It’s not a stretch to call it an Internet sensation — a gorgeous music video about two (same-sex) swans who want to get married by a previously unknown band that’s now garnered well over 100,000 views on YouTube. Did we mention that the swans in question — along with everything else in the video — are shadow puppets? And that the video is a call for equal marriage rights? And that the (straight) talented musicians who put it together, including Jewish day school educated lead singer Gil Kline, are still in college?
Gil Kline of Bye June chatted with Keshet about their hit, “Shades of Purple”.
The shadow puppetry in this video is beautiful. What was behind the use of animals for this video? It made a number of things come to mind – swans mate for life, and at the end, it sort of feels like Noah’s Ark.
Aren’t they great? Before we came to the idea of using shadow puppets, though, we still knew we wanted to portray swans and ducks. We were thinking about the fable about the ugly duckling — how it’s only others’ perceptions that make him ugly. The video portrays many different kinds of animals, though, and that’s a metaphor for human diversity. If we can accept one another as different, we don’t need to judge each other so much.
The puppets, though — that was a lot of work! We’re a small group, so when we decided to go with this artistic vision, we knew that it was going to be tons of hours. It actually took a few months to film and edit. And some hand cramping!
This video is a lovely call for equal rights for LGBT folks. What sparked this project?
I wrote the song for friends of mine in the LGBT community. It just upsets me — they’re such wonderful people, and they can’t express themselves or their love. Sometimes, they can’t walk down the street holding hands. That’s just ridiculous. And on top of that, we have politicians making decisions in areas of people’s lives where they just have no business.
When your swans head off to get married, the building they approach has a crescent, a cross, and a Jewish star. What’s your Jewish connection?
Yeah, we wanted to incorporate all major world religions. All faiths, all people need to accept people in the LGBT community. And some people use religion to oppress others, but sometimes it’s the sign of when we’re embraced, too.
As for me, my parents immigrated to Israel when they were young, met in the Air Force, and, when I was little, moved us all back to the U.S. I grew up going to day school, and I’ve always been interested in people of many different faiths.
I’m not very religiously observant, but I definitely have a strong Jewish identity, and I definitely understand that religion and religious identity can be powerful.
What’s next for Bye June?
Well, we’re still in college, so we have to wait before we can do any real tours. And you know musicians, we’re always working on the next song, so that’s on our plates right now.
You know, we got a ton of feedback on “Shades of Purple.” Lots of people left comments on the video thanking us, and recently, what with the vote on same-sex marriage here in Maryland, there’s been a lot of debate. Not all of it has been nice. There’s been plenty of hostility to our ideas but I think it’s always good when people are able to speak to one another. If we contribute to that, I’m glad.
Watch “Shades of Purple” and let us know what you think!
Each week Jews read sections of the Torah, known as parshiyot, inspiring endless examination year after year. Each week we we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Dr. David Shneer, one of the editors of Torah Queeries, examines Parashat Devarim, which deals with the retelling of the Exodus story.
“Ale ha-devarim asher diber moshe el col yisrael be-ever hayarden…” (These are the words that Moses said to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan).
In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites and the now very elderly Moses have reached the Jordan River, the physical and metaphorical boundary between before and after, between wandering in the desert and being a Jewish nation, between a generation marked by the scars of slavery, to one that only knows slavery as memory told through the stories of the community’s elders-what some people in the context of the Holocaust would call the “2nd generation.” “Devarim” or “words,” the portion that opens Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, has Moses recounting a history of the Jews’ experiences over the past 40 years, a history of miracles, no doubt, but also a history of struggle, failure, and disappointment.
Why dwell on such a depressing history? Moses tells “all of Israel” the story of their Exodus from Egypt, the gaining of the commandments and the many struggles of their sojourn in the desert. It is not a glorious history, but it is, nonetheless, the history of this people. In some ways this is Moses’ tsavuah, or “ethical will,” to his community. As the elder, he has the responsibility to tell the Israelites their own story.
The ability to recount a history shows that a community has reached maturity. It shows that a community has, in fact, become a community. It is the birth of a collective memory, often retold by elders as oral history, and these collective memories include the painful recollections of struggle and loss. But delineating the hardships of a nascent community is one of the key ways of defining a community. These words are spoken to “all of Israel” suggesting that as much as it might be a series of acts, rituals, places, and people that define the community, it is also a series of words, stories, and memories that unite the Jewish people. The word “devarim” also means “things” in modern Hebrew, reminding us that words can become tangible. In some ways, words can mark and define our world more concretely than inanimate objects.
Moses’ retelling of the relatively grim history of 40 years of wandering (get a GPS, Moses) is a way of showing that the Israelites have literally and metaphorically arrived. In his speech, Moses spends quite a bit of time on the geographic details of where “all of Israel” finds itself at the moment of telling and also where they have been. The portion opens, “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, concerning the Wilderness, concerning the Aravah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazerot, and Di-zahab; eleven days from Horeb, by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea.” It’s a pretty long list of obscure places and landmarks of the history of this community. They have a history, a history of struggle, failure and disappointment, but nonetheless a 40-year history rooted in time and place.
National and communal histories almost always have mythic origins and battles to be overcome, and they are peppered with important names, dates and places that create time and space for the community. Moses, the elder, is not just passing on Israelite history. He is, like elders in other communities, creating that history. This opening portion of Deuteronomy shows the importance of both historical text (the first four books of the Torah) and oral history (the fifth book) to communal identity. Text alone is not enough.
This desire to have communal histories, defined by both a key set of texts and stories, in other words, by both history and memory, has reshaped the way history is taught in the United States today. Since the 1960s, new kinds of histories, particular histories, have been added to the curricula at universities, and sometimes in high schools, junior highs and even elementary schools. We now have African American history, women’s history, queer history, and others. At my university, I teach a class called “Queer in America, Now and Then,” a history and sociology course that takes Moses’ challenge seriously and blends history and memory to create a narrative of a particular community.
Each of these histories needs both the texts and the memories of their respective communities to carve out particular communal identities. Some historians have criticized this trend in history, calling it the splintering of history, the destruction of a history common to all Americans. Some of my colleagues claim that “queer history” is too much about identity and not enough about history. “Do you have to be queer to take your class, David?” I have been asked on more than one occasion. Such questions force us to reflect on the purpose of telling history. Some historians might say it is simply “to know the facts,” but as we’ve seen, it can also be about creating community.
So then we can go back to Moses and ask why Moses was telling “all of Israel” the story of the desert. He suggests that the primary purpose of history and memory is the making of community, and that one needs both history and memory, both text and voice, to create collective memories of events, places and people.
In lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, there are too few elders recounting our stories, too few elders creating those collective memories that help define a queer community. Perhaps it is because many of our elders are too quiet or too afraid to speak; more likely it is because “kol qvirim,” or “all of queerdom,” is not interested in hearing. Lucky for Moses that God didn’t give the Israelites a choice. They weren’t asked if they wanted to hear their own history or not. And so Deuteronomy, which comes from the Greek for “second telling” or “retelling,” reminds us that communities need oral history and memory before they can pass over the Jordan, even if those who pass on that history do not cross along with them.
It’s summertime, and the days are long —what better time to catch up a little on your reading? Writer Chanel Dubofsky has pulled together a quick list of great queer Jewish books for a lazy afternoon. What could be better? Enjoy!
The Delicious Reliables:
Odd Girl Out, Ann Bannon
I found a copy of Odd Girl Out one afternoon at the Brookline Booksmith for three dollars and by midnight, I’d read the whole thing. The relationship between Laura and Beth is melodramatic in the way of all relationships in which one or both parties is sheltered and/or confused and/or being pressured to be heterosexual. The book is a commentary on the sexual status and expectations of women in the 1960s, in addition to being some juicy pulp fiction. Get a copy with one of the salacious covers and read it in public.
Good Enough to Eat, Lesléa Newman
There are two things that make especially beautiful gifts — vegetable bouquets and a book that will make you think about everything differently. I read this book in college, and by that, I mean, I read it everywhere I went in college, including during class. It’s honest, snarky and complicated, exactly what a book about bodies, food, coming out to yourself, and being 25 years old should be. Lesléa is also one of Keshet’s LGBT Jewish Heroes—a role model for all of us.
New on the Scene:
Here Come the Brides: Reflections of Lesbian Love and Marriage, Ed. by Audrey Bilger and Michelle Kort
Two weeks ago, a very important friend of mine got married. At his tisch [traditional wedding "table," where guests gather for some sort of teaching] beforehand, he read excerpts from the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, reflecting on the importance of marriage as an institution, a stabilizing force and a civil right. When I came home from the wedding, I started reading Here Come the Brides, and instantly, the complexity, joy and pain that comes with the conversation about marriage in general, and marriage and queerness specifically, rose to the surface again. Bilger and Kort have collected voices that wrestle boldly with what it means to want to be married, to not be able to be married, to not want to be married, and to not know how you feel. It’s hard, brave, and deeply necessary.
God Versus Gay: The Religious Case for Marriage Equality, Jay Michaelson
I heard Jay Michaelson on public radio recently and almost all of the folks who bothered to call in to the show excelled at homophobia, thereby proving how necessary this book is. Michaelson’s argument is that the Bible doesn’t actually prohibit homosexuality, and that this whole idea that of G-d and religion being against gay folks and gayness is a fallacy. This book is important even if you don’t really happen to put much stock in religion or religious texts, or you don’t know what you think. It’s crucial to have fluency in the language of religion, and to understand what the arguments are, if you’re invested in justice and equality.
This summer, Chaplain Linda Sue Friedman was installed as President of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico — the first time an out lesbian will hold the position of Federation president. Friedman, who joined the New Mexico Jewish community in 1999, when she moved from Wisconsin, has received the woman of valor award from Hadassah for her outstanding contributions to Jewish community. She is a member of the Lion of Judah society of women and recently received the MOVE (Mayors Outstanding Volunteer Award) from the city of Albuquerque for her work with Jewish Family Service (JFS). Keshet chatted with Friedman about her decades of work with the Jewish community, how being out is — and isn’t — a big deal to the people she works with, and why it’s important to claim your stake.
I’m curious about how you came to this historic position — being the first out lesbian Federation president. Were you always out? Were you ever afraid that coming out would limit your work in the Jewish community?
I’ve been involved with the Jewish community for years and years. I used to be married to a man, and I was very active with my local Federation even before I got divorced. By the time I got involved with my partner — it’s our seventh anniversary soon! — it was a little difficult for some people who’d known me in the context of my marriage to adjust. It was actually my turn to be president, but some people said it would be too much for the community, having a lesbian Federation president.
When the position opened up again for this year I just reminded people, hey — it’s my turn. And everybody basically looked at each other and said, yeah, it is.
I think part of my easy acceptance has just been that I wear so many hats in the community — as a chaplain, working with Jewish Family Service of New Mexico, as an advocate for our hevra kadisha — that I’m not just identifiable by my gay hat.
But have you encountered barriers in your work as a gay Jew?
Honestly? No. So many people who I work with knew me before I came out, which probably helps.
What is the Federation like vis-à-vis inclusion?
We think we’re pretty diversity-open — and we’re working on engaging trans people right now. The community itself is pretty welcoming to trans folks — they’re a part of local congregations, and I’m always fascinated by how many trans folks are active and vocal in our hevra kadisha work. I was excited to hear about trans issues at a recent Jewish funerals conference, because it actually is a huge issue — making sure a hevra kadisha is designed around the gender you identify as.
Our JFS office makes a point to post queer-friendly signs, we’ve got other gay employees at Federation, and we give money to the local GLBT film festival.
Really, though, I think you can most see how our community operates in this: when I first came out, one of our major donors had a big problem with it. I mean, she was just so uncomfortable with me. The first thing she said when she saw me, the first time after I came out, was “I’m not gay!”
But you know what? She never stopped supporting Federation, even when it became clear that Federation still supported me. She’s remained a major donor to this day, except that now, she socializes with me and my partner — she just had us over for dinner with her family. That’s the kind of community we are.
As the first out lesbian to be the head of a Federation, you’re a role model for queer Jews everywhere. Who are your queer Jewish role models?
I know it’s important to have queer Jewish role models, and I’m touched you referred to me that way. But when I think about Jewish role models, the person I think of most is my Hebrew school teacher, from when I was just eight years old. She’s the person I remember teaching us about the Holocaust. We read children’s poetry from the Shoah, and that’s the first time I remember crying over literature. She was straight, but sometimes just having a human being who can be a role model for what you want to be in the world is a real gift.
A retired kosher butcher, his young lesbian writing teacher, and a letter from the heart: Lesléa Newman’s short story, “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” has moved readers for over two decades—and now it hits Broadway! With songs like “What A Shanda” (listen here – click on the “music” tab), the show debuts at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, July 23-28, with music by Laura Kramer, lyrics by Ellen Schwartz and book by Jerry James.
We caught up with Lesléa to get the back story about how her short story became such a universal symbol, how it became a stage sensation, and what’s next for both it and her.
Learn more about Harvey Milk and Lesléa Newman, including behind the scenes photos, at lgbtjewishheroes.org.
It’s wonderful that a short story you published in 1988, as a letter to a public figure killed a decade before that, retains such resonance. What is it about Harvey Milk that still captures our imaginations and our hearts?
Harvey Milk was completely human. He was smart, kind, funny, honest, strong, vulnerable, and brave. He took many risks, and always did things with a sense of humor. He made himself very accessible – he was someone people felt they could sit down and talk with over a cup of coffee. Plus he was OUT at a time when there could be (and often were) grave consequences for that. I think many of us who didn’t know him personally still felt a sense of personal loss when he was taken from us in such a terrible way. With each new victory for the GLBT Civil Rights Movement (the recent ruling that DOMA is unconstitutional, President endorsing gay marriage, etc.) I often wonder, “What would Harvey Milk think of that?” Or, “What a shame that Harvey Milk didn’t live long enough to see that.” He lives on in our hearts and minds. He was a pioneer, and he deserves the status of hero.
At the same time that “A Letter to Harvey Milk” is fiercely Jewish, it emphasizes strongly how universal the man’s appeal was. In the musical, this is represented in lines like “You don’t have to be a Jew to love a bagel, or gay to love a leader who is gay.” How Jewish is the story of Harvey Milk? Versus how universal? What’s it like working with that tension?
“A Letter to Harvey Milk” was written out of the experience of being Jewish and gay, and it is about the human experience. Maya Angelou once said, “I speak to the black experience but I am always talking about the human experience.” I feel similarly about being a Jewish lesbian and writing about the human experience. If one’s characters are portrayed as fully human, anyone can relate to them, even when coming from a different background. Perhaps especially when coming from a different background.
“A Letter to Harvey Milk” went from fiction published in Lilith magazine to the titular short story in a collection, and now to musical on stage in New York City. What’s it like to shepherd a work through such changes? Does the message change with the medium at all? Does it reach a different audience?
The story was also performed as a one person show all over the world (including Israel and Germany), made into a short film by Yariv Kohn which was shown at many Jewish film festivals, read on the radio by Carl Reiner as part of a series produced by KCRW Santa Monica and hosted by Leonard Nimoy entitled “Jewish Stories: from the Old World to the New” and turned into a teleplay shown on Canadian Public TV which won a Gemini (the Canadian equivalent of an Emmy). I gave each project’s creative team full artistic freedom, and I am happy to say that all of them stayed very true to the original story, augmenting it with their vision and talent. The story has taken on a life of its own, and I am very grateful that it has reached such a wide audience because of that.
You’re quite famous as an author of children’s literature. What’s the relationship between writing work for kids and stories like “A Letter for Harvey Milk,” which is for an older audience?
As far as I’m concerned, writing is writing. I don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write for kids today” or “I’m going to write for teens today” or “I’m going to write for adults today.” I just start moving the pen across the page (yes, I still write with a Bic pen and a spiral notebook!) and see what happens. Then once a project begins to take shape, I stick with that piece of work until it’s finished. As the writer Gene Fowler so famously said, I go back to “staring at a piece of paper until three drops of blood appear on my forehead.”
After this incredible journey, what’s next for “A Letter to Harvey Milk”? What’s next for how we in the queer Jewish community relate to his memory?
Next stop, Broadway! (from my mouth to G-d’s ears)
The show is really incredible, with 18 (note that auspicious number) funny, touching, sad, inspiring, and original songs, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves. And Harvey’s dream and vision lives on through the Harvey Milk Foundation. The Foundation, through Harvey’s dream for a just tomorrow, envisions governments that celebrate the rich and universally empowering diversity of humanity, where all individuals – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, the young, the disabled – all who had been excluded can fully participate in all societal rights without exception.
And what’s next for Lesléa Newman?
On September 25, 2012 (erev Yom Kippur) my book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard will be released by Candlewick Press. The book explores the impact of Matthew Shepard’s murder upon the world in a cycle of 68 poems that are fictitious monologues written from many points of view including the silent witnesses of the crime: the fence Matt was tied to, the moon that looked down upon him, the deer that kept him company all through the night. My hope is that the book will inspire readers to erase hate and replace it with understanding, compassion, and love.
In June 2002, Queer Jews came out in a big way. A collection of essays, memoirs and cultural analysis co-edited by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, the volume explored everything from queer parenting to trans issues in traditionally gendered Jewish spaces to the creating of new rituals (including the ever-popular Queer Naked Seder). As part of a larger canon of queer Jewish writings, which first appeared on the literary scene in the early 1980s, Queer Jews marked an evolution in the form, as authors went beyond exploring their own stories to consider the impact queer Jews have on the larger Jewish community, and on Judaism itself.
Ten years since its publication, Keshet caught up with Dr. Caryn Aviv, Posen Lecturer in Secular Jewish Culture at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, author of three books and numerous academic and journalistic articles.
Since Queer Jews first came out, there have been many changes for LGBTQ Jews—legalized same-sex marriage in several states, the ordination of out gay Conservative rabbis, etc. If you were to reissue the book now, what would you want to see included? What change or changes do you think have been the most significant?
If we were going to reissue the book now, I think the most important thing to include would be a resource guide for rituals that queer Jews have created for marriages, for baby namings, that sort of thing. I’d love something like Ritualwell.org, but specifically for queer Jews. I’d even love to have one online, as a companion to the book.
I think it would be wonderful to include a piece on “Tales from the Front in the Battle for Marriage Equality.” I don’t want to lose people’s stories and memories, especially since those encompass both the legislative battles, but also the fights to change or update values within our own communities; I think it’s vital that those be collected somehow, that we create an archive of these for history.
You know, the whole idea of marking time through the anniversaries of books is really interesting. We just passed the 10th anniversary of Lesbian Rabbis [published in 2001], and that’s something that jumps out at me. We’ve now got a critical mass of queer clergy who are really visible. I think a piece—really you could write a whole book!—with perspectives on assuming positions of power would be a wonderful reflection.
If we were going to do it over, I’d love to include the voices of kids with queer parents, along with those of queer elders. Those are two sets of voices we really didn’t delve into in Queer Jews, and I’m fascinated by them. For kids, it’s this idea of, how did these multiple identities — being Jewish, and not necessarily queer themselves, but having this different point of view — how did that influence who they grew up to be? And the issue of queer elders is one I think about a lot these days. We have all of these established facilities for Jewish elders, and there are queer residents in them, but we have no programming specifically for them. I’d love to see a celebration of this group, and I’d love to get some of their voices published.
Speaking of Lesbian Rabbis, many of the essays in Queer Jews reference Twice Blessed, a seminal collection of pieces about being lesbian or gay and Jewish, published in 1989. Do you think Queer Jews now occupies a similar place in the queer Jewish canon? You must hear from people who use your book all the time–what has the feedback been like in the course of the last decade?
Well, let me give you this anecdote by way of an answer: I just got a $50 royalty check for Queer Jews in the mail the other day — and honestly, most of the time I can’t believe it’s still in print and people are still buying it. Who would have imagined, in 1989 when Twice Blessed came out, that there would be such a thing as a queer Jewish canon? Now I have a whole bookshelf!
I feel grateful and blessed to be part of a group that includes volumes like The Tribe of Dina, Nice Jewish Girls and Twice Blessed. They represent the first generation of authors and activists trying to integrate and deal with their Jewish and gay identities. We were influenced by them, of course, but we were also influenced by ACT UP and Heeb magazine — a little more in-your-face, edgier. Queer Jews, like those books that came before it, was of an era, and it used a particular generational lens.
I imagine that the volumes that will follow ours will stand on our shoulders the way we stood on our predecessors’.
What’s on your queer Jewish reading list like now?
To be totally honest, I’m preparing to enter rabbinical school through the Aleph program, so my reading list is a little less radical and a little more Rashi, right now. I must say, though, since I’m reading and writing about the Torah so much, I’ve been happily rereading my copy of Torah Queeries [edited by Keshet staff member Gregg Drinkwater, Rabbi Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer]. It’s a wonderful resource.
In another ten years, what do you think we’ll be talking about in the queer Jewish world?
Let me say this – I’d love to see Keshet go out of business. I mean that in the nicest way possible, of course. What I mean is that I’d love to see the mission of full inclusion fulfilled, that queer Jews are essentially a non-issue, because we’re so pervasively accepted, not because anyone is invisible.
I have no idea whether marriage equality will be settled federally. I think the most we can hope for is that the law catches up to where people are socially.
I’m a parent, so of course I’m also very interested in the visibility of queer parenting, and more conversation about the various ways that queer people parent. I’d love to see kid’s literature and Young Adult lit that nonchalantly incorporate queer families.
I really don’t know what we’ll be talking about, but I’m excited to see it!
In many ways, 2012 could be the year of marriage equality* for gay and lesbian couples in the U.S.
There’s been good news so far in 2012; just in the first half of the year, legislatures in Maryland, New Jersey, and Washington passed legislation allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, and governors in Maryland and Washington signed the legislation into law. Several courts found the federal law that treats gay and lesbian couples who are legally married in one of the eight states and the District of Columbia like legal strangers by the federal government (the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA) unconstitutional. (Without federal law, these couples can’t access the 1,138 federal benefits and obligations of marriage provided to straight couples.)
At the same time, this November voters in five states will consider whether loving, committed gay and lesbian couples can care for one another and their families. Voters in Minnesota are considering a ballot measure that would alter their state’s constitutions to exclude gay and lesbian couples from marriage (note, gay and lesbian couples can’t currently marry there even without these proposed amendments), while North Carolina just passed such a measure. And, voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington may vote on whether gay and lesbian couples will be able to be legally married in those states.
Even now, only 18% of LGBT Americans live in states with marriage equality, while another 27% live in one of the nine states and D.C. with comprehensive relationship recognition for gay and lesbian couples. In some states have “civil unions,” others have “domestic partnerships.” Three more states give gay and lesbian couples some small number of protections, like the right to dispose of someone’s body or inherit without a will.
Jewish communities are working to ensure that the loudest voices on issues of LGBT equality don’t come from a vocal minority who oppose equality. Strong religious coalitions are active in all of the states mentioned. In February, the Minnesota Rabbinical Association spoke out against the constitutional amendment under consideration there. And, this great resource from Temple Emanuel of Greensboro articulates their opposition to the amendment.
*Note: Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights often use the term “marriage equality” rather than “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage.” Using the terms “gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” can suggest that same-sex couples are asking for rights or privileges that married couples do not have, or asking for something lesser or different. Instead, gay and lesbian couples want the ability to marry the person they love. For more check out this video or this pamphlet.
A Queer Ancestor in the Butch-Trans Border War
As the month of Tammuz draws to a close, we have the opportunity to mark the yahrzeit of a queer ancestor, the rumored-to-be-lesbian, potentially-transgender, and definitely awesome Maid of Ludomir, otherwise known as Hannah Rachel.
Growing up, one of my favorite pastimes was poring over dusty literature and historical annals, searching for the slightest of homoerotic nods from the author, the vaguest of historical conjecture in the biographies of famous dead people. Rumors about Eleanor Roosevelt or Emily Dickinson simultaneously titillated and comforted me, easing the burden of isolation that is felt by some gay kids who turn to a voiceless past, seeking to anchor themselves in historical precedent and human community.
And, like others, I’ve also searched for traces of myself in my Jewish past. The sometimes threadbare language of the ancient world provides a number of opportunities. David and Jonathan’s love for one another turned a few cogs in my imagination. The mere hint of romance between Ruth and Naomi kept me awake during Shavuot. And in the Talmud I have glimpsed the pretty boy Yochanan in just one too many questionable bath scenes.
There’s always some danger, of course, in assigning posthumous identities—you risk presumptuousness and factual error, to mention nothing of anachronism. The curious case of the Maid of Ludomir illustrates both the delight and the risk inherent in reclaiming queer heroes of the past.
The Maid of Ludomir, whose real name was Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, broke from the ranks of routine anonymity assigned to other females in her Hasidic community in the early 1800s. While visiting her mother’s burial site, she fell into an open grave, or so the legend goes. During a lengthy convalescence in which she drifted in and out of consciousness, she appeared before the Heavenly Court, where she was given a new soul. Finally, she awoke from her trance-like state and immediately took on a new identity, that of a rebbe. Immediately breaking off an impending marriage, she donned tallis and tefillin (clear markers of masculine privilege in the Hasidic world) and began teaching. She was said to dress in male garb and it is reported that she recited Kaddish in public after her father’s death (a duty the Hasidim would reserve for male relatives).
Widely respected for her great learning, she eventually attracted her own circle of faithful Hasidim. She was known to preside over tischen (communal Shabbat meals headed by a rebbe) and to distribute shirayim (leftovers) to her eager devotees. When, later in life, she and a fellow mystic joined forces to hasten the arrival of the Messiah, Elijah himself intervened, fearful that the pair’s efforts would succeed in a world not quite ready.
Like too many people in history whose communities have deemed them queer in one way or another, the Maid of Ludomir does not have a happy ending. In addition to attracting the attention of learners, she also attracted attention from the patriarchal establishment, who were rankled by this bizarre aberration in their orderly world. A powerful and well-known rebbe took her to task, coercing her to forfeit her teaching role. She complied, turning in her tallis and tefillin, and also acquiescing to a series of doomed marriages, all unconsummated. She finally died in utter obscurity without any descendants to mourn her.
Recently she was dredged up from the depths of anonymity and is once again attracting talmidim (students). In 2004 a memorial stone was unveiled on the Mount of Olives to mark her supposed burial site. Some now observe her yahrzeit, which is the 22 of Tammuz, falling on July 12 of this year. Books have been written about her. Jewish and feminist blogs have buzzed about her.
The Maid of Ludomir attracts the especial attention of both butch lesbians and transmen, two sets of identities between which there is sometimes camaraderie, sometimes a creative tension, and sometimes bitterness, anger, rejection, and misunderstanding. She is claimed by the lesbian community, on the one hand, who can picture her tzitzit dangling beneath a man’s suit, and who smile in recognition: butch.
At the same time, she is claimed by the transmasculine community, who retell the rebbe’s story in male pronouns, recognizing the person whom the Hasidim of the 1800s could not: transman. A queer Jewish zine published a piece about Hannah Rachel, with handwritten black ink correcting the female pronouns, calling the reader’s attention to the supposed injustice we do when we use female pronouns for this figure. One naturally must wonder what Hannah Rachel would have thought about the correction, if it is in fact a correction.
The push and pull between butch and trans has been described by Jack/Judith Halberstam as a “border war.” The choice of words may seem drastic, but ask someone who stands in that liminal space and you may be surprised to find the term fits. The term, while conjuring the image of territorialism, also serves another purpose, as Halberstam explains, “A border war suggests that the border is at best slippery and permeable” (from Female Masculinity, 1998).
And many indeed have passed over that border and back again. Queer Jewish writer S. Bear Bergman, who once identified as butch and is now a self-described gender-jammer, has written about this blurry zigzag that we draw between butch and trans. Bear wryly purports to clarify the issue for us, “Butches are not beginner FTMs, except that sometimes they are, but it’s not a continuum except when it is” (from Butch is a Noun, 2006).
And, of course, there are others for whom the distinction between butch and trans makes no sense. Redwolf Painter, a Heyoka writer, asks plaintively, “Can I tear myself apart and put myself back together to name what part of me is butch and what part trans?” (from “Split Myself Apart,” 2011).
To be sure, the once-forgotten Maid of Ludomir has no voice with which to clarify her identity for us, nor would she even understand the identities we assign her, lacking the century of context which makes such conversation comprehensible. Ultimately, her legacy will elude the specifics. Both butch lesbians and transmen who are seeking a clear Jewish precedent will have to turn the page and search on. Or maybe it is my own desire to claim her that is speaking: I want a Jewish ancestor of my own, someone who has straddled uncomfortably the border, an arbitrary demarcation that is at once real and imaginary, between butch and trans.
One thing that is easily recognizable, however, is that the Maid of Ludomir was, without a doubt, queer, and that this is an appropriate time both in the year and in the arc of our history to reflect on the legacy of this curious ancestor, wherever our imaginations or needs may lead us in that contemplation.
On July 1st, Massachusetts moved one step closer to living up to its reputation as the birthplace of democracy – the Transgender Equal Rights Bill that passed in November 2011, went into effect!
Massachusetts joins 15 other states (plus Washington D.C. and 143 cities and counties) in adding non-discrimination laws for gender identity in the areas of employment, housing, K-12 public education, and credit. Hate crimes laws were also updated to include gender identity.
This is a major victory for equality.
However, the bill doesn’t extend protections in public accommodations—meaning that while it’s illegal to fire a hotel employee for being transgender, it’s not illegal to refuse service to a potential guest for the same reason. Keshet, along with other activists and committed state legislators, will continue to fight for full equal rights.
In Massachusetts, Keshet spearheaded the Jewish community presence on the Interfaith Coalition for Transgender Equality (ICTE), a multi-faith alliance to mobilize support for transgender rights legislation in Massachusetts. To the best of our knowledge, the ICTE is the only interfaith group in the country working for transgender inclusion and civil rights.
Almost 60 Jewish clergy, community leaders, and organizations signed a formal declaration of support for the civil rights bill. Below, you can read the powerful testimony of several rabbis in Massachusetts who spoke out on this issue.
Rabbi Joseph Berman
Massachusetts State House
Monday, April 4th 2011
I’m Rabbi Joseph Berman and I serve as the Rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in Revere. I’m honored to be speaking with you here today.
A few months ago my congregation, Temple B’nai Israel, signed on to the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign launched by Keshet, one of the coalition partners. The campaign calls for an end to homophobia and transphobia in the Jewish community. In the words of Julian Lander, who grew up in Revere and Winthrop, runs our ritual committee, and has been out as a gay man in the congregation for many year: our synagogue took this step “in order to state publicly and explicitly what our community has already demonstrated with its actions: that we believe in the fundamental dignity and worth of each person.” Continue reading
I love camp. I loved it before I even really knew what it was. I remember watching a camp promotional video in a director’s office just prior to an interview for what would hopefully be my first job at camp. It was all I could do to stop myself from begging her for a job or offering to work for free just so I could be there. It was love at first sight!
Thankfully I didn’t need to do either. She offered me a job later that day. As she tells the story now, 18 years later, I was a male with a pulse and in 1994 that’s all you really needed. Back then she told me I was a diamond in the rough (never having gone to camp or worked with children before) and that she had a ‘good feeling’ about me. I suspect there’s some truth in both accounts. Either way she certainly didn’t regret the decision. I’ve gained some polish along the way and I am now one of her most trusted advisors on many things camp – a role that gives me tremendous pleasure.
Given my love for camp and my great love for my camp, I’ve had a difficult time writing about what it was like for gays and lesbians at camp in the 90s when I was on staff versus what it’s like for them now – the purpose for which I was invited to write this post.
Instead of writing about that, I only want to write about how incredible my camp experience was, how it had a huge impact on who I am today and that being there my first summer opened doors to a whole new world that ultimately lead to some incredible journeys and personal growth. All of which is 100% true.
Unfortunately that doesn’t tell the whole story though. It leaves out the parts where some of the most homophobic experiences I’ve encountered and participated in happened while I was on staff at camp in the 90s. I know what we did wasn’t condoned by the director. But I also know that it was fairly rampant without being overtly addressed. I would like to think that it didn’t trickle down to our campers but I think that might be a little naïve. And for that, I am sorry.
The impact that this had on me was profound. Two years later when I was ready to come out I couldn’t possibly fathom telling many of my friends from camp. Instead, I cut a huge swath of very important people from my life due to my fear of telling my former partners-in-homophobic-crime that I was gay.
I remember feeling like camp – and my camp world – should have been the place more than any to give me solace and support during that difficult time in my life when I was coming out. The vivid memories of all the homophobic comments, jokes and pranks we played, however, negated any sense of safety this community had once given me. The only solution I could come up with was to disconnect from the only place where I had ever felt connected and to turn my back on those who had done so much to nurture my growth and grow my spirit. The sense of loss this created was overwhelming then and still leaves me feeling a little raw almost 20 years later.
I came back to camp-related work about five years ago with some trepidation. I was sure that times had changed and that as a confident, out gay professional I could handle whatever I was about to face. In many ways, I was right. It was a different time. Trainings on homophobia, social inclusion, and bullying were the norm at many camps. In fact, I have since developed and facilitated these trainings myself at camps across North America.
What I can say after visiting and working with so many camps is that camp feels different now. Many feel more open and more willing to tackle the issues. And for that I’m grateful. I am also inspired by the incredible efforts of some pioneering camps – including my old camp – that are paving the way for full inclusion of LGB staff, campers and families.
I can also tell you that I’ve been working in partnership with Keshet for the past year as a trainer and consultant with camps and more recently in my role at the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) to encourage and support camps in becoming more LGB inclusive. This past year we promoted LGB inclusivity training at FJC’s Leader’s Assembly; co-facilitated workshops at the American Camping Association’s (ACA) largest annual conference, where we were also joined by the Jewish Community Center’s Association (JCCA); and developed a camp-track for Keshet’s National Training Institute which we began implementing at a Training Institute in New York in March.
Even with the great strides we’ve made and the incredible work being done in the camp field, there is still much more to do. For me, it will be finished when campers and staff find the role models they need from within – the role models who help them understand they are not alone, that they exist within the community and that they don’t have to give up the camp part of their life in order to integrate a new part of their identity. I can tell you first hand what a difference that would have made in my own life and I know from many others the difference it has made in theirs.