The gay-inclusive spirit of the Contemporary Jewish Museum

  • by Kevin Mark Kline, Director of Promotions
  • Monday May 17, 2010
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Some people talk about diversity. Some people implement it. To my knowledge, San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) has yet to issue press releases about celebrating diversity or being inclusive. Instead, quietly and without fanfare, the museum's small but stately building on Mission between 3rd & 4th Streets in downtown San Francisco has established itself as a place that's open and welcoming to all.

Being Jewish: A Bay Area Portrait is a permanent exhibit off the museum's main lobby. It's a simple exhibit: a giant collage of family photos that were provided by the local Jewish community. As you peruse the pictures of Bar Mitzvahs and Passover Seders, your eyes fall upon an unforgettable wedding photo: two women saying their "I Do"s as a third woman, their rabbi, officiates. A little to the left of this lovely image hangs a picture of two men, smiling and leaning into each other as couples often do. One is white, the other black. Nothing has been done to draw attention to these two photos - they're simply there, presented as part of the Bay Area's Jewish tapestry.

CJM's current exhibit Our Struggle: Artists Respond to Mein Kampf was covered in the BAR a few weeks ago. LGBT images were included in this haunting tribute to those who died during the Holocaust. But Our Struggle and Being Jewish are not the only examples of the museum's dedication to inclusion. On its second floor, the museum now offers its first live exhibit. As It Is Written features Julie Seltzer, a Soferet (Torah scribe). On most days, Seltzer can be seen working at her desk on the painstaking process of writing out an entire Torah on parchment, letter by letter. Museum visitors are welcome to sit and watch her at work.

According to Orthodox Jewish Law, a Torah (Bible scroll) must be handwritten in a ritual that can only be performed by men. Some time ago, LGBT and feminist Jews began questioning the validity of these man-made laws and took control of their Jewish identities. Reform and Reconstructionist temples began welcoming women as Rabbis. Reconstructionist Judaism was formed in the 1920s, and grew over the years to view Judaism as a progressively evolving religion. This sect has been particularly affirming towards women and LGBT people. Though CJM doesn't specify which branch of Judaism Seltzer belongs to, her involvement in this project is in keeping with the teachings of Reconstructionist Judaism.

The scribe takes a break at 12:30 and 1:45 p.m., when she talks to attendees about her journey. She speaks eloquently about how deeply the Torah resonates with her, but understands that there are people who won't approve of what she's doing because of her gender.

"It might sound strange, but it doesn't upset me so much," she said. "I'm not trying to push people who don't want to use this Torah to do so. The point is that it will get used as a Torah by someone. That's what matters to me most." [Julie Seltzer is not at the museum every day. Call first for her schedule.]

Ritual play

CJM's fascinating exhibit Reinventing Ritual showcases works by a variety of Jewish artists who, through art, express Jewish identities that differ sharply from what they might have learned in Hebrew school. This exhibit dares to question gender "norms" (through Oct. 3).

Israeli artist Oreet Ashery presents her short, groundbreaking video Dancing with Men. In the video, she dons the garb of Orthodox Jewish men and joins them as they dance to commemorate the death of the ancient scholar Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. What makes Ashery's work so daring is its defiance: Orthodoxy does not permit men and women to pray together, or to engage in cross-dressing.

"Mostly, I was terrified I would be discovered, outed," the artist said in a statement. "The fantasy of being accepted unconditionally into the tribe to be embraced purely on the merits of my intentions and desire kept me going for a few intense hours."

Perhaps even more groundbreaking is Opshernish, by Canadian-born transgender artist Tobaron Waxman. The exhibit shows images of the artist getting his hair cut as part of his transition from female to male. The inspiration for the piece is the Orthodox ritual in which Jewish boys get their first haircut at age three, signifying their initiation into Jewish observance. "My opsherin [hair-cutting ritual] facilitated an exodus from an infancy of self-awareness, and away from kinship-based models of identity formation." The CJM confirms that Waxman's work is the first piece by a transgender artist to be displayed in a major Jewish museum exhibition.

The current shows are hardly the end of the line for LGBT inclusion. The museum recently announced a 2011 show dedicated to the legendary writer Gertrude Stein, who lived an openly lesbian life with partner Alice B. Toklas during the early 20th century. We look forward to seeing what the future holds for CJM.

Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., SF For exhibition hours, go to or call (415) 655-7800.