Noam Sienna: Judaism Unbound Episode 170 - Queering The Jewish Bookshelf


Noam Sienna, author of the book A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969, joins Lex and Dan for a conversation about expanding our understanding of the Jewish past. [1] [2]

Noam Sienna

(0:01 – 19:09) Noam begins by addressing how we think of Jewish history, remarking that our understanding of the past is informed by the few stories that are recorded and survive their way into the present. Noam tells a story about an individual who leaves the shtetl being read and understood as a woman and returns later, being read and understood as a man. By the newspaper account, this individual was entirely accepted by their community. Using this and another short anecdote from his book, Noam reminds listeners that what is present on the bookshelf is only a selection – and the truer history is more wider than we imagine. [3] He describes how a post-holocaust Ashkenazi Jewish world lost much of its oral tradition, leaving us primarily with texts. But the trouble with texts is that they only describe what someone chose to record, rife with omissions. Noam explains that history is nonlinear and without teleology – history has no end goal or arc. [4] [5] This understanding is necessary to his methodology examining understandings of sexuality and gender. He underscores that, while experiences we might categorize today as queer aren’t really new, our understanding of these behaviors and practices are specific to our place and time.

A Rainbow thread.JPG

(19:09 – 28:20) Lex poses a question to Noam about the tension between creating a book about queer Jewish inclusion and not attempting to use these texts to “prove” a Jewish attitude towards queerness. Noam highlights his desire to avoid anachronism and retroactively assign modern meanings to historical experiences. Rather, the mission of a queer historian is not to make a list of who’s who of queer Jews, but to understand that our identity language and constructions are always moving. The historical data isn’t changing but our lenses and self understandings are. Noam acknowledges the importance of present-day queer people being able to see themselves reflected in history – so he advocates that readers cultivate a self awareness: our readings of historical figures are not inherent to the text; rather, they are informed by the connections we make within ourselves to the past. [6] Lex notes how self-locating in history can often be a way of legitimizing or authenticated oneself, especially towards others. Noam discusses why he’s creating this book to be positive rather than defensive, explaining his inspiration from feminist scholarship and a desire to avoid an essentialist reading of Judaism as either inherently equitable or oppressive. [7] It’s both and neither, he says, containing so many multitudes of experiences and texts. He briefly mentions a discussion with Rabbi Steve Greenberg in which he explains that this book is not meant to “defend” queer Jews, but paint a fuller picture of how gender variance and diverse sexual desires and expressions have existed in Jewish history. [8]

(28:20 – 48:30) Noam discusses present-day assumptions about gender and sexuality, which often see sex and gender behaviors as binary and inherent. However, he explains, categorizing gender and sexuality as identity markers is a recent, place-time specific idea. The language we use to describe these behaviors is ever-changing and the texts in A Rainbow Thread record instance, not identity. Noam describes how, more broadly, Jews living in the time of the Talmud did not live as the Talmudic text itself describes, often engaging in activities forbidden by law, just as most of us do today, even if in small ways. Noam demonstrates that legal systems are only descriptive of a small percentage of people, usually elites, and not the general public whom they sought to legislate. The conversation shifts to an explanation of Sienna’s curatorial process, explaining his venn diagram, selecting texts that express diverse gender and sexual practices and demonstrate a diverse and complex experience of being Jewish. [9] The types of texts in A Rainbow Thread are diverse, many authors with a variety of attitudes towards queerness. He explains his process of selecting texts, privileging traditionally underrepresented voices and seeking out texts from a variety of places and times. Noam mentions a short news clipping he found which briefly describes two Sefardi women engaged in a romantic or sexual act, noting that this very small text evidences something otherwise unrecorded but still very much alive. Sienna closes by suggesting listeners consider the universe of stories that have gone unrecorded, declaring that arguments of silence and omission no longer prove an absence of Jewish queer history – instead, we must push ourselves to think more deeply and creatively about who and what the Jewish past has been.

[1] Order yourself a copy of Sienna’s book, A Rainbow Thread, at ARainbowThread.com.

[2] Read more about Noam’s work and learn about some other queer Jewish stories in this blog post and find his website here.

[3] If you’re looking to build a wider bookshelf, check out some of these cool queer Jewish reads.

[4] The concept of teleology is pervasive in the way most people think about history — but as Sienna notes, history is not linear. This article explains this article in greater detail.

[5] Similar to the idea of teleology in history, the idea of a “moral arc of history” also assumes a goal or linear type of history. Read a recent critique of this idea in this article.

[6] This part of the interview hearkens back to an earlier Judaism Unbound episode with Josh Lesser, who runs Bet Haverim, a gay- and lesbian-founded synagogue.

[7] Sienna’s mentions of feminist methodologies remind us of another Judaism Unbound episode by Rachel Adler, in which Adler discusses gender essentialism. Find it here. You can also read Adler’s articles, “I’ve Had Nothing Yet So I Can’t Take More” and “The Jew Who Wasn’t There”.

[8] Learn more about the work and philosophy of Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay orthodox rabbi, in this article.

[9] Just as Sienna has described the curatorial side of editing an anthology, our episode with Ivy Barsky covers similar topics of Jewish history and the tensions that arise when trying to curate the Jewish past. Listen to this episode here.