If you’re in Boston, please join us for Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 23rd at 2:30pm in John F Kennedy Park. After, we will join the wider Boston community in the 16th Annual Boston Transgender Day of Remembrance.
As the Boston Community Organizer at Keshet, I’ve been working with community members on a Jewish observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance. A few weeks ago I sat down for an early morning meeting with Simcha, the Community Organizer at Boston Workmen’s Circle who is also gender queer.
Over the steam of my small cup of coffee the question “why are you so passionate about transgender justice work?” floated in my direction. It was a question I had been mulling for quite some time, but I had never quite found the answer.
I began to offer up some semblance of an answer: “Well, it all started in college. I had a lot of transgender friends. I witnessed what they had to deal with, and it wasn’t fair.”
I knew that wasn’t quite the answer, after all those words were about my friends and not about my stake in this work.
I pushed myself to find the real answer. Why am I so passionate about transgender justice work?
Fighting for transgender rights is fighting for the right to move beyond the boxes of “man” and “woman.”
I fight for folks who do not fit in either box or want to be in a different box. And, in doing that work I had to think about my own gender and what box I fit into. Here are a few of my boxes:
- I enjoy cooking.
- I don’t walk home alone in the dark.
- I bless Shabbat candles.
- I speak up in board meetings.
- I don’t pretend I never fart.
- I’ve wrapped Tefillin.
I don’t fit squarely into the “woman” box, and yet, I feel every bit like a woman. My blessing of Shabbat candles, a mitzvah typically reserved for women, does not at all feel at odds with when I wrapped Tefillin, a mitzvah typically reserved for men.
And, that’s when it struck me.
Doing transgender justice work was for me. When I fight for those who very obviously transgress the lines of gender, I am also fight to expand the walls of my very box. Trans* work is gender work and gender work is for all of us.
This year we mark Transgender Day of Remembrance in Boston on Sunday, November 23. I invite you to come do gender work for the community, but just as importantly for yourself.
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On many Saturdays, we take our son to a minyan where men and women sit separately. I am not thrilled with the arrangement, but what I do like is the fact that the men are as likely as the women to have a baby strapped to their chest, to be chasing a child through the hallway, or to accompany their child to tot Shabbat.
If there’s going to be sex-segregated seating at our Synagogue, I am glad that at least my son will have no clue from looking around which sex traditionally did more of the child care.
X: A Fabulous Child’s Story is a 1978 tale of an experiment—scientists select a family to raise a child without revealing its sex to anyone. The parents receive an extensive instruction manual to help them figure out how they need to deal with both their child and the outside world. One of the hardest hurdles the family faces is sending their child, X, to school, where there are proscribed behaviors for girls and boys. The story has many lessons about how people are constrained to tasks that are traditionally thought to be well suited for their gender and how gender roles are actively taught and enforced by relatives, teachers, and peers.
My husband and I have a son, and we are not trying to keep his sex a secret. Because he’s a boy, we dress him in clothing that people expect from his gender. (Pink makes me slightly insane, so should he develop a sister, expect her to also wear blue all the time). He attends a daycare that he loves, and we recently went to his two-year conference there to meet with his teachers and see how he was doing.
The daycare center uses a standardized assessment to monitor the development of the children, and one of the questions is whether the children can identify boys and girls. The daycare instructor said they teach the children what clothing girls wear, what clothing boys wear, and then have the children try and identify who is a boy and who is a girl. Perhaps because when our son is not at daycare, he’s hanging out with our friends, who are not really a gender role-conforming bunch, and perhaps because he just hasn’t gotten old enough yet, he could not do it. “That’s not something that’s really important to us,” my husband said to the teacher, clearly wishing we could opt out of that part of the curriculum.
Our son’s daycare, to our knowledge, doesn’t try and constrain the kinds of toys he can play with the way that some of our friends report that their children’s daycares do. When I picked him up the other day he was rocking a baby doll in a stroller with one hand and cooking with a toy kitchen with the other hand. He is, however, young enough that we don’t know a lot of what’s going on during the day.
While I pay people to watch my son so I can write this article, is he being told boys should do certain jobs and girls should do other ones, or that girls and boys should play with different kinds of toys? I sincerely doubt it, but it is theoretically possible and he wouldn’t be able to tell me if that was what was happening. He told me very seriously that he had a great day the other day because he sat on his friend’s big head, which I find entirely suspect—I may not know what his teachers say about gender, but I am pretty sure I know what they say about head-sitting.
We trust the teachers and we know that he loves them—he mutters their names sometimes in his sleep. The only way we could guarantee that he received only gender messages that we approved with is if my husband and I cared for him full-time at home, and if I was the one who did not pursue a career, that would also be teaching a message about gender. (Right now, I do stay home with him several weekdays per week, and it’s awesome. But I am teaching something by not working more, and I know it.)
At daycare, they also tell my son that he’s going to be “like Daddy” when he grows up, which I might object to more if I didn’t think the world would be a better place if everyone (of every gender) was like my husband when they grew up. For my son’s birthday we told him he could pick out something he wanted from the toystore, and he selected a new doll, to accompany his existing doll. On weekends, he likes to wear his baseball hat “like Daddy” and stroll his baby doll through the park across the street “like Daddy.” As I watch him push his stroller back and forth, I think that for now we might be OK with the gender roles we’ve modeled…but he’s going to be exposed to a lot more of the world soon, whether we’re ready or not, and we’ll have to see how he comes out of it.
When it is time for our son’s three-year assessment, we will start encouraging him to wear a yarmulke full-time “like Daddy.” I wonder what will happen to any daughters we might have, these small imaginary children dressed in blue. Will we also get them to wear a yarmulke when they turn three? Will I then have to start wearing one too? And what will the daycare think of that?
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Curious about gender? Check out this program the Chicago branch of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection is running on gender fluidity! If you are a parent or a family member of an LGBT individual looking for support, visit www.keshetonline.org/supportfamilies for more info about our program for parents and family of LGBT Jews.
The “gender binary” tells us that there are two ways to live in this world: as a man (who likes masculine things, dresses in masculine ways, has a masculine profession, etc) or as a woman (who likes feminine things, dresses in feminine ways, has a feminine profession, etc).
More and more, people are becoming aware that for some individuals, the gender they were assigned to at birth is not the right one. If you ask people to define “transgender” you are likely to hear things like:
-“someone who was born in the wrong body,”
-“someone who switches to the opposite gender,”
-“someone who was assigned male at birth, but knows themselves to be female.”
While all of these identities are extremely valid and true for many people, they do not capture the experiences of everyone—for example, those for whom the entire idea of only two options of gender is too restrictive.
There are many gender identities and expressions that blur the gender binary or exist outside of it altogether: gender fluid, gender variant, gender creative, third gender, gender neutral, gender non-conforming, and genderqueer, to name a few. But often these narratives are missing from our conversations about gender and trans* identities.
This can leave individuals and parents feeling lost or confused if their or their child’s identity/expression does not fit the typical narrative of what it means to be transgender.
For example: a teen who says “sometimes I feel like a girl, sometimes a boy, sometimes both, sometimes neither! My identity isn’t static.” Without an understanding of gender fluidity as an identity, this might be dismissed as a “phase.”
Or what about a child who is raised as a daughter, who then comes out as trans and whose preferred gender pronouns are he/him/his, but who still feels comfortable wearing dresses and has no interest in surgery or hormones. This may cause his parent to wonder “is my kid really transgender?”
Or imagine a teen who was raised and identifies as a boy, but enjoys both masculine and feminine clothing and style depending on the day. He may feel as if he has to choose just one or the other and stick with it, or risk being called “confused” or “attention-seeking.”
Chicago’s Parent & Family Connection has been noticing and discussing these situations at our monthly meetings, and is very excited about our upcoming event specifically about these rarely-discussed but important narratives.
Our workshop on Gender Fluidity will be a chance for parents and professionals to learn and ask questions about gender identity, gender expression, and the wide range of forms and combinations these can take. We are hoping this is a step towards a broader and more varied understanding of gender that allows us all to live a bit more freely and true to ourselves.
If you are in the Chicagoland area, we would love for you to join us on Thursday, September 18th from 7-8:30pm at Beth Emet for this exciting event with speaker Biz Lindsay-Ryan, an experienced presenter on gender and LGBTQ issues!
If you can’t make this event but would still like to get involved with our group, check out the many other things we have planned for the upcoming months, including a film screening and educational/support meetings where you can connect with other family members of LGBTQ individuals.
Chicago’s branch of Parent & Family Connection is run by Response, a social service agency for youth and young adults. Through Counseling, a Center for Sexual Health, and Outreach programs, we help adolescents and their families in the Jewish and general community develop skills in communication, decision-making, and leadership necessary to deal with life’s challenges. Learn more from Response, a program of JCFS, supported by Jewish United Fund/ Jewish Federation.
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- Visit Keshet’s Family & Parent Connection for more info about Keshet’s program for parents and family of LGBTQ Jews.
Last Hanukkah my mother gave me a decorative wall hanging with the text of Asher Yatzar, also known as the bathroom blessing, the most hilarious benediction in the Jewish canon to any Hebrew school student. In a liturgical tradition with hundreds of formulas for giving gratitude to God at various special occasions, perhaps it should come as no surprise that traditional Judaism urges us to thank God each time we successfully emerge from the toilet. But tell that to a school age child. Or to my grown up self, trying not to giggle at my mother’s gift.
My mother does not practice Judaism and does not read Hebrew. But every year for Hanukkah, in a heroic act of motherly love, she ships appropriately-themed gifts across the country for both myself and my Labrador. The dog got a stuffed dreidel. I got a ceramic placard with the words of Asher Yatzar. I’m not sure she knew what it was.
Like most Americans, I was raised with what I consider a completely normal level of neurotic shame surrounding bathroom functions. An integral part of my toilet training were the instructions to close the door behind me, pull up my pants when I’m done, and don’t talk about what I did afterwards, especially not at the dinner table.
And, like most gender-variant people, that primer of bathroom shame was coated with an extra layer of fear and confusion: Will I scare someone in the ladies’ room today? Will I be safe in the men’s room? Is sitting down to pee an affront to my already insecure masculinity? Continue reading
They invented the term 100% trans Jewcore, and as Schmekel they are rocking our world! Keshet caught up with the members of the band – Lucian Kahn, Ricky Riot, Nogga Schwartz, and Simcha Halpert-Hanson – to talk about musical influences, what they’d love to see in the Jewish world, and what the heck “Jewcore” is, after all. We’re bringing you a longer post than usual, but you know what they say: one band, four Jews, lots and lots of opinions!
RR: “Jewcore” loosely refers to anything within the rock realm that has Jewish influences. It is a description that makes sense for us in this fortunate era of complicated genre classification. For me, the Jewish part of it is liturgical and other traditional tunes, and Israeli songs. As of a little more recently, I’ve been listening to klezmer bands, like the Klezmatics. The rock part of it is pretty eclectic. I listen to some classic rock, like the Doors and Jimi Hendrix, and as of more recently punk bands like the Dead Kennedys and Limp Wrist – yes I know, I got into punk way after the fact. I also like the Israeli riot grrrl bands Hamachshefot (The Witches) and Poliana Frank. The artists whom I would actually call influences though, meaning ones I have listened to long ago enough for them to be considered an influence, are the Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Sleater-Kinney, the Distillers, the Smiths, and They Might Be Giants. But oddly enough, I grew up on showtunes and most of my music collection consists of jazz.
SHH: I think we all collectively came up with the term “Jewcore” as a way to describe our sound to inquiring minds. Our community in Brooklyn has coined the term “Transcore” to refer to bands like ours that have all trans* members and sing about trans* experience, so we just took that to the Jew level. That asterisk, by the way, denotes that the word “trans” in this context does not just mean “transsexual” but all folks that identify under the “transgender” umbrella – there’s great information here. I use the term “Jewcore” to reflect the unlikely combination of Jewishness with punk rock, rap, or hardcore – like what Schmekel does or what our friends Yiddish Princess does or what Moshiach Oi or SoCalled does. When you think “Jewish music,” you don’t think the kind of sound that we or the other bands I mentioned make.
In terms of influences, I love bands that think outside of the genre-box that they’re categorized in, like Against Me!, the Dresden Dolls, Modest Mouse, and Tool. I think it’s artists like those – that play with genre and keep genre flexible, that produce really interesting and ever-relevant sounds.
NS: I don’t know who came up with the term “Jewcore.” I have referenced our sound as queercore, transcore, and “yidcore.” Lucian has used the term Schtickrock to describe us as well. I guess it doesn’t matter what you call it really. Our music is influenced by a large catalog from punk to polka, klezmer, and even some good ole rock and roll. Our lyrics talk about our experience as queer, trans* Jews. I would say that that more or less can define some aspect of “Jewcore.” My personal influences come from classic rock and lots of punk and ska, I could list some here but it hurts my head to think of all the bands and musicians I pull from.
Can we talk for a moment about the infamous matza photo shoot with Amos Mac? What was that like? What were the responses – in general and, you know, from your mothers?
LTK: Dirty jokes are the matzoh meal that holds my family together, so even my grandma laughed at the pictures. Actually, she’s a psychologist and used to be a sex educator back in the ‘70s, so it’s hard to shock her with something as innocuous as a bunch of half-naked Jews covered in unleavened bread. As for the rest of the world, I was surprised that some of our fans interpreted those pictures as sexy. In fact, The Advocate called us sexy and reprinted one of the matzoh shots. Personally, I was going for ridiculous. Is sex really a viable option when there are dry crumbs involved?
RR: I’m sure my parents have seen these pictures but we never mentioned them. Honestly they do scare me a little because my other career is teaching, so I just hope they don’t get into the wrong hands. But hey, you live once; how many people can say they posed naked for an international magazine with matzohs?
NS: I felt like a schnitzel by the end of that shoot. Before we did the matzoh photo, we took a photo of Ricky pouring wine into my mouth and I got covered in it. Then we rolled around in matzoh… plus the lights, I was ready to be served. On the plus side, my boyfriend really enjoys the picture.
SHH: I have to admit I was pushing a lot of my boundaries posing for that shoot – there were more than a few moments with that picture in particular in which I felt, exposure-wise, like I was at the gyno. We all sang Echad Mi Yodeah [Who Knows One, a traditional Passover song] for most of that photo, to loosen up (of course). The shoot was in a massive warehouse with dividers between studios, so the entire first floor heard us singing about knowing one G-d, two tablets, etc. It was a unifying moment for me with the band — being stark naked on the floor with matzoh shards, singing about HaShem.
I’ve heard you’ve been upset after certain interviews that focus more on your bodies then your music. Do you get tired of educating the public on gender issues?
LTK: To be honest, at this point I just find it boring, which is actually a privilege. I’ve been pretty much done with physical transition for over two years, and I’ve been with the same boyfriend for almost as long, so I don’t have to think about the fact of my trans body on a daily basis anymore. It still comes up in random ways, such as dealing with doctors or bureaucratic paperwork, but since I’ve mostly come to peace with my body, I don’t feel like talking about it all the time. I’m definitely at a different place now than I was when I wrote the lyrics for the “Queers On Rye” album.
RR: Yes. I get tired of it both with the public as a performer, and as a regular person. I also happen to occasionally do some educating at LGBT Jewish retreats and I don’t mind educating in a time and place where that is the intended goal. I just don’t like being asked about my body in a casual social setting, or when press is more interested in our transitions than our music.
NS: The focus that many non-trans people put on trans and gender non-conforming bodies is sometimes overwhelming. As Ricky said, when there is a time and a place, sure we can talk about it. We are people also and do other stuff. In this case we are a band that performs and plays music about many subjects besides our bodies.
This happens, unfortunately, within the queer community as well as out in the general public.
I recognize that I will forever have to qualify myself to people who have never before met a trans* person and that until olam haba [the world to come] becomes olam hazeh [this world], educating will be a fact of life, but I am especially tired of teaching specifically transmen about why I’m not one of them and qualifying the existence of genderqueer as a separate gender. It’s really disheartening to me that so many trans* people have internalized the sexism and binary mentality that made it difficult for them to realize themselves to begin with.
Can you discuss the queer Jewish music scene? Where can people go to find new bands and artists?
RR: The Shondes, Athens Boys Choir, Y-Love, Isle of Klezbos, Metropolitan Klezmer, Yiddish Princess, Gay Panic, GLTR PNCH (pronounced “Glitter Punch”), and Evan Greer are all great artists to check out. And I’m sure I could name more if you give me some time. Some of those are queer and Jewish, some just queer, some just Jewish. Where to go is wherever they are playing.
NS: There is an amazing NYC/Brooklyn queer and queer Jewish music scene. Multiple nights a week one can find a venue playing rad music .
SHH: I feel really lucky to live in New York City and be inside what I consider the pulse of queer Jewish music. The big names in klezmer — the Yiddishist scene in general tends to feel pretty queer — are all here playing in synagogue basements and concert venues around the city. A lot of Jews For Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) events, like their annual Purimschpiel, bring in queer Yiddishist artists and klezmorim. As far as how to find out about new bands and artists, I’ve found Facebook groups an immensely helpful tool to get to know my community and all the innovation happening in it. Currently, I belong to Young Jewish Brooklyn, Brooklyn Jews, Thursday Night Chulent, Trans* and Judaism, and Punk Jews and all of these groups in one way or another have turned me onto artists and musicians I hadn’t previously heard of touring both across the country and around NYC.
I’d love to get more personal about what being a part of Schmekel means to you – to be making music as part of a Jewish gender non-conforming group.
LTK: If we’re getting personal, to me being part of Schmekel means having three siblings to rock out, celebrate the holidays, get through hard times, go on road trips, and joke around with. Schmekel is home to me, which is probably not a sentence that a lot of people have uttered.
RR: This didn’t start out as a political statement, but Jewish trans visibility is certainly important. Mostly, I like making the kinds of music I like and singing from a queer perspective at the same time. And also everything Lucian said.
NS: Ditto to what Ricky and Lucian said. I am not actually a musician at all… I picked up the bass for the first time in 10 years to get to make music with these folks. Ricky and I were in a band when we were 17. It kinda sucked in that awesome high school garage band way. I continued to always want to be a rockstar… but never thought of pursuing it, till Schmekel happened.
SHH: Schmekel to me has been an experience of pushing myself to take my art and my identity in two presently disparate groups seriously. It has been a process of coming together with three other people with varying degrees of shared experiences in the Jewish world and in the trans* world and working together to build bridges with each other and others around us. It’s been an amazing opportunity to have come to such a family space with this band and to have seen the fruit of that relationship be a Yeshayahu-worthy vision of Jewish unity across religious convictions and personal identities.
Given, amongst all of you, your many and varied experiences of inclusion and exclusion in Jewish community: what would you like rabbis, teachers, and other leaders, to know?
NS: Hold the judgement. It is the purpose of people in leadership positions to help facilitate a supportive environment and assist those in search of a relationship with community and G-d. It is not their, or any other person’s, place to judge or dictate how one should pursue their path. Leaders and teachers and rabbis are there to present halacha, discuss, assist, and support. Not to shut down, excommunicate or pressure an individual in any specific direction. Also, take the time to educate yourself: it is hard to self-advocate all the time. When someone is coming to you, they are probably coming for support and guidance, and it is worth it to be in the know about what the community needs are to better help.
RR: That gender is complicated. I would love for rabbis to read some gender theory books and talk to queer and trans people and the doctors and therapists who deal with us, and formulate an informed opinion about how they want to define gender. There is a movement of acknowledging gender in Judaism as a social category and not just a biological one among halakhically committed Jews, and that movement also has insightful things to say that I would love for other rabbis to check out. Let’s face it, our existence presents a challenge to their observance. It also presents a choice to either take the easy route and dismiss our experiences and insist that our queer and trans identities aren’t real, or do the work that it takes to keep us Jewish and to keep us safe and emotionally healthy. They don’t need to compromise their religious practice, but the Jewish thing to do would be to learn about our experiences and respect us as human beings. I would like for teachers to know that teachers often gender-police their students without being aware of it, and it is damaging. I encourage them too to educate themselves about the experiences of their queer and trans students.
SSH: I would like Jewish leaders to know that kol yisroel arevim zebazeh [all Jews are responsible for one another] applies to all Jews everywhere and that “Jew,” thank G-d, comes in many profoundly different manifestations — all of them Torah sanctified. Education — Trans* 101 workshops, learning about queer sexuality, patriarchal oppression as well as how gender is a mutable idea rather than a static fact — has to be a priority to understand each other. HaShem put us all together as Am Yisrael — the idea that the mere existence of one Jew invalidates the existence of another is not a productive way to bring about the messianic era and will only deter the healing that klal yisrael [the entire Jewish community] was created to bring about for the world.
You can catch Schmekel at:
Werk Those Pecs: Valentine’s Edition
Saturday, February 16th, 2013
SlateNY, 54 W. 21st St.
Doors at 9pm
A benefit for Werk Those Pecs, an organization dedicated to raising trans visibility by funding gender-affirming surgery, supporting queer businesses, and showcasing queer artists.
With the holiday of Simchat Torah coming up, rabbinical student Becky Silverstein considers how the Jewish calendar lets her renew her relationship with the Torah each year – and how it reminds her to use our sacred text as a tool, and not a weapon.
Eisegesis: an explanation of a text in which the interpreter’s own biases and assumptions are read into or placed upon the text.
As an educator who has worked mostly in experiential and informal educational settings, I know a lot of icebreakers and community building activities, not to mention name games. Last fall, as a visiting rabbinical student in a liberal yeshiva, I learned a new game that was intended to serve as both an icebreaker and a way for people to learn about each other. The name of the game was “eisegesis.” We, students and our teachers, gathered in small groups. Slips of paper with verses from that week’s Torah portion were distributed and directions were given: read the verse and share with the group how that verse describes a part of who you are, a part of your life, or a part of the community that you are coming from.
I looked at the verse in my hand just as it was being read aloud: “A woman shall not wear man’s clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Adonai your God (Deuteronomy 22:5).” I panicked.
As the only gender non-conforming person in the room and one of only two out LGBTQ-identified students in the community at the time, I had not yet decided how, if, or when I was going to come out and whether I would discuss my gender identity as it relates to my identity as a rabbinical student. The go-around began. A male teacher shared how his running in spandex shorts might be considered too effeminate. Another teacher asked him what he would do if his son wanted to wear a dress, making it clear that there was only a question about the father’s response if this happened once or twice. After that the son’s behavior would clearly need to be corrected. Another shared the first time she wore pants in her religious community. Shaking, all I could say was, “just another example of how the Torah can be used to oppress people.”