Tag Archives: Jewish holidays

Finding Strength in Community & The Story of Purim

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.

Ester_y_Mardoqueo_escribiendo_la_primera_carta_del_Purim_(Ester,_9-20-21)_-_Aert_de_GELDER_-_Google_Cultural_Institute

Painting of Esther and Mordecai by Arent de Gelder.

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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Posted on March 4, 2015

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Navigating December as Part of an Interfaith Couple

Photo, art credit, and copyright: Chelsea Scudder

Photo, art credit, and copyright: Chelsea Scudder. Visit HappyChalladays for more cards.

For families and couples who are interfaith, particularly those who are in a Jewish and Christian relationship, December can be a balancing beam—multiple traditions, holidays, and rituals demand equal attention. For interfaith couples of all faiths, holidays shine a spotlight on what makes being in an interfaith relationship so challenging…and so potentially rewarding.

As someone in an interfaith relationship, I actually enjoy December. There’s not much of a dilemma for me—but I know how incredibly lucky I am.

Although I’m the Jewish half of the couple, I’m the one who pulls the Christmas decorations out of the attic each year. And, as I’ve written in the past, I was raised in an interfaith family. Growing up, there was no great December holiday crisis. Hanukkah and Christmas made sense as a pair, and melted into one super month-long celebration of family, goodwill, and warm and fuzzy feelings. Perhaps some of my fondest holiday memories included the overlap of the two holidays. While it might not be featured in any Norman Rockwell, I relished the scene of a crackling fire, a fully lit menorah, and potato latkes enjoyed in front of the well decorated tree.

In my relationship, there has never been much tension around holidays and differences of faith. Perhaps it’s because if you had to narrow my partner and I down to one shared value it would probably be our mutual and never-ending curiosity for life. Having different traditions doesn’t actually separate us; it gives us more to talk about. And, as long as the respect for each other—and for each other’s families, tradition, and faiths—remains, we don’t experience any pushback from our respective families.

When I sat down to write this piece, I was already aware of how lucky my partner and I were. But when I started speaking with other couples, I was struck by how unprepared I was to offer advice on how to navigate December as an interfaith couple. Every situation is so different, and often quite delicate.

For Ilana and her partner, for instance, the best way to observe Hanukkah and Christmas as an interfaith couple has simply been to be there for each other. Ilana shared that before bringing her partner home, “there were a lot of hard conversations. First, many in my family had to adjust to the fact that I wasn’t bringing home a man. There has been some real fear and sadness, even though my family loves [my partner] as a person.” Common ground was found in looking at what Christmas and Hanukkah traditions Ilana and her partner shared, like discussing where they would be donating money and why. Observing the holidays together meant being open, listening, and being ready to say, “It would be really meaningful for me if you would be at this or did this with me.” Ilana’s advice for an interfaith couple? “Explore, have fun, ask questions.”

Another couple shared that the stress of the holidays wasn’t really a reality until they had kids. Now the holidays have a new meaning. Each year December is a little different for them, as they take the time to discuss with their daughter what each of her dads believe, and how and why they observe different holidays as a family. Their advice? Take each year—and each holiday—as it comes, and be ready for the questions your kids ask to evolve as they grow up. I recommend taking a look at the materials that InterfaithFamily has for parents navigating Hanukkah and the December dilemma.

I’ll leave you with one last resource: holiday cards that help create a safe space for all relationships and families. Alexis Gewertz founded the holiday greeting card line HappyChalladays after spending years looking for the perfect way for her and her partner to celebrate in an inclusive and interfaith way. Alexis and her artistic partner Chelsea Scudder launched their own line of interfaith holiday cards, perfect for anyone looking to send out holiday greetings.

After speaking to many about navigating holidays as an interfaith couple, a clear theme emerged: the importance of asking questions and simply being there for one another. I can’t think of a better piece of advice, for December and beyond.

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Posted on December 23, 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

A Hanukkah Blessing

In preparation for Hanukkah, a time in the year when we welcome in the light of hope and liberation, we asked Alex Weissman and his mom Cyd to write a blessing celebrating LGBTQ people and families.

Alex and Cyd Weissman

Alex and Cyd Weissman

Cyd and Alex are quite the mother/son Jewish duo. Alex is an out queer rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the former Social Justice Coordinator at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, and a leading LGBTQ Jewish voice for justice. A longtime leader in Jewish education and advocate for LGBTQ inclusion, Cyd infused her children’s life with Jewish content that reflected their family’s values, from modeling how to hold space as a ritual leader for her son—the future rabbi, to sending her children out into the world with her own take on the Priestly Blessing: “May God bless you and keep you safe and sound.”

When we asked Alex to tell us more about his Jewish experience growing up, he explained: “My mom used to teach my friends and me at religious school. She was always (and still is) intent on ‘whole person’ learning. It didn’t matter if we could just recite Ashrei—she wanted to make sure we could also articulate the joy of dwelling in the house of God and what that felt like.”

We share their blessing with you today in the same spirit of “whole person” Judaism that Cyd passed on to Alex. May it be that this year, as we gather our families to kindle the lights of Hanukkah, we do so in wholeness and holiness.

Here I am, ready and prepared to light the Hanukkah candles, as “our rabbis taught: The law of Hanukkah demands that everyone should light one lamp for themselves and for their household. Those who seek to fulfil the obligation well have a lamp lit for every member of the household (from Shabbat 21b).” We know we could be a household that celebrates the light of one. Instead, we remind ourselves that light increases with the opportunity for each of us to celebrate with our own Chanukiah. May we dedicate ourselves in all our days to honoring each other’s unique light, as it shines through the miracle of our gender and sexual differences. May our homes become homes of light for all people (adapted from Isaiah 56:7).

 Download a copy of the Hanukkah blessing here.

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Posted on December 16, 2014

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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

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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

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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?

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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.
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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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