When I thought about my future as a kid, the image of a wedding would come into focus. A beautiful huppah, my beaming parents, and adult me standing next to the love of my life with whom I’d build a Jewish family. Judaism was always a strong and important force in my life, one I cherished. My commitment to carrying on my heritage was a given, particularly charged by the fact that I’m the grandson of Holocaust survivors. But as I grew into my teens, that image of my future became distorted when I realized that there would never be a bride in white standing next to me. At the time, I could never imagine a second groom wearing a kippah at my side either. Merging a Jewish path and a gay identity felt like a pipe dream.
Growing up, I was a student at an Orthodox yeshiva. Each day in Talmud class, we analyzed traditional Jewish laws and values in ancient Aramaic, but I was surprised to find how often the Rabbis brought the conversation to current politics and the ‘evils of the modern world’. While the study of Talmud was characterized by rich and dynamic debate, ‘evils’ like homosexuality were taught as black and white —they were inherently wrong, case closed. These lectures on the ‘abomination’ of being gay scared me to my core, as I was simultaneously discovering that I was most definitely attracted to men. While I was being told it was against everything G-d and Judaism stood for, in my soul it was the most natural and honest thing I could feel.
After many years of fear and confusion, and the occasional suicidal thought, I reached the light at the end of my teenage tunnel: my freshman year at a large, liberal college. There, I met a group of supportive, down-to-earth friends who challenged me to look in the mirror. One late night in February, I got up the courage to come out to my parents…via Instant Messenger (after all, it was the early 2000s). Hiding in the warm light of a computer screen, I communicated words to them I never imagined articulating. I held my breath and stared at the words, waiting. What followed were lots of questions, fear and worry. It was done, out in the world and irrevocable.
The years that followed proved to be a bumpy landscape for me and my family, with highs and lows as we navigated this new reality. While I had gained newfound self-acceptance, my life had become more secular and my connection to Judaism a bit fainter. My mother worried that I’d never find happiness, and my father felt conflicted and hurt. The good news was that they still loved me, but they were slow to understand me, and I became increasingly frustrated that they weren’t progressing faster. By my senior year though, I had to admit that they were making an effort. They read books on Judaism and Homosexuality, turned to my hometown rabbi for support, and started telling friends. I came to realize that my parents are human too, that they were figuring out all of their feelings just like I was, and they needed the same love, patience and gentle respect from me that I was seeking from them.
In time I had become very comfortable with myself and my life as a gay man, and imagined that I’d eventually find a partner, but my hope of having a Jewish family was a distant memory. I would enjoy the occasional Shabbat dinner with my family on Friday night, and then hit the bars in Hell’s Kitchen with my friends on Saturday night. My gay identity and my Jewish identity were like tolerant neighbors who refused to socialize with one another. After many failed first dates and unfulfilling excursions in online dating, I realized that finding someone who could understand my faith and share in my family’s culture was more important than I thought. And then one ordinary Monday afternoon in September, I took an elevator ride that changed my life.
David and I struck up a conversation between floors two and six, and I instantly felt a connection. We shared a ton in common, and remarkably, he happened to be Jewish too. The first time I brought him to my parents’ Shabbat table, I nervously held my breath during quiet introductions. My father began reciting the blessings, and David put on a kippah and chanted them along with my family. I watched my parents relax, settle in, and get to know him. Over the course of that dinner, something changed for my parents. My homosexuality had transformed from an abstract, scary idea into something beautiful and palpable: the connection they recognized between me and David, holding hands next to each other, laughing and kibitzing with them at their dinner table.
Fast forward to May 19, 2013. There I was, standing under the chuppah, looking into David’s eyes. My parents are in front of me on one side of the chuppah, and his are behind me on the other. I’m surrounded by our closest friends and family, listening to a rabbi pronounce us LEGALLY married in the state of New York and before G-d. I pinch myself. This is not a dream, this is really happening. My parents have tears in their eyes, but they are the joyful kind. Later, we dance. I spin my mother around the dance floor, and my father and brother lift me in the air on a chair. I watch my parents give a toast with pride. I realize that it was possible after all.
I don’t mean to suggest I have it all figured out. My feelings about the intersection of traditional Judaism and the modern world are still complicated. I still have the same big questions about how Torah fits into modernity that I had as yeshiva boy. But now, I ponder those questions and work to make sense of the world alongside my husband at our own Shabbat table, filled with humor, love, and a deeper understanding of meaningful Judaism than I ever had during my time at Yeshiva. Our relationship has actually brought me closer to my heritage and has provided me with a stronger understanding of its place in my modern life. What I do know is this: I didn’t have to choose one path at the cost of another. For the first time in my life, my Jewish identity and my gay identity have blended to one—just me. All of me.
We’re incredibly grateful to Yiscah for sharing this excerpt from her forthcoming book, 40 Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living. She describes her book as her “memoir of the joys and struggles with my own spirituality, gender identity, and commitment to living true to myself.” You can learn more about Yishcah here and learn more about the book here.
Approaching the Western Wall thrust me into the very consciousness that frightened me the most in my life and caused my chronic daily anxiety. The walk to touch the stones for myself, a powerful source of gratitude and thanksgiving for hundreds of thousands of Jews over the past 2,000 years, plunged me into the confusing mire of a definitive and absolute binary gender system. Here there was simply male or female, with no room for anything in between. Visiting the Wall requires separation of men and women—so simple for most, but heart wrenching and dreadful for those of us who, at birth, entered the world where this was anything but clear. There was no flexibility, no blurring of the clearly drawn lines. I felt forced to choose, to announce to the world whether I was male or female. Males to the left, females to the right.
If I’d chosen the women’s side, where I knew I belonged, I would have aroused unimaginable extreme attention. If I were to choose the gender that the world defined for me, and that to which my body tragically acquiesced, I would have likewise aroused all sorts of unimaginable attention, albeit internal. By now I had trained myself to pervert my own sense of truth into a disguise, allowing the world’s mistruth about me to direct me as my guide. And so to the left I went—excited to touch the stones and despising myself once again for not being authentic and genuine, especially at Judaism’s most sacred place.
Equally well trained in denial mechanisms, I embraced each step to the Wall as an opportunity to relish in a moment of time where my gender confusion may have not even existed. Ah, the power of imagination!
As I drew closer and closer to The Wall, each of the stones grew in both physical size and in their significance. They dwarfed me and yet drew me closer and closer. I experienced the sensation of being in a magnetic field, utterly helpless to resist its pull. I looked to my left and right to see how others behaved when directly in front of the Wall. How is one expected to behave? What do I do when my face is so close to the stones that every time I inhale and exhale I can feel and even hear my own breath? What is expected? One touches the Wall. One kisses the Wall. One not only touches the Wall, but affectionately, with care and intent, caresses it. One not only kisses the Wall, but glues one’s face to the Wall after kissing it. A touch, an embrace, a kiss that one dreaded breaking. I wanted, I yearned, I sought with hunger and thirst to experience such closeness and intimacy. But with whom? Of course, with God! With HaShem—literally meaning The Name.
Closeness and intimacy with God was never something I had considered. I had not a clue what this meant, entailed, or implied. To complicate matters, I knew enough to realize one can only approach intimacy by being authentic and genuine. Nothing about me at that moment, aside from my yearning to live in truth, was authentic and genuine. What the men around me saw was a lie, my lie. How could I dare think I was worthy of such a deep connection.
Yet, here I was. Not knowing what else to do, I imitated those around me, and for the first time in my life, I gently touched and caressed the Wall in this sacred space and time, and then I kissed it. I kissed what appeared to be a stone. A huge stone, a pretty stone, one that bore and continues to bear witness to history, but nevertheless, a stone. I felt the stone gently touching my hands, my face, and my lips in return, as I experienced a warmth that was both foreign and yet familiar. Such a completely new experience, as if HaShem actually greeted me personally and uttered the words just echoed by 150,000 of my people buried in the Mount of Olives, “Welcome Home.” I sensed I belonged here. I sensed I was dwelling in a space of encouragement and protection. I felt loved and I felt embraced by the Source of Love. This sacred space messaged to me that while I lived in a fragmented and strife-torn inner world, restoration of a unity experienced somewhere in my past was now possible! Oh how I wanted to believe this! Oh how I was desperate to believe this invigorating and redemptive idea. And a part of me in fact did. Immediately!
I touched and then kissed my past, my present, my future, my people, my soul—all at once. And my past, present, future, my people and my soul all at once embraced and kissed me in return. On a conscious level, this was my first real intimate moment with my own spiritual center, my soul. In that sacred moment, I knew that for the first time I had encountered pristine truth, in its most vulnerable and naked state, void of all rationalizations, veils of denial, and garments of fear and shame. Did I know what this implied? Did I even know what this meant? Of course not. But intuitively I was aware that I possessed the secret to this hidden knowledge. All I could pray for at that moment was that I would never forget this moment of spiritual awakening and infusion of vigor, of hope and of encouragement. What else could I pray for? I could have prayed to be praying from a place of truth. I could have prayed to embrace the truth by somehow being the impossible—being that which had evaded me for the past 20 years, being authentic and genuine. But this was far too frightening. I was not yet ready to truly come home. For now I was excited to begin the journey, having no idea to where it would lead.
I had approached The Wall so torn up, my integrity so painfully compromised. As I slowly backed away from it, I was still tormented, but now I felt inspired, energized to discover and learn about another part of me that until now had been ignored in its state of spiritual latency. My spirituality was bursting to be acknowledged, to be embraced, and to find expression.
But just as quickly as I found myself focused on a part of myself beyond gender, I sadly remembered a fundamental truth. Judaism is a culture strictly for males and females. I knew right there, at the most profound place to the Jewish people, that somehow I must be given admission into this world and not be excluded. I was determined not to spend the rest of my life as an outsider looking in from a distance. I could not be relegated to an observer status, forced to merely watch my own peoples’ destiny unfold. They are my people. I am in direct lineage to those who have been pouring out their hearts and prayers without compromise in this very spot for the past 2,000 thousand of years. And yet, how? How could a woman trapped in the body of a man enter? Through which gate?
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, Michael Sarid sees echoes of Noah’s behavior after the flood among Holocaust survivors – and those who lived through the AIDS crisis.
Imagine that you are alone in the world. A monumental calamity has destroyed life as you knew it.
Your friends and community? Gone.
Your home and possessions? Gone.
Your frames of reference, your very identity? Gone or, at least, forever transformed.
How do you go on? How do you reconstruct a life for yourself? Is there no one to help or guide you? To comfort you when your nightmares of the devastation become unbearable? Why did you survive when so many others perished? Your sense of loss is so overwhelming that you feel paralyzed. You may even feel, perhaps subconsciously, responsible for the destruction. Continue reading
Rabbi Jane Litman first presented these words of Torah for Simchat Torah in 2006, as part of the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. Her message is just as profound and relevant today.
Wow! Here we are – we have accomplished so much. We were oppressed, then came together and confronted the oppression. We built a movement, resolved internal disputes, struggled with leadership, created a new set of social norms, overcame setbacks, and moved forward. It’s taken a long time – many years – but now, finally, we’re poised to reap the rewards of all our efforts…. Only to find that we’re back at the beginning! Sound familiar? No, it’s not the story of gay rights during the Bush years; it’s actually the underlying revelation of Judaism’s ritual Torah cycle. Continue reading
There are more spiritually resonant symbols associated with the Festival of Sukkot than with any other major Jewish holiday. On Yom Kippur, the only visual marker is the special clothing many wear as symbols of teshuvah. On Passover, the redemptive symbol of matzah is joined by the visual and performative symbolism of the Seder. Shavuot has almost no visible reminders of the holiday other than the special liturgy. But Sukkot offers the 4 species (lulav, etrog, willows, and myrtle), each with their own multi-layered significance, as well as the sukkah itself, a symbolically powerful stage that encourages those celebrating the holiday to open their hearts, their minds and their homes to a transformative experience of the divine. During the 7 days of Sukkot, observant Jews live – or at least eat their meals – surrounded by the walls of a fragile hut with a roof covered in branches sparse enough to allow glimpses of the heavens and an expanded field of vision.
As the weather begins to cool, and as – at least in Israel – the rainy season draws near, Jews go outside to a structure far from the comfort and reassurance of the bricks, mortar, steel, and concrete that normally shelter them, literally and figuratively, from directly engaging with the outside world. During the rest of the year, even when Jews leave their homes to join together as a community, they usually gather in synagogues for prayer and study, in schools for learning and training, and in Jewish community centers for fun, leisure and public programs. In all of these communal institutions, as in our own homes, solid walls provide structure and safety, boundaries and reassurance. Those inside are protected from the outside elements and from those not like themselves, able to feel safe with their own kind. Seeking community and shelter within, these communal structures keep out those who, the people inside feel, may pose a danger – those with whom they feel less comfortable. Continue reading
Communities, institutions, families and friendships create a sense of common identity, a sense of “we.” Since no two people – no two Jews, or gay men, or lesbians, or transgender people, or Orthodox Jews, or even identical twins – are the same, that sense of common identity is always created despite our differences, as when my family saw my sister as one of us despite the fact that she was the only blond, blue-eyed, left-handed member. Those were trivial differences, but they still made us uncomfortable; my parents teased my sister about them, and when she was small she would sometimes cry, because she didn’t want to be different. She wanted to be one of us.
I knew how my sister felt. Even though I looked the way a member of my family was supposed to look, I knew that I was different – different in a way I feared would, if it were discovered, permanently exclude me from my family, the Jewish people and, for that matter, the human race. My body was male, but my gender identity was female. I looked like and tried to act like a boy, but my male body and identity felt deeply, disturbingly, wrong. Continue reading
If it takes holy chutzpah to argue with God, Jonah has it in spades. God’s word steers him to Nineveh, the great Babylonian metropolis whose wickedness is driving the Divine to distraction, but instead of traveling to Nineveh to “proclaim judgment upon it” (Jonah 1:2) as God asks, Jonah books passage on a boat heading to Tarshish, in the opposite direction. Angered that Jonah would turn “away from the service of the Lord” (1:3), God sends a storm to shake up his ship. While the sailors pray and bail water, Jonah sleeps down below in the ship’s hold. After the sailors toss him overboard in the hope of calming the storm and deflecting God’s anger, Jonah spends three nights in the belly of a giant fish, and finally gets coughed up onto the beach of Babylonia. There, he makes a half-hearted pass through the city, proclaiming destruction in forty days.
This, my friends, is Judaism’s most successful prophet – the only prophet the Hebrew Bible records as actually bringing about the full repentance of his flock. If nothing else, he’s proof positive that God has a sense of humor, or at least a fine appreciation for irony. Continue reading
Gut yontef, L’shanah Tovah, Shabbat Shalom!
Before I begin, I want to offer my deepest thanks to all of my beloved Sha’ar Zahav community for the opportunity to be here with you this year. It is a privilege and a joy, and at this time of year I am especially grateful to God and to all of you.
We stand here tonight without knowing quite where we are. Or more precisely, we don’t know quite when we are. Shabbat has come in; the sun is just gone over the horizon. During this evening’s service light gives way to dark, and the old year and the new year meet. We cannot ever pinpoint the exact moment when the old year disappears forever. But we know that there is a time at sundown when it is no longer the past year and it is not yet the year to come. It is old and new, both and neither one, at the same time. For fleeting minutes on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, time and certainty are suspended, and we who have come to pray are lifted up into twilight and its mystery. Continue reading
Yesterday we introduced you to the great new series on transgender Jewish identity published by the Forward. It’s the first comprehensive exploration of this topic we’ve seen by a mainstream paper in the Jewish community.
I spoke with Naomi Zeveloff, editor of the series, while it was in its early stage of conception. I caught up with her again, curious to learn more about the impetus for this groundbreaking series and what she learned while working on it.
What inspired you to put together this series on transgender Jewish identity?
At the Forward and elsewhere, I have done a lot of reporting on sexuality, gender identity and religion. A few Jewish LGBT advocates told me that transgender issues are the “new frontier” for the Jewish community. I was also seeing a lot of stories about transgender people and issues in the secular press at the time. This got me thinking about the experience of transgender Jews — did they feel welcome in liberal Jewish settings and elsewhere? Were they creating community of their own? Did Jewish practice facilitate gender transition? These were massive questions to start out with. Luckily, I had an assistant to help me: Michael Berson, the 16-year-old son of a Forward board member, did extensive research on the topic for me. From there, I developed the ideas that became the five stories that we ran in our Transgender and Jewish series.
Did anything surprise you in your work on this? What stories most impacted you?
I was surprised by how forthcoming my sources were. I expected to have a very difficult time with access, given the sensitivity of the issue, but I found that most of the trans Jews I interviewed were willing and even eager to speak with me. It’s a very small, connected community, and, I think, once one person felt comfortable speaking with me then other people opened up as well.
Learning more about gender transition was a moving experience. It’s a very serious undertaking, and demands deep introspection. I have tremendous respect for people who transition genders, who take it upon themselves to know and understand themselves at such a profound level.
Some of my favorite stories came from Rabbi Elliot Kukla, the first out transgender rabbi, who told me about doing pastoral work with elderly cisgender and transgender Jews. He told me, “I say as a joke that to a lot of elders I am not more surprising than an iPhone. It’s like, this is what a phone looks like now, and I guess this is what a rabbi looks like now.” Kukla said that people underestimate the capacity for empathy in others. But he shows up with empathy and expects and is very often given empathy in return. I found that attitude very impacting, and very hopeful.
What has the response been to the series?
Our series got some national attention, from GLAAD and from the folks at Sirius XM, where I was a guest on the Mike Signorile show about LGBT issues. I haven’t heard much from transgender readers of the Forward. I’m very curious to know what they liked and didn’t like about the series, and what they feel we could have done differently or do in addition. I see this series as a jumping off point for the Forward to report more comprehensively on gender and sexuality.
Want to see more reporting on transgender Jewish identity at the Forward?
Have a comment/compliment/complaint about any of the articles? Leave a note in the comments or shoot Naomi an email.
Last week, Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Private first class Bradley Manning, made headlines. Her announcement that she would be living as a woman eclipsed the news of the previous day–her 35 year prison sentence for leaking classified government documents.
So while the mainstream media was tripping over itself, The Forward was wrapping up a terrific series exploring transgender and Jewish identity in all of its wondrous complexity. The series looked at how Jewish summer camps welcome gender-nonconforming campers, the link between gender transition and conversion for trans Jews by choice, mikveh rituals for transitioning, transgender rabbis who paved the way as well as rabbis still in rabbinical school.
Tomorrow, we talk with editor Naomi Zeveloff about what inspired her to produce this series and what she learned while working on it.
For Transgender Converts, Changing Gender and Finding Faith Come Together
For some transgender converts, turning to Judaism is intrinsically linked to gender transition. The process of soul-searching unearths one truth, then another.
Marking Gender Transition in the Mikveh
When Max Strassfeld helped write a ritual for a friend’s transition, he mapped contemporary ideas about gender onto a very traditional Jewish space — the mikveh.
When Jewish Transgender Teens Come Out of Closet, Many Leave Camp Behind
Summer camp has not always been a welcoming place for transgender Jewish youth. That’s changing as new camps spring up — and existing ones try to be more inclusive.
First Generation of Transgender Rabbis Claims Place at Bimah
When it comes to transgender Jews, the community is in a moment of transition.
New Generation of Transgender Rabbis Ties Jewish Practice and Gender Change
The number of transgender rabbis in America will soon double — from three to six. The next generation is blazing a trail with a unique approach to gender identity and Jewish spirituality.
Emily Aviva: Creating a Jewish Community for Trans Women
(For readers of this blog, you probably recognize Emily her from her deeply personal and thoughtful blog posts like Wrapping Myself in the Fringes and Learning to Return to Myself.)