This is part of a series that I am writing about Nachlaot and its residents.
Sarah Weil is a student of philosophy and Jewish Thought. She is a resident of Nachlaot. She is a community leader and an “out” Orthodox Lesbian. Sarah describes herself as a lover of Jerusalem and a lover of Israel.
Sarah Weil lives on Narkis Street, right on the southern border of Nachlaot. She is 29 years old and has lived in Israel for 8 years, 7 in Nachlaot. She grew up in Central California.
Sarah’s reason for choosing Nachlaot to live in is similar to many others’. As she so movingly put it, “Nachlaot is the intersection of Jerusalem and Israel in general. It’s where all the different colors and flavors are. It’s where the bubbling diverse communities of a rich and complicated city meet, where the modern world and the traditional world meet, where religion and secularism, where Israelis and people from all over the world come together. The first Shabbat meal that I had in Israel was when I was a student at Nishmat and it was on Narkis Street.”
Sarah was actually Haredi when she first moved into the small Ultra Orthodox neighborhood, Shaarei Chesed, which borders Nachlaot to the South. She had spent the previous year living in Har Nof and at the time she wore only skirts and dresses. This contrasted starkly with her attire when I spoke with her at the Nocturno Café on Betzalel Street. She wore cut off faded denim shorts and an open collar shirt over a tank top. She had obviously undergone a few changes since her first years in a Haredi women’s seminary.
While she lived in Shaarei Chessed, Sarah began to wear pants. The owner of the apartment which she rented there told her that the neighbors complained to him about it. He asked Sarah to wear more conservative attire when coming and going from the apartment and that he would be willing to renew the contract with her only if she agreed to this condition. Naturally, Sarah refused and moved out at the end of her lease. Sarah said that the owner did not did not mind that she wore pants, but he told her that he was pressured by people in that community who objected to his renting to a “Secular” person. “If they had only spoken to me, they would have realized that I am not ‘secular’, but am not ‘religious’ either, or maybe I’m both? For sure, I don’t fit into common categories.”
Sarah was not raised Orthodox. She grew up in a Reform family. After college she says that she “did not become more religious. I became totally religious in a very short time.”
Sarah explains that she, “had a life-changing experience in Jerusalem, what I relate to as a kind of personal ‘revelation’ where I came into God-consciousness for the first time in my life. The experience is the most powerful that I have ever had in my life, a foundational truth that cannot be denied. My life could never be the same after that. I can never go back to way things were before. But now I know that people can live in fundamentally different realities, since I witnessed myself moving from one to another.”
As a child she was taught to be a Zionist. “The concept of our Zionism was, Israel is our homeland, the only place on earth that we can be truly ourselves and safe, and we have to get there some way. We would live there if we could.”
“I went on a journey. Like any good Reform Jew I was an atheist,” she relates with a sarcastic wink. “The notion of God that I grew up with was superficial, materialistic, childish and Christian. Any reasonable, moderately intelligent person who was acquainted with these notions of God would be an atheist. And so I was an atheist like my father before me and his father before him. Part of our Judaism was atheism because the notion of God seemed ridiculous, because God wasn’t an important part of Judaism anyway. Judaism was about the family, about the community, about Tikkun Olam and social justice. I never even saw a Talmud or heard the word ‘Hashem’ (God).”
Sarah went to Brandeis University to enhance her knowledge of Judaism. Brandeis is a college in Massachusetts which was established as a non-sectarian Jewish university that would offer Jewish studies. Sarah hoped to find her Jewish identity there. But in her first year at Brandeis Sarah was disappointed when an anti-Israel rally was held on campus with hundreds of supporters, most of them Jewish, but with virtually no pro-Israel rally to counter it. She was shocked by this because at the time the largest part of her Judaism was her attachment to Israel. “The largest part of my Jewish identity was my connection to Israel. Supporting Israel was my religious practice.” Sarah left Brandeis at the end of her first year, moving to San Francisco to join its music scene.
Sarah concentrated on playing and writing music, poetry and vigorously studying philosophical and religious texts. In the midst of playing her guitar at night atop a building overlooking San Francisco’s marina, she felt an intense calling to come to Israel. Over a year later, when she first learned the Jewish prayers, Sarah says that she made a shocking discovery. Some of the Biblical verses included in the prayers were the same as some of the song lyrics which she had written. Sarah says that she had never heard of those verses before.
On her way to Israel, Sarah sojourned in Rome for a year. There she studied comparative religion and learned about Judaism from a Roman Catholic Priest. “At the time I gathered that one of the most important things that distinguished Judaism from the other traditions was the ‘Mitzvah’. A Mitzvah by definition is something that one does, not something one thinks about. It made sense to me that the only way to learn about Judaism was from people who actually do Judaism, to do Judaism myself.”
Encouraged by one of her professors, Sarah found the Nishmat women’s Orthodox Jewish school on the Internet and came to Israel to study for the summer. At this point she still wore cut off jeans like the ones that she wore when we met. It was her first time in an Orthodox Jewish environment. At Nishmat she was inspired. “Judaism provided a language for what I always knew and what I always felt, but could never express.”
But her stay in the Haredi world did not last. After about two years she left the seminary and enrolled in a Hebrew language course. Sarah recounts several reasons for eventually leaving the Haredi world. The first of which were women’s issues and the treatment of women in that community. She could also not find a way to harmonize being in that community while being a lesbian. Sarah said that she is, “much more by nature a rebel type. I take the opposite [position] in an argument just to make sure that there’s an opposite opinion, that there is real dialogue. The Haredi world does not look fondly on that kind of thing.”
Sarah tried to fit in. She tried to be a part of the community. She appreciates many of the aspects of the community such as, Yirat Shamayim, literally fear of God, and a desire to serve God. She says that while she left the confines of the Haredi community, she carries with her many of the things that she learned during her stay. For instance, Sarah tries to live a life that defines every thing that you do in relation to God. Sarah studied at several other Orthodox women’s schools in addition to Nishmat, including Neve Yerushalayim, Shearim, Bat Ayin and Jewel
Today Sarah runs a production company for the many events that she promotes for women and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer peoples). Sarah prefers the term queer over gay since she feels that “gay” is too narrow a term and does not allow her the kind of gender and sexual fluidity that she needs. “If gay and lesbians uphold the binary gender norms of our society, then queer challenges those norms on a fundamental level. I like to identify as queer because I don’t fit into the traditional gender and sex categories that gay and lesbian identities uphold. I not only tend to think outside the box, but I live outside it as well.”
Sarah currently runs five different events which she produces and promotes: The Women’s Gathering, the first of these events, began in November 2011 and today attracts hundreds of women (and their gay and straight friends) to its meetings. Additionally, Sarah produces The Men’s Gathering for men and Adam and Eve, two club parties which she promotes for Homosexuals and lesbians respectively. Finally there is Lilith, which promotes women’s creative expression in Jerusalem.
[caption id="attachment_27869" align="alignright" width="450"] A Promotion for One of Her Events
Her parties and events, however, are open to all, not just gays and lesbians. But each caters to a specific audience. There have been, unfortunately, problems with the open door policy. At an Eve party some men came who viewed it as an opportunity to harass lesbians and were turned away. “Though Jerusalem is generally a safe city to live in, there is still a big problem with general societal ignorance and its resultant homophobia. I’m aware and careful to ensure that all of my events are safe spaces where people can come and just be themselves. If anyone attempts to disrupt this safe space, I have zero tolerance for them and take appropriate actions. Thankfully I have never encountered any real problems, and Jerusalem as a whole has welcomed us with open and loving arms.”
“Queer culture is for everybody. The advances that queer people have made in reinterpreting and expanding gender and sex norms, in creating new expressions of sexuality, that progress has seeped out into the general community and heterosexual people are benefiting from a much more fluid sexuality.”
Sarah no longer attends a synagogue regularly. But when she does pray in a traditional setting she attends a local Nachlaot orthodox minyan. While she has tried various services all over the city, she says that she prefers the traditional minyan of Raz Hartman because “it is filled with a sense of yirat shamayim, of simple Jews who desperately want to serve God with all their being. This is what keeps me there…it’s funny that the people that I pray with are totally different from the people that I socialize with…I live in different worlds. I find myself at the intersection between traditional Judaism and the modern world. I am constantly trying to integrate these different worlds. If you’re honest you see that there is a conflict between traditional Judaism and the modern secular world and that is not a conflict that I am prepared to disregard. It is an important conflict. Judaism needs that struggle. It will force us to search for and mine new interpretations of the Torah; it will keep the Torah a ‘wellspring of life’ and not let it become a dead, rigid book.”
Sarah never hid her sexual orientation from any of the people at the different places where she prayed. The Orthodox people in the community, including some rabbis, never judged her. But Sarah did not “wear it on her sleeve” either, as she explained. She never felt 100% comfortable in the Orthodox synagogue where she prayed, but she also never felt judged by anyone there for being out.
Some Orthodox people may only condescend to gays. They may be open to them and invite them to Shabbat meals, but with the expectation that, as with the people who do not keep the Sabbath, they will eventually see the light and repent. This is the “love the sinner but hate the sin” philosophy.
Sarah says that she never felt that the Orthodox people whom she associates with in Nachlaot were like that. She feels that they are open minded and accept her for who she is. “Everyone who knows me knows that I’m gay. Even though they weren’t explicitly accepting of me, they were warm and welcoming. I was a Jew just like they were, trying to do her tikkunim (corrections) in the world and serve God as best as I could.”
For Sarah Weil, Jerusalem is a significant place to be a social activist. As she put it so well, “I’m an activist in Jerusalem and not in any other city because I really believe that if we can figure out a way to live together and to grow together here in this crazy complexly diverse community in Jerusalem then it will ripple out to the rest of the world. I believe that the way to do that is not through confrontation or violence, but through empathy, through listening, through trying to understand one another. Make space for someone, even if you don’t agree with them. My events embody these ideals, and I hope to continue to use all of my social activism to help imprint a better, brighter future for our beloved city, Jerusalem.”