Reviewed: Melissa Broder, Milk Fed, Scribner
Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed is so sexy it brought tears to my eyes. Combining Jewish mysticism with girl-on-girl smut, it offers everything I look for in a novel. The cover, a delicious beeswax yellow, gives the impression that Scribner’s marketing team hopes to use colour psychology to attract readers. At the centre of all this pleasant yellow floats a huge, disembodied, hot-pink nipple, its concentric circles calling out like a hypnotic spiral—it could also easily be a bakewell tart or an all-seeing eye. I bought a copy just days after the book’s release and devoured the whole thing in under 24 hours.
Inside this happy packaging, Milk Fed tells the story of Rachel, a non-practising Jew who struggles with disordered eating and mummy issues. Her repressed but carefully controlled existence is shattered by a short-lived but life-altering romance with Miriam, an Orthodox woman whose family owns Rachel’s favourite frozen-yogurt shop. Yo!Good is a perfect haven for Rachel—she visits almost every day on her lunch break for a delicacy sold by the quiet and non-judgemental Adiv, whose unquestioning adherence to her very specific orders (no toppings; yogurt must not reach above the rim of its paper cup) comforts her.
Then, as Rachel’s therapist convinces her to enter a 90-day period of no contact with her fatphobic mother, Adiv leaves without warning to join the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). He is replaced at Yo!Good by his sister Miriam—beautiful, fat and overly generous with her yogurt servings. This series of events sets off Rachel’s reckoning with her desires—sexual, spiritual and just plain hungry—served to the reader in conversational, wry prose that drips with melted froyo, longing and pussy juice.
Milk Fed joins a small and delightful canon of novels about lesbian romance between one secular and one Orthodox Jewish woman. Broder leans more towards the mythic/comic tilt of Ellen Galford’s The Dyke and the Dybbuk than the sad realism of Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience (a more widely known but frankly bad straight woman’s fantasy that is only redeemed by the fact that its much sexier film adaptation brought us the now-iconic Rachel-on-Rachel mouth-spitting scene). What these books have in common are their attempts to confront the sexism and homophobia that are often ingrained in conservative Jewish communities, which is to say that they examine the ways religion can be used to justify sexism and homophobia. As the saying goes, however, ‘two Jews, three opinions’—each author has a different view on what it is to be a gay Jew, and as a gay Jew myself, I don’t exactly agree with any of them.
In a Milk Fed review/Q&A with Broder for Xtra, Harron Walker argues that Broder redeems the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) by writing about the MPDG through the eyes of another woman. Broder’s version of the MPDG—and the lover through whose eyes we see her—brings up two questions: How much of love is projection and how strongly can the lover be impacted simply by their desire for the object of their affection? While descriptions of Miriam’s body in Rachel’s first-person narration slip from worshipful to plain fetishistic at times, Broder succeeds in painting a picture of infatuation that has more to do with the desire itself—Rachel’s desire—than with the desired person.
It must be noted that none of the lesbian/Orthodox novels I’ve mentioned ends with the desired and desirer in coupled bliss. Instead, in each novel orthodoxy functions as Manic Pixie Dream Girl and villain at once. This is perhaps as much to do with each author’s relationship to faith and their surrounding Jewish community than with Orthodox Judaism itself. Naomi Alderman, for instance, grew up in a tight-knit Orthodox community in London like her protagonist Ronit. Even though Alderman quotes religious texts heavily in Disobedience, it is clear she has a certain level of disdain (or at least, disaffection) for Judaism. This is further evinced in a 2016 interview with the Guardian, where she admits, ‘I went into the novel religious and by the end I wasn’t. I wrote myself out of it.’
On the other hand, in Milk Fed and Galford’s The Dyke and the Dybbuk, the desire to be with a woman is almost inextricably tied to the desire for G-d, spirituality, and religious belonging. Broder refers to this in Milk Fed as a ‘shtetl fantasy’—a kind of impossible wish for a love so powerful it could return the lovers to their shared past. Galford goes so far as to open her novel in the shtetl (a small Jewish town in Eastern Europe), inserting dyke drama into her protagonist’s family history before jumping 200 years forwards to the present day. In these queer shtetl fantasies, there is a heavy conflation of Jewish mysticism and folklore with what would nowadays be considered Orthodox Judaism. Both Galford and Broder dig into the mystical aspects of Judaism and approach their religious source material playfully.
The Dyke and the Dybbuk is narrated by a dybbuk (a mischievous, disembodied spirit) who is trapped inside a tree for centuries only to be released and discover that the spirit world has gone totally corporate. Milk Fed is sprinkled with dream sequences featuring Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who, according to legend, created and gave life to the Golem of Prague. The golem becomes an important figure for Rachel as she begins to reconnect with her spirituality. At the appointment where her therapist encourages her to take time away from her mother, Rachel is asked to build a figure from ‘Theraputticals’ clay to represent what she imagines her own body might look like without strict calorie control. She sculpts a fat body, and when the clay figure goes missing just after she meets Miriam, she begins to wonder if Miriam is real or if she is the clay golem brought to life. She goes online to try to understand her conundrum, which leads her to the legend of Rabbi Loew. He appears in her dreams, encouraging her sexual relationship with Miriam and helping heal her relationship to food.
In each of these books, queer women come up against cultural and religious conventions in their quests for love and belonging. Alderman takes a pessimistic and dismissive approach to Judaism’s relationship to queerness, while Galford goes the classic route of queering and redeeming the demonic (although it is important to note that, unlike godless demons in Christian tradition, Jewish sheydim are practising Jews despite their potential for malevolence). Broder goes a little further: she attempts to address not only the complications of being a gay Jew but also the conditional belonging experienced by Jews who oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Although Broder’s depiction is technically honest, she fails to land her criticism, leaving anti-Zionist readers like myself confused and underwhelmed.
Rachel is invited to Shabbat dinner with Miriam’s family twice. The first time she feels completely welcome and at home. She eats without counting calories and even masturbates extravagantly in the basement room where she stays the night. During her second visit, which happens after she and Miriam have begun their sexual relationship, Rachel is anxious and keenly aware of how precarious her acceptance into Miriam’s family home is. She sneaks into Miriam’s room in the middle of the night and the two have sex—normally a blessing on Shabbat but not so joyous when Miriam admits the next morning that she agrees with her mother that it is wrong for two women
to be together.
At lunch Rachel starts an argument about Adiv’s service in the IDF and Miriam’s mother tells her to leave. Here, Broder does a solid job of evoking a unique betrayal: a betrayal felt by Jews who are denied their Jewishness by those who believe that championing the state of Israel is integral to the faith. During the argument between Miriam’s mother
and Rachel, Miriam’s mother insinuates that Rachel isn’t a ‘real’ Jew unless she professes unyielding support for Israel—a common talking point used by Jewish and non-Jewish Zionists to prevent criticism of the state. However, this swift shutdown means that the potential to open the narrative to an in-depth critique of Zionism falls flat, risking a perpetuation of the status quo. After being kicked out of Miriam’s family’s house, Rachel gets a buzz cut on impulse, stepping more surely into her queer identity but still unable fully to assert her place as a Jew in the world.
The extent of propaganda funded and spread by Israel and its colonial allies around the world is too far reaching to delve into fully in this review, but even a few small examples can give a sense of how insidious Zionism’s grasp on Jewish faith and ideology is today. One well-known propaganda machine is Birthright Israel, a ‘not-for-profit organization providing the gift of a ten-day educational group trip to Israel for Jewish young adults’, according to their website’s FAQ. While thousands of Palestinians who were expelled from their homes in 1948 after the official founding of the Israeli state are still to this day forbidden to return, young adults in the United States with at least one Jewish parent can sign up for a free tour of occupied Palestine, complete with Zionist ‘education’ and organised hangouts with their ‘local peers’, that is, soldiers in the IDF.
Beyond the candy-coated indoctrination program, Zionist-funded social media apps such as Act.IL encourage the spread of misinformation and pro-Israel propaganda by presenting users with ‘missions’. This includes urging users to share Zionist memes and infographics, and to shut down anti-Israel sentiment by spamming anti-Zionist web content with comments or reporting them for anti-Semitic hate speech. According to a 2020 report by Daniel Lark for the leftist online publication Jewish Currents, users of Act.IL
undergo a training regimen, with encouragement from a YouTube narrator who explains how the app can help ‘upgrade your activism’ and ‘receive points for each completed mission, unlock badges for achieving certain objectives, and are ranked on leaderboards that display the top activists in a given month.
These propaganda campaigns, and those who fall for and perpetuate them, send a message to young Jews that Israel ‘belongs’ to them and that it is their cultural, and often religious, duty to defend the state from physical or intellectual threats. Increasingly now, implication disappears and the view that anti-Zionist Jews are not ‘real’ Jews is spoken outright—rather than recognise that many Jewish religious and cultural leaders today believe that Zionism is a colonial ideology incompatible with Jewish religious teachings, pro-Israel propagandists, politicians and historians are dedicating their lives to expelling Jews from their own communities and faith.
For LGBTQ Jews, this attempted indoctrination takes on a different angle in the form of pinkwashing, which promotes Israel as a ‘progressive’ country that offers the only safe haven for queer people in the Middle East. This claim is widely believed even though same-sex marriage is illegal in Israel, LGBTQ people are forbidden to convert to Judaism by the Israeli government’s Conversion Authority, and there are regular anti-gay protests and stabbings during Pride marches in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Despite these examples of violent homophobia in Israel, I have seen many queer Jewish peers who—after having expressed solidarity with Palestine online—are attacked by Zionist (and homophobic) trolls who insist they would be killed instantly in Palestine for being queer.
Considering how Zionist ideology is tied so closely and malevolently to homo- and transphobia, it wouldn’t be a stretch to explore those connections in a book as intimate as Milk Fed. For all its examinations of the specific and interpersonal realities of sexism, homophobia and fatphobia in relation to tradition, family and spirituality, why could it also not delve into the many ways Zionism causes interpersonal damage among Jews? Many queer Jews already feel distanced from their respective Jewish communities because of homo- and transphobia they have experienced from their peers and elders.
The prevalence of Zionism in Jewish communities today compounds this problem when queer Jews are being told, often in direct contrast to their own experience, that Israel is a gay haven and that opposing Zionism is akin to self-loathing and denying your own existence as a Jew and as a queer person. In a novel about a queer Jew’s messy pursuit of self-love and spiritual connection, it would have made perfect sense to bring these issues into clearer focus in the text.
The shtetl fantasy can stand in opposition to Zionist pinkwashing. Rather than desiring the fictional gay oasis of the modern-day state of Israel, Rachel’s instinct when falling in love with a woman is to imagine them cushioned deep in their past. Throughout Milk Fed, Rachel’s strongest connection to her Ashkenazi heritage is through food—the babka and pickles her grandparents always bought her in New York delis when she was a child, the challah and cholent at Miriam’s house, and the bagels and lox she and Miriam eat naked in bed together. Rachel is depicted as a somewhat secular young woman from New Jersey, so why should supporting the existence of a militaristic state be the only option for her to connect to her culture, spirituality and community?
The shtetl fantasy—as Galford and Broder present it—is casting knowing looks over a bowl of matzo ball soup at Shabbes dinner; it is secret make outs in the woods; it is dressing up as a boy to go to yeshiva and getting so caught in the genderbend that you marry a woman (à la Yentl). The shtetl fantasy both recognises the existence of queer Jews throughout history and offers the potential for a diasporic, anti-Zionist understanding of queer Jews and their place in both local and global Jewish communities—I only wish this had been more explicitly expressed in Milk Fed. It is an emotional, delicious novel that left me hungry in many ways: hungry for the shtetl fantasy, for more Miriam, and for more Jewish queer literature, but also hungry for a more thorough criticism of Zionism’s poisonous influence on Jewish religion and culture. •
Mira Schlosberg is a writer, comics artist and editor. She is the author of Guidebook to Queer Jewish Spirituality (Glom, 2018) and Kugel Western (Glom, 2021).