Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Heritage Spotlight : Twice Blessed

Around the world there are many memorials and permanent archive collections recording the persecution of the millions of Jews during the Holocaust and World War II. In contrast there are few archives or museums dedicated to other parts of Jewish heritage, particularly lgbt Jewish heritage.

This was a situation which one gay Jewish Canadian was determined to change and his work provides the title of today’s article.

Johnny Howard Abush (1952-2000) was the son of Max and Gertrude Abush (originally Abusch), Holocaust survivors who had emigrated from Krakow in Poland to Canada. Many members of the family were sent to Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. All through his childhood Johnny felt ashamed of his Jewish roots, also perhaps afraid to admit to them in an era when there was still a lot of anti-Semitism around.

In 1975 Johnny began working in the rapidly expanding IT industry as a computer systems analyst for a major finance services company in Toronto. Throughout his career he was very much in the closet – as a Jew. As a gay man, however, he was less never afraid to declare his sexuality.

During the late 1980s Johnny Abush enjoyed being part of the lgbt community in Toronto. He was proud of his sexuality, and then, in 1989, everything changed. He was diagnosed with HIV. Within months his illness forced him to leave his job and it opened up a whole new life for him.

It was only after being diagnosed with HIV that Johnny began to think again about being Jewish. He began to think about who and what he was. He had no problem with being gay, but wouldn’t be able to feel just as comfortable being Jewish overnight so he began to look around for references to the lives of other lgbt Jews that didn’t just centre round the Holocaust.

Johnny’s quest began frustratingly. Visits to the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives and the Toronto Jewish Public Library yielded nothing. It was only through the published biographies of lgbt Jews that he began to feel that he wasn’t as “invisible” as his archive searches had indicated.

The first book Johnny bought in his search for self re-evaluation was the 1986 book edited by Christie Balka and Andy Rose called “Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish”. This book made Johnny realise that not only was he blessed by being gay but “Twice Blessed” by being Jewish as well. “Twice Blessed” was to become the name of the website which Johnny created a couple of yeas later to make his by-then massive archive of material available to everyone.

Over the new few years Johnny collected anything connected with the lgbt Jewish community that he could lay his hands on, spending tens of thousands of dollars of his own money in the process. He subscribed to journals and newsletters from around the world and acquired a network of fellow enthusiasts who sent his items and artefacts to add to his collection, which rapidly expanded to take over his Toronto home.

Realising that his illness would likely to be the cause of an early death Johnny made provision for his “Jewish GLBT Archive” and “Twice Blessed” website to remain intact after he had gone. He hoped that the archive would go to the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, and was somewhat reluctant to see it dispersed or swallowed up in a larger archive such as the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archive in Toronto.

In the end both the archive and the website became the core of a brand new archive created by the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archive named the Judaica Collection. In 1999 Johnny Abush saw all his archive boxed up and sent down to the ONE Archive at the University of Southern California campus in West Hollywood.

During his time rediscovering his Jewish Pride Johnny became involved in the Jewish lgbt community in Toronto, being a leading member of several social and religious groups. In 1995 the Toronto Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies gave Johnny an Achievement Award, and many non-lgbt organisations felt the benefit of his experiences. In particular the Thyroid Foundation of Canada, of which his mother was at one time a board member, and for whom he set up their website.

Today Johnny Abush’s archive, the Twice Blessed Collection, is still housed with the ONE Archive, and you can get an idea of just how dedicated and determined Johnny was to have the world’s lgbt Jewish heritage assembled and celebrated by visiting the ONE Archive listing of Johnny’s vast collection here.

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