Great Books for—and about—Jewish LGBTQ Teens

According to education theorist Rudine Simms Bishop, fiction should serve as both a mirror and a window. That is, books should both reflect the realities of their readers’ lived experiences and allow readers to see inside the thoughts and feelings of others. In this spirit, here are some of my favorite contemporary young adult (YA) books—that is, books for teen readers—that feature LGBTQ and Jewish themes.

stack-of-books2In “Princes” in David Levithan’s short story collection How They Met, and Other Stories (Knopf, 2008), 17-year-old Jon’s parents are hesitant about letting him invite the super-hot Graham to his brother Jeremy’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah. But Jeremy insists that everyone should be able to bring the date of their choice. Like all of David Levithan’s writing, this story is sweet, romantic, and a lot of fun.

In Believe by Sarah Aronson (Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner, 2013), teenage Janine, an aspiring fashion designer, survived a Jerusalem suicide bombing that killed both her parents. When a preacher from her past appears in her small Pennsylvania town, Janine and her lesbian aunt, a former officer in the Israeli army, are forced to redefine who they are and who they want to be.

Don’t forget to check out small independent presses! Grunge Gods and Graveyards by Kimberly G. Giarratano, coming in June 2014 from Red Adept, is the story of a girl and a ghost set against the backdrop of the 1996 music scene. While Lainey’s helping her ghostly crush Danny discover the identity of his murderer, she’s also coming to terms with her Jewish roots and her best friend’s unexpected love interest.

Starglass by Phoebe North (Simon & Schuster, 2013) takes place in a secular Jewish dystopia in outer space. (Yes, really.) Growing up on the spacecraft Asherah, Terra has never known anything other than the rigid rules of her society . . . until she stumbles on something that changes everything. Characters juggle love (gay and straight), friendship, and emerging adult responsibilities in a futuristic world where well-known Hebrew words and expressions have subtly shifted meanings. A sequel, Starbreak, will be released in July.

Numerous other YA books feature Jewish themes and minor characters who identify as LGBTQ, including Forgive Me Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (Little, Brown, 2013), Intentions by Deborah Heiligman (Knopf, 2012), and the older If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson (Putnam, 1998).

If you’re a Jewish LGBTQ teenager, you can see your own priorities, challenges, and triumphs mirrored in these terrific YA books. If you’re not, they provide a window for learning about diverse identities and experiences.

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Posted on May 21, 2014

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Parashat Bamidbar: So Many Ways Not to be Counted

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, Abi Weissman examines Parashat Bamidbar and asks who is counted while reflecting on her own interfaith relationship.

torah_scroll2In Parashat Bamidbar, the different tribes take a census of their members. They counted the men who are over the age of 20. This portion also describes where Tribes should position themselves in relation to the Tabernacle. The idea of the first census resonates with me. I wonder what it feels like to be counted and to be left out.

Who is counted? And who is not? In the Parshah, all 603,550 men over the age of 20 who can fight are counted. In The Five Books of Miriam: A Women’s Commentary on the Torah, Ellen Frankel reminds her readers that the women and children are left out of this counting; the Levites are counted, but in a separate census. The “mixed multitude” that went with the Israelites out of Egypt are also not counted (Frankel 1996, p. 107). All told, Frankel counts about two million Israelites who left Egypt at the Exodus (1996, p. 107). Only a small portion of the total population counted in this census. This categorizing and organizing and numbering reminded me that I sometimes feel not counted because I am an integral part of a multifaith couple.

In the past and in the present in some synagogues, queer members are not fully accepted into their Jewish communities. We were or are invisible or linked with the what-not-to-do’s of the previous book, Leviticus. Currently, the Reform movement is comfortable naming the queer in our midst and granting us the rights once limited to heterosexuals. Queer Jews can be married to each other at most Reform and other shuls. We can be Rabbis. We can have liturgy that speaks to us. (For example, the new Siddur Sha’ar Zahav is an entirely LGBT-normative book). But as a Queer Jew in a multifaith relationship, I often do not feel the same respect or membership that other Queer Jews have been granted.

I fell in love with Melissa shortly after I met her, almost three years ago. I was drawn to her and yet, I felt that loving a non-Jew meant that I was, in a way, betraying my parents and the ways of my people. After all, as a child, I grew up knowing that I would “marry a nice Jewish boy,” and after I came out as a lesbian that I would surely “marry a nice Jewish girl.” Instead, I am troubled that I am engaged to marry a nice Shiksa, who is not only not Jewish but is a minister in a Christian faith and a Christian scholar.

I grew up with the idea that I will marry and that my partner and I will both be members of our synagogue. Instead, I am in love with a woman who cannot be a member of my synagogue as she is “actively practicing another religion.” She can attend services, and she does occasionally, but she can never be a true member. Whereas I can attend “for members only” events, she will never be invited. Melissa is listed as my partner in the membership directory. Melissa and I sit up late at night talking about religion and worship and the ins and outs of how religion plays a part in our lives. It is Melissa with whom I talk about my desire to have Jewish children and it is Melissa who daily encourages me to fully embrace my Jewish identity. Yet Melissa remains an outsider; and despite my active participation in synagogue life, I too have sometimes become an outsider in my own community.

I struggle with being counted. Being counted as a Jew can be reminiscent of the Holocaust where being recognized and numbered as Jewish was a prerequisite to being rounded up and slaughtered. To me, however, being counted has a different connotation. It is about being made visible – recognized. Melissa is a Christian and I am a Jew. Neither one of us wishes to convert, for we have each found a religion that speaks to us, in which we struggle to find our place, and with which we feel connected.

I long to stay connected to Judaism and to Congregation Sha’ar Zahav (San Francisco). When interfaith events happen, I often become excited and then, upon reading further into their text, realize that these events involve Jewish ritual and only Jewish ritual. I long for more multi-faith events where both Melissa and I can mingle our rituals and be around people who recognize the ways we are a stronger couple when both of our traditions are practiced and honored.

I am not perfect. After three years, I am still learning about how to be in a multi-faith relationship. While Melissa and I speak often about the future, I wish that there were a guide on how to be Jewish and connected to my community as a Queer Jew in a multi-faith relationship.

I wish that there were a place that I could go to talk about the situations I’ve encountered both at my shul and away from it. I would love to talk with others about how to respond to insensitive people who, when they learn that I’m dating a minister, ask when I am converting to Christianity or when she will convert to Judaism. I’ve also been berated for dating outside the Tribe. Fellow congregants invite me, in front of Melissa, to a “members only” event but they don’t invite her and they don’t explain why. At times like these, I feel pulled away from Judaism and from wanting to partake in congregational life. I feel a rush of sadness. I wonder what it will be like to have children with my beloved. I want them to feel like our family is welcomed into a Jewish congregation (and in addition, as a part of a Lutheran church).

And then, I’ve had some wonderful moments when I have felt dedicated to being a strong participant at my synagogue. I’ve felt known here and loved and supported by my community when I’ve had long meaningful conversations or experienced our religious rituals. I’ve felt challenged and encouraged and most of all, at times, I’ve felt seen and counted.

I am curious if you saw me at shul, how you would approach me? Would you welcome me to the bimah? Would you have my partner and I light the Shabbat candles like you do with other engaged couples? Would you welcome my future children? How would you treat my partner? And finally, I wonder (in a similar was as to how the tribes moved to where they stood in relation to the tabernacle) where I stand in relation to my Jewish faith and my community?

May there be a time when all those who identify as Jewish and ALL the ones who love them, feel welcomed and honored in Jewish communities near and far. Cain Yeherazon. May this be so.

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Posted on May 19, 2014

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Finding a Place to Immerse: 10 Years of Marriage Equality in MA

This Saturday marks the ten-year anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts. At Keshet we’ve been celebrating by inviting members of the community to share their reflections on how far we’ve come—and how far the country has to go.

mikveh-2Yesterday Mayyim Hayyim, a progressive, reinvented mikveh (ritual bath) in Boston, posted a reflection penned by Cindy Kalish, a self-described “Kosher Lesbian Jew.”

Cindy’s story runs parallel to many of the reflections we’ve shared in this past month—10 years ago she first immersed in a mikveh as a “lesbian bride” about to be married in Massachusetts. Yet, her story is marked with struggles and frustrations—before being welcomed at Mayyim Hayyim she was summarily rejected by other mikvehs. Prior to finding a welcoming and open space at Mayyim Hayyim she was even told, “Well, clearly you would not be able to immerse in the mikveh as we provide a KOSHER mikveh and your lifestyle would unKOSHER the mikveh.”

Looking back ten years to May of 2004, Cindy recalls feeling as if it was no coincidence “that both Mayyim Hayyim and marriage equality in Massachusetts were born at the same moment in time.” As she entered the mikveh ten years ago, as the mikveh guide declared her ritual “kosher,” Cindy felt a “sense of peace and hope and renewal and pride. Pride in being a Kosher Lesbian Jew.”

Cindy shared the prayer that she wrote—and recited—before her dip in the mikveh waters ten years ago. Her prayer was deeply personal, as she reflected on her upcoming marriage and the love she felt for her daughter. Her prayer was also universal, calling for strength for the future from a truly holy place. She prayed,

“I believe that you are a G-d who loves deeply – who loves me for the Lesbian, Jew, Mother, Daughter, Sister, Friend, Lover, and Partner that I am and strive to be. Please help me to have the strength to endure whatever challenges come our way and please give me the ability to enjoy every beautiful moment in life – and the ability to enjoy the present without being consumed with worrying about what the future holds.”

Ten years ago it was hard for Cindy to find a mikveh that would welcome her. Ten years ago the only state that would allow her marriage was Massachusetts.  We still have a long way to go before we can truly call our Jewish community, and our country, equal and inclusive. But, Cindy’s story gives us something to celebrate. Mazel Tov on ten years of marriage, Cindy!

(Read more of her story over at Mayyim Hayyim’s blog.)

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Posted on May 15, 2014

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By The Power Vested in Me By The Commonwealth of Massachusetts! : 10 Years of Marriage Equality in MA

As we celebrate the ten year anniversary of legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, we’ve invited members of the community to share their reflections. Today’s post comes from Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, a Reconstructionist rabbi who performed same-sex religious weddings before the verdict—but was finally able to legally marry Massachusetts same-sex couples 10 years ago.

toba004I performed a number of weddings while still a rabbinical student, in the mid-1990s, as my friends began to make lifetime commitments and, being unaffiliated, turned to me—clergy in training!—to help them with their ceremonies. It was somewhat ironic that so many of my (straight) friends and acquaintances turned to me for this particular lifecycle event, as I had never been a huge fan of marriage. That may have been due to my own inklings as a kid that heterosexual white-wedding fantasies were not for me, or due to many years of being single and having to sit through other people’s weddings, or to my feminist and lesbian questioning of an institution that had historically been far from progressive.

Yet with all of that, I was happy to help my friends take this first step in creating a Jewish household together. My movement, Reconstructionism, was the first to officially sanction same-sex religious ceremonies, and so I had no qualms about helping anyone, gay or straight, craft a Jewish ceremony that reflected their sensibilities and values.

What I realized, however, soon after I began to do weddings, was that I had no interest in being an agent of the state for an institution that discriminated against me. Once I became a rabbi, I concluded that to sign a marriage license for a heterosexual couple would be somewhat akin to driving a bus that I was forced to sit at the back of. If I couldn’t get legally married, then how in the world could I participate in legally sanctioning the marriages of others?

And so, my policy for doing (heterosexual) weddings was that the couple would need to take care of the civil piece themselves, and further, that somewhere in the ceremony we would need to mention that legal marriage remained a privilege not accessible to everyone. With these two stipulations in place, I found myself able to stand under the chuppah with couples with a sense of integrity and wholeheartedness.

When the SJC (Supreme Judicial Court) handed down its landmark decision in 2003, I realized that my policy would soon be up for revision.  As it happened, the first wedding I had scheduled for the spring of 2004, once the new marriage laws were in place, involved a lesbian couple. Not only that, but they had decided—for reasons of their own—to hold the ceremony in a restaurant with a bowling alley.

I had decided before rabbinical school that my achievable lifetime goal would be to bowl in every state of the U.S. (My unachievable goal would be world peace). So to officiate at my first civilly-sanctioned same-sex marriage in a bowling alley was too good to be true! And indeed, it was a marvelous moment when I signed the civil document, and under the chuppah pronounced the couple, by the power invested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, legally married.”  Mazel tov!

Posted on May 14, 2014

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Coalition building: Towards LGBTQ-inclusive Sex Ed in Boston

Mimi Arbeit, who writes a weekly column called The Debrief for JewishBoston.com, takes a look at LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed. Read more about how sex education intersects with her Jewish values here.

For the past two years, I have been serving as an advisory member of the Boston Connect to Protect ® Coalition (C2P Boston), which is our local branch of a national HIV-prevention research initiative, based at The Fenway Institute.C2P

The work of C2P Boston is based on both sexuality and race:

The mission of C2P Boston is to identify, develop, and catalyze prevention strategies that will reduce HIV infection rates among young black men who have sex with men and transgender-identified young people. Racism has a direct impact on these issues. We will ensure these strategies are always deliberate, inclusive, and in pursuit of racial justice through partnerships with organizations and individuals committed to our shared values and goals.

Using a racial justice framework, our goal is to ultimately reduce HIV incidence and prevalence among black youth and young adults in Boston, ages 12-24, through community mobilization and structural change.

I joined C2P planning to remain quiet. I hoped to support the work as an advisory member the best I could, but tried not to volunteer for any specific roles. I sat quietly in monthly meetings. I held back not only because I was (am) a busy grad student, but also because I was (am) a white grad student. I was there to listen to and learn from the queer people of color in the room, and the people there who work with queer youth of color on a daily basis.

I wanted to make sure I only took up space if I could be actually helpful to our shared mission. But I’m still not really sure how to judge that, either.

As we identified our structural change priorities, we identified the lack of awesome, relatable sex education providers in Boston Public Schools (BPS) as a root cause of HIV infection among Boston youth. We formed the Sex Ed Subcommittee to work to address the issue. After being asked to help facilitate a couple of the preliminary subcommittee meetings, I was then nominated as co-facilitator at a meeting I missed.

I was asked to take up space. I decided to step up, leverage my privilege as a white grad student, and volunteer my time towards planning and facilitating meetings, advocacy, and coalition building with the goal of getting LGBTQ-inclusive sexual health education and services in Boston Public Schools. It feels complicated, but it also feels important.

Our current goals/objectives include the following: All people who deliver sexuality education in BPS will demonstrate a set of core competencies in delivering LGBTQ-inclusive, culturally-proficient, trauma-informed, and sex-positive sexuality education within a health equity/racial justice framework. 

What does this mean? We want to delve deeper into defining these terms. Here are our working definitions, constantly under revision, so tell me what you think…

  • Trauma-informed: All sex educators must present material in a way that is respectful of potential trauma histories, does not add to trauma histories, and is responsive to traumatic responses that may arise.
  • Trans-inclusive: All sex educators should choose curriculum and present material in ways that are sensitive to, aware of, and include people whose identity or history falls under the trans umbrella or whose gender identity is different from their assigned sex at birth (i.e., not cis-gendered).
  • LGB-inclusive: All sex educators should choose curriculum and present material in ways that are sensitive to, aware of, and include people whose identity, behavior (current/past), or attractions could categorize them as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, or questioning or having same-sex sexual desire or activity.
  • A racial justice framework: All sex educators structure their classroom dynamics and their relationships with students in order to be real, connected, and aware of the historical and cultural implications of what they say and do. Sex educators facilitate a safe and challenging space for students to learn about health disparities and consider health as “justice for my body.”

How can Sex Ed be designed and delivered within a racial justice and health equity framework? We believe racial justice to be an essential part of pursuing our mission of HIV-prevention, particularly for LGBTQ youth of color. We are working on integrating a racial justice framing into our advocacy work for LGBTQ-inclusivity in schools.

Say hi to our Boston C2P reps at the Boston Youth Pride Parade on Saturday, May 17th. Also, if you have any ideas or suggestions about our work, if you’re interested in joining our coalition, or if you want to talk more about white privilege and queer organizing, please email me at Mimi.Arbeit@gmail.com or tweet @MimiArbeit.

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Posted on May 13, 2014

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And We March On: 10 Years of Marriage Equality in MA

As we celebrate the ten year anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts, we’ve invited members of the community to share their reflections. Today’s post comes from Sarah Richards, who married her wife once in a religious ceremony in Georgia, and again legally in Massachusetts. 

unnamedAs I sit down to write my reflections on ten years of marriage equality in Massachusetts, it strikes me that I’ve recently done something mundane yet remarkable. My spouse and I signed our first joint federal tax return. It’s honestly difficult for me to say what feels better: not having to pay the “gay tax” that has cost our family approximately $4,000-$6,000 each year, or not having to check the insulting little box marked “single.” Even though we signed our returns in our kitchen, with no audience or fanfare, no congratulatory hugs, it feels like a watershed moment. It feels a lot like the moment I experienced ten years ago walking into the town clerk’s office in Northborough, Massachusetts on May 17th, 2004.

My wife and I had already been married in a lovely ceremony nineteen months before when we lived in Georgia. We did the whole wedding thing: fancy clothes, flowers, a tiered cake with ribbon, a DJ. My hometown rabbi flew down from Massachusetts to do the ceremony for us. Many friends and relatives attended from around the country. But palpably missing was my wife’s family. Her parents and brother couldn’t attend because they “had other plans” that weekend. A dear friend who had served as a career mentor and surrogate mother of sorts walked my beloved down one side aisle while my parents walked me down the other side. We joined in the middle, and after the vows and blessings, we exited through the center aisle together.

So there we were, a thousand miles north, back in my home state, about to get married for a second time. This time we held the ceremony in our home and invited all our local friends to join us in becoming “legal.” The same rabbi married us again. But this time instead of signing a ketubah, the traditional Jewish marriage contract, we signed the marriage license papers we had obtained from the clerk. But they’re not the papers that hang framed on our bedroom wall. And when we talk about our anniversary, we always mean the one in October, not the one in May.

Our family lives back in Georgia again now. We’ve been blessed with three beautiful children since those events, all born here in my wife’s home town of Athens. There was a lawsuit filed recently in Atlanta on behalf of several plaintiffs who share stories similar to ours. The suit seeks to add Georgia to the list of states recognizing couples and families like us. And so we march on.

I’m glad for the progress our country has made this past decade. I’m glad our children will grow up in a place where that type of discrimination is written into law less and less. I’m glad that fewer and fewer people will look out at the guests attending their wedding and feel a stab of pain not seeing their own family among them. And I feel a lot of gratitude. I am proud to hail from the state that led the way. I look forward to the day when I can tell my grandchildren about a time when things were different, harder. I want to see the expressions on their faces. I want to see in their eyes that hearing about a time without equality is like hearing about a time without electricity.

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Posted on May 12, 2014

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When Politics are Deeply Personal: 10 Years of Marriage Equality in MA

Nommi & her daughters.

Nommi & her daughters.

As we celebrate the ten-year anniversary of legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, we’ve invited members of the community to share their reflections. Today’s post comes from Nahma Nadich, Associate Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, as she reflects on the power of organizing and the lessons she—and her daughters—learned through their work as allies ten years ago.

In the Fall of 2003, I was starting my 4th year as Director of Social Justice Programs at the Jewish Community Relations Council. I’d left a clinical social work practice in the gay and lesbian community, moving from the realm of the “personal” to the “political”. Since those were clearly separate and distinct spheres—or so I thought…until the Goodridge decision.

Having grown up with Jewish mentors who were civil rights activists, I was now thrilled to be part of the Jewish chapter of a civil rights story unfolding in my own time. Equally exciting was the opportunity to have my children witness this moment, and feel the pride that comes from seeing your people do their part to change the world.

In Boston, we were the first JCRC in the country to affirm and advocate for marriage equality, working closely with other Jewish organizations to leverage the influence of our community. As we navigated the politics first of our own community, and then at the State House, our most powerful tool was sharing personal stories. Our board members expressed their anguish at their adult children being treated like second class citizens; Jewish constituents talked with their legislators about the toll of inequality on their families. They changed hearts and minds.

The showdown came at a constitutional convention in the spring, when marriage equality was threatened. Advocates for equality faced vocal opponents, who were bused in from far and wide. As evening approached, the ranks of the opponents grew thin and the call went out for reinforcements. So I seized this opportunity to bring both of my girls to the battlefront. I told them to get out of their pajamas and stop doing homework—they were about to have their first visit to the State House!

When we arrived, we encountered an extraordinary scene: thousands of champions of equality in the halls of power, their voices ringing out in song after song of love and marriage. Holding hands, and as the time grew later, cushioning each other throughout the floor of the Great Hall, they were exercising their rights in the most personal way. They were citizens giving voice to a fundamental human aspiration—to be treated with dignity and respect.  This display may not have been the most typical example of state house lobbying to show my daughters, but what they witnessed that day taught them a priceless lesson; politics, when done right, are deeply personal. And campaigns, when they deliver, change people’s lives, for generations. Like many of us, I wept my way through the weddings that followed, when the tears flowed most freely at the ostensibly dry and formulaic words, “by the power vested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!” At those personal celebrations, it was the affirmation of public rights that proved to be the moments that most stirred our souls.

As I reflect back on that time and on the decade since, I have to acknowledge another crucial lesson—but this is one I learned from my daughter. On that fall day when we learned of the court decision, I shared my joy with both my daughters, only to have my unimpressed 14 year old roll her eyes and say, “Yeah, big deal—it’s only one state. There are 49 more!” I understood her political naiveté and youthful impatience, but saw this as a giant teachable moment about the slow pace of progress. Ten years and eighteen states (and counting!) later, I see that in fact, she was right. One state was never enough; she was right to expect more, and to refuse a long wait. Yes, fundamental social change occurs most often at a maddeningly slow pace. Except for times like these. I thank my daughter for reminding me to be open to the possibility of miracles—both personal and political.

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Posted on May 8, 2014

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An Act of Civil Obedience: 10 Years of Marriage Equality in MA

Idit & Jordan breaking the glassAs we celebrate the ten-year anniversary of legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, we’ve invited members of the community to share their reflections. Today’s post comes from Keshet’s Executive Director, Idit Klein.

Ten years ago on May 17th I stood in the sea of thousands on the steps of Cambridge City Hall in Massachusetts as the first same-sex couples were wed just after midnight. On my left a journalist from Japan happily snapped photos; on my right, a young gay male couple couldn’t stop kissing. I felt elated, proud of this state, and honored to have played a small role in securing this civil liberty.

In the weeks that followed, many well-meaning straight acquaintances would ask me, “So are you planning on getting married?” It was sweet but also a bit irritating. (Gay) marriage had been so politicized that people I hardly knew felt perfectly comfortable asking me such a personal question. A lesbian friend of mine groused, “When did the freedom to marry become the pressure to marry?”

After I got engaged several years later, all my married friends told me that my wedding would be a wondrous blur with few concrete memories remaining. And, of course, they were right on the whole. I remember seeing my soon-to-be wife walk into the room where we would sign our ketubah after we hadn’t seen one another in 36 hours. I remember taking a deep breath before walking down the aisle together. I remember the impromptu d’var Torah my secular Israeli father gave when he toasted us. But what I remember most vividly is the moment at the end of our wedding ceremony when Rabbi Sharon Cohen-Anisfeld, one of the two rabbis officiating, said, “I’ve said this many times before as an act of civil disobedience. But today, it gives me great joy to say this as an act of civil obedience: that according to the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I pronounce you married.”

More than two years later, I still feel a quiet thrill when I remember that moment.

I was an activist for marriage equality during the struggle to preserve same-sex marriage rights in Massachusetts. I spent hours in conversation with various Massachusetts rabbis and other Jewish community leaders urging them to take a public stand for equality. I believe deeply in the justice of this fight. Yet the day of my wedding, our shared triumph here in Massachusetts took on new meaning for me. I take great comfort in knowing that here in Massachusetts, and in 17 states plus the District of Columbia, future generations of LGBT people will never view their marriages as expressions of civil disobedience. May the rest of this country and nations around the world soon recognize the justice of this cause.

Posted on May 6, 2014

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Parashat Emor: Difference and the Service of the Lord

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.

God said to Moses,
Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the offerings made to God by fire. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. (Leviticus 21:16-21)

According to these rules imposed by Torah, any kind of difference renders one ineligible to serve God as a religious leader. Does this mean some of our spiritual giants recorded in Scripture would have been ineligible for priesthood roles if there had been a priesthood when they lived?

torah_scroll2One Talmudic tradition (Yevamot 64a-b) states that Abraham and Sarah were tumtumim, meaning they were of uncertain sex. Since Leviticus clearly states priests, like the animals they sacrifice on behalf of their congregants, have to be completely male, Abraham couldn’t have served as a spiritual leader. He was responsible for instituting the Shacharit (morning) service according to a second Talmudic tradition (Berachot 26b) but due to his difference he is deemed unfit to serve according to the rules imposed by Leviticus 21. Obviously Sarah couldn’t have been eligible due to her sex, since men alone were eligible for jobs within the priesthood, but even if she had been a man instead she had exactly the same difference as her spouse, meaning she would have been ineligible even if she had been born as the opposite sex.

Isaac and Leah are both interpreted by many people as having low vision. Due to this difference, despite being recognized as being great (Isaac is recognized as instituting the Minchah (afternoon) service according to Berachot 26a-b and Leah is given credit for being the first human being to praise God according to Berachot 7b), they couldn’t have had any kind of leadership position within the Temple. Again, I’m aware that only men could serve within the priesthood but it seems biological sex hardly means anything; if you’re different you’re not eligible despite anything else that can make you seem like a perfect candidate.

Jacob, after wrestling with the angel, is left differently-abled. His struggle with God’s messenger leaves him with mobility issues. Does his limping prevent him from being a very spiritual person or mean he stops serving his Creator? No, of course it doesn’t. He is also held responsible for instituting Aravit (evening) worship (Berachot 26b) but according to rules imposed by Scripture he may have been ineligible to serve within a certain role.

Even Moses, according to the rules of our parashah, couldn’t serve as a member of the priesthood. He stuttered due to an incident during his childhood (Exodus Rabbah 1:26), which left him with a scarred tongue that made it hard for him to pronounce words and ask his brother to come with him whenever he had to relay any kind of message to the people. Moses may be recognized as our greatest prophet, as Deuteronomy states, but it appears, once again, that a great spiritual person is viewed as ineligible to serve because of a physical difference.

Looking at those treacherous verses in Leviticus also seems enough to give anyone an extremely distorted sense of body image or feel guilty if they have anything to help compensate for a difference they live every day (e.g. glasses). How many people have spent extended time periods at the gym, trying to shape their bodies to be “perfect”? How many people, predominantly women, have dealt with some kind of eating disorder trying to “perfect” their bodies? How many older people have spent money on botox or other cosmetic procedures to look younger in our youth-obsessed culture?

Invisible differences are no different. Parashat Emor clearly states that anybody with a “defect” is unable to serve God as a priest. According to this, anyone who has a learning difference is ineligible. Verse 22 might seem like an attempt to soften this harsh edict, since it states that “imperfect” people can eat of the holy and most holy sacrifices, but the next verse completely undoes it.

Verse 23 attempts to explain why only “perfect” people can serve as priests. It explains that God sanctifies the sanctuaries and people may not profane them.

Some differently-abled people might be happy to have some kind of explanation for their exclusion, since they can rationalize everything as being included in ritual purity rules, but as far as I’m concerned, lo dayeinu: it’s not enough.

Perhaps people have to have accommodations if they want to serve God and happen to be different, but that fact alone shouldn’t prevent anyone from being able to serve. As Vinny Prell wrote in her commentary “Some say that making an offering to God is such a dangerous business that sometimes, even the average people don’t survive.”

She also writes that such statements assume those who are different are supposed to be grateful they are ineligible for a job that has such drastic potential consequences. To me, that’s about as effective as the Orthodox reminding me I’m exempt from many mitzvot due to anatomy. Simply being a woman doesn’t mean I don’t want to be involved as much as men. Second, I’m willing to argue that if you’re “different” in any way and you choose to participate in something where you’re under no obligation to be involved your contributions should mean more because of their voluntary nature.

Looking at Parashat Emor it’s hard to avoid feeling Torah is contradicting itself. Genesis tells us all of humankind was created in God’s image (1:27), Exodus tells us we are to be a nation of priests, a holy nation (19:6) and Leviticus tells us we are all capable of being holy (19:1).

handsIf Genesis is right in asserting that all of humankind was created in God’s image, why is God suddenly doing a 180 and proclaiming that some people are prevented from serving due to being impure? God created everyone, whether “perfect” or “imperfect”, so why should there be any kind of excuse?

Can we honestly be a nation of priests, let alone a holy nation, if we prevent people from serving? We are told we are all capable of being holy and we deserve to be able to fulfill that divine, God-given mission, even if we are different.

As someone living with a number of differences and working toward being an Educational Assistant, I’m very frustrated by Emor. It (half) helps to be able to put it in context due to its position in terms of ritual purity rules but it frustrates me that, according to the “straight” meaning, the children I love helping are viewed as unable to serve God at the highest level. They were created as they are and they can reach their holiness potential as much as average people even if that potential happens to be different.

Posted on April 28, 2014

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Why I’m Not Out Yet… But Will Be

Two weeks ago over 40 teens gathered for an LGBTQ & Ally Shabbaton organized by Keshet and Hazon. Upon returning home from the weekend, one of the participants shared her story under the pseudonym of Esther Sarah.

ShabbatonTShirt FRONT_FINALI chose the pseudonym of Esther Sarah very specifically. In both of their stories, these women are forced to hide something about them, even though it was something central to their identity. Esther had to hide the fact that she was Jewish when she was sent to marry Achashveros, and Sarah had to hide the fact that she was Avraham’s wife when she and Avraham went to Pharaoh during a famine. I too, am forced to hide something central to my identity: my sexuality. Ultimately, in both stories, both women eventually are able to stop hiding, and when they are open about their true selves, they save everyone around. That gives me a great deal of hope.

I always knew I was bisexual, before I even knew what that meant. For the longest time I just assumed that the way I felt about girls was the way all girls felt about each other. I also figured that since I liked boys too, that I was “normal” and didn’t need to worry about any of it. But, after a friend came out to me at summer camp the summer before eighth grade, I realized that my feelings were legitimate, and needed to be recognized. Thus began my journey of questioning, coming out, and, sadly, staying in the closet sometimes.

I’m out to my immediate family, but I’m not out to the rest of my family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins). I have heard extremely homophobic things come out of the mouths of my relatives, which makes me incredibly upset. This is my family! How can they say such cruel things? Would they still say them if I was out? Right now, this is a question that I’m scared to know the answer to.

I’ve heard many horror stories of people coming out to relatives and being kicked out subsequently, and not being allowed to be part of their own families anymore. In fact, I know a person who, upon coming out, had to hear their own uncle begin to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. The person was dead to their family. It’s horrifying.

Every now and again I toy with the idea of coming out. I tell myself that this Thanksgiving, this Pesach, this holiday will be when I finally tell everyone. And then I hear things like “Homosexuals should try to be straight and normal before they go off and choose their lifestyle,” and I remember why I’m still not out. I hate being closeted more than I can say, but I still love my family. And I don’t want to be hated or disrespected. Not that anyone does, but still.

The parallels between my story and the stories of Esther and Sarah are amazing. Like me right now, they hid who they were because it seemed like the safest course of action. But, eventually, the only way they could save themselves and their loved ones was to “come out”, and reveal their true identities. I know that, eventually, I will have to come out of the closet to my family and reveal my true identity. It’s scary, but I can look to Esther and Sarah to remind me that the bravery of revealing yourself will yield positive results.

Posted on April 24, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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