Gay Chutzpah: An LGBT Synagogue Thrives

In 1973, a group of Jewish gay people—mostly men—gathered in New York City and created what eventually became Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. In the decades since then, the organization has burgeoned, and been a leader both within Judaism and within the LGBTQ movement.

The congregation is also known to some—perhaps many—because of an ethnography undertaken by an Israeli anthropologist who specialized in migration, but became intrigued with the congregation when in New York. Moshe Shokeid, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University, wrote A Gay Synagogue in New York, a study based on participant observation and interviews with congregants in 1989.

The book has since been reissued twice, and Shokeid has continued to publish in related areas. Looking back across the decades, much has changed for CBST, as much has changed in terms of what is published regarding LGBT matters and religion. I spoke to Shokeid in the summer of 2011.

Susan Henking: You open your book, A Gay Synagogue in New York, by asking “How did a mainstream Israeli anthropologist come to study a gay synagogue in New York?” As you reflect on that same question now, some years later, how do you see that choice and its impact on you?

Moshe Shokeid: Twenty years later I observe a new social reality. Gay life in the United States and other Western countries has been transformed in public life to the extent of becoming almost “mainstream.” Lesbians and gays have come out and are fully accepted in leading social, political and cultural positions. The stigma that engulfed homosexuality also in academic circles evaporated—programs of Lesbian and Gay studies as well as the more encompassing Gender Studies are popular on many campuses. However, I congratulate myself for taking that step before the change of social sentiment and public recognition came around.

Somehow I hope my own study helped reveal the importance and the rich potential of conducting original research in that field of social life. Though unexpectedly and to an extent against some critical opinions about my choice, I feel my CBST ethnography became the hallmark of my work.

Myself, I am somewhat “schizophrenic” as my professional identity is divided between the Israeli field of research (that also made me adopt my name, Shokeid, years ago) and the more recent involvement with the LGBT field that started with my work on CBST. However, I am ready to pay the price—becoming somewhat marginal in both professional circles. 

In the more recent edition of the book, you note that there is a “growing interest in issues of homosexuality, spirituality, and Judaism.” What do you see as relation of scholarship like yours to this growing interest and/or to related social change?

First, anthropologists who from a very early stage were often engaged in studying religion and ritual among Third World societies, have rarely invested themselves in the study of religious life in major Christian/Jewish/Muslim societies. They have thus abandoned a fertile and most relevant field of research.

But that seems to have changed now. My interest and other contemporary ethnographies add a new “modern” dimension to the shelf of books presenting religious life beside the Nuer, the Lugbara, and other groups studied by classical anthropologists.

And a relationship to Judaism?

Although from an early stage the field of anthropology recruited many Jewish students, among them well known leaders of the profession in Britain and the U.S., they mostly showed no interest in the study of Jewish communities or Jewish culture.

Rarely did anthropologists of Jewish extraction join associations of Jewish studies, which they assumed to concentrate mostly on issues related to Hebrew texts, Jewish history, Jewish folklore, and the prescriptions of rules and manners in daily life. My work adds to a more recent trend of “coming out” among anthropologists of Jewish background who are not worried of being labeled as “tribal” or parochial in their choice of fieldwork sites.

What sorts of responses have you had to the book—and to the related work you have done—from communities within Judaism? LGBT communities? Colleague anthropologists?

My colleagues who have been engaged in the conventional field of Jewish life have had mixed responses. They were ambivalent about my conferring respectability to a “deviant” presentation of Judaism. Nevertheless, they seemed curious about that phenomenon and usually admitted the “professionalism” of the author.

A close colleague and friend (Orthodox in daily life), told me when the book came out: “I don’t like your book, not because it is not good enough, but because it is GOOD! Your book helps legitimize a way of life I deeply resent.” Leonard Plotnicov, editor of the journal Ethnology, whom I didn’t know at the time, wrote a most flattering blurb for the cover of my book. Leading gay/lesbian colleagues whom I also didn’t know at that time were supportive in reviews and comments (Ellen Lewin, Esther Newton and others). Other colleagues seemed surprised at my new choice of fieldwork site, but appreciative of my employment of the “old” method of participant observation.

I had no direct connection with LGBT communities, but gay friends seemed very pleased with my choice and complimented me for the supportive presentation and the engaging literary style. The editor of Lingua Franca assigned a critical review. 

Can you comment on how the men and women you met responded to your book?

The book was received with open enthusiasm. Friends told me they moved out copies from back shelves to front desks at Barnes and Noble. They were busy trying to identify the participants in the ethnography hidden behind invented names. I was approached by congregants I had little communication with before, who suddenly discovered I was a “serious” guy. It seems some had been suspicious about the presence of an anthropologist among them, and I kept on a modest profile trying to avoid much attention.

There were also a few who discovered earlier my ethnography about the Israelis in Queens (the “Yordim”) which was reported in a West Side magazine and were less surprised. The only one who expressed some reservations was a prominent congregant whom I described as a political leader while he considered himself more of a spiritual leader. But he told me he read the book twice and found no other wrong descriptions. I think he was surprised I had so much to tell about the synagogue’s dynamics and its membership.

I continue to meet with close friends on my visits to NY as well as during the congregants’ visits to Israel.

One of the topics you raise in the ethnography has to do with “cracked identities” and their repair—and the role of institution-building in accomplishing this. And throughout the book you raise the question of why people would join a gay synagogue. Do you see that question differently now than you might have in 1989?

There is a major difference these days: gay people in New York are invited to join mainstream liberal synagogues.

Already a few years ago I knew about the gay outreach policy at B’nai Jeshurun, a leading (and very popular) Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side. Gay people are accepted in liberal rabbinical seminaries and have the opportunity to serve as openly gay rabbis.

So, with regard to “cracked identity,” it seems to me that Jewish homosexuals today are far less emotionally stressed by the code that ruled out the possibility of being both Jewish and gay. Even among some Orthodox Jewish communities the issue is being addressed—though not yet resolved.

I love your notion of “layered ethnographies”—in which you add to prior ethnographies rather than amend them. So, the ethnography of CBST includes the first and second editions of your book as well as subsequent articles. Do you see the layers of your ethnographic work on CBST as linked to layers of history concerning the relation of LGBT matters and Judaism?

Yes. For example, the impact of Jewish feminism that influenced women to claim a growing role in synagogue life. No surprise, two ordained women (both lesbians) are employed these days as rabbis at CBST. A former assistant rabbi, a heterosexual, was also a woman.

I have to admit I am dying to ask—what you make of the shifts perhaps evident in the role of CBST given the rise of the internet and their active and engaged website, their role in Pride in New York City, and their very visibility.

I regret I can’t answer. I have no information about the impact of that tool of communication and public visibility.

Not having studied the impact of CBST’s impressive website, I assume it must have expanded the potential of membership recruitment. In the earlier days it was by the chance of knowing somebody or an accidental rumor that made one “take the risk” and attend a service at CBST. In the Internet era, however, the information is easily available to the “accidental” lesbian or gay man in their search for suitable venues of sociability and spirituality.

Actually, during my last visits to services I was overwhelmed by the growth of the congregation and particularly the high percentage of young people present among the congregants.

You have certainly added to your work on LGBT matters ethnographically since the 2002 edition of your book. What do you see as the core of your more recent contributions?

My later publications were mostly engaged with the demographic major change at CBST—the expansion of the lesbian constituency. What seemed to be mostly a gay men’s “club” during the initial period of my observations has been dramatically transformed. It changed the structure of leadership and the culture of the synagogue—in particular, the growing visibility of children and the emphasis on sanctified conjugal relationships of gay and lesbian couples. The participation of women cantors has been part of a new attractive dimension of musicality at most services.

Having done ethnographies in NY—and also work in Israel, written in both English and Hebrew, and taught in both countries, can you speak with us about the ways you see the places as similar and different?

My work in Israel was mostly engaged with issues related to “national social problems”—the absorption of immigrants in particular. In the U.S., in contrast, I was inclined to study issues relevant to groups and individuals who confronted “personal problems” of identity and association that separated them from the mainstream’s norms and expectations.

Also, you have written about identity in relation to LGBT matters and about migration. Is there a relationship there?

At the end of the day both immigrants and LGBT people share a problem of claiming their legitimate status and equal rights in mainstream society.

Anthropology has a complex relationship to colonialism and to social change. What do you think the place of ethnography is in social change?

Both during my earlier work among North African immigrants and later with CBST, I believed that anthropologists’ work carries the commitment and the promise of offering visibility to groups and cultural traditions that are treated as marginal or even stigmatized among the majority.

If you were to imagine the future—or to imagine the most hopeful future—what would the impact of A Gay Synagogue in New York be? And how would our world be different?

I hope that my ethnography would join the company of earlier good ethnographies that have become part of the records of our changing world. I assume we all have a short list of ethnographies or other types of scholarship that influenced our professional development and served as models for our later work. On my list I mention, for example, John Middleton’s Lugbara Religion, Victor Turner’s The Forest of Symbols and Esther Newton’s Mother Camp.

I hope that some younger anthropologists might find my CBST ethnography a building brick in the initiation process of their own academic career. And more broadly, I hope my book would be remembered among later generations at CBST (a congregation that I believe will continue to grow) as a document that was intended to record their story as proof (“charter”) for the emergence of an institution to become an integral part of the plethora of Jewish life in NY.

As for the “neutral” reader who is not necessarily an academic, gay or Jewish, I hope he/she would find my book an intriguing story of men and women, members of a stigmatized minority, who had the vision, the energy, the stamina and the “chutzpah” to create a viable community that survived the tragedy of a devastating plague and succeeded in becoming a visible and legitimate public institution.