A Rabbi and Lesbian Walk Into a Bar

By Diane Anderson-Minshall

Originally published on Advocate.com May 29 2012 4:10 PM ET

Two Jewish lesbian authors, Fay Jacobs and Rabbi Andrea Myers, are known for using wit and wisdom in their memoir writing, and both have just recently been named to the American Library Association’s Over the Rainbow List. After receiving a degree in neuroscience from Brandeis University, Andrea Myers studied for two years in Jerusalem, and was ordained at the Academy for Jewish Religion, an interdenominational seminary in New York City, where she later joined the faculty and administration and served as the co-president of the Association of Rabbis and Cantors. Rabbi Myers currently lives in New York City, has led congregations from the Rocky Mountains to the Borscht Belt, and is the author of the memoir, The Choosing: A Rabbi's Journey From Silent Nights to High Holy Days.

Fay Jacobs, a native New Yorker, spent 30 years in the Washington, D.C., area working in journalism, theater, and public relations. She and her partner of almost three decades live in Rehoboth Beach, Del., where she runs A&M Books. She’s also the author of As I Lay Frying: A Rehoboth Beach Memoir and Fried and True: Tales From Rehoboth Beach, the latter of which won the National Federation of Press Women award for book of the year.  We had the two women sit down for a quick chat about Jewish humor, Italian moms, and klutzy tomboys.

Andrea Myers: Fay, you say your humor has a Jewish sensibility, though it’s accessible to everyone. Do you feel your writing has a lesbian sensibility also?

Fay Jacobs: My lesbian sensibility trumps all, though I cannot keep phrases like “What am I, chopped liver?” off the page. My books are read by folks who’ve never had a cream soda or a knish, so somebody has to tell them the difference between matzo balls that are sinkers or floaters. For that, I hear my grandmother: “Don’t roll the balls, they’ll sink like lead!” I’ve never rolled any balls — as a Jew or a lesbian. Frankly, I’m a lox and bagel Jew, not very religious. But I loved your book The Choosing, because you mixed hilarious stories with tales of coming out, conversion to Judaism, and becoming a rabbi. What prompted you to write it?

Myers: Years ago, at a retreat with my seminary, everyone was sharing stories, and my good friend Josh Simon —  may his memory be for blessing — said, “I’ll give you $20 to tell the story about your grandmother and the oven.” I needed gas money, so I told my story. And these people who had told serious stories opened up and started laughing at the fiasco my mother caused trying to make her oven kosher for Passover. The story ends with my Sicilian grandmother passing out after opening the front door to greet an ultra-Orthodox man with sunglasses, big black beard, and a blowtorch. So much for interfaith dialogue!

Jacobs: Is your mother supportive?

Myers: My mother comes to my readings, and she’s usually laughing loudest. People ask, “What was it like having a daughter who converted and came out?” My Italian, Republican mother just strikes her Bea Arthur pose and says, “Nothing is more important than family.” In a way, the book is a tribute to her and family understanding. With your books, you are not only very funny but also very resilient. Even when describing something hard, you find a way to make bad situations good and learn from it. Where did you find that resilience?

Jacobs: My dad, both for the resilience and the funny. He was terribly tough on me, like many parents of gay kids, because I didn’t fit the mold. My sister had the long straight hair and boys falling all over her. He tried to make me the person he wanted me to be with hair straightening and ballet lessons — oy, what a klutz I was — and being disgusted I was book crazy not boy crazy. It took therapy and distance to make peace with him. Then, I appreciated his advice that nothing that happens is so bad if you can tell a funny story about it. He finally stopped obsessing about his 10-year-old girl wanting a Mickey Mantle baseball mitt for Hanukkah. 

And speaking of Jews and sports — now, there’s a short book — as a convert, I bet you don’t have the same issue I have, trying to merge my Jewish American Princess heritage with that of a lesbian activist. I’m a Lesbian American Princess, talking equality like a raging butch but leaving home improvement to my wife. With another lesbian rabbi as your wife and two adorable kids, is there a stereotypical role you adopt? Or is it every rabbi for herself in your house?

Myers: Our approach to our relationship involves portfolios. For example, I am homeland security and entertainment, and Lisa makes decisions about education and religion. Balance, trust, and a New York City sense of efficiency get us through the day. Now you’re teaching a memoir-writing class at Saints and Sinners LGBT Literary Festival in New Orleans. I think of all the people I know who are beginning their journeys as writers and what a tremendous influence you have had on me and my writing, as a mentor and friend. What advice do you have for someone looking to share their experiences through writing?

Jacobs: Like Nike, just do it. I help people identify a chunk of their lives they can share. One quote I read is that memoir is life with the dull parts taken out. It’s amazing how much fun you can have writing memoir. We have an absolute blast in class. How do you think your memoir uses Judaism to augment or inform your humor?

Myers: Since I didn’t grow up in a Jewish home, I don’t use ethnic humor so much, at least not Jewish ethnic humor. Now, being from Long Island or Italian, that I can do. I do draw on the tradition of humor in Jewish teachings. The Talmudic rabbis were funny and unafraid to use humor to make a point. As I wrote to my daughters in the introduction to The Choosing, “People are capable of so much more when they are laughing.” Religion can be a tool or a weapon. We can make it a tool is by shifting people’s perceptions, and humor is a great way to do that. How does your Judaism augment or inform your humor?

Jacobs: Let’s face it, the word knish is funny.