Gay archives immortalize Jewish celebrities, artifacts

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This unique, if esoteric, 7,000-artifact collection is housed in Johnny Abush's studio apartment in downtown Toronto's gay district. The JGLBTA represents Abush's four-year quest to reconcile his identity as a gay Jew — that is, a member of a little-understood pariah faction — within a minority that has suffered centuries of persecution.

Abush, 43, is the son of a Holocaust survivor. He worked as a systems analyst until 1990, when complications from AIDS forced him to go on disability. He has invested some $20,000 of his own money and thousands of hours assembling his collection and database.

Wearing a T-shirt reading Shveign=Teut (Yiddish for "Silence Equals Death"), Abush animatedly displays a Hebrew-language flyer announing Tel Aviv's Gay Pride Week.

He collects everything relating to the gay and lesbian Jewish experience. A large portion of the collection comprises newspaper and magazine articles. He subscribes to 23 publications. A coterie of assistants in Toronto and on the Internet pass on new materials they encounter.

"I've got stories on gay Jewish murders," says Abush, whose home is crammed with posters, videos, CDs, audiocassettes, brochures, T-shirts, kippot and hundreds of books — all illuminating Jews with alternative sexualities.

He has hundreds of gay synagogue newsletters and prayer books with gender-neutral language, published in Britain, the Netherlands, South Africa, Canada, the United States and Israel.

His gay jewelry collection includes a necklace in the shape of a labyris — the double-headed ax lesbian symbol — incorporating a Star of David and the Hebrew word chai (life). A button showing a pink triangle forming half a Star of David proclaims "Never Again," a reference to the Nazis' issuing of special badges to mark both homosexuals and Jews — and sentence them to death.

"I even have the first queer mezzuzah, decorated with a rainbow," he says.

While in therapy, he says, "I learned that in order to feel good about yourself, the major components of who you are have to be a source of pride. I was proud of being gay. But I was not OK about being Jewish."

"My experiences were very negative," he says of his childhood in an assimilated Jewish home.

"When I started doing the work about being Jewish, it was only natural that I approach it as a gay man. I went to the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives [in Toronto] looking for information about other gay Jews' experiences."

But he came away unsatisfied.

Abush next turned to Toronto's Jewish Public Library. "I looked up `homosexuality.' There was nothing. I checked every which way I could think of. Nothing."

The library even lacked the landmark books "Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology," edited by Evelyn Torton Beck (Beacon Press, 1982), and "Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish," edited by Christie Balka and Andy Rose (Beacon Press, 1989).

He said the archives' absence of even such basic volumes made him feel " invisible, [as if] I didn't exist at all."

Setting out to restore missing material, Abush discovered a set of paradigms in the autobiographies of gay and lesbian Jews. "They reinvent the wheel as they come to terms with their identity. People don't have access to this information."

Though in relatively good health for a person with AIDS, Abush acknowledges he faces his own mortality. He would like his collection exhibited at the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv but knows he won't be able to see the installation. His doctors have warned him travel could overwhelm his fragile immune system.

In fact, Abush no longer visits the local reference library. Some days he can't work at his computer or watch TV because of vision problems.

He is reluctantly weighing the prospect of leaving the JGLBTA to the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archive, where the Jewish materials would be absorbed and reclassified into the larger collection. Alternatively, one of the large gay congregations in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco could take it over.

"It's a question of who will best maintain the collection and add new things," he says.

"It requires a lot of work — and money," he adds. But "for someone who's a gay or lesbian Jew, it's a very powerful collection."