Excerpt from The Proper Jewish Mourning for a Queer Ex-Wife

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August 11, 2010

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people experience periods (or lifetimes) of estrangement from family, so creating chosen family is a familiar and precious way of life. Not long ago, my ex-wife and I finally had begun to bridge the distance and reconnect anew as friends when she was diagnosed with Stage IV lymphoma of the bone marrow.

Her body was literally ravaging itself from the inside out, and the next ten months were a series of gruesome encounters with the health-care industry in a rapid downhill slide. I felt completely unprepared for the severity of her suffering or my own bereft helplessness. And despite my desire to be useful, I had no voice or vote; I was the ex-wife.

According to Jewish tradition, one is obligated to observe mourning rituals for the following relatives: father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter, and spouse. All of these roles and relationships have particular and unique meanings in the context of queer relationships. Who constitutes family for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews? Connection and loyalty to family of origin are complicated at best for most exiled queer Jews, and many of us choose to create a new definition of family. Where does my chosen family fit in with the list of qualifications for Jewish mourning rituals?

For those who have lost count of the friends and lovers who have died from AIDS, breast cancer, loneliness, or suicide, we search for liturgy and community that will speak to our grief. Jewish rituals for death and mourning felt strangely absent in the days and weeks following her death, leaving me in a suspended emotional and spiritual state. I spent several weeks unable to breathe comfortably, gasping for the freedom to express my grief through the sacred Jewish rituals that have been so reverently observed for generations.

Aninut. Tahara. Kriyah. Kaddish. Shiva. Shloshim. Yahrzeit. These words still sit in my mouth and I turn them over and over with my tongue, tuck them deep in the back of my cheeks. They are my secrets.

What is the proper Jewish way to mourn a queer ex-wife?


This essay has just won the Jewish Women’s Caucus of the American Psychological Association Award for Scholarship. The full text of Erlichman’s piece can be read in Zeek’s Spring 2009 issue, the Spirituality of Healing. Less than 20 copies of this issue remain, so purchase yours now by going to http://zeek.forward.com/subscribe and entering “single issue” in the paypal drop-down and “Spring 2009” in the notes section.

Zeek is also seeking donors interested in printing a new run of this special issue (at a cost of $2500)–contact joellen at zeek dot net if you might be able to help.

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