By Isaac Bernstein
To feel Jewish in a cultural sense is often at its most heightened when one recognises, understands, and reflects upon cultural similarities between oneself and other Jewish people. Us British Jews have a tendency to cite these similarities often with one another, revelling in the shared understanding of what it means to be a mensch, to be broigus with someone, or to be a typical Jewish mother.
The latter in this list is a trope to which I became accustomed at an early age, as the badge of the Jewish mother was one my mum wore and continues to wear with utmost pride.
What I didn’t know in my childhood and early adolescence however was how complicated by mum’s identification with this trope was because as well as being a Jewish mother, she was a Jewish lesbian mother – a hybrid identity which often remains invisible, erased and unaccounted for in the mainstream Jewish community.
I was born into a family in which two parents, my mum and her partner, were raising their two biological sons as brothers in the same family. My mum had decided to have a child with a close male friend of hers and her partner had conceived her son through anonymous sperm donation.
Up until the age of two, this was our family make-up, but when my mum’s partner passed away, she made a decision which changed the nature of our family unit irrevocably. She decided that she would not tell me about the relationship with her partner or her sexuality but rather pretend that my brother was the son of a friend of hers and live her life under the guise of the heterosexual, Jewish single mother.
This decision was one completely informed by my mum’s past experiences, ones which she kept from me for many years but are intrinsic in understanding the chain of events that took place.
My mum grew up in the 1950s, where as early as childhood she remembers routinely being called a tomboy by her family. As she entered adolescence, crushes on women, female teachers, and athletes began to develop, confirming the sexual difference that others had ridiculed her for in her childhood.
In her early twenties, after having entered a relationship with a woman, she decided to come out to her own mother, whose initial response was a hilarious, ‘Please God, you’ll meet a nice Jewish girl’, followed by a more sobering, ‘The worst thing is you won’t be able to give me grandchildren.’
These comments were very much indicative of the homophobic status quo at the time, a widespread credo which professed that lesbians shouldn’t have children and that those who chose to were unfit mothers.
In the years to follow, my mum became part of a lesbian community in North West England where, for the first time, she experienced the company of other lesbian women who lived more openly than she had ever been able to. It emerged however, that this community was just as restrictive as the heteronormative one which she had left.
This subculture was regulated by strict rules of dress and behaviour, it necessitated polyamory, and was socially yoked to a culture of excessive drinking. Furthermore, my mum’s Jewishness was a source of angst as this was a community dominated by white, gentile, British women unaccustomed to and disparaging towards this aspect of my mum’s identity.
Upon to returning to her hometown, my mum re-entered the Jewish community where she was routinely assumed to be a single straight woman, a widow, or divorcée – lying, just as Ellen Page recently articulated in her coming out speech, by omission.
Her open existence in the community seemed contingent on this mistruth, and her identity was therefore splintered, leaving her romantic, cultural and religious life as separate entities.
Upon meeting the partner with whom she chose to create a family, my mum was faced with a multitude of obstacles. Facing vilification for being a lesbian mother and having to fight for legal recognition as two parents of the same gender, these years were defined by a variety of uphill struggles.
My mum’s decision to repress her sexuality in the wake of her partner’s death was her own personal stratagem to protect me from the collateral damage of the discrimination she faced every day.
It would be thirteen years later that I would find out about this and a difficult period of confession, redress, and reconciliation would ensue. I learned the truth and with it came a great deal of emotions: awe at my mother’s bravery, sadness at the pain she had endured, and hope in anticipation of a future in which she would be able to live a free and authentic life.
My mum’s journey has been one in and out of closets; constantly negotiating different oppressive spaces, often fraught with fear, shame, and terror. While it was initially easy for me to be enraged at my mum for having kept the truth of our family background from me, I now realise that those sentiments were misdirected.
Instead I am angry at the social structures and the systems of oppression which engendered her decision. I am angry at the rampant heterosexism and misogyny within British society and some Jewish communities.
I am angry at the stringent prescriptiveness and subtle antisemitism within some lesbian subcultures. I am angry at the lack of safe spaces that exist for those who face multiple forms of oppression both within their marginalised communities and wider society.
My mum is a Jewish mother in a variety of ways. She is caring, resilient, protective, and a bit of a worrier. She’s sometimes overbearing, uses a lot of Yiddish, makes great chicken soup, and loves to shlep nachas.
She is also a lesbian. This multifaceted narrative has rarely been told, but it must be.
To envisage a progressive and inclusive future for Jewish communities, Jewish lesbians must no longer remain hidden anomalies. My mum’s story and our family’s history is one in the rich, heterogeneous fabric of Jewish experience and its uniqueness carries with it an imperative to be told.
*Author’s name has been changed due to family request for anonymity