Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.
A year before Noam Sienna, 30, earned his Ph.D. in Jewish history at the University of Minnesota last month, he had already published a groundbreaking book. “A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969” collects primary sources by and about queer Jews dating back much further than most people would have thought possible. Some are legal documents, others are poetry. They range from shocking to moving. And many have never been published before.
Sienna, who lives in Minneapolis, will discuss the book on July 6 at a virtual event sponsored by the Jewish Community Library, Afikomen Judaica and Congregation Sha’ar Zahav.
J.: Why this book, and why now?
Noam Sienna: I wish I had published this book 20 years ago, so I could have read it when I was a kid. I loved learning about Jewish history and Torah and Talmud, but as I got older and increasingly understood myself as a queer person, I felt alienated from the Jewish textual tradition. I hope this book is opening a door for Jewish LGBTQ people to connect to the Jewish tradition in some way. It’s not a narrative that you read cover to cover. It’s a tool box that people can open to find pieces that will help them understand themselves within Jewish history.
You exclude biblical texts because they’ve already been extensively mined for queerness. The texts you do include are all over the map — poetry, Talmud, journalism, personal diaries — and many of them have never gotten attention before. How did you find them?
Some of these sources are very well known — Talmud, Maimonides, certain literary texts. But those texts haven’t always been read through the lens of the LGBTQ experience, so I’m inviting people to read them in a new way.
Some texts are documentary sources that have been excavated by scholars of queer history, but haven’t yet been seen for their relevance in Jewish history. For example, the first gay bar in Paris was run by an Algerian Jew. French historians dug up that story, and what they all note in a small way is that the owner of the bar was a Jew. But they’re not Jewish historians, so they didn’t stop to think what it tells us about Jewish history. The end of his story is tragic, as I discovered: In the late ’30s he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where he was murdered. I was in contact with a French historian who was working on this, and he had no idea that he was murdered in Auschwitz. He had never thought to ask, what’s the end of that story of a Jew in France at that time.
There are also sources from within the Jewish community talking to the Jewish community, and those have only started to be looked at in the last 10 or 15 years. For example, sources on Jewish same-sex relationships in the Ottoman Empire. I’ve tried to take these sources and present them in an accessible English translation that is open to anyone — someone in eighth grade in Omaha could pick this up and read the text and feel invited into this history.
About one-third of the sources in this book have never appeared in English before. So that’s exciting to me to say, here’s raw historical material that is now open for engagement and analysis for people who aren’t going through original archives themselves. It’s collating work by myself and other scholars and putting it in one place for the general public.
Who is this book for?
It’s already being used in a number of college classes on gender, sex, religion and Jewish studies. A number of high school teachers have been working with it, and synagogue and camp educators are working with the material. And the texts are also being used by Jewish artists and thinkers as jumping-off points for their own creative work. The play “Indecent,” which has won numerous awards, is based on the Yiddish play “God of Vengeance,” which is excerpted in this book. It excites modern audiences, but it’s based on a historical story on the intersection of Jewish and LGBTQ identities. I think there are more Broadway plays to come from this book. Or graphic novels or PJ Library books or contemporary dance. And I hope there’s more of that.
What’s one example of a text that really surprised you?
The story of Ben Rosenstein, a Jewish immigrant who comes to the U.S. in the early 20th century and works in a factory on the Lower East Side, and he marries another Jewish immigrant, Pauline — up to that point it’s a very typical immigrant story. But he gets tuberculosis and a HIAS doctor comes to see him and discovers that he was born and raised as a woman but was now living as a man. He died shortly after. The story was leaked to the papers, and it was front-page news in Chicago in 1915. I was able to find corroborating documents, including Ben Rosenstein’s death certificate, which lists him under his birth name as female, but his census record from 1910 lists him as male and married to a woman. Finding that census record, it was a huge relief because I was so moved to know that this person had chosen a way to live that felt right to them and they stuck to it. If the doctor hadn’t taken his story to the paper, this person might have had a long life as a man, and just slipped through history without leaving a record of their life. How many more people lived like this?
Why the time frame of the first century to 1969?
I started with Hellenistic Jewish literature, written in Greek around the 1st century C.E. — it’s a black hole of Jewish history that people forget about. People jump from the Bible to the Talmud, forgetting that there are five centuries in between. The very first source is a literary text that compares a homoerotic poem by Sappho to the Torah. In the first century, Jews are reading this homoerotic poetry and appreciating it in the same breath with the Torah!
I wanted to end with 1969 because of Stonewall, which is often seen as the catalyst for the gay rights movement; people start the story of LGBTQ issues there, as if in 1969 gay people were invented and Jews tried to figure out what to do with them. But I knew there was material to show Jewish LGBTQ life from before 1969. So the last text is actually about Sappho! It is by this German Jewish classicist named Vera Lachmann. In 1967, she goes on this pilgrimage to the island of Lesbos, the birthplace of Sappho and the origin of the word lesbian. She later published some poetry about her trip. So I wanted to end with this Jew writing about Sappho, just as we started with a Jew writing about Sappho.
I assume there’s some Bay Area-relevant material in the book?
Oh yes. For example, in 1961 Rabbi Alvin Fine at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, a Reform rabbi, appeared on TV and made the following statement: “Judaism today takes a different view from its Biblical and post-Biblical edicts on homosexuals… Such persons are not criminals and should not have punitive action as atonement… Judaism believes that the psychological approach is the answer.” In 1961, no American rabbi had made anything close to this public statement. It was so radical that it immediately provoked an official response from the Reform movement emphasizing that Rabbi Fine was not speaking as a representative of the Reform movement.
What will people hear about if they tune into your July 6 discussion?
We’ll look at and read some of these texts and see what they can bring to contemporary LGBTQ Jewish life, and we’ll have an opportunity to put the texts from the book to work and chew over where do we go from here.