Gay and lesbian couples in Israel - as in most countries - have never had it easy. However, within this community is an even more marginalized group - orthodox Jewish lesbians.
The closed, puritanical Jewish community has very strong taboos against homosexuality. According to the Halacha - a written compilation of Jewish religious laws - homosexuals are grave sinners, to be sentenced to death by stoning. As a result, orthodox Jewish homosexuals are torn between their sexuality and religious duties.
Irit Koren, 28, a PhD student in the gender studies department at Bar-Ilan University, began to research the subject after a very close friend, orthodox like herself, confessed that she was lesbian. "This declaration startled me deeply at first. But then I realized that there is no reason to assume that the percentage of homosexuals [Koren's study puts this at about 4 per cent of the general population] is significantly different in our society. I surmised that I'd never heard of orthodox lesbians before because they don't 'come out of the closet' due to the severely puritanical attitudes in our community." According to her study, there are about 3,600 orthodox Jewish lesbians.
Koren's research yielded the book, 'A Closet Within A Closet', published last year by Yediot-Aharonot.
Jerusalem's religious neighborhoods have given birth to the 'modesty police' - an illegal underground religious organization that spies on and persecutes community members who are caught "red-handed" in "unchaste deeds". They are essentially a bunch of fanatic, violent bullies (men and women), who intimidate their victims with threats of excommunication and loss of contact with their families. The victims of this misguided vigilantism include, among others, women in extramarital affairs, unmarried women who date secular men, women who wear "provocative clothes", women who show interest in secular studies and, of course, lesbians. While this brigade was originally meant to keep a watch on men and women, in practice, they rarely target men.
While this persecution is illegal, the women who are 'caught' are afraid to seek help from secular agencies or file a complaint with Israeli law authorities. Any such act is considered a betrayal of the community.
Gal, manager of Open House - a support group in Jerusalem for secular homosexuals - says that her heart goes out to religious lesbian girls. "They live in constant fear. Even when they finally dare to look for help, they are worried about the 'modesty police'. I get phone calls from orthodox lesbians, who are afraid to even speak when they call, let alone leave their numbers on our lists," she says.
However, Koren believes that the greatest stress on orthodox Jew lesbians is their own internal struggle. "Their sexual preferences violate the Jewish law, which they deeply honor, and this creates a constant inner burden of confusion and guilt."
Koren wondered why these women continue to cling to a religion that does not accept them as they are. She says, "When I posed this question to lesbians during my research, I realized that Orthodox lesbians attribute their 'built-in' tendencies to God. However, they live in constant stress and guilt. As a result, they invent self-prohibitions, such as limiting lovemaking with their partner to once a week. Several women told me that 'attraction' by itself, as opposed to actual lovemaking, is not considered a sin."
Koren says that some orthodox Jew lesbians tried lightening the burden of their 'awful secret' by consulting with their rabbi. "This strategy proved naï¿½ve and ineffective. In our community, lesbianism is considered both a sin and an emotional disturbance. So the rabbi advised them to pretend to be 'normal' and marry a man, raise kids and pray to God that this malady will pass. Those who dared to come out of the closet were alienated by family and friends. The fact that one is lesbian stains the whole family. Even their siblings' chances of dating and marrying a good match declines."
Betty, 33, is a religious lesbian who was denounced by her community after she dared to 'come out'. "My family sat at 'shivaa' [a Jewish religious custom where the immediate family sits at home for seven days to mourn a deceased relative]. My father told my mother and siblings never to talk to me again. I was totally devastated at that time, but I have never stopped trying to establish contact with my mother. She is the only one who is ready to speak to me. But she still cries and tries to 'correct' my malady. Although we meet in secret (for fear of my father and the modesty police), I am lucky we are still in touch. Several orthodox girls I met were totally rejected by their entire family."
Dina, 40, another orthodox Jew lesbian, came out three years ago. "Since my early 30s, our community members looked at me with pity and asked me why I was still single. In our society, the average marriage age for a girl is 20. If you are single and past 25, you are considered an old maid. Then at age 35, I met my girlfriend, Tami, a non-religious lesbian. She helped me accept my sexuality and overcome suffocating feelings of guilt. When I eventually told my parents that I am lesbian, they broke off all connection with me and ordered me to leave home. This was the price I had to pay for being me," she says.
Tami, her lover for the past five years, says that she was amazed at how different the lives of secular and religious lesbians are. "Life is never easy for lesbians and gays, but when I met Dina, I realized how lucky I was to be born into a secular liberal family. People might look at you like you are a freak, but definitely not as if you are a sinner. Since I was a teenager, I spoke freely with close friends about my sexual tendencies. Also, my sister did not feel she had to compromise on potential husbands because of me."
That Dina and Tami are together is in itself unusual because religious lesbians are not easily accepted into the secular gay community. They are expected to abandon tradition if they want acceptance. As Koren says, they feel doomed: they are uncomfortable in their religious community because they are gay, and they feel uncomfortable in the gay community because they are religious.
Koren, herself a heterosexual, got a glimpse of what life must be like for orthodox Jewish lesbians. She had to face rejection and scorn from her community simply because she was researching their lives.