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Archives of pioneering Jewish gay activist on display

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From left, Deanna Di Lello, curator, Liv Mendelsohn, director of accessibility and inclusion, MNJCC; former Toronto city councillor, Howard Levine, and archivist, Paul Leatherdale, a board member of ArQuives, pose in front a photo of archivist, Johnny Abush.

Johnny Abush, a gay Jewish man, documented his connection to both the Jewish and gay communities in the 1980s and ‘90s, an era when the mainstream Jewish community did not readily accept LGBTQ Jews.

Abush, who died of AIDS in 2000, created a vast collection of photos, books, articles, notes, letters and ephemera. He titled the collection the Twice Blessed Archive, to signify his pride in identifying as both gay and Jewish.

A selection of material from the archive is on display at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (MNJCC) in Toronto until Aug. 5. The exhibit was curated by Lo Humeniuk, a volunteer at ArQuives, and Liv Mendelsohn, director of accessibility and inclusion at the MNJCC.

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At the opening reception for the exhibit on July 4, Mendelsohn said that Abush’s archive offers insight into the history of the LGBTQ Jewish community.

“In a time when our Jewish community was not as open to LGBTQ+ Jews, queer Jews formed support and social networks and fought for recognition and inclusion,” said Mendelsohn.

“At a time of bathhouse raids, tremendous homophobia and the stigma and the ravages of the (AIDS) plague, Chutzpah and other organizations came together in advocacy, support and pride.”

Both Harvey Brownstone, an openly gay Ontario court of justice judge, and Howard Levine, a former Toronto city councillor, spoke at the event.

Levine, who was involved with Chutzpah, an advocacy group for LGBTQ Jews in Toronto that operated from 1982 to 1991, recalled the obstacles the organization encountered just trying to rent meeting space. They were even turned down by the Bloor JCC. “Chutzpah board members threatened legal action to rent a meeting room at the JCC. Our existence was not acknowledged,” he said.

But he said the community’s attitudes have evolved significantly. He lauded the MNJCC for its openness toward LGBTQ Jews, saying that, “It’s remarkable how far we have come. Johnny would have been thrilled to have his archives on display at the JCC.”

Levine noted that only a small portion of Twice Blessed remains in Toronto. Most of the archive is housed at an American university. “Johnny had the foresight to document everything,” said Levine.

“He wanted to give his collection away. The only place that would accept it was the University of Southern California (USC).… It was the first major gay archive the institution acquired.”

He said Abush flaunted his Jewishness at Pride parades: “Johnny sold hundreds of rainbow kippot made by hand.”

An undated photo from the USC archives shows Abush leading the Queer Yiddishists at a Pride parade. Abush is holding a large banner for the Queer Yiddishists written in English and Yiddish.

Levine said Abush, a financial consultant, was an early adopter of computer technology in the ‘80s. He created Yente, the first dating site for Jewish gays and lesbians. “Yente was a nightmare. There was major government pushback in the U.S.,” said Levine.

Abush was also a member of Keshet Shalom, a congregation for LGBTQ Jews that was established because Toronto synagogues were reluctant to recognize the gay and lesbian community, Levine said.

He recounted how challenging it was to find a rabbi to officiate at the funeral of a gay Jewish immigrant who died of AIDS.

Levine pointed out that Keshet Shalom disbanded in the early 2000s because there was no longer a need for a separate LGBTQ congregation: a number of the established synagogues had “changed their tune.”

By 2008, Reform rabbis were much more amenable to doing funerals for LGBTQ Jews. “Johnny would have been pleased. He would have been happy to see that evolution,” said Levine.

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