Tag Archives: Jewish holidays

The Jewish Themes Behind the TV Show “Transparent”

In honor of the annual observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance we are devoting space in our blog to posts about gender. Be sure to check out other stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” the personal reflections of two parents faced with the reality of gender roles at day care, a Tachlis of inclusion post entitled “How to Hire a Transgender Rabbi,” transgender ally-ship wisdom from the Torah’s patriarchs and matriarchs, and a father’s pride at being a dad to his transgender son 

Binging

In this image released by Amazon Digital, Amy Landecker, left, and Jeffrey Tambor appear in a scene from "Transparent," a new series on Amazon Digital.

In this image released by Amazon Digital, Amy Landecker, left, and Jeffrey Tambor appear in a scene from “Transparent,” a new series on Amazon Digital.

In the days following Yom Kippur, I found myself wondering why we cannot just space out the holidays a little. Why does Sukkot follow so immediately after the consuming intensity of the High Holidays? While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer ample opportunities to transform oneself and modify one’s less healthy behaviors from the past year, this year I returned immediately to my bad habit of binge TV watching, thanks to the arrival of Transparent.

I had been eagerly awaiting this TV series ever since Jill Soloway, the uber-Hipster Jew and screenwriter, released the pilot of this story of a Jewish family. The show’s witty banter, carefully developed characterizations, and clever plotting of familial drama drew me in. Finally, both the Jews I know fully realized for television, and an honest portrayal of transformation and its affect on one’s family and community.

What distinguished this show as uniquely captivating were the very present Jewish elements and themes. As I binged my way through episodes two and five between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then in an even more accelerated pace after Yom Kippur, I finished season one just in time for Sukkot, starved for more.

Each of Transparent’s Pferffermans, a wholeheartedly Jewish family, strive to transform their lives, their relationships, and their selves through an exploration, re-creation and reformation of their personal histories. Their individual paths may diverge from my own, yet their hunger for connection, meaning, and teshuva feel very close to home.

 Transparency

Transparent provides ample relational drama and sexcapades in the vein of the millennially inspired Girls, but for an audience born before 1980. Beyond its often outlandish hipster quirkiness, Transparent’s greatest treasure is its title’s namesake, Maura Pfefferman, whose process of transition and revelation to her family, and herself, drives the narrative from the first episode.

Not merely a plot device, Maura’s revelation that the Mort—the man that her family, and the world, have always known—is and always has been a woman, provides the soulful impetus for the entire show’s transition from a quirky family comedy, to a deeply meaningful and enrichinTransparent-300x206g journey. With each episode, Maura becomes more fully visible to us. She transforms in her family’s eyes, and even our own eyes, from their beloved father Mort to the woman that she has always been.

The story of Maura’s gender identity begins long before we first meet the Pfeffermans, illustrated by carefully woven flashbacks and revelations. Very quickly and clearly, the show becomes transparent that Maura’s gender identity has long been transient, and nowhere near as permanent as it appeared to those even most close to her, who only knew her as the man, Mort. Maura’s joy and pain, discovered in bringing greater permanence to her more transient external self, delivers the show’s driving soul and spirit.

It is through Maura that we truly appreciate that healthy return to one’s primary state of being, in the true sense of teshuva, ferments out of the recognition and acceptance that one’s seemingly permanent structure are truly merely temporary structures, which are much more adaptable and flexible than we often perceive.

Fostering Trans Inclusion

For more than a decade I have been striving as an activist, educator, and rabbi to foster greater inclusion for those in our community whose journeys towards healthy transformation has been blocked because they are LGBT.

In Transparent and its Maura, I have found a worthy hero who calls out for us to care for her, understand her, and include all those who live within our lives and communities as transgender people.

Available research tells us that approximately 0.25%-2% of our population experiences some degree if gender dysphoria. Transgender people encounter a great deal of pain: to their psyche, to their relationships, and their lives.

Joy Ladin, a professor at Yeshiva University, elevated the conversation of the Jewish community when she came out as transgender. Her brilliant, poetic, and often painful book, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, paints a vivid picture of Joy’s journey of transformation, and the deeply Jewish path this journey became. Her announcement opened many doors for conversations about gender identity, and she has even served as consultant for LGBT inclusion and the creative team behind Transparent. (Editor’s note: If you haven’t read this book, carve out time to do so. It is one of the most honest and beautiful books you will ever read.)

Taking Action

For years I have worked with Keshet, and I hope to continue to change and grow with my community. We need to take every opportunity to align our religious and spiritual language. We need to support those who come out and provide them with the transformational power of Judaism to support their personal journeys. With Transgender Day of Remembrance only a few days away, we need to support a Jewish community that embraces people of all gender identities.

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Transgender Day of Remembrance is November 20th. How will your Jewish community observe the day?

Posted on November 13, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Sukkot: A Time (and Place) for Welcoming

When  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. 

Kathryn gets into the welcoming spirit with her sukkah decorations.

Kathryn gets ready for the holiday.

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 invitationinstead 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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Posted on October 13, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Pride on Yom Kippur? These Nice Jewish Girls Say ‘No Way’

Nice.Jewish.Girls.logoIt was a small miracle when the Northern Virginia Pride (NOVA) committee scheduled its first pride after three years of planning and venue-seeking.

When we (Nice Jewish Girls) heard about the Norther Virginia Pride celebration, we were thrilled! We couldn’t wait to recreate our successful Jacob’s Tent Project, which had been our inaugural effort to bring more Jewish groups to the Pride celebration in DC.

We were so excited, that is until we checked the dateOctober 4thYom Kippur.  

Arlington, we have a problem.  

Other cities have had this problem too.  

In 2011 Atlanta Pride was held on Yom Kippur when the Atlanta Pride Committee asserted that the overlap was an accident. The Atlanta Pride Committee felt, at the time, they had to hold Pride on Yom Kippur due to venue limitations. Available venues and dates for an event this size were limited and Yom Kippur was open at one favored venue.  

NJG2

When Pride was scheduled on Yom Kippur, Nice Jewish Girls took to social media to spread the word.

But, we weren’t ready to give up. The Nice Jewish Girls started talking to each other and put it to our membership. Our members sent emails.  We sent the message out of Facebook and Twitter. We all asked the same thing, change the date. We worked every angle we could find. We networked with other organizations that so we sent a united message. Within 36 hours, the date was changed from October 4th to October 5th.  

Now, we just have to deliverso who will join us on October 5th?

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Posted on September 29, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Ringing in the New Year as a Community

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.

Apples and Honey; photograph by Jordyn Rozensky & Justin Hamel

Apples and Honey; photograph by Jordyn Rozensky & Justin Hamel

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!)

RoshHash image_FB coverKehillah 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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Posted on September 23, 2014

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T’u B’Av: A Day of Love

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. ice cream copyAnd 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 went to visit Israel with some family, and I stood at the Kotel and cried like Hannah at Shiloh. I asked HaShem to bring children into my life.

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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Posted on August 11, 2014

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VeAhavta: And You Shall Love

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This weekChaim Moshe haLevi examines Parashat Vaetchanan, questioning how we prove our love for God. 

The Grapes of Canaan by James Tissot. Although the spies brought back a cluster of grapes so large that it took two men to carry it (Numbers 13:23), only two of the twelve brought back a good report of the land.

The Grapes of Canaan by James Tissot. Although the spies brought back a cluster of grapes so large that it took two men to carry it (Numbers 13:23), only two of the twelve brought back a good report of the land.

Last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Devarim, is perfectly placed in the liturgical calendar just prior to Tisha B’Av, the annual day of mourning that marks the destruction of the first and second Temples, along with several other calamities suffered by the Jewish people. In Devarim, the Israelites are reminded of the episode of the 12 spies, when Moses sent representatives of each of the 12 tribes to scope out the land “flowing with milk and honey.” They bring back a very mixed report, with all but one of the spies, Caleb, fixating on the dangers ahead of them. The Israelites are chastised by God for trusting in the spies who “cried wolf,” and as a result of this transgression, they are left with a promise that this shall be a day of mourning for all generations. “See, if you wanna cry. . .I’ll give you something to cry about!” says a frustrated and indignant God. The Mishnah teaches us that the episode of the spies is the first of the calamities to fall on Tisha B’Av, this historical day of sorrow and suffering.

Continuing this theme, in the haftarah reading for Shabbat Hazon (the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av), the prophet Isaiah offers a vision of the destruction of the Temple: This is what you get for following your own selfish interests rather than living according to the word of God! In both of these readings, we see the prototypical Deuteronomic God exacting punishment and retribution. What happened to the loving deity of the Book of Exodus?

Parashat Va’etchanan and the accompanying haftarah reading for this Shabbat Nachamu offer us consolation from Tisha B’Av and from divine censure and haunting prophecy. Yet, they also tender so much more. In the parasha, we are presented with the statements of the very tenets of our faith: the Shema, the VeAhavta, and the Aseret HaDibrot (the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments). In the haftarah reading, we are reminded that God cannot be compared to any image or any idol. “The grass withers; the flower fades; The word of God shall stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8) It is as if, in anticipation of Tu B’Av, we are gifted with the covenantal relationship of love between God and the Jewish people.

As Parashat Va’etchanan opens, we find Moses pleading for forgiveness from any transgressions that may have upset God in order that he be permitted to enter into the promised land along with the rest of the Israelites. While Moses’s request is unconditionally denied, he is given a counter offer. Climb to the top of Mount Pisgah and survey the land. Needless to say, Moses is frustrated and probably overwrought. After all of his hard work in leading this kvetching motley crew throughout 40 years of wandering, how is he repaid? With a bird’s eye view of a land he will never set foot upon.

Despite his personal disappointment, Moses the leader reminds the people that it is imperative that they keep God’s mitzvoth (commandments) and uphold all of the details laid out in the Torah. Why? Because God is a jealous, punishing deity who never forgets the sins of His enemies, repaying them by devouring them or ultimately destroying them. I can only wonder, is this really what Moses believes or is he broigus (disgruntled) because HaShem (God) has denied his request to enter the land? I don’t think it is either of these. Rather it is a scare tactic by one of the authors of Deuteronomy to get the people to toe the line, i.e. if one wishes to remain alive, s/he must fulfill God’s commandments. As intercessor between God and layperson, offering sacrifices on the behalf of the populace, the Deuteronomist Kohen (priest) would have a personal investment in instilling yirat HaShem (fear of God) into the people. Otherwise, who would come to make guilt offerings? How’s that for motivation?

The reader soon discovers another Deuteronomist voice, one that seems as discontented to portray God in this fire and brimstone manner as we are to hear it. Thus, we are made aware of the loving nature of God: a deity who is merciful, who remembers the covenant made with the biblical ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to provide the chosen people with a homeland of their own, who never fails them, who redeemed them from bondage in Egypt, who brought them to the holy mountain to reveal the divine law to them, and who has assisted them in preparing for their conquest of the land.

Moses reminds the people that God revealed Godself to each one individually at Mount Sinai NOT just to the ancestral forefathers. Each individual has a personal relationship with God, and thus, is personally responsible to uphold the promise of Naaseh v’Nishma (We will do and we will listen) made at that historical moment. To concretize that memory, Moses repeats the Aseret HaDibrot.

Tying together all of the lessons, the principles, and the statutes, the people are offered a summary statement of their relationship to God, in the form of the Shema. This is coupled with the instructive passage of how to demonstrate one’s love to God, the VeAhavta. The people who, not long after leaving Egypt, had once stood at Sinai and proclaimed Naaseh v’Nishma, have matured to the point that now they truly can Shema (listen) and Oseh (do), in the form of Ahavah (love). In phrasing the Shema in the plural, Moses has acknowledged and accepted God’s decision that he not enter into the land. Moses is now one of the people. He is no longer separated out as their leader, for even Moses must submit to the will of God, and to affirm God’s supremacy with love, even if a request of God was not granted him.

The children of Israel acknowledge God’s singularity and promise to show their love for God, with all of their core, essence, and power. They will do so by teaching future generations, demonstrating their love in every setting (at home or away, from arising in the morning to retiring at night) and through outward signs on their bodies and their homes. When their children ask why these things are done, they promise to recount their history as slaves in Egypt and explain how keeping the mitzvot has ensured their survival as a people.

So, if it all comes down to affirming God’s Oneness, and proving our love for God, did the first Deuteronomist have it all wrong? Well, for me as a queer Jew, the implacable parent in the sky is so passé. My personal theology does not include a God who is irate, spiteful, and unforgiving. I believe in a God of pure and endless benevolence, compassion, and truth. There is nothing in the Shema or the VeAhavta that speaks of yirat HaShem. I do not believe fear is the way to a healthy relationship with God. By contrast, I do believe one ought to have a mindful respect for God and God’s awesomeness.

__Tefillin Workshop2_Photo Jordyn Rozensky_Keshet (3)Created in the image of God, we testify to God’s Oneness through acts of love, for loving is Godly. Whether it is teaching one’s children, wrapping oneself in tefillin, or affixing a mezuzah, these are all expressions of our connection to the Divine Spirit. Likewise, by living and loving openly as LGBTIQ people, each of us is an ayd (a witness) to the Ein Sof (the Infinite Divine Oneness).

This Shabbat find your personal connection to God. Reach out in love to the Divine. Celebrate this connection and share it with others, especially with your beloved this coming Sunday on Tu B’Av under the light of the full moon. And if you’re single and looking? You know the drill.

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Posted on August 4, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Bringing a Rainbow (Cheesecake) to the Holiday Table

Next week marks the holiday of Shavuot. This holiday, which is celebrated seven weeks after Passover, marks the giving of the Torah. For a wide variety of reasons, Shavuot is celebrated by eating dairy. One reason I’ve heard is because having the Torah is as sweet as milk and honey. I’ve also heard that upon receiving the Torah the dietary laws of kosher became immediately clear –and the only dishes around were dairy dishes.

Regardless of the rational behind it, eating a whole lot of dairy has become the common practice for celebrating Shavuot. To celebrate the occasion I gathered a group of friends to try baking a rainbow cheesecake. Too often the LGBT experience isn’t accounted for in the Jewish community so what better way to introduce the idea of inclusion than by bringing some literal rainbows to the table?

cheesecake_rozensky (13 of 13)

To start things off we found a recipe for tie-dye cheesecake from the Disney Chef. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

  • 1 package red velvet cake mix (plus ingredients to make it)
  • 1 1/2 lb. cream cheese
  • 1 1/3 cup sugar
  • 5 large eggs
  • 16 oz sour cream
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • food coloring in primary colors to make red, orange, yellow, green, teal, and purple.

Start by preparing the red velvet cake. You’ll find the directions on the package of cake mix.
cheesecake_rozensky (2 of 13)

After it’s mixed, pour 1/3 of the red velvet cake batter into a 9 inch springform pan. Then, go ahead and bake it according to the directions on the box. You can also make cupcakes with the rest of the batter, so nothing goes to waste.

cheesecake_rozensky (4 of 13)

Next comes more mixing. Set your electronic mixer to low and beat the cream cheese until light and fluffy.

cheesecake_rozensky (5 of 13)

Add sugar, a little at a time, and beat until creamy.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating well.

cheesecake_rozensky (6 of 13)

Add flour, vanilla, lemon juice, and sour cream and mix. 

Next divide the batter evenly into 6 bowls. Use food coloring to create your colors of the rainbow.

cheesecake_rozensky (7 of 13)

Next, spoon the colored batter over the red velvet cake (which should still be in the springform.) You can either try to layer the colors, or create a mosaic of colors when you spoon the batter onto the cake. Leave 3/4 inch of space (at least) between the top of the batter and the top of the pan.

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If you’ve gone with the mosaic pattern (like we did) and you want to create a tie-dye effect (like we wanted to), use a toothpick to slightly swirl the batter.

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Place in the middle of the top rack of the oven and bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

cheesecake_rozensky (12 of 13)

An important thing to know about the baking process — it will take a while. After the initial baking time of an hour and 15 minutes has passed, prop open the oven door and leave the cake in the warmed oven for an additional hour. After that hour has passed, remove from the oven and allow it to cool to room temperature. After that, you’re still not ready to eat it.  Refrigerate the creation for at least 12, but ideally 24, hours. Then…. enjoy!

Posted on May 29, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Purim: Inside Out

Purim is about concealment. More specifically, it is about movement from the covert to the overt. There is a sustained tension between what characters are and what they seem to be that moves the plot forward. It is the careful unraveling of disguises that makes for salvation.

Purim performance at the Jewish Theatre in Warszawa, Poland. March 2009.The major characters are all Marranos disguised in costume. They all struggle to manage a powerful public persona while hiding an inner secret that, if revealed, would seem to undo them. By the end, everyone is unmasked.

King Ahashverosh, according to tradition, was not of royal blood; he had married into Persian royalty. Vashti was the true Persian princess and, because she refuses to take off her royal robes, she is banished or killed. She is the only one who refuses to dress up — or in this case down — as something she is not. Ahashverosh has risen to royal power, but he is not royal material. He is a foolish, pompous lush dressed in royal robes. He is also terrified of being challenged or used – and that is exactly what happens anyway.

Esther and Mordecai are closet Jews. Each is fearful of the consequences of being found out. Mordecai warns Esther not to reveal her identity. The people perceive Esther as a lovely Persian woman who has become a Persian queen. Mordecai is a statesman who is known in the king’s court. He does not flaunt his Jewish identity.

Haman is the scoundrel who, like Esther, is in the right place at the right time. Like the king, he rises to power without any merit. His secrets are his bloated ego and his hunger for royal power. Haman conceals all this from the king, including his irrational hatred of Mordecai.

The turn in the plot occurs when Mordecai is forced to choose between his inner and outer identities. Is he a Jew or a Persian noble? If he refuses to bow down to Haman, he will almost certainly lose his status among the Persian elite. If he bows, be understands that he will lose his inner Jewish self. In this moment of reckoning, Mordecai recognizes himself as a Jew and refuses to bow. The story isn’t clear as to how Mordecai’s secret if found out. Someone tells someone who tells Haman that this rude fellow is a Jew, and Haman begins his plot to avenge himself of Mordecai and his people.

Unmasked, Mordecai realizes that he must turn his secret inside out. He must now bear witness to the inner truths. He sits at the gate of the palace in sackcloth – congruence between the man and his clothes, a boldly public expression of an internal state of affairs. Mordecai’s naked protest sets in motion the unmasking of Esther, then of Haman, and finally of Ahashverosh.

What does all this drama between revealed and concealed selves say to us? Of course, the Book of Esther could be read as a midrash on Jewish life in the diaspora. How we play hide and seek, how we reveal and conceal ourselves as Jews, is a diaspora story.

But there is also a more personal journey described. In many ways, we are all Marranos, hiding behind our various masks and robes. What can we glean from Esther to help us manage the interplay between our inner and outer lives? Can Mordecai teach us something about the search for wholeness? Al the end of the story, all the inner truths come to light. As the story unfolds, there seems to be a redemptive quality in self-expression. When all is revealed, Esther becomes a powerful queen and Mordecai becomes the king ‘s most trusted counselor. Even Ahashverosh seems to achieve a more royal demeanor. Each of these full identities was achieved by reconciling the inner and outer persons.

The story is also about the need to protect a life apart from the public eye. As Esther enters the king’s palace, Mordecai warns her not to reveal her identity. Later be commands her to do so. It seems that there is a right and a wrong time to reveal the self. Perhaps the story is about the dynamics of identity that cannot escape a tension between expression and inhibition. We are who we are not only by our self-revelations, but by our careful nurturing of a private world.

As well, not all inner lives are equal. Haman uses disguise for singularly destructive ends and is ultimately destroyed by his inner self. Haman falls on Esther’s couch, revealing more than an urge for power. Mordecai is revealed by his principles, Haman by his libido. At the perfect moment, Esther reveals herself as a Jew and saves the Jewish people. Though the war between the inner and outer worlds is over, there is no clear victory of one self over another. Instead there is a new and diverse wholeness, an integration of mask and man.

The rabbis describe the God of the Book of Esther as a hidden God, a playful God who dances in between the revealed and the hidden, patient and waiting for the right moment to burst forth. So we, too, find our journey in both inward and outward movements. Often we work behind the scenes nurturing a life apart, a sense of privacy and clarity. And when the moments come to stand for one’s inner truths, for principles, or for one’s people, then we must turn inside out and witness, loud and proud and sure.

This essay originated on the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and is reprinted with permission.

Posted on March 10, 2014

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The Purim Superhero & PJ Library: A Question of Inclusion

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A year ago The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner, a story of a young boy named Nate struggling with his Purim costume, hit the shelves. The book, the winner of a Keshet book-writing contest, represents a first in Jewish children’s literature—an inclusive story with LGBT characters. This year, the book was added to PJ Library’s collectionfor individuals who opted in.

Reactions to PJ Library’s decision to offer the book only when requested have been mixed. Some people have heralded the decision as a step towards inclusion. And some people are applauding the effort, but are wondering why the book isn’t available to everyone.
When PJ Library conveyed the news of the limited run on their Facebook page, it was shared over 440 times. Within less than 36 hours, the book sold out. We’ve gathered some of the reactions we’ve seen—on Facebook, over email, and from conversations—to share (unedited) with you.

Jan Oosting Kaminsky: I am so happy to hear that there are many enthusiastic people who are ready to order this book, and we purchased several copies last year when it was first released and distributed them because it is such a sweet book! However, I have to say that I am disappointed that PJ thought this book so controversial that it had to be distributed through a separate link! Honestly, is it so shocking to have a loving family with two fathers who care for their children that this had to be sent separately?? In no way does this book talk about LGBT issues – it simply shows a family with two fathers. I have received our PJ Library books for many years gratefully, but this was the wrong decision, PJ Library. Making this book a special order degrades our families, makes us feel shameful, second-class, all of the things that hurt LGBT families so much every day in the Jewish community and beyond. I appreciate your perspective, but the fact is every other book that we received from PJ has an opposite-sex-parented family in it. I am happy that this book is being publicized, but very sorry that it was not distributed widely and in the same manner as every other PJ Library book. It hurts.

Bari Greenfield Gilbert: Thank you! Very much look forward to getting it! My children have Jewish friends with two Dads and it is amazing that this book exists and that you are offering it. Children who see these different family makeups make for less ignorance – more tolerance – and, hopefully, less hate in this world! Thanks again! I hope everyone takes advantage of this opportunity for their children – and for themselves!

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Lisa S Greene: PJ Library: We love your books. And would love it if you would add The Purim Superhero to the regularly distributed books going forward. It is warm and wonderful and supports the individualism of the protagonist.

Wendy Barnet: So pleased that so many people want this book. As a retired Jewish educator, I am so proud of Kar-Ben Publishing and PJ Library for taking a risk by offering, The Purim Superhero. All Jewish children should see themselves in our Jewish literature and our temple libraries.

Lisa Rabinowitz: Thanks! So happy you made this decision. It would have been even better if you just sent it as your monthly offering without having to order it.

Emily Mathis: Thanks for making The Purim Superhero available as an extra offering — I hope you will include it in your regular offerings, just as you’ve done with an orthodox book we received. You have an amazing sphere of influence, and I hope you will use it to the extent you can.

Carrie Bornstein: Thanks for the extra gift of a Purim story featuring two dads, PJ Library! Perhaps you’d like to send it to all of your families? After all, some of the books you send me don’t reflect my practice either, like the family who comes home on Rosh Hashanah day to bake challah and cook their meal. Thanks for sending that one anyway – it invites me to offer a lesson in diversity when I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to order it online.

Naomi Sunshine: My two daughters have been receiving PJ Library books since they were babies, and I am very grateful to you for the monthly gift, which has helped me teach them about Jewish holidays, traditions and values.

I wanted to share with you my disappointment that you’ve chosen not to send the book The Purim Superhero to all your members, but only to families who specifically request it. I know you put a lot of thought into this decision, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to share my thoughts with you.

As a proud Jewish mother and a proud lesbian, I aim to surround my children with a rich Jewish life. But I have to be honest with you. When I read things like your blog post “In Search of Perfect Gifts,” coupled with your decision not to make this book available the same way you do so many others, it hurts. And it makes me wonder whether the Jewish community you are creating really wants me as a member.

The message that you send to families like mine (and there are lots of Jewish LGBT people and families) is that we are second class. That families like ours should only be read about by children whose parents go to the great lengths of finding out that you are offering the book and then ordering it. That our lives are so marginal that you could not possibly send a book that features a family like ours to everybody, because further marginalizing LGBT families is a lesser evil than offending homophobes.

Now that you’ve heard the word on the street…. What are your thoughts about The Purim Superhero and the PJ Library’s decision to offer the book to families who request it?

 

Posted on February 26, 2014

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Looking Back on a Year with The Purim Superhero

Get a copy of The Purim Superhero, the first Jewish children’s book with LGBT characters, in time for PurimAnd, 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!

Dear Nate,

Purim SuperheroOne 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.

 8-year-old Ella, who was inspired by Nate to be an Airplane Superhero this Halloween.  Photo by Kristi Tredway.

8-year-old Ella, who was inspired by Nate to be an Airplane Superhero this Halloween. Photo by Kristi Tredway.

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.

Your author,
Elisabeth Kushner

You can follow Elisabeth Kushner on Twitter at @elskushner. Read an interview with her here.

 

Posted on February 20, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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