Religion, Sex & Gender

The siddur of the Golden Gate gays: a review

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle
I previously reviewed a siddur created by a gay congregation here

I’ve been sitting on this copy of Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, kindly sent to me for review by Congregation Sha’ar Zahav months ago. With my apologies for the tardiness of the review, here it is.
As a Reform gay shul, we should expect a siddur that does not shy away from playing with the liturgy and rushes straight in to right perceived liturgical wrongs. Reform siddurim are adept at this and, if Siddur B’chol L’vavcha is anything to go by, so are siddurim created by LGBTXYZETC (LGBTQIQ, according to this siddur) communities. That’s exactly the kind of eclectic siddur we get here.
As with any thoughtfully constructed congregational siddur, SSZ is full of references to the history of the synagogue, unique minhagim and character. In terms of liturgical structure, it follows recent Reform liturgies such as Mishkan T’filah quite closely, while delving further into the gender politics of the liturgy than mainstream Reform siddurim do. At the same time, some of their theological gender posturing falls short, perhaps defeating the purpose of the liturgists. And as for the size and ease of use of the siddur, it is the largest, most unwieldy siddur I have ever seen.
Let’s deal with the physical nature of SSZ first. Like I said, it’s gigantic. I’ve heard older congregants complain till kingdom come about the size of Gates of Prayer or MT. I can’t imagine what they would say about this tome. It’s large enough to prevent me from using it. Praying the Amidah with this thing might send you to a chiropractor. As you can see in the image below, it is thicker than its Manhattan gay siddur counterpart (a Friday night volume anyway) by far and even noticeably thicker than the not-so-inconsiderably girthy GOP and Plaut Torah commentary.

You’ll also notice that it’s purple–a bit gimicky, perhaps? The cover, of course, visible above, is gorgeous, featuring some really beautifully stylized type. Inside, you’ll find a clear, if airy layout, with some lovely images throughout, an image of Sifrei Torah on page 303, for example. There are also some fairly inexplicable photos inside–page 274, for instance, is the first page of the Amidah and includes a photo of some leaves. I can’t figure out why. Also an interesting move with the type in this siddur, is the decision to render biblical quotes in what looks like either blue of purple ink. It’s not hard to read and pretty obvious way of denoting biblical passages. It looks a tad goofy, but it works.
The aspects of this siddur that make it truly unique, the things that make this truly the siddur of a particular synagogue, also make my wanna gag a little bit. They come off a tad woo-woo, though their value in explaining the history and eccentricities of this community is immeasurable.
The most woo-woo thing I’ve discovered in SSZ so far is on page 59, where, in preparation for Hineih Mah Tov, the siddur asks the congregation, “Please rise and link arms.” Ack. A footnote explains:

In the early days of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the world was a less friendly place for LGBTW people. Those who came to pray longed to be accepted and embraced. As a physical response to his [sic] longing, the congregation instituted the minhag of rising and linking arms…

OK fine. Hineih Mah Tov in the siddur is a three verse affair. The first says, “achim/brothers,” the second, “achayot/sisters” and the third “kulanu/together.” OK fine.
From there, the gender maneuvering in this siddur starts to defeat its own purpose. Some prayers, such as Barchu, include both masculine and feminine forms (the usual is supplemented with “N’vareich et B’eir hachayim hamvorechet etc”). Others, such as Maarivah (ah!) Aravim, get only a feminine form (“Bruchah at Sh’chinah, tiferet haolam, asher bid’varah ma’arivah aravim etc”). Ein Keloheinu gets two versions, the usual as well as the feminine (“Ein k’Imeinu, k’Voroteinu, k’Malkateinu, k’Yishua’einu etc”). In the case of both Maariv(ah) Aravim and Ein k’Whatever, gender roles get reinforced, something I imagine these socially gender conscious liturgists did not intend. Is the role of creator and nurturer a female role, while redemption (prayers focused on redemption, despite their inclusion of Miriam [or course], don’t get female versions) is a male endeavor? How did they choose what gets the man treatment in this siddur and what gets the lady treatment?
Of course, being a Reform siddur, there are plenty of English readings sprinkled throughout. As with B’chol L’vavcha, the choices of readings in this siddur are better and less groan-inducing than those in mainstream Reform siddurim. One page 79, for instance, brief quotes from Begin and Sadat are paired with each other, which is a nice little touch.
This siddur also includes an all new prayer focused on the memory of the dead. T’filat Zachor Kehilla, as they call it, is included as a prelude to Kadish Yatom. Kadish Yatom, often called the Jewish prayer for the dead, doesn’t actually reference the dead so Reform prayer books often supplement it with English readings for the dead. This one is in Hebrew, which is cool. There’s a great footnote to it that is my favorite indication of this community’s unique history:

This prayer was composed from an amalgamation of sources in the earliest years of CSZ, by members who recognized the importance of remembering those for whom Kaddish may not have been said.
The phrase “in our own cities, in our own time” was added in loving memory of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected public official…

It’s a reminder of what it must mean to be a gay shul founded in San Francisco in the 1970s, composing their first siddur in 1982.
There are also some wonderfully unique pieces in the section “Festivals and Seasons.” In addition to the usual imaginary guests for Ushpizin, for instance, this siddur suggests inviting into your sukkah:

Ha-Adam, the very first person, was created as an androgynous being (Genesis Rabah 8:1)
Sarah and Abraham, who were originally tumtumim, or intersexed (Yebamot 64a/b)
Ruth and Naomi, daughter- and mother-in-law, beloved to each other (Ruth)
David and his beloved friend Jonathan, the son of King Saul (Ruth, I Samuel)
Daniel and his eunuch friends… (Daniel)
Rabbis Samuel Hanagid, Shlomo ibn G’virol, Moses ibn Ezra, and the many other medieval Spanish poets who wrote love poems to and about young men…

Some of these are a stretch, but it’s an interesting attempt nonetheless.  In this section, there is also, of course, material for LGBTQIQ Pride Shabbat and Transgender Celebration Shabbat.
All in all it’s an interesting, charming, pretty, gargantuan volume that I can’t see myself ever using. I can’t even say I’d recommend it to a community–gay or not–seeking a siddur because of its immense size.

7 thoughts on “The siddur of the Golden Gate gays: a review

  1. This is a subject close to my heart, since I daven at Havurat Shalom ( where we use a siddur that alternates gender. It’s very challenging to do because Hebrew is so gendered. It does change how you read prayers in the traditional siddur afterward. ran a great piece by Jo Ellen Green Kaiser on why the Sha’ar Zahav prayerbook was important to her family experience there. You can find it here:

  2. Nice articulation, David, on the way people all too often suck God into traditional gender paradigms in the attempt to be revolutionary with gendered language.
    Reworking gendered language isn’t my bag, but I agree that if you’re going to do it, you should be awfully careful about what theologies and messages you’re constructing.

  3. I was project manager for SSZ, so won’t say much here (being obviously biased). Just want to point out SSZ is bigger in part because it includes Shabbat morning and Daily Maariv. Several of the other siddurim mentioned here are KabShab only.

  4. Jo, one siddur here is kab shab only, which I’m up front about in the post. SSZ has fewer pages than GOP, but it’s thicker because of needlessly weighty paper and needlessly spacious layout.

  5. David – I appreciate the(mostly positive) review, and I also respect the right of a reviewer to be critical, as needed. It’s an essential role for a good review!
    But I must confess that I found that the way you expressed a few of your negative points was a bit snarky. As someone who has written and edited books and essays, I know how much hard work must have gone in to such a volume. I would encourage you to keep that hard work, and the people who did it, in mind when offering your critiques.
    Saying that a tradition of the Sha’ar Zahav community “[made you] wanna gag a little,” or referencing the queer community sarcastically as “LGBTXYZETC” came across, to this reader, as needlessly disrespectful. Surely, you could have made the relevant points without delving into such childish prose. And something tells me you would not have chosen those words if you were saying them out loud in the presence of the book’s creators. We need not only write that which we’d say face-to-face, but it’s not necessarily a bad ideal to keep in mind, no?

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