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
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.