Realizing I Could Be Jewish And Queer Was a Radical Act of Self-Love

I've always felt close to my Sephardic heritage, but until recently I associated religion with hiding your true identity.

I had just finished the last year of my master’s degree when I realized that I could be Jewish and queer.

It definitely came to me as a surprise. For a long time, I had associated religion with the shame of being who you really are, always hiding, never showing your true self, so I never thought my identity as a queer person would ever appear in the same sentence as “I am Jewish.”

Growing up, I had loose personal ties to Judaism. Since my father is a Catholic, my parents had a mixed marriage that put a heavy strain on some relationships in my mother’s family. My siblings and I were never asked to choose one religion over the other — we came to celebrate holidays for both, my father happily eating Haman’s fingers (phyllo pastries my mother made) for Purim while Mom pushed us to eat more fish on Fridays.

Still, my maternal lineage always had a lot more appeal to me.

My mother and most of her family are Sephardic Jews from Morocco and split up in three different countries around the 1960s: France, Canada and Israel. My mother’s family came to France for medical reasons because my aunt was disabled and needed further treatment. At the same time, however, the death of the king of Morocco, Mohammed V, in 1961 caused a rift between the Jewish and Muslim communities to grow, with many Jewish families leaving the country. From a population of a half a million, now only 2,000 to 2,500 Jews live in Morocco. My mother still talks about this with a lot of sadness, as she grew up in a mixed area of Casablanca where Jews and Muslims coexisted happily.

At home, we have always celebrated the most important Jewish holidays with my maternal grandfather, to whom I owe so much. He never lost his roots from Essaouira, always speaking in a lovely accented French and rolling his Rs, making me pray with him for Shabbat on Friday evenings before pouring himself a glass of sweet wine and secretly passing me some. His death was the first big loss I experienced in my life, when I was 16, though the positive impact for me was to continue his legacy along with my mother. My grandmother had already passed by that time (I was not yet born when she died) but she was always with me anyway — and she still is: I wear a gold chain of hers, along with a Chai pendant my mother gave me. The Chai pendant is also special, its presence a durable comfort for me as it protected my mother during her chemotherapy sessions.

I also came to terms with the fact that I was queer right after that, processing grief and understanding at the same time in a whirlwind of emotions. It was definitely a lot to take on at 16.

Yet, I kept telling myself: How could I be queer and Jewish? How could I reconcile two identities I painfully wanted to belong to without feeling overwhelming guilt at the idea of “betraying” one or the other?

In my head, I always had associated religion with “anti-queer” because of two things. First, there was a comment from one of my uncles, from my dad’s side of the family, that stuck with me for a long time. He’s a practicing Protestant and opposed the idea of same-sex marriage in France for religious reasons; what struck me was that he’s politically on the left side of the spectrum, and for teenage me, it felt like a weird cognitive dissonance. I told myself that I could never come out to this part of the family because of that.

The other thing is that I was born in the early 1990s, and I only started exploring my gender and sexuality thanks to online spaces in the 2000s. I remember being obsessed with “Brokeback Mountain” when it came out, but I also remember the vitriol and the hatred the film got quite vividly. It really did solidify the idea, for me, that religion couldn’t be part of my life if I was anything other than straight.

Moreover, I had no queer role models until I was 15 (thank you, Ianto from “Torchwood”) and I didn’t want to stand out more than I already did.

Starting art school was both my downfall and my saving grace: I was already plagued by debilitating anxiety and depression at the time, which only amplified over the years as art school went on. I graduated from both my degree in fine arts and photography and my master’s degree in new technologies and graphic design with honors, yet at the price of my mental and physical health. Everything was overwhelming, pushing me to fall into a pit of self-doubt and burn out at the end of 2016.

2017 started on the same path, and made me fall even further into a deep, depressive state. However, therapy helped me back on my feet, as well as a long personal reflection on what my memories of Judaism meant to me. Like a light at the end of the tunnel, as I was coming out of this hell that sucked me in, I discovered that Judaism and queerness were what made me me, and that being Jewish brought me a comfort I never felt before. Between prayers and healing, I realized I was worthy as a person, and that my being here meant that I could pursue tikkun olam. I was meant to go on and do good, both for myself and for society.

I finally saw clarity between the lines: I was Jewish by blood and by my own choice; I was queer, out and proud. I was a queer, Sephardic Jew, and I was allowed to call myself by that title.

I started to dig into my Sephardic identity even more after that, spending hours on the phone with my mother to piece things back together or asking her about life in Morocco. I learned more Ladino, started following the High Holidays more precisely, and looked for more representation. I felt seen and understood when Ezra Miller came out as non-binary — another queer Jew! Exaltation took a hold of me at that moment, allowing me to bask in pride and contentment at the idea of inclusivity.

In the end, the identity that I inherited and chose to love, rather than let go in fear of being shamed, became a form of radical self-love that has helped me through new steps in my life.

It didn’t matter that I never went to a synagogue before, or that I learned Hebrew late; it didn’t matter that I didn’t have a bat mitzvah ceremony or didn’t eat kosher all the time.

What mattered was finding myself again after losing touch with reality for a year, and accepting that I was neither traitor nor sinner in my relationship to religion. It became clear to me that Judaism wasn’t just a religion, but also roots and memories that will live on with me.

Elsa Coussy

Elsa Coussy (she/her/they/them) is a disabled graphic designer and creative director of Sephardic Moroccan descent from France. Elsa has a graphic studio and works to empower the voices of her communities (LGBTQ+, Jews, Autistics) to spread awareness about inclusion, disability rights and the beauty of tajines.

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