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Jewish attitudes to/vocabulary about homosexuality (New York, 1900s)
empire | a holiday of the new
evewithanapple wrote in little_details
Setting: New York City (Lower East Side) circa 1905
Googled: Judaism and homosexuality, Judaism and sin, historic New York gay community, Lower East Side gay history, Judaism homosexuality history

This is a bit of a weird question, so bear with me. My character is a young Jewish man who's fallen in love with his two best friends and realized he's poly (he already knew he was queer). Obviously since this is an OT3 fic set in the 1900s, I'm stretching plausibility a bit, but I'd like his dialogue/internal monologue to sound as authentic as possible, and not me superimposing my secular-modern-culturally-Anglican thought process onto him. My question is, what kind of language would he be using to describe himself/his feelings here? I'm worried that the way I'm having him talk is too Christian-centric- i.e. based on ideas of guilt and sin rather than the way a religious Jewish person might view "forbidden" urges and feelings. For instance, this is him thinking about himself:

His eyes slid from one to the other, and instead of finding some relief in one’s gaze, he only felt his horror and shame magnify [. . .] his friends were, of course, unfailingly friendly and kind, but the kindness itself was what shamed him- knowing that he was entering their home and bringing the sickness in his brain with him [. . .] And yet, he couldn’t seem to stay away. He knew that each time he returned, he was doing so out of his own weakness and temptation, but at the same time, he found that he needed it.

Is this a likely thought process for him to have? Or should his focus be elsewhere (i.e. I'm shaming my family/this is forbidden by the Torah/etc) rather than on himself and his friends?

should his focus be elsewhere (i.e. I'm shaming my family/this is forbidden by the Torah/etc)

I'm not Jewish, but I suppose his focus on the whole "forbidden by the Torah" thing might depend on how devout he is.

While I am neither of those things myself, I live in a community with both a large Jewish population and a GLBTQ (am I missing some letters?) rights organisation which has frequent talks, to which I've been to several.

IMRC, the main thing that many of the speakers' families had against their children's sexual orientations was that it went against the expectation of marrying a nice Jewish boy/girl and having a family. It seemed as though the reproduction and traditional family thing was huge for the non-accepting families. Of course, all of the speakers themselves were of the 'out, proud, and giving speeches to a large audience full of strangers' variety. I think a few people talked about having some original resentment to their first same-gender crush for making their lives harder/more confusing, even though in at least a couple of those cases, said crush was not homosexual him/herself (or, even, someone who the speaker knew in real life).

Poly wasn't something which ever came up, so IDK how that would change anything, but I would assume that the same 'it means not having a traditional family' "problem" would apply.

I have no contribution to the OP's question, but:

GLBTQ (am I missing some letters?)

A better term is QUILTBAG.


I've even seen QUILTBAGPIPE, which adds Pansexual, Indeterminate, Polyamorous and "Everyone else who wants to feel included"...

Yay, QUILTBAGPIPE, I love it!

It would depend on how religious he is, and what his religious background is. For someone raised in a Reform or secular family, the attitude and language would probably reflect mainstream culture. If he was raised in an Orthodox family, the attitude there is (and always has been) that homosexuality is a choice, and by choosing that path you are intentionally rejecting Torah and God. Which pretty serious. He'd be pretty fucking conflicted about the whole thing, and would probably be treated as a deviant who was not to be trusted. This is also the attitude of the more right-leaning Orthodox groups toward anyone who becomes non-religious. And even now, just being gay makes you non-religious (because you're rejecting Torah), no matter how observant you are. Modern Orthodox (the left leaners of Orthodoxy) are probably more lenient about it. The whole issue is still pretty much don't ask, don't tell.

The Conservative movement was still having growing pains at the time your character was growing up, but the stance was likely the same as Orthodox. Even now, the movement can't make heads or tails of the issue. It is welcoming of gay members, acknowledges that homosexuality is not a choice, and will ordain openly gay people as rabbis, but they can't be married by a Conservative rabbi and the official line is still that homosexuality is forbidden.

they can't be married by a Conservative rabbi and the official line is still that homosexuality is forbidden.

Just for the record, as of June 2nd, the Conservative movement has approved same-sex marriage. Not interfaith, mind you, but baby steps.

News article about it

Disclaimer: I was raised in a very, very secular and permissive sort of Judaism, so if your character is more Orthodox, this may not apply.

Jews view ourselves as a persecuted people. This is really key to understanding all aspects of Jewish attitudes toward family and community. We care a great deal about friends and... call it horizontal family or family of choice, the sort of deep friendship that looks a lot like polyamory from the outside. Community is everything. We support one another because often we don't have traditional, vertical family. Older family members may be in another country, or may have died in anti-Semitic violence. (For example, if he's of Polish descent, he almost certainly would have lost family in the pogroms of the late 1800s and early 1900s.) We take family where we can find it. That said, there is also a tremendous push for young people to marry and procreate, to offset all those untimely deaths, and of course it is very important to marry another Jew and raise Jewish children.

So your character may not actually see much that's wrong with loving his male friends deeply and passionately. (And argumentatively. We fight because we love.) He can embrace them in public, stay up until all hours talking with them, and do all the other non-sexual things one might want to do with one's beloveds, and this is completely supported by his culture. He may not see it as romantic love at all. Jewish love, for friends or family or lovers, is... often very pragmatic, and very intellectual. The whole chirping bluebirds thing doesn't happen so much. Instead it's a meeting of the minds, a sense of compatibility. Can you form a household? Can you stand the sight of each other over the breakfast table every day? Can you be respectful of each other's parents and siblings in public, even if you scorn them in private? That's the sort of thing that forms the basis of a partnership, a marriage. There isn't this big division between friendship and romance that the rest of American culture seems to have. Jewish friendships = nonsexual polyamory.

If you want him to be emotionally tortured, I'd suggest focusing on the ways that his inclinations disrupt the marriage-and-kids narrative. Being queer is a major problem there, obviously. He'd essentially have to be a celibate bachelor his whole life, and that's really frowned on and regarded with suspicion (in addition to the "celibate" part being no fun, of course). If he's smart or good-looking or successful he will face even more pressure to marry and have a family. His best option would be to find some like-minded woman and quietly agree to have a celibate marriage. Otherwise everyone in his parents' generation--not just his parents, everyone--will be buttonholing him on the street and at shul and at shabbos dinners to introduce him to a single girl in need of a husband. A matchmaker might even be called in on his behalf, whether he likes it or not. It would be tremendously awkward and inconvenient and embarrassing.


Edited at 2012-06-30 07:03 am (UTC)

Jewish friendships = nonsexual polyamory.

This is brilliant, and while I've never seen it articulated this way before, my immediate reaction was YES. THIS.

I was only realizing it as I was writing this!

(cont. from above)

As for concepts of sin, we focus on behavior, not thoughts. Look at the confession of sins that we recite on Yom Kippur for a good sense of it. He would be distressed that he is disrespecting his parents' or other elders' wishes for him to marry, that he is disrupting the fabric of the community, that he is going against tradition, that he is not helping to perpetuate the Jewish race, that he can't control his physical urges and force himself to do the proper thing. If he has sexual contact with another man he would feel ashamed of encouraging him to engage in homosexual behavior, which contravenes the Torah. If he lies about his feelings, he would feel deeply ashamed of deceiving others. If he prays about it, it would be more along the lines of "Merciful G-d, help me return to the path of righteousness" than "cleanse this sinful urge from my heart"; if he consults a rabbi, it would be more a practical discussion of how to control his yearnings and keep them from leading him into sinful or community-disrupting behavior than a Catholic-type confession and atonement.

Other aspects of culture may also be relevant; is he a recent immigrant or did he grow up in New York? where is his family from? how wealthy are they? how deeply involved in his community is he?

I'm just a lurker, but I'm currently working on a story that focuses on a close friendship between a jewish girl and a gentile guy and your post was mad helpful yo.

Glad to help!

If you need a point of contention between your characters, I've found that the we-argue-because-we-love thing is frequently very confusing to my gentile friends, especially those raised Christian. Judaism has a major holiday where a central moment involves asking questions about the religion. Being opinionated and poking at logic holes is to Judaism what baseball is to America. I think this is why so many Jews become lawyers; we're trained into it from birth. But it can make cross-cultural friendships very difficult, all the more so if the other party grew up being specifically told not to ask too many questions.

Actually, in this story the characters bond because they are two relentlessly negative people who like fighting each other and complaining about everything. So, while they have plenty of other issues, the arguing thing isn't one of them.

I must thank you again for your information, because the point about questioning Judaism is fascinating to me! I'll definitely start researching that, especially since the the guy is Irish Catholic, which even within Christianity is a Church in which You Do Not Question Things. So thanks again!


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