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Jewish-American Literature  
 
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Jewish-American gay and lesbian literature is marked by its rich heritage, diverse subject matter, and thriving vitality.

With some notable exceptions, American Jewish gay and lesbian writers have tended to be secularists; for them "Jewish" is not necessarily an indicator of a particular religious position or sensibility but an affirmation of ethnic and cultural identity.

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The Various Interpretations of the Levitical Code

One reason for this lack of religious content may be the Mosaic code as expressed in the book of Leviticus. But there is division within Judaism on how Leviticus should be interpreted. Conservative and Orthodox Jewish circles argue that the Torah explicitly forbids and condemns homosexuality, whereas the Reform and Reconstructionist branches argue for a new reading.

The latter also argue for a complete acceptance of gays and lesbians into their ranks based on the history of Jewish liberal thought. The Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism in America have been among the first religious groups--in any of the major faiths in this country--to accept gays as part of their synagogues, ordaining gay clergy and, more recently, permitting gay commitment ceremonies.

The Conservative and Orthodox branches have been less forthcoming, as was evident by the argument over whether members of the New York gay synagogue, Beth Simchat Torah, affiliated with the Reform movement, were to be allowed to march in the 1993 New York Salute to Israel parade.

Myron Brinig's Harry Singermann

The first significant gay character to appear in American Jewish writing is Harry Singermann in Myron Brinig's family saga, Singermann (1929) and This Man Is My Brother (1932). Although Brinig was not gay, his characterization of Harry goes beyond the stereotypes of the era and is compassionate and sympathetic.

Even though Harry Singermann is described as "too flushed and effeminate," with an unfortunate infatuation for his adopted nephew that leads to his eventual suicide, he is also the competent head of the family's department store to whom all other family members respectfully defer in financial and artistic matters.

He is certainly not ostracized, either by family or by community, which may be a result of the fact that the Singermann household perceives its Jewishness more in terms of cultural than religious identity.

Gertrude Stein

For Gertrude Stein, to be a Jewish lesbian indeed meant to be "doubly other" since she considered both her gender and her religion to disqualify her for the definition of "genius" to which she aspired.

In her 1941 novel Ida, however, Stein imagined a character who finds empowerment only through doubling herself, by constructing a "twin" through whom she may risk the troubling elements of sexuality and freedom. The novel explores the degree to which heterosexual relations are silencing so that only the same-sex self-multiplication she envisions permits the voice she seeks.

Although in her own life Stein could not fully come to an acceptance of her own double identity as a lesbian and a Jew, she here creatively imagines doubling her identity as a way to find her voice.

Sholem Asch's Rivkele

The earliest lesbian character in American Jewish writing is Rivkele, the daughter of a Jewish brothel keeper, in Sholem Asch's play God of Vengeance (1922), who falls in love with one of her father's prostitutes. Not surprisingly, this relationship created such an uproar that the play was briefly shut down, and its star spent a night in jail.

Jo Sinclair's Debbie Brown

The distinction of having created the first fully developed lesbian character goes to Jo Sinclair and her 1946 novel, Wasteland. Jo Sinclair is the pseudonym for Ruth Seid; Wasteland, her partly autobiographical first novel, won the Harper Prize in 1946 and remained on the bestseller lists for months.

Although most reviewers of the novel considered Jake Brown, a man undergoing psychotherapy because of his problematic relationship to his family's Jewishness, the protagonist, one can easily also argue that Debbie Brown, Jake's sister, is the real main character. Before the novel's action even begins, the psychotherapist Debbie recommends to her brother has helped her appreciate her value as a human being and accept herself as a lesbian.

Wasteland became one of the first full and loving portraits of a lesbian in twentieth-century American fiction. The importance of the novel rests on two points.

First of all, Debbie is instrumental in helping her brother come to terms with himself as a Jew. As such, the novel represents a celebration of ethnicity; such an act of cultural identification spoke to many different kinds of minority readers and writers at the time.

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For Gertrude Stein, to be a Jewish lesbian meant to be "doubly other."
  
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