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Around the Jewish World ‘oy Vey, Soy Gay’: Gay Jews in Argentina Form Support Groups

April 5, 2005
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It’s hard enough just to be Jewish in Argentina, a country where, by law, you must be married and Catholic to run for president. So imagine what it’s like to grow up Jewish and gay, or Jewish and bisexual. Or Jewish and transgender, for that matter.

“We’re not rejected or expelled, but we’re not fully accepted either,” said German Vaisman, a 30-year-old gay man who founded the nonprofit organization Keshet Argentina last year. Keshet — the Hebrew word for rainbow — has around 120 members and is growing.

“Our mission is to contribute to the development of cultural, political and social initiatives that deal with sexual diversity within Judaism,” Vaisman said. “Our vision is to have a fully inclusive Jewish community of all GLBT Jews.”

That’s shorthand for “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender,” though 80 percent of Keshet’s members are homosexual men. Most live in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area.

The group’s unofficial slogan is “Oy Vey, Soy Gay” — Oy Vey, I’m Gay.

Every week Vaisman e-mails a newsletter to Keshet members, and every two or three months they gather for potluck dinners that are tied into Kabbalat Shabbat, Passover, Sukkot or some other Jewish occasion.

Keshet Argentina belongs to the California-based World Congress of GLBT Jews.

The group has distributed 400 booklets in Spanish called “Homosexuality and the Jewish Religion,” which discusses the biblical and Jewish-law implications of being gay. It also recently organized a Jewish GLBT film series in Buenos Aires, which drew more than 500 people.

The organization also plans joining the big international gay pride march planned for Jerusalem this August.

Vaisman, who studied architecture and works in construction, became active in the gay movement after a fellowship with the Jewish Organizing Initiative in Boston. He considers himself a progressive Jew who just happens to be attracted to other men.

“I was raised within the Jewish community and attended a Jewish day school,” Vaisman said. “On Sundays I went to La Hebraica,” a Jewish country club, “with my parents. I don’t remember being with non-Jews until I went to high school.”

But it wasn’t until he was 23 that Vaisman “decided to be sincere” about his sexual orientation. He began dating men.

“I spent my whole life in a straight environment. I never heard anything about gay issues,” he told JTA. “I had girlfriends, but my parents never pushed me to get married. My gayness just came out. I have three brothers and all of them accept it. It was hard for my parents, but they’re finally accepting it too.”

Keshet isn’t the only group of its type in Argentina. There’s also Jag. The group’s name is a pun, because “Jag” is both the Spanish of spelling the Hebrew word “chag,” or holiday, but also an acronym for “Judio Argentino gay” — gay Argentine Jew. Jag is a social group, and Keshet is geared more toward education and political activism.

Keshet operates on an annual budget of $15,000 and has seven board members, two of whom are straight.

Buenos Aires recently became the first Latin American city to recognize domestic partnerships, which qualify gay and lesbian couples for Social Security and other benefits.

Even so, Vaisman won’t hold hands with another man in public for fear of being physically attacked. He noted that in Argentina the police routinely haul transvestites off to prison, where often they are murdered.

“In Boston, I was never afraid of someone approaching or saying something,” he said. “That’s one of my frustrations here, because I like to feel that sense of comfort in showing affection.”

Tali Jeifetz, 28, doesn’t have that problem.

An Argentine Israeli who has worked in the aliyah department of the Jewish Agency for the last three years, Jeifetz said she doesn’t hide anything.

“In my personal life, everybody knows my girlfriend,” she said. “At the beginning, it was difficult for my parents, but they’re OK with it. On Pesach, I bring my girlfriend to the house for dinner, and my brother brings his girlfriend too.”

The petite woman, who has short brown hair and a big smile, said she never thought seriously about her lesbianism until college, when another girl kissed her for the first time.

Jeifetz routinely refers to her partner, who’s also Jewish, as her “novia,” or girlfriend, but she says her girlfriend’s parents have no idea their daughter is a lesbian.

“If I give a kiss to my novia, I’m not going to worry whether somebody is offended,” she says cheerfully. “I consider myself very Jewish and very gay. I don’t have any doubt about my sexuality. I love women.”

On the other hand, “besides being gay, other things interest me — being Jewish, being a freelance journalist, music, history. I don’t find many things in common with other gay people.”

One reason Mauro Isaac Cabral, a transgendered Jew, is uncomfortable with the Jewish community is that a result of the terrorist attacks against Jewish Argentine institutions security is very tight. The ID cards of everyone going in or out of a Jewish building in Argentina is closely scrutinized.

That, says the 33-year-old Cabral, “prevents me from entering most buildings, because my name doesn’t correspond to my gender. This situation is terrible for me.”

Vaisman, who runs Keshet Argentina from a home office, said that Reconstructionist and Reform congregations have accepted his organization warmly, the Conservative movement has shown only lukewarm support and the Orthodox community has not given it any support at all.

“A couple of our members tried to speak about Keshet with the Chasidim, and were told that it was OK as long as they were not openly gay in the yeshiva,” he said. “It was like, Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Vaisman dreams of having a family and even children one day, even though he’s not dating anyone just now.

“Maybe I’m doing all this stuff because I want to have a Jewish community that welcomes my kids,” he said. “A year ago, one rabbi told me that I wouldn’t see many changes in my lifetime in Argentina. I think he was wrong.”

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