‘Kissing Girls on Shabbat’: new memoir traces a lesbian’s path out of the shtetl via two marriages to men

“I almost wanted to write it as a PSA: you cannot marry away the gay,” author Sara Glass told Shtetl.

Author Sara Glass, right (Credit: Noa Green) and the cover of her new book 'Kissing Girls on Shabbat' (left)

Jun 14, 2024 12:13 PM


Newly-wed and 19, Mrs. Sara Malka Schwartz was standing right outside China Glatt on 13th Avenue — the heart of Hasidic Borough Park — when her ex-girlfriend Dassa confronted her with “anguish in her face.” Their relationship had begun and ended in this very neighborhood: they’d held hands at Mendelsohn’s Pizza on 18th Avenue and made out in Dassa’s apartment just off 15th Avenue. Now, on a side street away from 13th Avenue, Dassa looked at Malka about to begin her life as a man’s wife, and asked, “Are you happy?”

Twenty years later, Sara Malka Schwartz is now Sara Glass, a clinical social worker who helps LGBTQ Haredi patients process trauma. In her new memoir, Kissing Girls on Shabbat, published on Tuesday, she writes about growing up and leaving the Hasidic fold while exploring and coming to terms with her sexuality. She navigates complex family relationships, survives serious traumas, and somehow along the way manages to forge a career in social work. Her use of familiar scenery, such as China Glatt, helps convince a potentially skeptical reader: yes, this too happened, in the same place where you might also enjoy sesame chicken every so often.

After two marriages and two divorces from men, Glass, 39, picked a new last name rather than reverting to her maiden name. She moved to Manhattan, where she has her own practice and lives outwardly as a queer woman. In 2019, after she moved away from the community, her life was disrupted when a private picture of her and her girlfriend was leaked. As the photo made rounds on Haredi WhatsApp, she chose to give up the clinical practice that she was leading at the time, fearful that staying would jeopardize her colleagues’ careers. What upset her most was that her personal life disrupted the care of her Orthodox patients.

Still, being outed created other opportunities for Glass, and in 2022, she published an essay for the New York Times “Modern Love” column – “I Promised God It Was the Last Time” – about her relationship with a girl she met in tenth grade. In an interview with Shtetl, the author said that by sharing her story, whether in the Times or in the new book, she hopes to help LGBTQ Haredi young people — the kinds who later become her patients — learn from her experiences. “I almost wanted to write it as a PSA: you cannot marry away the gay,” Glass said. “It’s not going to work!” 

Glass, who grew up in the Ger Hasidic sect, joins a small group of people who’ve gone off the derech, or left the traditional Haredi path, and, in the past 20 years, written books accessible to the general public about their experiences. Other LGBTQ members of this group include Abby Stein, whose 2019 memoir Becoming Eve explores her life as a transgender person who grew up Hasidic, and Leah Lax, whose 2015 memoir Uncovered looks at life as a gay Hasidic woman married to a man.

Glass’s book begins around the time she marries “Yossi” — not her husband’s real name, but the name Glass gives the man in the book. She paints the marriage as cold and procedural from the start, a stark contrast to her descriptions of intense passion in her pre-wedding “friendship” with Dassa.

Beyond not being attracted to her husband, Malka is also harmed by choices Yossi makes in consultation with his mom and rabbi. One day, for example, on Shabbat, pregnant Malka tells Yossi she is bleeding and wants to call a doctor. Yossi speaks with his mom and concludes that bleeding doesn’t justify calling a doctor on Shabbat. Malka has a miscarriage.

Sara Glass at age 19

Malka’s role as a wife and mother trumps almost everything. Despite knowing that her dream is to get a PhD in psychology, Yossi soon tells her that he consulted a rabbi who said “you don’t need a PhD,” which is his way of telling her not to get one. Malka, now the mother of two children, looks at the state of her marriage and feels physically sickened. She decides not to have any more children, but Yossi's rabbi won’t allow her to go on birth control, because too much time has passed since she last gave birth.

“Mrs. Schwartz,” Glass quotes the rabbi as saying, “I cannot give you a pass. Your baby is fifteen months.” The passage that follows reads like a nightmare: “Yossi waited until I stopped vomiting,” Glass writes. “And then he shut the light and took from me what was not his.”

Eventually, though it took serious effort, Malka is granted a divorce from Yossi. But after having multiple romantic encounters with women, she is still in denial about her sexual orientation. She also fears that violating heterosexual Orthodox norms may cause her to lose custody of her children. So she dates men. Ultimately she marries a Modern Orthodox Jewish man from a wealthy family, telling him she’s bisexual (she isn’t). She moves happily to the Five Towns, grateful for what she views as a second chance to be a good Orthodox woman. Though she still can’t be with a woman, the marriage feels like progress. At times, she feels like she has succeeded in shedding her past, as her sense of safety makes her feel some semblance of love and even attraction toward “Eli” (not his real name).

During Hurricane Sandy, for example, as rain splashed against the windows of their beachfront penthouse in Lawrence, she and Eli spent precious time alone together, “lying face-to-face and talking about what it was like to blend our families, about our community and its drama, and about how amazed we were at having found each other. I loved watching his face shift when I climbed on top of him, as his blue eyes took on shades of the storm outside.” 

Glass continues:

“When I pulled my shirt over my head and leaned down to kiss him, it was because I wanted to lose myself in him. I wanted to forget the existence of our bodies and plunge ahead to where all that mattered was disappearing the space between us. It was heated, the way we fused. He held on to my waist like I was his salvation, and I fucked him because he was mine. I watched him spill over in a primal release, teardrops in my eyes, in wonder at what we created together.”

Glass’s vivid writing shines through brightest when she describes sexual encounters with women, using phrases like “visceral moans,” “consumed each other,” and “desperate, hungry embrace.” It’s as if these are the moments when Glass is most herself. And yet, scenes with her second husband are also romantic, the language just as evocative. The difference is that the attraction she feels here isn’t really toward Eli: it’s toward the vision of herself as the mom she thinks her kids need, a good Orthodox woman who finally has her husband’s permission to get a PhD. If she can’t be a lesbian, this is the second-best option.

Only she was a lesbian, and Eli was a man; so they got divorced. It was 2017. She had two kids and just as many divorces. A lot still needed to be worked out. Yet, across the East River, much of her life still awaited her. Her new Manhattan apartment would be far less luxurious than the one she’d shared with Eli. She’d have less community support there than when she was married to Yossi. But this was an island where she could fall in love, write a book, and even run a new practice attracting Haredi patients so eager for her expertise that they were willing to make the commute. She would be her full self here: the self that was gay, and the self that Borough Park made her. All things considered, Glass writes, “it was perfect.”