About seven years ago I began anonymously publishing stories on an online forum for gay writers. The combination of the site's obscurity and its blessed anonymity created a safe space in the complicated reality of life in the closet. Together we coped with dilemmas and hardships, and the feeling of solidarity made us feel less alone.
After a few months we decided to leave the walls of the internet and scheduled a meeting in public. The meeting itself was not particularly exciting and I have forgotten it. Most of the forum members did not surprise me or change what I thought about them, until she arrived. She apologized for being late and introduced herself humorously straight away.
She explained that the long skirt was not a courageous fashion statement in the middle of summer. That is, she was a lesbian and haredi.
I wanted to ask her a million questions, but I didn't know exactly where to start, so I just listened from the sidelines. I read her stories again after the meeting. They dealt with her inability to consummate her love for a woman. She didn't write what was preventing her from living as she wanted, but it was obvious that there was a powerful force preventing her from and her beloved from being together.
Over the years, the meetings petered out and we lost touch, but this week I ran into her online again. I saw how she defended the community against haredi commenters and stuck up for Judaism against belligerent secular people.
I got in touch with her and this time, I gathered my course and wasn't too shy to ask questions.
Raheli (not her real name), 27, the eldest of seven siblings, grew up and was educated in haredi settings in a small city in central Israel. She told me she always felt something was different about her.
"As a child it was easy to understand exactly who and what I was," she said. "I wasn't exactly like the other girls, but I also didn't know how to put it in words. When I was a little girl I played soccer with the neighborhood boys and spend a lot of time with them. When I was 12 they separated me from the boys, because that's the age that you begin to become a young woman, and a young woman must be modest."
"I no longer has male friends at that point, but I also didn't have thoughts about men and I wasn't interested in them like a regular pubescent girl," Raheli continued. "Ultimately, when I turned 18, my father realized he needed to search for a match for me and I got engaged very quickly."
Did you want to get married?
"I had a lot of deliberations about the wedding. One on hand, I felt that something wasn't right with me. I didn't know I was a lesbian, but I had relationships with very close female friends and that felt right, that felt safe. On the other hand, I was about to finish 12th grade and my whole life I was taught that a young woman my age needs to get married and that married life is what's right, and that's the way of the Torah."
You mentioned deliberations about the wedding. What ended up deciding the matter?
"The closer I got to the date of the wedding, I felt worse. I talked with one of my teachers and shared my difficulty with her. She promised to help me and see what could be done. A month before the wedding I was referred to be treated by a great rabbi from Bnei Brak. I went with my parents and he told me we had to cancel, if that was the situation. When we got home, that very same day I told my dad: 'I'm going to be a single mother.' I didn't say anything or think about women. I only said I didn't see myself getting married to a man and raising children with him."
And how did he respond?
"We didn't really talk about it, but I felt very uncomfortable for him and also our whole environment. My father is a public figure and people know him, and it had already been published in newsletters that his daughter was engaged and about to get married. My mother was actually happy about the wedding's cancelation. She was not shy about thinking it wasn't for me and not the best path for me."
Did you tell your mother about the deliberations?
"At the time I knew the woman who is today my fiancée, and God willing, will be my wife next month. I began working after the end of 12th grade and that's where I met her. She comes from the same background as me and we were friends for two years before we started going out. She was already with someone before and knew about herself. And I understood her – how the connection is different, how the embrace is different. She started coming to visit me at my parents' house more and more, and after a while my mother asked, 'What's the nature of the relationship?' and I told her the truth. She started crying, but after that she was happy I had love and even encouraged me in times of fights and crises in the relationship."
How's the relationship with your parents today? Will they come to the wedding?
"I never talked about it with my dad. We didn't say too much and certainly not explicitly. I didn't say: 'I am a lesbian and in a relationship with a woman,' but it was understood that he knew and was in denial. He was afraid to confirm it to himself. Today the relationship is better than what it was six or seven years ago, when I was already in a relationship with a woman and my father understood it was final.
"One time he came home with his students, and at the same moment I sat on my friend in the living room. He started getting irate, and we where afraid that he would become violent, so she ran to the bedroom, and in the meanwhile my brothers formed a barrier around us and tried to calm him down. After that I went to live with my aunt, and since then I haven’t been home. I began working at another job, and after awhile I moved into my own apartment in the same city. Concurrently, my girlfriend left her families house after she came out. She moved in with me, and we have lived together since then."
After a year of disconnect, my family called me, and we began speaking again. They wanted me to come over for Shabbat, but I vetoed that idea. If my girlfriend cant come then neither can I. That’s how it was with her family too. In the end we reached an agreement, but my father asked that we leave the city. He is afraid of the future, he doesn’t want people to see me walking around with a belly, and have people talking about me, he won't come to the wedding. I also don’t want him to come to the wedding. It won't be a haredi wedding, so he has nothing to find there."
"My mom told me that she is sorry for me, that it is hard for her to accept the shame that comes with the whole city knowing. She doesn’t know how to accept the fact that It will be official. I told her: If you aren’t whole with your decision – don’t come. I want everything to be whole at my wedding, I want to be happy. To celebrate our love. And whoever is not there to rejoice – don’t come."
How does Judaism view lesbians?
"I looked through the whole torah, and Judaism doesn’t comment on lesbians directly. Jewish law belittles the issue. There are a few rabbis who claim that it is banned on the basis of modesty. My whole life I learned in Haredi institutions, and I was taught to anything that I could. Don’t stop everything if you can't do one thing. There is a verse that says that even the righteous sin. Do what you can, nothing is black or white.
Have you encountered resistance or intolerance from your environment?
"My father is a public figure, so of course I help him with what he needs, with collection of funds and holidays. And he even asks me to help and wants me to come to events. He doesn't hide me. And my girlfriend goes everywhere with me, but no one says anything, they don't talk about it, they don't ask questions. They know and accept it. I don't come with her and say, "this is my partner," but I assume they understand. Sometimes a lack of acceptance is a kind of acceptance if they respect us."
Have you thought about moving to Tel Aviv?
"I'm against running away to Tel Aviv, and I call it running away because this is actually where it's important to show that there's a gay community. I'm not trying to spite anyone, not hurting anyone, not kissing in the street out of modesty. And I expect the same respect. I am the only haredi in the area who knows she's a lesbian. All the rest ran away and left the religion. And that is what's comfortable for haredis to think: 'She's crazy, she's not right, that's why she ran away to Tel Aviv'.
"After all, if you leave, you're showing them that the only way to be gay or lesbian is to run away. I think we need to change the environment. It's important to stay and speak out particularly in places like ours, for them to see that we exist and we're not perverted or insane. Now there's an argument about whether or not to hold a parade in Rishon LeTzion and there was an argument in Ashdod and cancellations in Be'er Sheva. It's actually in these places that it's most important to be gay, and running away to Tel Aviv will not change anything. In Tel Aviv you may be more comfortable, but my kids won't be comfortable – if they learn that you need to run away to be who you are."
What's your opinion about haredi media outlets' handling of the murder at the pride parade (which they called "the abomination parade")?
"There are some groups within the haredi world that seek to incite in order to get attention. Not everyone is like that. Most of the haredi public does not incite. There are no references to it, no one talks about it, they don't teach these things – they barely talk about relations between a man and a woman, and even that is only before the wedding. If someone is discovered as gay, they want to exclude him, and tell him not to be here. They try to sweep it under the rug.
"When is it discussed? Usually it involves pride parade, especially in Jerusalem. They associate the parade with underwear and dancing on trucks, and they don't want to see that in Jerusalem. Saying 'abomination' is the haredis' way to distance it from themselves, to say, 'this doesn't have to do with us, it's an abomination'. And the word itself came from the Torah and my father might use that word.
"The haredis call it abomination because they don't want to give it a place, and because they are afraid children will learn from it. They are fighting a battle for the Torah as far as they're concerned, which is exactly the same war as that against opening parking lots on Shabbat.
"But it shouldn't reach the point of violence and murder. Lawless bloodshed is not the way of the Torah. Most of the haredi world is opposed to the violence that occurred at the Jerusalem pride parade. There are a few radical rabbis seeking exposure and an audience, but they are not typical.
"Just as there are rabbis who send people for conversion therapy, there are also rabbis who don't encourage marrying a woman if you're gay. Because as far as they're concerned, you don't choose who to love. Love does not contradict Judaism."