Gay-rights pioneer, playwright Kramer subject of new HBO doc

When young gay men began dying in 1981 of a rare form of cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma, waves of shock and fear spread throughout the gay community. The media coined the term “GRID,” for gay-related immune deficiency, until the term “AIDS” replaced it the following year. 

Watching his friends die one after the other, author and screenwriter Larry Kramer knew he had to act. By 1982, he’d helped found Gay Men’s Health Crisis to provide support and needed services to people living with HIV and AIDS. In 1987, he founded the more militant ACT UP to demand political action to fight the epidemic of AIDS. As Kramer said in a TV interview during that era, “We have to start being powerful or we are going to die.”

In the documentary “Larry Kramer in Love & Anger,” which screened at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and premieres June 29 on HBO, filmmaker Jean Carlomusto weaves together interviews with Kramer and other gay- rights leaders, shot over more than three decades with footage of street protests and tense activist meetings, to uncover the complex man at the heart of the story.

The film begins in September 1991 at an AIDS forum in New York City. AIDS had already killed 150,000 people in the U.S., and the death rate showed no sign of slowing. Kramer took the podium. He looked tense, his brow furrowed, his head resting on his palm. Finally he broke his silence and screamed out the word no one wanted to hear: “Plague!” People around the world are despondent, he shouted, as his eyes searched the room as if looking for a solution. Throughout the film, Kramer is as fiery as a biblical preacher railing against apathy and effeteness, going so far as to call his fellow homosexuals “sissies” for not being aggressive in demanding more.

In his semi-autobiographical 1985 play “The Normal Heart,” which won a Tony Award for best play revival on Broadway in 2011, Kramer made the protagonist Ned Weeks (based on himself) an obnoxious character. Kramer has a reputation of being a bombastic loudmouth and a contrarian. He admits it openly, almost gleefully. But, as the writer Calvin Trillin points out in the film, “a certain generation of gay men have reason to believe that Larry saved their lives.”

Kramer was, and still is, a controversial and divisive figure. He alienated many in the gay community for criticizing promiscuity and recreational drug use in his 1978 novel “Faggots,” though he was slightly redeemed when those activities were shown to have increased the spread of AIDS. He resigned from the board of Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1983 because the other members weren’t as confrontational as he felt they needed to be. His next group, ACT UP, galvanized a community of activists to demand the Food and Drug Administration speed up the approval process for AIDS drugs, staging violent demonstrations and singling out government and medical officials for criticism.

Although much of the film takes place in New York, AIDS activism also had a strong presence on the West Coast, with groups in San Francisco and Los Angeles marching in solidarity. Congregation Kol Ami Rabbi Denise Eger,   one of the country’s first openly lesbian rabbis, began working at Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim in 1988 as its first full-time rabbi, at the height of the AIDS crisis. 

“People were diagnosed and dead within six weeks,” Eger said. “It was a very bad time. People were in deep mourning, in crisis and traumatized.”

Eger ran a support group for HIV/AIDS patients and their loved ones, which continues to meet. 

“Most of my days as a rabbi were spent simply driving from hospital to hospital,” Eger said. She went from West L.A. to downtown, Sherman Oaks, Long Beach and UCLA, visiting sick congregants. “In 1988, people didn’t understand the disease. You’d go into a hospital, and they’d make you put on a full-body gown,” she said.

In “Larry Kramer in Love & Anger,” members of Gay Men’s Health Crisis are shown visiting hospital patients in New York, bringing them trays of food that nurses had left outside their doors because they were too afraid to enter. 

The documentary also explores lesser-known aspects of Kramer’s life: his contentious relationship with his parents, the affection he shared with his older brother, Arthur, and his difficult experiences as a closeted gay college student at Yale, where he attempted suicide. Kramer lived in London in the swinging ’60s, where he came to terms with his sexuality and also blossomed creatively. He worked for United Artists on several films and wrote the screenplay for “Women in Love,” a provocative adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel that won him international recognition.

Kramer tied his background in the film industry with his success as an activist. “We really were doing street theater, and we had a lot of really talented people,” he says in the film. “I was trained in the movie business. You call it direct action, I call it putting on a show.”

It’s remarkable to see Kramer deliver fiery, impassioned speeches in the 1980s and ’90s, contrasted with footage of him in July 2013, hospitalized for complications from a liver transplant related to years of living with and battling HIV. At 78, the disease that he spent much of his life fighting, both politically and personally, had taken its toll. He could barely lift his head or speak.

The film ends triumphantly, as Kramer marries his longtime partner, David Webster, while in the intensive care unit of New York University’s Langone Medical Center. Kramer left the hospital in May 2014 and is currently at work on a book about gay history in America. He has led an unconventional life, and continues to fight for AIDS victims as they continue to wait for researchers to develop an AIDS vaccine and cure.

Everything you thought you knew about religious Zionists is wrong

For years, Israelis have had a particular idea of what being a “religious Zionist” meant: being modern Orthodox but not haredi; supporting the settlements and opposing territorial compromise; supporting the Chief Rabbinate’s control of Jewish marriage and opposing gay rights.

Well, someone finally asked the religious Zionists. And it turns out we were wrong the whole time.

Most Israelis who identify as religious Zionists aren’t modern Orthodox. Most of them, if it comes down to it, would likely condone territorial compromise. And nearly half support some form of civil marriage while saying gay couples should be welcomed in Orthodox synagogues.

That’s what emerges from a poll of self-identified religious Zionists — or what Israelis call “national-religious” —  conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank and released Wednesday morning. The bottom line: Religious Zionists are a lot more diverse than we thought.

In the past, explains survey author Tamar Hermann, Israelis equated the religious Zionist community with the 10 percent of Israelis who are modern Orthodox — the ones who wear knit kippot and knee-length skirts, who serve in the Israeli army and who work day jobs. In short, the characters on the hit TV show “Srugim.”

But in reality, no less than one-fifth of Israelis call themselves religious Zionists. And while almost half of them are modern Orthodox, the majority are not: instead they range from self-identified haredim (17 percent of religious Zionists) to 3 percent of the group who call themselves secular.

Religious Zionists’ views are also pretty diverse. Politically, it’s often assumed that they agree with the flagship religious Zionist party — the right-wing Jewish Home — which is socially conservative and strongly opposed to any withdrawal from the West Bank.

And though Hermann found that 78 percent of religious Zionists say they’re right wing, most of them, if it comes down to it, would probably condone territorial withdrawal. Sixty-two percent of respondents said Israel maintaining a Jewish majority is more important than Israel holding onto all the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea — what’s known as Greater Israel.

That means that if they had to choose between a Greater Israel with a Palestinian majority or a majority-Jewish Israel sans the West Bank, most would choose the latter. Somebody tell Naftali Bennett.

Lots of religious Zionists also want the Israeli government’s religious status quo to change. While a slight majority, 52 percent, want to keep Orthodox marriage as the only option for Israeli Jews, 45 percent want to allow some form of civil marriage — either for everyone or only for couples that can’t have an Orthodox wedding.

And as for religious people being anti-gay? That one looks like it’s changing too — albeit more slowly. The survey was split as to whether same-sex couples should (45 percent) or should not (48 percent) be welcomed in synagogue. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of gay rights (indeed, a parade of Jewish Home candidates voiced opposition to same-sex marriage earlier this month) but it does show some increased acceptance for same-sex couples in the religious Zionist community.

Of course, there were plenty of signs of social and religious conservatism. Most religious Zionists oppose any public transit on Shabbat and think the decisions of religious Knesset members should be subject to rabbinic authority. Four-fifths think only people who are Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law should be eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship. Half say any territorial compromise should be decided by a national referendum of Jews only. And nearly half say religious Zionists have better values than secular people.

But it’s no shock that many religious Zionists hold traditionalist views. The news here is that so many don’t.

Rabbi’s coming-out highlights dramatic shift in Conservative Judaism

Gil Steinlauf, a nationally prominent Conservative rabbi, made headlines this month when he announced to his large Washington, D.C., synagogue that he is gay, and that he and his wife of 20 years would divorce. As surprised as his congregants at Adas Israel may have been by the news, it was Steinlauf, the congregation’s senior rabbi, who found himself stunned by the response to it.

“There’s been so much positive energy from the congregation, and I’m getting a constant flood of emails, calls, texts and Facebook expressing every positive sentiment you could imagine,” Steinlauf told JTA.

In fact, Steinlauf and some of his congregants said the response within the congregation has been exclusively positive, including a supportive letter from the synagogue’s president, Arnie Podgorsky.

Posts on Steinlauf’s Facebook page have come from as far as Israel and South Africa, and have included posts from Conservative movement officials.

“[O]vernight you have also become a role model to LGBT Jews everywhere, in particular within the Conservative Movement,” wrote Aimee Close, the transformation specialist for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm. “On behalf of all of us, thank you for your courage and your leadership.”

Steinlauf’s proclamation marked the culmination of a long, painful personal journey that included being bullied as a child, years denying his sexuality and a struggle to maintain a loving but ultimately unsustainable marriage. The reaction to his announcement is a culmination for the Conservative movement itself.

Fewer than eight years ago, Conservative doctrine stated that homosexual behavior was antithetical to Jewish law, that gays could not marry or serve as clergy and that a rabbi could be forced from the pulpit for coming out as gay. At Conservative congregations, gays and lesbians were welcome “as individual members.”

Then came the movement’s controversial December 2006 adoption of a responsum declaring that homosexuality was permissible under its interpretation of halachah, or traditional Jewish law. The ruling paved the way for the ordination of openly gay rabbis at American seminaries and for Conservative rabbis to officiate at same-sex weddings.

These changes in the Conservative movement also opened the door for widespread and open acceptance of gays and lesbians within the movement. Coupled with a sea change in American attitudes toward vastly greater support for gay and lesbians, such shifts transformed Conservative Judaism from a realm in which homosexuality was ignored or denounced to one in which, for many younger Conservative Jews, being gay is utterly unremarkable.

Steinlauf, in fact, bridged the two generations, coming of age when awareness of gays and gay issues was changing, but acceptance had not yet come in the Conservative movement.

“When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary — I graduated in 1998 — there were plenty of gay people there, but they were all closeted because it was not a safe environment to be gay,” Steinlauf recalled, noting that at the time he did not think of himself as gay.

Some movement leaders, too, were aware that there were closeted students in their ranks.

“What we were saying, as the deans of rabbinical schools, was that they had to lie about themselves,” said Rabbi Elliott Dorff, a former dean of the movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at what is now known as American Jewish University in Los Angeles, and now serves at the university as rector and a philosophy professor. “I thought that was just immoral.”

However, the conversation over gay inclusion was starting to shift, particularly at progressive congregations like Adas Israel. Members said that efforts to accommodate gay and lesbian members starting in the 1990s were quiet at first — aliyot for gay couples, changes to membership structure to accommodate gay families.

“It wasn’t as public as it is today, and it wasn’t as talked about,” recalled Toni Bickart, a former president of Adas Israel.

But the momentum was growing, and in 2003, members of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Law and Standards asked that the issue be brought up again. Following three years of discussions, drafts of opinions and political maneuvering, in December 2006 a majority of the 25-member committee voted in favor of two legal responsa — one stated that homosexuality was halachically acceptable and one said it was not, with each receiving 13 votes. (One rabbi voted for both, in the name of pluralism, and an additional responsum advocating for gay conversion therapy passed as a minority opinion with six votes.)

By the unique rules of the law committee, where any ruling that garners six or more votes is considered valid, it meant that the fight for full gay rights in the movement had ended in triumph.

Proof of the victory came quickly. Most of the members opposed to halachic acceptance of homosexuality resigned from the law committee. The Ziegler School (now led by Rabbi Bradley Artson, whose pro-gay legal opinion had been rejected by the movement back in 1992) promptly announced that gay applicants were welcome; the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York followed suit several months later.

Steinlauf was inspired by the movement’s decision to increase his activism on inclusion for gays as well as other marginalized groups, such as the terrorized residents of the Darfur region in Sudan. He also began to speak about his own experiences in the course of counseling synagogue members, telling gay and lesbian congregants about being called a “faggot” by his peers as a child. It was, he said, part of his journey toward acknowledging that he is gay.

In the meantime, voices of opposition have faded or shifted. Rabbi Danny Nevins, who co-authored the 2006 gay rights opinion alongside Dorff and Rabbi Avraham Reisner, and who now leads the rabbinical school at JTS, said that while a few opponents retired from Conservative institutions like JTS, most reconciled themselves to the change and continued to support their students, including gay and newly out students.

But there do remain some within the Conservative movement who oppose the shift, arguing that it cannot be reconciled with halachah.

“Sadness and disappointment at the Movement’s inability to be guided by traditional Jewish morality has led me and others to feel that the Conservative Judaism we knew is no longer,” Rabbi Harlan Wechsler, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Or Zarua in Manhattan, wrote in an email to JTA.

Yet even for some opponents, the debate over gay rights, both legal and beyond, has been transformative.

Rabbi Paul Plotkin of Temple Beth Am in Margate, Fla., who opposed the 2006 law committee decision advancing gay inclusion, and who remains unconvinced that homosexuality can be reconciled with Jewish law, said his thinking on the issue, and his encounters with gay individuals, changed how he understood and interacted with gay people.

“My personal interactions, my overview, my understanding have dramatically evolved to become much more accepting,” Plotkin told JTA. “After a while, ‘gays’ stopped being a title. They changed to being people.”


Rabbinic court bars woman from introducing her children to female partner

A government rabbinic court in Jerusalem issued an order prohibiting a woman from bringing her children to meet her female romantic partner.

The order came during divorce proceedings between the woman and her husband, according to Israel’s Center for Women’s Justice. The center filed a petition this week with the  Supreme Court of Israel on the wife’s behalf challenging the order.

The couple agreed that the wife would have custody of the children, but the husband asked the court to issue an order prohibiting her partner from seeing the children. Without such an order, the husband said he would refuse to grant his wife a get, or a ritual divorce. The court agreed to his request.

Israel does not allow civil divorce, so Jewish couples must divorce through the rabbinic court system.


Russian gay rights leader takes hit for anti-Semitic tweets

One of Russia’s most prominent gay rights activists made anti-Semitic statements on his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The tweets appeared last week on Nikolai Alexeyev’s account in connection with an article about him in OUT Magazine. Alexeyev re-tweeted comments calling the author of the article, Michael Lucas, a “Jewish pig” and “Israeli monkey,” and calling OUT Magazine a “Jewish slut magazine that supports Jews and their filthy faggotry propaganda.”

In response to the comments, Human Rights First, an American nongovernmental organization, canceled a conference call featuring Alexeyev, prompting him to write on Twitter: “I [was] just denied to take part in a sham conference call with U.S. journalists tomorrow. Jewish lobby in U.S. worked well. U.S.A. is a totalitarian state with no freedom of speech! I have much more freedom here in Russia!”

The tweets caused several prominent gay rights activists to distance themselves from Alexeyev, 37, who has won several awards for his activism, including from GALHA, a British group affiliated with Amnesty International. He also has filed precedent-setting lawsuits for gay rights in Russia and elsewhere in Europe.

OUT magazine is a popular gay monthly publication in the United States.

Gay rights in Russia have attracted international attention in recent weeks after the Russian parliament passed a law in June prohibiting the dissemination of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.”

Israel gets same-sex divorce before same-sex marriage

An Israeli court has awarded the country's first divorce to a gay couple, which experts called an ironic milestone since same-sex marriages cannot be legally conducted in the Jewish state.

A decision this week by a family court in the Tel Aviv area “determined that the marriage should be ended” between former Israeli lawmaker Uzi Even, 72, and his partner of 23 years, Amit Kama, 52, their lawyer, Judith Meisels, said on Tuesday.

Legal experts see the ruling as a precedent in the realm of gay rights in a country where conservative family traditions are strong and religious courts oversee ceremonies like marriages, divorces and burials.

While Israel's Interior Ministry still has the power to try and veto the decision, it would likely have to go court in order to do so, Meisels said.

A 2006 high court decision forced the same ministry, headed by an ultra-Orthodox cabinet member, to recognize same sex marriages performed abroad and ordered the government to list a gay couple wed in Canada as married.

Same sex marriages are performed in Israel, but they have no formal legal status.

“The irony is that while this is the beginning of a civil revolution, it's based on divorce rather than marriage,” newly divorced Kama, a senior lecturer in communications in the Emek Yizrael College, told Reuters.

He and Even, both Israelis, married in Toronto in 2004, not long after Canada legalized same-sex marriage. They separated last year, Kama said.

It took months to finalize a divorce as they could not meet Canada's residency requirements to have their marriage dissolved there. At the same time in Israel, rabbinical courts in charge of overseeing such proceedings threw out the case, Kama said.

By winning a ruling from a civil court, Kama and Even may have also set a precedent for Israeli heterosexual couples, who until now have had to have rabbis steeped in ancient ritual handle their divorces, legal experts say.

“This is the first time in Israeli history a couple of Jews are obtaining a divorce issued by an authority other than a rabbinical court, and I think there is significant potential here for straight couples” to do so as well, said Zvi Triger, deputy dean of the Haim Striks law school near Tel Aviv.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Michael Roddy

Motion to vacate Prop 8 ruling over Judge Walker’s sexuality is denied

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Rabbi breaks with Carl Paladino over apology


The alliance between the Republican Carl P. Paladino and an Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn has fallen apart, with the rabbi denouncing Mr. Paladino on Wednesday for his apology over remarks he had made about homosexuality on Sunday.

The rabbi, Yehuda Levin, who helped write those remarks, said Mr. Paladino “folded like a cheap camera” because of the uproar they had set off. And the rabbi said he could no longer support Mr. Paladino’s candidacy for governor of New York.

Continental Divide

Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark experienced something of an epiphany last month in North Carolina, a continent away from his Southern California home. It was a spiritual journey he shared with a large group of his fellow Reform rabbis.

The rest of the Jewish community will feel the journey’s effects soon, and for a long time to come. Whether it’s spiritual uplift or jet lag you’ll be feeling, though, depends on where you’re coming from.

Goldmark, acting director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, had left Los Angeles March 26 for a convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinic group. The hot topic was a proposal to endorse gay marriages. Goldmark planned to vote “no.” “Like many rabbis, I’m not comfortable with it,” he said. “I reserve marriage and kiddushin for a man and a woman.”

But by the time it came to a vote March 29, Goldmark was ready to vote “yes.” What changed his mind? For one thing, the emergence of a compromise text, saluting rabbis who won’t consecrate gay unions along with those who will. It also dropped the term “marriage,” preferring “same-gender unions.”

The other transforming event was a gay-led worship service that included a “Kaddish” — memorial prayer — for long years of anti-gay persecution. “I was so moved,” Goldmark said. “And I found myself feeling a need to do what I thought was the right thing.” The right thing, he decided, was to vote for the resolution, “to show support for my gay and lesbian colleagues.”

Even so, it wasn’t an easy decision. Israeli Reform rabbis had long warned that endorsing gay marriage in the U.S. would hurt their battle for acceptance over there. There were also warnings of new tensions among U.S. Jews, particularly between Reform and Orthodoxy.

Such worries had stalled a similar measure in 1998. Caught between gay-rights activists on their left and Israeli traditionalists on their right, the rabbis had put the resolution on hold.

Opponents of gay unions tried the same argument when the issue resurfaced this year: We nearly brought down an Israeli government to defend our interests; now we happily ignore those same interests.

This time, gay activists weren’t sitting still. “My goal is not to please the black hats of our religion,” said Rabbi Denise Eger of West Hollywood, head of the Gay and Lesbian Rabbinic Network. “The reality is that the haredi community will never accept Reform Judaism. I don’t believe that’s the playing field we should be playing on anyway.”

Timing played a role, too. Reform leaders decided this was a safe year to vote on the issue, because Israelis were too preoccupied to notice. The strategy appears to have worked, at least so far. “We do not seem to have appeared on their radar screen,” said Rabbi Charles Kroloff of New Jersey, rabbinic conference president. “I believe the fear was really overemphasized.”

That view may be far too optimistic.

Not far from the conference’s New York headquarters — yet separated by oceans of incomprehension — Orthodox rabbis were studying the Reform decision with mounting outrage.

“Judaism’s laws cannot be abrogated by fiat or majority vote or redesigned to fit a current behavior pattern,” declared the Rabbinical Council of America, the nation’s main Orthodox rabbinic group, in a statement after the Reform vote. The council called the gay-commitment decision “beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish teaching and practice.”

Such fighting words are sadly commonplace in Orthodox-Reform relations, and Reform leaders tend to dismiss them. “Our detractors will remain our detractors and our friends will remain our friends,” said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, staff director of the Reform rabbinical conference. “The vote on this issue won’t change the facts on the ground.”

But this time, something may be shifting. Leading Orthodox moderates warn that the gay-union ruling could generate more anti-Reform hostility than anything seen in years. The heightened hostility, in turn, would greatly complicate the politics of religious pluralism, here and in Israel.

“I fear the worst,” said Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi who advocates interdenominational cooperation. “The intensity of feeling on this issue is very high in the Orthodox community. It’s not the kind of thing where you disagree. It’s the kind of thing where you disrespect.”

Some Orthodox leaders said the gay-union vote could prove even more divisive than Reform’s 1983 “patrilineal descent” decision, which recognized children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews. That flouted ancient rabbinic practice, they said. But with the new ruling, Reform leaders for the first time were actually endorsing — as opposed to merely tolerating or permitting — a behavior prohibited by the Torah.

“Patrilineal descent is an issue of defining who is a Jew,” said Rabbi Rafael Grossman of Memphis, a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America. Gay commitment, on the other hand, “goes to the very root of Jewish morality, in the sense of defining what is moral behavior. To give sanction to something like this breaks the moral fiber of Judaism. Why would they do this?”

Many Reform rabbis found the Orthodox outrage just as bewildering. “We have done a great deal of reinterpreting of Torah, within all the denominations,” said Rabbi Shira Stern of New Jersey, head of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, which sponsored the gay-union resolution. “Now the rules of sexuality need to be reinterpreted.”

Moreover, they noted, individual Reform rabbis have been consecrating gay relationships for years. “All we’ve done is go public,” said Goldmark, the Californian. “What’s the big deal?”

Going public is precisely the big deal, Orthodox rabbis reply, because it implies endorsement. Besides, said Grossman, “What kind of image does it give the Jewish community when a major branch breaks with universal morality in this way?”

Amid the outrage and recriminations, a curious phenomenon was barely discernible. Numerous Reform rabbis seconded the Orthodox view that same-sex relations were outside the norms of Judaism. But few would say so openly — fearing, they said, to be attacked as bigots. Instead they spoke of Reform’s Israeli strategy.

At the same time, some Orthodox rabbis agreed that homosexuality was an involuntary trait that ought to be accepted, if only in private. But none would say so openly, fearing to be attacked as permissive.

There’s a broad middle ground where Jews agree more than they disagree. It’s an area shaded in gray, tolerant but not permissive, rooted in tradition but not shackled to it.

It’s a place where Jews could sit together in peace, if only they weren’t afraid to leave their separate solitudes.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal