Even at the best of times a Bar or Bat Mitzvah can be an awkward experience, and the prospect of reciting Hebrew verses before friends and family is often enough to render the most headstrong of 13-year-olds a little nervous.
But for Sally Goldner, now the Executive Director of Transgender Victoria (winners of the prestigious 2014 Human Rights Award – Community Organisation), there was an added element of discomfort.
Goldner would later realise that she did not identify as male, as she was then being raised and socialised, and the experience of performing a male coming-of-age ceremony felt inauthentic, even to her 13-year-old self.
“It wasn’t going to be the coming age for a ‘male’ because I never was,” she says.
Goldner’s Bar Mitzvah took place in 1978, but it was not until 2014, at the first ever Pride Shabbat service held at Melbourne’s progressive Temple Beth Israel synagogue, that Goldner was able to make sense of the memory.
“It was really interesting personally for me as someone who didn’t know I wasn’t a male when I was ‘Bar Mitzvahed’: it didn’t feel right at the time.
“When I went up to do the reading as my true self last year it really felt so much better – to be reading at a Jewish service as my true identity in every way, rather than trying to be someone I clearly wasn’t,” she says.
Goldner had considered holding a Bat Mitzvah – the female equivalent of a Bar Mitzvah – to mark 13 years since her transition, but never got around to organising the event. The Pride Shabbat night helped her make sense of the past, but also to connect two previously unreconciled parts of herself.
“It was fantastic. It gave a sense of ‘holisticness’ – if I can use that word.”
“For years I didn’t feel that Judaism could be a totally positive part of me and to go to that service, to be there to have so many friends, of all sexual orientations and gender identities there, it really did give a sense of community and culture regardless of religion.
“It felt like a part of me that hadn’t been quite settled, was settled.”
The now annual Pride Shabbat, based on a similar event originally held in Sydney, will take place again this Friday as Goldner and other members of LGBTQ communities join with allies to take part in the traditional Jewish celebration of the Sabbath.
Jonathan Barnett, who is the co-founder of Keshet Australia, a group designed to help support the Jewish LGBTI community (Keshet is Hebrew for ‘rainbow’), says that like other close-knit ethnic or religious communities, coming out to a Jewish family poses some particular challenges.
“My own experience growing up in the Jewish community in the US, once I realised I was a gay man I felt I didn’t have a strong place in the community,” Barnett said.
“That wasn’t true,” he added, but it wasn’t until Barnett found the right rabbi that he reconnected with the community.
He says the first Melbourne Pride Shabbat was a bit of a “shock to the system”, but that over 300 people turned up, indicating strong support.
Like in other religious groups, the challenge for LGBTQ Jews is particularly great in Orthodox communities.
With suicide and depression rates already higher among those who identify as LGBTQ, the loss of community that can occur when young Jews open up to their families is a great risk.
“You look at people feeling they have to leave their religion and leave their community because they’re no longer welcome because of sexual orientation, there’s a clear need to educate the individuals as well as their families and the communities,” Barnett says.
Both Barnett and Goldner found their road back, and are positive about the impact that telling their own stories will have for future generations.
Goldner points to the work of evangelical Christian Anthony Venn-Brown and says competing identities – of gender, sexuality, and religion – can lead to an “internal tug-of-war”.
“When the tug of war stops, the two parts of yourself join.”
A note to readers: New Matilda uses various acronyms and derivatives of LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex). We try to avoid referring to a particular group, for example people who are Intersex, when they are not directly relevant to the story. For more, please read here.
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