Kippah Keeping On: Trials of a Queer Jew

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While on vacation in Tel Aviv a few years back, I messaged a guy off Grindr. Yotam was a student at the university, and he invited me over for a spliff on a Thursday night. I gladly accepted. He took my coat, but stopped midway to hanging it up when I took off my beanie.

“I didn’t see that on Grindr,” he said, pointing to my kippah (Hebrew for yarmulke). He didn’t say it snidely, but with genuine surprise, as if wondering what I was doing here. “You could have mentioned it.” True I suppose, but in the online world, you should consider yourself lucky to get a face pic. We smoked, sitting on opposite ends of the couch, and talked about real-estate while I played with his kitten. After about an hour he sent me home. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised. Unfortunate though it may be, the truth seems undeniable: religious queers in Israel don’t get fucked.

Every morning when I wake up, I ask myself a question: will I wear my kippah today? Most days, especially after moving to Israel, the answer is yes, but not always. Like many Jews, my relationship with God is tenuous and shifting, some days more abstract than concrete, and my choice of a head covering reflects this. When I lived in France, with its historic and unfortunately contemporary antisemitism, the answer was without fail no. I would wait until I stood on the threshold of my synagogue before putting it on, and would immediately remove it upon leaving. Back in the states, it was a toss-up, depending on how close to God I wanted to feel that day. But regardless of where in the world I am, there is one factor, without fail, that will mean doffing my kippah: whether or not I’ll be in a queer space.

In Israel, the decision of what to cover your head with is just as significant as wearing nothing at all. Black velvet kippot are favored by the Modern Orthodox, knitted are for the Religious Zionists, and of course a black hat puts you with any number of Hassidic sects. Regardless of your kippah’s material, its presence arouses certain assumptions, your religiosity chief among them. And along with that, the same preconceived notions (more often correct than not) about how you conduct your life. Caught then in the crossroads of belief and being, my kippah broadcasts my faith before anything else (including my undeniable queerness) can be announced. It is almost as if the kippah, instead of only covering the top of my head, masks me completely, rendering me unreadable.

My first week in Israel, a woman in the community asked me over brunch, “So, being gay, being religious, how does that work? Is it hard?” And I told her honestly, no, at least, not in the way I imagined she meant. In synagogue, or Shabbos lunch, I am one of the tribe, assumed to be just like everyone else. For reasons that remain mysterious, my obvious queerness goes unnoticed and unremarked. Surely, I think, they must know. But to my perpetual bafflement, not a single comment is made beyond the offer of introducing me to a lovely and single niece or sister.

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What then compels my fellow queers to point out my kippah, as if it had fallen on my head while on my way to the beach and somehow slipped my mind? As soon as I feel eyes narrow in on my non-existent hairline, it’s as if a wall has been thrown up, and I am suddenly an outsider among my own kind. I understand queers’ distaste of religion (far better than I understand religion’s distaste for queers), but their apprehension when interacting with me still perplexes.

During a gay hip-hop night in a club in Tel Aviv, amid the pulsing lights and torqueing bodies, I saw a man standing alone, isolated like a piece of driftwood set afloat. In a space packed to capacity, where one could hardly breathe without catching an elbow in the face, he stood in a void. Even I could not suppress a gasp as I noticed, almost indistinguishable against his dark hair, the thin black circle of fabric. Not here, I thought, certain I’d been mistaken. Falling short of approaching him myself, I spent the evening watching him drift among clusters of dancing queers, caught in their orbits, but unable to draw closer than arm’s length. My thoughts drifted to Yotam, to his cool reception, to my lonely walk home. At one point, when I lost sight of this queer Elijah, I wondered if he’d found someone, if someone had taken him back to their place, knowing no one had.

What is a religious queer to do? Back in the States, you can find churches, discrete rainbow flags pasted on their doors or letter boards, welcoming “all of God’s children,” but in Israel, no such advertisement exists. This is due to the orthodoxy’s stranglehold on religion in the country. Orthodox Judaism, by far the largest denomination in Israel, adheres to a strict, literal interpretation of Torah and Jewish law. While queers enjoy far more rights and protection within Israel than anywhere else in the Middle East (see my previous post), the relationship between the government and religious institutions frustrates the full inclusion of queers within religious life. Far from being separate, as in the US, State and Synagogue make for constitutionally ordained bedfellows. Only orthodox synagogues receive funding from the state, while conservative or reform synagogues (painfully scarce) are left to flounder, relying solely on private donations to survive. This same privilege permits the rabbinate (a council of orthodox rabbis charged with dispensing edicts on Jewish law and practice within the state) to define marriage (between a man and a woman, both of whom must be deemed to be practicing Jews) and disallow same-sex couples to adopt. It is any surprise then that the oppressed would be resentful and suspicious of anyone seeming to align themselves with the oppressors?

Religious queers exist. Of that I am living proof. In Atlanta, Bet Haverim welcomes queer Jews to celebrate together, as does a synagogue of the same name in Paris. But in Tel Aviv, heralded as the gay jewel of the Middle East, no organization of a comparable size exists. Gay rights continue to advance, and more and more of Israeli society turns in favor of marriage equality and extending full adoption rights to queer couples. At the same time, the fastest growing demographic in Israel remains the ultra-orthodox, an insular community committed to living Torah-oriented lives. What does the future hold for those of us caught in the middle, drawn both to the free expression of our queerness and devotion to something just as vital to our being? How will we marry our spirituality and sexuality when we cannot even marry the person we love? If forced to, who will we choose: God or Gays?

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Alex Franco is the queer son of an immigrant and a southern belle. He hails from Atlanta, GA, and now teaches English in southern Israel.