Queer Yiddish Stories
Highlights from the Collection
There are myriad ways Yiddish culture, Jewishness, and queer identities intersect. Queer narratives in Yiddish culture can be found in many places and forms. Well-known examples include the famous love scene between two women at the center of Sholem Asch’s Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance) and cross-dressing characters in Yiddish literature and its adaptations (think Molly Picon in Yidl mitn fidl or Barbra Streisand in Yentl). Yiddish scholars have brought to light lesser-known examples such as the drag king and Yiddish vaudeville singer Pepi Litman (1874-1930).
Since the 1960s, artists and activists continue to expand awareness of these themes and have been creating new queer Yiddish culture. LGBTQ+ identified and interested people have built community around the intertwining of Yiddish and queer identities. Recent examples of these intentional spaces include di rozeve pave (pink peacock), the queer, Yiddish, pay-what-you-can café in Glasgow, Scotland, and digital gathering spaces like “Queer Yiddishkayt” Facebook groups.
We hope you enjoy the highlights featured below, which showcase stories about the intersections of Yiddish language and culture, Jewishness, and queer identities.
The Queerness of Contemporary Yiddish Culture
In this highlight, lesbian poet and writer Irena Klepfisz reflects on the relationship between queerness and contemporary Yiddish culture and the way both, in their own ways, exist beyond traditional cultural bounds. She discusses how Yiddish culture offers a way of identifying with Jewishness outside of a religious context or one that centers Israel or the Holocaust as primary markers of identity, and how this came to resonate with many queer Jews.
“Making Babies in Other Ways”: Beyond Heteronormativity, Essentialism, and Survival Through Transmission
Zohar Weiman-Kelman—scholar of queer studies, Yiddish studies, and Jewish literature—explains the reality that the Yiddish language is being transmitted beyond heteronormative family structure. They discuss the nuances and sometimes nonlinearity of cultural transmission and what this might mean for imagining a riskier but more rewarding and diverse future for Yiddish.
Queer Studies and Yiddish
In this clip, David Shneer, z’’l, professor and scholar of Jewish history, discusses the relationship between queer people, both Jewish and not, and Yiddish that he has noticed since the 1990s. He shares an explanation that he has heard from many people about the appeal of Yiddish as a now-marginalized language and describes his interest in the way Yiddish has come to be framed as a language and culture of alterity.
“I Don’t Like It But . . .”: Coming Out to My Grandmother
Filmmaker and Yiddishist Nina Dabek recounts her experience of coming out to her grandmother. After initially responding with disapproval, her grandmother added, “I don’t like it, but I completely understand it,” and she shared a story from her own past of a woman with whom she had grown very close and for whom she would have left her husband.
Why We Wanted to Have a Jewish (Lesbian) Wedding
In this excerpt, Jane Fleishman, Northampton-based LGBTQ-rights organizer and educator, explains the personal significance to her and her wife of having a Jewish wedding. She shares how meaningful it also was for their parents and describes how their children were involved in the signing of the ketubah (Jewish wedding contract).
Working from a Place of Minority: Reflections on Queers in the Klezmer Revival
Helena Lipstadt, a poet and garden designer, reflects on the early days of the klezmer revival in the 1970s and '80s and its popularity among the Jewish queer community. She describes the intersections of minority identities and why she thinks the Yiddish and klezmer revival movements resonated with queer Jews.
Connections Between Queerness and Yiddish
In this highlight, Noam Green, former Steiner Summer Yiddish Program student, offers insight into the connections between Yiddish and queerness. They talk about the way both studying Yiddish and being queer are often considered preposterous and reflect on the way studying Yiddish, and trying to express thoughts and feelings in a new language, can feel inherently queer.
Queer Jews by David Shneer, z’’l, and Caryn Aviv (2002)
Queer Expectations: A Genealogy of Jewish Women’s Poetry by Zohar Weiman-Kelman (2018)
"Rokhl’s Golden City: Finding a home in Yiddishland while challenging the status quo" by Rokhl Kafrissen (2019)
"Top 10 Queerest Moments in the Yiddish Theatre" by Amanda (Miryem-Khaye) Seigal (2019)
“Queer Yiddishkeit: Practice and Theory” by Jeffrey Shandler (2006)
“The Celluloid Closet of Yiddish Film” project by Eve Sicular
Photograph at the top: Lesbian/Gay Yiddishists at Pride
Courtesy of Irena Klepfisz