Exploring and Documenting Jewish Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) Narratives through Ritual Bricolage

EJ Milne, Margaret Greenfields, Surat Shaan Rathgeber Knan, Searle Kochberg and Sanne Weber with images by Mary Humphrey.

Download the presentation here RR IVM4 PPT final 17 september 2015

Paper Abstract:

The hetero-normative expectations of much of Jewish cultural and religious life has created a situation where LGBTQI Jews often feel detached from ritual and practice (Schneer & Aviv, 2002; Alpert, 1998) experiencing a sense of cultural loss, whilst also experiencing discrimination in some key ritual settings. This problem is particularly acute for Trans-Jews who report that they can be confined to a ‘limbo’ situation, even in contexts where lesbian and gay co-religionists are accepted as full members of a congregation (see Dzmura, 2011). Over the past year the AHRC funded project Ritual Reconstructed: challenges to disconnection, division and exclusion in the Jewish LGBTQI community has been creating a series of films and encouraging members of the Jewish LGBTQI community to engage with ritual bricolage with personally meaningful ritual objects (re)viewed and presented through film, story, music and art. Drawing on the concepts of ritual and methodological bricolage, this paper discusses the narratives that participants have created and explores how they have used ritual objects (eg kippot and yarzheit candles) and material culture and ephemera (eg AIDS Quilts, Siddurim inserts from ‘Pride Havurah’ etc.) to construct meaning and (re)create faith rituals which reflect the merging of core Jewish and queer identities.

To find out more about the project visit www.ritualreconstructed.com

Key Words: Bricolage; Judaism; LGBTQI; Rituals; Visual Narratives


In Judaism, as with a number of other major religions, there are hetero-normative expectations present in cultural and religious life. These can create exclusion and a sense of detachment from ritual and practice (Schneer & Aviv, 2002; Alpert, 1997) whereby some Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) Jewish people experience a sense of cultural loss, ritual exclusion and discrimination in key ritual settings. This problem is particularly acute for Trans-Jews who report that they can be confined to a ‘limbo’ situation, even in contexts where lesbian and gay co-religionists are accepted as full members of a congregation (see Dzmura, 2011).

Last year, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded Ritual Reconstructed an interdisciplinary research project, as part of their Connected Communities programme. The project is a partnership between Liberal Judaism, part of the progressive movement which positions itself as being at the “dynamic, cutting edge of modern Judaism”, simultaneously preserving “the values of the Judaism of the past while giving them contemporary force” (Liberal Judaism n.d); and 3 Universities – Bucks New University (lead institution), The Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University and the School of Creative Technology at Portsmouth University. We are all here today so please do come and talk with us if you wish to find out more or take part in one of our workshops, film screenings or ritual bricolage events.

1 min 56

Over the past year we have been working with around 30 people, mainly based in London but with contributors from as far afield as Germany (with a core group of 10 who have participated in multiple elements of the project) who identify as members of the Jewish LGBTQI community. Perhaps half of our participants identify as progressive, although some of whom position themselves as Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist or secular Jews. In different partnerships we have come together to create a series of six short films where Jewish rituals have been queered and queer rituals have been influenced by our Jewish selves. SLIDE

We have also run, and are still running, a series of workshops where participants are invited to engage with ritual bricolage through their own personally meaningful ritual objects SLIDE and to (re)view and (re)present them through film, SLIDE storytelling, SLIDE music SLIDE and art.

Drawing on the concepts of ritual and methodological bricolage, we have been interested in the narratives that participants have created and in exploring how they use ritual objects SLIDE (for example kippot SLIDE and yarzheit candles) and material culture and ephemera SLIDE (for example AIDS Quilts, SLIDE Siddurim inserts etc.) to construct meaning and (re)create faith rituals which reflect the merging of core Jewish and queer identities. The research team and participants identify as LGBTQI or as allies, and all, except for EJ and photographer Mary Humphrey (practicing Roman Catholic), identify as Jewish. 3mins 24


Ritual Bricolage:

In our research we are using (as a starting point) Andre Mary’s definition (2005) of bricolage as a dialogue between ‘meaningful material that one borrows’ and ‘incarnated forms one inherits’, this produces a ‘dialectic of form and substance’ where different rituals are merged in order to create new rituals with new meanings. This builds on Claude Lévi-Strauss’ (1966) concept of the ‘bricoleur’ making use of ‘whatever is at hand’, continuously breaking down mythological thought and rites and rebuilding them again through new constructions of already existing sets of events.

We also draw on the work of Savastano (2007) who argues that LGBTQI people have been forced to create their own sacred or alternative myths out of a diverse set of religions and spiritual practices, drawing upon those aspects of religions that each person finds most meaningful or helpful. Through this, they have created a new way of bringing together their queer and their spiritual identities (Savastano 2007). Both Savastano and Andre Mary describe a ‘patchwork of belief’ in which a new religious identity is constructed through a process of borrowing and incorporating meaningful aspects of religion. This ‘patchwork’ is characteristic of the ‘bricoleur’, who Kincheloe described as akin to a quilt maker, bringing together different dynamics, and producing new concepts on the basis of already existing material (Kincheloe 2005).

4min 43

So, our project is about how we and other LGBTQI Jews have found a way to bring together our Jewish identity and celebrate our faith whilst at the same time being able to embrace our sexualities, our queerness and our gender identities. This is in response to the call by Alpert (1997), amongst others, to transform sacred texts and create new readings of ancient texts which ‘incorporate a lesbian [or gay or bi-sexual, or queer or trans] sensibility… [and] that are affirmatively Jewish and Lesbian, This is so that people who identify as LGBTQI ‘become more full participants and that the Jewish faith may be ‘enriched with new interpretive strategies and stories’ (p8). For Alpert ‘the problem is not only with the reaction of Jewish individuals and institutions but with the ancient sacred texts that form the core of Jewish belief and practice’ (p6). SLIDE Jewish teachings on homosexuality are based upon the Torah and Talmudic commentary, with particular emphasis placed on Leviticus. In this book (verses 18:22 and 20:13) sexual intercourse between men is called to’eivah (something abhorred or detested) with capital punishment advocated under Jewish law for people who transgress:

[A man] shall not lie with another man as [he would] with a woman, it is a to’eivah (Leviticus 18:22).

If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them (Leviticus 20:13).

While there is Rabbinic dispute as to whether this law applies to all male homosexual acts, or is limited specifically to male on male intercourse, it is clear that male homosexuality has historically been constructed as offence against God and the community of Jews, although in part this is because of historical (at the time of the founding narrative) association of homosexuality with non-Jewish/Pagan practices. In contrast female homosexuality or lesbian sexual acts are not mentioned in the Torah and only fleetingly in the Talmud, although traditionally rabbinical teaching has disapproved of such behavior. In recent decades the Torah and traditional rabbinical teachings have been contested and, whilst still a contentious issue, elements of Judaism, particularly the Liberal, Reconstructionist and Reform[i] movements, have advocated a policy of inclusion and equality. And this is where our project, working in collaboration with Liberal Judaism, comes in.



Through queering or creating new rituals which have strong roots in Jewish tradition, this enables us to celebrate our faith. To illustrate how we and others have undertaken this task we want to look at one of our case studies – the Passover Seder, the ritual feast that marks the beginning of the Jewish festival of Passover. The Seder, translates as “order” , so-called because the ritual meal has a strict order in which it should be eaten/enacted. Each item on the plate is a metaphor for the journey that the Israelites made from slavery to freedom. A plate contains vegetables dipped in salt water, roast Shank bone (replaced by a vegetarian item in many progressive Synagogues/homes), hard boiled eggs, charoset – a mixture of apples, nuts, wine and spices; bitter herbs, and bitter vegetables.

7min 39 secs.


In 1979 some Jewish lesbians asked an American Rabbi [Hilda Langer] about the place of lesbians in Judaism. Alpert recalls the event and how the Rabbi ‘suggested that it was a small transgression, like eating bread during Passover. Something one shouldn’t do.’ (1997:2). The lesbians who were present felt that this metaphor didn’t capture  the realities of their lives and engagement with sacred behaviours, and so the following Pesach, they decided to place a crust of bread on their Seder plate, as an act of ‘solidarity with lesbians who were trying to find a place in Jewish life’. By the mid-1980s, this tradition had become incorporated in to the haggadah texts recited at Passover in the USA. Some people however were extremely uncomfortable with the symbolism of bread on the Seder plate SLIDE and so this was substituted by an orange which came to symbolise the roles of lesbians, and later gay men, in Judaism’ (p3). SLIDE

This ritual is recreated in our project logo where you see an orange on a Seder plate.’ 8 mins 30.


Before presenting a section of our Queer Seder film and introducing our film maker Searle Kochberg who will briefly discuss the underlying philosophy of the visual methods used, it is important to consider how this particular example to be shown represents a classic use of bricolage. In this case, bringing together Jewish and LGBT+ identities in a manner which is meaningful for participants who in some circumstances feel forced to disengage from either their Jewish or LGBTQI identities. As one participant said over a family Seder it is not appropriate to talk about sexuality in front of grandparents. Similarly our findings have demonstrated that in mainstream LGBT+ communities there is an overwhelmingly secular orientation such that referring to Jewish identities, practice and belief can lead to marginalisation or a sense of discomfort.  For LGBTQI Jews caught in this impossible bind there is often no ‘safe’ space where they can be themselves. RR and other initiatives common within progressive Judaism are seeking to challenge and engage with this sense of un-belonging. Stuart Hall   (1989) proposes that cultural identities are based on “common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us, as ‘one people’, with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning, beneath the shifting divisions of vicissitudes of our actual history”.  Further, he stresses that establishing a cultural identity is both a process of ‘becoming’ and also ‘being’ such that cultural identity is dependent on the future as much as on the past (1989:225). For an LGBTQI Jew establishing and maintaining a secure identity which incorporates multi-faceted elements of who they are, therefore requires that BOTH their Judaism and their queer identity are acknowledged, celebrated, and recognised as an evolving organic whole, based on their past, present and future; as well as the past and future of the communities to which they belong.

Thus in our film we demonstrate how the core elements of the Pesach Seder have been reconstructed and adapted to create a Pride Seder – an order, a service which has deep cultural symbolism for Jewish people and which in the form of a Pride Seder incorporates a narrative of challenging oppression experienced by LGBTQI people. As such, iconic representative examples of the history and journey experienced by LGBT+ people are incorporated into our Seder – a high heel shoe. These include:

Exotic Fruit: to represent how sometimes we are called “fruit” people and while it is meant as an insult, we take it as a blessing in disguise.

The Pink Triangle which homosexuals were forced to wear in the work camps, as Jews wore the yellow star.

An Empty Cup to recall those who did not live to see this moment, and those who are unable still to celebrate openly their identity and connection to God.

Coloured Ribbons which are a symbol of the full Spectrum of our Jewish community, from Orthodox to Liberal, from Ethiopian Jews to Burmese Jews and as a reminder of the red and pink ribbons we wear in the hopes of finding cures for AIDS and breast cancer.

The Bundle of Sticks – the ‘Faggot’ To remind us of the men, bound together and burned at the stake for their love – and of the burning of women, called witches, because they chose to live their lives outside the realm of the patriarchy.

Spike Heel, Bricks and Stones to represent how the people at Stonewall fought back: drag queens, trans people, lesbians, gay men. It is said that the first projectiles hurled were the spike heels of the street queens.

Accordingly in the enactment of a ‘new form’ of Seder we are  (re) constructing meaning through (re)creating faith rituals and in so doing enriching and blending both Jewish and LGBT+ identities in a manner which breaks the pathway for members of other faith communities.. Publications to emerge from the project will explore this in greater depth and also consider the psychological wellbeing and impact of such activities but for now, it is time to introduce you to our film-maker…..

Link to Searle who will introduce name of film and play clip

– show the first 10-12 mins of the film Pride Seder – length of time depends on the chair and how long the ‘written’ part of this paper is.

After film excerpt is shown back to Searle for 2 mins to briefly discuss documentation versus performance and documentary film versus ethnography. Searle to link this into opening to plenary discussion with audience. Searle to also ask audience if anyone minds if we record the discussion to aid us with our analysis.


Alpert, R. (1997) Like Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press
Dzmura, N. ed. (2011) Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community Berkeley: North Atlantic Books
Kincheloe, J. (2005) On to the Next Level: Continuing the Conceptualization of the Bricolage. Qualitative Inquiry 11 (3), 323-350
Hall, S. (1989) Cultural Identity and Diaspora. Framework (36): 222-237
Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966) The Savage Mind, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Liberal Judaism (n.d.) http://www.liberaljudaism.org/
Mary, A. (2005) Métissage and Bricolage in the Making of African Christian Identities. Social Compass, 52(3), pp.281–294.
Savastano, P., 2007. Gay Men as Virtuosi of the Holy Art of Bricolage and as Tricksters of the Sacred. Theology and Sexuality, 14(1), pp.9–28.
Shneer, D. and Aviv, C. eds. (2002) Queer Jews New York: Routledge
[i] Reform Judaism. For details of the resolutions on LGBTQ rights and the position of the Reform Movement see by http://www.rac.org/lgbt-rights-and-position-reform-movement