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Jewish Journal

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

by Howard Lovy

July 1, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Thirty years ago this week, the Exodus began for gays and lesbians.

And because Jews are a people of stories, gay and lesbian Jews tell theirs this week with special bookmarks that open to the pages of their dual struggles.

Just as the story of the ancient Hebrews' deliverance from slavery has been retold over the generations as the defining moment of the Jewish people, so have the Stonewall Riots become the story of the deliverance of a people.

At B'nai Jeshurun, a synagogue on New York's Upper West Side, the story of gay liberation was retold last Friday evening in the form of its fourth annual Stonewall Shabbat Seder, with its own Haggadah, rituals and symbols that mixed traditional Jewish prayer with poems, readings and history of the gay struggle throughout the ages.

With the New York Police Department playing the role of Pharaoh's men, the rioters in Greenwich Village on June 27, 1969, were the Children of Israel, embarking on the long journey to the Promised Land.

On that June day, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, escalated into violence, and became the official "coming out" party for gays and lesbians around the world.

Before Stonewall, much of the gay community lived as the Crypto-Jews during the Inquisition -- denying themselves public displays of who they are for fear of reprisals from the wider community.

"Were you out at the time of the riots?" one seder participant asked another.

"Before Stonewall, we were all living in the ghetto," he replied.

The Haggadah for the seder was compiled by Mark Horn, who heads B'nai Jeshurun's Gay and Lesbian Committee. Like the traditional Passover Haggadah, it is a combination of prayer, history, debate, questions and symbols that tell the story of liberation.

Among the symbols on the Stonewall seder plate:

* Challah that is unashamedly uncovered, even during the prayer over the wine.

* A variety of fruit "because sometimes we are called the 'fruit' people. And while it is meant as an insult, tonight we take it as a blessing in disguise."

* A bundle of sticks -- the "faggot" -- to commemorate gay men and lesbians throughout history who were burned at the stake.

* Bricks and stones to remember the "bricks of resistance thrown at the police the night of the Stonewall riot."

* An empty cup: "We recall those who did not live to see this moment, and those who are unable to celebrate openly their identity and connection to God. We are angry with the spiritual emptiness that the overwhelming majority of Jewish institutions offer to queer Jews."

The Haggadah's narrative takes participants from Hitler's attempted genocide of homosexuals to the Exodus from the closet after Stonewall; from the martyrdom of Harvey Milk, a gay San Francisco city supervisor who was assassinated, to the plague of AIDS and the emergence of today's more organized gay movement.

Readings range from the biblical "Song of Songs" to Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."

Also throughout is the use of the word "queer," which Horn said is not a universally accepted term in the gay community. He compares it with the use of the word "Jew," which until this century was considered an epithet by the Jewish community.

"Hebrew" or "Israelite" were the preferred terms until the Jewish people decided to take the word back as their own.

"I think it's important to look at what the culture defines as 'other' as queer," Horn said. "And how each of us, whether gay or straight or otherwise, is somehow in our lives seen as 'other.'

"And it's a way to examine what we think of as queer to God, and how to bring that forward, into the light, a way to bring ourselves fully before our Creator."

Horn's Haggadah sees this mix of spirituality and gay pride as a way of "looking at our Jewish heritage through a queer lens and at our queer heritage through a Jewish lens. It means remembering the queers in the death camps and the Jews at the Stonewall Inn."

Seder participants talk about the dual discoveries of their Jewishness and sexual identities -- describing how each form of identity defines them as "queer" to the rest of society, but makes them unique to themselves.

One by one, each man and woman at the tables talks of his or her lifelong feelings of detachment from the mainstream because of sexual orientation and Jewishness.

The seder openly addresses and debates how gay men and lesbians are seen as outcasts within Judaism, through the line from Leviticus, which calls homosexuality an "abomination." They discuss the wounds the line opens for them, then they reinterpret it.

"And here is a verse of my Torah. It is a small verse. For when I stood at Sinai I heard God call out, 'Love your neighbor as yourself. Share your bed, your heart, your life with him, that your days may be long on the face of the earth.' But no one wrote those words down when I heard them, all those years ago," the Haggadah says.

There are biblical prohibitions against a lot of things that are not always adhered to by everybody in the Jewish community, Horn said.

"Everybody chooses to observe some things and ignore others. It's a question of respecting everyone's choice and believing they are acting out of their own integrity."

Horn believes that the gay community is mirroring the larger society in a return to spirituality, but many still fear showing up at their local synagogue because they are not certain they would be welcome there. Slowly, however, more synagogues are welcoming and recognizing them, and gays are becoming part of the organized Jewish community.

Participation by gays in Jewish religious life, Horn's Stonewall Haggadah says, makes the Jewish people whole. And it uses strong language to make the point.

"And so to the Jewish mullahs who would murder us, and the ostriches in the Jewish community who would ignore us and hope we go away, we say with all the thunder we can muster: When you condemn Queer Jews, you keep Judaism in exile. You cannot be whole without us. And we will not be silent."

The seder ends with traditional prayers; then, with some chuckles and a few nods and winks, the participants launch into a simple melody -- perhaps the traditional gay equivalent of "Next Year in Jerusalem."

It is a song made popular by Judy Garland, who was buried the night of the Stonewall Riots: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

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