first, I have learned to not ask others to explain themselves or their identities to me. Just this weekend someone said to me, “I have to ask you about this LGBTQ whatever thing.” I am very clear that I am not the LGBTQ spokesperson. However, I welcome genuine attempts at connection.
And a bonus recommendation: expand your awareness of gender expression. If more of us could recognize that gender exists on a continuum and not as a duality, we’d not only be more scientifically accurate in our thinking, we’d be better equipped to understand the ways people express their genders.
Is it important/meaningful for Jewish people (regardless of gender identity, sexuality, etc) to acknowledge/celebrate Pride Month?
Barbara: Like with most months dedicated to one cause or one people, I’d prefer that every month was as colorful and celebratory as June. The month-long spotlight lives on a particularly dangerous edge of being a marketing ploy so I’m a little jaded about it all. I’d like to see LGBTQ+ visibility and acceptance all year. Sure, everything has a season, and maybe that’s all this is. But I’d like to see more energy put into the everydayness of being LGBTQ+ and Jewish. That would make June an even bigger celebration.
Queer Jews are a double minority. How has the intersection of these identities impacted you? Are there unique challenges and/or joys in being both queer and Jewish?
Barbara: At my beit din (rabbinical court overseeing conversion), the rabbis asked me if I was sure I wanted to become part of this marginalized people who experience such bigotry. My response was, “I've been a lesbian for nearly 40 years, I’m used to being othered in this world.” When my dad would do something that embarrassed me as a kid (something righteous and free-thinking) he would quell my discomfort by saying, “These people don’t pay my rent.” That sounds simple, but it’s a big lesson and he embedded it deep in my heart and it provides me with a great sense of liberation still.
In both the queer and Jewish communities there is a sense of family. In the LGBTQ+ community, it’s common to describe another queer person as family. When she welcomed me into the Jewish people, Rabbi Buchdahl hugged me and said "We're mishpachah!" Both communities nurture a sense of belonging which is a very strengthening and empowering feeling.
The challenge is my two families don't always understand each other. In 2019, the D.C. Dyke March organizers didn’t allow flags that blended the flag of Israel and the rainbow flag. They said that the flags could make some people feel unsafe. I’ve always believed in the importance of plurality and would have preferred they invite everyone to carry the flag or banner of their choosing. It was very painful to experience this clash of my two identities. That night I carried a pride flag I’d altered to include symbols of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism.
In addition to the challenges, and most importantly, there is great joy that comes with authentically being ourselves. Even when it’s not easy, it’s essential to happiness.
Thank you, Ruth and Barbara! We look forward sharing more of our community’s stories and perspectives throughout Pride Month and throughout the year.
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