These days, Peninah frequently invokes the evil eye. She has found someone to love and does not want to ruin a good thing. But whatever the future may bring, Peninah no longer believes that God loves her on a conditional basis. "I used to think that God would only love me if I forced myself to be straight," she says. "I used to think I'd have to live a lie and marry a man just to fulfill everyone's expectations of what is a proper Jewish life."
Six months ago, Peninah - a 29-year-old social worker profiled last year in this column as a closeted, single lesbian - met Rivkah on a blind date. A well-meaning male friend in the "gay-Jewish underworld" telephoned Peninah one fine spring day with the following proclamation: Have I got a girl for you!
Have you? Peninah wondered and marveled at her friend's impeccable timing. After years of road-to-nowhere encounters with men and several flings with non-Jewish women, Peninah had just discovered the existence of a support group for lesbians who grew up Orthodox. After one meeting, "I realized I
couldn't be on the fence anymore. These other women I met made me realize that living a gay-Jewish existence with someone was possible," she recalls.
Like Peninah, Rivkah - a 29-year-old history teacher - grew up Orthodox. But while Peninah, who grew up "more modern," still strove to maintain ties with Judaism, Rivkah had gravitated towards a thoroughly secular life. When they met for dinner on that first date, Peninah appeared in jeans rather than in the long skirt she had contemplated wearing, lest Rivkah mistakenly think she was a frumie. "There was something deeply familiar about her," Peninah says of her first impression. "I would tell her these stories and intentionally pepper them with Yiddish phrases. She was laughing the whole time. She knew what I was talking about."
After a week of dating, Peninah and Rivkah acknowledged their synergy with terms like girlfriend and commitment and discovered the myriad ways in which they could learn from one another. "Although she was moving away from religion, she knew I was still connected and was open to trying new
things," Peninah says and lists the different synagogues they have attended. "In non-Orthodox synagogues, we can be out as a couple. In an Orthodox shul, I have to tell people 'this is my friend,' not my girlfriend. And of course, we get stares when we walk down the street in our Shabbos clothes holding hands."
Peninah and Rivkah prefer not to frequent Orthodox synagogues because "when you take yourself out of the closet, you give yourself dignity and respect. When you have to hide, you feel like you're doing something wrong," Peninah says.
Because she spent most of her life in hiding, Peninah says her family now "feels misled." When she came out to her family and told them about Rivkah, "their dreams for me were shattered. Some family members don't speak to me at all while the ones who will talk to me don't want to talk about Rivkah," she says. "They think that I purposely chose this life to be rebellious. Everyone tells me these things take time, but it's terrible to feel so estranged ... that you can't go home."
Together, Peninah and Rivkah attend the support group for lesbians who grew up Orthodox and have found other welcoming niches scattered throughout the city. In their spare time, they eat pizza, take long strolls in Peninah's Upper West Side neighborhood, rent videos or conduct indoor picnics over cheese, olives and bread from the local gourmet food shop. "We're just a couple of bourgeoisie lesbians," Peninah observes. "We're not going to clubs every night ... we're doing laundry together."
Like other couples, Peninah and Rivkah play the window-shopping games involving wedding rings and baby clothes. "We talk about moving in together, about having a commitment ceremony," Peninah says. "But we don't talk about it too much because we don't want to freak each other out."
Still, as they focus on "living day to day," Peninah cannot help but feel that they "are paving a way. I feel like we're pioneers sometimes, trying to lead a rich Jewish life as a lesbian couple," she says. "It can be
difficult, but if you're committed to Jewish life on any level, you just can't give it up."
No matter what happens, Peninah now knows "that it's worth it to come out. You can't be in a relationship if you're on the fence," she says. "You have to make a decision about yourself before you can start something with someone else."
Peninah also knows that while the incredulous stares of passersby from the street may never cease, "Rivkah and I are just trying to have a loving and supportive relationship. There's nothing weird going on. ... We're doing the same things that straight couples are doing," she says. "We should be able to be together with everyone's blessing."