Academic journal article Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality

Queer Is the New Pink: How Queer Jews Moved to the Forefront of Jewish Culture

Academic journal article Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality

Queer Is the New Pink: How Queer Jews Moved to the Forefront of Jewish Culture

Article excerpt

While queers and Jews have always been part of the cultural landscape, queer Jews have tended to be rather ambivalent about being both queer and Jewish. However, in recent years this connection is being promoted in a more proactive fashion. This paper highlights three examples of queer Jews whose cultural performances rely on being both queer and Jewish, suggesting queer Jews are playing an increasingly significant role in Jewish culture.


"A little bit of irreverence is very good for battling irrelevance" --Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross

Queers and Jews--they've been put on the same dance card since the early twentieth century. In recent conferences on Jewish culture, in new studies coming out about contemporary Jewish identity, there is a new recognition that queer Jews are at the forefront of change. Perhaps it was Freud's interest in the Jewish and the sexual, perhaps it was the "invention of homosexuality" at the same time that Jews were experiencing their own intellectual revolutions like socialism, Zionism, urbanism, and mass migrations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These modern revolutions provoked a response from non-Jews and non-queers. Some saw queers and Jews as the bearers of modernity, and frequently the role that they played was put in a negative light. The Nazis targeted both groups, the McCarthy hearings often lumped Jews and queers together. And as Matti Bunzl (2004) showed in his historical anthropology of post-World War II Austria, queers and Jews were in the same social and cultural boat as Europe underwent its modern and then postmodern revolution. The twentieth century was, in the words of historian Yuri Slezkine (2004), the Jewish century in that Jews not only underwent their own revolution, but also revolutionized the world in the process. Queers seem to be picking up where Jews left off. Maybe the twenty-first century will be the queer century. (Think Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the pop American television program that shows five upper-middle-class gay men saving straight men, and presumably therefore humanity, from fashion faux pas for their ever more demanding girlfriends and wives.)

Although conservative forces resisted the gift of modernity that Jews and queers seemed to be bringing through the twentieth century, other critics have celebrated the role these groups have played as the positive bearers of modernity. Richard Florida (2004) argues that contemporary urban economies that flourish are defined by a group he calls the "Creative Class," and among those groups that make up this class are queers and Jews. More famously, in her essay, "Notes on Camp," Susan Sontag put queers and Jews together in a new way by arguing that these two voices from the margins were in fact the driving forces behind American culture. They each brought a particular sensibility to, and powerfully shaped, mid-century American culture. Sontag: "Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture. Creative, that is, in the truest sense: they are creators of sensibilities. The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony" (1966, note 51).

There is a level of cultural critique in her claim that queers and Jews are central, not marginal, to American culture. She argues that each group's contribution to modern culture was in fact a path that allowed that group to integrate into mainstream urban culture. It was a queer and Jewish conspiracy to transform America to allow Jews and queers to assimilate. As Sontag states,

   Every sensibility is self-serving to the group that promotes it.
   Jewish liberalism is a gesture of self-legitimization. So is Camp
   taste, which definitely has something propagandistic about it.
   Needless to say, the propaganda operates in exactly the opposite
   direction. The Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern
   society on promoting the moral sense. … 
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