In 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, I traveled from Portland to New York to celebrate. In addition to my Gay Liberation Front t-shirt, I brought two homemade armbands with me, with Jewish stars sewn over pink triangles, in order to make a statement about anti-Semitism.
At two recent Dyke Marches, one in Chicago and one in Washington DC, the organizers banned the Jewish star. They said it represented the state of Israel, because it is on the Israeli flag, and they were pro-Palestinian. This infuriated me. The six-pointed star has represented Judaism since at least the 11th century, and possibly since the 3rd century. Although I am not observant in the traditional sense, I am passionate about my Jewish heritage and its ethical precepts. I decided to make an armband. When I told other Gay Liberation Front members about it, my friend Jason requested one for himself, so I committed to sewing two. (For those who don’t remember, the Nazis forced gays to wear a pink triangle. In more recent years it was adopted in San Francisco as a symbol of gay defiance.)
I’m no seamstress, however, and I was rushing around desperately trying to finish the assignments on my day job and get ready for the trip. I didn’t even have time to go to Goodwill and find some shmattas of the right colors that could be cut up for the purpose. My neighbor Sarah came to the rescue. She sent one of her children over with bits of cloth, and then brought her portable sewing machine. I drew the patterns and cut the fabric, and she sewed them together.
Now here’s the back story: when my wife Sylvia and I moved into our house in Portland in 2005, a couple lived next door. Sarah and Don are Pentecostal Christians. We got to know them slowly. We shared gardening together. Don, an architect, designed our chicken coop, and he and Sarah’s father built it. We shared feeding the chickens, cleaning the coop, and (of course) the eggs. One time Sarah and I discussed sensitive issues. She believed that God created the universe about 6,000-10,000 years ago. I said I go with the astronomers, about 13 billion years ago. “But what do I know?” I added. “I wasn’t there at the time.”
In 2010 Sylvia and I were hit by a car while crossing the street, and were fortunate enough to only sustain broken arms. We couldn’t cook, clean, drive to the grocery, or do any of our usual chores. Don and Sarah came to our aid – bringing food, showing up every day to help.
In 2013, when we had a party to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary, our neighbors came to celebrate with us.
They now have four children – two daughters age 11 and 10, two sons age 7 and 16 months. After Trump’s election, Sarah was horrified about what the new level of racism meant for her younger daughter (an adopted Ethiopian). She asked me to teach the girls self-defense. I also taught Sarah and Don. During Sarah’s last pregnancy, which was very difficult, I cooked meals for the family at least once a week.
These days we have a routine of Sunday dinners together. At the beginning of the meal, Sylvia will sing the blessing in Hebrew, or else Don will say grace, a thank you to Jesus. At the end of the meal, I will recite the thank-you prayer in Arabic, which I learned while staying with a Muslim family in Indonesia.
At some point during the course of this friendship, some of our gay friends told us we couldn’t be friends with people like this—that fundamentalist Christians are our enemies. Last year I told Sarah about this. She said she’d heard the same thing from some of her people—that she couldn’t be friends with those lesbians, and that we were bad influences. We smiled at each other.
Meanwhile we continue to support each other, year after year and throughout the holidays, in the different ways we express our faiths, in the different ways we love our spouses. So it was perfectly natural for Sarah to help make armbands that would assert both my gay and Jewish identities.
I’ve told both Sarah and Don that I don’t care what people say they believe in, I care what they actually do. Certainly it seems to me that what they and their children do, not just with us but with respect to all the people in our little neighborhood, is to follow the same commandment that is the bedrock of both our faiths: love thy neighbor.
Martha Shelley is a writer and activist. Originally from Brooklyn, she began attending anti-war marches while still in school – and continues to do so. She participated in the nascent women’s movement, and was one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front immediately after the Stonewall Riots. The author of three poetry collections and numerous essays and short stories, she has been widely anthologized. She most recently completed a trilogy of novels about Jezebel, Queen of Israel. She currently lives in St. Johns with her wife, Sylvia Allen, their dog, Liebe, and a flock of backyard chickens.
Great essay. A ti,elf pleasure to read.
I cannot count the number of times I have been with Martha Shelley at meetings and marches, nor the number of times I have said to others and to myself, “Martha has it right.” She has it right this time, too.
Terrific piece. Thank you, Martha. There are so many walls up, so much self-righteousness at all points on the political spectrum these days. When we objectify “the Other” (as was done during The Holocaust) or close ourselves off from those who differ from us, we only compound the problem. I applaud your courage and the lesson your story conveys.