Last year, I started working with Rainbow Jews, a pioneering oral history project supported by Liberal Judaism that tells the untold story of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in the UK. On 2nd February, we installed the fruits of our labour at the London School of Economics, in their Atrium Gallery; and on February 6th we held a launch event – which, despite tube stries and dreadful weather, was incredibly well attended.
For this exhibition, the Rainbow Jews team gathered long-form interviews in which people speak openly about what it is like to be both Jewish and LGBT. These oral histories are an ongoing project for Rainbow Jews and those interested in contributing should get in touch.
Many of these people had never spoken out about their faith and sexuality before, though there were others who were known for their ground-breaking visibility in being both gay and Jewish – such as gay rabbis Lionel Blue (listen to his Desert Island Discs) and Mark Solomon, and lesbian rabbis Sheila Shulman and Elli Tikvah Sarah. It became clear that the networks and support groups founded by Jewish LGBT people were vital to provide a new kind of community for those who felt on the outside of more traditional faith and family structures. Though I knew little about the Jewish faith, and even less about LGBT Jews, the stories drawn out through these interviews are universally compelling. Throughout the process, we aimed to speak not only to those with a specialist understanding of the subject matter, but also to those who knew very little.
The exhibition is running for a month (open Mon-Fri 10-6) and finishes on 28 February. A series of rainbow-coloured panels, which reflect in the highly polished floor, lead the viewer through the story. Two showcases hold objects, such as ephemera and memorabilia, as well as more substantial items such as the AIDS quilt. Several media points along the wall allow audiences to hear from the interviewees in more detail.
The panels are rich in content and suit in-depth reading, as the real assets of this exhibition are the voices of the interviewees. Their honesty, humour, bravery, anger, fear, relief and celebration are overwhelmingly apparent as they describe how in course of a single lifetime, to be Jewish and LGBT has gone from something completely unacknowledged, to something celebrated – with all the attendant struggles for personal and public acceptance that this kind of social history usually entails.
My role in making the Rainbow Jews exhibition happen was as a volunteer curator, content developer and exhibition coordinator. I worked with the project manager, Surat Knan, and her team of volunteers who wrote exhibition script, conducted many of the interviews and assisted with specific research tasks. Graphic design was by the superb Urjuan Toosy, and the exhibition booklet (more on this soon!) was created with help from wonderful Kate Brangan.