Gay Voluntary Associations in New York: Public Sharing and Private Lives by Moshe Shokeid (review)
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Shokeid, Moshe, Gay Voluntary Associations in New York: Public Sharing and Private Lives, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, 232pages.

This book is the record of the fifth major fieldwork study by the Israeli anthropologist, Moshe Shokeid, and it marks an investment of more than three decades in ongoing field research in New York City. In 1988, his study, Children of Circumstances, examined the lives of yordim, Israeli emigrants to New York, and in 1995 his landmark ethnography, A Gay Synagogue in New York, was published (Shokeid 1988, 2003 [1995]). Before his work in New York, Shokeid conducted research among Moroccan immigrants to Israel and Israeli Arabs in an Israeli town. Like many other anthropologists in the last half-century, Shokeid’s anthropology has not involved a protracted visit to an alien locale to study “primitive” others. As an Ashkenazi sabra, he has studied Sephardic Jews and Arabs in his own country. As a visiting Israeli scholar, he has studied Israelis who have become permanent residents of New York. As a heterosexual Jew, raised in an Orthodox Judaism that he repudiates, he has attended a gay synagogue whose services and membership deliberately flout the rules and practices of his youth. In the case of the voluntary associations and congregations studied in this book, Shokeid is on more foreign ground, inasmuch as about half the membership of the voluntary associations in whose activities he participated was non-Jewish. However, because of some overlap with the membership of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, there is some continuity in his last two studies. A Gay Synagogue is a more strictly focused ethnography, informed by Shokeid’s deep knowledge of Jewish culture, including the religion he rejects and a style of discourse with which he is familiar. It is very much a thick description in the Geertzian sense. In Gay Voluntary Associations, the author casts his net much more widely. The result is a series of very interesting ethnographic vignettes, but there is also occasionally a feeling that the reader is skimming the surface of the social worlds Shokeid describes.

Over several fieldwork seasons and short visits, commencing in 1995 and ending in 2010, Shokeid studied a few of the 120 groups that met at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in Greenwich Village. These included a group of older gays (SAGE – Senior Action in Gay Environment), Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (SCA), a group of bisexuals, Men of All Colors Together, and a circle of Gentle Men. The latter group meet to engage in mutual fondling and massaging that does not lead to genital encounters. Both at the center and during a period in Iowa, Shokeid attended meetings of Bears who flout gay norms about bodily appearance and fashion. While attending a Bear Pride Convention in Chicago, he broke his convention of chastity and experienced what he rather coyly describes as a “sexual activity.” He also participated in worship in four gay and lesbian congregations, which were the gay synagogue he had already studied, and a Catholic and two Protestant congregations, one of them Afro-American. He correctly notes that much previous research has focused on sexual activity and issues of identity and that much less has been written about the social organisation of lesbian and gay life.

Shokeid believes that, historically, Americans have tended to form social bonds in voluntary associations whose presence compensates for the absence of corporate kin groups and the relative weakness of extended family ties. He notes that Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to observe this tendency. The lesbians and gays of New York are truly American in their propensity to join a few such groups. Every diverse strand of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender life could be represented in the 120 associations – the size of New York and its gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer community ensured the recognition of particular identities. Shokeid was struck by the emotional frankness manifested in the groups in which he participated. People were willing to confess their hopes, fears, strengths, and vulnerabilities among members of their group. They were also not afraid to embrace and express emotional warmth. Indeed, this seems to be a goal of some...