The Best LGBT Books of the Year— A Personal List
It has been quite a year for LGBTQ literature making it very difficult to come up with a list of the best. In compiling my personal list this year I decided not to include the titles that came out celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall since they were all good and I did not want to slight anyone. So here in no specific rank or order are my twelve personal choices of the best:
Orringer, Julie. “The Flight Portfolio: A Novel”, Knopf, 2019.
Meet Varian Fry
Julie Orringer’s near perfect novel (for me, at least), “The Flight Portfolio” is inspired by a World War II story that many of us are unaware of—the real-life quest of an unlikely hero to save the lives and work of Europe’s great minds from the impending Holocaust. I must admit that I had heard of Varian Fry and of all places, I heard of him when I lived in Arkansas. A friend made me a copy of the film “Varian’s War” and I was introduced to a character who was to influence my thought for some time to come (because of his relationship with one of my philosophical heroes, Hannah Arendt and that will be explained in this review).
In 1940, Varian Fry traveled to Marseille carrying three thousand dollars and a list of artists and writers he hoped to help escape within a few weeks. He ended up staying more than a year, working to procure false documents, find emergency funds, and arrange journeys across Spain and Portugal, where the refugees could leave for safer ports. Among his clients were Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall (and these are just my favorites). He was soon involved in a race against time to save them and this was a high-stakes adventure that demanded great courage. We also learn. That Fry was involved in a love affair that could have cost him everything that he worked so hard for.
This is a big book that I could not put down and I read all 562 pages in almost one setting. We see the power of art and love beautifully depicted here (even though one reviewer found the bisexual and gay love scenes to be distasteful. To her I say, “Wake up, we are in the twenty-first century where love is no longer expressed by gender.
“The Flight Portfolio”, is named after a collection of paintings, drawings, and other artistic endeavors put together by fleeing artists and authors in Marseilles, France in 1940. Marseilles was Vichy, France and the artists and intellectuals were trying to get to Portugal or North Africa. From there they would be able to make their way to freedom in the US, Cuba, Mexico, or, in some cases, Martinique. Most were short of money and hope. Many should have left Europe earlier and not as the German noose began to encompass France and they wanted to leave now. A group had been set up and staffed by mostly non-Jewish Americans who were busy “pulling strings, paying ransoms, bribing officials, and making up counterfeit documents.” This was the “Emergency Rescue Committee” and one of their most important jobs was deciding who was worthy of being sponsorsed and saved by the Committee.
The novel is actually two stories. The first is the story of the rescues of so many people and the way the ERC operated in and around Marseilles. Included in that story is how the Committee was able to smuggle people in and out of France to go to safer places from which to get a boat or a plane to the US. Author Orringer uses real people as both rescuers and the rescued. The other story is the love affair between the married Varian Fry, the man who was in charge of the ERC and his old college lover, Elliott Grant. While Grant is a fictional character, he is based on Fry’s real lover, Lincoln Kirstein. Obviously Fry was bisexual because he fathered two children with his second wife. Kirstein went on to found the New York City Ballet and was a noted cultural figure and philanthropist and in 1984 was awarded the Presidential Meadow of Freedom.
Julie Orringer’s writing is beautiful and she manages to juggle the comings-and-goings and the personal stories of the main characters. She evokes Vichy France and descriptions of the wartime France that are gorgeous to read and she shows the tension that Fry was under and the fragility of civilization itself and the heroic efforts necessary to preserve it, “all made personal in the work of artists and intellectuals that provide the artistic portrayals we need to see and the ideas we need to contemplate.” Varian Fry’s efforts are finally commended and beautifully so. The book is a fantastic story with heroic people who labored against all odds and every obstacle to preserve the good, true, and beautiful.
Goldbloom, Goldie. “On Division: A Novel”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.
Goldie Goldbloom’s “On Division” is a rare look inside Brooklyn’s Chasidic community”. Surie Eckstein who is soon to be a great-grandmother in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where she lives on Division Avenue. She is mother to ten children who range in age from thirteen to thirty-nine. Her in-laws are postwar immigrants from Romania and live on the first floor of their house. Her daughter Tzila Ruchel lives on the second floor and on the third floor live Surie and Yidel, her husband who is a scribe in such high demand that he only writes a few Torah scrolls a year. They married when Surie was sixteen and have had a good and happy marriage and full lives. Now, at the ages of fifty-seven and sixty-two, they are looking forward to spend some quiet time together.
But that does not look like it will happen since Surie is pregnant again and at her age, pregnancy is thought to be “an aberration, a shift in the proper order of things, and a public display of private life.” Suddenly Surie feels exposed and ashamed and she is unable to tell anyone the news, not even her husband. Her secret slowly separates her from the community.
Here is her story and we see that she is experiencing a new beginning during middle age. This is also a look at the dynamics of self and collective identity as we look at an insular community. But that is not all. Surie’s secret becomes enmeshed with another, earlier secret—about her son Lipa, who is gay.
Not only is Surie, a wife, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, she is an upstanding citizen in her community where conformity is the only way of life. She knows that her friends and neighbors will turn their backs on her and her children if anybody finds out that she is pregnant and she doesn’t know how to tell her husband the news and fears the results when he finds out.
As we learn about Surie, we also learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the Chassidic community. Goldie Goldbloom shares this with us and she does so with dignity and respect. I found it interesting that pregnancy which is usually seen as a blessing is seen here as something else. A woman in Surie’s position is bound to have to deal with unpleasantries because of it.
This is the story of a woman’s struggle for her identity as she deals with family secrets, cultural expectations and gender roles. It is the story of Suri a 57 year old woman from Brooklyn’s strict Chasidic Jewish sect. Suri lives a life that is fairly regimented and revolves around structure built by her religious beliefs and customs. When we learn the Suri is pregnant, well past menopause, we understand what she must deal with and because of her age and the fact that she is carrying two babies, yes twins, she is high risk. This means that she must visit the clinic every week. During these visits, she develops relationships with the staff of the clinic even though her culture forbids her to do so. She eventually begins to volunteer first as a translator and then as an assistant to midwives and she finds great happiness in this. She still manages to hide the news of her pregnancy from her husband and her family. In fact she puts the fact that she is pregnant in the back of her mind and allows past issues in the family come forward.
Surie knows it is selfish for her to want to keep the babies because, bringing them into the world will bring shame on her family and expose the private intimacy she shares with her husband. (After all, women in their 50’s do not have sex?).
There are no options. She becomes close to Val, a midwife who was actually present at the birth of all of Surie’s children. This bond allows Val a chance to see the Chassidic community close up, and it allows Surie to step away from her community for the first time.
I love that writer Goldbloom uses great detail to describe life in the community as well as the celebrations of the Jewish holidays. Along with that we see how those who do not fit into the demands of the community are regarded. Community can be both a comfort and it can also cause fear and if there is something important to be learned from the entertaining read that the book provides is that we all must be open to and accepting of others and to live your life within a ghetto is not to live a full life.
I so enjoyed this book and it brought back so many memories of how I was raised. “On Division” covers many topics from religion and love, loss and families, marriage and traditions and the choices we make. The scenes of Surie with her son Lipa are heart wrenching and beautiful.
The characters live according to the many rules and regulations that have been handed down in her sect for generations. They live by the same rules that did their ancestors and there is poignant beauty in that.
What is really interesting is that Goldbloom lives on Chicago’s North Side near Skokie, and has eight children, most of whom are now adults. Her children swore her to secrecy when she decided to become a writer and she is not allowed to write stories about them or speak about them to the press. Originally from a farm in Australia, she says that the reason she stayed in Chicago is because she likes Lake Michigan and she loves the “wonderfully kind and funny and real Midwesterners.”
Aside from writing, Goldbloom works for queer visibility in the Chicago Chasidic community. She says, “I am the only out queer person that I know who is still living a Chasidic life in the community.” “Queer Orthodox Jews with unaccepting families face a loss of God, hope and community.”
The novel affected me deeply,probably because I identified with so much in it. When I tell people how I grew up living like that, they are stunned that I indeed got through it and that I am willing to talk about it. We the joy of belonging to a community as well as the feelings of frustration at its rules and laws. Goldbloom explores complicated questions about community and individuality and she does so with great wit, humor and sensitivity.
Surie grabbed me early on and I could tell she was not going to let go. I laughed with her and I ached with her and felt the pains of being included and excluded, the wonders and joys of tradition, and the difficulties of coming to terms with oneself. This is “a novel of wisdom and uncertainty, of love in its greater and lesser forms, and of the struggle between how it should be and how it is.” ―Amy Bloom, author of “White Houses”.
Vuong, Ocean. “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel”, Penguin Press, 2019.
A Family, A First Love and Telling a Story
Before I read this novel, I knew Ocean Vuong as a fine poet and even though I knew a novel was in progress, he really surprised me with this. “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter is a family’s history that began before he was born. The history is rooted in Vietnam and is, I effect, a look into parts of his life that his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. In the letter we feel the undeniable love between a single mother and her son. It is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. The letter asks questions that are important to our American moment, “immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness”.
Most of you have no idea what it is like to have a family member who cannot read (or even speak the same language you do). My grandmother and I were never able to communicate—she knew she had grandchildren but really knew nothing about us. How different it could have been had we been able to share thoughts. We missed each other’s stories. “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is about the power of telling one’s own story and the silence of not being heard.
Ocean Vuong’s writing stuns in its grace as he writes about people in disparate worlds. He asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. Here is the question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy— this is what propels the novel. There is a sense of immediacy here but we live in a world that demands immediacy. Unlike others, I do not feel that this immediacy is unique since I live with it every day.
Vuong was first published as a poet, and his poetry in this novel; in the images and ideas. Little Dog is the narrator and he is in his late twenties. He writes a letter to his Vietnamese mother. Even though Little Dog and his family grew up poor in Hartford, Connecticut, his mother still carries the burden of the war, as does his grandmother, and Little Dog’s struggles reach not only back to the traumas of Vietnam but forward in his efforts to fit in to a world that sees him as other. Little Dog does eventually have a relationship with an older “redneck” boy, but that is only temporary. His desire to write and his family are what makes him strong. This is an in-depth look at masculinity, art, and opioids. It is frank and often raw but always polishes. We read of the strengths and limitations of human connection and the importance of speaking one’s truth.
The book reads like memoir and book-length poem but it defies a label since it is really about why we need stories in order to survive. It “is an ode to loss and struggle, to being a Vietnamese American, to Hartford, Connecticut, and it’s a compassionate epistolary ode to a mother who may or may not know how to read.”
Vuong examines whether putting words to one’s experience can cover wounds that have lasted for generations, and whether we are ever truly heard by those we love.
Described as literary fiction, but probably auto biographical, we are taken into the world of the other through flashbacks to his childhood when he is bullied at school, physically abused by his mother, protected by his grandmother.
It is also about a love between a mother and son and an intimate portrait of his first relationship as he falls in love with another boy (explicitly depicted). We read of drug addiction, poignant moments reflecting his love of his mother and grandmother. It is an amazing look at the Vietnamese immigrant experience.
The book is divided into three sections, without titles, just Roman numerals. Their themes are obvious— being an immigrant in the US, being gay and death. Once again, the best words to describe this book are raw, visceral and vicious but honestly so. It is that honesty and Vuong’s language that makes this such a beautiful read.
Hahn, Andrew. “God’s Boy”, Sibling Rivalry, 2019.
The Body, Desire and So Much More
I love reviewing. I love finding new voices and sharing them with others and this has been a good week for that. I have, so far, this week read three important books by authors I did not know and I am still reeling from the impressions they made on me. I am constantly amazed at the new directions that LGBT poetry is taking and like everything else, it has become bold and says so much of what we once dared not say.
Andrew Hahn’s “God’s Boy” floored me. In his 22 poems, he struggles “with the fallibility of the body and desire in the ex-Christian tradition” and gives us his thoughts on “the church’s toxic masculinity” as he attempts to make peace with his worship between dad/dy and God as he struggles searching for “a loving mirror for the queer body”. We profoundly sense, along with him, what it means to not be there and the isolation of being alone or being with someone only temporarily. We immediately see the difference between the idea of masculinity as prescribed by the church in contrast to what Hahn sees and so he “queers the church-indoctrinated masculine, stating, ‘boys are not born w a bud in one hand & a dick in the other / boys are born crying’.” Hanh tells us that there is indeed a place for these boys and it is holy.
So much of what he says here mirrors so much of what many of us feel as we attempt to reconcile our faith with our sexuality. While not going through much of what he endured, I had many of the same thoughts as I attempted to find my place in the Jewish religion. The mandates are not as strong as what he encountered but the pain is the same. I do not remember ever using eroticism in order to bring Jewish traditions closer to me but this is what poet Hahn does so successfully and, dare I say, beautifully. He lays down his body (and from what I can tell, quite a nice body at that) to show the line between condemnation and pleasure. He applies Christian ritual and worship in order to show us different interpretations of biblical teachings and “poetry’s position in changing the perspective of dominant society’s values and beliefs.” As I read that thought, my lips form the word “Wow!”.
Writing about Liberty University (Hahn uses a small “l”) he tells us that it is the world’s largest evangelical college thus showing it as an intimidating place for our people but then he gives us several poems that are confessional but do not require absolution. The focus is on dominant and submissive figures in which God and daddy become interchangeable. You might ask if being submissive to daddy then means becoming submissive to God. “boy” answers to both “God” and “dad/dy,” thus showing that there is a great joy in being submissive. Yet passive and submissive are not the same. Passive does not mean that the submissive role does not allow for the action of enjoyment.
I believe what I love the most here is the use of biblical characters. Those of you who know me, know that I am a great fan of the Bible and its characters and that still today, I study Bible by myself for an hour every day. I am constantly looking at new approaches to understanding situations and characters. I am sure that for the next few days I will be influenced by how Hahn sees and uses these characters and that is one of the highest compliments I can give to him. Hahn’s biblical characters morph into members of his family and are used to show the relationship between the poet and God. He amazingly transforms Jesus (what do I know of Jesus?) into a gay son and God into his anti-gay father. Jesus suffers but gets no salvation and Hahn uses the crucifixion as a parable as to how God has created man and the homophobia that followed.
Hahn goes even further and reflects on the etymology of the word “faggot” showing us the connotations and denotations of the word and how social categorizations have used it. Rather than use it himself, Hahn has found metaphorical representations and analogies to say what he means.
I stand in awe of someone who attempts to do all that Hahn has done here. He shows us intimacy holding hands with violence while portraying the beauty of gay people and what it means to be gay. I could keep on writing for pages and pages but I suggest that you get a copy, read it and then we will talk.
Deoul, Stefani. “Say Her Name”, (A Sid Rubin Silicon Alley Adventure), Bywater Books, 2019.
“Self-Discovery and Empowerment”
It is so good to welcome writer Stefani Deoul and her created character Sid Rubin back into my life, even if just for a short while. I have come to see both of them as friends and I have missed them both. For those of you who are new to “Silicon Alley Adventures”, whom we have met twice before. She is super smart and a smart ass teen coder with “a strong conscience and a knack for solving problems.”
Deoul tells us that she has a new love in her life. While involved in a snow ball fight (what perfect timing to be reading this as the first snow of the winter falls in Boston), she is distracted by the fun she is having, she does not duck and gets hit in the face pushing her into Imani and the two begin to slide until she hears the ice crack and they see a finger through that crack. She is soon joined by friends Jimmy, Sid, Ari, and Vikram who begin a rescue sensing that there is more to this than they think. (It’s a mystery so I can’t share all).
That finger then becomes a hand and then a body of a young girl who is not alone. She is joined by seven more skeletons of whom we know nothing and they (and us, the readers) are soon involved in genetic genealogy hunt, the kind of activity that Sid relishes. However, Ava, Sid’s new girlfriend, is not on board. We see, as we so often do, in stories about our youth, that in order to learn about someone else, we must learn about ourselves.
It is a good thing that today is a lousy weather day and that I had nothing better to do because I was soon so involved in the story and determined not to go anywhere until I finished it.
I love Stefani Deoul’s writing. Not only is it clear and precise, but she always manages to get a message in and this time it is all about. This time it is all about friendship and its power. Sometimes we forget that a friendship, like a relationship, is based on compromise— giving and taking. We share the good and the bad, the silly and the mundane. Sid is very lucky that she has such diverse friends and acceptance is based upon worth and not appearance or any other outer distinctions. We especially see this in Sid and Ava. As if it is not enough to have a story about a girl loving another girl with a disability, we also have a story of social justice for those of another race whose lives were taken from them long ago.
More than that I cannot say— well, I can but have chosen not to so that you can experience a wonderful read that I did not spoil by saying too much. But yes, there is a problem. We have to wait now for the next adventure.
White, Edmund. “The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading”, Bloomsbury, 2018.
A Life Through Reading
I cannot say much about Edmund White’s new book since it will not be released until June. I can tell you that it is Edmund White at his usual best as he shares his life with his readers. While he achieved fame as a writer, he looks back at other writers and their books that have influenced him thus making this a literary memoir. We see that every major event in White’s life has a book to go with it. I had a great time comparing my own reading history and was surprised to see how much we read in common. The occasions might have been different but the books were the same in most cases.
Just from having read his entire literary output, I knew that Marcel Proust was very influential on White and hear we learn that “Remembrance of Things Past” opened up the seemingly closed world of homosexuality while he was at boarding school in Michigan. White came to the poetry Ezra Pound poems through a lover he followed to New York and he tells us that one of his novels was inspired by the biography of Stephen Crane What I found especially interested was that White lost his desire to read when he had heart surgery in 2014 but it was also then that he realized the tremendous influence that books had on his life. Reading formed “his tastes, shaping his memories, and amusing him through the best and worst life had to offer.”
This new memoir looks at the various ways that reading has influenced both White, the man and his work. To do this White brings autobiography and literary criticism together. He has wonderful stories to tell about the amazing people he has met and who have shared his life.
Lemay, Mimi. “What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.
Returning to the Past to Move Forward
I love reading memoirs, especially memoirs that are so honest and so real that they move me in many different ways. Mimi Lemay’s “What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation” is such a memoir. Yet this is so much more than a memoir—it is an odyssey, a life a guide to understanding and an examination of a life and the culture that shaped that life. Lately we have had many memoirs written about and/or by transgender children. We have heard from mothers on how they learned to deal (or nor to deal with a child who is different from other children) and we have had memoirs about those who chose to leave the faith in which they were raised. Now we have the story of a mother who struggled with both issues.
Mimi Lemay and her husband welcomed their daughter Em to the world and to their family. From the time he was two and half, Em told his family that he is a boy and then became Jacob. Having a transgender nephew, I understand how the Lemay’s world was rocked by this and, in fact, I saw much of my sister in Mimi Lemay. How does one accept the fact that the child they gave birth to is not the child it was thought to be?
As Lemay struggled with this knowledge, she looked back into her own life as she tried to find why what was going on with her child that caused her to reexamine her past and her own struggle to live an authentic life as she knew it to be.
Lemay tells her story in alternating chapters in which we learn about the Jewish faith and those traditions that were part of her life. She grew up in a Hassidic family with her mother and two siblings. Her father was not present but because had not given her mother a divorce, her mother had to support her family. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is based on tradition and faith that are the ruling way of life. Every aspect of her life is actually dictated by the ancient rules of Judaism which set Lemay’s role as a female and is predetermined and preordained from birth until death. Like all of us who are raised in the Orthodox tradition, she struggled with what Judaism demanded of her. Ultimately she decided leave her religious community and this also meant that she left the very strict gender roles that are integral to orthodox Judaism.
Divorce among the Orthodox is a whole other world and Lemay’s mother was forced to deal with “the indignity of being unmarried in a society that values women as mothers and wives.” As a young girl, Mimi was fascinated by the fact that Torah study for girls is limited and she was filled with questions which probably would never be answered. She was a good student at school but she desired more freedom. Traditional Orthodox Jewish education requires separation of the genders. She heard about a place in England where girls were taught and learned like boys and together with them but because she was not from a good family (we see again that divorce is looked down upon), her admittance was denied. On her own, she wrote the headmaster and was accepted but she was still filled with questions which she had to learn to put aside. Questions often lead to safe-isolation and as we follow Lemay’s life we see her search for authentication increase yet she found a soulmate who agreed to let her study and they were engaged to marry. When his indiscretion with another woman was discovered, the engagement was cancelled and she went off to college and left orthodoxy behind and she married a man, Joe, who was not Jewish.
You might wonder why all of this background is necessary. I recently read that Lemay’s plans were to write about being a parent to a transgender child but as she thought about it, she realized that she was looking at her own life which also needed to be told if she were to honestly discuss her child. The stories play on each other since the goal is to find the true self. “Each story sheds light on the other.” (As I write this, I am continually aware that what Lemay writes provokes a great deal of thought). Mimi wanted to and was prepared to help her son live an authentic life and this was a time when there is not much agreement on how a transgender child is to be raised. Though the two dialogues we have here, we see into the heart of a mother and her child and the family that believes that one must live authentically. There is a great of love and courage in the words we read.
We really have nothing else available about transgender children as young as Jacob making this a very important book. This also the story of a mother and family who are able and willing to cone together over radical so that a child can be who he is. I did not go into what Lemay has used to raise Jacob because you can read that here easily enough. Besides I did not want to spoil the read for others.
Today Jacob is nine-years-old and thriving. While Lemay is now non-orthodox, she believes in God even after years of anger, confusion and frustration. As a gay somewhat observant Jew, I am blown away by this book and I will laud it whenever possible. We all have journeys and as different as they may be, there are stops along the way that we all share. Transformation is part of it and how we are transformed depends upon how we make the journey and what we face as we do. Jacob, his mother Mimi (and the entire Lemay family) are still on their journey and while I am almost home, I cannot help but see those similarities we share. I wept, chuckled and smiled as I read much as I did on my journey and much as has done the Lemay family. I am in wonderful company here. I must quote Mimi Lemay here when she says what we all know, “There are people who are different among us, and having these unique experiences is precious. They need a village to support them. Their story is important to our human experience.”
“I hope people will get comfort and feel they are not alone. I hope they will realize the world is changing, and people are fighting hard for their kids. I hope they will be buoyed up and inspired to continue on the road they’re on to support their kids. There are so many rewards to affirming a child, no matter how difficult it seems. I hope the book gives the parents of transgender children the strength to be that person who stands between their child and the world, so their child is allowed to be who they are.”
Reardon, Robin. “On Chocorua”, Book One in the Trailblazer Series, Robin Reardon, 2019.
From College to the World
I became a Robin Reardon fan some eight books ago when she was then publishing with Kensington books. There was something about her writing that pulled me in immediately and her plots were exactly what was needed. When Reardon began writing there was most definitely a dearth of LGBTQ literature for young readers. I really believe that she was partly responsible for that changing. Reardon’s voice could speak to the entire nation and perhaps one day it will. We are finally seeing acceptance of the LGBTQ community and with that things are constantly changing.
With the publication of Reardon’s ninth book, we have a beginning to the three volume series, “Trailblazer”. The books are centered around Nathan Bartlett and follow him through his freshman year in college to his early twenties as he does what all of us have had to do— find our way. I think that for many of us, the quest to know who we are is never ending. We often forget that our futures depend upon our pasts.
Nathan faces detours in his journeys including addictions that hamper his way. Being a trailblazer usually means doing something ahead of others and preparing the path so that others will be able to walk on it. Nathan becomes an explorer who sometimes finds himself at dead ends—- he forgets that the ending is not always the goal but the way to the ending is what is important. To make important choices, we must know ourselves and not knowing makes the road that much more difficult. I often wonder if we ever grow up completely. Life is not about answers but about the questions. Reardon describes Nathan as a trailblazer because he dares to explore himself and who he is and to do that he has had to muster up courage and a willingness to stick with it until he is content. It would certainly be much easier for him to use someone else’s path but doing so could push him out of the picture and he would become just a number of one who tried. This is his journey and for it to remain his, he must forge his own way.
Chocorua is Nathan’s metaphor. During the first year of college, we have the power to really be who we want to me if we know who that is. Nathan does not use the best judgment when he acts and he learns from that. There were moments when I wanted to reach out to him and make him feel loved and there were times when I was ready to use every four letter word I know on him. I almost caught myself yelling at him when he fell in love with someone because he looked like his own brother and was straight, I became very angry when he ventured into the world of addiction and I really thought that he had lost it when he decided to climb a mountain regardless of the awful weather conditions. But then again, haven’t we all done things that are just as crazy ?
Nathan was strong enough to deal with his personal demons head on by recognizing that for many questions there are no easy answers. Very few of us have our lives handed to us so, like Nathan, we have to struggle and even suffer for what we feel is important. I really loved being with Nathan on his journey and I am especially glad that it was Robin Reardon who wrote the wonderful text. Each of her books has tackled some aspect of LGBT life that can be problematic and while she does not have all the answers, she gives us options to think about. Reardon is the kid of writer whose words stay with you long after the read is over. For me that is one of the definitions of good literature. Nathan’s journey is a collective journey with room for all of us to become a part of. We might not realize it but by reading this book, we are learning a lot about who we really are.
I have had the pleasure of meeting and having coffee with writer Reardon and she is as terrific of a person as she is as a writer. However, I do hate having to wait for the next two books. I am very aware that I have not shared much of the plot with you and that is because I want all of us to be on this journey and to tell about it might spoil the experience.
Sienna, Noam. “A Rainbow Thread: Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969”, Print-O-Craft, 2019.
An Infinite Rainbow
I first heard of “A Rainbow Thread” via a friend who told me he had just ordered a copy and while my friend gave me no details aside from this book Jewish and gay, I went ahead and wrote to the publisher to get a review copy. When the book arrived I was first astounded by the 425 page length and then by the tremendous amount of research that it must have taken to compile such a book. Writer Noam Sienna tells us that the book maintains a balancing act between “LGBTQ Jewish history as an infinite rainbow, with no beginning or end, and with no clear boundaries between its different facets” (great analogy and the fact that there is “a thread: a continuity that links our lives, our joys, and our struggles today to an ancestral heritage in the past and to our inheritors in the future.” Sienna does not see history as a march toward a universal goal. Rather he sees it as processes that are made up of connections, interruptions, and innovations. While we cannot push who we are on those who came before us but we also cannot ignore their history that has become some of our behaviors and shared practices; traditions that take stories to other places and times, and that are often relevant in our lives today.
I can imagine Sienna going through the history of the Jews looking for examples to back his thesis and to find so much (that many of us never thought about— my adult life has been consumed by my wanting to find a way to preserve the LGBT Jewish literary canon so that the wealth of information it holds can be shared by everyone. Yet with all the work that I have done in the past, I did not come across many of the selections in this anthology.
Sienna explains how to encounter primary historical documents as a way of imagining new futures. He uses classical midrashim as two texts and lets us reread them through queer eyes thus expanding our ideas on what Jewishness is today. We see that Jewish sexuality and gender in practice was not as restricted by boundaries of gender, sex, nationality, or religion as we might have thought. Sienna is not pushing any kind of gay agenda but rather pointing out that we must rethink Judaism. In doing so, we question assumptions about how Jews have understood sexuality and gender throughout our long history as a people during which Jewish identity is often imagined as existing in spite of, or in opposition to,—the world of Jewish tradition. We are encouraged to read and reread, reimagine and revise what today’s Judaism can mean. process of constantly rereading, reimagining, and revising our understanding of what Judaism has meant, and what it can mean for us today.
What is contained in the book spans two millennia, five continents and translations from fifteen different languages. “A Rainbow Thread” is, in effect, queer Jewish history that includes poetry, drama, commentary, law and memoir. Like so many others, I have doubted that there is a place for me in Judaism and I thought I was forging a new path when I remain determined to be an active practicing Jew. I have since learned differently and now have a way to prove it— with this book. I am overwhelmed by the amount of information in “A Rainbow Thread” and I find myself lingering over each text included here and wondering why I had never read it before. We are done sitting on Judaism’s margins and we can now pitch our tents where we want. It may not be easy to do so but remember that it was once impossible to do so. I am in awe of what I see here and can’t wait to use it as a teaching tool.
Breitman, Richard. “The Berlin Mission: The American Who Resisted Nazi Germany from Within”, Public Affairs, 2019.
An Unlikely Hero
Richard Breitman gives us the story of an unlikely hero–the US consul who analyzed the threat posed by Nazi Germany and what was to come. In 1929, Raymond Geist went to Berlin where he handled visas for emigrants to the US in his job as a consul. Geist helped Albert Einstein leave Germany just before Hitler came to power. Once the Nazis began to persecute and oppress Jews and others, Geist’s role became exceedingly important. He was responsible for extricating Sigmund Freud from Vienna. He understood the scale and urgency of the humanitarian crisis.
Geist hid his homosexual relationship with a German while challenging the Nazi police state when it abused Americans in Germany or threatened the interests of the United States. He made great use of a restrictive US immigration quota and secured visas for hundreds of unaccompanied children. At the same time, he maintained a working relationship with high Nazi officials such as Himmler, Heydrich, and Göring.
While US ambassadors and consuls general came to Germany and went from Germany, Geist remained in Berlin for ten years. He was an invaluable analyst and problem solver and the first American official to warn that Germany’s Jews would become part of the genocide, later known as the Holocaust. This is a look at Germany of the 1930s as seen through the life of a lesser-known historical figure. There was no American that knew Nazi Germany better than Raymond Geist. He served as the trusted intermediary between terrified Jews and the Gestapo. Here is Geist’s extraordinary, largely untold life, along with a politically risky homosexual romance that is an exciting read.
Breitman has based his book on entirely new documentation and shows us the difficult job of an official in charge of visas to the United States, who both saw and understood the growing plight of German Jews and helped many to get to America’s safety even with this country’s restrictive immigration policy. Geist’s efforts became all the more crucial as, in early as in December 1938 when he understood from his contacts at the highest ranks of the Gestapo that the Jews who stayed under Hitler’s domination would ultimately be done away with. He shared this with Washington.
We read of interesting and infamous historical figures that Geist comes in contact with, including Hitler himself and his fight to get people out of Germany in the face of Nazism and American anti-Semitism is totally admirable.
Geist worked to manipulate his superiors while he was meeting with and personally pressuring Nazi to allow Jews to leave the country—and hiding his romantic relationship with a German man. “Geist fought against Nazi Germany indirectly” and was among the first to sound the alarm about Hitler’s plans for world domination and the genocide of the Jewish people.
Baker, Paul. “Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language”, Reaktion, 2019.
Our Unique Language
Polari is a language that was used chiefly by gay men in the first half of the twentieth century in Great Britain. It was a time when being gay could result in criminal prosecution, or worse, and Polari offered its speakers a degree of camouflage from the public and a way of expressing humor as well as a way of identification and of establishing a community. From whence it came is fascinating with colorful and varied roots that included thieves’ Cant to Lingua Franca and prostitutes’ slang. In the mid-1960s it came into the limelight by the characters Julian and Sandy, (Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) on the BBC radio show “Round the Horne”.
In almost every gay community there has been a coded language spoken by the members of the community to each other but not as an established language like Polari.
In “Fabulosa!”, Paul Baker gives us the story of Polari and he does so with “skill, erudition, and tenderness’, going back to its historical origins. He shares its linguistic traits and looks at the ways and the environments in which it was spoken, why it declined, and its surprise reemergence in the twenty-first century. The cast of characters includes drag queens and sailors and “Dilly boys and macho clones.” Baker gives us a wonderfully readable account the language that is funny, filthy, and ingenious.
We have parts of interviews with Polari speakers, whose firsthand recollections are both arresting and funny. The innuendo is very important and therefore Baker manages to sneak one in whenever he can. There is evidence that the language persisted into the 1980s and ’90s in theater circles, and now it is enjoying a rebirth as a cultural curio. I look at it the way Yiddish to the Jewish people has also seen a rebirth.
It is a language that does not want to die and neither do we want it to because its death could also bring about the death of some of the unique attributes of the gay community. Both vocabulary-wise and for sociological reasons, it is important to read this.
Polari came about as a reaction to the torment and harassment of the gay community and for that alone, it must not be forgotten and this explains which is why this book is important. We see Baker’s work here is that of a writer “interested in language who has been led by his subject to think about social oppression.” Polari flourished in the circles of the theater and the merchant navy. There were political uses of vulgar innuendo yet even with this, Baker’s interviews are filled with warmth and good humor.
We become aware of the linguistic lengths to which gay people had to go to hide in plain sight in a culture that was homophobic . Baker writes about the changing attitude towards Polari within the gay community in the seventies and eighties, and on the important reclamation performed by The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. This is also a fine primer for would-be Polari speakers. This book has great style as it presents the roots and history of Polari during a time of days of “illegality, secrecy and peril.” We get a picture of gay underground culture and its transformations “in the years since homosexuality was decriminalized, if not destigmatized, in 1969.”
We see here that linguistics area potent force in social analysis and it brings back the lives of the gay men of the past and preserves the diversity of experiences at an age of hardship and bigotry. “Fabulosa!” is an important celebration of Polari’s message—which is about laughing at your flaws, creating hope from tragedy, and seeing humor in the face of cruelty and oppression.”
Stein, Abby Chava. “Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman”, Seal Press , 2019.
A Jewish Trans Coming-Out Story
Abby Stein’s “Becoming Eve” has finally arrived after having been on to read and review lists for a while. Having been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, I have been very curious about Abby’s coming out story and reading about if she has been able to reconcile her faith with her gender. I remember all too well how it was for me to come out as gay as an Orthodox Jew and I have since heard thousands of stories from others and each is different to some degree. For Abby, being a descendant of a great rabbinic dynasty, the pressure must have been great yet as we read here, she was successful and has become an icon to others who experience what she went through. She was born male and destined to become a rabbinic leader but she became a woman.
Raised in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn that is “isolated in a culture that lives according to the laws and practices of eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, speaking only Yiddish and Hebrew and shunning modern life” already gave her quite a load to ponder. She was born as the first son in a dynastic rabbinical family and poised to become a leader of the next generation of Hasidic Jews. It didn’t happen quite that way.
At a young age, Abby knew that she was a girl. She looked for answers wherever she could find them including in forbidden religious texts and smuggled secular examinations of faith. Finally, she was able to leave her ultra-Orthodox manhood and came to mainstream femininity. This was indeed a radical choice that resulted in her leaving her home, her family, her way of life. Abby’s story has two strands or two transitions—the first was her transition from male to trans woman, the second was the transition from ultra-Orthodoxy. In the past, we have had a series of books from those who left Orthodoxy but, as far as I know, this is the first and therefor only memoir of a trans woman leaving it.
For those who have never lived in an ultra-Orthodoxy community, there is a lot to be learned here. These communities give their members a feeling of safety, a feeling of belonging, a unique culture and love but these communities are indeed insular and Abby shares that she did not speak English (Hasidic Yiddish is the language of these communities), she did not go movies, the theater or museums, she did not wear jeans, she had not heard the Beatles or Britney and she did not see television. She also shares her feelings about biology, culture, faith, and identity. I remember rebelling against so many rules that we had but I never dreamt that I could leave them behind me. I have since done so, or so I think, but I am reminded all of the time of the ways we did things in my family and in my community which was not nearly what Abby experiences. After all, I grew up in New Orleans and there was no ultra-Orthodox community per se.
It seems to me, after reading Abby’s story, that there is a question that we all face: How far does one go to become the person he/she/they were meant to be? It is difficult to struggle with issues of faith because of sexuality, I cannot imagine how difficult it was for Abby because of gender. She has explained as best she can but there is so much that cannot be put into words.
Abby explains that she first questioned the Hasidic lifestyle because of her gender, thinking that the very same people who were teaching about God and Judaism were the same people who were wrong about her gender. Could it be possible that they were also wrong about other things as well. Hasidic society is gender segregated as is Orthodox Judaism and this means that boys and girls do not play or learn together. One is forced to remain in the gender with which he/she/they were born. As we are well aware, Orthodox Judaism is a patriarchal religion and every father wants a son. Abby was the son they wanted, especially after he came along after five sisters.
Most of Abby’s story takes place before her decision to transition and she says that the epilogue is the prequel to another book. Her transition is still ongoing and she says that she and her editor focus on reaching maturity and this is her story of becoming— of her coming into her real self. The full story is yet untold and the full Abby is yet to be. Today she Jewishly observes nothing and celebrates what she wants to. Anny’s story is beautifully written and an important book that I am sure will be read again and again. The only downside is that now I have to wait for the next part of the story.
Below is a short biographical sketch of Abby Klein. I took it directly from the book for those who have never heard of Abby and for those who want to know more.
“Abby is the tenth-generation descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement. In 2015, she came out as a woman, and now works as a trans activist. In 2019, she served on the steering committee for the Women’s March in Washington, DC, and she was named by the Jewish Week as one of the “36 Under 36” Jews who are affecting change in the world. She lives in New York City. Of course, her story is not over.”