Queer Jewish Difference

Curator's Note

Because neither Jewish identity nor lesbian/gay identity is a necessarily seen identity, beginning in the mid nineteenth century and continuing through the Second World War, attempts made to find biological and social differences between Jews and Christians and between homosexuals and heterosexuals occurred in conjunction. In 1964, Sontag’s Notes on Camp identified the combination of the Jewish moral sensibility and the gay aesthetic as the shapers of modern American culture. In 1993, Tony Kushner’s award winning play, Angels in America, partnered a gay man dying of AIDS with a Jew. And in 1998, NBC pioneered the television landscape with the first-ever principal gay characters on the show Will & Grace. Will, of course was gay, and Grace Jewish.

Since then, a number of television shows pushing the boundaries of gay representation on television have included Jewish characters: Queer as Folk’s (2000) lone lesbian couple features the Jewish civil-rights attorney Melanie Marcus; The L Word (2004) includes the notoriously twisted Jenny Shecter, another Jew; and today’s hit series Glee (2009) again positions Jewish and gay identity in conjunction with the best-friend pairing of Kurt Hummel and Rachel Berry.

As the diversity amongst, and visibility of, lesbian and gay characters continues to increase, their Jewish counterparts, however, remain in the dark. The Glee holiday special not only showed Rachel creating a Christmas wish-list for her boyfriend Finn but also her serenading him with “Last Christmas” as they meandered through a Christmas tree lot. And while Modern Family does a great job showcasing gay dads (and mixed race marriages), it completely ignores Jewish identity.

Recently, someone suggested I watch Big Bang Theory to check out the Jewish mother of Howard Wolowitz. But what I soon realized is that Mrs. Wolowitz is never there to be seen. She is simply a voice – a stereotypically Jewish voice.

While in no way am I disparaging the increase and diversity of lesbian and gay representation, I can’t help but wonder: Where have all the Jews gone?


Glad you enjoyed the read.

To be honest, I'm not a big fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I find Larry David pretty annoying.

As for the representations of Jewishness - I think it is pretty typical that the lead Jew is/was married to a non-Jew and the Jewish woman spends most of the series shrieking and whining.

What do you think about the show?

Hi, Rachel. So much food for thought here. Thanks for the post! I'm curious about this statement of yours: "And while Modern Family does a great job showcasing gay dads (and mixed race marriages), it completely ignores Jewish identity." Is either Mitchell or Cam supposed to be Jewish?

No, neither is supposed to be Jewish.

To me the issue on Modern Family is that everything else is there - mixed race, same-sex couple, step-dad, adopted Asian baby etc. - but not any mention of religion. I think the show says to viewers, "Hey! Look at us. We are all different and we're happy."  What the show leaves out is that underlying each of their differences is Chistianity, which makes them all the same.

I am intrigued by your post, and the observations you make on the shows you cite are accurate.  However, I can think of at least two spaces--neither of them present in popular culture, though--where one sees Jewishness and lesbianism in the same place.  One would be Sandra Bernhardt's "I'm Still Here, Damnit" and a novel by Sarah Schulman named "The Child," where the main character, Eva, is a lesbian Jew attempting to deal with Jewish identity (the same is true of Schulman's "Rat Behemia.") On a personal note, I had a very interesting experience of this same phenomena.  In November 2009, some person(s), still unapprehended, committed hate crimes against me at Southern Connecticut State University.  WTNH and the New Haven Register covered the matter.  Specifically, my office door, which was covered with LGBT and Jewish materials was repeatedly trashed and hate epithets written on the door and hateful telephone messages (including death threats) left for me.  I learned three things from this experience: (1) hate is not personal; it has nothing to do with a real person; (2) people who commit hate crimes are cowardly sadists who use any kind of difference they can get their hands on—race, religion, sexuality, gender, national origin, politics—to poke at and needle someone in the hopes of scaring them to death with their vile aggression and their death threats; (3) Most people who respond to hate crimes cannot report all the hate crimes if the categories don’t fit their preconceived vision of the world.  What amazed me was the way it was reported in the media.  It was both anti-Semitic and homophobic, but the news reporter and colleagues and officials at my school could respond to it only as an anti-gay crime.  My wife (I am married because I have the fortune to live in Connecticut), my family, and my synagogue were the only folks who got the dual nature of the hate crime.  I got the general impression that Judaism and lesbianism constituted a kind of oil and water that could and should not co-exist.   



I think the problem you identify has to do with a larger issue of preconceived images (and, hence, representations) of religion and here, more specifically, the religious difference that is Judaism.  I assume that the dominant public face of Judaism wavers between the extremes of Orthodoxy on the one hand and assimilation into quasi-Christianity (i.e., Judaism in name only) on the other.  What is being crafted here, your post suggests, is a kind of closet for normative Judaisms in general, and closeted Judaisms in relation to queer visibility in particular.

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