“For National Coming Out Day I’m coming out … as a Keshet blogger!”
Okay, okay, maybe that wasn’t a strong opening line. A little too flippant and cute, especially for my first time on here. Alright, let’s start again.
“Hi. I’m coming out. I’m a queer, Jewish, non-binary trans man living in the deep deep south who converted through Reform Judaism, though my personal practice leans more Reformodox / Anarcho-Talmudist.”
Okay, that didn’t go so well either.
So, as you might have been able to tell, this is supposed to be an entry about Coming Out. And I’m going to be perfectly blunt. Yes, I was making light earlier, but coming out is huge. It’s massive and scary and integral. It fills you with terror and hope. It briefly throws your whole world off kilter. It is wonderful.
Until it isn’t. Until it happens every day because it has too. Until for the 20,000th time someone refuses to believe your gender. It’s beautiful until the millionth time someone starts making assumptions about you because you revealed you’re a convert. Or the billionth time you come out as queer in straight spaces and gay spaces and everyone—gay and straight—has problems with it. It’s magical until no one believes you’re disabled because they can’t see it. Until you are constantly coming out over and over and over again because the world won’t stop making generalizations on who you are based on the minimal information our retinas can absorb.
Coming out is freeing.
And it is a burden.
It is a burden to live under the an identity that isn’t yours, to hide yourself for protection and safety. And I think more and more of the world is thankfully beginning to realize that. But its also a burden to have to come out in the first place.
So I issue a challenge. On this National Coming Out Day, support anyone you hear coming out. Support them fully by listening and recognizing the power of that experience, realize how scary it can be to say those words. Wear purple on Spirit Day (October 16th, which is also Oscar Wilde’s birthday). Celebrate LGBT History month this October and learn more about the glorious multi-hued beauty that is our community.
But the bigger challenge is this. The rest of the year we need to support people’s discovery of themselves and support our continually growing identities beyond that one Coming Out moment, beyond the comfort of the known narratives. We need to stop making assumptions about people’s genders and sexual orientations and religions and everything else. We need to let people tell their own stories and not create it for them simply by looking at them. We need to stop over simplifying just how amazing we are, just how complex and complicated humans can be. And one day, maybe there won’t have to be a National Coming Out Day. Maybe we can all just be.
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It 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 date—October 4th—Yom 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.
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 deliver—so who will join us on October 5th?
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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 week, our reflection comes from Maggid Jhos Singer, who shows that standing up as a Jew takes guts and deep self-knowing.
It is the original ‘Hellfire and Brimstone’ rant to which all others pale in comparison. Its images of damnation know no bounds; It is one of those bits o’ Bible that has fueled the hateful lust of bigots and fundamentalists for centuries. I would go so far as to call it scriptural porn. It’s the stuff that
usually makes folks like me, a genderqueer Berkeley liberal Jew, run screaming from Judaism,
so it’s kind of odd to admit that I love this portion. It’s scary and exciting and makes me feel like
I’m watching a really weird piece of performance art.
The trick with this portion is staying cool, not reacting to the surface level ugliness and instead tuning into the God in it. When I read it I try to imagine that I’m hearing a song on a static-ravaged transistor radio, I’m standing amidst a huge noisy crowd, I’m getting jostled around, nearby some wild-eyed preacher is raving into a microphone, “Cursed are you sinner, you will burn for Eternity, you are a perversion,” people are yelling back, I hold the radio up to my ear straining to hear and little by little the song cuts through the din and a big smile spreads across my face… Welcome to this week’s parasha.
In brief, this portion tells us that if we are obedient we will be blessed, with the blessings described in one short paragraph. However, if we are not obedient we will be cursed. The Torah then unloads pages of orgiastic curses that we will endure for our transgressions, laid out in graphic, gory detail. It is grating and provocative, and I don’t mean in a nice way. Everything about it is repulsive on the surface. One has to wonder why the Torah would include such ugliness.
But read it carefully, and you will first note that the Torah tells us explicitly that the orators here are not God, but Moses and the Elders: “Moses and the Elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, ‘Observe the entire commandment that I command you this day.’ ” (D’varim 27:1)
Perhaps it is simply that Moses, and his cohorts, are on a proto-Pentecostal roll, taking the law
into their own hands, so to speak. To his credit, even in the midst of this diatribe, Moses manages to sputter out a key spiritual concept. He says that it is God’s voice that we should be listening to (28:15), that we must hear the commands that God is giving us (in spite of Moses’ interpretation).
Might Moses have been trying to tell us that we have to fine tune our spiritual hearing so that we can know what it is that God wants from us, rather than what other people want from us? Similarly Moses seems to be implying that God speaks to us as individually and if we let someone else do our channeling for us the price we pay will be high. Additionally, in the midst of describing the litany of ills that will befall us if we don’t follow Moses’s commandments, there is a sweet dose of wisdom slipped in. Moses says, “You will be mocked and starved, diseased and blighted. You will be so bereft and so debased that you will become the supreme example of human depravity to all other peoples, Because you did not serve your Source of Being with gladness and with a full heart when
everything was abundant.” (Deuteronomy 28:47)
I experience this line as God getting in a word edgewise.
There is much to learn from this raw scripture. Coming out as homo-, bi-, or trans-sexual takes steel and faith. It takes tuning out the hate mongers and spiritual terrorists, and overriding the din of ignorance and fear to find God’s message and lock on. Standing up as a Jew, whose faith and ways have been seen as “queer” since we began, takes guts and deep self-knowing. Queer folk, of every stripe, cannot afford to loose our balance. Is it any wonder then, that the Torah includes an opportunity for us to practice listening to the ugliness of degrading threats while training our ears to hear the personal word that God whispers to each of us? After all, didn’t our communal revelation on Sinai begin just like this, in the sound and the fury? So we stay calm, focus our hearts and minds and – “Shema” – we listen.
And there, in the bang-clanking cawing of curses, we hear some of the most loving words of
Torah: “Yea, verily I saith unto you: That you will be destitute, crazed and destroyed if you don’t
give your self to gladness when times are good.” I hear this line being spoken with love and
compassion, I imagine God cradling my head in Its big soft hands and whispering, “Aww now
pun’kin, why so angry? Look around, you are healthy, loved, smart, blessed and cute as a bug’s
ear. Lighten’ up and enjoy it baby.”
Indeed, the LGBT community has survived, and even thrived, in some part because we know
how to party and be glad. We know how to show up with bells on and bring color and music
into the world. Every community that has instituted a Pride Parade was initially met with
resistance. The megaphoning morality meisters have shown up again and again, bellowing out
their messages of loathing and disgust — but they have never been able to drown out Sylvester z’‘l, or Sister Sledge or Barbra or Judy z’‘l, who have told us in whispers in the dark: Come on get up and dance because somewhere over the rainbow we are a family of the luckiest people in the world. We have listened to them and we have danced and we have been glad and we have known that we are not cursed, but so very blessed.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said, “Mitzvah g’dolah l’hiyot b’simcha tamid.” (It’s a great mitzvah to insist on gladness.) As this week’s teaching reminds us, we must practice being glad when there is something to be glad about. We cannot take a single blessing for granted, peh peh peh, lest the challenges and difficulties of being our true Self become overwhelming. We must be astute enough to know who God created us to be, no matter what the imperfect human authorities in our lives would say about it. Even great human leaders sometimes try to scare us into submitting to their ideas of who we should be. But remember: God relies on each one of us to manifest in this world our own unique aspect of It. Be brave, choose life, choose blessing. Tune out the static, listen hard and I’m sure you will hear a still small voice boldly singing “Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh”— “I am what I am” (Exodus 3:14/Jerry Herman by way of Gloria Gaynor).
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Q: What do I do if my rabbi is against my involvement in the LGBT community?
Asher: You do whatever you want. Your rabbi doesn’t own you, and he or she certainly does not have the final word regarding your Judaism and how you express it. Try exposing your rabbi to some great literature on the subject. If your efforts are failing and you feel that the situation has stagnated or even deteriorated, you can find a new rabbi who is LGBT friendly. Good luck!
Q: In my Jewish community, I’m always known as the “gay kid.” In my LGBT communities, I’m always known as the “Jewish kid.” How can I own both identities at the same time?
Asher: People tend to differentiate between others by the qualities that most stand out; the things that make others unique, so it’s only natural that when you are the only “gay kid” or “Jewish kid” in a group, you will be associated thusly. You should also be aware that by asking this question, you are doing the exact same thing in reverse – you are generalizing these groups (which is not a bad thing). This question reminds me of a friend of mine from college; she was the only girl in her town who shaved her head, and that was her identity. When she arrived for freshman orientation, there were five other girls in her class with shaved heads, and she experienced an identity crisis. She learned eventually, like most people, that what makes you unique is ALL of who you are, not one particular piece. So, just be yourself, and stop being so hung up on how you are being perceived or the labels with which you are being associated, because in the long run, it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re being treated with respect. In time, you may stop caring so much, which is ultimately what your question is about.
Q: How do I navigate the Hebrew language – where everything has a strict gender – when I’m not willing to identify as one gender or the other?
Asher: Ah, the strict gender binary of the Hebrew language… Unfortunately, even as a Hebrew speaker living in Israel, I don’t have any answers that will satisfy you, as there is no real solution to your question. I know some people who choose to interchange masculine and feminine pronouns, but I’m afraid the Israeli population is not so forgiving. They will correct you. Every. Single. Time. Spend your energy raising awareness about these issues of gender, since the current Hebrew pronouns are rather fixed. Be’hatzlacha – good luck!
Q: I keep hearing “it gets better.” I’m not so sure. Does it?
Asher: For me it did. For my husband it did. For all of my LGBT friends it did. That said, there is really only one way to know for sure if it will happen for you, and I strongly suggest sticking around to find out. Good luck!
Q. I read your last column, thank you! Now I’m wondering… who is Asher of Ask Asher?
Glad to introduce myself. My name is Asher Gelman and I am the Artistic Director for The Stage, Tel Aviv’s premier English-language performing arts organization. I hold a masters degree in Fine Arts from The George Washington University in Dance, and two bachelors degrees from Bard College in Dance and Theater. I made Aliyah to Israel in 2006, where I live with my husband, Mati.
I have been doling out advice for years, both solicited and unsolicited, so this column provides the perfect outlet for my talent for telling other people what to do; especially people I have never met.
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- And, don’t forget to send your questions to AskAsher@keshetonline.org!
Pride Month might be over, but celebrating one’s identity is a year long process. This post comes to us from London, as Abigail reflects coming out, making peace with her journey away from Orthodoxy, and one special Shabbat she spent celebrating her LGBT identity.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been going through a process of coming out.
It began with a few very private conversations with close friends, then talking to my family, then speaking openly about my “new” identity with some complete strangers who would never trace me back to those who actually knew me. Once my confidence began to increase, I was able to start posting a few subtle things on Facebook, and altering the way I behaved and dressed slightly.
It wasn’t until I went to Pride in London on a Shabbat, though, that I really made my debut on the ‘out’ stage, and I did it in style!
I’ve been openly bisexual for a little over a year now, and I can’t even begin to describe how liberating it has been to discover, explore, and accept my sexuality. When I first came out, my friends and family were incredibly supportive, and I was determined to make my bisexuality work alongside my Orthodoxy.
Over time, though, my identification with the former has grown and my commitment to the latter has shrunk. When I found myself embroiled in a discussion about non-heterosexuality in Modern Orthodoxy that descended into people directing at me the judgement that same-sex relationships were on a moral par with promiscuity, I found myself with the liminal moment I’d subconsciously been searching for.
My life was mine to choose, and I could choose the non-religious path.
It was a relief at last to be able to say to the world, “I’m not religious, and that’s OK.” It’s been a long time since I was sure I believed in God or saw the point in a lot of Orthodox practice, but when you live as part of a community, it can be very uncomfortable to admit that, and in many ways the experience was comparable to when I told people that I’m not straight. Having been brought up fairly religious and becoming more so as I got older, throughout my childhood, teenage years and university life I always felt a need to present a certain image to the world.
Judaism is and probably always will be my heritage, which is why I chose to march with the Jewish contingent at Pride in London on Saturday 28th June. Did it bother me that it was Shabbat and that a mere three months ago, I would never have done anything other than eat, sleep, read and perhaps pray if I was with others who were praying? Not particularly. I walked there, and went without money on my person, but otherwise I allowed myself to enjoy the atmosphere. I still celebrate Shabbat, but I do it in my own way. It’s my Day of Rest from the rest of the week–I set the day aside for doing what makes me relaxed and happy and relates in no way to the grind of the working week. Nothing could fit that description better for me than going to Pride and publicly celebrating my LBGT identity.
What a Shabbat! What a celebration! Being immediately surrounded by other LGBT* Jews, and beyond them 30,000 of my non-Jewish LGBT* family, the celebratory atmosphere wasn’t even dampened by the typical British rain. For a while I’ve wondered if Judaism means anything to me at all, but Pride showed me that it does. It felt so liberating to be able to march as an out-and-proud bisexual and an out-and-proud non-religious but committed Jew, and I was grinning from ear to ear as I responded to the Jewish volunteer who hailed us as we passed, heads held high: ‘A good Shabbos to you too! Happy Pride!’
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On June 20th, 2014, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann offered the following words of prayer at the UJA-Federation’s “Community Conversation on LGBTQ Engagement,” a conference convened to discuss ideas of LGBT inclusion in Jewish institutions.
I am here because I am a lesbian, a Jew, a rabbi who sees Jews as my people and LGBTQ people as my people. So my partner gets to say, often, that she thinks a man and a woman together are intermarried. I am here because my partner and I celebrated our 30th anniversary this winter and could only get married 3 years ago.
I am here because there are a whole lot of issues other than marriage on the LGBTQ plate. And, I am here because I want as a Jew to say never again and know that I mean never will anyone obliterate any entire population AND I want as a queer person to say never again and know I mean there are so many things that should never happen again.
Never again a rabbinic student going through school in hiding.
Never again to be cast away by those who use the Bible to dismiss us.
Never again a college student jumping off a bridge to his death because his roommate mocked his sexual connection.
Never again a parent unable to be with a child because of misguided lawyers and enacted prejudice.
Never again a trans person attacked on the street just for being transgender.
Never again LGBTQ deaths due to neglect and abandonment.
Never again state-approved killing of LGBTQ people anywhere in the world.
Never again a gay man beaten by Jews on the street.
Yes to the wisdom, clarity, heart God places in human beings and yes to the times they are used for good.
Yes to marriage rights expanding across the country and across state lines, yes to love and yes to great sex.
Yes to the “It Gets Better” videos and to all the ways people encourage those who are losing hope.
Yes to LGBT centers across the country.
Yes to gay churches and synagogues that paved the way and yes to the amazing efforts of gay Muslims that will create a gay mosque and yes to every religious group that opens rather than closing doors.
Yes to activists and advocates of every generation who pushed hard and keep pushing.
Yes to the memory of Stonewall and yes to resistance.
Yes to UJA-Federation opening its doors even if it seems a little scary
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This past month, we shared stories of LGBT and Jewish Pride.
We heard from Jordan, who reflected on how his LGBT identity influences his Jewish identity.
We heard from Val and Alexandra, two students who are proud of being exactly who they are.
We heard from Ailsa, who showed how finding a community gave her the strength to find herself.
We heard from parents who support their children and raise them with Jewish values.
We heard how as we celebrate, we must also keep fighting.
And as we heard these stories—and many more—we saw the community watching, listening, and learning. What happens when Pride ends? How can we keep the idea of full LGBT inclusion on the mind and in the hearts of the Jewish community now that June is over?
What will you do to keep Pride alive for 11 more months?
Shaily Hakiman attended Tel Aviv’s Pride celebration earlier this summer. Today on our blog, she reflects on the experience. To see more from Tel Aviv Pride, check out Shaily’s video on YouTube!
When I say Tel Aviv Pride, I don’t just mean the gay street gets wild, I mean the whole place.
The entire city takes a breather to celebrate. People from all over the world fly in, just to be in town for it. At the start of the festivities, many service agencies and groups came together in Gan Meir to share resources with the community.
It was powerful seeing a group that serve people who are LGBT and Orthodox. I also got to meet with the group for the ever increasing population of LGBT English speaking olim (people who immigrate to Israel).
After we started marching I saw a group of older Australian gentleman smiling as they waved their flag, a bear pride flag, a woman from Russia holding the flag for the Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality St. Petersburg, Trans* alliance, Israeli flags, rainbow kippahs, and flags for peace. These groups all chose to come and coordinate themselves to be here on this day. If you want to be at the table to celebrate, you can. Whatever your cause, Pride was a place that welcomed all of it.
At Tel Aviv Pride, there is a stage performance before the crowd starts marching. Prior to the show, a few strangers and I decided to dance, progressively building a crowd around us. Two of us even started to coordinate moves. My dance partner later told me that he was from Russia… I can’t even imagine what his experience is like in Russia. Could he wear his short shorts that he donned that day? Could he wild dance to Spice Girls performing in drag? I don’t know. But what I do know, regardless of his experiences, Tel Aviv Pride was a day for fun and a day to be one’s self in all our glory.
This was an experience for everyone. The day ended with a massive concert and party with infinite food trucks, “shoppertunities,” and activities for all ages. Families even had a designated play area. I really enjoyed that it wasn’t one main event like a parade, but a series of opportunities for people of all interests to enjoy themselves. I have gone twice to Tel Aviv Pride, and hope to find opportunities to go again in the future. I invite you to join me.
As Pride month comes to a close, we asked a few rabbis to share their thoughts on their own LGBTQ communities. Let us know in the comments, what about inclusion work makes you proud?
DO YOU OFFICIATE AT SAME-SEX MARRIAGES?: Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz
In 2001, Temple Israel of Greater Miami, a prestigious center-city congregation, had fallen on hard times. In three decades membership had fallen from 1,800 households to 300 something. The pulpit was vacant. Career wise, it was a stepping stone to nowhere.
I had been in Miami 25 years, five as associate rabbi at a conventional suburban Reform congregation, 20 as director of the Havurah of South Florida, a progressive outreach program.
I was on sabbatical from the Havurah, considering my next direction, when friends brought me to Temple Israel. I saw a physical plant capable of becoming the great Jewish center South Florida lacked. Within the congregation was a nascent havurah, Ruach, formed by and for the LGBT community.
I began a series of interviews to see if there might be a match between me and the congregation.
One question surprised me, because it was asked by an old-time member. “Rabbi, do you officiate at same-sex marriages?”
I didn’t know what answer he expected. Perhaps he was from the old institution, resentful of the gay intrusion. Perhaps he was a member of Ruach itself. Either way, my answer surprised him and the others around the table.
“It’s easy to do a same-sex marriage,” I said. “The difficulty is same-sex divorce.”
More than a decade before, two women from the Havurah of South Florida had told me they would like to be married. We gathered the Havurah and presented the issue. Ultimately, we realized we couldn’t do a marriage unless we could also do a divorce. It took weeks to prepare durable parties of attorney and other legal documents to protect the union. We also prepared one additional document, an agreement, should there be a separation, to come back to a rabbi for a bill of divorce, to allow the individuals to marry another person, should they choose.
With this work done, we celebrated that marriage.
I described that incident to the interviewing committee.
“With that work done,” I said, “I will surely officiate at a same-sex marriage.”
I got the job.
WHY I’M PROUD: Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin
I am proud of my synagogue, Israel Center of Conservative Judaism, because our members don’t care about whether or not someone is gay or straight, or where they fall on spectrum. It is irrelevant and a non issue when someone walks in our doors. ICCJ is a place where people can flourish in a Jewish community, no matter their sexual orientation.
Looking back ten years ago, before we had any out LGBT members, we created membership forms with spaces for “Adult One” and “Adult Two.” This way if someone who identified as LGBT wanted to join our community, they would feel welcome from the first Shalom.
When I teach, I bring in Jewish LGBT writers, because they are part of the larger Jewish conversation. This way, the shul is a microcosm of the larger Jewish world.
Pride is not automatic.
It is not thrust upon us
like responsibility on a new parent,
nor handed to us
on a silver platter.
Rather, it is found.
Bubbling in the depths of our soul.
It grows like the first buds of spring
hindered by the weather
but strong none the less
until it blooms into a full flower.
Why am I proud?
I was proud to be queer
when I first came out
and finally felt myself telling the truth
after a lifetime of lies
as if I had finally brought freedom to myself
instead of shying away
from the life I could live.
I was proud to be queer
when my younger brother came into my room
and said, “Alex, when did you know you weren’t straight”
and after a discussion on my bed
left by saying
“Well, it doesn’t matter”
“I don’t know yet if I’m straight or not.”
I was proud to be queer
when a friend messaged me on Facebook
and trusted me with their biggest secret
“I think I’m bi”
and gave me insight into their life
that no one else knew.
I was proud to be queer
when DOMA and Prop 8 were repealed
and I sat with my friends
and cheered for a victory
that was finally mine
A victory that mattered in my life
A victory not only for me
but for everyone.
But more than just queer
I’m proud to be Jewish
I’m proud to have a community
that welcome me in my entirety
that doesn’t care who I love as long as I love my culture.
I was proud to be a queer Jew
when we discussed homosexuality in a Torah studies class
and the entire class agreed
that the Torah is not an excuse to discriminate.
And I am proud to be a queer Jew.
I am proud of the life I live
I am proud of the voice I’ve been given
I am proud of the fear I have destroyed
And I am proud to be me
in the purest, truest form
I am proud to be me.