Forbidden fruits

The Queer Shabbaton celebrates a pair of not-so-strange bedfellows: Judaism and gayness.

RELIGIOUS FERVOR Jewish same-sex passions (as depicted in Molly Landreth’s 2005 photo,) are the focus of this weekend’s Queer Shabbaton.

RELIGIOUS FERVOR Jewish same-sex passions (as depicted in Molly Landreth’s 2005 photo,) are the focus of this weekend’s Queer Shabbaton. MOLLY LANDRETH (MOLLYLANDRETH.COM)

"Nothing prepared me better for my life as a gay activist than growing up as a Jew in America," wrote the late New York organizer and educator Eric Rofes in the classic 1989 anthology Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish. And as an adult, Rofes concluded, "Perhaps what is most satisfying to me is to find friends—other gay and lesbian Jews—with whom I feel fully at home." For those who can relate to that sentiment, this weekend brings a three-day urban retreat: the Queer Shabbaton, a smorgasbord for the soul featuring everything from Yiddish theater and traditional Shabbat services to a unique Jewish juggling performance and analytic workshops on race, class and sexuality.

"It's like a 'Choose Your Own Adventure,'" notes Sarah Kay, program director at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, which is hosting the event. "I would describe it as a smart, sensitive camp that offers a really broad spectrum of activities—creative artistic events, as well as spiritual and even therapeutic events that deal with internalized homophobia, abuse or pride, and with just trying to live an authentic life." Anyone from the most religious to the most lapsed Jew, she adds, will be catered to.

The JCC is presenting the weekend in partnership with the three-year-old New York group Nehirim—described by founder-director Jay Michaelson as an "independent organization that creates spiritual and cultural communities for queer Jews and their allies"—and with Shabbaton's founder and director, Gideon Querido van Frank, a film-distribution publicist and former journalist. Van Frank held the first and second Shabbatons in his home city of Amsterdam, and importing it to NYC, he says, felt natural.

"There's a bigger queer Jewish community in New York," he notes. "So I think people are more experienced in being queer and Jewish, and in making communities."

The retreat's participants include a diverse list of artists, spiritual leaders and academics—including juggler and performance-artist Sara Felder, filmmaker Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation), Kripalu Center yoga instructor Danny Arguetty, actor and storyteller Shawn Shaffner, musician Shira Kline, queer-theory scholar Ann Pellegrini and several forward-thinking rabbis.

Though the presenters will differ greatly in style, the underlining connection will be the link between gayness and Judaism.

"Thinking about the modern discourses of both anti-Semitism and homophobia, and seeing that some of the same stereotypes have been used to fuel both, it becomes apparent that there's a real relay between these two categories," says Pellegrini, an NYU professor who will be speaking on topics including Jewish camp and the importance of linking queer theory and Jewishness.

Van Frank adds that making that connection is no stretch. "In both cases, you are an outsider," he explains. "You have a history of being marginalized. And next to that, you have a history of great accomplishment, and of pride." When Van Frank first came out to his parents, he says he compared his gay identity to their (and his) being Jewish. "When I translated it that way, they really got it," he recalls.

Michaelson expects that the Shabbaton will draw New Yorkers similar to those who have attended past Nehirim retreats (always, until now, held outside of the city). They are queer Jews who yearn for something besides more conventional offerings like Manhattan's LGBT Congregation Beth Simchat Torah.

"[Our crowd is] kind of all over the map," he says. "There are a lot of formerly religious Jews who have been somehow burned by the mainstream but who still want to express their spirituality in a Jewish way." And then there are the older folks, who left Judaism when they came out, and are now realizing it's okay to return. "I think a lot of us are told we have to fragment ourselves in order to be in the world," Michaelson adds. "We try to create a space where people can be their whole selves."

Queer Shabbaton is Fri 19--Sun 21 at the JCC. See It's Here, It's Queer and nehirim.org.