The day after DOMA was overturned, Los Angeles Rabbi David Wolpe, announced that he will be performing same-sex marriages in his synagogue, Temple Sinai.
The Rabbi upset enough of the thousand strong Persian congregants of his high-profile Conservative Synagogue, to warrant a front-page article in the New York Times citing a “revolt” in the congregation.
“The Persian community is pretty heavily weighted against the idea of same-sex marriage,” Wolpe explained.
At the same time, there is hope. The congregants threatening to leave Rabbi Wolpe’s congregation fled their country where historically they were the object of disgust and persecuted simply for being Jews.
As non-Muslim minorities, Jews suffered deeply discriminating laws over many centuries in Iran.
Before the modernization of Iran, before the Shah, Jews were second-class citizens. With the revolution and the rise to power of Ayatollahs, Jews were at risk again. They understood the position of Jews under Islamic Law dictated by Shi’ite fundamentalists. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini wrote in his book “On Islamic Government” that non-Muslims should be required to pay a special poll tax and be excluded from all roles of governance in an Islamic State.
In the worst of times, Jews in Iran were forced to run indoors when it rained. Rain falling on a Jew on its way down from the heavens desecrated the environment.
There were times in Iran where it was permitted by law to kill a Jew who dared to stand in (and thereby pollute) the rain.
With the demise of DOMA and Rabbi Wolpe’s announcement that he will now be performing same-sex marriages within the synagogue, congregants “staging a rebellion” fear lesbians and gay men under a chuppah will “ruin” their sacred space.
Eventually we will not be able to imagine keeping non-heterosexual Jews as second-class citizens in our synagogues, anymore than we could imagine terrified Jewish shopkeepers shuttering their stores as fast as they could at the sight of rain.
Whenever change forces itself on a community, there is a struggle when people feel like they are being challenged in their own congregation.
Challenging discrimination is not new to me. And my parents staged their own rebellion when they found out I was a lesbian.
I was in my twenties and since my parents understood persecution, I knew they would eventually outgrow prejudice.
I didn’t expect the degree of tears, threats, and fear.
Especially since my lover was a nice Jewish girl.
“What? You are choosing to be a second-class citizen?”
My Iraqi mother was in agony when I came out as a lesbian-feminist in the mid-seventies, two years before the Iranian Revolution.
After growing up as a Jew in Baghdad, we were finally in a country where we had civil rights. I was jeopardizing my freedom and choosing second class status.
“Are you crazy? The Jewish community will never accept you,” she cried.
“Mom, this is not Iraq. This is America. I am living my life!” I yelled back.
Coming from a community bound to tradition, “No! You can’t!” She screamed.
My Egyptian father, who rarely raised his voice or said an unkind word to me, told me I was “in the gutter.”
I knew it was only a matter of time before they would have to raise their consciousness. They grew up as second class citizens, they would eventually get through the fear.
My mother grew up watching her father sell dates in Karballah. “They were mostly Shi’ites there, they washed their hands after doing business with him.”
To this day in Iran it is considered unclean, sinful, to utter “Jew” without attaching a profanity next to it. Saying just the word “Jew” pollutes the mouth, or soul. Yes, we have all heard “dirty” precede “Jew” before. Prejudice is cross-cultural, and in some cultures it takes on a religious tone as well.
I, like so many gay and lesbian Jews didn’t give up on my family, my government or even my own Synagogue congregation.
It took my mother years before she could utter the word “lesbian.”
What was once frightening and repulsive to my parents became normal. My parents grew to see a larger more inclusive world. Their hearts opened their eyes.
“I was so backwards, I didn’t know…” my mother said before she died.
Remembering his synagogue in Mansoura (Egypt), my father recalled a young man his age. “He was gay for sure, but we acted as if such things did not exist… today here in our (Orthodox) synagogue in San Francisco there are gays but they have to hide it. It should not be that way…”
As his consciousness changed, he thought about the closeted men and women he came across in his long life across four continents from Egypt to China, India, Japan, and finally the United States. “No one talked about it,” he said sadly.
I am thrilled to see Rabbi Wolpe take on the cause.
So much personal and political work had to be done to get to this point in time. And, as we all know, it’s not over until every same-sex couple has the same rights as heterosexual couples in every state. It is happening.