By Alison Channon
A LOOK FROM THE BIMA
“The chazzan, I could do worse,” Mitchell thought as he looked up at Bruce on the Bima. It was 1982 and Bruce was serving as the High Holiday Cantorial Soloist at Or Chadash, Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian synagogue. Bruce had noticed Mitchell too. “Who could miss him with the red beard and all the hair he once had? He was cute.”
Mitchell and Bruce were both born into politically progressive Jewish families in the Chicago area in the 1950s and 60s – and full disclosure, Mitchell’s parents are my grandparents and one of his brothers is my dad.
While not particularly observant, both grew up with strong Jewish identities that were interwoven with familial bonds. Throughout our conversation, when Mitchell and Bruce spoke about Judaism, it was always tied with family.
“I always thought of myself as a Jew. I celebrated Jewish holidays. I knew three of my four grandparents and they were all immigrants. I had a tie to shtetl life. Just knowing them grounded my identity as a Jew,” Bruce explained.
Mitchell’s parents were active participants in Chicago’s first Reconstructionist synagogue. “Bubbe and Papa were charter members of the congregation,” Mitchell said (referencing his parents and my grandparents).
Mitchell and Bruce never saw their gay identities and membership in Jewish families as diametrically opposed.
“We had no desire to move away from our families,” Bruce told me. “Our desire was to be fully integrated into our families. That was unusual for 1982. Lots of gay people had to separate from their families.”
Mitchell and Bruce’s shared goal to integrate all aspects of their lives – their gay identity, Jewish heritage, and their families – motivated them to join Or Chadash.
Serving as Cantorial Soloist “combined my gay identity, jewish identity and musical identity,” Bruce explained. “When you’re gay, you’re usually compartmentalizing yourself.” But chanting prayers at Or Chadash was “the first experience where I felt completely integrated.”
Mitchell began attending Or Chadash after a particularly bad date with a guy who made anti-Semitic comments. “After that, I started going to Or Chadash with religious fervor to find Mr. Jewish Right.”
MEETING AT SIMCHAT TORAH
A few weeks after Mitchell and Bruce first spotted each other during High Holiday services at Or Chadash, they finally met at Simchat Torah, when Jews celebrate receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. “I noticed Mitchell dancing around and I thought it was the cutest thing I’d ever seen,” Bruce said.
Bruce introduced himself and they spent the rest of the evening talking. Mitchell describes their meeting as “beshert,” or meant to be. Even though Bruce chanted prayers during High Holidays, he wasn’t a regular at synagogue during the rest of the year. “He can’t quite figure out what prompted him to come to Simchat Torah.”
A few days after their fated meeting at Simchat Torah, Mitchell and Bruce had their first date, but then a family loss got in the way of a second meeting. Bruce’s uncle had died, but instead of calling to reschedule their date, Bruce decided to invite Mitchell to Shiva, a Jewish mourning ritual where friends and relatives gather to support the close family of the deceased. “The normal thing would be to say no,” Mitchell said, but he decided to attend Shiva with Bruce and met his entire family on their second date.
They left the shiva – everyone loved Mitchell, according to Bruce – and then they had their first fight. They’ve been together ever since.
BUILDING A BAYIT NE’EMAN B’YISRAEL
When a Jewish couple marries, it is customary to wish that they should build a “bayit ne’eman b’yisrael” – a faithful home among the Jewish people. While Mitchell and Bruce’s relationship didn’t fit the mold of a traditional Jewish marriage, they nevertheless were committed to building a Jewish home together.
In the early days of their relationship, Mitchell and Bruce hosted their families for Erev Rosh Hashanah. Bruce was still serving as a High Holiday Cantorial Soloist at Or Chadash and the families would have a quick dinner and then walk to the synagogue to see Bruce on the Bima. “That was a very, very sweet time in our memory,” Mitchell said.
Passover is special for Mitchell: “For so many years, for generations before us, gay people had to completely hide and could not be integrated [into their families]. To be able to celebrate this Jewish ritual in our home with full acknowledgement and integration is powerful.”
They also connect to the Exodus story of being a stranger in a strange land, of being forced to adapt to changing times and circumstances.
“Being gay and Jewish means that the parts of being Jewish that I value most are its capacity to adapt and change,” Bruce explained. “I still value tradition and history [but] I don’t value dogma or rigidity.”
CHALLENGES WITH FAMILY
As much as Judaism brought joy into Bruce and Mitchell’s lives and strengthened family bonds, there were also times where they felt rejected by Jewish communities.
Just a few years into their relationship, Mitchell’s father decided to have an adult bar mitzvah. While his parents were accepting of Mitchell and Bruce’s relationship, “Mom and Dad were not out to their congregation.”
At the bar mitzvah, Mitchell’s brothers and their spouses were each called up to the Bima for an honor, but then Mitchell was called up for an honor by himself. “Uncle Bruce was sitting in the pew all by himself. It was so awful and awkward.”
After the service, Mitchell and Bruce explained their distress to Mitchell’s mother. “You say that he is part of the family but you didn’t treat him like part of the family. That’s unacceptable,” Mitchell told his mother.
“Bubbe said ‘I knew I made a mistake and it will never happen again.’ And it never did.”
In the following years, Mitchell’s parents became very active in Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
“Bubbe and Papa had a hard time [when I came out]. It was before Will and Grace and Ellen Degeneres. They were accepting but they weren’t happy about it,” Mitchell said.
“I said ‘Look. You’re going to PFLAG.’ I wasn’t taking no for an answer. They got the support they needed and they became activists. They marched in the pride parade. They would go to high schools and speak to student groups. Papa was head of the Chicago chapter.”
“Bubbe chaired the national convention one year. All of my siblings and their spouses attended the gala dinner. Because Bubbe wasn’t taking no for an answer.”
Even as they found deeper acceptance among their family members and their Jewish community at their synagogue, Mitchell and Bruce faced erasure at one of the most painful times in their lives.
It was before my grandmother’s funeral in 1999 and the sons and spouses were meeting with the rabbi to discuss her life and what should be included in the eulogy. The rabbi “wanted to get the spouses right,” Mitchell remembered. “I said ‘this is my partner Bruce.’ I told him explicitly how I wanted Bruce to be acknowledged.”
And then he wasn’t. The rabbi “got up there and he talked about [my brothers and their wives] and their son Mitchell and no mention of Uncle Bruce. I was so livid. I felt cheated that instead of being able to mourn my mother’s death that I was angry that he ignored my wishes.”
CHANGES OVER THE LAST 35 YEARS
As 20-somethings in the early 1980s, Mitchell and Bruce could never have imagined that one day gay marriage would be legal and that rabbis in the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements could perform same-sex marriages.
But as gay people and gay Jews gained greater acceptance, the demand for places like Or Chadash diminished. Today, the synagogue where Mitchell and Bruce met no longer exists as an independent entity. “It was a victim of the success of gay and lesbian people in the United States,” Mitchell said.
Today, LGBTQ Jews can be fully out at many synagogues and some progressive synagogues have significant outreach to gay communities. LGBTQ Jews can even be religious leaders in mainstream congregations.
Mitchell and Bruce’s Reconstructionist synagogue recently hired a lesbian as their rabbi. “This is a mainstream congregation that after doing an extensive recruitment, chose Rachel – not in spite of being a lesbian and not because of it – but regardless of it,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s amazing progress.”