Synagogue book group explores lives of LGBTQ Jews
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Synagogue book group explores lives of LGBTQ Jews

Nyack shul offers innovative discussion space

Abbie Cohen
Abbie Cohen

If you want to draw people to a book group, focus on novels and memoirs.

At least that was the advice given to Abbie Cohen of Nyack when she was about to begin a book club at Congregation Sons of Israel.

“I’ve always liked to read,” Ms. Cohen said. “The problem is, I like to talk about what I read and I didn’t have many people to talk to about it. So when Rabbi Russo asked me how she could be a better ally, I said, ‘How about an LGBTQ Jewish book club?’”

Ariel Russo is the rabbi of the Nyack Conservative congregation. Ms. Cohen is transgender.

“I tend to read literary criticism and philosophy,” Ms. Cohen, who studied queer theory and transgender politics at Hunter College in Manhattan, said, said. But when she explored the kinds of books that would go over in a book group, a fellow congregant discouraged her. “No,” that congregant said. “They won’t read something like that.”

As a result, the book club, which has been named Kotenet Passim and had its first meeting — online, of course — in November, discusses “novels, memoirs and works of non-fiction that examine Jewish lives, communities, practices, and texts from the perspective of Jews in the LGBTQ community, Jews of Color, and Jews by Choice,” according to synagogue publicity.

The name of the group, Ms. Cohen explained, derives from the words used in the Bible to describe Joseph’s coat of many colors. It also is used later to describe a robe that King David gave to one of his daughters.

“It suggests a rainbow,” Ms. Cohen said. (The rainbow flag represents pride for the gay community.) “It also suggests diversity in general, Jews of color and Jews by choice.”

Ms. Cohen said she doesn’t know if similar book groups exist. She advertised the launch of the group through the synagogue’s listserve and LGBTQ Facebook groups in Nyack and the Hudson Valley, as well as through other groups with members who might be interested. Ultimately, some 20 people expressed interest in joining. “Ten I knew, and 10 I didn’t,” she said. “Most of them are women from the synagogue.” One member, she said, is non-binary, and does not identify as either male or female.

In a way, it is ironic that while Ms. Cohen envisioned the book group as “a space for the LGBTQ community to come together,” most of the nine or so members who attend regularly are not members of that community but rather “women who have more time and belong to many book groups.”

The theme of the first year — chosen by Ms. Cohen, as were the books to be discussed — is “Queer Journeys: Jewish Women in Transition,” whether physical or metaphorical. Ms. Cohen did a good deal of research to choose the books.

“I started doing searches on the internet,” she said, looking particularly for Jewish novels and memoirs by or about gay or lesbian Jews. She soon found that Goodreads had its own list, of some 200 books. She looked them up on Amazon and read comments about them, “where people say what they liked about the book.” Through that process, she found about eight books appropriate for the book club.

The inaugural discussion, held in October, focused on “Beyond the Pale: A Novel” by Elena Dykewoman (born Nachman). “It was about a girl who immigrated from Russia at the beginning of the 20th century,” Ms. Cohen said, and it had much to say about the labor movement.

November’s book was “Aimee & Jaguar: A Love Story” by Erica Fischer, set in Berlin in the early 1940s. This was followed in December by “My Jewish Face and Other Stories” by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, described in one review as chronicling “the coming of age and coming out of a daughter of the Jewish left.” January’s book was “Rat Bohemia” by Sarah Schulman, set in the 1980s and dealing with the AIDS crisis in New York.

On February 23, the group will discuss “Soul to Soul: A Black Russian Jewish Woman’s Search for Her Roots” by Khanga Yelena. This will be followed on April 27 by “Black, White & Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self,” by Rebecca Walker, the daughter of writer Alice Walker. The final two books, May 25 and June 22, are “The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to the High Holy Days” by Andrea Myers, and “Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman” by Abby Stein.

Ms. Cohen’s own story represents a journey as well. After growing up in Texas as a Protestant and coming to New York to attend Columbia University, Ms. Cohen dropped out of school “and discovered in 1980 that I was a woman,” she said. She underwent surgery and took the necessary hormones, but her new identity was not yet formed. In 1990, she was invited to a bat mitzvah in New Rochelle, her first experience in a synagogue.

Ms. Cohen lived on New York’s Upper West Side then, and she passed by Lincoln Square Synagogue every day. She began to attend the Orthodox shul’s beginners’ service. While she started to pursue conversion, it never came to fruition. She could not in good conscience sit on the men’s side during services, she said.

An interlude including marriage and an unhappy life in Borough Park — “I wore a wig and people assumed I was a baal teshuvah,” she said — ended with the realization “that no one there understood or would stand up for me.”

But that was then. The Protestant man from Texas, an institutional research database manager at the City University of New York, now is an active synagogue-going woman in Rockland County.

Ms. Cohen said she has thoroughly enjoyed the group so far. “I find it gratifying,” she said. “Some book groups are more social; I belonged to one that used to meet in restaurants, before covid. This one is run more like a seminar.” She has led the groups so far, doing supplemental reading in advance and showing slides when appropriate. April’s group will be facilitated by another member.

“At the first meeting, I explained that there are good and bad books,” she said. “A bad book says that everyone is like you and wants to be like you. A good book is something different. It’s about the world or about yourself. I want to help people read these books from a new perspective.”

The book group can serve as an educational vehicle “for straight people to become more familiar with people not like themselves,” she added. Next year, she would like to focus on the theme of Jewish masculinity. “A lot has been written about that,” she said.

Ms. Cohen said that her synagogue is making an effort to be responsive to the needs of the LGBTQ community, sponsoring a Pride Shabbat and offering some special programming. The challenge “is how to make a Jewish space welcoming to gay and lesbian people.”

One idea is for synagogues to make that welcoming more prominent on their websites, right up front with mentions of the Sisterhood, Young Singles Group, and Hebrew school, she said. Another way is for people to invite each other into their homes — although not, of course, during these pandemic-plagued times.

For more information about the book group, email Abbie Cohen at ahuvabcohen@outlook.com.

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