Trying to find acceptance as both a Jew and LGBTQ member is hard - opinion

Moving to England, the writer was fully accepted as an LGBTQ member but not as a Jew.

 THE WRITER with Sir Ian McKellan, who is 82 years old and not Jewish but is 'out and proud and was right next to me dancing in a circle with a kippah on his head'. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE WRITER with Sir Ian McKellan, who is 82 years old and not Jewish but is 'out and proud and was right next to me dancing in a circle with a kippah on his head'.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

After two years of a long-distance relationship, I decided to move to London just a little over a year ago to live with my English partner Marc. With COVID-19 restrictions overtaking the world, and the ability to send an email instead of a face-to-face meeting, it wasn’t too difficult for me to make the move from Israel. However, moving to the UK this year has proven to be a challenging endeavor after all. The climate in all of Europe has become increasingly hostile toward Jews, with hate crimes and antisemitic incidents spiking in the region.

In East London, living with another man was easy. My LGBTQ identity was almost fully embraced by my neighbors. When we announced that we are engaged a few months ago, the amount of love we received was enormous. The community here has always made me feel free to be my true self... that is, as a gay man. But I haven’t felt the same way as a Jew.

In London, I am always hesitant to bring up my Jewishness with non-Jewish friends. Sometimes it feels that by just being Jewish, I will be immediately held accountable for all the wrongdoings of any Jew who ever lived. Saying you’re going to Shabbat dinner turns into an interrogation.

Often I find the people who openly accept me as LGBTQ are uncomfortable with my Jewish identity. But when I’m in Jewish spaces, I also feel that I need to qualify myself, to minimize how gay I am. It often feels like no one wants all of me all of the time.

You can imagine how excited I was to learn that there was not only a Jewish but a queer party for Hanukkah taking place by our house in Bethnal Green called “Buttmitzvah.”

A Wider Bridge created a new inclusive flag whose rainbow colors and Star of David represent inseparable parts of the identities of LGBTQ Jews.  (credit: A WIDER BRIDGE VIA JTA)A Wider Bridge created a new inclusive flag whose rainbow colors and Star of David represent inseparable parts of the identities of LGBTQ Jews. (credit: A WIDER BRIDGE VIA JTA)

On Saturday night, my social circle put on our best Hanukkah-themed costumes. One dressed up as the stolen objects from our Temple. I was Maimonides and another friend became a human-menorah. It didn’t feel like we were going out, but coming home.

When we got to the event, everyone had been as dedicated to their outfit as we were. The room was the most unapologetically queer and Jewish place I’ve ever been. Two shirtless guys in shorts handed out bagels and pickled dills out of a box with a Star of David on it, and we rushed to see the Jewish drag queen Ash Kenazi work the runway. She played the violin to Fiddler On The Roof’s “Tradition,” and then lip-synced to “If I Were a Rich Girl.” The audience was ecstatic, loud and proud – in the very way that Hanukkah is supposed to be.

IN RECENT years, I’ve found new meaning in Hanukkah. In the age of the Maccabees, the Jews of old were fighting to be who they are completely, to study Torah safely, and not hide themselves. Nowadays, Jews are still struggling to overcome the violence of assimilation, to live unapologetically, and let our personal lights burn in the darkness of antisemitism. 

Believe it or not, “Buttmitzvah” was a profound experience because I was invited to live the dream of Judah Maccabee – to be myself fully as a Jew. And being myself fully means being myself within LGBTQ spaces, too.

You could feel the joy and relief in the air as Rabbi Daniel Lichman gave a speech, the laughter as the sketch group played out a stereotypical-dressed Jewish father, mother and a bat mitzvah girl. You have not fully lived until you’ve seen drag performer Ru Paulstein run a Best Dressed Runway contest.

When we make spaces welcoming to Jews – all Jews – they become welcoming to others as well. The music included everything from Mizrahi music to a live performance by Rapper Honey G. The most incredible moment for me was when “Hava Nagila” came on, and Sir Ian McKellen who is 82 years old and not Jewish, but is out and proud, was right next to me dancing in a circle with a kippah on his head. Later I found out that it was his first night out in three years!

Josh Cole, the founder of Buttmitzvah, told me that creating this celebration was his way to deal with a lot of the challenges both our LGBTQ and Jewish communities are facing. In my work I use social media to empower marginalized people. But sometimes, we spend so much time fighting off the hate, we forget the power of creating space for joy and acceptance. When I arrived home from the party at 4 a.m., I realized that I haven’t felt so safe to be Jewish and queer in one place since moving here.

Josh added that he thinks it is important for non-Jews “who have such a weird impression of who Jews are, to be able to come into a Jewish space and feel completely included and welcome.” I share Josh’s belief that Buttmitzvah does more for Jewish and non-Jewish relations than most Jewish conferences do.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple wrote last year in an article for The New York Jewish Week during COVID-19, that the “challenge of the Jewish people in this time is to make sure that our sanctuaries do not become like those in the book – testimony to a community that is gone.” I share Rabbi Wolpe’s concern for the disappearance of Jewish sanctuaries, but while nothing can replace our temples and our holy books, this is only one leg on which Judaism exists. 

Our sanctuaries also exist in the Shabbat dinners, like the ones my partner and I hold almost every week, at our apartment in East London, with some of the most incredible young Jews who are all leading extraordinary lives. It lives in the London queer party of young British Jews who refuse to choose between LGBTQ, British and Jewish, who put time and effort into making a safe space that has drawn hundreds of Jews and non-Jews to celebrate their identity. 

I do not fear for our future, as Jewish youth are here, and they are dancing until the end of the night.

The writer is a senior fellow at The Tel Aviv Institute. Follow him: @henmazzig.