In October 2013, when I bought my tickets to see Cher’s Dressed to Kill tour, which would be playing down the street from my house in the then-distant future of May 2014, my mother asked with mock hurt in her voice why I hadn’t invited her to see the show with me.
At the time, I thought it was a bit of a ridiculous request. Although my mother had taken me to my earliest concerts in my pre-teen days, I couldn’t really envision her enjoying a stadium show at age 67. I imagined the show would be unbearably loud for her, and over the last couple of years, her health had slipped, and she just seemed too frail for that kind of environment. Plus, what interest did my mom have in the electronic dance diva that Cher has become in the most recent evolution of her career?
At the same time, I remembered a long-forgotten moment my mother and I had shared when I was in high school. My mother had been my synagogue’s youth director, and USY was my number one activity, so we spent a lot of time together. While most teenagers might have bristled at having their mothers present in these settings, I never let the presence of my mother get in the way of my teenage shenanigans, whether that meant sneaking out of my room at a convention to surreptitiously hook up, dressing in a costume that was little more than underwear for a trip to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or, as I just remembered—playing Cher to my mother’s Sonny Bono for a lip sync contest in the basement of my synagogue. (Our “I Got You Babe” brought the house down. Sadly, this predated the YouTube era, and I’m not even sure if photographs were taken.) This same comfort and closeness served us well in my adulthood, and many of my friends from Keshet remember my parents marching with us in the Pride Parade in matching Keshet t-shirts.
My mom passed away at the end of December, and although she had been in declining health, her death was a shock. Judaism’s mourning rituals provide a gradual plan for coping, setting out an eleven-month process for children who’ve lost a parent that balances the need for solitude and grief with the need to stay connected to community.
One profound way our tradition makes this period distinct is by removing the mourner from “public joy,” meaning someone who has suffered a loss typically avoids parties (including weddings and b’nai mitzvah), theaters and cinemas, and concerts. As with many Jewish customs, there are loopholes, particularly if your line of work requires you to participate in these kinds of events: a wedding photographer, for example, isn’t expected to stop working for the year. As someone who’s semi-professionally involved in the theater, I knew I’d need to figure out what felt right in that arena for me. I gave away some tickets, made an extra effort to ensure that shows I saw were directly related to projects I was working on, and so forth.
The Cher concert was months away. I had time to figure it out. But I knew that I couldn’t miss it—not because I cared so much about Cher, but because it was one of the few things coming up in my life that I had shared with my mom in the last months of hers.
Going to the concert wasn’t the easiest choice I’ve made. My section was filled with women who reminded me of my mother, and the number of times Cher herself mentioned her age—one year older than my mom—kept bringing my mom to the forefront of my mind. But at the same time, enjoying the songs that had been part of the bond between my mother and me reinforced in a visceral way how I remain connected to my mother even though she’s gone. And of course, Cher’s stock in trade is songs about surviving and moving forward despite loss. And even thought I know she meant it in a different way than I heard it that night, Cher helped me believe in life after love.
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 book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, David Levy looks at Biblical twins Jacob and Esau through the lens of nature versus nurture.
Toldot, the name given to this week’s parasha, has many layers to its definition. Coming from the Hebrew root meaning “birth,” it literally means “generations.” Its use in the Torah introduces genealogical lists, and also marks the beginning of important stories related to the members of Abraham’s particular genealogical line – some translations even give the word as it appears at the beginning of this week’s parasha as “story.” Toldot is a particularly fitting name for this section of the Torah, because the story begins with the birth of Jacob and Esau, and hinges on both the relationship between the older and younger generations and the question of who shall lead the generations to follow.
To me, Parashat Toldot reads like a divine statement on the “nature versus nurture” debate: are our identities and destinies somehow inherent in us, or are we shaped by the environment in which we are brought up, formed by the generation before us? In queer culture, this debate at times looms large. Are we “born that way” or are there external factors that “make us gay”? And if we adopt children, will our nurturing homes be enough to bring up a next generation in our image, or will adopted children turn out like their birth parents…whoever they might be?
While these questions may at times feel like irrelevant cocktail conversation, they also have a sinister side. If it turns out that queerness can be genetically predicted, will narrow-minded potential parents terminate pregnancies rather than bear queer children? If research points toward environmental factors, will it only fuel “ex-gay ministries” that attempt to “rehabilitate” queer people from their lifestyle?
In attempting to study the question of “nature versus nurture,” researchers have often looked to families with twins, particularly identical twins. After all, if twins share DNA and are brought up together, that’s as reliable a control group as one might hope to find. Whereas if twins are brought up separately, the influence of “nurture” might become more evident.
Now the twins in this week’s parasha – Esau and Jacob – are not identical, in either looks or temperament. Esau is a ruddy, hairy hunter; his younger brother a mild-mannered, smooth-bodied man. Their differences manifest themselves almost at the moment of conception, struggling in their mother’s womb. They are born fighting – Esau coming first with Jacob clutching his heel – and their relationship remains stormy well into adulthood. Even God affirms their nature, telling their mother Rebecca during her pregnancy “the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)
The first story the Torah offers us of the boys’ later life involves Jacob bartering Esau’s birthright in exchange for stew. Jacob is cunning, seizing the opportunity with no sign of premeditation. Sounds like a case for nature, no?
When we meet up with the brothers again, a similar story of Jacob stealing the blessing of his father from Esau unfolds. Only in this story, Jacob doesn’t act with the same initiative and cunning. This time, Jacob’s mother Rebecca orchestrates the entire affair, telling Jacob exactly what to do in order to trick her husband into blessing her favorite son instead of his. Rebecca’s plan involves not only cooking, but also grooming and clothing, along with a solid command of the cultural issues at play…in short, she’s practically a one-woman ancient Near Eastern “Queer Eye.” When Jacob protests that Isaac might not be so susceptible to Rebecca’s plan, she shuts her son up with a quick “Just do as I say.” (Genesis 27:13)
The whole birthright-stew exchange suddenly comes into a sharper focus after witnessing the skill in Rebecca’s plan and the way she dominates her son. Perhaps Jacob was able to seize that opportunity so quickly because Rebecca raised him. Exposure to his mother’s example would surely have sharpened Jacob’s acuity in such situations. Perhaps he was nurtured to be as he is.
But when two stories that are so similar exist side by side in the Torah, we can’t help but ask why. Why tell what is essentially the same story twice, if there’s not something to be learned from the contrast? In this case, I think a core lesson speaks to the futility of the nature versus nurture debate. This parasha presents two alternate versions of Jacob and Esau’s relationship, one colored by birth and the other by environment. Both turn out the same. Whether Jacob had it in for Esau from the womb, or whether he learned his behavior from his mother, shouldn’t affect what lessons we take from their interactions.
This lesson itself could bear repeating once in a while these days. When I think about the amount of money, energy, and talent being devoted to research into “gay genes” (and not, say, to curing AIDS), I have to wonder why. Whether we are born queer, become queer, or choose to be queer shouldn’t affect how we’re judged, our rights under the law, our access to appropriate health care, or our positive self-images.
In honor of National Coming Out Day, we bring you the coming out musings of David Levy, long-time Keshet member and board member, who explains why he doesn’t think the coming out process is ever over… and why that’s not a bad thing.
Coming out is such a profound aspect of the LGBT experience for many of us that it’s taken on a special place within queer culture. When I was growing up, coming out stories dominated gay fiction and cinema. Swapping our own stories of coming out is a frequent characteristic of gay dating. But there are two questions that come up in these contexts that always aggravate me:
“How old were you when you came out?” and,
“Don’t you wish we lived in a time when no one had to come out?” Continue reading