FeedBurner makes it easy to receive content updates in My Yahoo!, Newsgator, Bloglines, and other news readers.
“Why are you doing this?”
I hear this question frequently when people learn that I write to help parents understand how LGBTQ issues affect their teens’ lives. I am not a professor of gender studies or a lesbian celebrity. I am a middle-aged happily married heterosexual mom, who fits stereotypes appallingly well. (Yes, even the 10 years in a minivan!) My previous careers weren’t even focused around writing.
Usually, I sense that the questioners expect drama close to home: which one of my children has just come out, or which friend of theirs has been bullied or thrown out of his/her home? I almost hate to disappoint them, but my motivation is boringly common. I just want to be a more effective parent. Ok, maybe, a more successfully nosy parent? Maybe it’s the same thing: I want to understand my kids’ world a little better.
I grew up in the 70′s in Baltimore: I joke that John Waters wasn’t even out then. (He did the puppet show at my third birthday party, and some of my friends would say that explains A LOT, but that’s another story.)
Of course, I had lesbian teachers and camp counselors, and surely some of those theater kids I hung out with were queer. Also of course, none was out and orientation was almost never discussed. When whispers came up, the default defense was a denial. Not until college did I know out gay and lesbian people, and experience an even somewhat inclusive setting.
Happily for the world, today’s teens and tweens generally have a different experience. Every day seems to bring us another step closer to equal rights and equal inclusion: same-sex marriage progress is all over the news, entertainment and sports stars come out with less and less fanfare, and queer relationships are beginning to be “normal” in television and movie plotlines. This makes it easier for teens to recognize and be authentic about their gender identities and attractions, but it adds an extra layer of social issues to carefully navigated by people with, let’s face it, imperfect judgment and undeveloped social maturity. And heightened sensitivity! Tween and teen years are minefields of awkwardness, embarrassment and hurt feelings, and it’s often hard for parents to help as it is.
I had promised myself I would be as frank and unflinching as possible in any kind of relationship and/or sex talk with my kids. I thought I was doing a pretty good job. But, a few years ago, despite being comfortable with queer friends and colleagues in my adult life, I found myself stumbling in conversations with kids about LGBT sex and relationships. Yikes! Bias I thought I had left behind? I looked hard at what was making me squirm: it was the newness to me of the idea of same-sex crushes and gender identity crisis at that age.
The idea of one or more of my kids and any of their friends not being heterosexual was fine in principle, but wait, did this mean I should rethink slumber parties? The values I wanted to communicate about intimacy shouldn’t depend on the gender of the partner… but how do you translate “virginity” if the situation isn’t heterosexual and cis-gendered?
When your kids ask you questions it’s a privilege (although I certainly didn’t see that in the moment on that bus). So, determined to have good, current-world answers I went looking for a book of advice. I looked in the Parenting section, but found that most anything related to these topics is shelved in LGBT Interest. But this is just the point, I thought, even straight people with straight kids could use a few more clues and cues. Maybe they’d need a cliché straight soccer mom to write such a book. Of course, I don’t write so much as collect and curate advice from current and former teens and parents, and review the science. After scores of interviews and hours in scientific journals, you can find my work in a blog (ummaboutthat.com) and a book (coming).
One big realization is that “perfect” parenting can happen even when conversations stumble. Saying, “gee, that’s so different from my sixth grade experience” is already the beginning of a great answer. Small things in our actions and reactions can make a huge difference in what we learn from our kids, in what they take away from us, and in how that feels – and that will be the topic of my next post.
I’ve always said that Passover felt like the most relevant Jewish holiday to me. As a teenager I insisted on placing an orange on the seder plate as a way of reminding my family and me that there are still folks who are left out of their Jewish and broader communities.
I attended sedarim two of the four years I lived in London, thousands of miles from my family. One seder was at the home of a Jewish couple friend of mine and one was in my own kitchen, attended only by three non-Jewish friends. I was proud to be able to celebrate my favorite Jewish holiday so far away from my family, when I’d never really worked to develop a Jewish practice of my own. My relationship with Judaism in recent years has waxed and waned, but consistently centered around ritual and community rather than observance or devotion to Torah. With this in mind I was nervous about attending the seder in my own home, hosted by my roommate Joanna and our friend Becky, both of whom could talk Jewish circles around my knowledge of practice and theory. Joanna reassured me that although there were rabbinical students attending, everyone was open and excited to be sharing the seder with a group of radical, progressive, queer or queer friendly people, regardless of religious affiliation or practice.
My Pesach 2013 (5773) was one of the most meaningful days of my Jewish life. We were asked by the hosts to bring two items: one that represented mitzrayim—a dark place—for us, and one that had some symbolism related to what we wanted in the coming year. We talked about oppression and slavery, both literal and metaphorical. The food and wine were amazing, but the company and conversation were what the Passovers of the rest of my life will have to live up to.
The thing that I had to keep reminding myself of while I was sitting there, surrounded by people who were so intelligent and deeply passionate about creating a just world, was that this was everyday life in my new queer, Jewish community. This seder that rejuvenated me and encouraged me to be a better person was simply a collection of people who would become my community for the following year (and for forever, I hope). Although we were instructed to think about the objects we brought in advance, no one was expected to share if they didn’t want to. Unlike any seder I’ve ever been to, I wanted to keep talking Pesach far beyond the time when the meal was served.
This year I will be in Melbourne, Australia for Pesach, where I’ve just moved with my partner. I’ve been invited to a seder at the home of a woman whom I met on an airplane; a woman who minutes prior had invited me to join her book club. This is the part of Jewish community that I cherish, and why I’m so excited to attend. I will attempt to carry the warmth last year’s seder in Boston to the Melbourne table of a family that I don’t yet know, comforted by the fact that holidays away from relatives and with different combinations of family can be a crucial part of making a home wherever I am.
After the fun we had with Rainbow Hamantaschen, it seemed like the gauntlet had been thrown. At the Keshet office we began to wonder: would it be possible to find some way to make a rainbow food for each major holiday? The challenge was on. The brainstorming began. Would it be matzah ball soup, with each matzah ball a different color? A rainbow of gefilte fish? A mix of dips and spreads in ever color imaginable?
Even though Passover is a holiday already pretty full of traditions and ritual, I thought it would be okay to try something new. So, I turned to my friend Stephanie, and together we came up with Rainbow Chocolate Covered Matzah.
The goal was simple: take a plain ol’ piece of matzah and jazz it up, rainbow style. With that in mind, we created our recipe, one that was well within the dietary restrictions of Passover, while still allowing for a little rainbow fun.
So, here’s what you’ll need:
Your first step is to place the first 1/2 cup of white chocolate in a small sauce pan over a low heat. You’ll want to stir pretty constantly, because you don’t want the chocolate to burn. While you’re stirring splash in a little milk- just enough to help give the chocolate that proper drizzle feel.
Once you’re feeling good and melted, add food coloring to the chocolate for your first batch of color. The amount of food coloring is up to you, just be sure to make it bright!
To transfer the colored chocolate to the matzah, we went with two different rainbow-ing techniques: the Jackson Pollock drizzle and the more solid stripe technique. For the drizzle, you’ll simply use a spoon to start covering the matzah in your own crazy pattern.
For stripes, use a basting brush to slowly paint on a solid strip of color. Once you’ve got your red color on (whether it be stripes, drizzled, or both) repeat the process with each color of the rainbow.
We weren’t honestly sure which technique would prove successful—or if we’d end up with a big ol’ mess on our hands. However, they both turned out pretty fantastic.
So go ahead and give our Rainbow Matzah a try! It’s as delicious as it is fun to make. Send us photos of your process and finished product!
As Passover approaches, our friends at Kveller asked their readers and writers: “What do you need an exodus from?” Check out these testimonies from four Kveller readers as part of their “What’s Your Exodus?” series.
The first is by a woman who wants to “own” her same-sex relationship in front of her coworkers. Can you relate? Read her story here.
When Adina wanted to come out to her family four years ago, Passover seder was the obvious opportunity. Adina grew up in a vibrant Jewish family with a rabbi and Jewish educator for parents, and so it wasn’t simply that everyone would be gathered together, but more so that seder presented an invitation to teach words of Torah to frame her coming out. For Adina, Passover represented some of Judaism’s most important principles, and the call to retell the story of our own liberation resonated with her experiences as a queer person. As she reflected, “it is our hope as queers that our voices will be heard by those we love; those we need to help us usher in a more just world. It is easy to make this plea and hope some divine being will hear us and solve it. It is easy to be part of a movement or campaign or political tag line. It is harder to look around our table and hold the hand of the one sitting next to us and cry out with that person. God only took us out of Egypt upon hearing our voice.”
We’ve asked Adina to share her Torah with all of us this year. We hope this family haggadah supplement will offer everyone gathered around your Seder table the opportunity to consider how you may pursue justice and liberation for LGBTQ people.
And you will answer and say before Adonai your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean. He descended to Egypt and resided there in small numbers. He became a nation–great, powerful and numerous. The Egyptians treated us badly. They persecuted us and put us under hard labor. We cried out to Adonai, the God of our ancestors. God heard our voice. God saw our persecution, our toil and our oppression. God took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, signs and wonders. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land of milk and honey. Now I have brought the first fruits of this soil, which you, God, gave me.” (Deut. 26:5-10)
When we return to the story of Peasch (or Passover) year after year, our maggid (story), we return to a reminder of from where we have come. Our parent wandered. Our ancestor searched for a place to call home; out of which we emerged as a nation and a community. As Jews, we are blessed with a tradition that teaches us to stretch what it means to be family and on all days of the year to welcome the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. The lesson is especially salient on Pesach, as we open our doors and invite all who are hungry to come and eat. Food, however, may not be the only nourishment our bodies and souls are craving.
When we recall our slavery in Egypt, so too are we called to notice the oppression in our midst, the Egyptians of our day treat those who are LGBTQ harshly. Those in our LGBTQ community suffer from higher than average rates of abuse, homelessness, harassment, and violence. For some of us, just walking down the street poses a threat to safety that others never need consider. None of us are exempt from being in the role of Egyptian. We may believe we have just cause for persecuting those who are different, we may do so without intent to harm, and we may do so with our silence. Yet our story teaches that it is our responsibility to recognize oppression and cry out for justice. The Torah teaches us that as human beings we are created b’tzelem elohim–in the image of God. The divine spark is in each one of us, and we each have the power to hear those who cry out and witness their pain, to extend our hands and stretch out our arms to those who are still in a narrow place. Some years it might be us, or the people we love, who need those open arms and a strong hand.
Jewish people living in the United States today are in many ways living in a time of milk and honey. While we have our individual and collective struggles and hardships, as a people we are not under the threat our ancestors once lived with. We have a responsibility to use this land, this time and space that we are in, to make fruit from this soil. We honor our tradition and history by standing on the side of justice and fighting for space at the table for the LGBTQ people in our lives and in our communities. For all who are hungry will come and eat on this night with us: the stranger, the friend, and those whose hunger will be sated not by food, but by love, acceptance, justice, and equality in our homes, synagogues, and the world at large.
*Hebrew translates to “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.”
Growing up, Passover was always my favorite holiday. Not only did Passover provide me with an eight day vacation from my Jewish day school, it also was an opportunity for my family to get together and celebrate the holiday. It probably didn’t hurt that we were also most likely the only family on Long Island that actually enjoyed eating matzah.
My first Passover in college and away from home was horrible. Although I was able to go home for the two seders, it became clear to me that what I truly loved about Passover was the opportunity for my entire family to be home together and take a break from our normal day-to-day schedule for eight days, yet I was spending the majority of the holiday at school. By Passover of my sophomore year, this issue was exacerbated by my new vegetarian diet, which left me hating Passover even more.
However, by my junior year, Passover started having a different meaning to me. That year, I began identifying as a humanistic Jew and started thinking about each Jewish holiday’s significance to me, as a queer humanistic Jew. Before, Passover had been important to me because it was an opportunity for me to spend time with my family for eight days. However, I had never really engaged in what Passover, the holiday and story, actually mean to me. Now when I think of Passover, I think about overcoming oppression. Because that’s ultimately what the Passover story comes down to: an oppressed and enslaved people overcoming obstacles and being led to freedom.
As a queer individual, this narrative especially resonated with me. We live in a world where queer people are oppressed: by a heteronormative society that erases our existence, by laws that dictate that we are lesser than our heterosexual peers, and—at times—even by ourselves and our own internalized homophobia. However, unlike the People of Israel in biblical times, we cannot wait for plagues or a super natural being to free us from our oppression; we must be our own saviors.
Since Passover of last year, we have made significant gains for LGBTQ Equality. In June of last year, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act and Prop 8 was finally put to rest. In addition, nine states welcomed marriage equality in 2013. While there are reasons to celebrate, there is still a lot more that needs to be done.
The People of Israel’s departure from Israel did not signify equality and freedom for all. Women were still less equal then men and slavery was still condoned by the Torah. Not everyone who was granted freedom when they left Israel received the same amount of freedom. As we gather to celebrate the story of Passover, it is important that we celebrate the successes of the last year. At the same time, however, it is important that we recognize who is benefiting the most from these successes and who still has the farthest to go. The transgender rights movement is still lagging significantly behind the LGB equality movement. The same summer that parts of DOMA were struck down, key parts of the Voting Rights Act were also struck down. And women, on top of many other obstacles, continue to earn significantly less than their male counterparts.
The fact of the matter is, all issues are queer issues. We cannot fight for queer equality without fighting for trans equality and racial equality. As long as females and people with disabilities are oppressed, so too will segments of the queer population be oppressed. As Passover comes and goes, let us pledge to not just fight for the issues that the mainstream LGBTQ movement has prioritized but for equality for all. In just the past year, we have managed to overcome and break down several oppressive institutions, but we cannot stop until all people, regardless of identity, are truly equal in this country.
When she was only in sixth grade, Caroline came to Keshet with an idea: organizing an official Day of Silence at her middle school as her Bat Mitzvah project. She spoke at the Keshet Cabaret this month about her involvement with GLSEN, her passion for Day of Silence, and her own coming out.
Many LGBT Jews and allies find Leviticus to be challenging. Here is one rabbi’s reading of the passage. More can be found here.
Among LGBT Jews and their allies, Leviticus is a dirty word. And not just because of its two famous homophobic verses. There are many challenging issues with Leviticus. For instance, while we support gender equality, Leviticus establishes an all-male system of ritual leadership. While we affirm the equal worth of people with physical disabilities, Leviticus excludes them from the priesthood. And of course, while we celebrate the blessing and beauty in loving same-sex relationships, Leviticus prescribes the death penalty for gay men who have intercourse.
So how do we work with a sacred text that is at odds with some of our deepest values–values that other parts of Torah affirm (like every person being created in God’s image)? For me, it starts with an approach to sacred texts that views them as human-created documents. Consistent with my Reconstructionist philosophy, I view the Torah as a record of our Israelite ancestors’ best efforts to describe their experiences of God and Truth.
The Torah contains tremendous spiritual wisdom as well as the spiritual errors of the people who created it. Seen this way, the Torah takes its place in Jewish religious life as the beginning of an ongoing process of spiritual discussion and discernment–but it does not have the final word on the subjects it addresses. When credible reinterpretations of harmful biblical laws are not possible, we dissent from those verses without abandoning our faith or our intimate relationship to Torah.
This is how I approach the anti-gay verses in Leviticus. I’m not persuaded by the attempts some have made to reinterpret Lev 18:22 and 20:13 to mean something other than what they appear to mean. Rather, I acknowledge my disappointment and anger at the suffering these texts have wrought, and I believe that our ancestors were mistaken on this issue. Similarly, I respond to other passages in the Torah that advocate things that modern liberal Jews openly condemn (such as the passages in Numbers 31 in which God and Moses commanded the genocide of all Midianite men, women, and children).
Yes, this makes me a religious Jew who “picks and chooses.” I believe that we have a moral responsibility to thoughtfully pick and choose, because as human beings we are all morally responsible for any harms we commit in the name of our religions. To quote a teacher of mine, “There is no ‘I was just following orders’ defense that excuses harms people inflict in the name of their religious beliefs.” Part of a thoughtful, liberal religious approach to Judaism is the process of studying our sacred texts, discussing them, and very thoughtfully picking and choosing our present day beliefs and practices in community with each other.
So, why am I writing about Leviticus for Keshet? Well, because, alongside the passages in the book that we are right to reject, Leviticus also contains spiritual riches that can help us in these times. For starters, Leviticus is the source of “love your neighbor (19:12).” Futhermore, Leviticus offers a model of economies and ecosystems operating in a way that ensures health for the land and fairness and compassion for the weakest members of society–quite a contrast to our self-inflicted plagues of greed and ecological degradation. Leviticus also understands that animals and human beings share a common life force, and that the act of taking an animal’s life for meat deserves awe and ritual–compare that with our inhumane and unhealthy factory farm system. And perhaps most remarkably of all: Leviticus calls on each of us to be holy because God is holy. How the ancient Israelite priesthood understood what creates holiness is different than how we understand it. But Leviticus reminds us of the importance of embracing the charge to try to figure out what it means to be holy in the here and now.
Studying Leviticus from a progressive religious Jewish perspective is frustrating and rewarding, alienating and inspiring. But it’s quite worth the workout!
Coming out is hard. Coming out to your family at Shabbat dinner is really hard. Take a look at how one family reacted to their son’s news, and help us work towards a truly inclusive Jewish community.
I’m the good Jewish doctor your grandparents always envisioned you would marry.
Well, sort of.
Perhaps they didn’t anticipate that I’d be transgender. My name is Tamar, and I’m a trans*man. I kept my birth name, as feminine as it is, and of which people never cease to ask me about. I kept my name because I love it, it is who I am, and I can’t envision myself being anyone but Tamar.
In good-ol’ Jewish fashion, I was named after deceased relatives, and from an early age was instilled with pride in both the name and its/my heritage. I was born and raised in a Conservative-meets-Reform Jewish household, with separate milk/meat dishes, somewhat regular shul attendance (at least earlier on), and a strong sense of Jewish cultural pride.
My Mom is a progressive, American-born, self-proclaimed Zionist; my Abba, an old-European traditionalist, first-generation Israeli, son of Holocaust survivors. It was an interesting (and confusing, to say the least) childhood, yet helped mold me into the strong, hard-working, morally driven, community-oriented, proud trans*man that I am today.
Being Jewish and being trans* are two huge facets of my identity. I’ve been asked if my trans* identity is at odds with my Jewish identity, and the answer is simple: No. The Judaism that I was raised in focused little on rules and religiosity, and instead focused on strength/resilience, cultural pride, and providing a moral basis for interacting with the world. I was taught the value of family, community, hard-work, and tzedakah. It is this Jewish foundation that drives my work both as a physician and as a trans* activist and educator. I value my chosen-family, trans* community, the folks who paved the way for me, and the folks who will follow after.
My work with the non-profit and upcoming book, Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, encapsulates this pride, thankfulness, celebration, education, and giving spirit. The book is not just a bunch of bound pages, it is documentation of our trans* history, culture, community, and resilience. It is a celebration of any and all trans* and gender nonconforming identities, a celebration of paths already paved and ones just beginning.
It is movement forward. It is never forgetting where we came from, and to where we are going.
I am a Modern Orthodox Jew. As a Jewish educator, I have written, spoken and taught about homosexuality and our need as a community to address this issue within the framework of Halacha, or Jewish law, for many years. I had already been an advocate for the GLBTQ community for decades when one of our four children, our daughter Rachie, came out more than four years ago.
Why? Because I feel that as religious Jews, we have a moral imperative to insure that all members of our community are safe, valued and healthy. We are taught to use the midah of compassion, as we do for so many other issues.
Four years ago when Rachie was twenty two years old, she called me and my husband, and in the course of our conversation, basically said, “Mom, I am seeing someone I really care about and this person is a woman. I am gay.” Neither of us were surprised.
As an educated person, I am certain that biology and “how we are wired” is just the way G-d makes us. Further, I am aware that 10 to 15 percent of any community is on the gay spectrum, and there is no exemption from this reality in the religious Jewish community.
My husband and I firmly believe that as shomrei mitzvot, or Torah observant, Jews, we have an obligation to accept, protect and value all human beings who are created in the image of G-d, BeTzelem Elokim. Halacha teaches us this.
Of course, many in our Orthodox community and extended family do not see it this way. I am deeply saddened by any community that judges and pushes our daughter away. Any community that does not fully embrace and value Rachie is the one that loses, for she is a gifted young lady and an observant and knowledgeable Jew. I often lament how our observant communities are sending away some of our exceptional people who could contribute so much and would — if only they would embrace and value instead of judge and exclude.
Rachie has not been able to see herself associated with anything “Orthodox,” though she is observant and engaged Jewishly in profound and meaningful ways.
However, this has changed recently, due to her involvement in ESHEL, the Orthodox GLBTQ community, named for the tent into which Avraham and Sarah invited all who came by. Rachie (and the rest of us) now have a home for her religiously observant, gay self, being able to interface various aspects of Halacha with the reality of her life. It is so critically important for us to have ESHEL and KESHET as spaces for our GLBTQ Jews both as safe spaces and to hold the anchor while hopefully more of our community realizes that Jewish law can often be more kind and understanding than we are too often led to think. Our wish as a family is that more of our community would learn to see and accept and value each of our children for who they are and the sexuality they were born with.
Sunnie Epstein is a member of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, a community of parents and family members of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Jews who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community. You can find a chapter or start your own here.
Rabbi (to be) Ari Naveh recently shared how he balances the line between being a gay rabbi—and a rabbi who is gay. Here he takes his passion for policy and puts it in practice, examining why the LGBT and Jewish community should be celebrating the fourth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act.
Many of you have now most likely seen comedian and professional beard-sporter Zach Galifianakis grill President Barack Obama on his faux talk show “Between Two Ferns.” President Obama appeared on the show to discuss the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) to urge the younger generation who frequent Galifinakis’ show to check out the ACA website, and hopefully to sign up for Health Insurance through its Marketplace. If you haven’t seen the interview yet, you’ve probably been avoiding all social media outlets over the last week. Not only has the internet exploded over the interview, but there have been more than a few responses from pundits and members of Congress who feel that the interview besmirched the honor of the office of the President. (Believe me, I watched the interview, and the only thing I think it ‘besmirched’ was the good name of spider bites, something whose ‘good-name’ has already been called into question, if you ask me.)
President Obama, as well as a wide variety of spokespeople, celebrities, and representatives of the administration, have been making a concerted media blitz over the last few months to seriously encourage Americans – specifically young, healthy Americans such as this writer – to explore all that the Affordable Care Act has to offer in terms of the quality, variety, and innovations within health care. For all intents and purposes, this media blitz has been a success, as despite the extraordinarily well-covered website issues during its initial rollout, Obamacare has now enrolled 4.2 million new members into some form of private or state-run health insurance program since it was enacted about 2 months ago.
However, the long, winding road of providing more healthcare opportunities to millions of Americans stretches much longer than the 2 months since the ACA rollout, as this weekend we mark the four-year anniversary of President Obama’s signing the ACA into law.
While four years may not seem like a tremendously long time, a lot has shifted in the American culture since then (I didn’t even have a smart phone four years ago and I was barely a year into rabbinical school)!
For LGBT Americans, this is even truer, as in four seemingly short years, our rights and privileges in terms of marriage, protection from discrimination, and general presence in society have skyrocketed. They are by no means where they need to be, (take a look at my call to action for the Jewish community in regards to the Hobby Lobby court case), in some states they appear to be regressing, but we are definitely on our way.
In the context of healthcare, it is vital to look back at the cultural landscape for LGBT Americans four years ago. In December of 2009, the Center for American Progress published a memo called “How to Close the LGBT Health Disparities Gap.” The memo excoriated the healthcare system of the time, citing frightening statistics about the ever widening gap between LGBT – most especially transgender – Americans and heterosexuals in terms of access to healthcare, and the quality of care provided, in addition to highlighting rampant discrimination against LGBT Americans by healthcare providers. The memo asserted strongly that LGBT Americans were on the whole markedly less healthy than their heterosexual counterparts, due in no small part to societal discrimination; put simply, intolerance was making us sick emotionally, mentally, and physically, because providers did not know how best to serve us, and most importantly, we are often too scared to ask.
So what’s changed since 2009, as a result of the ACA? First and foremost, the basic fact that the 40+ million people uninsured in this country will now have better access to better care is a huge boon. Specifically for the LGBT community, the ACA mandates that any policy offered through the Marketplace cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity whatsoever. This is a huge step in erasing the stigma felt by so many LGBT Americans in regards to healthcare, and ensuring that they are suitably provided for. Additionally, the abolition of the pre-existing conditions condition in all health insurance policies also guarantees that LGBT Americans living with long-term diseases such as HIV/AIDS and many types of cancers are taken care of as well.
These are huge steps forward, representative of the general march towards real equality we’ve seen over the last four years. But there is so much more to be done.
While we are attaining unprecedented heights in terms of marriage equality nationwide, healthcare disparity, and the general societal discrimination that triggers it are still widespread. The CAP memo suggested that the US Department of Health and Human Services create an Office of LGBT Health in order to address this disparity; four years later, and no such office exists, and the education needed to help healthcare providers understand the specific needs of the LGBT community is still woefully absent.
Does the ACA help to negate the need for such an office? It certainly does, but it is by no means enough. Once more people realize that discrimination against LGBT people in all of its facets – school bullying, homophobic legislation, workplace bigotry – is making us sick, then we as a society can work towards putting a real stop to it.
When Jordyn & Becky first met, they were just starting college. Jordyn had dredlocks. Becky’s time was split between the Engineering Department and the Crew Team. Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake were still dating. And, Becky’s preferred pronouns were “she” and “her.” Now, 13 years later, all of those things have changed. But their friendship hasn’t. They sat down to talk about their friendship, life, and gender.
Jordyn: I think an important qualifier about our friendship is that it’s one of those fantastic ones where we can (and have) gone months without talking—but we can always pick it back up pretty seamlessly. And, while that’s great for the sake of knowing we’re always out there for each other, it does mean that we’ve missed big moments in each other’s lives. Like, for instance, when you started identifying as gender queer and trans.
Becky: That is an important thing about our relationship. And that’s true. When we first met I identified as a lesbian. It wasn’t really until I started Rabbinical School six years ago that I started to really explore ideas of gender. It was a gradual transition, starting with the way I had my haircut and what clothes I wore, eventually getting to the way I played around with and used pronouns.
Jordyn: I remember a few years ago being part of an email thread where someone said something—in reference to you—along the lines of “and he is going to…” I had to stop and check in. I wanted to be on the right page. Wondering whether or not I was going to support you, or accept you, or be there for you wasn’t the question, it was more making sure I wasn’t messing up with my language.
Becky: And language is really hard. We aren’t socialized to have control over our pronouns; having a conversation about language is a two-step process—first, discussing how we teach language and how we can chose the language we use, and second, taking that step to choose an appropriate pronoun.
Jordyn: And, I’ve messed it up—far more than once…which is really hard for me. It’s hard as an ally, it’s hard as your friend, and it’s hard because I know using the wrong pronoun is being disrespectful and unsupportive. But sometimes it’s that force of habit that makes things challenging.
Becky: We’ve definitely had conversations where you’ve started by saying “I don’t want to mess this up, but….” And, look, as long as you (or anyone) are learning and trying, that’s what I ask for. I don’t necessarily want to have a 15 minute conversation with someone about how they feel guilty each time they mess up my pronoun. Most importantly, we have to trust each other, and trust that our friendship is strong enough that one misused pronoun isn’t going to destroy it.
Jordyn: Still, I don’t want to put you in a position where you’re forced to constantly be a teacher.
Becky: But, I’m going to be a rabbi—being out there as a teacher is a role I’ve stepped into for myself. I don’t ever want to close the conversation about pronouns, or being queer. That being said, it can be exhausting.
Jordyn: Do you have advice, maybe with your rabbi hat on?
Becky: In thinking about being compassionate with someone about getting my pronouns correct, the biblical concept of “lifnei iver” comes to mind.
Becky: Leviticus 19:14 says: “You shall not curse a deaf person. You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person, and you shall fear your God. I am the Lord.” As a person who identifies as trans and genderqueer and whose pronoun (intentionally) creates dissonance with my name, I try and remember that those whom I am encountering may be going through their own two-step process. First, they may be deaf towards the issues of gender and gender identity. I might be the first trans* person they meet. Rashi teaches that though the deaf person is specifically named, we can extend this verse to all those who are alive. I cannot curse someone because of their lack of knowledge. Similarly, withholding my pronoun or not correcting someone is putting a stumbling block in front of them. In the other direction, the person learning about gender or my preferred pronoun needs to acknowledge the stumbling blocks that exist in front of them. They need to know that they will stumble, and that unlike the blind person the Torah refers to, they need not be willfully blind.
Interested in learning more? Check out Becky’s interview with Jennie Roffman, a board member at Congregation Kehillath Israel, reflecting on Joy Ladin’s Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, or some of Keshet’s Trans* resources.
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible.
I love the Torah. I love it’s weird, dreamtime way of teaching. I love that one verse reveals something ugly and painful and the next verse is sweetness and light. I love this because it’s a true reflection of life as I know it – there are parts of life that are just plain horrible and others that are pure, stunning beauty, and sometimes they go hand in hand. The Torah gives this over without flinching, with no sense of contradiction, and with no apologies. The sweet and the bitter are marbled in the Torah, just as they are in real life. This week’s portion offers three such marbled verses: VaYikra 10:1-3. Here is the scene: After months of preparation, the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary the Israelites used after the Exodus from Egypt, has been built and we are about to conduct our first rite. Moses’ brother, Aaron, performs a couple of sacrifices, blesses the congregation, the sacrifices are consumed and then:
Aarons’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before HaShem an alien fire that had not been commanded of them. A fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them, and they died before HaShem. Moses said to Aaron: Of this did HaShem speak, saying: “I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people;” and Aaron was silent.
Typically there are two reactions to this piece of text: 1) “They got what they deserved and so will you if you defy God,” or 2) “If this is the God you want me to worship, I’m outta here.”
Both of these positions seem dull and simplistic to me. The Torah is neither dull nor simplistic. Torah is complicated and challenging and invites us to think and feel deeply. It is trying to prod us into being partners with God, to bring about a time of repair and wholeness in our fractured world, by any means necessary. With that in mind I’ve tried to tease out some wisdom and guidance from this harsh and cryptic scene.
Reading this piece I think of the murders of Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena and Gwen Araujo. Year after year we have witnessed our queer children being consumed by fire. As a Jew, I’m familiar with this horror. And I’m also familiar with all the wrestling and grappling we have had to do to move past our tragedies. When we find ourselves witnessing incomprehensible destruction we have to ask, “What must we do to transform this banal act of violence into an affirmation of life?” Answering that question is the key to transcending human judgment so that we can enter into a full and deep relationship with God through each other.
As the text teaches us: “I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people.”
My friends, getting near God is rarely easy, safe or painless. When moments of random violence strike, some of us seek reasons to lay blame and some of us, like Aaron, are stunned and silent. It is in that silence that deep strength, wisdom and courage are born; courage to look at death head on and still stay on the path; wisdom to know that God works through both blessing and curse; and strength to choose blessing.
Death is inevitable, and sometimes it comes unexpectedly and roughly. In our grief we stand at a silent juncture. We can blame, we can run, or we can sort out the opportunities for more violence from the opportunities for more closeness. In that sorting we choose to frame our loss as a sacrifice which cuts through bigotry, oppression and ignorance. Both the Jewish and queer communities have performed social alchemy by transforming unspeakable acts of hatred and violence into art, legislation, ritual, education and beauty. We have squeezed wisdom out of ignorance, and sanctity out of depravity. We have written plays, and created foundations; we have sewn and sung and studied. We have not been diminished through death. Rather, we have blossomed. We have grieved and suffered to be sure, but as it is written, we have “turned our mourning into dancing” (Psalm 30).
Jews and queers have always been accused of being different, alien and inferior. Thankfully, we have generally resisted those judgments. Instead we have persevered in our unique way of being. We have mirrored exactly what this week’s raw piece of text teaches. We have offered strange fire. We have suffered death. We have witnessed these traumas as a community and we have found sanctity, closeness and honor. We are blessed to have a Torah that teaches us to not shy away from life’s bitter moments, but to take them with both hands and offer them up as sacrifices. May our capacity to learn, heal and grow always outweigh our tendency towards judgment and blame. And may the memory of our loved ones be for a blessing for us, and for all the world.
This past Saturday, Keshet Staff Member Joanna Ware joined Temple Hillel B’nai Torah to deliver a d’var Torah on gender justice and gender variance in Jewish text, as well as the effects of transphobia today. We have shared the text of Joanna’s d’var Torah here.
Shabbat Shalom! Thank you to Rabbi Penzner for the invitation to bring some Torah to all of you today. Rabbi Penzner asked me to speak in honor of the other holiday we’re marking today, International Women’s Day, and how it reminds us to work toward gender equality and justice. First though, I want to start with the text we just read.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, is the first in the book of Leviticus, and it lays out for us a set of laws of ritual, sacrificial preparation. Sacrifices were the ancient Israelite’s way of honoring and nurturing their sacred relationship with the divine. We nurture relationships every day, with our loved ones and with what we understand to be holy and sacred, and while we no longer do so with ritual sacrifices, today prayer, study, mitzvot, acts of loving kindness, and tikkun olam serve as our stand-in for temple sacrifice; our means of nurturing our relationship with God, with Sacredness. What Vayikra reminds us, however, is that this relationship isn’t accidental or happenstance, and that God models for us an expectation of intentionally stepping in to relationship. The opening text of this Parsha, the opening text of the entire book of Leviticus, reads:
וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
Vayikra al-Moshe, v’yedaber Adonai elav, meyohal mo’ed
And God called out to Moses, and Adonai spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting
We have a curious repetition here in the narrative, first God calls out to Moses, and then God speaks to him. Why both? Rashi teaches that God’s initial calling out to Moses is indicative of a loving relationship, of an invitation into an intentional, purposeful relationship; this text is read in juxtaposition to how God speaks to the prophet Balaam, where we are told that God “happens upon” Balaam; it is accidental rather than intentional. And then? We are taught that God’s relationship with Moses is loving, whereas God’s relationship with Balaam is “impure.” So we have one piece of a model for building loving relationships: act with intention, thoughtfulness, and care.
This delineation between intentional and accidental speech, between loving and impure relationships, also offers a bit of foreshadowing for the rest of Leviticus. Leviticus spends a lot of time drawing distinctions; sorting the world, our behaviors, and in particular our ritual obligations into categories – usually just two categories – and identifying for us which one is pure, which is impure. Vaykira draws lines: between the priest and the Israelite, the Temple and everything else, the permitted and the prohibited, the sacred and the profane. Vayikra, more than any other book, sorts a chaotic world into neat and clear binaries, and it is this act of God calling out, of inviting Moses into loving relationship, that kicks us off.
But what of the reality we actually live in, which is much more complicated than this binary sorting might lead us to believe? What do we do with the things that don’t fit neatly into one category or the other? What happens when the line between these binaries is transgressed, when we are living in the grey area?
Despite the attention our text pays to outlining binaries, the rabbis were particularly concerned with this question as well, with what to do with the moments, places, and people who fall in between. My friend and colleague Rabbi Elliot Kukla asks us to consider twilight, a time that is neither day nor night. In the Babylonian Talmud we read: “Our sages taught: As to twilight, it is doubtful whether it is part day and part night, or whether all of it is day or all of it is night.… Rabbi Yosi said: “Twilight is like the twinkling of an eye as night enters and the day departs, and it is impossible to determine its length.” And what of that time? What is it good for? Elsewhere in the Talmud we are taught that this liminal, in-between, boundary-blurring time is the best time for prayer.
The ancient Rabbinical consideration of how to sort and categorize that which does not fit neatly doesn’t just apply to time, though, it also applies to people. My work, at Keshet, is in large part dedicated to those people. Keshet’s mission, to work for the full inclusion and equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Jewish life, means that it is my job to wrestle with and work towards answering the question of how Judaism and Jewish communities can embrace people who don’t fit neatly into some of these categories.
Transgender can be understood as an umbrella term for people whose knowledge of their own gender identity in some way transgresses the fairly rigid binaries of male and female that we are offered at birth. Our society generally conflates physical sex – the particular mix of hormones, chromosomes, and genitalia that we largely group into male and female – with gender, which is both a socially constructed set of norms, behaviors, and roles for men and women, as well as our internal knowledge of how we fit, or don’t fit in relation to those categories. Despite that conflation, there are many people for whom those things don’t line up. Those of us for whom they do align can be described as cisgender, and people for whom they don’t are transgender or gender non-conforming. This can include, for example, people who, at birth, are assigned as male but later – sometimes as early as 3 or 4 – know themselves to be girls. Many transgender people choose to undergo social and sometimes medical changes so as to be seen in the world as the gender they identify with, including potentially altering their name, pronouns, hair, mannerisms, clothing, and body. This is referred to as a person’s transition, and no two trans people’s transition looks the same. Transgender can also include gender non-conforming people who may occupy more of a middle ground, that twilight space. People who don’t feel comfortable as either male or female, men or women, but whose gender identity and expression may include some combination of both masculinity and femininity, sometimes shifting over periods of time. Some gender non-conforming people use words like “genderqueer” or “androgynous” or “gender fluid” to describe themselves.
While the Rabbis of the Talmud and Mishna didn’t have words like “transgender” or “genderqueer,” and they didn’t have any distinction between sex and gender, their societies very much included people who didn’t neatly fit into the proscribed binaries. Our traditional texts lay out 6 different sex or gender categories, four of which are assigned at birth and two of which reflect a person’s development later in life. The four assigned at birth include zekhar and nekevah, male and female, as well as Androgynos and Tumtum, both of which are categories for people of indeterminate gender. The two others are saris, to describe a person who is born male but later develops female characteristics, and aylonit, a person who is born female but later develops male characteristics.
What is particularly remarkable is that these categories do not necessarily relegate people to the margins of society! Certainly, the rabbis wrestle with how to categorize people who don’t fit the gender binary, with what their ritual obligations are, but also, we are taught that some of the most important figures in our history were gender non-conforming! The Midrash posits that Adam – the first human being – was an androgynos. And in the Babylonian Talmud, we are told that Abraham and Sarah were tumtumim. The very foundation of our peoplehood is built on gender variance, the first person and the first Jews occupy these liminal gender spaces, and it is from their lives that the entire history of the Jewish people has emerged.
If I hold onto this knowledge, that gender variance has been central to the Jewish people’s story, and I turn my attention back to the text in front of us then, there are two questions that rise up before me:
1. What do we do with the enforcement of binary thinking in this parsha, even as we try to notice and celebrate the liminal experience?
2. If we take as a model God’s relationship with Moses, what does it mean to “Call out” to the whole of our community, to intentionally invite trans and gender nonconforming people into loving, sacred relationship?
In answering the first question, I turn to this week’s Haftarah portion, which is a reading from Isaiah.
As a prophet, Isaiah tends to work to keep the Israelites in line, and unsurprisingly, this portion includes a reproach; a chastisement for the ways in which the Israelites have screwed up their sacrifices. But then, immediately after a bulk of text about how the Israelites have failed to honor their relationship with God by properly nurturing it with sacrifices, God invites the Israelites into conversation, God calls out again to the people, this time through Isaiah: “Help me remember! Let us join in argument, tell your version, that you may be vindicated.” (Isaiah 43:26)
It is this, right here, that I come back to. God is explicitly and intentionally inviting us into relationship, again, but unlike in the Parsha where we have a one-way directive, here we are invited into contentious conversation, into argument!
This is, unequivocally, a Jewish response. We have a well-established tradition of loving argument and disagreement as fundamental to what it means to be Jewish. We have Yaakov, who wrestled with the angel and then became Yisrael, one who struggles with God. We have the houses of Hillel and Shamai, who every day for three years argued over their interpretations of Halakhah. Day in and day out, they challenged each other. Until after three years, God intervenes. Bat Kol, a voice from God, breaks through the stalemate, saying “eilu v’eilu” – both these and these – “divray elohim chayim hen” – are the words of the living God. (Eruvin 13b)
When we see a tension in the text, between what is laid out and sorted and what our studying, ethics, and Jewish values direct us toward, what is our response? Is it to turn away? For some, yes. For plenty of trans and gender non-conforming Jews who see Judaism’s rigid gender binaries and roles and can’t see themselves in it; they turn away in the interest of self-preservation. Is it to concede that we simply don’t understand the true wisdom of the Torah, but that the words on the page are unquestionable truth and so we live by them? For some, yes. But Isaiah today reminds us of our alternative, to step into that relationship with God, and argue.
Now, what about my second question? What can God’s intentional, explicit invitation to relationship teach us about how we relate to one another? Specifically, how we relate to trans and gender non-conforming people in our community?
This world, as a whole, can not be assumed to be a safe place for people who transgress gender norms. Transphobia, the physical, emotional, structural, and spiritual violence that trans people face has profound implications on how trans people must move through the world in order to survive.
According to a 2011 survey, the most comprehensive survey of trans people in the US to date, 41% of transgender people have attempted suicide. For comparison, the number for the general population is 1.6%. 78% of gender non-conforming children report experiencing harassment at school. 35% report physical violence. The rates of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, HIV, police harassment, incarceration, and hate violence are similarly staggering. Transgender people, especially transgender people of color who must navigate the intersections of transphobia and racism, can not assume a safe passage from one day to the next.
What this study also showed, though, is heartening for us and our work. The strongest protective factor against these negative outcomes for trans people? Family and communal acceptance.
Our faith communities are powerful places to model and ground acceptance, and as Jews, we have, again, the words of Isaiah to guide us. Discussing the value of keeping God’s commandments, even when there are obstacles, Isaiah says:
Happy is the one who does this,
the one who holds fast to it:
Who keeps the sabbath and does not profane it,
Who stays his hand from doing any evil.
Let not the foreigner, who has joined himself to God, say: “God will keep me apart from God’s people.”
And let not the saris say: “I am a withered tree”
For thus says God:
As for the sarisim who keep My sabbaths,
Who have chosen what I desire
And who hold fast to My covenant—
I will give them, in My house, and within My walls
A monument and a name, better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that shall not perish.
If that promise, to build a monument and an exalted, lasting name isn’t a message of acceptance, I don’t know what is. But how many trans and gender non-conforming people who doubt their place in Judaism turn first to Isaiah chapter 56? It’s not enough for those of us who are already in this room to know that the texts that celebrate gender non-conforming figures in our tradition exist. We have to take our cue from God, we have to call out, to issue an invitation. Because trans people have learned that they cannot assume safety and welcome without hearing that call. It is incumbent on us – cisgender allies who want to affirm k’vod habriyot, a respect for human dignity, and our belief that we are all B’tzelem Elohim, sacred beings fashion in the image of God, to be proactive. It is incumbent on us to do the calling, to issue the invitation.
In closing, I want to share with you a blessing written by Rabbi Rueben Zellman, entitled Twilight People:
As the sun sinks and the colors of the day turn, we offer a blessing for the twilight,
for twilight is neither day nor night, but in-between.
We are all twilight people. We can never be fully labeled or defined.
We are many identities and loves, many genders and none.
We are in between roles, at the intersection of histories, or between place and place.
We are crisscrossed paths of memory and destination, streaks of light swirled together.
We are neither day nor night. We are both, neither, and all.
May the sacred in-between of this evening suspend our certainties,
soften our judgments, and widen our vision.
May this in-between light illuminate our way to the God who transcends all categories and definitions.
May the in-between people who have come to pray be lifted up into this twilight.
We cannot always define; we can always say a blessing.
Blessed are You, God of all, who brings on the twilight.
A note of gratitude from Joanna: All of my learning about the richness of Jewish tradition’s engagement with gender and sex diversity has been guided and shaped by incredible trans and gender non-conforming friends, teachers, rabbis, rabbinical students, and activists. Some of their work is directly referenced here, but all of their teaching is reflected in what I bring to any conversation about gender justice. Much thanks for how your work has impacted me, whether you’ve known it or not, to: [soon-to-be Rabbi] Becky Silverstein, Rabbi Elliot Kukla, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, Joy Ladin, [soon-to-be Rabbi] Ari Lev Fornari, Rabbi Emily Aviva Kapor, Micah Bazant, and many many more. Thank you for bringing your Torah into into the world with wisdom, grace, and bravery.
Purim’s less than a week away, so we’re busy making rainbow hamantaschen and rereading The Purim Superhero, by Elisabeth Kushner. This Jewish children’s book weaves a sweet story of a boy, his two dads, and a major Purim costume dilemma.
And if you want some yummy, colorful and kosher goodies, look no further than this Tradition in a box Purim food basket. Use code AFPUR14 for 10% off orders over $50. Expires 3/16.
We hope this helps make your Purim a little more prideful and delicious!
A few weeks ago a recipe started making rounds on the Internet. Not just any recipe, but a recipe for hamantaschen with rainbows. I’m no baker, but I knew I needed to give these a shot. Truthfully, I’ve never really been that excited about hamantaschen. I stay silent when debates about the best of Jewish food turn to the cookie. Yet, I appreciate the symbolism and the history behind the pastry. These triangle shaped cookies represent the villain of the Purim story, Haman. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but the way I remember the story it has something to do with Haman being pretty uncool towards the Jews, and Esther and Mordechai saving the day. Because of all of that, we eat pastries that resemble the tricornered hat Haman wore.
Well, if we’re going to be celebrating a holiday where someone saves the day by standing up and declaring their hidden identity, it seemed like celebrating with rainbows made sense. I’m an amateur in the kitchen, so I figured if I was going to do this, we could take this adventure together.
I knew Kitchen Tested’s recipe was the only one out there suggesting rainbows, but as a pretty basic baker, I thought I’d start someplace easier. I went with with JewishBoston claimed to be “The Easiest Hamentashen Recipe on the Internet.”
Before we get too much further, I’m going to go on the record here—we will be using chocolate chips as filling. This isn’t up for debate. If there is an opportunity to bake with chocolate, in the Rozensky family, we take it.
Because we’re going to be making these rainbow style, you’ll also need food coloring. Gel-based food coloring is your best bet for making bright colors and not making the dough too sticky.
To make the dough, you’ll want to first mix together eggs, oil, sugar, and vanilla. I borrowed a friends standing mixer, which I recommend, if only for the fact that you feel very important using such a fancy kitchen implement. After your eggs, oil, sugar, and vanilla are properly mixed up- add the baking powder and flour.
Next, you’re going to separate the dough into six sections. While wearing rubber gloves, knead food coloring into each of the sections of dough.
I wore a Wonder Woman apron while baking, which I recommend if you’re feeling less than confident about your abilities. Getting the food coloring uniformly into the dough took the longest in the process. It was also the messiest part, since no matter what I did I seemed to contaminate the colors. I just stuck with my mantra (“This is just for fun. Rainbows are for fun.”) and I managed to make it through.
The next step was to roll out each individual section, and to stack them in a 9″ x 4″ pan. Midway through the baking process I realized I didn’t have a rolling pin, but managed to do just fine by substituting in a can of tomato soup.
After I created the amazing rainbow loaf, it was time to put the dough in the freezer for a half hour.
For the next step, you cut a narrow (1/8 inch thick) slice of dough. I completely own the fact that I was beyond amazed that the dough seemed to look the way it was supposed to look. To make your hammentaschen, you’ll want to use a cup or a circle cookie cutter to cut a circle in the middle of the dough.
Next up, you’ll put your choice of filling in the center of the circle, and fold the sides up into a triangle shape.
Bake the Hammentaschen for 15 minutes at 350 degrees, and you’ll end up with a fantastic rainbow way to celebrate Purim.
Let me be the first to wish you a Happy Purim from Keshet! If you’re in the Bay Area, be sure to check out the Gender Schmear: our Bay Area LGBTQ Purim party. And, if you find yourself celebrating Purim with a few rainbows, be sure to send us your photos!
Purim is about concealment. More specifically, it is about movement from the covert to the overt. There is a sustained tension between what characters are and what they seem to be that moves the plot forward. It is the careful unraveling of disguises that makes for salvation.
The major characters are all Marranos disguised in costume. They all struggle to manage a powerful public persona while hiding an inner secret that, if revealed, would seem to undo them. By the end, everyone is unmasked.
King Ahashverosh, according to tradition, was not of royal blood; he had married into Persian royalty. Vashti was the true Persian princess and, because she refuses to take off her royal robes, she is banished or killed. She is the only one who refuses to dress up — or in this case down — as something she is not. Ahashverosh has risen to royal power, but he is not royal material. He is a foolish, pompous lush dressed in royal robes. He is also terrified of being challenged or used – and that is exactly what happens anyway.
Esther and Mordecai are closet Jews. Each is fearful of the consequences of being found out. Mordecai warns Esther not to reveal her identity. The people perceive Esther as a lovely Persian woman who has become a Persian queen. Mordecai is a statesman who is known in the king’s court. He does not flaunt his Jewish identity.
Haman is the scoundrel who, like Esther, is in the right place at the right time. Like the king, he rises to power without any merit. His secrets are his bloated ego and his hunger for royal power. Haman conceals all this from the king, including his irrational hatred of Mordecai.
The turn in the plot occurs when Mordecai is forced to choose between his inner and outer identities. Is he a Jew or a Persian noble? If he refuses to bow down to Haman, he will almost certainly lose his status among the Persian elite. If he bows, be understands that he will lose his inner Jewish self. In this moment of reckoning, Mordecai recognizes himself as a Jew and refuses to bow. The story isn’t clear as to how Mordecai’s secret if found out. Someone tells someone who tells Haman that this rude fellow is a Jew, and Haman begins his plot to avenge himself of Mordecai and his people.
Unmasked, Mordecai realizes that he must turn his secret inside out. He must now bear witness to the inner truths. He sits at the gate of the palace in sackcloth – congruence between the man and his clothes, a boldly public expression of an internal state of affairs. Mordecai’s naked protest sets in motion the unmasking of Esther, then of Haman, and finally of Ahashverosh.
What does all this drama between revealed and concealed selves say to us? Of course, the Book of Esther could be read as a midrash on Jewish life in the diaspora. How we play hide and seek, how we reveal and conceal ourselves as Jews, is a diaspora story.
But there is also a more personal journey described. In many ways, we are all Marranos, hiding behind our various masks and robes. What can we glean from Esther to help us manage the interplay between our inner and outer lives? Can Mordecai teach us something about the search for wholeness? Al the end of the story, all the inner truths come to light. As the story unfolds, there seems to be a redemptive quality in self-expression. When all is revealed, Esther becomes a powerful queen and Mordecai becomes the king ‘s most trusted counselor. Even Ahashverosh seems to achieve a more royal demeanor. Each of these full identities was achieved by reconciling the inner and outer persons.
The story is also about the need to protect a life apart from the public eye. As Esther enters the king’s palace, Mordecai warns her not to reveal her identity. Later be commands her to do so. It seems that there is a right and a wrong time to reveal the self. Perhaps the story is about the dynamics of identity that cannot escape a tension between expression and inhibition. We are who we are not only by our self-revelations, but by our careful nurturing of a private world.
As well, not all inner lives are equal. Haman uses disguise for singularly destructive ends and is ultimately destroyed by his inner self. Haman falls on Esther’s couch, revealing more than an urge for power. Mordecai is revealed by his principles, Haman by his libido. At the perfect moment, Esther reveals herself as a Jew and saves the Jewish people. Though the war between the inner and outer worlds is over, there is no clear victory of one self over another. Instead there is a new and diverse wholeness, an integration of mask and man.
The rabbis describe the God of the Book of Esther as a hidden God, a playful God who dances in between the revealed and the hidden, patient and waiting for the right moment to burst forth. So we, too, find our journey in both inward and outward movements. Often we work behind the scenes nurturing a life apart, a sense of privacy and clarity. And when the moments come to stand for one’s inner truths, for principles, or for one’s people, then we must turn inside out and witness, loud and proud and sure.
This essay originated on the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and is reprinted with permission.
Last week Josh Zakim, son of the famous Jewish-American religious and civil rights leader Lenny Zakim, did something pretty fantastic. He stood up for equality…and made a powerful statement about the need to speak out for communities that stretch beyond your own. How? Just by going about his (anything but ordinary) day-to-day business as a Boston City Councilor.
Councilor Zakim didn’t realize he was giving me, and every other informal Jewish educator, fodder for discussion when he spearheaded a Resolution in Boston, but he was. Josh Zakim took a stand in Boston about Arizona’s SB 1062. If you aren’t familiar with the legislation, this law would, to quote Zakim’s Resolution, “allow individuals and corporations in Arizona to freely discriminate against other Arizonans who do not share their religious beliefs and… directly targets the community of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Arizonans.” The Boston City Council unanimously adopted the Resolution to reject what Zakim called a “Jim Crow-like bill.”
I was lucky enough to catch up with Councilor Zakim, and I asked him what inspired him—as a Bostonian—to take action on legislation that was being enacted across the country. His answer was quick and clear, “this was something important that needed to be said,” he told me. “If Boston is going to be a leader in social justice and equality we needed to take a stand, and need to continue to do so even when it’s not directly under our control.”
As I spoke with the Councilor, it was hard to suppress my years of informal Jewish education training. Some tiny voice inside of me was shouting “it’s like those discussions about the needs of Jewish versus non-Jewish communities, and how we, as Jews, prioritize where and when we give back!”
My inner educator voice, which by all definitions of the word is extremely nerdy, wanted to ask Josh about the difference between our immediate and extended communities; does community start small and spiral out? After all, I’ve led countless discussions on a piece of Jewish text that instructs that one first supports themselves, and then “his parents if they are poor, next his grown children, next his siblings, and next his extended family, next his neighbors, next the people of his town, and next the people of other towns.” It’s easy to declare a desire to help everyone. It’s harder to know where to put your efforts.
So, why did the Councilor go out on a limb about Arizona when half a country and a time zone or two separated the two States? Really, who are we obligated to help?
Zakim reminded me that “even if these battles have been on the right track in Massachusetts, they are far from done here and elsewhere; sometimes it’s easy to forget that in other States (and other countries) things are far worse.” It’s true—these, and other, issues of equality and justice are being dealt with not only in Josh’s hometown of Boston and elsewhere in the United States, but across the globe in places like Ukraine and Uganda. Furthermore, he pointed out that not every community is as lucky as the Jewish community of Boston—where forward thinking leaders stand up for their constituents.
“You need to speak up for what you believe in. Everyone deserves to have equal rights,” the Councilor shared. He didn’t hesitate to compare his guiding philosophy to the spirit of Tikkun Olam, thanking his parents and his sisters for helping him to develop his sense of Justice.
Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim is only in his first term, but he’s living up to the family name and showing how important it is to stand up in the face of injustice—both near and far.
Mississippi’s state legislature is debating a bill that critics say would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBT people. Lex Rofes, a Southern Jewish activist, shares memories of his uncle’s struggles as a gay rights advocate in the 1970s on the Southern & Jewish blog.
Why would he do this? What reason did he have to hide his identity as he sought to make equal rights for LGBT individuals a reality?
His reasons were practical, and heartbreaking. He was a teacher, and at the time, it was completely within the realm of acceptable activity to fire teachers if they were “discovered” to be homosexual. Allowing his face to be seen could have consequences.
Later in the year, he decided that he no longer could hide this aspect of his identity. He decided he would inform the school that he was gay. He would no longer bring fake “girlfriends” to school functions, and, if asked by his students, he would talk with them honestly about the fact that he is attracted to men and not women.
Upon learning this, the school fired my Uncle Eric.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
When you think “Salem, Massachusetts” understanding and equality probably aren’t the first things that come to mind. My guess is that mention of the town is more likely to conjure images of witches and hysteria. Yet, this small town outside of Boston is taking action to protect the values of diversity, equality, and respect- and they did so without you noticing.
Earlier this week, Salem’s Mayor Kim Driscoll signed an anti-discrimination ordinance specifically aimed at protecting the rights of trans* individuals. Over 40 organizations joined together to shepherd the ordinance, bringing together people of faith, local politicians, and advocates for social justice to take a small but significant step towards making the world a safer and stronger place.
Mayor Driscoll celebrated the news, sharing “There are no second class citizens in Salem and we proved that we believe that… with the signing of our Non-Discrimination Ordinance helping to extend protection against discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression in the matter of public accommodations… Over 40 local groups, organizations and individuals came together to help advocate for this ordinance which was unanimously adopted by the Salem City Council, once again demonstrating how much our community values diversity, equality and respect. Yep, we have come a long way since 1692!”
The ordinance was spearheaded by “No Place for Hate,” an Anti-Defamation League campaign. The ADL- which originated as a Jewish response to antisemitism- concentrates on anti-bullying initiatives through the No Place for Hate campaign.
Proving that home is where your values are, Salem follows Boston, Cambridge, Northampton, and Amherst to become the fifth community in Massachusetts to take an active stance on gender inclusion. My question? When will the rest of Massachusetts—and the country—take similar action. And, what can we do to galvanize action around this important issue of social justice?
As a resident of Salem, I often get questions about why I chose to live outside of the Boston city limits. While my answers usually boil down to issues of affordability, proximity to the ocean, and a love of the local arts scene, I’m proud to be able to point to this moment of inclusion. Our communities reflect who we are as people, and asking our elected officials to take a stand on inclusion is more than just an LGBTQ value, or even a Jewish value… it is the type of action that makes the place you live home.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Rabbi Joshua Lesser tackles Parashat Vayikra and asks the gay men in his Jewish community to stand up.
I remember my first pair of rollerblades. More specifically, I remember the bloody mess I was the first time I gave them a try. I couldn’t figure out the brakes and there was a hill and a busy street—you can figure out where this is going. Never was I so grateful to hit a telephone pole. The second time I bladed I fared better, that is until a piece of rusty wire got caught in the wheels bringing them to a sharp halt. The rules of physics being what they are, I fell on my face. Slapstick being as reliable as physics, my fall brought me injury in the form of much laughter. The next time I was invited to go rollerblading, I stopped and stared at the skates. Were these skates nothing more than simple instruments of cruel pain? Could I give it another go? Or should I simply be done with them all together?
This week we begin the book of Leviticus with Parashat Vayikra, and although Leviticus begins innocently enough, with a listing of the various sacrifices performed in the Mishkan, as LGBT people, we all know where this book is heading. Much like my rollerblades just the title Leviticus inspires dread and fear in gay men that has caused us to disengage with the entire book, and for some, Judaism altogether. And so it is ironic that Leviticus begins with the word vayikra—”And God called.” Ramban cites a midrash that connects Leviticus with the end of the book of Exodus where we find a complete description of the Mishkan’s construction and that it was worthy of the Shechinah (God’s Presence). So magnificent and awesome was God’s glory within the Mishkan that Moses was terrified to enter. Thus, the call from God in this portion was an invitation to Moses and the Israelites to come inside—signaling to them that the Mishkan was built for their mutual relationship.
Similarly, Ramban also notes that the word for sacrifice is connected to the Hebrew word that means, “to draw close.” In this light the sacrificial system is one of the primary ways that the Mishkan was to be used to enhance the biblical human-Divine relationship, Ramban sees this sacrificial system as a ritualistic way to build a meaningful relationship with the Divine. In other words, when we discard Leviticus wholesale because of its foreign rituals or its later prohibitions, we risk missing the emphasis of how ritual can bring us closer to Judaism, community and God (or godliness).
For gay men in particular, this is a real danger in today’s Jewish world. In the rabbinic commentaries, much to do is made about the way the first word of this portion is written—the last letter of “vayikra” is an aleph, which in the Torah is written smaller than the other letters. While the rabbis speculate how this is connected to Moses’ humility, I wonder if the aleph might stand for the first call that God speaks to humanity, which begins with the aleph in question. In Genesis, God calls to his first human creations, “Ayeca?”/”Where are you?”
Indeed, I often find that I have the same question for gay Jewish men in Jewish communal life: Where are you? Having served in different LGBT communities, I have found that, while gay Jewish men aren’t exactly nonexistent, they participate in smaller numbers than lesbians, and additionally, it seems gay Jewish men wait until they are older to make affiliations within Jewish communal life. In one rabbinical school class, we were taught that, as rabbis, we could expect to attract members of our demographic most significantly. In other words, a married woman rabbi could expect to have substantial participation from other married women. However, at my particular synagogue, this has not occurred—instead, we have attracted large numbers of people from all demographics but my own (gay Jewish men in their 30s). While this may be too anecdotal to draw strong conclusions, I couple this particular piece of anecdotal evidence with the fact that I consistently meet gay Jewish men in social settings who seek me out to share their experiences of having been made to feel unwelcome in their synagogues, their families. Many express disdain for Judaism and God altogether mentioning the prohibitions in Leviticus. Intertwined in these discussions is often a sense of lingering shame.
Upon reading the list of sacrifices in Vayikra while considering Ramban’s theory that they served to draw people, within the context of their community, closer to a sense of the Divine, I conclude that somehow these sacrifices served to remove the barriers that kept people distant from a sense of the Divine. As a result of this reading, I have wrestled with the question of determining how the self-imposed barriers could be removed that prevents gay men from feeling more connected with their Jewish community and to God. In what ways could we engage ritually to enhance our Jewish spiritual lives? While I think this question is relevant for all people, I think for gay men the answers are different.
While it is critical that the larger Jewish community work to remake itself so that it is more accessible to gay Jewish men, it is our responsibility as gay Jews to undertake our own self examination. We have the ability to identify those things that have blocked our connection to God and to ritual. Unless the answer is utter rejection, we must do our inner work. Leviticus and its sacrificial systems are buttressed by a calling to take personal responsibility and cultivate vulnerability. Giving an offering, in particular the act of sacrificing the life of a sentient being, brings us face to face with the fragility of life moment to moment. Rabbi Kerry Olitsky points out that the sacrificial system demanded an entirely embodied process. One had to engage all of one’s senses to participate. Taken together this is incredibly vulnerable.
Moreover, even more intensely vulnerable is that the heart of the issue demands gay Jewish men to embrace their sexuality and acknowledge that not only are we holy as human beings, but our bodies are holy and our sexual connections can be holy. To wrestle with this is to also acknowledge when our sexual acts are not holy. As gay men can we make ourselves vulnerable enough to invite a sense God’s presence in our sexuality? To do so, is a sacrifice not in the sense of giving something up, but rather creating room for godliness to dwell.
Asking gay Jewish men to be vulnerable in order to read and engage with Leviticus, which is arguably the core of ritual Judaism and holiness, when it is the source of direct pain and alienation may be unreasonable. Certainly, there is some danger in this, and the possibility of re-wounding may even be likely. However, there is also much to be gained by making peace with this book that contains the infamous 18:22 and 20:13 verses because it also contains much more—Leviticus also includes some of Judaism’s most compassionate and beautiful teachings that can serve to awaken the desire to infuse our life with the awareness of the glory of God’s presence. As this portion reminds us, God’s perpetually call to us, despite fear and harm. The question that remains is, can we, as gay men make ourselves vulnerable enough to hear it? And if we do that, can we sacrifice the baggage that keeps us distant so that we may answer from the authentic place within us that longs for God in our lives.
The Keshet Parent & Family Connection is a community of parents and family members of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Jews who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community. You can find a chapter or start your own here.
My loving, caring, and beautiful daughter Julie is gay. When Julie came out, my first reaction was tears; tears for not being aware of my daughter’s struggles before she came out to us. Life is a journey with many different roads to follow, and while I ride a road less traveled, I know that I am not alone. I am joined by the support of my loving family, friends, and the Keshet Parent and Family Connection.
There is so much to learn (Is the right word gay? or is it Lesbian? or Queer?), and I hope I get it right. I have learned that it takes time, years even. It takes time to permit myself to settle into a different way of living life. I still worry about her safety, her rights, and the many detours she will need to maneuver. I feel as a parent, I’m always coming out, always having to explain my family to people. When my daughter got married, I had to say to every venue “These are two women getting married in a Jewish ceremony, are you comfortable?” It surprised me that I had to do that still. Life is not fair and at times I am angry.
So now I am on a mission. I am equipped with my experience from the Keshet Leadership Project, a training program designed to build the capacity of individual leaders to affect institutional change in Jewish communities. I proudly serve on the Keshet board of directors with a team of exceptional individuals, and I helped to establish the Keshet Parent & Family Connection.
I learned that when a child comes out, their parent comes out too. The child is prepared to come out, but the parent isn’t, and when you have other parents to sit with you, to talk about the same thing, it’s very comforting. It is a reminder that you are not alone.
The Keshet Parent & Family Connection is composed of remarkable parents and family members of LGBTQ Jews across the country who come together to transform the Jewish community through peer support, public events, and advocating for change. We come from all streams of the Jewish world, have children of all genders and sexual orientations, and are driven by personal journeys of struggle and celebration.
I hope you’ll join us or share this on to parents in your community who could use a group like this.
A year ago The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner, a story of a young boy named Nate struggling with his Purim costume, hit the shelves. The book, the winner of a Keshet book-writing contest, represents a first in Jewish children’s literature—an inclusive story with LGBT characters. This year, the book was added to PJ Library’s collection—for individuals who opted in.
Reactions to PJ Library’s decision to offer the book only when requested have been mixed. Some people have heralded the decision as a step towards inclusion. And some people are applauding the effort, but are wondering why the book isn’t available to everyone.
When PJ Library conveyed the news of the limited run on their Facebook page, it was shared over 440 times. Within less than 36 hours, the book sold out. We’ve gathered some of the reactions we’ve seen—on Facebook, over email, and from conversations—to share (unedited) with you.
Jan Oosting Kaminsky: I am so happy to hear that there are many enthusiastic people who are ready to order this book, and we purchased several copies last year when it was first released and distributed them because it is such a sweet book! However, I have to say that I am disappointed that PJ thought this book so controversial that it had to be distributed through a separate link! Honestly, is it so shocking to have a loving family with two fathers who care for their children that this had to be sent separately?? In no way does this book talk about LGBT issues – it simply shows a family with two fathers. I have received our PJ Library books for many years gratefully, but this was the wrong decision, PJ Library. Making this book a special order degrades our families, makes us feel shameful, second-class, all of the things that hurt LGBT families so much every day in the Jewish community and beyond. I appreciate your perspective, but the fact is every other book that we received from PJ has an opposite-sex-parented family in it. I am happy that this book is being publicized, but very sorry that it was not distributed widely and in the same manner as every other PJ Library book. It hurts.
Bari Greenfield Gilbert: Thank you! Very much look forward to getting it! My children have Jewish friends with two Dads and it is amazing that this book exists and that you are offering it. Children who see these different family makeups make for less ignorance – more tolerance – and, hopefully, less hate in this world! Thanks again! I hope everyone takes advantage of this opportunity for their children – and for themselves!
Lisa S Greene: PJ Library: We love your books. And would love it if you would add The Purim Superhero to the regularly distributed books going forward. It is warm and wonderful and supports the individualism of the protagonist.
Wendy Barnet: So pleased that so many people want this book. As a retired Jewish educator, I am so proud of Kar-Ben Publishing and PJ Library for taking a risk by offering, The Purim Superhero. All Jewish children should see themselves in our Jewish literature and our temple libraries.
Lisa Rabinowitz: Thanks! So happy you made this decision. It would have been even better if you just sent it as your monthly offering without having to order it.
Emily Mathis: Thanks for making The Purim Superhero available as an extra offering — I hope you will include it in your regular offerings, just as you’ve done with an orthodox book we received. You have an amazing sphere of influence, and I hope you will use it to the extent you can.
Carrie Bornstein: Thanks for the extra gift of a Purim story featuring two dads, PJ Library! Perhaps you’d like to send it to all of your families? After all, some of the books you send me don’t reflect my practice either, like the family who comes home on Rosh Hashanah day to bake challah and cook their meal. Thanks for sending that one anyway – it invites me to offer a lesson in diversity when I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to order it online.
Naomi Sunshine: My two daughters have been receiving PJ Library books since they were babies, and I am very grateful to you for the monthly gift, which has helped me teach them about Jewish holidays, traditions and values.
I wanted to share with you my disappointment that you’ve chosen not to send the book The Purim Superhero to all your members, but only to families who specifically request it. I know you put a lot of thought into this decision, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to share my thoughts with you.
As a proud Jewish mother and a proud lesbian, I aim to surround my children with a rich Jewish life. But I have to be honest with you. When I read things like your blog post “In Search of Perfect Gifts,” coupled with your decision not to make this book available the same way you do so many others, it hurts. And it makes me wonder whether the Jewish community you are creating really wants me as a member.
The message that you send to families like mine (and there are lots of Jewish LGBT people and families) is that we are second class. That families like ours should only be read about by children whose parents go to the great lengths of finding out that you are offering the book and then ordering it. That our lives are so marginal that you could not possibly send a book that features a family like ours to everybody, because further marginalizing LGBT families is a lesser evil than offending homophobes.
Now that you’ve heard the word on the street…. What are your thoughts about The Purim Superhero and the PJ Library’s decision to offer the book to families who request it?
On The Torch, Miryam Kabakov and Rabbi Steve Greenberg share why for both women and LGBT people, allies can make a real impact.
The excitement in the halls was palpable. Was the enthusiasm because of the record-breaking number of attendees (1,000), the new venue John Jay College, or was it the opening panel with Ruth Calderon? The spirit of optimism and confidence at the recent JOFA conference was so high that most likely it had to be more than the sum of these wonderful elements. For what happened was the creation of a historic gathering in which we saw how far we have come.
The days of tiptoeing around difficult subjects have been swept aside. Instead, we saw new faces exploring new uncharted territory. Topics that had previously been “dealt with” were now embraced and engaged on a profound level.
For the first time, LGBTQ concerns were taken up during four separate sessions in this one-day conference. Continue reading here>>
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Marisa James examines Parashat Vayakhel and Parashat Pekudei and how we can all appreciate the beauty of a complex world.
When I first read this week’s parashah, with their detailed lists of the sockets, pegs and posts that go into building the Mishkan, I could only imagine that the children of Israel had somehow ended up at the Sinai IKEA. I pictured Moses, in a burst of confidence after getting everyone across the sea, picking up the “A_rk oöf Tabêrnäkkle” kit and making everyone sit down to decipher wordless instructions on how to build the thing.
But really, there’s something lovely about the time and care that goes into all of these descriptions. Last week’s portion Vayakhel and and this week’s portion Pekudei continue our languorous journey through the design and creation of the tabernacle. During their 430 years in Egypt, laboring as slaves, building stark, massive pyramids for a succession of pharaohs, the children of Israel have been deprived of beauty. As we’ve seen, they have lacked imagination until now; they bitterly complain to Moses at every turn, until he produces yet another miracle, which they promptly forget again when they are hungry, or frightened, or want something tangible to worship.
But in the building of the Mishkan, the children of Israel become artists. Yes, there are specific instructions for how to build it, but each member of the community, we are told, gives what they can: their goods, their effort, and their talent. And we are privileged to read about the results in loving, careful, artistic detail. Beauty is a necessity, both for Moses and the Israelites then, and for us now.
Moses says, “If a person feels like giving an offering to God, bring any of the following: gold, silver, copper, sky-blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair, reddened ram’s skins, blue processed hides, acacia wood, oil for the lamp, fragrances for the anointing oil and perfume incense, as well as sardonyxes and other precious stones for the ephod and the breastplate.” (Exodus 35:5-9)
If they feel like giving an offering to God, says Moses. This is not like last week’s building of the golden calf, when Aaron, in his frustration with the Israelites, says, “Take the rings off the ears of your wives and children, [. . .] Bring them to me.” (Exodus 32:2) The creative impulse cannot be demanded. In the creation of the Mishkan there can be no room for those who might give reluctantly, or unwillingly, or all exactly the same. Every individual piece of silver and copper and wood and cloth must be given freely and with love in order to create the place where God can reside.
And the Mishkan is not being created from gold alone; Moses lists so many options for what each person could contribute that we’re left in amazement about where all the materials come from. Each of the Israelites apparently has unexpected and diverse resources that we haven’t seen until now. They bring items of every color and texture, metals and stones and fibers, along with talents which until now have remained hidden.
Why is it so important that we read several chapters of this description? A few p’sukim (verses), two or three verses, could have told us that God asked Moses to make a beautiful dwelling-place, the Mishkan, of gold and silver, with the priests in robes embroidered with “pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, twisted.” (39:24) A few p’sukim could have told us that the Israelites gave freely of their possessions and skills, and that the Mishkan was completed to God’s specifications.
After centuries of famine and slavery, backbreaking work followed by a perilous escape, the Israelites need time to dwell on beauty, and so do we. It’s easy to fall into the victimization of Israel in mitzrayim (Egypt/ the narrow place) and the alternating tedium and terror of wandering in the desert and have no hope for the future. Taking time to see the world around us in every inch of its detail is one way to restore our souls.
Similarly, in our own lives, it can be difficult to avoid feeling constantly victimized and oppressed, especially as members of the Jewish community, the queer community, and other minority communities. Our multiple marginalized identities frequently overlap to make us prime targets for the “hate-mongers” in our world. And in our work towards social justice and equal treatment, it can be hard to raise our heads from the struggle and appreciate the sheer beauty of the communities we have created. Just as the Isarelites found beauty in the creation of the Mishkan, it’s also necessary for us to move beyond our painful interactions with the world and take delight in the places where we are accepted and loved for all of our different aspects.
How do we do this in our daily lives? I live in New York City, where I’m constantly so inundated by my surroundings that it’s easy to block it all out. But sometimes, I need to stop and listen to a street performer with a beautiful voice. Watch my friends’ sleeping newborn children and imagine their dreams. Delight in the amazing diversity of the communities that have welcomed me, and in the beautiful visions we share of the world we’re trying to create. It isn’t enough to simply notice the beauty of the world—it’s necessary that we each bring our diverse talents and gifts to continue the work of making our world into a Mishkan where God can reside.
We are a group of observant, Orthodox families from across the United States, including Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. On March 7, we will be meeting face-to-face–many for the first time–for the 2nd annual Parents’ Retreat, sponsored by Eshel, an organization committed to creating a safe space in Orthodox communities for its LGBT members.
We are just like most of you, with one exception: Our children are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender). Each of our children told us on a fateful day some months or years ago that they are not heterosexual. It is who they are and who they will always be.
It is with this thought in mind that we would like to have a virtual conversation with you. Let’s assume for the moment that some weeks or months ago a member of your immediate family approached you, telling you that he or she is LGBT. You love them and begin to think beyond yourself and your family and begin to consider your precious Jewish community. Here is where the conversation begins.
We start by asking for your understanding, respect, and perhaps even acceptance of our children as members of the Orthodox community. While the medical and psychiatric community affirms that being homosexual is no longer considered an aberration or an illness, most Orthodox communities have not expressed the same acknowledgement and acceptance. Lack of acceptance, or failure to acknowledge and address the fact that LGBT Jews are–and always have been a part of the Orthodox world–is not a solution. Failure to acknowledge does not make the issue disappear. In fact, closing one eye on this matter leads to fractured communities, family alienation, and documented suicides. No one wants this for their family, their friends or their community.
We are not going to tell you it was easy absorbing this news from our children. We had the same hopes for our children that you have for yours. But as hard as it has been for us, it has been a much more difficult journey for our children. We now see our children as very brave for having told us, their friends and extended family, about who they are. As most have described it to us, it was a frightening and lonely experience to hold on to this secret, and most have held on to it from a very young age. We have come to respect how difficult it was for our children to find the strength to come out of the closet in a seemingly unbending Orthodox world.
We are not asking you to do the impossible and place yourselves exactly in our shoes. Rather we simply ask you to consider having this conversation in the spirit of Klal Yisrael, a community conversation. All of us are in this together. If nothing else this is an issue of bein adam l’chavero, “between man and his fellow man.” All conversations need a setting. Imagine yourselves sitting around the Shabbat table. You have just finished Kiddush and are about to eat with family and a few friends. Think about the statements below and how you would respond. These are in no particular order and we are sure some are more sensitive than others. So, just pick a few, and begin…that’s how most of us did it with our families, slowly, carefully, needing time to absorb and appreciate the circumstances and the people around us.
As Orthodox Jews we believe that all human beings are created in the image of G-d. Have you considered how this core Jewish principle of human dignity might shape your view of LGBT people?
We are hopeful that in a few years all Orthodox communities will be able to have this conversation in an open forum that include all its members. Today that is not the case.
We are asking you to encourage your rabbi to respectfully consider these questions and to learn about the issues specific to counseling LGBT congregants and their family members.
We hope that all synagogues, shuls, shtiebels, and their Rabbis think about the above issues and the serious implications they have for the health of their communities. By avoiding these issues or simply denying they exist, we are ignoring, rejecting, and losing LGBT Jews and their families.
Addressing these issues will not change Jewish law but it will encourage dialogue and begin to lessen needless pain and fear, debilitating isolation, dangerous depression, as well as hatred and discrimination of LGBT youth in the Orthodox world. After all is said and done, these Jewish souls are our sons, daughters, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, parents, neighbors, or friends.
Eshel is a non-profit organization whose mission is to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities. The Eshel Orthodox Parents Retreat is planned for March 7, 2014: to register for the Parents’ Retreat or to learn more visit http://www.eshelonline.org.
Get a copy of The Purim Superhero, the first Jewish children’s book with LGBT characters, in time for Purim. And, if you are a family participating in the PJ Library program, be sure to request your copy of The Purim Superhero by March 13, 2014!
One year ago this month, the world got its first look at you. The truth is, though, I’d had some version of you in my head for over a decade before that: I’d wanted to write about a kid with a Purim costume dilemma ever since my days as a Jewish day school librarian, looking for holiday books to read aloud in class. Then, when Keshet announced its picture book contest in 2011, you came a little more clearly into focus: you’d be a kid with same-sex parents, whose struggle to be true to yourself at Purim echoed your dads’ experiences as gay men. Your personality really crystallized one day when my friend’s son, bored at being dragged along to his mom’s writing date, started tossing ideas at me, and some of his unique imagination (and his interest in aliens) was infused into you. And, of course, I didn’t know what you looked like until I saw Mike Byrne’s adorable illustrations for the manuscript.
Over the past year, I’ve been honored to hear from GLBT parents, and other nontraditional families, that you’ve provided a way for them to see their family life affirmed in the pages of a book, and from many “traditional” parents that your story has given them a chance to see the diversity of their neighborhoods or congregations reflected in a Jewish book they can share with their kids. You’ve been part of the celebrations at birthdays, baby showers, at least one wedding, and, of course, at Purim festivals all over North America. You’ve even inspired some Halloween costumes!
I’ve been heartened by the warm welcome you’ve experienced in the Jewish online and print world, and by the support I—and you—have had from other writers at venues like the Jewish Book Council event I attended last June, or the LimmudVancouver conference where I presented just last week. I’m grateful that you came into the world at a cultural moment when you can be recognized and celebrated for all of your identity—as a Jewish kid, as a kid in a same-sex-parent family, and as a boy who finds a way to honor the unique interests that make his heart sing, even while he wants to be part of his group of friends.
It’s that last part that I’ve seen resonate the most strongly with kids, especially kids around your age. Over and over, at school visits and author readings, they’ve wanted to talk about how you feel pressured to dress as a superhero like the other boys in your class, and how hard it can be to be different from your friends, and how important it is to find a way to be yourself anyway. Your story certainly isn’t the first time that theme has been sounded in a children’s book, but you’ve helped bring it to life for a lot of kids—whatever their religion or family structure.
So, happy birthday, Nate—and chag Purim sameach! I’ve been thrilled to share this first year with you, and I’m excited to see where your future will take you. You are a super friend to many, and I hope you’ll continue to fly high.
There is no doubt that love is in the air—as a hopeless romantic, Valentine’s Day is a holiday I always want to celebrate. Sure, it’s hard to make an argument for Valentine’s Day as a Jewish holiday, but every holiday can’t be perfect. And the argument that the day has become all about commercialism isn’t lost on me—although I’m willing to forgive any holiday that is accompanied by such fantastic discounts on chocolate. The day isn’t perfect, but it gives us an opportunity to think about love—and think about how to celebrate love.
As a wedding photographer, I’m part of many couples’ celebrations of love. If you think navigating the ins and outs of Valentine’s Day shopping is complicated, you should try planning a wedding. To say a lot goes into it is an understatement—and as the photographer, I need to know it all. Where—and when—will you be singing the ketubah? What is the story behind your chuppah? Will there be a tish or a bedekn? Will you both be stepping on the wine glass? The questions go on and on.
Last week, perhaps inspired by pervasive and inescapable Valentine’s Day decorations, I sat down with a few of my wedding planning forms. The forms ask all of the questions—the whens, the wheres, the whos, the hows, and the whats. My forms, which were passed on to me by others in the business, ask some pretty basic questions, like “What will the bride be wearing?,” or, “When will the groom head to the ceremony site?” Over the course of the past few years, I’ve updated forms to meet the needs of my couples. Now, I no longer have a “one size fits all” form, but instead one for a bride and groom, a groom and groom, and a bride and bride.
As the number of states legalizing gay marriage continues to rise, I’ve seen more and more wedding photographers figuring out how to update their contracts and forms. Even though it seems like a small detail, the forms that wedding professionals use help to set the tone. When I sat down with my forms last week, I made the decision to update to one single gender neutral form—one that refers to the couple simply as “the couple,” and asks for details regarding “partner one” and “partner two.” While I want my wedding couples to feel as if every detail of their process is customized to their specific needs, I also want to set a tone of inclusion—making it clear that I welcome couples that fall into any and all gender categories.
When we celebrate love, we should be celebrating inclusion. So, should your Valentine’s Day plans tomorrow night lead you to the chuppah, here’s to a celebration that welcomes everyone.
If you’re looking for more information on Jewish clergy and institutions dedicated to inclusion, check out Keshet’s Equality Guide.
Rabbi (to be) Ari Naveh recently shared how he balances the line between being a gay rabbi—and a rabbi who is gay. Here he takes his learning, as well as his years of work with the RAC, and puts it in practice, examining why the LGBT and Jewish community should be paying attention to two Supreme Court cases.
An arts & crafts supply chain from Oklahoma is paving the way for legalized discrimination. Think I’m being dramatic? I assure you, I’m not.
A few months ago, the Supreme Court decided to hear two cases: Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wagon Specialties v. Sebelius. Both of these cases challenge the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that businesses must include contraception in their healthcare plans. In both cases, the owners of the two corporations claim that the contraception mandate violates their first amendment right of freedom to exercise their religion. These owners claim that the religious rights of their corporations are being infringed upon—in other words, since the owners of Hobby Lobby are Christian, Hobby Lobby itself is Christian as well. If the idea of a non-sentient corporation having its own religious beliefs sounds a bit strange to you, that’s because it is.
Four years ago, in an unfortunate landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that corporations should be granted full permission to exercise their first amendment right to free speech in the context of direct donations to all manner of political campaigns. Put simply, the Court stated that corporations are people. The repercussions of this case on the already fraught status of monetary influence on political campaigns were, in a word, ginormous. But we are not here to discuss the unnervingly complicated issues of campaign finance law; I’ll save that for another blog post that you can read when you’ve got hopeless insomnia and that Ambien just isn’t working for you.
No, this is about how a Supreme Court case about campaign financing, and another about birth control, will affect LGBTQ Americans in serious, and terrifying ways—and why the Jewish community needs to pay attention. This is about what keeps me up late at night, worrying about the safety of LGBTQ Americans, and what my Jewish community can do to support equality.
Now, you may be asking yourself: What does this mean for the LGBTQ community—and the Jewish community? Aside from the overwhelmingly negative effects this case could have millions of women in the United States and their access to contraception—access to which Jewish tradition pretty much categorically supports if the Court sides with Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wagon Specialties, discrimination against the LGBTQ community in all sorts of forms will now have the legal right to be couched in the extraordinarily misleading language of “freedom of religious expression.”
You may recall the case of the Oregon bakery whose owners refused to bake a cake for a gay couple about to get married in nearby Washington State. Their refusal was on religious grounds, as they claimed that gay marriage stomped all over their belief in “traditional” marriage. The case went to a state Labor Board, who ruled against the bakery, claiming that it was in blatant discrimination of the rights of the couple.
However, if the Supreme Court rules for Hobby Lobby, that bakery would be completely within its rights as a Christian—that’s the bakery, not the owners—to refuse service to all sorts of people with whom it may disagree on religious grounds: gay couples, non-married couples, whatever. So fine, you may say: if a business wants to actively refuse service to any number of prospective clients, thus, you know, hurting its own profits, then zey gezunt, that’s their own silly problem. However, It gets worse: a “religious” company/factory/school/business could claim that it is well within its freedom of religious expression to not hire, fire, refuse to promote, taunt openly, or refuse any benefits to any and all LGBT employees, prospective employees or their spouses. A “religious” apartment complex could handily refuse to rent to someone living with HIV/AIDS, a same-sex couple, or anyone within the LGBT community; “religious” pharmacies could refuse to stock and sell contraceptives, HIV medication, condoms, or any sort of item that may be “against their religious beliefs.”
Our community has been working too hard and long to ensure that such blatant discrimination is legislated into oblivion where it belongs. With one swift bang of the gavel, the Supreme Court could terminate any real prospect of that legislation ever seeing the light of day, thus almost guaranteeing discrimination in the workplace, in medical care, in housing, and virtually everywhere else in this great nation, all for the sake of “religious freedom.”
Maintaining the freedom to practice one’s religion is no doubt vital, and – it should go without saying– already guaranteed to us in the Constitution. As a burgeoning Jewish professional, I know full well the real dangers of denying somebody’s legitimate right to practice their faith, and the even worse dangers when someone else believes their right to ‘practice their religion’ trumps your right as a citizen. However, what Hobby Lobby and the Conestoga Wagon Specialties stores are attempting to portray is not religious discrimination, it is homophobia, misogyny and racism masked in religious doublespeak, and showing a real chance of being codified into law.
Reading Ariel Naveh’s two-part story on the Keshet blog about being an openly gay rabbinical student, I remembered my own experience eight years ago as I prepared for ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. I wondered what my life would be like as a rabbi who was gay. I stayed up late at night and worried: Would I get a job? I wondered would I find a place that would accept my partner and offer her the same benefits of an opposite-sex spouse. I wondered if I could even make it safely through rabbinical school. There were so many things to ponder I barely had time to consider what it meant to actually be a gay rabbi.
When I applied for and accepted my first pulpit in the summer of 2006, I was closeted. The senior rabbi, the head of the search committee and the president of the synagogue all were in the dark about it, and I was scared: scared of getting found out, scared of losing the many opportunities which had been laid before me. Continue reading here>>
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, J Simone Posner examines Parashat Ki Tissa, and wonders if G-d cares about equality.
This week’s parsha covers a wide range of juicy topics (too many for one drash). There are the continued themes of items needed for the Ohel or “tent of meeting” that would eventually become our “temple”. There is a point of discussion about who shall do the work to construct the items. There are reminders about keeping Shabbat. There is the story of Hashem‘s first version of the law whose tablets were smashed by Moses because the Israelites erected a golden calf. There is the story of the second set of tablets; and finally the story of Moses’ personal relationship with Hashem. All very interesting stuff but I’d like to write about something else.
“Ki Tissa et-rosh B’nai Yisrael…” (Exodus 30:12) ‘When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel…’
Ki Tissa begins with Hashem’s command for Moses to take a census of the people…all of them, without reference to gender. Each man over the age of 20 is then required to pay a “ransom” for themselves. Each man, both rich and poor alike, had to pay no more and no less than a half-shekel as “atonement money” for their sins. The money went to the service of the Ohel.
For those of LGBTQI history and background, this might seem the least likely of things to talk about, since, while all may be counted, only able-bodied men are required to pay the ransom. Let me submit to you that the Torah is the law and particularly this parsha speaks in detail about the law. Finding that spiritual message and path all while trying to bring the Judaic life into harmony with the LGBTQI background had me considering the question of equity under Hashem’s law. Does G-d care about equality?
Ki Tissa speaks about the elevation of Levites and separation of Kohenim (priests) through the line of Aaron. I submit that in appropriating power in this way made this hierarchy a false higher-power and took the attention off of Hashem. Thus, a golden calf was built.
So, back to the census and the small collection. Israel’s numbers in those days were just over 600,000 gevarim or “able bodied”. What constituted a gevarim for this census? Who was counted? Who was NOT counted? Were there people who expressed gender differently back then? Were these persons counted? Were trans-women considered able-bodied men? Were trans-men counted among the women? Torah doesn’t speak with their voices, so I have to look at the collection G-d required to find traces of equity.
Previously in “Terumah” (Exodus 25) the Israelites were asked to make a contribution suggested by their hearts. It could be red yarn or lapis lazuli or precious metal or goats hair and not in any specified amounts or requirements by caste. This donation was used to build the Ohel and its contents.
In verse 15, the commandment specifies that the half shekel should be paid by rich and poor alike. This “half-shekel” offering for atonement is more on a spiritual plane and not determined by one’s wealth. It is mentioned in this parsha that a shekel is 20 gerahs and the half would be 10 gerahs. According to ancient weights and measures 1 gerah = .41667 grams and therefore 10 gerahs (or a half-shekel).
If we use silver as a measure of monetary equivalence, (a whopping $14 USD for an ounce- or 28.35 grams) that would mean the price of salvation (even with the outrageous price of precious metals during our present economic crisis) is about $2.00 USD. This is a price that even the most financially strapped LGBTQI person could afford even if they couldn’t afford their rent, clothes, medicines, food or other basic necessities.
Many point to this book to proclaim the greatness of Moses, of the Levites (who by the way go on a killing spree in Exodus 32:26-29 if you are into blood and gore) the Kohenim who in spite of their wisdom and ceremonies and vestments still somehow preside over the forging of a golden calf and then fudge it when retelling the tale to Moses.
This parasha tells me in the most unequivocal way, that it is not Hashem that is ever in error, but humankind. Hashem asks for things from all people and usually the same things in the same way. This is true equity under the law. It is humankind who seeks to separate and make distinctions perhaps because of a most un-divine way of judging people, places, things and scenarios that most require Hashem‘s implanted “divine spark”.
For many years the Trans community had a terrible problem with such a caste system where Drag Queens would fight MTF Transsexuals and everyone fought against Transvestites and there was no unanimity among even the Transsexuals who had no common-ground between the MTF and FTM factions. And lets not forget MTF’s who would argue ceaselessly among themselves about which surgical intervention/method/practitioner was the best. This all happened before the word “Transgender” was in common use. That was yet another story.
Still not sure about equity under Hashem’s law or how unity under Hashem’s law will deliver us? Lets take a look at Exodus 31. Verse 12. It begins with reminding the Israelites about their covenant and how it is important to keep Shabbat because Hashem rested on day seven. How can I work on Shabbat if Hashem didn’t? Do I think I’m better than Hashem? Humility before Hashem is the manifestation of equity under the law. For those who go to synagogue regularly verses 16 and 17 form the familiar V’shamru heard in many Shabbat services everywhere:
The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:16-17)
About 20 years ago, there was a story I heard about a transwoman who tried to get religious permission from a rabbi to change gender, and live and function and a woman within the community. This rabbi told her that she was an abomination. She said it was a matter of pikuah nefesh (the rule that says a law can be broken to save a life) and the rabbi (A Cohen by the way) told her that even under the Noahide laws, it wouldn’t pass and that she would be better off killing herself. As she walked out of his office, she asked one final question: since this religion had now utterly rejected her, could she now disown and disavow herself of its barbarism? The Rabbi told her she was not excused; not excused from keeping kosher and not excused from keeping Shabbat. This seeming slap in the face put the focus back on Hashem and gave that woman just enough space to live and function as a Jew today.
If you feel someone out there is struggling with spirituality and religion tell them to try to keep Shabbat and point them to the text of the V’Shamru.
One final thing about the census. This is just another way of saying “stand up and be counted.” There is a spiritual message, too, I think. Earlier in the week we hear the reading of the Megillah. In Esther 4:12 Mordechai tells Esther that she must risk death and come out about her Jewishness to save the lives of many others. I think this resonates exactly with the census and “counting heads.” The LGBTQI community will grow and aspire closer to Hashem as we all stand up and be counted and put our ten cents USD towards a cause that will bring about our atonement and redemption.
The more I read and learn about what has been happening in Russia, the more I am afraid for its citizens. The attention that the fairly recently implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law is getting is certainly high on the list of reasons to be concerned. What begins as fines quickly becomes imprisonment. There is already more than enough evidence that creating an environment of state-sponsored discrimination against a section of the population based on an essential part of their being leads to violence against those individuals. There are numerous accounts of LGBT Russians being attacked by vigilantes and thugs.
We should all be concerned by these stories. As a Jew, and as a lesbian, I cannot help but think about Germany in the 1930s. We teach that history precisely so that we might better recognize the early signs of state-sponsored prejudice that can quickly escalate into something more. I don’t think I’m being reactionary. I’m truly and deeply concerned.
What does this mean for the Sochi Olympics, and beyond the events of the Olympics themselves. I admit, I find myself at a gut level drawn to the idea of boycott – of simply not watching. But I’m not convinced that this is an effective or meaningful response at this stage. I would have supported the International Olympics Committee if they had made a decision to relocate or cancel the games at an earlier juncture, and I also recognize the logistical, legal, and political complexities of making such a decision.
Continue reading here>>
Silence and lies. These are your choices when you’re in the closet. When your friends start talking about crushes, hot celebrities, sex—do you stay silent? Or do you lie? Do you stay silent and hope your friends won’t notice? Do you lie and hope your friends aren’t laughing in their heads because they somehow discovered the truth?
Life in the closet is a play, and it’s up to you when the curtains close.
For me, that moment came my freshman year at Tufts University. It was several days into the community service pre-orientation I had signed up for, FOCUS (Freshman Orientation CommUnity Service), and my FOCUS family—as our group of 8 freshman and 2 leaders were called—had just gotten falafel for dinner. A group of us were talking with one of my FOCUS leaders, and the topic of sexuality came up. Discussing a Jewish friend of hers, my FOCUS leader remarked how she felt that there weren’t that many gay Jews out there.
Suddenly, time slowed down in my head. Was this the moment I would finally talk about my sexuality publicly? I had known going into Tufts that I was going to “skip” the coming out process as much as possible. I had already told my family and my best friend and I didn’t want to come out afterwards in the traditional sense. I wanted to go to Tufts as someone who was out and let everyone else just find out (it’s much easier than it sounds when you had a graduating class of 48—word travels fast). But now that the perfect moment had presented itself, I hesitated.
And then I spoke: “As someone who’s both gay and Jewish…” The rest of the sentence didn’t matter; from there on out, I was out.
Being out in college was not like I expected. While you’re in the closet, your sexual orientation becomes one of your most important identities; yet when I came out at Tufts, in many ways, my sexual orientation became inconsequential. Tufts is not only queer-friendly but has a lot of queer students. I was no anomaly and people’s sexual orientation was just another characteristic among hundreds of others.
Even at Hillel, my sexual orientation was not only accepted but embraced. After attending a Jewish Day School for 13 years where there was no support for queer students, “that’s so gay” was thrown around daily, and homophobic remarks often times went unchallenged, it was a pleasant surprise to find a Jewish community that not only welcomed queer students but even had programming focusing on the intersection of Judaism and queerness. This past spring, I was elected as president of Tufts Hillel, adding to a sizable list of queer Jewish Hillel presidents at Tufts.
As great as my experience has been overall, there are still moments where I am reminded that Tufts is not as queer friendly as it may sometimes seem. Last year, Tufts passed a new policy allowing religious groups to apply for exemptions from our non-discrimination policy when selecting their leadership criteria, consequently allowing religious groups to forbid queer students from running for leadership positions.
In addition, while my experience overall at Tufts has been great, it’s always important to remember that unfortunately, the queer friendly atmosphere at Tufts is not a microcosm of the larger United States. I was reminded of this just last year, when I returned to New York right after a string of high profile anti-gay hate crimes. My Tufts gay pride and “I like Pro-Choice Boys” pins, which normally adorn my book bag during the year, were, consequently, no longer on my bag when I arrived in NY for break.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to be out in college in a safe and overall welcoming community. As my senior year comes to an end in the spring I hope to take the queer-friendly atmosphere I have found here and work to make it a reality wherever I live.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Noach Dzmura examines Parshat Tetzaveh, providing a portrait of the priestly class, and asks “Why is the making of egalitarianism a queer task?”
Summary of the Parasha: The unique verb that identifies this parasha is tetzaveh, “and you shall command.” The verb reinforces the nature of this Biblical hierarchy: God commands, Moses relays the command, and the people perform the commandment. In this parasha, Moses commands us to kindle an eternal flame (ner tamid, continuously burning light) in front of the Mishkan. In the main body of the parasha Moses commands us to fabricate some costly and complicated ritual garb for Aaron. Finally, God commands Moses to elevate the status of Aaron and his sons (and their sons, forever) over the rest of the people. This puts a little balloon in the arrow of Divine hierarchy, and, ostensibly, lightens Moshe’s load: God commands, then Moses (or the Priests) relay the command, and the people perform the commandment.
What’s Bothering Noach: The priests stick in my craw. God requires sacrifice? This is abhorrent. There is a priestly class of people whose relationship to God is closer or more intimate than the rank-and-file person? This is insupportable. Priests get – for free and without laboring to produce them—the best part of the produce and the meat? Who says they qualify for a free lunch! The sons of Aaron and their sons—forever—get this gig too? This is permanent inequality. How can we stand for this?
Reading the text from the perspective of an outsider to power, as I did in the above paragraph, results in a recipe for rebellion. Reading from the perspective of a fully enfranchised member of the community, who is yoked to God’s will by choice, because it is directly tied to the will of the people by the Covenant, yields a more peaceful outcome. I want to read in this more productive, less rebellious manner in the rest of the essay.
Economic Advisers to Moses: When I read about a class of priests and their troublesome (to me) sacrifices, it helps me to think of “sacrifices” as part of a tribal economy with the Covenant as its ethical center. It also helps me to think of Moses’ role as the leader of a people, and the practical duties of governing such a large number of people. Not an easy job to accomplish alone. So why might the formation of a class of people to manage the sacrifices have seemed like a good, practical idea? Lightens the load.
It seems to me that elevating a priestly class signifies a separation of governing powers a little like the one we are familiar with in America. Moses (in this time period) holds the executive powers of government as the leader, and heads up the judicial powers of government by serving as the highest judge or magistrate. Parashat Yitro established for b’nei Yisrael a combined judicial and legislative body made up of the heads of tribes and the heads of groups (of ten, a hundred and a thousand persons). Moses sits at the head of this council of magistrates.
I’m accustomed to reading the Priests as taking over what appears at first glance to be the symbolic, ceremonial duties of the Executive powers of government (for which America has a Vice President). But I propose that the Priests are responsible for managing a sacrifice-based economy, which means that the Priests might, in addition to their ceremonial responsibilities, serve as Economic advisers.
How is it that I construe the sacrifices to be part of a sacrificial economy? In his The Mishnah: A New Translation, Jacob Neusner describes the idealized Biblical world as an economy centered on the Covenant. The people are counted, taxed and represented in the magisterial system according to their numbers, the meat and produce are counted and taxed, the poor and strangers are accounted for and fed. The sacrifices are directly related to how many people there are and how many of each item have been produced, as well as to the boons of daily life (for which a sacrifice is made) or the penalties of wrongdoing (for which a sacrifice is made). The portion for the priests and for the people is related to how much the entire economy of sacrifices has produced. The priests were integral to a rational system of governance for that idealized Biblical time and place.
The sacrifices – the animals and grain and fruit grown and tended by Israel—are the GNP (Gross National Product) of the sacrificial economy. It seems to me that, positioned as they are, the kohenim mediate between the wealth of a nation and the nation’s Covenanted values. That’s a very cool and powerful role in a social system. With the economic information the priests acquire, it seems to me logical to assume that they provide insight to Moses about G-d’s will for the people, and what steps must be taken to ensure continued prosperity.
No advisory capacity is spelled out for the Priests in Torah. I come to this conclusion by taking the duties of the priests as they are spelled out in our parasha, and deriving the advisory duties based on the duties we do know. I am convinced they must have served as economic advisers to Moses because of their sole access to the kinds of information that would have helped to make decisions about the community’s economic viability. For example, if the priests preside over the sacrificial rites, they must know whether the appropriate number and kind of sacrifices are being offered, which means they are aware of how much of each thing has been produced.
So instead of reading the priests as merely ceremonial, I read them as useful economic advisers, helping Moses by separating off the Economic management from the business of interpreting the law and determining the nomadic troupe’s direction. Since I don’t value sacrifice in and of itself, for me, this derivation of a new priestly role takes some of the sting out of the Priests by making them useful members of society. But there’s a bad effect of this separation of governmental powers, too. It creates a class system.
The Birth of a Class System: Class systems systematize oppressions and hide them from the public eye. The visibly opulent clothing and the ritual food we are commanded to provide (we learn elsewhere that a portion of almost every sacrifice is given to the Priests) to those who do not labor to produce it, seems to elevate the status of the priests above the status of those who work. It seems that we the people serve the hereditary priesthood, simply because they were born that way. Such entitlement doesn’t fit modern notions of egalitarianism. “Born that way” is never a good reason to obtain one’s due in an egalitarian society.
This week’s Torah portion shows us the visible, opulent high end of a social and political economy centered on a Covenant that expresses ideas of strict hierarchical obedience and a Divine justice system. It’s easy to see why a class system might be the result of such a Covenant.
The focus on hierarchy and retribution (‘disobey and I will smite you’) appears out of step with my values. While present day American society still contains a class system, a liberal Jewish understanding of Divine justice focuses on leveling the playing field through socialistic notions of shared resources and egalitarian distribution, raising up the downtrodden while bringing down the upper echelons. In the Rabbinic Judaism of the present day, the Priests are gone; the sacrificial, mitzvah-driven economy has been replaced by a secular, profit-driven economy, and all the benefit one garners from the surname “Kohen” is a special blessing on Yom Kippur as a kind of disempowered nostalgia.
Moderating the Inequalities in Torah is a Queer Task: Nonetheless, in this text, the priestly hierarchy is being birthed, and it is our task to make egalitarian meaning of this newborn inequality. Why is the making of egalitarianism a queer task? Because discussion that focuses on a Center and its Margins often paints queers into a powerless position; our task is to see this scheme differently, queerly, to empower persons equally. I propose three ways to moderate the sting of the social inequality entrenched in our Sacred Text.
The first of these is to recognize the labor-value of public service. The Priests are public servants. Their role is equivalent to a role that is –in our time and place—historically underfunded: priests function socially as Wives of the Deity. They cook for God and clean God’s house. (The High Priest enters into Sexual Union with God, too, there in the Holy of Holies, but that’s not today’s tale.) There is justice in the fact that these Priestly wives get some recognition for their otherwise unsung labor. And these are male wives, which is an even cooler way to challenge the heteronormative status quo.
The second way to take the sting out of a priestly class is to recognize the people’s role in (literally) investing (in) the Priestly class. The specifications for manufacturing the vestments worn by the high priest are given by God to Moses, but it is the product of the peoples’ labor and trade that produces those garments. The spinner, the weaver, the dyer, the metalsmith, the jeweler, the seamstress, the engraver, the dye producer, the mussel hunter, the shepherd, the shearer: each of these contributes their labor to the production of the vestments. And for each of these to be able to contribute, they must receive a share of the nation’s food, which is grown by other laborers. Samson Raphael Hirsch says:
The fact that the priestly garments must be supplied and owned by the nation makes it clear to us why only a kohen dressed in these garments can be regarded as a priest at all. Only in this attire does he come forward as the servant of the nation for the Sanctuary of the Law. Only in this manner does the ritual he performs become the service which the nation was commanded to render to the Sanctuary of the Law of God. Only thus can the ideas to be expressed by the ritual attain the character of a duty commanded by the Law God gave to the nation.
The third way to moderate the sting of hierarchy is to recognize the undesirable qualities of the Priestly job. Take for instance Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons who God zorched into French fries because they brought “strange fire” before the Sanctuary. And then there’s a special quality to Aaron’s vestments: they are built with bells in the hem, to trigger an alarm in the Sanctuary so God won’t accidently zorch him for entering “un-announced”. It’s risky work.
Our Role in Producing Inequalities: The point is, I don’t want the Priest’s job; I don’t want the decisions I make to have any effect on the purity of the nation, and I really don’t want to go around wearing a dress with bells on the hem. I’d rather just let the priests do it and stay the heck away from the Sanctuary. The Priests bear the brunt of the potential zorching, so I can see my way clear to sending over a good part of my freshly sheared wool. The point of this long explication is to say that’s where the people go wrong, including me. That’s why people don’t vote. That’s why people don’t go to political rallies or labor union demonstrations. That’s why people don’t get involved in the school board. It’s even why hereditary classes come to be, is my guess. As a habitual slacker and lover of comfort, I hate to say this, but the inescapable conclusion is that unless we mutually bear the unpleasant effects of social life, we face the consequence of inequity.
In Sum: The net effect of moderating the sting of social inequality in these ways is to recognize that the Priestly job is just another kind of labor, that is not separate but dependently arising from the sum total of the community’s labor, and that the role of Priest is “elevated” of the people, by the people, and for the people, and holds aloft the symbolic value of right relations between the people and God written in the Covenant. There are still problems with this ancient system, from an American perspective: Priests aren’t democratically elected, the role of priest is hereditary and there are no term limits, and the people have no representation, no voice in changing rituals that no longer work for them. An even larger difficulty that arises when the link between the Priestly role and the Relationship it was put in place to revere, is obscured or lost altogether. In due time, because absolute power corrupts absolutely, the Symbol of Power comes to be recognized as the Power Itself. It’s where the narrative of the Torah is headed. Are we?
Part Two of a two-part story of a gay rabbinical student in the Reform Movement. Yesterday Ari shared his place in the history of openly gay rabbinical students. Today Ari delves deeper into navigating his identities. You can also hear from Rabbi Elianna Yolkut on her journey from the closet to the pulpit on Rabbis Without Borders.
In 2008, I made the decision to enter rabbinical school as an openly gay man. The decision was in some ways very easy and in some ways very difficult. My concerns centered on one main question: what would my gay and Jewish community be like? After my initial year at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Israel, I received some less than ideal news: my new home would be at the HUC campus in…Cincinnati.
This had not been my initial choice and I was none too pleased, having been born and raised in New York. But, I thought, “I am sure that I will not only be welcomed with open arms, but I will find a loving community who can help model for me being a gay rabbinical student, and subsequently a gay rabbi…right?”
I soon discovered, at least for my first year, I was the only openly gay student on campus; my therapist always tells me that it’s important to note openly gay, because you never know, and I do appreciate her optimism. Somehow by default, I became a halutz (a pioneer), the very identity I had hoped to avoid when I chose to be a gay rabbinical student in the Reform world, as opposed to the Conservative one.
In Cincinnati, I had to actively think about how to navigate all of my identities with a limited support network. In a conservative Midwestern city, I found myself working with even smaller–and sometimes even more conservative–congregations as their student rabbi. How would I come out to my student pulpits? Should I use them as bully pulpits to advocate for the causes that I find important and meaningful? How do I seek out a solid LGBT Jewish community outside of the school, when school takes up most of my life? And of course the biggest question: am I a gay rabbi, or am I a rabbi who is gay?
These two sentences may sound alike, but they could not be more different, as I discovered a few months ago in trying to craft a personal statement to send out to congregations to apply for possible rabbinic positions. In my personal statement, I told a story of building a relationship with a congregant in a community in Northwest Florida who was initially hesitant about having an openly gay rabbinical student; the fact that I had not yet mentioned my sexuality to that community, but rather had been outed by my predecessor is a whole other story. I wrote that over the two years I served there, we grew to form an incredible relationship, and that I hoped to have shifted his perspective if only a small amount.
The story I told for my personal statement was met with a resounding and near universal opposition. I was told that it foregrounded my sexuality too much: It showed me as “the gay rabbi” more than “Ari who is gay”…and also holds many other identities and traits, of equal value and import. While this is certainly true, it felt strange to hear from – mostly straight – friends, colleagues, and teachers that it would behoove me to “tamp down the gay.” In a recent article in Slate.com, gay writer J. Bryan Lowder lamented how some public figures have taken to coming out by stating that being gay is only but one small part of who they are, not their whole essence. Lowder believes, as do I, that this emphasis diminishes the value of coming out and acting as a role model to fellow LGBT people.
As I round the bases towards my eventual finishing of this program, I have no more answers to that quandary than I did when I started. I think sometimes you just have to be a halutz, taking the lonely road for the sake of those who will one day follow. It can be challenging, but at least it creates some pretty great stories.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Deciding to become a rabbi is a momentous decision. For a gay man, the decision is even more fraught. In the first of this two part-series, Ari Naveh provides an intimate look at his decision-making process for picking a rabbinical school.
In 2006, after years of debate, arguments, and failed attempts, the Conservative Movement (finally) voted to allow the admission of openly gay students into their flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City.
Among the ‘liberal’ seminaries—including Hebrew Union College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Hebrew College—JTS was the last to make such a decision, and the vote was met in most circles with joy, celebration, and the feeling of great relief. Now openly gay prospective rabbinical students who were raised in the Conservative Movement, or who found meaning in its tenets, could learn to become its leaders in the hallowed halls of the world-renowned and historically impressive institution.
Having known that my life’s ambition was to attend rabbinical school in some capacity, the JTS decision was monumental for me. While I was raised in the Reform Movement, I felt drawn to many of the tenets of Conservative Judaism. It was incredibly heartening to know that I now had the full breadth of non-Orthodox options available to me.
But, when it came time to take that next step and apply to rabbinical school in 2008, I couldn’t shake that low-level feeling of unwelcomedness at JTS. With the decision only two years old, being an openly gay rabbinical student at JTS still seemed fraught with a sizeable number of complications.
Did I want to be a halutz (pioneer) for the Conservative Movement, gaining the notoriety and the fame—or perhaps infamy—as one of the first openly gay students in their seminary?
Was I comfortable with carrying that weight on my shoulders, along with all of the academic—and halakhic—requirements?
On the one hand, being a student at JTS was an opportunity to be a role model to many, showing bravery in the face of a slowly changing institution in specific, and a society in general. On the other hand, it seemed lonely.
What kind of community would I be able to foster if I was among the only gay students there? To whom could I turn for support? I weighed those options heavily and realized that loneliness could not beat out bravery. I chose to attend Hebrew Union College, which had a strong history of LGBT inclusion, having welcomed their first gay seminarians way back in 1990. I did not—and do not—regret my decision, as I felt it right to honor my Movement, and join what I thought could be a great and vibrant cohort of openly LGBT students.
Now, almost six years later, I reflect on my decision often. JTS’s momentous decision in 2006 opened the door for many, and demonstrated a change in the tide. While my path ultimately took me to Hebrew Union College and the Reform Movement, seeing the Jewish community opening and redefining the notion of inclusion made rabbinical school that much safer for me.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Check out today’s powerful and brave post on The Canteen from David Furman, who reflects on coming out and his world at Summer camp. If you’re struggling with how to come out, be sure to check out some of Keshet’s resources and stories of coming out on our blog.
I first thought that I might be different when I was in sixth grade. I went to Jewish day school, and I was horribly bullied for being different. My reaction was to revel in the negative attention, to try to act like I liked it…it was the only way I knew to fit in. My only friends were two girls. And by friends, I mean they were willing to hang out with me at school, and we talked on the phone a couple times. Not a couple times a week – a couple of times. One day at school, these girls asked me who my crush was, but I had never really thought about it before. When I started to think about it, I realized it was Danny. I was confused, so I just stuffed it down and lied to make it easier. I said it was one of them.
Years later when I was seventeen, I was searching for something to connect to, a place to feel comfortable. A friend in USYconvinced me to work at Camp Solomon Schechter for the summer. I was hesitant, but I figured, why not? At Jewish camp, I found the home I had been searching for, the acceptance I had been longing for. People loved me, no matter what. In the worst of times, Schechter was my refuge. I would always look forward to summer, for moments of serenity and happiness. I have worked at camp every summer since, and as of four years ago, I work there full time (my dream job).
Let me introduce myself. My name is David Furman, and I am the Assistant Director of Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Washington. And I am gay. I came out one month ago at twenty-nine years old. And I came out on Facebook, so the whole world would know. (I didn’t tell a single person before I posted it on Facebook…scary!)
So why now? And why Facebook?
Being an ally is important and hard work—it requires dedication, mindfulness, and courage. Allies are absolutely crucial to Keshet and our work would not be possible without them. But what does it truly mean to be an ally? Today’s piece asks: Is it as simple as checking the box that reads “ally”? With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day around the corner, we are pushing our allies to think about how one defines allyship—and how that definition translates to action. How does being an ally allow us to be better advocates? What do you think?
The term “ally” was a very important part of my politics for a long time. Then, last March, in an epically important tweet last March, @FeministGriote wrote, “Being an ally is a process not an identity.” Say what you will about Twitter, but the truth is that it has the potential to change who and what we see and hear. (If you’re on Twitter and only following white, straight folks, please amend this.)
The term “ally” acknowledges social power, or privilege. It implies that the person who is applying the term to themselves also acknowledges privilege and the knowledge that claiming the ally label doesn’t actually mean anything if there isn’t action behind it. Allyship means realizing not only that language is imperfect, but that intention is nothing if it isn’t actualized, and actualizing it is tricky. (Read this piece by Jessie-Lane Metz at The Toast about, among many things, allyship when it goes very wrong.)
I’m realizing lately, more and more, that allyship is a minefield. We will fail sometimes. It’s easy to fail, because calling yourself an ally in a situation where you don’t have to do any work is one thing, but knowing when to step up and when to step back are other things entirely. The way racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are structured is to ensure that we will fail sometimes. Allyship is one way that we can impact the status quo, but only if we accept that falling down is part of the process. And since failure is inevitable, because this is hard and imprecise work, we have to figure out to bounce back when we make a mistake. We live in this world where the dichotomy of perfection v. failure dominates. (Another reading assignment: The Queer Art of Failure by Judith Halberstam.) The truth, we know, is that there is a lot of room in between the two.
Here are some ways to ally like you mean it:
1. Repeat the following sentence to yourself over and over again: This is not about you. Calling yourself an ally is not a way, or should not be a way, to make yourself feel better. It’s not cute, it doesn’t (or rather, it shouldn’t) get you extra bonus points at life. It’s the way we should all be behaving. Do everything you have to do to remember that this is about people’s real lives.
2. Take up less space. A lot less.
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about street harassment and racism, in which I talked about my own narrative of race, and the beliefs that I (and all white people) possess on some level about people of color. The thing is, that piece was like therapy for me, which is not the point. It’s not that processing my own racism isn’t important —it is —but allyship is the work of creating space, which means stepping aside to make room for other voices that are not yours. When someone with less privilege than you tells that you made a mistake, do your very best to listen and hear.
It should go without saying that all of these things apply to being an ally in Jewish spaces to queer folks, to Jews of color, to women, etc. This work is scary, especially when we do it in our own communities, which means it’s the place where it’s most needed. It’s political. Depending on how you see it, it’s religious. It’s very, very personal. And even though it’s hard, don’t stop. Please don’t stop.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
2013 is one for the history books. The year has seen unprecedented legal victories for marriage equality. Here’s our breakdown of a year in the fight for marriage equality—mixed with some wisdom and reactions from the Jewish community.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) & Proposition 8
On June 26th, Edith Windsor brought down DOMA. Although the verdict didn’t grant marriage equality nationwide, it did serve to end the federal government’s discrimination against legally married LGBT couples. Ariel, a rabbinical student, stood on the steps of the Supreme Court that morning: “A group stood in an interfaith prayer circle. Before the verdict was announced, I led the group in prayer—at that moment I felt what Abraham Joshua Heschel meant when he said that marching for civil rights was praying with his feet.”
The ruling on DOMA was accompanied with another victory—Proposition 8 was overturned.
“Having a wedding had never been something I thought I would have. As my partner and I sat on the couch crying, I realized that we had a lot of work ahead of us,” shared Meryl, a Jew living in California. “That weekend in San Francisco we saw lines outside City Hall for same-sex wedding ceremonies, but we knew we wanted to do something with our friends and family. In many ways we live our married life as we set up our marriage ceremony, a mix of American/Paraguayan, Jewish/Christian, English/Spanish/Hebrew, and always with compromise, learning, and wonder.”
On January 3, legislation to legalize same-sex marriage was introduced in Rhode Island; it passed on May 2nd.
The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island endorsed the legislation, declaring that “the right of civil marriage should be available to all Rhode Islanders.” In their endorsement, the diverse group of rabbi’s wrote, “lessons from Jewish history provide us with a mandate to work for civil rights.”
A bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Delaware passed on May 7th, making it the 12th state to enact marriage equality. The legislation eliminated civil unions, converting any unions to fully recognized marriages.
Upon hearing the news, National Coalition of Jewish Women released the following statement, “NCJW salutes state lawmakers and the governor for this step forward for civil rights for the people of Delaware.”
In 2012, over half of the voters in Minnesota rejected a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The Legislature passed a same-sex marriage bill in May, which went into effect on August 1st.
Minnesotan Rafi shared his views on his own upcoming nuptials: “We were anxious to have a wedding in a state where members of our own family wouldn’t be able to do the same. We were relieved when Minnesota became the first Midwestern state to legalize same-sex marriage through legislation, led by Jewish State Representative Simon—with a host of Jewish groups proudly helping hoist the banner of equality.”
As a result of the court case Garden State Equality v. Dow, New Jersey legally recognized same-sex marriage in October. Marsha Shapiro and Louise Walpin were among the first in the state to tie the knot. Just after midnight on October 21st the two wrapped themselves in prayer shawls and broke the glass, telling Haaretz, “When we broke the glass, we were destroying inequality and discrimination in New Jersey.”
As the year marched on, Hawaii became the 15th state to legalize same-sex marriages, cementing it’s place as honeymoon capital of the U.S.
Just before Thanksgiving, the Land of Lincoln gave us something to be thankful for: same-sex marriage was signed into law.
An open letter from Illinois clergy and faith leaders reads, “We dedicate our lives to fostering faith and compassion, and we work daily to promote justice and fairness for all. Standing on these beliefs, we think that it is morally just to grant equal opportunities and responsibilities to loving, committed same-sex couples.”
On December 19th, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in New Mexico.
Following on the heels of New Mexico, Utah legalized same-sex marriage on December 20th. Sarah, a rabbinical student in Boston, summed up her feelings for her home state, “Oh my heck, Utah! What fantastic, amazing, beautiful news! Congrats to my home state for defying my expectation that it would be the last one to get on the equality boat!”
We’ll take it as a good omen that as we say good bye to 2013, 18 states have the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. L’chaim!
There are a lot of adjectives that I can use to describe my identity, some more obvious than others. It probably wouldn’t surprise you that I, a Jewish professional, would put “Jewish” at the top of the list. It also probably wouldn’t surprise you that I, a Keshet professional, would put “ally” and “activist” right up there with it. It may surprise you that I’d also put “TV aficionado” right alongside those other qualifiers, but it’s true—there’s very little that I enjoy quite as much as a quiet evening with the glow of my television.
Perhaps my favorite show of all times is the now classic reality TV show, Survivor. I started watching Survivor when a co-worker of mine from my Hillel days made a great sell: she convinced me that Survivor wasn’t just mindless entertainment, but a whole sociological experiment brought into my living room each week. I started watching timidly, but it soon became a weekly ritual for the two of us, something we folded into our own non-traditional Shabbat celebration. Now, seven years later, we still queue up our DVRs in tandem as we discuss the ins and outs of this week’s strategy.
In many ways, the famous sentiment “the revolution will not be televised” doesn’t apply in my world. This isn’t to belittle the incredibly important work that goes on behind the scenes and in uncelebrated ways—but for me, when the revolution makes it onto the small screen, I know it’s really here. This week marked the finale of Season 27, as well as the first time the show featured a gay couple. (Although, this season is not the first time Survivor featured a gay contestant.) Survivor has also boasted two Jewish winners—one, Ethan Zohn, even famously passed on eating pork during a reward.
This season we saw the gay couple of Colton and Caleb throw down on Survivor—and while Caleb flourished, filling the role of a sympathetic character and potential role model, we also saw Colton act as a disagreeable villain. Both contestants were real, their relationship and gay identity secondary to their role within the game. There is something incredibly meaningful about seeing the LGBT community reflected on Survivor, where instead of filling a pigeon-holed role as the token gay couple, Colton and Caleb were simply another layer of the cast of players.
Sure, there are a lot of pressing and important things going on in the world—many more worthy of the time and energy I’ve spent arguing about Survivor at the Shabbat dinner table. But when it comes down to it, seeing representations of our community—whether in the form of gay contestants on a reality show or Jewish individuals on prime time TV—is something to celebrate.
Check out today’s powerful post on The Canteen from Sheira Director-Nowack, who reflects on how a Keshet training on LGBT inclusion opened her eyes. Our next training for Jewish leaders is February 2nd in the Bay Area.
I am not quite sure when I first started to understand the notion of homosexuality. When Billie Jean King was forced to come out, I distinctly recall asking my parents about it and them telling me that she was “with another woman” and that woman was telling her secrets to the world. I remember having this strong reaction about how unfair it was for someone to tell another’s secrets. As I grew older, most of what I learned about LGBT issues was tied to the AIDS crisis of the 80s. And then, as time passed, it became less of a “thing” I knew about and more of a reality in my life. There was a cousin, who was gay, and died from AIDS. A friend from high school who came out and we all accepted. A close girlfriend from Jewish sleepaway camp who came to me struggling with coming out and wanted my acceptance. In the course of 25 years, there has been a transformation from when being gay was this abstract thing in my life to being just a way of life. I am pretty sure that the planet around me has grown with me in this area too. I mean: same-sex marriage 25 years ago? People would never have even understood why it was a civil rights situation.
I am a pretty liberal person, probably more liberal than most. So it is not a real shock that much of this is totally a “non-issue” for me. However, I am always shocked by how much I have to learn and how completely encompassed I am in my own little world. When that friend from sleepaway camp came out to me when I was 22, I was surprised. She wanted my approval so badly and I was not sure why. And I didn’t know how to explain that my surprise was just surprise, not disappointment or judgment. It took us a few weeks and then everything was back to normal between us. Today I am still friends with her as well as and her partner who she has been living very happily with for over ten years.
When I got my Masters in Social Work and Jewish Communal Service, there were plenty of LGBT people there and also plenty of people who thought this was wrong. I was shocked by the ignorance of those who thought this was a moral decision. I considered myself an advocate of anyone who needed me to speak up. That being said, I was still pretty separate from the LGBT world.
In 2006 I was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Before you get too impressed, I’ll remind you: in 2006 anyone who picked up a copy of Time Magazine was voted person of the year. With the rise of Wikipedia, YouTube, and other various user-generated content, Time made the bold statement that everyone deserved the title. (Still, I’ve been known to impress strangers when I drop the accolade into casual conversation.)
This year’s Person of the Year is Pope Francis, who was elected head of the Catholic Church earlier in 2013. Although there’s much to be said about Pope Francis’ view on the LGBTQ community and his social justice work, the real story lies with the woman declared runner-up for the title: Edith Windsor.
Edie Windsor embodies sass; the 84-year-old widow was at the forefront of the legal battle that toppled DOMA earlier this year. Edith and I have a lot in common—after all, we both share (or almost shared) the prestigious Time magazine title. More importantly, we’re both individuals—and, how does that saying go? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has?” Margaret Mead had a point—albeit one that has been turned into a bit of a cliché.
Edie was a fighter and a leader her whole life, she was taught at an early age “that if a boy called her ‘a dirty Jew,’ she should pull his hair and run home.” Hearing tales of her relationship with Thea Spyer conjures themes and images from the most romantic of blockbuster movies, but what sets her story apart was (and is) her bravery as an individual. After Thea passed away in 2009, Edie was handed an estate-tax bill of $364,053—a tax that legally recognized spouses are exempt from. She filed with the IRS. When the claim was denied, she took action. She fought back through injustice, and she has paved the equality path for queer couples in America.
Edie Windsor represents the power of the individual—a Jewish lesbian born to immigrant parents in Philadelphia who refused to back down. She might not be Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, but she sure is mine.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
I am a very, very strong supporter of equal rights and the freedom of men and women to marry whomever they love.
-Duncan McAlpine Sennett
Mazel Tov, Duncan and the folks at Congregation Beth Israel for nurturing and supporting him.
You have to admit, this is a wonderfully queer holiday. And a once in a lifetime occurrence. (You’ll have to wait another 77,798 years for it to occur again.)
In all seriousness, we are grateful to each and every reader of this blog for engaging, exploring, and yes, even disagreeing with us. And our heartfelt thanks today and every day for everyone who helps create a fully inclusive Jewish community.
Wishing you and yours a very happy Thanksgivukkah!
Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), memorializes trans individuals who have died because of anti-transgender discrimination and victimization. It occurs annually on and around November 20 each year. We invite you to explore, learn, and participate with your Jewish community this year. Below are some resources to get you started. And if you missed our earlier post by Rafi Daugherty, on why marking this day is important, you can find it here.
See how Jewish organizations are observing TDOR this year and check out events happening around the country.
This Hanukah guide, part of the Ask Big Questions/Hillel, is perfect for group discussions about the risks and rewards of taking a stand. The guide features an important, moving essay by author S. Bear Bergman about the intersection of Hanukkah and Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Includes tips for hosting a successful remembrance event, guiding principles, ideas for events, and planning tips.
A prayer (in English) written by Rabbi Reuben Zellman on the occasion of TDOR.
In this d’var Torah, professor, poet, and Keshet board member Joy Ladin retells the biblical stories of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac through the lens of their gender and life transitions as a way for transgender readers to find themselves in the Torah.
In this sermon about identity and self-understanding, Kadin Henningsen highlights the ways that characters in this Torah portion come to know themselves and what we as LGBT people can glean from this.
For many transgender people and people who don’t conform to societal gender norms, using a public restroom is a daily struggle. Use this sign at your next event to explain why you have created an all-gender bathroom.
Check out this series of videos of transgender Jews and allies to trans Jews. Tremendous gratitude to Keshet members Alex, David, Stacy, Stephanie, and Suzie for sharing your lives with us and to the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition for this project.
Laura Thor spoke these words at Transgender Day of Remembrance last year, at a service held at Jefferson Unitarian Church, Golden, Colorado. Laura will be speaking again this year at this event-we invite you to join us.
How many of you have seen the YouTube video of Lana Wachowski’s acceptance speech fat the 2012 Human Rights Campaign gala ?
Lana has grabbed the brass ring, found the Holy Grail, or, as she says, won the Lotto. In her speech to the HRC she speaks of being loved in her entirety, of finally being known for who she is… for being seen.
Four times she returns to the power of being seen or failing to be seen and recognized for who she is.
She speaks of the universal, essential need for each person to be seen, not only in order to be known and loved, but in order to exist at all.
To find our place and to fit in, we have to be recognized as belonging. We will never trust we are lovable unless we feel known in our entirety, and that can’t happen unless we show ourselves, make ourselves visible.
But the conundrum of course, is that for the Transgender person, showing oneself can get oneself killed.
We are social beings who don’t do well if we go unnoticed, unattended to. From infancy our lives depend on being seen and understood. If our caregivers don’t recognize our cry for food or holding, we go hungry and neglected.
In school, if no mentor ever sees our innate gifts, we don’t tend to recognize them in ourselves, and without someone speaking truth to us about who we are and who we might become, we might not believe it ourselves.
We can’t know much about ourselves outside a community of others who also want to risk vulnerability for the sake of being known, of being real, together.
Isolation is safe, but it leads to stillbirth, not life.
We can try to stay safe by hiding out on a private island inhabited by no one but ourselves, but we can’t live there for long. Remember what happens to Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Cast Away?
After the first year of living alone on the island, he almost throws himself off a cliff, but something stops him: perhaps his fear of bungling it, we’re led to guess. But by four years of living alone, he starts talking to his volleyball. It seems to talk back, for he has conversations with it, he keeps himself sane arguing with Wilson the volleyball: ‘Whatever works.’ Wilson is of course a metaphor, a stand-in for God, for that Love, that Presence that keeps him alive because of a relationship that sustains him in his otherwise empty place.
Same thing happens for Lana. When she’s about to throw herself in front of a subway train late at night when the platform is empty, something happens,
or rather Someone happens. It’s not fear that stops her.
It’s the shortest relationship ever. It’s being seen by an old man who joins her on the platform, whose eyes don’t let go of her, they don’t look away; familiar eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses just like her deceased beloved Grandma’s. Lana and the Old Man stare at each other the way animals do, eyes locked, and she doesn’t know why he wouldn’t look away. She says “All I know is that because he didn’t, I am still here.”
We need people to keep us accountable to the possibility of meaning and purpose.
Because I am a sentimental, hopelessly religious person, who, like many folks here tonight, I’m betting, has had a few wild ‘God experiences’ myself, I sense that her Grandma was there for her; God was there in a way Lana could recognize, in Grandma form.
Much later she meets “the first person that has made me understand that they love me not in spite of my difference but because of it. She is the first person to see me as a whole being.”
And later still when Lana meets her mom as herself, her mom says that instead of the fear she expected to have, of grief and loss of her son, she discovers someone she has never known, an unseen part of her grown child that now she could get to know. She felt it was a gift.
But did our dead receive any gifts along their journeys? Did they die before ever being seen and known and loved? I think, I hope they were fulfilled in this way, for they had mourners, loved ones. So I believe that means their murders could not revoke all that. The meaning of their lives remains with us who bear witness to their hope and courage to live out loud, instead of in hiding and silence.
Still, I have this problem. As a religious and spiritual person who tries to be honest with God about my frail trust, I have to admit I am upset. I tell God I am upset when God doesn’t seem to be around for the Gwens and the Brandons and the Angies among us. What was God doing when they were not seen for who they are but were outed, uncovered against their will, violated, and destroyed?
This question touches into my anger and I argue with God about it all the time. I want to know where were those red-beret’d men and women, the ‘Guardian Angles’, (interestingly named), who prowl the nights of our cities looking for evil, looking to see it eye to eye? Aren’t they supposed to show up and use their unarmed witness to disarm and disperse the hate that boils up when people are faced with what they don’t understand?
I want to know…God doesn’t say. Not yet anyway, not on this plane of existence. I am annoyed. But I stay connected anyway, because whatever that Energy is, I have nothing else to turn to. And I need to believe that death and evil are not the finality of us. …there’s that Biblical truth, “the evil are dead while they are alive, but the righteous are alive even after death.”….I’m not sure that’s enough.
But there is a teaching that sustains my hope in mercy and justice, compassion and healing. It is said that at the beginning of our lives, God breathes our souls into us, She exhales her divine Life into us, and at the end, God inhales us, our souls, our essence, back into Godself. We are not lost, not our essence anyway.
I trust that in the very end of each life, when consciousness gives way to essence and our spirit is being taken up, we die accompanied by Love. We return to the Source.
Because I try to have trust, to continue to hang in there with God, I have to wait to see if this is true. I have to wait and be comforted by the Psalm that claims that God made each of us in secret, our true selves hidden until we can see ourselves without fear, until we affirm each other as Divinely made. Psalm 139 says
It was You Who created my inmost self, and put me together in my mother’s womb…I am in awe, I thank You for the wonder of myself, for the wonder of Your works. You know me thru and thru, from having seen my bones take shape when I was being formed in secret, knitted together in my mother’s womb.
I choose to live trusting that God delights in seeing us become who we are.
On Friday nights at our interfaith, inter-political home, we pronounce the Sabbath Blessing over our teenager [when she’s home anymore] and each other. This blessing doesn’t promise protection from harm at the physical level, but promises, and encourages us to believe that we will be fulfilled in our yearning to be seen, known and loved. If I may share a part of this blessing with you all tonight:
May you be blessed in who you are, and in all that you are, and in all you are coming to be;
May God shine Her face upon you, love you into your life,
and grant you peace.
If this prayer feels desirable to you, will you join me in saying ‘Amen.’
When I was growing up, as a little girl in the Orthodox Jewish community, I would stare longingly over the mechitza feeling betrayed by G-d for giving me a body that didn’t feel congruent with my soul. I never imagined that one day I would feel right in my body, accepted in my community, and able to walk freely in the world as a Jewish man.
Observed annually on November 20th, Transgender Day of Remembrance was established as a day set aside for remembering the lives of those gender non-conforming individuals who were viciously murdered for being themselves. It is sometimes hard for us to make the leap between thinking about people being murdered and what that has to do with our community or with us. We think, “No one I know would ever murder a transgender person!” While that may be true, I challenge us all to ask ourselves:
What else can we take away from this day?
Most transgender people spend years hiding and fearing “coming out” because they do not have a community where they know they will be accepted. Many transgender people, like myself, have used drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of being “different,” and even contemplate suicide to escape from making the heart-wrenching choice between family and being true to themselves. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been different if I could have known as a child that I could be myself and also be a part of my community. . . .
I hope this day inspires us to ask ourselves:
*How can we make our community the type of community where a transgender child or adult will feel that they can safely express who they are and not only will we not shun them, we will love and embrace them, and encourage them down their chosen path?
*How can we use this day to bring an end to the silence around gender expression that might be allowing bullying in our Hebrew schools?
*How might we bring awareness to the issue of bathroom safety for gender non-conforming individuals in our institutions?
*How can we widen the arms of our communities’ embrace so that it can enfold the most stigmatized and ostracized individuals and bring them closer to G-d, to Judaism, and to themselves?
I ask you to take a moment to think about how you might use this day to find a way to make a difference. Next week we’ll share resources to help the Jewish community mark this day.
This gift guide is specially tailored to lovers of rainbow pride, Judaism, and the lucky individuals who live the intersection of both. We’ve got everything from silly to serious. Take a look!
Hail your rainbow pride every time you walk through the door with this beautiful Metal and Glass Rainbow Mezuzah ($39.99).
The Purim Superhero ($7.16) is a children’s book about Purim that just happens to feature a two-dad family. We love how unremarkable that fact of little Nate’s life is. Oh, and it’s a really cute story involving an alien costume.
Sport your pride with this LGBT pendant, Rainbow Ray Star of David Necklace ($15.99). Makes a great gift.
Following an ancient tradition, Torah Queeries ($23.40) brings together some of the world’s leading rabbis, scholars, and writers to interpret the Torah through a queer lens. This incredibly rich collection unites the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight-allied writers, including some of the most central figures in contemporary American Judaism.
Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires ($12.50) gives voice to genderqueer Jewish women tell the stories of their coming out or being closeted, living double lives or struggling to maintain an integrated “single life” in relationship to traditional Judaism.
A Queer and Pleasant Danger ($13.13) tells the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves 12 years later to become the lovely lady she is today, Kate Bornstein.
Milk ($6.79) is a biographical film based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk–the first openly gay person elected to public office in California.
We hope these picks help you narrow down your gift search for yourself, your family, and your friends!