The first time I really dug into the story of Purim was actually also the first time I thought I might be gay. It started like any other day. I went to school, play practice, and then my mom picked me up.
Because it was Friday she brought me to shul. As we sat in the car waiting for the time to pass until services began, she asked me an interesting question: “do you like boys or girls?” And I guess I had never thought about it because I remember thinking “you know, that’s a good question. I should probably figure that out.” So when I went inside the shul and heard a d’var about Purim, I didn’t see it as an ancient story in a language I didn’t speak. Instead I saw it as an allegory for a coming out story.
Esther is the queen of Persia, married to Ahashverosh, and he has just decided with the help of Haman that he’s going to kill all the Jews. Problem is, Esther is Jewish. (Plot spoilers ahead, I apologize in advance.) So Esther decides that she has to tell him that she’s jewish, or all of her people are going to die. And so, she works up all of her nerve, and she tells him that she’s Jewish. She knows that it’s risky, but she does it anyway, because it’s what must be done to save her people. In the end, it works out great. The Jews are spared and Esther is no longer living in hiding. Call me crazy, but that’s a textbook coming out story, right?
Now I’m going to sub in some names to make this story more modern. Playing the part of Esther we have Will Portman, a Yale student. Instead of coming out as Jewish, he’s coming out as gay. Instead of the day when all the Jews are set to be murdered coming up, let’s put in the Supreme Court’s DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and Prop Eight decisions. And instead of the king, why don’t we have Will’s father, senator Rob Portman. Just like in the story of Esther, it all works out for Will.
His dad became the first Republican senator to publicly endorse marriage equality, and no one got disowned. Something even bigger that that happened, though. Suddenly the world got a whole lot better for LGBTQ+ kids everywhere. Because, just like Esther wasn’t the only one affected by her decision to come out, Will Portman wasn’t the only one affected when he came out. Suddenly, it became a lot easier for kids of republican parents to come out because they could point to the Portman family and say look, “they’re accepting, and you should be too.” And it became easier for Republican parents to accept they’re LGBTQ+ kids because that’s just what the senator had done. They had gained a role model.
Obviously, it isn’t national news every time someone comes out, though that would be pretty cool. But when it’s someone in power, in any sort of way, it helps. It helps LGBTQ+ people realize that they aren’t alone. When parents see other parents accepting their children no matter what, that helps them realize that they aren’t alone either. And when you come out in your family, your school, or your kehilla kidosha (holy community), you are helping everyone around feel a little less alone.
So back to a few years ago. After that conversation with my mom, all I could think about for what seemed like forever was the possibility that I could be gay. Apparently it wasn’t forever, and actually more like six weeks, because I remember having a realization on Passover. I was getting ready for the Seder when all of the sudden it hit me pretty out of the blue that, woah, I’m gay.
So I didn’t really know that to do with this information, because I didn’t know any openly LGBTQ+ teens and young adults. Mostly I just cried about it and envisioned people having bad reactions, not gonna lie. And then I made a plan. I was going to not tell anyone, not act on it, or do anything until high school. That didn’t last long. Literally days after the first of my friends came out at the beginning of eighth grade, I felt comfortable enough to come out too. After that, friend after friend started coming out. I swear, even in the closet we were attracting each other.
Since then, whenever anyone has asked me about my sexuality, I’ve told them the whole truth. I’ve answered their questions, except when they are too weird and personal, and I’ve tried to be the best role model that I could be. The truth is, I never would have had the courage to come out on my own. I needed a push. I needed my friends to be there by my side. I needed guidance. So I hope that whenever I tell my story, and whenever I answer people’s questions, I am helping them. Maybe I’m helping them come to terms with their sexuality or gender identity, or maybe I’m helping them to be a more accepting and considerate friend or family member. Even if you don’t realize it, telling your story or even just being out can be a limitless inspiration for those around you.
I’m sure Esther wondered why she, a Jew, was chosen to be queen. And I’m sure that Will Portman, the son of a prominent Republican wondered why he happened to be gay. And I’m sure that most of you here have, at least at some point, wondered why you are so lucky to be LGBTQ+ and Jewish. Looking back, we know that Esther was put in the position of power so that she could change the King’s mind. And maybe that’s the same reason why Will Portman is gay, so he could change his dad’s mind, and the mind of a lot of Republican parents out there. So if you find yourself asking why you’re LGBTQ+ and Jewish, I bet that the answer is essentially the same: so that you can change the minds of the hateful and bigoted people around you, or make it easier for other people in your kehilla kidosha to come out, and be accepted.
As Miep Gies once said, “even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager” (that’s you, readers!) “can, within their own small ways, turn on a light in a dark room.”
You don’t have to be royalty, or a political figure, or some big celebrity to make a splash or even make a difference. All you need to be is your wonderful and genuine self and I promise, you can change the world. Happy Purim!
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Last night thousands of Jews across the country marked the beginning of Chanukah with rallies and protests against racism and police brutality.
In Boston, nearly 300 Jews gathered in Brookline, a heavily Jewish community. Together the group lit menorahs as “a symbolic dedication to the fight to end systemic police violence and racial profiling, and to remember the lives of black people across the country who have been killed by police.”
As Idit Klein shared in a recent email to Keshet members, “during the eight days of Chanukah, we remember the fight of the Maccabees who stood up against their oppressors and said: ‘We won’t take it anymore!’
This cry of resistance is all too familiar. As LGBTQ individuals, advocates, and allies, we remember that Stonewall was a riot, and that where we are today was only made possible because people before us stood up and said: ‘We won’t take it anymore!’”
For those of you who could not attend a Chanukah Action, here is a look at what happened in Boston. Be sure to check out resources here:
Protests organized by Chaunukah Action happened across the country—in places like Detroit, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Seattle—to coincide with the first night of Chanukah. As many involved have noted, this is not the end of the conversation, but the start.
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When Kathryn Macias joined the Boston Jewish community in the Keshet Sukkah this past week, she shared her thoughts on what it means to be welcoming. Earlier this month Kat shared her coming out story, reflecting on what it means to be a queer Jew-by-choice finding a space where she felt welcomed in the Jewish community.
Welcoming is something I think a lot about as I work as the Boston Community Organizer for Keshet, where my goal is to make the Jewish world a more welcoming place for queer folks. I think Sukkot has two special things to teach us about what it means to be welcoming.
1. The first is that we need to be visibly welcoming. Sukkot is different from other holidays because nearly all the barriers to entry are eliminated. There are no tickets and really no need for invitation—instead we construct a sukkah outside of our home that any passerby can see and enter.
How often does this barrier-free welcome actually occur in our community? Even before my time at Keshet I would talk with leaders at organizations that would say their organization were completely welcoming, but when I asked how they let people know about their welcoming policies, they wouldn’t have much of an answer. In the same way folks avoid inviting themselves over for dinner, welcome isn’t assumed. Instead an invitation needs to be extended and standing welcomes need to be made continually visible.
2. The second piece Sukkot teaches us about welcoming is based in the tradition that we are supposed to live in our huts. Sukkahs are cute and festive but I’ve never really heard them described as cozy and comfortable. Being truly welcoming involves a little discomfort. I have yet to meet someone who is turning their sukkah into their new tiny house and that’s with good reason.
Last week, I caught Rich, Keshet’s Director of Finance and Administration, peering out one of the windows in our office to check how heavy the wind was, getting worried that his sukkah at home might blow over. Sukkahs have patchy roofs and flimsy walls that won’t do much to protect you from the elements. They make for uncomfortable living. Like living the discomfort of a sukkah, outsiders bring difference and the unfamiliar can be uncomfortable. But I’ve always found that places of agitation and discomfort are often the most fertile ground for growth.
Sukkot teaches us that to be truly welcoming we need to make ourselves visible and we need to push ourselves to be a little uncomfortable to make room for a wider welcome.
So the questions I’ll leave you with are these: In what way are you pushing yourself to be little uncomfortable in order to make room for others? And…in what ways are you making your welcome visible?
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- In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!
Our friends at The Canteen shared an Orthodox Rabbi’s hopes and prayers for LGBTQ children. Rabbi Avi Orlow, the Director of Jewish Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), concluded his blog post by sharing that “There is no doubt that some of you may be offended by what I have said here. But as Pastor Pavlovitz wrote, ‘This isn’t about you. This is a whole lot bigger than you.'” What do you think? And, If you—or your family—need resources and support, check out the Keshet Parent & Family Connection program.
As I prepare for Yom Kippur, I have been giving some thought to all of my and our collective sins. To paraphrase the Al Het Prayer, I have been thinking about both the sins which I have committed intentionally or unintentionally. What have been my sins of commission and my sins of omission? What have I done inadvertently by not doing anything at all? How will I be judged for my actions?
I was thinking about this yesterday when I read a profound blog post by John Pavlovitz, a pastor of North Wake House Church in North Carolina. In his piece entitled If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises From A Christian Pastor/Parent he boldly came out as a person of faith in support of his and other peoples’ children who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning.
Reading this, I got to thinking ahead to the Torah portion we traditionally read in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. This portion is comprised of a list of sexual prohibitions (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I might not have an answer to this question, I do feel that silence on this issue is its own sin.
As a human being, I feel a need to speak out on this because there are those for whom it is not just their comfort or happiness that are at risk, but their very health, safety, and actual lives. As a Jew, I cannot stomach senseless hatred toward people because of who they are. An integral part of our Jewish identity comes from our experience as victims of the world’s hatred. We cannot stand idly by as other people suffer from bigotry. As a Rabbi, I feel a need to speak out for justice.
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- Find a chapter, get support,and take action with the Keshet Parent & Family Connection program.
My niece just started Hebrew School. As someone who didn’t have a formal Jewish education as a kid, I’m pretty jealous of what she gets to do. She’s only five, but she’s already discovering the essence of Judaism—learning. Week one she decorated a spice box for havdalah (or, “a jewelry box for cinnamon” as she first explained it), and the next week she created a mobile featuring the highlights of the creation story. She not only gets to create art, she also gets to mumble prayers at dinner time. But, perhaps most importantly, she’s learning about Kehillah, or community.
Kehillah is particularly important this time of year. With Rosh Hashanah only a few days away, I’m zoned in on my community.
My immediate community, my partner and I, have a tradition of baking an apple pie on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. Last year we tried to do this over a campfire in Utah—which, to be frank, was an utter failure. I do not recommend this.
My community of friends has been planning for weeks—coordinating potlucks and rides to services. Emails have been flying back and forth about starting times for dinners (late enough to accommodate those who are going to services, early enough for those traveling across town to still get home at a reasonable time) and dietary restrictions (of both the kashrut and allergy kind.) My community, in our late twenties and early thirties, is one mostly far away from our biological families, some in relationships, and most without children. Celebrating together, as a community, means being part of a family.
My extended community, those who I know on a more casual basis, is on my mind as well. In the past 24 hours alone I’ve asked the property manager of my condo building if he needs a place for Rosh Hashanah, and offered an invite to a fellow photographer to join a potluck dinner. This time of year I don’t want anyone to feel excluded.
And then, of course, there’s my extended-extended community—the entire Jewish world.
One of the many perks of working at Keshet is being aware of the lengths that my co-workers go through to ensure that everyone in the Jewish community has a place to feel welcome, especially during the holidays. Last week I overheard my office mate speaking on the phone with someone who was in need of an LGBT friendly synagogue for Rosh Hashanah services. I listened as she googled synagogue after synagogue, providing not just the names of welcoming places to worship, but also providing driving and public transportation directions. (For those of you still looking for an LGBT friendly congregation, check out Keshet’s Equality Guide here!)
Kehillah keeps us together year round. During the High Holidays, it takes on a special importance. Knowing we have a welcoming and inclusive community to celebrate, reflect, pray, and, of course, eat with means knowing we belong. I wish everyone in the MyJewishLearning and Keshet community a happy and healthy new year.
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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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I’ve always said that Passover felt like the most relevant Jewish holiday to me. As a teenager I insisted on placing an orange on the seder plate as a way of reminding my family and me that there are still folks who are left out of their Jewish and broader communities.
I attended sedarim two of the four years I lived in London, thousands of miles from my family. One seder was at the home of a Jewish couple friend of mine and one was in my own kitchen, attended only by three non-Jewish friends. I was proud to be able to celebrate my favorite Jewish holiday so far away from my family, when I’d never really worked to develop a Jewish practice of my own. My relationship with Judaism in recent years has waxed and waned, but consistently centered around ritual and community rather than observance or devotion to Torah. With this in mind I was nervous about attending the seder in my own home, hosted by my roommate Joanna and our friend Becky, both of whom could talk Jewish circles around my knowledge of practice and theory. Joanna reassured me that although there were rabbinical students attending, everyone was open and excited to be sharing the seder with a group of radical, progressive, queer or queer friendly people, regardless of religious affiliation or practice.
My Pesach 2013 (5773) was one of the most meaningful days of my Jewish life. We were asked by the hosts to bring two items: one that represented mitzrayim—a dark place—for us, and one that had some symbolism related to what we wanted in the coming year. We talked about oppression and slavery, both literal and metaphorical. The food and wine were amazing, but the company and conversation were what the Passovers of the rest of my life will have to live up to.
The thing that I had to keep reminding myself of while I was sitting there, surrounded by people who were so intelligent and deeply passionate about creating a just world, was that this was everyday life in my new queer, Jewish community. This seder that rejuvenated me and encouraged me to be a better person was simply a collection of people who would become my community for the following year (and for forever, I hope). Although we were instructed to think about the objects we brought in advance, no one was expected to share if they didn’t want to. Unlike any seder I’ve ever been to, I wanted to keep talking Pesach far beyond the time when the meal was served.
This year I will be in Melbourne, Australia for Pesach, where I’ve just moved with my partner. I’ve been invited to a seder at the home of a woman whom I met on an airplane; a woman who minutes prior had invited me to join her book club. This is the part of Jewish community that I cherish, and why I’m so excited to attend. I will attempt to carry the warmth last year’s seder in Boston to the Melbourne table of a family that I don’t yet know, comforted by the fact that holidays away from relatives and with different combinations of family can be a crucial part of making a home wherever I am.
Get a copy of The Purim Superhero, the first Jewish children’s book with LGBT characters, in time for Purim. And, if you are a family participating in the PJ Library program, be sure to request your copy of The Purim Superhero by March 13, 2014!
One year ago this month, the world got its first look at you. The truth is, though, I’d had some version of you in my head for over a decade before that: I’d wanted to write about a kid with a Purim costume dilemma ever since my days as a Jewish day school librarian, looking for holiday books to read aloud in class. Then, when Keshet announced its picture book contest in 2011, you came a little more clearly into focus: you’d be a kid with same-sex parents, whose struggle to be true to yourself at Purim echoed your dads’ experiences as gay men. Your personality really crystallized one day when my friend’s son, bored at being dragged along to his mom’s writing date, started tossing ideas at me, and some of his unique imagination (and his interest in aliens) was infused into you. And, of course, I didn’t know what you looked like until I saw Mike Byrne’s adorable illustrations for the manuscript.
Over the past year, I’ve been honored to hear from GLBT parents, and other nontraditional families, that you’ve provided a way for them to see their family life affirmed in the pages of a book, and from many “traditional” parents that your story has given them a chance to see the diversity of their neighborhoods or congregations reflected in a Jewish book they can share with their kids. You’ve been part of the celebrations at birthdays, baby showers, at least one wedding, and, of course, at Purim festivals all over North America. You’ve even inspired some Halloween costumes!
I’ve been heartened by the warm welcome you’ve experienced in the Jewish online and print world, and by the support I—and you—have had from other writers at venues like the Jewish Book Council event I attended last June, or the LimmudVancouver conference where I presented just last week. I’m grateful that you came into the world at a cultural moment when you can be recognized and celebrated for all of your identity—as a Jewish kid, as a kid in a same-sex-parent family, and as a boy who finds a way to honor the unique interests that make his heart sing, even while he wants to be part of his group of friends.
It’s that last part that I’ve seen resonate the most strongly with kids, especially kids around your age. Over and over, at school visits and author readings, they’ve wanted to talk about how you feel pressured to dress as a superhero like the other boys in your class, and how hard it can be to be different from your friends, and how important it is to find a way to be yourself anyway. Your story certainly isn’t the first time that theme has been sounded in a children’s book, but you’ve helped bring it to life for a lot of kids—whatever their religion or family structure.
So, happy birthday, Nate—and chag Purim sameach! I’ve been thrilled to share this first year with you, and I’m excited to see where your future will take you. You are a super friend to many, and I hope you’ll continue to fly high.
Tu B’Av is a little-known Jewish holiday, coming just six days after the mournful commemoration of tragedy during Tisha B’Av. In ancient times, Tu B’Av was a joyous matchmaking holiday for unmarried young women; in our day, it’s observed as a more general day of love. In the spirit of this holiday, we present you with snapshots of three well-known, real-life, queer and Jewish love stories.
Tony Kushner is a playwright and author, best known for his epic play Angels in America, while Mark Harris is an author and editor whose focus has been Hollywood and cinema. So it is perhaps not that surprising that the two reported that their first dates, way back in the late ‘90s, took place “in theaters of bookstores.” In 2003, this couple had the distinction of being the first same-sex commitment ceremony to be featured in an extended column in the Vows section of wedding announcements of The New York Times. (The very first same-sex couple to be featured in The New York Times wedding announcements was another Jewish couple, Steven Goldstein and his partner Daniel Gross, on Sunday, September 1, 2002. Their wedding website www.Celebrating10.com is still up and features the original announcement. Thanks Steve for sending us this!)
They sometimes speak or present together under the title “Too Tall Blondes,” and for Kate Bornstein, author, playwright, and gender theorist, and her partner Barbara Carrellas, author, sex educator, and university lecturer, it seems a fitting title. This couple resides in New York City (with a house full of pets), but between teaching, presenting workshops, writing, and appearing in online classes, their combined reach is huge. (You can read more about Kate, one of our LGBT Jewish Heroes, here!
A Jewish power couple if ever there were one: Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, have only been romantically linked since December 2012, but they’re already a familiar site together at public events throughout New York, as well as in the Jewish press. Rabbi Kleinbaum is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, one of the oldest LGBT synagogues.
In honor of Father’s/Fathers’ Day, we bring you Gregg Drinkwater’s essay on being a gay dad. You can read other posts in our series on and by parents: by a mother of a queer daughter in Colorado, here; by an Orthodox parent from Baltimore, MD, here; by the mother of a gay son in the Philadelphia suburbs, here; by the mother of gay twins and wife of a rabbi, here; and a video celebration of Mother’s Day/Mothers’ Day here. This essay, originally published in May 2006, is drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, based on the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible.
The Book of Numbers opens with the voice of God, commanding Moses to conduct a census of the Israelites “according to their families, according to their fathers’ household.” (Numbers 1:2) Thirteen months have passed since the Exodus from Egypt and the “children of Israel” are still wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. The census is to be organized “according to their families,” which is to say, by tribe. Only men over the age of 20 are counted since the census is undertaken, in part, to prepare for war before attempting to enter the land of Israel. The count of each of the 12 tribes is then enumerated, one by one, until Moses and Aaron reach a final tally of 603,550, with another 22,000 Levites counted separately and marked off as a distinct group. Continue reading