Let there be light

November 1999

Coming out is not something you really plan. Like that T-shirt about shit, it just happens. Another thing I've learnt, coming out doesn't just happen once, it's something I've had to do many times in many different contexts and still continue to do. I've come out as a Jew to non-Jews; as a feminist to sexist work colleagues; as a lesbian to myself, the woman I fell in love with, friends, family, other lesbians, co-workers, the homophobic taxi driver; and lastly, the big one, as a Jew to my lesbian friends.

For years I hid my Jewish identity in the lesbian scene until one night, oops, out it popped! And then there was no going back.

This is how it happened. We were at the "big Four-O" birthday celebration of a friend. It was the late '80's and the Goddess was big in the Sydney leso community. Women were uncovering their lost Earth Mother spirituality, re-creating and realising the power of ritual. After food, drinks, funny speeches and great entertainment, someone suggested we honour our friend's new era by sitting in a circle around a central altar of candles for lighting. The idea was that each woman from the circle would step into the centre, light a candle and then say something to acknowledge the achievements of and make a wish for the birthday girl.

Now I have to say that my girlfriend and me felt a bit uncomfortable about doing this. Each for different reasons. She wasn't into too much of any religion having sworn off it after a backlog of aweful childhood Sunday school associations. I was brought up with loads of very rich orthodox Jewish culture that I'd been suppressing to be able to hang out with the Sydney leso scene. The early 80's when I came out was a time when no one wanted to talk about race, culture, or religion. We were building a radical separatist feminism. Reasserting the Amazon ethos, going beyond and before patriarchy and that meant that everything else got swept aside. We mostly wore overalls, questioned lipstick and high heels, invented political correctness, and didn't deal with difference. You could summarise my reaction glibly as "internalised anti-Semitism".

It wasn't mandatory to be in this ritual, it was proposed as, "…only if you want to," but you know what peer pressure is like. Anyway we weren't going to be in it and consequently, sat uncomfortably outside the circle. There must have been about fifty or so women in the local community hall where we had been partying. We reckoned there were about a third of us observing.

So it began. One by one, women got up from their cross-legged position on the perimeter and stepped into the increasingly candle-lit centre to acknowledge our friend and light yet another. Her courage, creativity, commitment, strength, determination in recovering from serious illness, sensitivity, friendship. Wishing her health, happiness, fulfillment, success, and joy.

Despite our skepticism, something was happening. Momentum was gathering. The words, the dancing flames, the hearts of women opening to this meditation on our friend. Suddenly it struck me. The candles, these sacred flames on this special occasion, no one had blessed them. The ritual needed this blessing. My unease grew, lower belly stirrings getting stronger, and then it burst! "I've got to do something about those candles, just got to!" I whispered to my girlfriend. "O.K." she said, "but be nice, don't do anything to upset them." "Don't worry, this won't hurt them, just tidying up a loose end!" I said and off I went. Propelled from my chair and drawn inextricably towards the glowing centre.

"I'm coming from outside this circle into the inner circle within in order to bless these candles" I said not knowing where these words came from. "When I see candles on a special occasion, as a Jewish woman, I say a Hebrew blessing that I'd like to share with you now. Light in Judaism represents the feminine aspect of G-d, it's called the Shekhinah. We have a feminist version of the blessing when lighting candles. There are other Jewish women here who might like to say this with me."

There I was kneeling in front of the mini universe of lights with women's disbelieving faces behind. Then moving my hands in an outward circular motion three times. Starting together in front of my eyes, spreading apart like the forcefield pattern of a magnet. Noticing how the flames danced in unison with the movement of my hands - away and then together. Then hands in front of my eyes,

"Brukha Yah Shekinah, Elohaynu Malkat ha'olam, asher kid shatnu b'mitzvotayha vetzeevatnu l'hadlik ner shel Yom Tov."

"Blessed are You, Eternal, Sustainer of the Universe, Who has sanctified us by your commandments, and inspired us to light the festival lights."

I remember finishing off by wishing our friend a joyous future filled always with light. Turning around to exit the circle I saw a multitude of reactions, felt the shock of a new focus on me. I almost ran out back to my seat & safety of my partner. What had I done? What did it mean? Suddenly it wasn't just about blessing the candles, something we did every Friday night and on festivals. This was public, not domestic. This was somehow very out there and exposed, but to friends with whom I'd already shared so much, so why not this?

Apart from the two other Jewish lesbians in the group, I knew that no one else there would have heard Hebrew before. They probably had thought it was weird, very foreign and shocking for them to hear their seemingly Anglo friend say this strange gobbledygook - almost like speaking in tongues? I know I shocked some of them, in fact I totally shocked myself! As I was doing it I got that deep goosey feeling I'd had before when it seemed like angels were hovering close by smiling!

In fact, I noticed that most of the women couldn't even talk to me afterwards. There was very definitely very little eye contact going on. There were only three comments. One friend who thanked me and said how she'd gone goosey too; another non-Anglo woman who said how great it was to have heard my language and know that she was not the only one who was different; and one of the other Jewelles who kissed and hugged me! My partner said, "Very nice, tasteful!"

We left. I was in shock, couldn't sleep properly for about a week. I had constant flashbacks and slow motion reruns trying to process what this meant. Totally blown my cover, exposed my difference in a really fundamental way. Was it politically correct to have resorted to such a patriarchal religion to do what I did, bless the candles? But I just had to, it came from somewhere very deep and very important. This suppressed expression of my birthright as a Jewish woman had been unleashed and realised in this space of sisterhood. Yes, I finally understood it, I'd come out as a Jew in the lesbian community.

So here I am in a Dykehardt café about ten years later, finally writing this story. Today is Friday and the last day of Chanukah 1999, the "Festival of Lights", a celebration of freedom and survival, of Jewish identity and independence. I'm also thinking about the meeting I'm going to on Sunday with about ten or so other Jewish lesbians and gays. We're planning the first ever Jewish float for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras 2000. Apart from a very big rainbow coloured Star of David our other theme is to dress up like dancing menorahs!

So I'm thinking, yes, lesbian and gay Jews do bring light. We challenge both our Jewish community's homophobia and our homosexual community's racism and xenophobia. We uncover our own internalised anti-Semitism. We speak the unspeakable. We share our joys and pain and extend the boundaries of human empathy just a little and hope that others can journey with us towards light. Yes, I do believe we are twice blessed!

Larri is one of Dayenu's founding members, and our float-design & construction supremo.