You’ll love this mother-daughter team who have joined the inclusion efforts at Sha’aray Shalom! Jodi Tolman and her daughter Chloe participated in Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit, putting their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion work within the Jewish community into action. See what happens when Jodi (known as “mom”) and Chloe sat down to interview each other about the importance of LGBTQ equality. Read part 1 of their interview here!
Mom: Do you think it’s important for cisgender and straight people to get involved in LGBTQ justice work?
Chloe: It’s critically important. In order for there to be real change, we need everyone’s involvement, in some way or other. If it’s simply talking with family, friends, colleges, etc, about the issue – lasting, cultural change will require the vast majority of folks in our society to be part of the solution. Not everyone has to be warriors on the front lines. People can just be having conversations with their neighbors over their back fence.
Chloe: Do you think the work we’re doing, in our small and limited way, will have an impact?
Mom: I’m sure you’ve heard the Margaret Mead quote, but it’s the best way to answer your question. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Mom: Why did you want to get involved in LGBTQ inclusion work at Sha’aray Shalom?
Chloe: As VP of our GSA at school, I realized that the best way to foster social change is to penetrate every aspect of culture and society and work to bring bout enlightenment and awareness. Religion is a popular place for people to hide behind conservative ideology, but they shouldn’t. Most especially in the religious realm. I believe that mercy, justice, kindness, and freedom and dignity for all people are among the basic tenets, or should be, of a religious life.
Our shul can be much more demonstrably open and inclusive and I want it to be a place where everyone, including LGBTQIA+ people and their families can feel welcome and, most importantly, a sense of belonging. I would be proud to have helped that come about.
Chloe: What got you interested in working at the temple as a front for change?
Mom: For the reasons you just stated, but also because, as the center of our family’s spiritual life, it’s a logical place for me to want to focus my efforts in this cause. Also, I’m so excited about the work we’re doing with Keshet, and that at the end of the coming year, we will have implemented the Action Plan that we formulated at the Keshet Leadership Summit. At that time, CSS will have a place in Keshet’s fabulous Equality Guide which will enable LGBTQ folks on the South Shore who are searching for an open and inclusive shul to find us.
I’m also extremely excited about helping other religious institutions in the area who might want to open their organizations and create warm, welcoming and inclusive cultures, to follow our lead. Our work with Keshet will empower us to serve as a mentor congregation to others in our community, and it would be an enormous honor to support other groups and help them to do what we will have done.
Mom: Do you plan to carry on with the work you’ve been doing with the GSA at school and the task force at CSS when you get to college? What are your goals for your efforts at Sarah Lawrence?
Chloe: One of the reasons that Sarah Lawrence was my top choice of colleges, and that I am so thrilled to be going, is because they are ranked amongst the most LGBTQ-friendly campuses in the country. I think that much social change and progress is made on college campuses and that progress can be a springboard for change in society-at-large.
I will work with existing groups on campus and perhaps, if I see a need, form a new one. And just as importantly, I will lead by example by making certain, as I do now, that my actions, speech, opinions, deeds, etc, all demonstrate my belief that an equal and fair society for all people is the best kind to live in. It’s my way of working toward tikkun olam.
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You’ll love this mother-daughter team who have joined the inclusion efforts at Sha’aray Shalom! Jodi Tolman and her daughter Chloe participated in Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit, putting their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion work within the Jewish community into action. See what happens when Jodi (known as “mom”) and Chloe sat down to interview each other about the importance of LGBTQ equality.
Mom: Chloe, what was the genesis of your interest in LGBTQ equality?
Chloe: I have always had a strong sense of fairness and have felt very keenly that people in this world should be treated equally and fairly. Unfair treatment of any individual or group has always raised my hackles, and I think that’s been due, in great part, to you and Dad teaching us about the profound importance of equality in our society and equal rights for all people. You taught us that it is our moral and human obligation to work for justice in our world.
As for my particular interest in LGBTQ rights, soon after we moved up here from New Jersey, my friend, Bridget (who has since legally changed their name to Quinn) came out in high school as trans and pansexual. I was not particularly well-versed in the issue at that time, and Quinn taught our friends and me a lot about LGBTQIA+ life, which very much sparked my interest in learning more and working for justice in the LGBTQIA+ community.
Chloe: How did you become interested in LGBTQ rights, Mom?
Jodi: I have had a passion for civil rights and social justice since I was a kid. In fact, when I was 11, I asked Meema if Jewish girls could become nuns! Without laughing (which I always appreciated her for!) she asked why I would want to become a nun. I answered that it seemed that they devoted their entire lives to helping others and that’s what I wanted to do with mine. She explained that I could live as selfless a life as I chose without becoming a nun and that was the beginning of my realization that I wanted to work in the world to help people. As I grew and matured, my interests were honed and my passion for social justice developed.
I had a very close gay friend in high school, who ended up dying of AIDS some years later, and nobody ever spoke about his being gay and what it must have been like for him. It was not talked about or even acknowledged back then, but I knew it had to be a painful and very difficult life for him. As I have watched LGBTQ rights come more and more into the fore throughout my life, it has become more and more important to me to fight for social justice in this community.
Mom: What are your thoughts about the current state in our country of LGBTQ equality and how things are progressing?
Chloe: I’m very happy to see that things are changing for the better, at least in our part of the country and world, but there is still a long, long way to go before we have true equality. We have to work hard to educate people and help “normalize” the LBGTQ community in the minds and experience of cisgender and straight people. I think if we keep pushing, we’ll get there.
Chloe: What do you think of the progress we’ve made?
Jodi: I was young in the 60’s but I know from my parents and family, and learning all about the civil rights movement, that it was an incredibly exciting time in the arena of social justice. I know that to watch real change be born back then, as prolonged and painful as the labor was, was extraordinary. LGBTQ rights and equality is the civil rights issue of our time, and to see the changes that are happening, and the speed with which they’re coming about, is one of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. I absolutely agree, however, that there is still so much work to do and ground to cover, but we are making real, tangible progress. It’s thrilling.
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Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we 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, our reflection comes from Rabbi Rick Brody. Rabbi Brody first wrote this piece in 2006, so the time-line might feel a little off. We still think this is a relevant look at Parashat Shoftim and the idea of a just society.
It is amazing how procrastination affects one’s work. I began drafting this d’var Torah several days ago, but with the whirlwind of summer classes and make-up-work (Rabbinical school is not as glamorous as it seems) I hadn’t finished it by my “goal” date.
I had begun to write about the work of Citizens to Restore Fairness (CRF), a group in Cincinnati, Ohio, dedicated to protecting the rights of GLBTQ people in their city. In 2004, CRF successfully led a campaign to repeal a 12-year-old ordinance that outright denied gay people protections from discrimination. In March 2006, the Cincinnati City Council approved an anti-discrimination law, which would protect GLBT individuals from losing their jobs or being denied housing just for being queer. However, an anti-gay group, disguised as one committed to values, blocked the ordinance by petitioning to have the issue on the ballot. This summer, equality activists from across the country descended on Cincinnati to prepare for the November 7th election and to fight this anti-gay ballot measure. Uniting people across lines of race, class, gender and religion, this diverse group of people was working to bring justice to their community.
Then, this morning, the phone call came. “We won!” my girlfriend yelled, as she came running into the room. “What???” I replied, confused. Was this the Hebrew Union College softball team with its two-win record? No. “Citizens to Restore Fairness won!” she exclaimed.
As it turned out, the people so devoted to “community values” felt that signing the petition with fraudulent names, such as that of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, was an honest way of achieving their goals. With the petition proven corrupt the organization proposing the ballot measure withdrew and accepted defeat. We had achieved our goal: justice for the residents of Cincinnati; fairness for GLBTQ people in the city.
How does this relate to the d’var Torah I was writing? This week’s portion, Parashat Shoftim, or “magistrates,” is about creating a just society. It is part of Moses’ closing speech to the Children of Israel. The Israelites are standing and waiting to go into the Land, but Moses is unable to go with them. Because of Moses’ bad behavior in the desert, he will be left behind as the Israelites go on to the promised land.
In Moses’ speech, he provides ethical and administrative norms to be followed by the community. A dominant word within this parasha is tzedek, “righteous” or “justice.” The word occurs six times in the Torah and 68 times in the entirety of the Tanakh.
What is justice? Many modern Jews, myself included, take pride in our faith’s commitment to social change. “Social justice” has become a sort of buzzword for young Jewish activists working in a variety of fields. As a Reform rabbinical student, I take particular pride in my denomination’s leadership role in certain areas of social justice. The idea of a just society is rooted in our most holy text, the Torah. According to W. Gunther Plaut, a leading commentator on the Torah, “no people gave as much loving attention to the overriding importance of law equitably administered and enforced as did Israel.”
What, then, does a just society look like for LGBTQ people? This week’s Torah portion says “they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). Plaut suggests that this roots the ultimate administrative power in the people, rather than the king. This leads us to ask questions of our own lives. How can our leaders lead justly? How can we be leaders in our own community? How can the people create their own just society?
In Parashat Shoftim we are commanded “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” Deuteronomy 16:20). The verb tirdof is in the imperative, commanding us to engage in the work at hand. Why does the word tzedek, “justice,” repeat twice? There is a Chassidic teaching that the word justice is repeated because “in matters of justice one may never stand still. The pursuit of justice is the pursuit of peace. Do justly so that justice may be engendered.”
We all must take a stand for justice wherever we see injustice taking place, not only for our own communities, but also for those in need of our support. The work of Citizens to Restore Fairness was accomplished through the work of people of all races, of many religions and across the entire spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is through embracing our diversity that we have the power to create change.
The words of Moses, whom the sages call Moshe Rabbeinu, or “Moses our teacher,” are instructive to all of us. Our Torah is our guidebook. Each year we read the text again, and each year it appears in a new light. Even though we have heard the stories before, they meet us where we are this year. Just as a parent lovingly guides a child towards the correct path, so too does our Holy text teach us. May we all be able to glean from its words the messages that will help us live our lives as better people and build a more just society: Ken yehi ratzon, may it be your will.
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I spend my workdays gathering and leveraging financial resources for grassroots community organizers and artists working at the intersection of sexual orientation, gender identity, and racial and economic justice. As a fundraiser at Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, I am a professional queer.
One of the biggest perks of my job is that I get to sit with people who have been supporting lesbian feminist organizing in the U.S. for twenty or thirty years and hear the stories they tell. The people I meet have often gone on incredible journeys of lost or compromised employment, complicated family relationships, losing and finding faith communities, geographic relocation, all while navigating feelings of being simultaneously privileged in some ways and oppressed in others.
Hearing stories from these community members has made me reflect a lot on mine. And, the donors often wrap up their tales with a request to know how I ended up sitting across from them. I don’t have just one story, or course, but every version I have ever found myself telling comes down to this: I am a queer activist because I am a Jew.
I was raised in an affluent community with a big Jewish population, high levels of education, and almost no Republicans. My synagogue prided itself–and still does–on providing shelter every night for eight homeless men, five nights a week, for most of the year. My Jewish community emphasized a set of social justice values: standing up for and standing with your neighbor who is oppressed, questioning authority, and supporting impoverished people in and around your community.
We were taught that we could not allow our current and unprecedented level of acceptance by wider American society to trump our understanding of what it means for a community to be powerless in the face of systemic oppression. We were taught that as Jews it was our job to fight for a more just and whole world.
That is the context into which I came out: not a community without homophobia, but one in which I knew that I would have access to a higher set of principles if and when incidents of homophobia happened.
A year after telling my family and friends that I “liked girls,” I went to a weekend advocacy training for teens in Washington, D.C., at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. The training included optional issue briefings on sexuality-based employment discrimination, hate crimes, and funding for AIDS research. That weekend, which ended with a trip to Capitol Hill to lobby for the issues we cared about at our legislators’ offices, was my first experience publicly arguing for LGBT rights. It happened not only in a Jewish context but because my Jewish community was committed to teaching its young people how to fight for the causes we cared about.
After I came out of the closet, I had gone looking for other LGBTQ people my age besides the ones at school, and when I found them, it turned my world upside-down.
The teens I met at the LGBT Community Center’s drop-in program had life experiences totally different from mine, and those differences broke over and over again along racial and economic lines. I met people who had been kicked out of their homes because they were gay, threatened with violence over their gender presentation, suspended from school when they defended themselves against homophobic violence, and harassed regularly by police. I became intensely aware of how my white privilege and wealthy background had not only shielded me from experiencing similar things, but from even knowing those things were possible.
Getting involved in a multiracial, cross-class, queer community had attuned me to types of injustice I had never before noticed, and growing up in a justice-minded Jewish community meant I could not just stand by and watch.
Six months after my trip to Washington D.C., I marched in the streets of Manhattan in memory of Matthew Shepard, Amadou Diallo, and Abner Louima, calling for an end to anti-gay hate crimes and to racist police violence–and the people I walked with were Jews I had met in D.C. and queer people I had met at the Center.
I was raised by a community less than two generations removed from violence at the hands of the state in the old country. My community still remembered facing discrimination at the hands of landlords, employers, and colleagues here in what was supposed to be the Goldene Medine (or golden county). Despite this history, my community remained committed to a notion that a more whole world was possible with enough human effort and determination.
My Jewish community taught me that we all have important work to do to bring justice, and that while the work might be difficult, it was neither impossible nor negotiable. I am deeply fortunate to have the cushions of economic security, a high-quality education, and an incredibly supportive family that are unavailable to many LGBTQ people. My Judaism teaches me that my access to those buffers is precisely what must compel me to fight for those who don’t have them.
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Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Rabbi Seth Goren examines Parshat Re’eh and takes a look at the meaning behind the word “abomination.”
I have to confess that this week’s portion, almost through no fault of its own, kind of annoys me. It’s not the command to put false prophets to death or the requirement to tithe crops to the benefit of the priestly caste, both of which strike me as problematic, to say the least. My thoughts and frustrations are triggered by Parashat Re’eh’s mention of an abomination of significant proportions. No, not that abomination. That’s back in Leviticus 18:22. But it’s something that’s presumably just as bad. Yep, you guessed it: the camel, which, along with a whole host of other “unclean” animals, is dubbed an “abomination” smack dab at the start of Deuteronomy’s Chapter 14.
Go figure, right? Who’d have thought that the camel, even with its bad breath, rank odor and penchant for expectorating, is sufficiently revolting as to be classified as abhorrent? It certainly isn’t something that I remember being taught in Hebrew school. But lest the camel feel singled out, the list of biblical abominations is a lengthy one. The word often slogged through translation and dragged into English as “abomination” appears biblically no fewer than 105 times in one form or another, denoting anything from a deceitful merchant to intermarriage, from a “haughty bearing” to a person who incites siblings to argue with each other. Biblical “abominations” like these are merely one thread in a broader tapestry of ancient purity laws, and the actions, events and objects that potentially run afoul of these laws are many and varied.
To be clear, I have nothing against camels specifically. Rather, my frustration stems largely from our present-day “abomination” amnesia and how all talk of biblical “abominations” has been condensed in modern religio-political discourse to one specific act alone: gay sex (which apparently also encompasses lesbic intimacy even though the Bible overlooks lesbian sex completely). Many anti-gay crusaders essentially take a censor’s pen to the Bible and black out portions they’d prefer to ignore, leaving a document that looks more like a Guantanamo hearing transcript than a holy book and hoping the rest of us don’t notice the difference. As an upshot, we find the Religious Right and other religious conservatives enjoying a perceived monopoly when it comes to interpreting a foundational text of American society, while those who have non-dogmatic perspectives have largely been silenced.
The irony, of course, is that those who would blind us to all but specific verses in the Bible, are precisely those who so often cry out as being the victims of “political correctness,” hate speech codes and the “thought police.” The rallying cry that “I can say whatever I want, whenever I want” is all too commonly heard from individuals who have little regard for the liberty of others.
Let’s set aside the proverbial “fire-in-a-crowded-theater” hypothetical and address this more practically and directly: to some degree, bristling at being told what types of language are unacceptable is understandable. As much as we can appreciate the importance of living in relationship with others, the thought of abdicating our chosen mode of expression is a latter-day abomination in and of itself, at odds with so much of what we treasure. The chilling effect from limiting certain types of speech has the potential to make us all come down with a case of the censorship flu. That said, comments about political correctness frequently aren’t, at their core, about free speech, free thought and free expression. For the sake of argument, I’ll concede that yes, a non-specific “you” generally may be entitled to call me an “abomination,” if “you” so choose. You can say that I’m a “fag,” a “sodomite,” a “faygele” or even the tamer, more clinical “homosexual.” You can say that I’m partially responsible for the 9/11 attacks, as the late Rev. Jerry Falwell did, or that I’m a causal factor in the death of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, as the late Rev. Fred Phelps rants. You can say that I shouldn’t have the right to get married or that it should be OK to fire me because I’m gay. As a rule, you may have the right to say all of those things.
At the same time, I have the right to think that you’re a big jerk for doing so, to articulate that opinion and to react with some choice words of my own.
I feel pretty comfortable in holding this way. Having the freedom to say something doesn’t bring with it the right to control how others hear it. It doesn’t mean that we make pronouncements in an echo chamber or that there are no consequences for what we verbalize. It means that each of us has a far-reaching right to say and think and feel autonomously, independently and individually; it applies as much to those who hear and respond as to the initial commenter.
This thinking is no less applicable in the context of our biblical examples. The voices of religious homophobia and deceptive reasoning may be deafening at times, but we have it within our power, to a greater or lesser extent, to manage our own reactions to them. Some may elect to engage in intellectual debate, consistently jumping to highlight the camel and other biblical “abominations” or leaping at every chance to demonstrate the hypocrisy inherent in a Leviticus 18:22-centric world view. Others are simply exhausted from having the same conversation over and over and over, feeling nothing but apathy for this discussion. Most of us live somewhere in the middle, periodically challenging misconceptions, at other times hitting the debater’s equivalent of a snooze button. Regardless of where we end up on the spectrum of possible responses, those who’ve imparted their biblical tunnel vision to the rest of us can’t restrict how we choose to express ourselves.
So maybe this week’s mention of the camel and other “abominations” can serve a more positive purpose. True, the passage can trigger the realization that certain verses of the Torah have been wiped from public consciousness. At the same time, it can also remind us that we can elect not to be silenced and that we have some choice in how we respond to others’ attempts to pull the (camel) wool over our eyes.
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Sarah is barren, Rachel is barren, Rivka is barren. As a single man, I too am barren, unable to conceive and birth a child. I remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to parent, and that I wouldn’t wait for a partner to co-parent. I remember deciding that foster care would be my path to parenting, as at that time, adoption by openly gay people was outlawed by the state where I lived. And so I took the class and filled out the paperwork, and endured the grueling inspection of my home, my finances, and every other nook and cranny of my life.
And I was denied, because of a health issue and a history that included some legal complications.
I took the tour of the tunnels under the Kotel, where one can stand in that one spot closest to where the Holy of Holies stood. Usually this spot is reserved for women, so I knew it was full of the power of motherhood. And it was empty of people at that moment, so I prayed there too.
Like Sarah, like Rachel, like Rivka, and like Hannah, my prayer was answered.
It took resources, it took sacrifice, it took letters from and the support of my community, and it took good (legal) counsel, but I prevailed and was allowed to foster and then later, when that anti-gay law was changed, to adopt.
Last month I was again in Jerusalem, and with a friend who had never been, so we took the same tour through the tunnel under the Kotel. As we approached that same spot I was overcome with gratitude to G-d and love for my children, and my eyes filled with tears and I started to cry. A helpful guard thought that I was claustrophobic, and came to help me. How could I explain what I felt? But as we passed that spot, that one place in Judaism where women get a better location than the men, I could only thank G-d for all of the blessings in my life.
Tu B’av is a great day for love. For romantic love, for family love, and love for G-d and the community. I know that not everyone can (or should) parent. I know that having children is difficult for many, inside and outside the LGBT community. But for those that are able, and willing, the love that will enter your life is beyond measure–as is my gratitude to G-d.
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This week our friends at Kveller shared this painful story of a woman losing the support of her father after coming out as a lesbian. If you or a parent you know is struggling with a child coming out, we can help. Check out Keshet’s Parent & Family Connection here. We can match you up with a mentor, another parent who has been through the same situation, and can offer support and resources.
I got married earlier this year and my father was not at my wedding. Five years ago, when I came out to him as a lesbian, he told me that he still loved me but that he thought my relationship was wrong.
He said he would love for me to visit and stay at his house, but that my fiancé was not welcome, because he found it to be “too much” for him. When our daughter was born he didn’t acknowledge her. My brother reports that my father doesn’t think of her as his granddaughter, and believes that she isn’t really my daughter, anyway, because my wife was the one who carried her. He only acknowledges my older daughter from my previous (heterosexual) marriage.
A couple of years ago, around the holidays, my father left me a message asking what my older daughter would like as a present. I emailed him back, telling him what both of my daughters would like, and that I wasn’t going to send a message to my children that either of them were more or less my own. If he couldn’t send something for both of them, I wrote, don’t send anything for either of them. He never responded, but a present arrived in the mail for my older daughter only.
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Recently a friend of mine made a very astute point: “We’re from the Midwest. We don’t do conflict.”
His offhanded comment hit home with me, and I’ve found myself using my Midwestern roots as a justification for disengaging. A car cuts me off and starts yelling worrisome obscenities? I’m from the Midwest—I’ll just wave. Facebook sends a slew of disturbing and frightening images my way? I’ll be keeping my thoughts to myself.
Yesterday my bubble of self-protection was challenged when anti-Semitic graffiti was scrawled outside of a home in my own community. I’m lucky to live in one of the most accepting and friendly places in New England. I’m happy to call the town of Salem, Massachusetts home—and although we might be known for witches and Halloween-related tourist traps, it’s a town where one always feels safe.
And, that feeling of security is well earned. This summer Salem was awarded a perfect score on HRC’s Municipal Equality Index. Earlier this year Salem signed an anti-discrimination ordinance specifically aimed at protecting the rights of trans* individuals. Salem’s Mayor, Kim Driscoll, even went as far as to donate $5 to nAGLY (the North Shore Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth) for each phone call her office received objecting to a recent decision to end a contract with college displaying discriminatory practices.
It’s safe to say that it is very safe to be yourself in Salem.
Yesterday I was forced to question that safety. A friend shared a picture with me—anti-Semitic graffiti was found outside a home flying an Israeli flag. This was something I never thought I would see in my very safe, very friendly, very accepting neighborhood. Suddenly the fear of a rise in anti-Semitic actions and the conflict that seemed so far away was playing out in my back yard. Suddenly, I was very afraid.
I am lucky enough to have grown up in a time and place where anti-Semitism is a rarity, making this incident all the more difficult for me to process. This was a new fear for me, as well as a new sadness. Even though the graffiti was blocks away from my home, I felt unwelcome, singled out, and sad. For the first time in my safe community, I felt afraid. Now my familiar coping mechanism of avoiding conflict felt wholly inadequate; my well-being was challenged by one individual’s act of hatred. And I wasn’t sure what to do next.
In today’s highly pressurized world, our responses to actions of hatred become almost more important than the acts themselves. Realizing this, I’m forced to challenge myself and ask at what point do my Midwestern tendencies towards passivity need to be suppressed? How do I respond to the very real evils taking place around me? How do I speak up for myself, and for others, without escalating an unsafe situation? And how do we, as a society, learn to balance our reactions in a way where hatred and fear never win over kindness and morality?
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Keshet is thrilled to have the inside scoop on the recently published The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew. Eli Glasman shared his inspiration for penning the work, and offered us a taste of the novel. Take a look!
My debut novel, The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew, is about, Yossi, a young gay teenager living in the Melbourne Orthodox Jewish community, as he comes to terms with his sexuality and learns to reconcile his religious beliefs with his sexual orientation.
I wrote the novel because someone very close to me has been in this situation. It was my love with this person, which made me feel frustrated by the implicit and often explicit homophobia within the Orthodox life. The laws against homosexuality was one of the major things which encouraged my movement away from the religious lifestyle.
When I started the novel, I was going through a period in my early twenties, which I think we all go through, where I was rethinking my upbringing with an adult perspective. This book was in large part a way for me to reconnect with Judaism in a way I’d not allowed myself to in the past.
Through Yossi, I could feel the love of Judaism and a belief in God, which I hadn’t felt since I was teenager. Yossi is far more passionate about religion than I was at his age, and I must say, that a lot of his love of Judaism rubbed off on me.
Check out this excerpt from The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew that author Eli Glasman has shared with us:
READING AN ARTICLE online from one of New York’s Jewish newspapers, I found an advertisement offering a Jewish alternative to homosexuality. I followed the link and read through everything the website had to say. The administrator of the website was a guy named Rabbi Pilcer. It took me three weeks to get up the courage to send him an email asking if I could speak with him.
He replied immediately, despite the time difference, saying that we could talk on Gmail chat. I double-clicked his name, wrote Are you there? and hugged myself as I waited for him to respond.
I’m here, he wrote back. What’s your name?
I drew in a deep breath, took the rubber band off my wrist and rubbed the tender welt that had formed on my skin. Flick the rubber band every time you have a sexual thought about another man, the website had advised. You’ll associate the pain with these thoughts and soon they will stop.
It hadn’t worked at all.
I pocketed the rubber band and squeezed the bridge of my nose. I felt uncomfortable giving a stranger information about me, especially over the internet, but I had to know if there was something he could do.
Yossi, I replied.
Hello, Yossi. What’s on your mind?
I scratched the skin around my thumbnail. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to help, I thought. He was a rabbi, after all. What would he know about this? Although, I figured, just because he was a rabbi, it didn’t mean that he didn’t have another qualification. He could have been a psychologist or something as well.
The rubber band thing isn’t working, I wrote.
The curser blinked in the text box for a few seconds before Rabbi Pilcer entered his next sentence.
So, you believe you’re a homosexual.
I winced at the sight of the word ‘homosexual’. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling him this.
I leant forwards and rested my head on my hands, knotting my fingers into my mesh of curly hair, accidentally causing my Yarmulke to fall off and land on the keyboard. Feeling the air against my naked hair made me uneasy. I put my hand on my head while I picked up the Yarmulke and nestled it back into place.
Yossi? Are you there? the rabbi wrote.
I stared at his question for a few moments and then sighed. Even with the safety of distance and anonymity, I felt uncomfortable talking about it.
I closed the chat box and set my laptop to sleep. I then stood up from my desk and dragged my feet across the carpet to the other end of my room, building up static in my fingertips that was zapped out with a gentle prick as I touched the metal handle of my window and pulled it open.
From outside came the noise of traffic and chatter, and the smell of smog. We were positioned on Carlisle Street, the shopping strip of the Melbourne Jewish community, between a Jewish bookstore and a bakery.
I’d lived in this house my entire life. I belonged here. My place was amongst other Jews, keeping alive traditions that were centuries old. I couldn’t imagine a life where each day bled into the next with nothing more to punctuate existence but payday and a piss up on the weekend. A life with no God, no holy days, no prayers, no significance to food or clothing.
I rubbed my wrist again, feeling the slight lump on my skin. I knew that there was only sin in acting on my impulses, not simply in being the way I was. And yet, just having these terrible feelings made me feel like less of a Jew.
At that moment, a droning buzz broke into my thoughts. I turned to my desk to see my iPhone light up. I looked at the screen, rolled my eyes and walked out of my room and down the hall until I reached the front door. I opened it to find Menachem standing there with his phone at his ear.
‘Why don’t you just knock like a normal person?’ I asked.
‘This is more efficient,’ he replied, ending the call. ‘If I prank call you, I know you’ll be the one to answer the door.’
Menachem stepped inside and peeked down the hall towards the kitchen. I could hear my father in there. I figured Menachem was scared my father would see him here and tell his parents he’d been playing violent video games, which was, after all, the reason he’d come. All the public libraries were closed and his family was too religious to have internet in the house, so he had to come to mine to fulfill his gaming needs.
Menachem tiptoed into my room and I followed close behind.
As soon as the door was closed, he started a game of Grand Theft Auto. I didn’t like to watch those sorts of games, nor listen to them, so I made him play with the sound off.
For ages he sat hunched in front of my laptop, hardly talking, while I lay sprawled on my bed singing Jewish hymns into a handheld electric fan. I liked the way the spinning blades chopped my voice so that I sounded kind of mechanical.
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Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we 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, Chaim Moshe haLevi examines Parashat Vaetchanan, questioning how we prove our love for God.
Last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Devarim, is perfectly placed in the liturgical calendar just prior to Tisha B’Av, the annual day of mourning that marks the destruction of the first and second Temples, along with several other calamities suffered by the Jewish people. In Devarim, the Israelites are reminded of the episode of the 12 spies, when Moses sent representatives of each of the 12 tribes to scope out the land “flowing with milk and honey.” They bring back a very mixed report, with all but one of the spies, Caleb, fixating on the dangers ahead of them. The Israelites are chastised by God for trusting in the spies who “cried wolf,” and as a result of this transgression, they are left with a promise that this shall be a day of mourning for all generations. “See, if you wanna cry. . .I’ll give you something to cry about!” says a frustrated and indignant God. The Mishnah teaches us that the episode of the spies is the first of the calamities to fall on Tisha B’Av, this historical day of sorrow and suffering.
Continuing this theme, in the haftarah reading for Shabbat Hazon (the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av), the prophet Isaiah offers a vision of the destruction of the Temple: This is what you get for following your own selfish interests rather than living according to the word of God! In both of these readings, we see the prototypical Deuteronomic God exacting punishment and retribution. What happened to the loving deity of the Book of Exodus?
Parashat Va’etchanan and the accompanying haftarah reading for this Shabbat Nachamu offer us consolation from Tisha B’Av and from divine censure and haunting prophecy. Yet, they also tender so much more. In the parasha, we are presented with the statements of the very tenets of our faith: the Shema, the VeAhavta, and the Aseret HaDibrot (the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments). In the haftarah reading, we are reminded that God cannot be compared to any image or any idol. “The grass withers; the flower fades; The word of God shall stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8) It is as if, in anticipation of Tu B’Av, we are gifted with the covenantal relationship of love between God and the Jewish people.
As Parashat Va’etchanan opens, we find Moses pleading for forgiveness from any transgressions that may have upset God in order that he be permitted to enter into the promised land along with the rest of the Israelites. While Moses’s request is unconditionally denied, he is given a counter offer. Climb to the top of Mount Pisgah and survey the land. Needless to say, Moses is frustrated and probably overwrought. After all of his hard work in leading this kvetching motley crew throughout 40 years of wandering, how is he repaid? With a bird’s eye view of a land he will never set foot upon.
Despite his personal disappointment, Moses the leader reminds the people that it is imperative that they keep God’s mitzvoth (commandments) and uphold all of the details laid out in the Torah. Why? Because God is a jealous, punishing deity who never forgets the sins of His enemies, repaying them by devouring them or ultimately destroying them. I can only wonder, is this really what Moses believes or is he broigus (disgruntled) because HaShem (God) has denied his request to enter the land? I don’t think it is either of these. Rather it is a scare tactic by one of the authors of Deuteronomy to get the people to toe the line, i.e. if one wishes to remain alive, s/he must fulfill God’s commandments. As intercessor between God and layperson, offering sacrifices on the behalf of the populace, the Deuteronomist Kohen (priest) would have a personal investment in instilling yirat HaShem (fear of God) into the people. Otherwise, who would come to make guilt offerings? How’s that for motivation?
The reader soon discovers another Deuteronomist voice, one that seems as discontented to portray God in this fire and brimstone manner as we are to hear it. Thus, we are made aware of the loving nature of God: a deity who is merciful, who remembers the covenant made with the biblical ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to provide the chosen people with a homeland of their own, who never fails them, who redeemed them from bondage in Egypt, who brought them to the holy mountain to reveal the divine law to them, and who has assisted them in preparing for their conquest of the land.
Moses reminds the people that God revealed Godself to each one individually at Mount Sinai NOT just to the ancestral forefathers. Each individual has a personal relationship with God, and thus, is personally responsible to uphold the promise of Naaseh v’Nishma (We will do and we will listen) made at that historical moment. To concretize that memory, Moses repeats the Aseret HaDibrot.
Tying together all of the lessons, the principles, and the statutes, the people are offered a summary statement of their relationship to God, in the form of the Shema. This is coupled with the instructive passage of how to demonstrate one’s love to God, the VeAhavta. The people who, not long after leaving Egypt, had once stood at Sinai and proclaimed Naaseh v’Nishma, have matured to the point that now they truly can Shema (listen) and Oseh (do), in the form of Ahavah (love). In phrasing the Shema in the plural, Moses has acknowledged and accepted God’s decision that he not enter into the land. Moses is now one of the people. He is no longer separated out as their leader, for even Moses must submit to the will of God, and to affirm God’s supremacy with love, even if a request of God was not granted him.
The children of Israel acknowledge God’s singularity and promise to show their love for God, with all of their core, essence, and power. They will do so by teaching future generations, demonstrating their love in every setting (at home or away, from arising in the morning to retiring at night) and through outward signs on their bodies and their homes. When their children ask why these things are done, they promise to recount their history as slaves in Egypt and explain how keeping the mitzvot has ensured their survival as a people.
So, if it all comes down to affirming God’s Oneness, and proving our love for God, did the first Deuteronomist have it all wrong? Well, for me as a queer Jew, the implacable parent in the sky is so passé. My personal theology does not include a God who is irate, spiteful, and unforgiving. I believe in a God of pure and endless benevolence, compassion, and truth. There is nothing in the Shema or the VeAhavta that speaks of yirat HaShem. I do not believe fear is the way to a healthy relationship with God. By contrast, I do believe one ought to have a mindful respect for God and God’s awesomeness.
Created in the image of God, we testify to God’s Oneness through acts of love, for loving is Godly. Whether it is teaching one’s children, wrapping oneself in tefillin, or affixing a mezuzah, these are all expressions of our connection to the Divine Spirit. Likewise, by living and loving openly as LGBTIQ people, each of us is an ayd (a witness) to the Ein Sof (the Infinite Divine Oneness).
This Shabbat find your personal connection to God. Reach out in love to the Divine. Celebrate this connection and share it with others, especially with your beloved this coming Sunday on Tu B’Av under the light of the full moon. And if you’re single and looking? You know the drill.
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