Not a Kid Anymore: The Chassidic Grandmother

Friday, March 28, 2014

This is the second in a series of three edited interviews with Orthodox Jews who are LGBT.  Read part one here, and part two here.


I’m married to a man, and have grown children and grandchildren, but all my life, I have identified as a lesbian. I live in a major Chassidic community, my husband’s community. I am Chassidic also, but from a different branch. I wear a wig, the traditional type of modest clothing, my husband has a beard, the whole thing. I have a large family, but not really large by Chassidic standards. Most of my kids are frum, but not Chassidish. One is married to a Chassid, and two of my kids are not frum now. Among all of them, I have lots of grandchildren, baruch H-shem! [Thank God!]

I really always knew I was a lesbian, even though I had crushes on boys when I was a kid, before I knew anything about adult relationships. It was just how things were supposed to be, I guess. All the popular songs were telling me to “wanna be Bobby’s girl.” I guess it didn’t occur to me that Bobby could be a girl! But when I started learning about growing up and the facts of life, and heard that there were women who were attracted to other women, it struck me that I must be one of those.

Then, when I went away to college, in the late 60s, the first two things I did were to look up synagogues and anything gay-sounding. I was a lot more successful when it came to the Jewish stuff. Gay was way underground back then. If I’d been able to find something, anything, and actually get to know some gay people, my life might be totally different now. And if there had been even one out gay or lesbian couple with children in the frum community, like the people I know now, I would have thought it was possible for me, too. As it was, if you wanted to be frum and have children, a husband came along with the deal.

I’m not sure when it was that I actually did find the Orthodox gay world, maybe fifteen years ago? I somehow found out about the Gay and Lesbian Center in Manhattan and started going to Orthodykes meetings. They don’t have meetings anymore—the person who facilitated the meetings moved away—but now I’m online, and there are lots of resources, like Tirtzah and Ma’agal. And we do have informal get-togethers sometimes. 

Being married and gay has been like you’d expect. Not easy at all! My relationship with my husband is not very good, but I don’t feel free to leave, and I certainly don’t know how I could support myself if I did. I’m basically a caretaker now that I’m old. That’s a lot easier in certain ways than being a wife, but it’s also very demanding. I’m not very far into the closet, so anyone who wants to could figure it out. I’m sure that at least my two youngest kids have a pretty good idea, and I suspect they are supportive. So there is that comfort.

Emotionally, I support myself with a life online. And now there’s a synagogue in the neighborhood that I finally feel at home in, so I have shabbos back. I’d felt alienated from the other, very intense synagogues and their expectations prior to this.

Beyond that, I don’t really know what more to wish for, because realistically, any possible outcome for me as an Orthodox lesbian is far from ideal. I just need to survive this episode in my life and hopefully still be healthy and active enough (and not too poor) to get some enjoyment from the rest of my life.

It’s important to me that you should know I’ve never acted on my same-sex attraction. No, not at all. Never had the opportunity. I did fall hard for my best friend, but she’s straight, and I valued our friendship more than pushing for something more. But she often said that it was too bad one of us wasn’t the opposite sex so we could be married, and it was hard to keep from telling her that I thought we were both made exactly right! I know her well enough to know she didn’t mean it in that way, but, yes, that was a thing. And since I’m married all these years, I have certainly never looked to act on my attraction. My feeling (right or wrong) is that while fooling around may be good enough for men, a woman needs 100 percent from a relationship, and I can’t offer that.

It’s also difficult for me to imagine wanting to live with anyone else—I’d want to enjoy being alone for a while! As for the Orthodox community, if I did end up with a woman, I’m old enough to tell anyone who didn’t like it to take a flying leap.

In my position as being “not exactly out” in a Chassidic community, I do get to hear some things that would make your hair curl. Oh, I hear things, all right. It really only bothers me when I hear it from people who I’d think would be cool with the gays. The others—meh. You can’t cure stupid. One guy, a friend of my husband’s, came over years ago. One of the real nudnik types who think they’re on stage all the time, each joke more obnoxious than the one before. Finally he said, “What does it say on an AIDS victim’s headstone? Gay in d’rerd.” [literally, “Go in the earth,” but also a curse meaning “Go die”] So I just asked him if he knew any good ones about babies born with AIDS. Shut him up nicely, that did.

Even though I told my husband a long time ago that I am gay, some guys just don’t get it. Everything has to be about them. If I’m not happy with him, he thinks I might be looking for Another Man. He doesn’t understand that I’d rather be checking out girls. I don’t see what’s so hard to understand. I mean, he likes girls. At least we have something in common!

My biggest challenge right now has nothing to do with being gay. It is simply  getting older. It’s not a lot of fun. You never know what the next pitch is going to be. I’m just hoping the rest of my life I’ll have a roof over my head and good enough health to get some satisfaction out of life. I don’t know if there’s anything more I can hope for.

But as far as challenges and change within the frum community: I think change within the frum community depends on which sector we are talking about. Some groups are more open to change than others, and some are already beginning to change. Actually getting to know some frum gay people and realizing they want the same things out of life that anybody else does—family, respect, a place at the table, a shot at a decent standard of living—changes people’s minds. When a family member comes out and the rest of the family loves them enough to keep contact and begin working toward acceptance, at least of that one person, that changes minds, too. That is how a lot of people change. So there are frum communities that are seeing changes, whether it’s from the Internet, people coming out, or kids going off-the-derech [leaving Orthodoxy], but more conservative communities still think they can counteract that change by becoming more and more restrictive. That’s not going to work for them. It will only drive more and more people away. And that loss of youth is something we are already seeing in the Orthodox world.

It’s funny, but I don’t see being frum and being gay as such a contradiction. I was never one of those people who hates that about themselves, thinks they’re a sinner for even having those thoughts, spends years trying to pray away the gay. Maybe if I were a guy, I’d feel more of a crisis of faith about it. Though I am married to a man, I have always been at peace with my orientation. These days, I think there is a lot of hope for young people from Jewish homes who are gay.