Photography by: Alon Borten

A Journey To Finding Dignity in My Queer and Jewish Identities

The day my conservative Jewish middle school from Queens, New York, visited a retirement home for community service, a fit of shame came rushing through my body from the laughs my classmates directed at me. One of the elderly men looked at me, pointed, and asked if I was my classmate’s girlfriend, suggesting so because of my long hair and feminine appearance. 

After years of being bullied for my high-pitched voice and overall feminine disposition, this instance easily fueled their prejudice toward me. I held back the tears as hard as I could as if to tell my classmates, “You can continue to make fun of me, but you will not break me.”

Thinking back on my childhood, I immediately imagine my parents playing Mizrachi (Jewish Descendents of North African or Middle Eastern origin) music while preparing our post-Shabbat Sunday brunches. The scents of Morrocan and Mediterranean spices that my parents filled the house with and used on our salads, eggs, and cholent were divine; trust me, you have not lived until you’ve spent a Sunday brunch with an Israeli family. These weekly family gatherings-turned-parties, which often felt like we had teleported straight to Israel, were not just about getting the family together — it was to celebrate who we were, what we stood for and the unyielding pride that we had for our nationality.

From the time I was a child and into my teen years, my parents fostered a deep and intense sense of identity in my upbringing. While my mother was religious and encouraged us to follow in her footsteps, my father was very outspoken about being an atheist. Despite their disagreements surrounding religion, they showed immense dignity for putting me and my sisters through private Jewish school as children because it was important for us to realize who we were: Jews.

We had been persecuted for thousands of years and we were told that the same persecution persisted to this day. My small frame and under-developed brain did not have the capacity to process this at the time but the seeds were planted and rooted into every fiber of my being. 

I’d ask myself, how can society be aware of something so vile in a modern context, have access to the internet and still continue to perpetuate stigma toward Jewish people? 

Others’ hate-fueled ideals felt impossible to accept — and even into my early adulthood, I was still dismissive of its existence. Most instances of antisemitism that I became aware of were awful, of course. However, the idea that Jewish people were being victimized for being Jewish didn’t seem as urgent of a problem to me as other examples of discrimination. 

Almost exclusively, the people I hear speaking about antisemitism today are other Jews, which has made it feel like a solely Jewish problem. Despite the glaring reality that Jewish people are 2.7 times more likely than Black individuals as well as 2.2 times more likely than Muslim individuals to face a hate crime, as stated by an FBI 2018 report, antisemitism was never made to be, and continues to not be,  a priority for the majority of news outlets. Representing only two percent of the American population, Jewish people face a disproportionate amount of the total hate crimes in America.

While I was growing up, I learned of the tragedies of the holocaust and the threat of something like it happening again seemed impossible; sadly, the perspectives of those who perpetuated the crimes of the holocaust are still present widely within white supremacists, Louis Farrakhan supporters, or holocaust denying communities.

I think that my perception of antisemitic attacks being less important was shaped by the media’s lack of representation of it — and the medley of antisemitic attacks I’d hear about seemed small in comparison to the other examples of discrimination in the world that were given a national platform — and we cannot make things better alone.

Photography By: Alon Borten

While I felt pride in my Jewish identity growing up, something began to change when I came to realize my same-sex attraction at 15 years old. 

A swift and unintentional click (okay, it was intentional) toward the thumbnail of the two naked adonis-shaped men on Pornhub helped confirm my suspicions. Immediately, I grew paranoid over how my family and classmates would view me if they came to find out. 

I didn’t know how to function as a Jewish queer person. The utter lack of representation in the late ‘90s and early 2000s left me feeling completely alone. I knew my attraction to men wasn’t something I could change and so the only action I felt I could take was to let go of my religious ties. 

I knew that a queer community existed, which I might choose to be a part of one day, but I did not believe that my conservative Jewish household and community would accept my queerness.

Now you have to understand, the moment I realized I was interested in individuals with the same genitalia as myself, I thought my life, as I knew it, was over. I had no idea what to expect from my current and for my future self anymore. Built from my Jewish-Israeli values, the idea of a big wedding with the girl of my dreams was gone; no hope for the moment I’d get to stomp on a wine glass immediately before I’d kiss my new wife; no children that would be exactly half mine and half my partner’s; no more looks of fondness from grandmothers who wanted to set me up with their granddaughters because of how well I got along with them. 

No more acceptance from my parents. 

No community. 

At this point, I decided that if I couldn’t change my sexual orientation, then I couldn’t expect to be religious anymore. I mean, why would I have any interest in subscribing to a religion that I was convinced would reject an integral part of my life and who I am? 

At 16 years old, I came out to my sisters — both significantly older by nine and 13 years — who were incredibly supportive of my newfound identity. I was thankful for their reaction, but my parents’ conservative views still loomed over me. 

Photography By: Alon Borten

At 18 years old, while munching on spring rolls from our local Kosher Chinese restaurant in Queens, I could not hold back anymore and came out to my mother. It felt like she was purposefully pushing my buttons at this moment, confronting me about my possible attractions to a girl I played tennis with at the time. Her anxiety during this period for my future now came to an all-time high after coming to the unfounded realization that the chances of me having her grandchildren vanished.

About a year later, she came around to fully accepting me for who I am. She even began to incorporate her experience of my coming out into her poetry and art, which helped me process my identity in a cathartic way. She realized that her hopes of having more grandchildren were still possible, just in time for me to tell my father that I was gay at 19 years old. 

Though I prepared for the worst possible reaction, my father surprised me. I could tell immediately that his ideas of gay men changed after it was his son who confronted him with a queer identity. Within a week, he completed his interrogation of my sexuality and how I came to terms with it. While we disagree on multiple levels politically, and given their stringent backgrounds, I could not have asked for a more reasonable confrontation from either of my parents. 

Beginning to feel more pride than shame for my sexuality was a taxing journey, a lonely one that most queer people will understand and deeply resonate with. 

Photography By: Alon Borten

In 2011, I began my undergraduate photo and video degree at the School of Visual Arts, where pride for one’s sexual identity was seen in more abundance than I had ever experienced. The studio teachers became our therapists and, in some ways, our parents. They helped guide us through and, in some cases, very bluntly pointed out serious issues in our lives or personal journeys in self-discovery. It helped to be in a space where, with pretty much every turn of your head, you could spot a queer person. 

These were the earliest periods of my life where I learned how to love myself, and I had done so by watching other queer people love themselves unapologetically. I gained a camaraderie for the first time in my life and with each new connection; I began to grow more and more certain that I had found a community I belonged to — one I didn’t have to compromise my behaviors or appearance for. 

While I was at SVA, I truly came into my own in regards to my sexuality. I felt comfortable in myself and gained some traction in confidence for the first time. Although I felt like I abandoned Judaism’s religious components, the rebellious feelings and angst I had toward it became the inspiration for my photo and video work. 

My thesis project had me filming myself in situations where I was deliberately rebelling against and showing the sometimes-ironic aspects of the religion. For example, in one video I have several different types of Jewish foods that are tied to holidays falling down my face. In some ways, it looks like the food is nourishing me while simultaneously suffocating me — a visual representation of my experience being queer and Jewish until that point. 

In another video, I’m seen ripping a page out of Leviticus that cites that the punishment for a man lying with another man is to be put to death. I subsequently stick the page in my mouth and swallow it as an act of digesting the words and, subsequently, attempting to erase them.

I spent the summer of 2015 in Israel with my immediate family. I remember very vividly the conversation I had with my eldest sister and her husband about why I needed to start changing my relationship with Judaism. They could sense that my angst wasn’t getting me anywhere and that if I started looking at things with fresh eyes, I’d learn to appreciate the religion more as well. 

I was skeptical at first, but a re-evaluation of my feelings on Judaism and my relationship to Zionism specifically, did help me understand my identity in a more rounded capacity. 

The closest comparison to pride for the queer community that exists in Judaism is Zionism. The term ‘Zionism’ was something my parents and school introduced us to at a very early age. The way I define Zionism is as follows: Due to the continued and persistent persecution of the Jewish people throughout history, there exists a necessity for Jewish sovereignty and protection from foreign agents by a government body where the majority of its inhabitants are Jewish and have their safety prioritized. 

Again, it is a movement toward safety for the Jewish people because of how often the world has victimized and simultaneously ignored us. While I’ve come across wildly different uses of the term, the majority of the Jewish population identify as Zionist and define it similarly. And just to bite this in the ass before you ask, believing in Jewish prosperity does not conflict with believing in Palestinian prosperity — seeing both happen simultaneously means that certain things will have to change inevitably in Israel, but this doesn’t mean you cannot believe in both populations’ right to self-determination. 

Zionism wasn’t something I focused on deeply during my teen years as it became a given that I identified as one while engaging in the social and extended family circles I was a part of, and thus not needed to be spoken or thought of often. My time during college was such an awakening for my sexuality that I didn’t focus on enriching my Jewish identity very much, and for a while, it was easier for me to pretend that the world didn’t hate Jews as much as it does. In the last few years, and especially during the pandemic, however, I’ve been made vehemently aware of how terribly antisemitism has continued to persist globally. 

I believe that in many ways, my mother’s persistence and father’s support for myself and my sisters to have a Jewish education was rooted in her very real fear of continued Jewish persecution. My mother’s attitude toward fulfilling the more orthodox approach to life and holidays, however, shaped my perception that orthodox Judaism was the most authentic form of Judaism. This resulted in me questioning that if orthodoxy was to decide my fate, I’d be disowned, so if the root of a religious belief I followed would prefer me not to subscribe, why should I follow any form of it? 

The answer? No denomination in Judaism is more valid than any other one. I also came to realize that Jewish people can’t be so easily separated from their Jewish identity. I could never abandon Judaism, similarly to my revelation as a teenager that I could never abandon my queer identity. It’s not something I can turn away from — it’s literally in my DNA.

Jewish people are more than what the bible tells us we must do. I learned that, while I don’t care to follow Judaism completely according to Jewish law, I still enjoy aspects of the value it places toward nostalgia and togetherness that I only truly feel when I’m with members of my immediate family. 

Furthermore, I know that if I ever choose to, I would be welcomed into most organized Jewish religious contexts that follow a conservative, reform, modern or reconstructionist denomination. The religion has developed spaces for each and every Jewish person to navigate through what each of us deems to have the most value in our lives.

This past year has inspired huge strides in my identity. I’ve come to realize that I’m more fluid in my gender and sexuality than I once thought, identifying openly now as non-binary. I’ve learned that while I feel immense pride in my queerhood, I have found just as much pride in my Jewish identity. It is imperative for me to speak out and include Jewish people in my activism the same way I will continue to fight for social justice for any oppressed minority. I believe this is something missing from many left-leaning political circles and has made it difficult for many liberal Jews to feel supported. 

Ultimately, the struggle in finding pride in my Judaism or sexuality was always rooted in my own fear of other people’s acceptance; I’m no longer afraid. 

By integrating myself into the social media community of Jews that are inspiring change, many of whom openly identify as queer, I have felt an enormous sense of relief and comfort knowing that I am a proud queer Jewish Zionist and not alone.

Some social media accounts to follow of Jewish advocates speaking on social justice:

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