When I was 21, I came out as transgender and identified as a boy. Simultaneously I also came out as frum. At the same time that I began binding, I began wearing tzitzit. I took on a name I had used with friends in high school while also taking on the obligation of t’filah. I asked people to use the pronouns he/his and him when referring to me and when I was bestowed aliyot at shul, I made sure the gabbai said Simcha ben Rachel Dvorah v’Eben instead of Simcha bat.
After over a decade of feeling uncomfortable in Jewish ritual spaces despite my desire to nurture my neshama (soul), I realized how large a role gender identity played in my ability to move within Jewish spaces in general.
When I moved to Brooklyn six years ago, I sought out different entrances into Jewish community. Upon attending a prospective members’ gathering at a local Conservative shul with my then-partner, I was unexpectedly met with confusion from established members. Addressing my cis-female (i.e. not transgender) partner, a middle-aged man asked “Is this your brother?” referring to me. He was reading me through heterosexual and cis-gender eyes, or from his assumptions about the world as a straight and cis-man. Instead of appearing to him as I was, a 23-year-old queer person with his partner, the middle-aged man rendered me a teenager tagging along with his older sister.
One shabbes whilst attempting to mingle with members of the same shul, I struck up conversation with a middle-aged straight couple. “Where does your family live?” they asked. Slightly confused, I responded that my parents are in Boston but that my brother lives around the corner. After a few more questions with the kind of subtle condescension adults normally intone when speaking to children, they asked if I had ever met Ari. I knew Ari to be a young boy of about twelve who attended the shul with his father. I looked at them perplexed as to why they felt I needed to meet a child. “No,” I said. “I don’t know Ari.” As I endured this well-meaning couple introducing me to Ari before taking leave to talk to other adults, I realized they had read me as belonging to Ari’s peer group.
While I wasn’t turned off from attending the shul’s services, further similar interactions did alienate me from attempting to participate in their community.
Over the two years I vigorously navigated frumkeit as a transgender person I tried various community settings from black sheep Orthodox to suburban chavurah and found the assumption, and often, the law of the gender binary, cis-gender experience and heterosexuality overwhelming. Too overwhelming. Eventually I found it easier to just daven (pray) and carry out mitzvot alone. A position contrary to the intention and spirit of Judaism.
Later still, I chose to depart from frumkeit and Jewish community altogether. Instead I invested my energy into Brooklyn’s radical queer community and found deeply restorative reflections of myself in others. In my newfound circle I was met with more mochin d’gadlut, more expanded consciousness, than I had ever found in a Jewish community. Instead of battling continuous streams of assumptions and straight-tinted goggles, I experienced the possibility of community constantly working on creating awareness of the many different kinds of plights people deal with every day.
Three years ago I helped found the transgender and Jewish band Schmekel (I play drums). The project combines Jewish and punk sounds with Jewish and queer topics. Through Schmekel I have found an entrance into Jewish community on my terms. Performing and talking about the occupation of two currently divergent identities has helped in manifesting a union. In turn, Schmekel has manifested community. This became glaringly obvious to me at an early show we played on the first floor of a queer house. Our last song of the night was New Men with Old Man Names, a celebratory tune intended to poke fun at our transmasculine friends who selected dated appellations like Harvey, Enoch and Amos. The song ends with Hava Nagilah. As we reached the point of launching into the classic Jewish tune, the already packed room made up of mostly queer Jews erupted into a frenzied mosh-hora-pit. As I furiously banged out a two-step, the floor bounced beneath me and the crowd shouted along with such ruach (spirit), I couldn’t distinguish my lead singer’s voice from that of the spontaneous community that had formed in front of me.
Whenever we play the kitschy and beloved Hora song, the always mostly queer crowd instinctively leads us through as if unleashing a lifetime’s worth of alienation around a tradition so profoundly loved. It is from this place that I have begun to pick up the pieces of the emunah (faith) my neshama intrinsically makes home in.
Read an interview with members of the band Schmekel here.
Every June people across the world celebrate LGBTQ Pride. As LGBTQ Jews and allies, we are proud of our own identities and those of our loved ones. Whether you are looking for a Pride Shabbat service, a fabulous Jewish sign to hold in a Pride Parade, or just want some inspiration, you’ve come to the right place!
Visit our Pride Events page for a list of Jewish LGBTQ Pride events happening across the United States (and a few in Canada too!) this June.
Download your own Pride posters, stickers, and a graphic to help you celebrate and show your pride!
III. Sermons and D’vrei Torah
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Alex Carter sees the beauty of the delicate ecosystem of the Biblical wilderness – and in the unique queer culture we’re in danger of losing.
This week’s parsha, B’midbar, begins, as many parshiyot begin, with the words, “G-d spoke to Moses…” But this week, it specifies that G-d spoke to Moses “in the wilderness of Sinai…” It continues with a census of the men of military age, and with a description of how the tribes were to be arranged in the camp and for marching through the wilderness. Each tribe was placed in relation to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which was at the center of the community at all times.
But I want to focus on the very first line – “G-d spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai….” Continue reading
I’ve never been one to have high expectations. I tend to take situations as they come and to be spontaneous in my decision making. That being said, I didn’t have any idea what I was in for as I stepped out of van and onto the cold snowy ground of the Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut this January.
Maybe I was subconsciously hoping the sky would be teeming with a myriad of rainbows, the clouds would part, and beautiful, teenage, gay women would fall from the sky, dancing to the hora and studying Torah.
Well, that didn’t happen. However, the weekend Keshet had in store for me and other LGBTQ Jewish youth at the second LGBTQ Jewish Teens and Allies Shabbaton was equally as magical.
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Kerrick Lucker discusses how LGBT Jews can examine their own behavior, and learn to treat one another more justly.
It’s one thing to break down barriers of oppression. It’s quite another to build up a community of shared liberation. This is what Moses and the People of Israel are learning in this week’s Torah portion, parashat Mishpatim.
A shared sense of community sometimes arises naturally out of shared oppression, but when liberation happens – and we start to experience the brisk wind of real freedom – that sense of community often quickly dissolves. Freedom is hard work. Self-governance is hardest of all. People under the yoke of oppression seldom think about this in the face of all of freedom’s obvious benefits, but oddly enough, once you’re out in the desert and having to find your own food and make your own laws and mediate your own conflicts, there can be a strange yearning for the old days in mitzrayim, the narrow place. Continue reading
The Internet has proven to be a powerful resource for the LGBTQ community, and especially so for those members who are more isolated by their communal affiliation or religious practices. Blogs, websites, and listservs help connect LGBTQ Jews, especially Orthodox and other traditional Jews, who struggle deeply to reconcile belief, community, and identity. Here, we give you a brief roundup of blogs by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Orthodox Jews. These voices remind us that queer Jews come in every stripe of practice, affiliation, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and these blogs reminds queer Jews everywhere that no one is alone.
A Gay Orthodox Jew
Ely Winkler’s thoughtful chronicle of reconciling his Jewish and gay identities.
It’s Like Disapproving of Rain
A gay woman writes about encountering — and countering — homophobia at the Shabbos table, along with her journey to embrace herself, and her desire to have a nice, traditional Jewish family…with another nice Jewish girl by her side.
Gotta Give ‘Em Hope
Chaim Levin grew up Lubavitch Hasidic Orthodox in Crown Heights, Brooklyn New York and was often bullied as a kid. After being thrown out of yeshiva after admitting his attraction to men, undergoing “reparative therapy,” and attempting suicide, he finally emerged a proud gay Jewish man. These are his musings. Continue reading