We’re grateful to Ayin Weaver for sharing a behind the scenes look at the inspiration for her debut novel, Bleed Through. Bleed Through follows 4 families through 200 years of their history.
The title Bleed Through, is a painting term and metaphor for the layers of discovery experienced by the main character. Being an artist myself, I created Rita’s talent, perceptions and imagination using my own artistic gifts and skills.
I began writing this novel many years ago after a particularly difficult break-up. I had grown up listening to Jewish stories told by my parents, who themselves were first-generation Americans. They spoke Yiddish and English at home where I learned from intonation, the nuances of a culture that was at a crossroads. I also learned some of the cornerstones of Judaism, not that my parents were religious—they were more culturally Jewish. But they lived a Tikkun Olam sensibility—through their world view and progressive activism. While I greatly appreciated the outlook they inspired, it was not enough for me.
As I reached adulthood I had feelings of being in the wrong body—after coming out I dated women some butch, some fem—never quite being able to figure out a comfortable sexual identity. I was unaware in the 1960’s of any possibility of living as a different gender. I cut my hair, wore boys clothes, drove a cab, painted houses—did whatever possible to feel comfortable in my skin. Later, I began to search for a deeper spiritual understanding to find the root of the pain I felt.
What transpired was a spiritual journey that lay beneath the surface of my confusion. Slowly over the years I came to understand a broader soul connection with people I met and began to accept myself as having both a feminine and masculine side. I was able to integrate these feelings through my politics, art, parenthood, teaching and intuitive abilities. I began to write poetry, short stories, write down my dreams as well as sculpt and paint more. The more I gave myself permission to be creative, the more joyful and intuitive I became. I read books on history, religion, spirituality, quantum physics, mysticism and alternative medicine, the latter bringing me to the study of Reiki. In 2003, after training for many years I became a 6th generation Usui Ryoho Reiki Master.
I used my healing training, dreams, art, and many books and research on spirituality and history (including African -American, Native American, Irish and Jewish history) to write Bleed Through. My intent was to tell a tale that highlights the absurdity of prejudice. In someways, I feel it is a simple story of love and courage—a bit like my own. But it is also a way of looking at the issue of gender identity, sexual orientation, sexism, racism and anti-Semitism that may have a positive impact, that says we are one, and that for me comes full circle to what I learned a long time ago—Tikkun Olam.
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In early October, Dan Schulman joined Keshet as the new Massachusetts Community Organizer. Before he could get settled, Dan was off to Germany to participate in a unique trip: The Germany Close Up Fellowship: An Open Program for LGBT Young Professionals. This trip was sponsored by “Germany Close Up – American Jews Meet Modern Germany,” an organization that seeks to “enrich transatlantic dialogue” and provide a way for young Jewish professionals to experience the diversity and history of modern Germany, and was co-sponsored by He’bro. This is the first LGBT-focused trip for the group. Dan checked in with us via email to let us know what he was learning.
It’s been an intense first two days here in Berlin. Although we are jetlagged, we began our program delving into German history. Here are photos of the foundation of the very first shul in Berlin. Anecdotally, the women of the 50 Jewish families in the first settlement were unhappy when it was built, as it took prayer out of the home. Instead of telling you why that made them so unhappy, I’d like to hear your best guesses – leave them in the comments section!
A Queer Ancestor in the Butch-Trans Border War
As the month of Tammuz draws to a close, we have the opportunity to mark the yahrzeit of a queer ancestor, the rumored-to-be-lesbian, potentially-transgender, and definitely awesome Maid of Ludomir, otherwise known as Hannah Rachel.
Growing up, one of my favorite pastimes was poring over dusty literature and historical annals, searching for the slightest of homoerotic nods from the author, the vaguest of historical conjecture in the biographies of famous dead people. Rumors about Eleanor Roosevelt or Emily Dickinson simultaneously titillated and comforted me, easing the burden of isolation that is felt by some gay kids who turn to a voiceless past, seeking to anchor themselves in historical precedent and human community.
And, like others, I’ve also searched for traces of myself in my Jewish past. The sometimes threadbare language of the ancient world provides a number of opportunities. David and Jonathan’s love for one another turned a few cogs in my imagination. The mere hint of romance between Ruth and Naomi kept me awake during Shavuot. And in the Talmud I have glimpsed the pretty boy Yochanan in just one too many questionable bath scenes.
There’s always some danger, of course, in assigning posthumous identities—you risk presumptuousness and factual error, to mention nothing of anachronism. The curious case of the Maid of Ludomir illustrates both the delight and the risk inherent in reclaiming queer heroes of the past.
The Maid of Ludomir, whose real name was Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, broke from the ranks of routine anonymity assigned to other females in her Hasidic community in the early 1800s. While visiting her mother’s burial site, she fell into an open grave, or so the legend goes. During a lengthy convalescence in which she drifted in and out of consciousness, she appeared before the Heavenly Court, where she was given a new soul. Finally, she awoke from her trance-like state and immediately took on a new identity, that of a rebbe. Immediately breaking off an impending marriage, she donned tallis and tefillin (clear markers of masculine privilege in the Hasidic world) and began teaching. She was said to dress in male garb and it is reported that she recited Kaddish in public after her father’s death (a duty the Hasidim would reserve for male relatives).
Widely respected for her great learning, she eventually attracted her own circle of faithful Hasidim. She was known to preside over tischen (communal Shabbat meals headed by a rebbe) and to distribute shirayim (leftovers) to her eager devotees. When, later in life, she and a fellow mystic joined forces to hasten the arrival of the Messiah, Elijah himself intervened, fearful that the pair’s efforts would succeed in a world not quite ready.
Like too many people in history whose communities have deemed them queer in one way or another, the Maid of Ludomir does not have a happy ending. In addition to attracting the attention of learners, she also attracted attention from the patriarchal establishment, who were rankled by this bizarre aberration in their orderly world. A powerful and well-known rebbe took her to task, coercing her to forfeit her teaching role. She complied, turning in her tallis and tefillin, and also acquiescing to a series of doomed marriages, all unconsummated. She finally died in utter obscurity without any descendants to mourn her.
Recently she was dredged up from the depths of anonymity and is once again attracting talmidim (students). In 2004 a memorial stone was unveiled on the Mount of Olives to mark her supposed burial site. Some now observe her yahrzeit, which is the 22 of Tammuz, falling on July 12 of this year. Books have been written about her. Jewish and feminist blogs have buzzed about her.
The Maid of Ludomir attracts the especial attention of both butch lesbians and transmen, two sets of identities between which there is sometimes camaraderie, sometimes a creative tension, and sometimes bitterness, anger, rejection, and misunderstanding. She is claimed by the lesbian community, on the one hand, who can picture her tzitzit dangling beneath a man’s suit, and who smile in recognition: butch.
At the same time, she is claimed by the transmasculine community, who retell the rebbe’s story in male pronouns, recognizing the person whom the Hasidim of the 1800s could not: transman. A queer Jewish zine published a piece about Hannah Rachel, with handwritten black ink correcting the female pronouns, calling the reader’s attention to the supposed injustice we do when we use female pronouns for this figure. One naturally must wonder what Hannah Rachel would have thought about the correction, if it is in fact a correction.
The push and pull between butch and trans has been described by Jack/Judith Halberstam as a “border war.” The choice of words may seem drastic, but ask someone who stands in that liminal space and you may be surprised to find the term fits. The term, while conjuring the image of territorialism, also serves another purpose, as Halberstam explains, “A border war suggests that the border is at best slippery and permeable” (from Female Masculinity, 1998).
And many indeed have passed over that border and back again. Queer Jewish writer S. Bear Bergman, who once identified as butch and is now a self-described gender-jammer, has written about this blurry zigzag that we draw between butch and trans. Bear wryly purports to clarify the issue for us, “Butches are not beginner FTMs, except that sometimes they are, but it’s not a continuum except when it is” (from Butch is a Noun, 2006).
And, of course, there are others for whom the distinction between butch and trans makes no sense. Redwolf Painter, a Heyoka writer, asks plaintively, “Can I tear myself apart and put myself back together to name what part of me is butch and what part trans?” (from “Split Myself Apart,” 2011).
To be sure, the once-forgotten Maid of Ludomir has no voice with which to clarify her identity for us, nor would she even understand the identities we assign her, lacking the century of context which makes such conversation comprehensible. Ultimately, her legacy will elude the specifics. Both butch lesbians and transmen who are seeking a clear Jewish precedent will have to turn the page and search on. Or maybe it is my own desire to claim her that is speaking: I want a Jewish ancestor of my own, someone who has straddled uncomfortably the border, an arbitrary demarcation that is at once real and imaginary, between butch and trans.
One thing that is easily recognizable, however, is that the Maid of Ludomir was, without a doubt, queer, and that this is an appropriate time both in the year and in the arc of our history to reflect on the legacy of this curious ancestor, wherever our imaginations or needs may lead us in that contemplation.