Ben Gladstone
Ben Gladstone

The “queer subtext”: LGBTQIA+ issues in 20th century Jewish literature

The following is a paper that I wrote for my Brown University class on Yiddish Language and Culture with Professor Rachel Rojanski. I know that it is long, but I hope that some will be interested enough to at least skim it.

I am posting it for two reasons. Firstly, I am proud of how progressive the Jewish people has often been throughout history, and writings such as the ones referenced in this paper set a good precedent for future Jewish activism on lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, intersex, asexual/aromantic, and otherwise non-heterosexual/non-cisgender (LGBTQIA+) issues.

Secondly, especially as gay marriage is discussed in the American Supreme Court, people such as George W. Bush-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts and Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush have tried to undermine the case for equality by suggesting that the LGBTQIA+ community is a recent phenomenon, which is not only irrelevant (why should it matter how long the community has existed, when it clearly does now?) but also, as demonstrated by the below-mentioned works, simply false. Yiddish literature serves as a case study of the relevance of LGBTQIA+ issues long ago.

For more of my views, please read my earlier article on the topic. For all sorts of resources, Keshet is an amazing organization that works for equality and inclusion in the Jewish community.

My paper

In the early 20th century, there was little conversation about LGBTQIA+ issues in the United States and Europe. Therefore, it is particularly notable when writers from this time period express awareness of those issues, thus indicating that the taboo was, at times, broken. In each instance of such writing, the writer must have been both aware of the issues (indicating that there was some discussion of them in the writer’s community) and willing to write about them. In fact, that taboo was broken, with varying degrees of openness, by such Yiddish literary leaders as Sholem Asch, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joseph Green, and Sholem Aleichem. The several works of 20th-century Yiddish writing, produced by some of the most famous names in Yiddish literature, that address these issues, therefore, indicate a substantial awareness in Jewish society of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Of all the Yiddish literature addressing LGBTQIA+ issues, perhaps the work that is most astounding is Sholem Asch’s three-act drama, God of Vengeance. The play was first published in 1907, but hit American theaters as the first drama on Broadway to feature a lesbian love scene only in 1923. The impact of the play was (and is) tremendous because it can so easily be read as what theater critic Julius Novick describes as, “an early classic of gay-and-lesbian drama.” In the play, a brothel owner by the name of Yekel Tchaftchovitch, feeling the burden of his sinful lifestyle, seeks to assuage his guilt by paying for a Holy Scroll to be written, and by hosting that Scroll in his house. He has the Scroll placed in the room of his daughter, Rifkele, because he views her as innocent in a way that he and his wife, Sarah, are not. After Rifkele runs away with her lesbian lover, Manke (a prostitute in Yekel’s brothel), Yekel is again wracked with guilt, believing that the Holy Scroll has been defiled.

The first moment that the nature of Rifkele’s and Manke’s relationship is revealed is through their physicality, when the former “falls into Manke’s arms” and the latter “kisses her passionately” at the end of the first act. Significantly, there are substantial elements of the relationship that are physical, as Asch did not shy away from even erotic imagery. Manke describes her sensual encounters with Rifkele without restraint, saying, for example, “I uncovered your breasts and washed them with the rainwater that trickled down my arms. Your breasts are so white and soft.” Similarly significant is that the play goes well beyond the physical as well, revealing the deeply romantic feelings that the two women hold for one another, as Manke dreams out loud, “You’ll be the bride. . . a beautiful bride. . . It’s Sabbath eve and you are sitting with your papa and mamma at the table. . . I – I am your sweetheart.” Thus the relationship between Manke and Rifkele does include sexual attraction, but is by no means limited to the physical as a vehicle for expressing intimacy. These sweet interactions strike the viewer primarily as a love story, no less than stories of similar interactions in a heterosexual context. In 1907, of course, such a portrayal of a homosexual relationship made an enormous statement.

Also notably, the characters in the play who react negatively to Rifkele’s and Manke’s joint escape are overwhelmingly mired in sin. While the pious Reb Ali is almost dismissive of the incident, it is the sinful Yekel who gives the play its name through his impassioned prayer, in which he says the words, “You are as vengeful as any human being,” a phrase for which Reb Ali chastises him as blasphemy. Even the prostitute Reizel’s concerns come from a place of superstition. Thus, Asch was able to describe the realistic reaction that many parents and friends would likely have had to a lesbian relationship at the time, while at the same time undermining those negative reactions as themselves sinful. By portraying a loving relationship between two women that is both erotic and romantic, and by delegitimizing those who opposed that relationship, Asch took an enormous step toward normalizing lesbian romances in this play.

Similar in its openness, although less significant due to its publication date, is Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1968 story, “Zeitl and Rickel.” While this story was published well after God of Vengeance, it is still notable in that it was written in the United States before the Stonewall Riots of 1969, after which awareness of LGBTQIA+ issues in America first became widespread. University of Maryland Professor Evelyn Torton Beck teaches it as “an explicitly lesbian love story.” Two young women, Zeitl and Rickel, find themselves living alone, and soon they move into a single house, as their relationship develops into what is more and more clearly a romance, culminating in both of their suicides.

While it does not have the same sort of erotic details as God of Vengeance, Singer’s story does describe the relationship between the two protagonists, Zeitl and Rickel, in sweetly romantic terms: “It was said that Zeitl and Rickel ate together, drank together, slept together. . .On summer evenings they went strolling. . .They were absorbed in their talk.” As in God of Vengeance, this description draws sympathy from the reader, which, in this case, is compounded by the sympathy that the narrator expresses for the two, saying that their experiences were “destined to happen” and referring to those who would spread rumors about them as having “evil tongues.” On some subtle level, even the community as a whole accepts their love, as they are buried together in the end.

Additionally significant in this particular work is the inclusion of a brief religious dispute over the legitimacy of a lesbian relationship. Reb Eisele, the town’s regular rabbi, twice dismisses those who speak against the couple, and the second time is explicit that the Torah does not forbid a relationship between two women (although that line is deeply flawed in that he does emphasize the biblical passages that have sometimes been interpreted as a ban on male homosexuality). In these moments, the narrator describes Reb Eisele as “a Misnagid, a Lithuanian, and they have a law for everything,” giving his ruling credibility as a part of a comprehensive legal-religious system. Later in the story, however, when Reb Yuzel terrifies Zeitl, Rickel, and many other townsfolk with his tales of doom and punishment, the same narrator reminds the reader that, “the Lithuanians have an argument for everything. They interpret the Law as they like. That’s why they are nicknamed ‘heathens.’” Thus the narrator is willing to contradict herself in order to undermine a religious viewpoint that is frightening to Zeitl and Rickel while supporting a religious viewpoint that protects them.

When the speaker herself does mention the “Tempter” as a driving cause for Zeitl’s and Rickel’s relationship, she cites the “Women’s Bible,” a source known for its unqualified interpretations and other imperfections as a translation of the Torah. Zeitl, on the other hand, is characterized as a truly authoritative source, as she teaches others to read and write and is even familiar with the scholarly commentary on holy texts, and it is she who says the critical line, “We shall get married up there too. In heaven there is no difference between men and women.” Thus the character whose thorough religious textual studies are described in the most detail declares that, in the eyes of heaven, homosexuality is acceptable (with phrasing that, in fact, would also apply to men). Thus Singer made important statements in his story about both the existence of homosexuality and its religious legitimacy.

“Zeitl and Rickel,” however, was not Singer’s only work that addressed these topics. A few years earlier, in 1962, he wrote a story, “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” that was subtler but that dealt with a variety of LGBTQIA+ issues. Beck teaches this story as well, emphasizing that “Yentl, disguised as a man, marries a woman” and consummates the marriage. In the story, a woman by the name of Yentl dresses as a man and begins introducing herself as “Anshel” so that she is able to study at a yeshiva, which she does for a long time until she decides to reveal herself to her study partner, Avigdor, and to divorce her wife, Hadass, whom she married still under the guise of a man.

The clearest issues to be addressed are specific to lesbian relationships, as noted by Beck. It is Yentl who proposes the marriage with Hadass, after looking upon Hadass’s physical form, thinking, “a pity I’m not a man,” and referring to “some force” that caused her to desire the woman as her bride. Later, Hadass is also described as “deeply in love with Anshel,” even though both are women. Thus, through Yentl’s and Hadass’s mutual attraction, Singer acknowledged the presence of lesbian women in Jewish society.

More subtle still, but also dealt with in this story, is the issue of male homosexuality. There are repeated descriptions of the closeness of Yentl’s and Avigdor’s relationship, so that, even though they are in fact of different genders, there is an appearance of homosexuality. In fact, their respective fathers-in-law even “compared Avigdor and Anshel to David and Jonathan,” relating them to a pair of characters whose close relationship is often held up as an example of biblical homosexuality. Then, after Yentl reveals herself to be a woman, “a great love for Anshel took hold of Avigdor,” suggesting that Avigdor may have had to struggle with the idea of loving a man before Yentl’s sex was made clear. Avigdor would only have encountered that struggle if he had held similar feelings for Yentl earlier in their relationship, but such feelings are alluded to when Yentl tells Avigdor that if she were a woman and married to him, she would treat him well. In that moment, Avigdor is not at all taken aback, but instead sighs and says, “well, but you aren’t,” indicating that the thought of the two of them married is not outlandish to him, even before he knows that Yentl is a woman. Therefore, while there is never any explicit sexual or romantic relationship between any two men in the story, the issue of male homosexuality is raised as Avigdor and the disguised Yentl engage closely with one another. It is also noteworthy that, because Yentl is attracted to both Hadass and Avigdor, Singer may have intended to present her as a bisexual character.

Finally, although there was even less awareness of trans* issues in the early 1960s than there was of gay or lesbian issues (as is true now as well), there are many lines in the story that suggest that Yentl may be trans*, and thus that Singer may have known about the trans* community at the time. In some instances throughout the story, it is as though the concept that is today referred to as “gender identity” (one’s conception of one’s own gender on a mental and emotional level) is present and is referred to as “soul,” while the concept that is today referred to as “sex” (biological features that are male, female, or intersex) is present and is referred to as “body.” Thus Yentl thinks about herself that, “even the soul was perplexed, finding itself incarnate in a strange body,” an assertion that is later mimicked by Avigdor, who notes that, “all Anshel’s explanations seemed to point to one thing: she had the soul of a man and the body of a woman,” and that, “though their bodies were different, their souls were of one kind.” Moreover, long before Yentl decides to dress in her father’s clothing for the utilitarian purpose of being accepted at a yeshiva, “she would dress up in his trousers, his fringed garment, his silk coat, his skullcap, his velvet hat, and study her reflection in the mirror” in an act that is frequently an expression of trans* identity to this day. Finally, there are some moments when Yentl expresses ambiguity about her gender identity, suggesting that her gender may be neither entirely masculine nor entirely feminine, as she dreams of herself as “at the same time a man and a woman” and, in speaking with Avigdor, she says, “I am neither one nor the other,” referring to masculine and feminine gender identities. In these ways, Singer demonstrated an awareness of a range of LGBTQIA+ issues in “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” and raised those issues to his Yiddish-speaking readership.

Many similar issues are raised in the 1936 Yiddish-language musical film Yiddle with His Fiddle, written by Joseph Green and starring Molly Picon, which also features a cross-dressing protagonist. In it, Itke and her father, Arye, are both musicians. Itke dresses as a boy, under the name “Yidl,” to ensure her own safety on the road. The two soon encounter another pair of musicians, Isaac and Ephraim, whom they join to form a four-person traveling band without revealing Itke’s true identity. Itke develops romantic feelings for Ephraim, but her love goes unrequited until she accidentally reveals her true gender when she is thrust onto stage for a live show, wearing a dress.

Eve Sicular, a film scholar and the bandleader of both the Isle of Klezbos all-women’s sextet and Metropolitan Klezmer octet, wrote that, “Molly’s heterosexual orientation is never in question in the movie; rather, queer subtext is employed in other characters’ responses to her fey male appearance.” In particular, her relationship with Ephraim raises important questions about sexual orientation. She is in love with him from early on in the film, singing “A musician boy. . .fills my every thought,” but he seems uninterested in and confused by all of her advances, as he regards her as a young boy. In one scene, he even rescues her from drowning, but when she moves to kiss him, he drops her in disgust, angrily referring to her as a “pipsqueak” and saying that she “looks like a lost cat.” His attitude changes dramatically, however, as soon as she is revealed to be a woman, at which time Ephraim promptly abandons his job to join Itke and live with her in the United States. The haste with which Ephraim is willing to uproot his career and so significantly change the trajectory of his life for Itke suggests that he may have had hidden romantic feelings for her earlier in their relationship as well, as otherwise he would have had no reason to leave his job for her without having first interacted with her as a woman to determine whether or not such feelings were present. Thus the viewer can infer that Ephraim, in a way similar to Avigdor in “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” must have faced romantic feelings toward someone he assumed was male.

Another common LGBTQIA+ experience that is endured by a character in Yiddle with His Fiddle is the feeling of being closeted with which Itke is forced to contend. During the time that Itke is disguised as a man, she is forced to wear clothing common to men during that time, which becomes a source of discomfort for her. Eventually, when she finds herself alone in a room with a dress, she feels driven to put it on, an act that eventually results in the revelation that she has been a woman all along. That she feels so compelled to put on the dress suggests that, as is the case for many trans* people, she prefers to wear the clothing that she sees as most suitable for her gender, and struggles with her inability to do so as long as she upholds her projected image of masculinity. While her struggle is most directly related to that of members of the trans* community, many people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or otherwise part of the LGBTQIA+ community have also had to hide their identities and/or orientations, sometimes even living their entire lives thus closeted. Therefore, Itke’s experience is reflective of that of many LGBTQIA+ people. While the elements of LGBTQIA+ experience in Yiddle with His Fiddle are decidedly less pronounced than in some of the aforementioned works, Sicular has also pointed out that Molly Picon herself is known to have been at least somewhat aware of LGBTQIA+ issues, so it is likely that they were discussed in the making of the film.

Finally, the famed Sholem Aleichem, in 1904, wrote the story “Hodel,” featuring the classic literary character of Tevye the Milkman, which explored some of these issues as well. Tevye himself gives signs that he may be homosexual throughout the piece. As Dan Miron of Columbia University has noted, Tevye frequently indicates (in “Hodel” and other stories) that he is insecure in his masculinity through both “his disrespect for women and his nagging need to assert his male superiority over them.” Tevye’s speech is often misogynistic, and he incessantly repeats phrases such as “Tevye is not a woman” in order to distance himself from the feminine. Moreover, he constantly misquotes and misapplies the Torah and other holy scriptures in a poorly executed effort to express his knowledge of Jewish texts, as such knowledge was an indicator of masculinity in Jewish society at the time, despite his inability to do so correctly.

The unique element of “Hodel” is the introduction of Perchik (nicknamed “Feferl”), eventually to become the husband of one of Tevye’s daughters. There is palpable sexual tension between Perchik and Tevye, which allows the reader to infer that Tevye’s own questions about his masculinity stem from a hidden homosexuality. As Miron put it, “he had fallen in love with Feferl even before his daughter Hodel did.” In fact, Hodel and Perchik meet for the first time only after Tevye invites the latter “over to my place for a little chat tonight” after describing him as “a boy with plenty of gumption and self-starting tongue.” When Perchik does arrive for dinner, Tevye says to him, “you’ve got all the benefits of marriage here,” inviting him to function as a member of the family but choosing to use the word “marriage” instead of a more neutral term, such as “kinship.”

Tevye becomes so enamored with Perchik that “the only thing I didn’t like was his disappearing act;” that is, he appreciated every aspect of Perchik’s person except for the times that the two of them were apart. He feels himself “being drawn to this fellow,” and even refers to him, on multiple occasions, as “songbird,” even though the family as a whole has already nicknamed him “Feferl.” While these indicators are subtle, they do suggest that Tevye had feelings for Perchik that were other than platonic friendship, even before Hodel herself had met her husband. Tevye’s own questions about his masculinity may relate to his sexual orientation, in which case Sholem Aleichem would have been exhibiting his own awareness of homosexuality in Jewish society.

The works of many great Yiddish literary leaders of the early 20th century indicate that there was a reasonably widespread awareness of the presence of an LGBTQIA+ community within Jewish society at the time, and demonstrates that the taboo of speaking out on those issues could be broken. While those topics were often addressed subtly, they were also, at times, manifested in pronounced homosexual romances. Regardless, these expressions of LGBTQIA+ identity and issues reflect a degree of freedom of thought and discussion within even religious Jewish communities over one hundred years ago, and thus imply the importance of continued discussion and progress on these issues today.


Aleichem, Sholem. “Hodel.” Classic Yiddish Stories of S. Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz. Ed. Ken Frieden. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2004.

Asch, Sholem. The God of Vengeance: drama in three acts. Boston: 1918.

Beck, Evelyn T. “Teaching About Jewish Lesbians in Literature.” The New Lesbian Studies: Into the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Bonnie Zimmerman and Toni A. H. McNaron. New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1996.

Frister, Roman. “Yiddish play, still contentious after 100 years, to hit Polish stage.” Haaretz 24 Nov. 2013.

Yiddle with His Fiddle. Dir. Joseph Green. Perf. Molly Picon. 1936.

Horner, Thomas M. Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times. The Westminster Press 1978.

Miron, Dan. From Continuity to Contiguity: Toward a New Jewish Literary Thinking. Stanford: Stanford University Press 2010.

Novick, Julius. “A large Yiddish canvas with gay colors.” Haaretz 2 Aug. 2002.

Sicular, Eve. “Outing the Archives.” Queer Jews. Ed. David Shneer and Caryn Aviv. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Singer, Isaac B. “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.” The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Ed. Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: 1982.

Singer, Isaac B. “Zeitl and Rickel.” The Hudson Review, Vol. 21, No. 1, 20th Anniversary Issue, Spring, 1968

About the Author
Benjamin Gladstone is a junior at Brown University, where he is pursuing degrees in Middle East Studies and Judaic Studies and where he serves as president of Brown Students for Israel, the Brown University Coalition for Syria, and Students for Responsible Policies in Yemen. In addition to blogging with the Times of Israel, Benjamin is a Scribe Contributor at The Forward, and his work has been published in the Tower Magazine, the Jewish Advocate, the Brand Of Milk And Honey, the Hill, the Brown Daily Herald, the Brown Political Review, and the New York Times. He is a founder and editor of ProgressME, a student publication that highlights underrepresented voices on Southwest Asian issues.