This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 Humanistic Judaism Magazine. It was written by Emily Cohen. Emily is a mom, wife, business owner, and proud queer Jew living in Central Florida! She has recently found Humanistic Judaism and is excited to continue implementing cultural Judaism into her life. Emily serves as the Social Media and Communications Associate for the Society for Humanistic Judaism.
I was born to Jewish parents. My mother was raised Conservadox and my father grew up in a traditional but not necessarily observant family. As a child, we did the big holidays together and Shabbat a couple times a month. It was just a part of my existence without much explanation. I was given the Hebrew name Esther when I was born, and my Zeyde (Yiddish for grandfather) was Mordechai. He was and always will be my biggest connection to my Jewish roots. An observant Orthodox man, he co-founded a prominent shul (synagogue) in South Florida when I was young. When my parents divorced when I was 5, we moved to be closer to him. I LOVED going to shul with my Zeyde. I loved Shabbat dinners at his home and his hand on my head when he’d come over to say blessings during the High Holy Days. He told me stories about our ancestors, and how resilient our people were. He made me feel proud to be Jewish. And while he believed in God, it was never really part of the conversation when we’d speak about Judaism. It was sort of a byproduct of the stories.
At some point my parents both remarried people who were not Jewish. My stepmother was actively involved in a Christian denomination that my father connected to strongly as well, and my mother and stepfather become heavily involved in Messianic Judaism (a Christian movement that incorporates Jewish ritual and liturgy). So from about 8 years old, I experienced religious indoctrination from a Christian lens. For me, being Jewish in that environment felt extremely convoluted, so I went in the direction I thought I was supposed to go and followed my parents’ rules and structure of faith. Judaism was still very much a part of my life, but it was just kind of “there.”
There were two particularly loud tenets of faith that religious leaders around us went out of their way to make sure was drilled into our heads; the clear and deep rejection of homosexuality, and the expectation that my job as a woman was to find a good and faithful husband and have as many babies as my body would produce. My only understanding of relationships was a product of purity culture. Now to be fair, I recognize that I may have heard this just as loudly if I was steeped in Orthodox Judaism as a faith structure. But my everyday cultural Judaism had been stripped away from me and all I knew was what I experienced.
By 14 years old, I knew I was attracted to girls (although I was aware of “feelings” around the age of 8). I remember my first crush like it was yesterday. She was 17 and a fellow actor in an ongoing production I was a part of. I remember the butterflies in my stomach and the stupid smile I couldn’t wipe off my face when she was around. I also remember that the next year when I was 15, my best friend from church came out and her parents sent her away to “get right with God.” And so the crush I had was tucked away in the back of my gut and ignored, much like my connection to being Jewish.
I felt completely lost, as if my identity had been erased, and all that was left was a shell of disoriented dogma and sexual confusion. Authenticity made no sense to me because I had no idea who I was or where I belonged.
This was when I started questioning everything I had been taught about God and religion. Over the next few years, I began to abandon my beliefs, and when I turned 18 I walked away from religiosity entirely. I spent my freshman year at a private Baptist college in the deep south where being Jewish, and gay, was definitely not supposed to be a part of my story. That same year, my Zeyde died and everything I knew about Judaism died with him. I felt completely lost, as if my identity had been erased, and all that was left was a shell of disoriented dogma and sexual confusion. Authenticity made no sense to me because I had no idea who I was or where I belonged. I wore many masks and I learned to mold my identity to whomever I was dating at that moment. When I tell my story, I liken it to the movie Runaway Bride where Julia Roberts plays a character who is being followed around by a newspaper reporter documenting the three weddings she has run out on, as she plans her fourth wedding to yet another beau. The reporter asks each of her previous fiancés how she liked her eggs, and each one replies “[Insert egg cooking style here], just like me!” That was me. Whatever eggs you liked, whatever religion you followed, whatever movie genre was your favorite, whatever values you had…they were all mine because I had no identity of my own to connect to. I had a few intimate interactions with women through the years, but ultimately the fear of dealing with the fallout I knew would come from being openly queer was too much. So, I stayed in the closet.
In 2013, I was beginning to really struggle in my second hetero marriage. I had just turned 30, I had a toddler, and I was working on my MSW. Probably not ironically, I was also running the LGBTQ department at the local state university because I was a “champion ally” (insert laugh track). Every day, I was asking myself more and more who I was and what I was looking for in life. Then one Wednesday morning, at a Dunkin’ Donuts on campus, a brief flirtatious interaction with a woman working there hit me like a ton of bricks. The reality of ME was so intensely unavoidable that everything in my life practically screeched to a halt. The time had come to face my fears. I came out to my husband right before the winter holidays, and by summer, I was moving into my own apartment and exploring the world of being a lesbian and a single mom. It was scary and intense and there were a ton of hurdles with family and friends that I had to jump over. But for the first time in my life, I felt like I was actually navigating my own identity and it felt so good!
Despite this huge step, something continued to feel like it was missing. There was a part of me that I could feel begging to come out. I found out quickly that it was my Judaism. At this point in my life, I knew that I did not believe in God, but I felt a spiritual connection to universal energy and the responsibility I had to exist mutually with my fellow humans. Religion and dogma were not an option for me again, but I knew that I could not be authentically me if I did not explore my Jewish heritage. It started with simple things: spending more time with my grandmother and uncles for holidays, lighting Hanukkah candles, etc. I joined a few queer Jewish groups on Facebook where folks identified from Observant Orthodox to Renewal and Reconstructionist. I had no idea what the latter meant at the time.
A few years and a very toxic relationship later, I decided I needed to find a Jewish community I could connect with in person. Ironically, I met the person who would become my wife (they/she) right around the same time I started attending services at a Reconstructionist LGBTQ+ synagogue in Wilton Manors, Fl. Even more ironically, their mother had attended the synagogue a few times with a close family friend. The word bashert (“meant to be” or “destiny” in Yiddish) takes on a completely new meaning when I think about the circumstances that surrounded our early days as a couple. They are not Jewish, but Jewish culture was such a huge part of the first few years we were together. Our Friday night date nights started with services and Oneg, and ended at a local gay bar for drinks and live music. The more I connected with my Jewish culture, the more I felt connected to queer culture, and the woman I was keeping locked away inside for so many years began to flourish.
In 2018, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Israel on a mission with a queer Jewish organization. This experience could be written in an entire book, so I’ll just say here that I found myself there in the Negev Desert, watching the sun set behind the mountains and knowing that my ancestors had traversed this land. I was deeply moved, and, in that moment, everything made sense to me. I came home renewed and excited to incorporate cultural Judaism into my world. Thankfully, my partner was 100% on board. When we got engaged a couple years later, the Jewish traditions we wanted to be a part of our wedding day was one of the first things we discussed! The truth is, I never thought I’d have a wife. And I equally never considered I could just be Jewish in a way that felt authentic and true to who I was. As it turns out, I could not have been authentically queer without being Jewish, and I could not have connected to my Judaism without embracing the fact that I was queer. When all is said and done, THAT is bashert (meant to be). I am a proud queer Jew, and that intersection has been the most important and fulfilling of my life.