Tag Archives: queer

Welcoming LGBTQ Jews and Their Loved Ones into the Mishkan

Today we are sharing Joanna Ware’s Keynote speech from Kindness Counts: Welcoming LGBTQ Jews and Their Loved Ones into the Mishkan, a conference hosted by Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA.

This post is a little longer than our usual blog posts, but we think it is worth the read. 

Today, I’m going to be talking about family and kinship in Jewish history and within the LGBTQ community. Before I start though, I want to say something about language. I am going to be using the word “queer” today, and I want to acknowledge that it’s a word that may be uncomfortable for some. It is a word that has been filled with pain and violence, and also a word imbued with liberation.

“Queer” was reclaimed by ACT-UP activists who refused to concede that their lives were worthless because of their queerness. I hope that you will accept my invitation to lean into that discomfort if you feel it today, and stay with me. When I use queer, it is both as an umbrella term for LGBTQ community, as well as a loving celebration of outsiders, of difference and apartness as something to cherish, rather than something to erase.

If you’ve been attending shul recently, or if you’ve been following along at home, you know that at this point in our annual reading of the Torah we are deep in Joseph’s story.

Joseph is a ready touch-point for those of us who search our tradition’s texts for echoes of our vibrant, colorful, fabulous, often-outsider, queer lives. As my colleague Gregg Drinkwater has written, “The great rabbinic and medieval commentators make the modern task of ‘queering’ Joseph even easier, with all of them having noted that Joseph had a certain ‘sensibility.’”

Joseph is described as “behaving like a boy, penciling his eyes, curling his hair, and lifting his heel.” When Joseph is in Egypt, he rejects Potiphar wife’s advances, uninterested in sex with her. (This rejection of heterosexual desire and adultery is ultimately what lands him in jail.)

And, of course, there is the matter of his flamboyantly colorful coat; a symbol of his father’s love and preference, and the catalyst for his brothers’ betrayal. Throughout his life, Joseph is cast as the outsider. Ultimately, it is his apartness and difference that elevates him. His gift of insight, dream interpretation, and wisdom is what makes him valuable to the Egyptian Pharaoh, and are his (and his family’s) saving grace.

It is not so much Joseph’s potential queerness though, important as it is, that I am interested in talking about today. Rather, I am captured by the story of Joseph’s family.

Joseph is deeply, deeply betrayed by his family of origin. He is thrown into a pit and sold into slavery because of his difference. And yet, when Joseph’s family returns—unknowingly—to him, asking for help and compassion, he welcomes them. Precisely the qualities within him that they cast out—his unnerving seeing, his apartness, his queerness—are ultimately the reason they are drawn back to him.

JW_PJW_JJ_SF_London

Joanna and members of her chosen family.

When I think about family, I think both about a Jewish familial model—loving, central, complicated at times, and also largely a matter of birth—as well as my queer history of chosen family. Ask an LGBTQ person of a certain age (or us younger folks well-educated in queer history), and most of us will tell you that when we hear “oh yeah, they’re family” from another LGBTQ person, we know that they are not saying that this person is their blood relation, what they are saying is that they are one of us.

When it was unsafe to name aloud our markers of difference, we found other words: “Friend of Dorothy”: a reference to the gay subcultural icon Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz; “Friend of Mrs. King”; “confirmed bachelor”; “in the life”; and, “family”.

Family is, indeed, a way of saying “she’s our kind,” but it is about quite a bit more, as well.

Queer history is abounding in stories of rejection and exile. Young gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender people rejected by their families of origin, thrown out of their homes and told never to return unless they “weren’t that way” often found each other. They found each other on the streets and in bars, and—confronted with a world that was telling them from every direction that who we were was wrong, broken, diseased, unworthy, criminal, and a perversion—came together against it.

Family came to signify the kind of kinship and “us-ness” wrought by fighting oppression and recognizing that we were in it together. We bailed each other out of jail, nursed the physical and emotional wounds of violence, sexual assault, and humiliation at the hands of those in power, and grew resilient, beautiful, powerful families in the midst, in spite of, and in response to that brokenness.

Chosen families are built and created, and they come together for celebration and grieving, for healing and for play, and because when no one else will show up for us—we do.

Chosen family is about surviving in a world that wants to be rid of you.

Sylvia Rae Rivera

Sylvia Rae Rivera, one of the founders of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

In New York City, in the 1970s, Sylvia Rivera, Bubbles Rose Marie, and Marsha P. Johnson created STAR—Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. STAR was created for, in Sylvia’s words, “street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at the time.” Sylvia and Marsha took in young gay and gender variant homeless youth, they hustled in the streets so that their “kids” wouldn’t have to. They got a building and paid the rent and worked to put food on the table to protect their kids from violence and degradation. They were a family.

Through the late 80s and 90s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, it was chosen gay and queer family that served as nurses, care-takers, emotional support, and in-home hospice. Chosen family who escorted people to doctor’s appointments and support group meetings, who slipped crushed ice into the lips of the dying, who made funeral arrangements and sat shiva. They were family.

Chosen families are often understood in contrast to families of origin—a response to rejection by blood family when someone comes out. And, for many people this was true. We built chosen family because it was our only option. For others though, and for many LGBTQ people today, it is a less stark scenario. Many of us have families of origin with whom we are still in relationship—sometimes beautiful, loving, whole relationships, and sometimes relationships that are fractured and more complicated but nonetheless present and persistent.

Chosen family and family of origin are not in direct opposition to one another, and both have something to teach us about kinship, obligation, and us-ness.

For queer people, kinship is often the edge upon which we tread the line between coming out and remaining closeted.

Every, seemingly innocuous question can be a moment for a gut-check:

  • “What did you do for the holidays?”
  • “What did you do this weekend?”
  • “Is your wife here?”
  • “Do you have kids?”

Do I want to be out with these people? Is it worth the risk? What’s the benefit? How long have I known them? What is there to lose? Can I sidestep this conversation all together?

I am out in every aspect of my life. I came out seven years ago and haven’t looked back. I am a queer professional and I rarely encounter people who don’t know that I’m queer either before or immediately after I meet them. So, I rarely interface with this calculation, and yet I’m still not free from it.

A month ago, in Washington, D.C., in the course of making small talk with a cab driver, I outed myself. “No, I don’t have a husband or boyfriend, I have a girlfriend.” The next five minutes in that car were profoundly unpleasant and offensive; the cab driver’s response was ripe with misogyny, homophobia, and vulgarity. I had miscalculated.

I am incredibly insulated from this kind of risk most of the time. I live in one of the 22 states that prohibit employment discrimination on account of sexual orientation and gender identity, and I work for an LGBT organization. 52% of the LGBT population in the United States does not live where employment discrimination on account of sexual orientation and gender identity is legally prohibited. 52% of LGBT people live in a state without employment protections. 52% of LGBT people can be fired for that kind of miscalculation; for presuming goodwill and discovering animosity instead.

Joanna and her mom

Joanna and her mom.

I have had friends and partners whose families were similarly at risk by them being out.

Just as kinship ties can implicate and out as us queer people, our kinship ties with our families of origin can put them at risk. The Keshet Parent & Family Connection works with parents across the country, many of whom have struggled with precisely this. Their child’s coming out has implications in their own life, and they often feel adrift as they try to cope with this new challenge.

My mother has told me that she hesitates, sometimes, to come out as the parent of a queer daughter—afraid  for her colleague’s reactions, afraid that she will have to continue working with people who could profoundly disappoint her, afraid that she can’t insulate me from their bigotry. She isn’t afraid for her job, but I am well aware that other parents are afraid.

There are the teachers in under-funded schools across the country that could lose their job for having a gay child, and it could be justified as budget cuts. There are the Orthodox families who love their gay child fiercely, and are terrified for what it means for the rest of their children for their kid to be out: terrified that their family will be ostracized, that they will lose business, terrified of the real possibility that younger siblings will be bullied in school, will have trouble finding a shidduch, will resent their sibling for implicating them in their struggle as a queer person.

If kinship is about us-ness, then it is indeed about being implicated in both the celebrations and the struggles our loved ones face. It is about, as my girlfriend puts it, tying your boats together.

We know how to make sense of this when it comes to marriage and children, but we often struggle to name, categorize, and validate chosen families and kinship ties without the ready, heteronormative markers of traditional family structures.

I have nightmares sometimes about my queer chosen family being hospitalized, and being unable to reach them.

I’m racing through the halls of a hospital, and someone stops me:

“Are you family?”

“Who is this person to you?”

“Are you related?”

How can I answer?

Are you family? “Yes!” (But… maybe not like you mean it.)

Who is this person to you? “How could I possibly explain?” (They are my ex-partner’s best friend and my child’s quasi-parent and they co-signed on my car loan and we make soup for each other on a rotating weekly basis and they are the one person who knows exactly what I need when I’m sick or angry or heartbroken. There’s no word for that person, except family.)

Are you related? “Technically? No.”

Joanna and members of her chosen family

Joanna and members of her chosen family.

I’ve been thinking about this as I’m reading Joseph’s story, and about his family. Joseph responds to his brothers with compassion, but distance. He doesn’t trust them immediately, and he doesn’t reveal himself.

Nonetheless, he does not turn them away out of spite or anger. Which I think many of us could agree would be a very human impulse on his part to the people who threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery.

And what do his brothers think about all of this? As far as they know, Joseph is a stranger—a person of power in a foreign land who is meeting them with compassion in a time of need. They are starving, and he offers them food. Not, as far as they are concerned, out of an obvious sense of kinship or family ties, but because that is what is right, and just. Our sages warn us about the cost of ignoring the needs of the oppressed and suffering.

In the Babylonian Talmud we are offered a story about Rabbi Judah and Samuel:

Rabbi Judah is sitting with Samuel, when a woman comes before them and cries out about an injustice inflicted upon her. When Samuel ignores this woman’s cries, Rabbi Judah confronts him, asking “Don’t you agree with the proverb that teaches “one who refuses to hear the cry of the helpless will also cry and not be heard’?”

Samuel, realizing his error, responds “You’re right! Though I am your superior, I will have cold water poured on me as punishment for ignoring a cry of injustice!”

“But,” Samuel continues, “my superior, Mar Akba, who failed to judge rightly and wronged this woman, will have hot water poured on him as punshiment. For it is written:  Execute justice in the morning, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor, lest My fury go forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings’ ” (Jer. 21:12).” (B. Shab 55a)

“One who refuses to hear the cry of the helpless will also cry and not be heard.”

This call to act toward justice is, as I hear it, a call to act as pulled by bonds of mutuality, of relational obligation, of being in it together and bound up in the oppression and liberation of other people. It is, I think, the natural outcome of defining and seeing our bonds of kinship broadly.

If we internalize the lessons and possibilities of queer people’s chosen family, it pushes us to ask ourselves: to whom am I obligated?

With whose fortunes and futures are mine tied?

In what ways is my freedom bound up with yours?

When you are unsafe, how can I feel safety and stability?

These are, I think, deeply important questions for the work of creating Jewish communities that are celebrate and welcome LGBTQ people; for fostering wholeness and holiness.

When we expand our sense of the “we,” and look beyond the traditional answers of who constitutes the “us” and who is the “them,” when we redefine for ourselves the bounds of obligation and connection, we are doing the sacred work of transforming our communities for the better.

I’ve been thinking about these questions a great deal in the last two weeks. We are seeing a movement build across the country insisting that the lives of black people matter; that we are not done with the work of rectifying our country’s racist history and present; that thedisproportionately high rates of violence at the hands of police, arrests, and incarceration of black people is a stain on our national conscience.

Joanna and her cousins.

Joanna and her brothers and cousins.

Where is my place in it? What is my obligation? As a queer Jew whose chosen family and family of origin include people of color, I have a stake in this game.

As a queer Jew, I have communal histories that remind me to be on the look out for the big acts of violence—like what we’re seeing in Missouri, New York, Ohio, and elsewhere in our country. Like the heartbreaking news coming out of France, and the dramatically increased numbers of people leaving the country due to rising anti-Semitism. Like the news out of Kansas City, where two young Muslim boys were struck by a car—killing one of them—in an intentional act of Islamophobic violence. Like the 238 transgender people—most of them women of color—killed in 2013 for being transgender, and the countless other transgender people who died because of transphobia.

People like Leslie Feinberg, a secular Jew and transgender activist, whose death from Lyme-disease could have been prevent in a world where transgender people did not face enormous barriers to economic stability and rampant stigma in health care settings. These are the big, obvious, heartbreaking signs of brokenness. These are the proverbial women who, just like in the Talmud story I shared with you, cry out in front of our faces, to whom we are reminded not to close our ears.

But when I think about kinship, and our obligation to the other, I also think about the lessons I’ve learned about how damaging the subtle, insidious forms of normalized oppression can be. I think about what happens when we decide that some swath of people are “them” rather than “us.” I worry about the dehumanization that happens when we seek out excuses and explanations to justify racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia.

I worry about what happens when we say “well, she was just too much,” “he was too flamboyant,” “he looked so obviously Jewish,” “he was too big and too black.” I worry about what happens to our hearts and souls when we respond to injustice and oppression by asking “what did he do to deserve it?” rather than “what did I do to allow this to happen? How can I change it?”

Perhaps, a queer Jewish reading of this section of our Torah isn’t just about Joseph and his lifted heel, but is also about imagining ourselves as his brothers, being met with compassion and welcome in a strange and frightening place.

Perhaps, our lesson can be to tap into a deepening well of empathy, and hold on to the insights of queer people who have been building chosen family as we want to define it; who have been spreading the ties and obligations of kinship far and wide.

What might that mean for how Jewish communities welcome, celebrate, and show up for LGBTQ people? People of color? All of us on the margins?

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Posted on December 11, 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

Telling My Story for World AIDS Day

A large red ribbon hangs between columns in the north portico of the White House for World AIDS Day, 30 November 2007

A large red ribbon hangs between columns in the north portico of the White House for World AIDS Day, 30 November 2007

(Trigger warning: This post includes stories of suicide.)

I remember vividly the first time I heard the term “AIDS.” It was the Sally Jessy Raphael show right after I got home from school. I remember looking at the screen,  seeing people who were broken, who were abused, who, essentially were being put on a pedestal of shame for the world to see. My mother called out from the kitchen, “Turn that trash off. Those faggots are getting what they deserve.”

But I knew I was not unlike them.

AIDS and HIV related deaths have topped 39 million since the pandemic started. There are more than 35 million people currently living with the virus today, with a bit over one million of those individuals living in the United States. And while the virus does not discriminate, individuals in the LGBTQ community feel the impacts far differently. We tend to not have adequate access to health care, face inherent stress from the discrimination and harassment that is institutional in our country which is proven to impart lesser health outcomes. From my prospective, the most harmful is the stigma that continues to follow this disease for our community.

I realize I don’t tell my story often enough, and I find this to be a personal failure as a member of this community and as a human being. I will not use real names or places because the story is still very raw and honestly, I don’t think those wounds will ever heal.

When I was 19, I was newly liberated: reborn even. I had come out to my Mom and Dad, I was living on my own at University, and had a supportive group of friends around me.

Dustin and Mark were two of those friends.

They had been together for the better part of a decade and were the queer big brothers I never had. I navigated my first two relationships with their help; crying on their shoulders more than I’d like to admit. But, for the first time in my life, I had role models. I had people I looked up to. I had a future.

It was October and the weather had started turning. Mark was constantly getting sick, although no one really thought much of it. I knew the week before my birthday, Mark had a doctor’s appointment. On the night of my birthday, as I was busy prepping for the birthday shenanigans, I missed a call from Mark.

That night, I missed an opportunity to save a life.

Mark was calling because hours before, he had found out he had tested positive for HIV. This man that I knew, who was in a committed relationship, who had taught me how to be strong in the face of adversity, how to be proud about my differences, hung himself in his apartment.

The hours that passed were all a blur. I was in complete shock and all I wanted were answers. Unfortunately, my only access to those answers was Dustin.

And on November 2nd, just one day later, Dustin put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Later, we would find out that Dustin had been cheating and introduced the virus into their relationship.

I’m writing this story to tell you that ten years ago, I lost two of my best friends—my blood—to this virus known as HIV. But the story is unlike the stories of my elders; who watched their loved ones whither away in hospital beds in the 80s and 90s.

My friends did not die because of the virus. My friends died because they knew they would be treated differently. They died because of fear. They died because we as a community have not stepped up to educate.

My friends died because of STIGMA.

I’m not a great Jew. Some love to remind me the last time I stepped into Temple was for a friend’s Bat Mitzvah, and that was quite a few years ago. But I am educated enough to know that in synagogue, we speak all passages of the Torah. We don’t side step the ones we feel uncomfortable speaking, especially if we’re hanging out in Leviticus.

LGBTQ Jews are in a unique situation: we stand steadfast for social justice and humanity and we know we cannot be silent, even in the face of what we feel is uncomfortable.

The importance of kavod hamet, respecting the dead, is taught in our tradition. Remembering, and respecting, the dead is commemorated by reciting the mourner’s Kaddish during prayers.

Today, I ask you to begin your advocacy with our Jewish values. Take a moment to include in your thoughts those we have lost. Stand with your congregation, and recite Kaddish for those we have lost to the AIDS epidemic, those who have no one standing for them.

Hold in your prayers, and your memories, those who had no support, those who felt alone.

And, this World AIDS Day I challenge everyone reading this to call a friend, a neighbor, a coworker… anyone. Reach out to them and remind them that you’ll be there. If you’re feeling extra inspired, there are many different organizations that you can volunteer with—including your closest LGBTQ Community Center, as many of them work directly or indirectly with HIV/AIDS.

HIV/AIDS has taken so much from so many. Let us be kind. Let’s show the world that no one is alone in this fight.

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Posted on November 26, 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

How To Hire a Trans Rabbi

Creating inclusive Jewish spaces is a great goal—but how do you do it? While the answer is likely different for every synagogue, school, and youth group, it’s helpful and encouraging to hear about others’ successes, triumphs, and their lessons learned. Take a look at this story of Tachlis of Inclusion, which we hope you find inspiring as we prepare for Transgender Day of Remembrance. Be sure to check out other stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” our look at the importance of voting, and the personal reflections of two parents looking at gender roles at daycare.

10321023_948003815650_1572420430904116827_oFor the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC), hiring Rabbi Becky Silverstein as their Education Director just made sense. A recent graduate of Hebrew College, Rabbi Silverstein brought the knowledge, the passion, and the training that the position required. He won over the board, the staff, and the community.

What made things just a little bit complicated was the fact that Rabbi Silverstein is transgender—and one of the very few openly transgender rabbis in America.

Keshet has talked with Rabbi Silverstein before to get his perspective on the learning curve associated with being, as a rabbi, a public transgender figure. For Rabbi Silverstein, “As a person who identifies as trans and genderqueer and whose pronoun (intentionally) creates dissonance with my name, I try and remember that those whom I am encountering may be going through their own process. This requires approaching everyone with compassion and an ear to understanding where they are so that I can respond appropriately.  

We recently talked with Eitan Trabin, PJTC’s Executive Director, about the tachlis of hiring Rabbi Silverstein. Trabin shared how the hiring process developed, “during our first interview with Becky, his pronouns were established. There wasn’t a dramatic moment of head scratching, but after the interview our hiring board took a moment to discuss. I knew we could talk about Becky being trans in terms of learning about it, but this wasn’t going to be something to weigh in terms of hiring. I probably had a dozen conversations with people about transgender education during the hiring process. Most of the people on the hiring committee said, ‘Oh, okay.’ And others said, ‘Oh, okay… so what’s that?’ So, there was education that we had to do right away.”

“There was a little bit of a conversion of ‘How would this be taken by the congregation?’ and the overwhelming weight was given to the fact that the Rabbi Silverstein was an exceptional candidate, no matter what. Which is why we offered him the position.”

When Rabbi Silverstein offered his thoughts on the hiring process he shared that PJTC being so open to discussing pronouns, gender, and creating a dialogue was crucial to feeling like they could be a professional and personal Jewish home for him. Concrete steps that PJTC took made it clear that they were doing their part to be an inclusive and safe place.

After Rabbi Silverstein was hired, one staff member came to Trabin and said, “I’m really excited, I met Becky, I think he’s awesome, and I’d love to know more. This is new to me, I don’t want to do the wrong thing and say the wrong thing, and I want to learn more especially since people will come to me with questions.

Trabin and PJTC decided to hold a “Gender 101” training for their staff. They brought together the staff members who regularly interface with the community and congregation, with the idea that they should understand some basic ideas about gender identity, as well as how to make PJTC more trans friendly. With the help of Dr. Joel Kushner from The Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the staff discussed lexicon, gender identity, and sexual orientation. They examined the practicalities of being an inclusive environment, and looked at how ideas of gender may or may not play out in the synagogue. Together, as a staff and a community, they discussed what could be done to make PJTC more trans friendly.

Trabin felt “the training was successful—folks who were there have been respectful about pronouns. It’s like learning a new language—and you have to think about learning styles and what makes sense. Sometimes it’s not a comment on openness, it’s a matter of understanding what learned behavior there is to overcome, so it might take longer for some people. It’s okay that not everyone gets everything, or that we don’t have all the terminology down. What was important was what this would mean when Rabbi Silverstein arrives, and it was easier to discuss in the concrete than the abstract.”

Where the rubber hits the road and where it makes a difference is being willing to make mistakes, learn, and be open,” Trabin shared.

Tachlis is learning vocabulary, and thinking about how we gender kids, what we do with bathrooms, even if all it comes down to is hearing voices and elevating voices. Sometimes there’s some repetitiveness that is required—we have to keep asking the questions: are we being successful? Are we shifting the conversation? What it would be like if a gender non-conforming kid walks in? How will they feel?”

Next up on PJTC’s inclusion docket?  Broader congregational education on gender and sexuality, and a follow-up for staff and allies on how to correct people’s misuse of pronouns.

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Posted on November 6, 2014

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The Coming Out Process

In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

MBYHeadshot1For me, coming out has never been as simple as you would think. I’ve done it a few timesI first came out as queer as a teenager, and now as an adult I have come out all over again as transgender. This latest coming-out process has taken me the better part of two years, countless half-steps in the direction of being out, and finally the decision to just trust that it would work out.

The first step, and the hardest, was coming out to myself.

On some level, I had known that I was trans for a very long timeever since I first heard the term transgender. I read everything about gender and transition that I could get my hands on. Something about these stories grabbed my attention in a way that nothing else had. I never could understand why anyone thought it was difficult to understand or unfamiliarit made perfect sense to me. That probably should have been my first clue.

Then I found gender theory. Oddly, the distant academic language about gender as cultural performance became one of my best tools for convincing myself that I was not transgender: If gender is not real, if it is culturally arbitrary, then it does not matter what gender I am. If it does not matter what gender I am, then I can’t be trans, right? Or how about another one: If culture defines what genders are acceptable and legible, and our culture has a gender category for a person with my genetics and body to look the way I do, then I can “get by” as a butch. That means I’m not transgender, right? I can “slide by” in public as a just-barely-almost-not-quite-kinda-sorta woman, so I don’t need to think of myself as transgender, right?

There was one major area of my life where these justifications and excuses did not work.

In my relationship with Jewish ritual, which was becoming more and more important in my life, there never seemed to be room for these excuses. In fact, there never seemed to be room for my sense of ambiguity around gender at all: so much of our ritual, language, and practice is strictly gendered, even in our progressive and egalitarian movements. It seemed impossible to approach a Hebrew text, be called to the Torah, or pray in Hebrew without thinking about gender. I always had to insert some distance between myself and our traditionbetween myself and Godto avoid the dreaded gender meltdown.

It was during this time that I began rabbinical school in the Conservative movement. I had watched my tradition struggleand have some success, however imperfectat becoming a tradition that welcomed and treated with dignity all people. I wasn’t always happy with the way these conversations were going, and I came to the rabbinate in order to add my voice. I came out of a sense of obligation to Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) and a desire to build moral and welcoming communities.

Over time, it got harder and harder to do the work of becoming a rabbi without engaging my own “gender stuff.”

Finally, one Friday night at Kabbalat Shabbat, it just clicked: I didn’t have to think so hard about gender all the time. I didn’t need a mental list of justifications for my gender identityand I was exhausting myself by constantly maintaining that list. The truth was much simpler than that: I was just transgender. It was a scary feeling, because seeing myself as transgender was something I had worked very hard not to do for so long, but it was also a tremendous relief. Over the course of the coming weeks, I felt myself letting go of the emotional distance I had kept between myself and my life.  I was not sure what my next steps were, what kind of new gender identity I would build for myself, what coming out would be like, whether I would transition—there were plenty of reasons to be anxious. But I began to notice that even with all of the anxiety, I was present in a way that I had not been before.

From that Shabbat, it took more than two years to come out more or less completely, to figure out how and whether to transition, and to begin negotiating the complex legal, medical, and bureaucratic mess that those of us who transition have to deal with.

A few close friends and family members knew right away, and were there with me as I thought about when and whether to come out, what transition would mean, and all of the other questions I had. Sometimes I wish I had come out sooner. I especially wish that I had been more completely out during my time in rabbinical schoolI wish that I had been able to add my voice specifically as a trans person to our conversations, and that I had been more present to my classmates, colleagues, and teachers. Most importantly, I wish I had been in a position to show them at the time the trust that I know they deserved. But there were too many other factors in life, and my time line did not allow that. In the end, it was reaching the end of my studies and preparing to work as a rabbi that gave me the final push to put the last pieces in place to be able to transition. It was in thinking about the ordination ceremony that I knew for certain that if I could not stand in front of my teachers and mentors in my full self, and have them call me by a name that fit me, the ceremony would feel empty and fake. And, shortly afterwards, I decided that if I continued to put off transition for “someday” in the future, I would continue to not be present to the work I was doing right now in my community.

How could I possibly be a rabbi building Jewish community if I was hiding from the community I wanted to serve?

So I jumped in to the coming out process—talking with close and extended family, friends, coworkers, and others. It was both more frightening and easier than I expected. So far, in sharing the news of my transition with my colleagues and my communities, I have received nothing but support and shared excitement. Not a single one of the worst-case scenarios or explosions that I feared has happened. Instead, people have surprised me with their generosity of spirit. Being out has given me the ability to raise my voice, to educate and advocate in my community. More than that, it has given me the ability to experience again what a beautiful community it is.

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Posted on October 30, 2014

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Coming Out and Being Proud

In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

rp_10172680_10152410248549809_7254544815864323903_n-300x300.jpgIt is hard to imagine that this year marks only the fifth year in which I’ll be out of the closet for National Coming Out Day. My queer identity is such a strong part of my identity that it is hard to remember that for the majority of my life it was one of my deepest secrets.

This past year, I also publicly come out as a survivor of sexual violence. My identity as a survivor strongly informs my identity as a queer Jew, and this upcoming National Coming Out Day will mark my first Coming Out Day as a Jewish queer survivor.  

This past June, I wrote about taking pride in my identities as a Jewish Queer Survivor. Now, almost half a year since I wrote those posts, as I reflect on being out, I realize one thing: I am lucky.

I am lucky for the Jewish communities I have been a part of.

Since I came out as queer, I found a Jewish community that embraced my identities, including my queer identity at Tufts Hillel. When I was going through the sexual misconduct adjudication process at Tufts, a Hillel staff member was one of several people who provided me with the support I needed during a difficult time. Now that I am in DC, I am in the process of exploring new Jewish communities and realize how lucky I am that I can truly be myself in each community I explore.

I am lucky to be accepted.

As support and acceptance of LGBTQ individuals continues to grow, especially among my generation, it is easy to forget how much homophobia still exists, both in the Jewish and non-Jewish world. When I read the comments and tweets in response to my piece in June about taking pride in my Jewish queer identity, I was reminded that not everyone is as lucky as me to have found such great support among family and friends. I was even more shocked when the Advocate picked up my blog post, especially because my story did not seem newsworthy to me; it just seemed like the norm for so many people I know.

And lastly, I am lucky for the support I have received.

As a survivor, I have seen how rape culture re-victimizes survivors through a culture of victim-blaming, institutions which offer more opportunities to succeed for rapists than survivors, and a legal system which leaves little hope for justice. Yet, I was fortunate to receive the support of family, friends, and even teachers. Perhaps one of the most touching responses I received were from two former teachers—one a teacher from elementary and middle school who saw my article on Keshet and one from a former professor who reached out to me after reading a piece I wrote for the Tufts Daily about Tufts’ history of letting rapists remain on campus.

I had been publicly out as queer and as a survivor before I wrote my blog posts for Keshet. However, writing during pride month gave me the opportunity to not only come out in a more public space online but to also reflect on having pride in my identities—a feeling that doesn’t necessarily come with coming out. And I couldn’t be any prouder to be out for the month of National Coming Out Day.

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Posted on October 23, 2014

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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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Ask Asher: Coming Out

Have a question about LGBTQ life? Jewish life? LGBTQ Jewish Life? Ask Asher! Send your questions to AskAsher@keshetonline.org and you might be featured in our next column. And, check out Keshet’s resources for National Coming Out Day!

Dear Asher,
National Coming Out Day is this month, what advice do you have for someone who wants to come out? I’m ready, but…. I’m also not ready. Eeek!
Sincerely,
Closeted for Now

comingoutFINALDear Closeted for Now,
How exciting for you to be thinking about coming out!  My advice about coming out of the closet has always been: if coming out poses no physical or financial threat to you, you should do it as soon as possible.

What that means is, if you are worried you may become a target of violence, or may lose your job or get kicked out of your home, you should either wait until those circumstances change or take the necessary steps to change them before coming out. That said, it doesn’t sound like you are in any real danger, and are actually just nervous, which is totally legitimate.

Coming out can be a bit daunting to many people, but the best way to think about it is to approach it as a process, not a singular action. You may choose to come out to everyone at the same time in some very loud and fabulous way, but I think the better method is to do it gradually. Tell a close friend or relative. Then, tell another, and so on and so forth. Each time you open up to someone, it will become easier. Eventually, it will be hard to keep track of who knows and who doesn’t, and then you’ll just be out.

One important thing to remember: people will talk to each other. If you are truly afraid of certain people finding out, you may not be ready to come out, as it is not right or fair to bring other people into your closet by telling them that they absolutely cannot tell anyone about your secret. Of course, you may request that your friends and family keep it to themselves for now, but don’t be surprised when they don’t. Another piece of advice—keep a journal. I came out 15 years ago (I’m 30 now) and don’t remember what it was like to be closeted and coming out. What I wouldn’t give to have had that entire process documented so I could read it now, half a lifetime later…Good luck!

All the Best,
Asher

Dear Asher,
How do I mark National Coming Out Day if I’m already out? I want to be supportive—and I want to celebrate!
Sincerely,
So Out & So Proud

Dear So Out & So Proud,
Good for you for being “So Out & So Proud”—sounds like a good slogan for a T-Shirt or bumper sticker… I’m thinking fuchsia. Seriously, make it happen. There is nothing more important than visibility for the LGBTQ community, so feel free to make yourself as visible as you want!

Also, why not donate a bit of your disposable income to one of those amazing organizations that helps those who are not as fortunate as you are to be So Out and So Proud? Or, depending upon where you live, you could volunteer at a local LGBTQ organization.  There are so many ways to help; just pick one.

That said, I really hope you make a T-Shirt, because that would just be fabulous.

Have Fun,
Asher
P.S.  Send pictures of the T-Shirt.

Dear Asher,
I am an adult gay man, and my little sister just came out to me as a FTM transgender. Of course, I told him I love him and am here for him, but inside a part of me is mourning the loss of the little girl with whom I used to play dress up, and who I took to her first day of kindergarten.

How do you suggest that I honor both him and his transition, without denying my own profound sense of loss?

Sincerely,
My Brother’s Keeper

Dear My Brother’s Keeper,
First of all, it is wonderful that you are making such an effort with your brother. I know that the shift in pronouns (as well as pretty much everything else in our gender-centric world) can be difficult, but it is so important that he feels supported, even if you mess up a lot at first. Eventually, this will all get easier, and you will look back with bewilderment on the days you used female pronouns to describe him. As hard as this transition is for you, imagine how hard it must be for him.

You cannot imagine what this transition is like for him; having a supportive older brother like you is EXACTLY what he needs. And just how you held his hand through the first day of kindergarten, you have the opportunity to hold his hand through this, to look out for him, to protect him, the way you always have.

Instead of seeing his transition as the “loss” of your sister, try to approach it as the “gaining” of a brother.

Your sister is not dead, and your brother shouldn’t ask you to pretend that he wasn’t outwardly identifying as a woman for most of his life. I know I’m going to get a lot of crap for this, but I find it disrespectful when people make others alter their memories because of an identity change.  You should hold onto those memories, especially the meaningful ones, because they helped make you who you are. Your brother should respect those memories the way you remember them, and not ask you to alter them, even if he felt like a boy at the time; he shouldn’t ask you to experience your life through his eyes, just as you shouldn’t ask him to experience his life through yours. So, that said, instead of focusing on the “loss” (and let’s face it, you were never going to take him to another first day of kindergarten, even if he hadn’t transitioned), try to be as present as possible during this important time in his life; it will lead to even more incredible memories, and will further solidify your bond with your brother.

Should all of us be so lucky as to have an older brother like you.

Best of Luck,
Asher

Posted on October 8, 2014

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Coming Out & Inviting In

Kathryn-200x224In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

When I entered the waters of the mikveh directly after my bet din for conversion to Judaism, my Jewish life began—but as Jew-by-choice, I felt like I was hiding a secret.

After my conversion folks treated me as an “average” part of the Jewish community, I was passing as a Jew-by-birth. This passing meant of a lot of different things. It allowed me to take leadership roles at my Hillel that I was previously barred from. It allowed me to function and be treated like everyone else within the Jewish community. To everyone else in my community, I was not any different. There were no invasive questions asked, just a slew of assumptions and a feeling that I was hiding.

As a Jew-by-choice I often feel forced into playing along as if I remember that time in my life where there was a bar or bat mitzvah every weekend, or that I know exactly what a stereotypical Jewish mother is like. I don’t have an answer when folks ask me what it was like to be in a Jewish military family because, while I came from a military family, I’m not from a Jewish military family. The assumption that my childhood looked like every other Jew’s silenced me and kept me from sharing stories of my non-Jewish past.

This feeling of keeping a secret was not a new one for me. By the time I came out as Jewish, I had already come out as queer. The feeling of “playing along” was, in many ways, akin to how I felt as a closeted youth. I feared that sharing parts of me would only mark me as different and knew that people don’t always take kindly to “others.”

So what do you do when you’re afraid of how people will react to your difference?

You pretend and make every attempt to pass.

In middle school I made up crushes and played along while the girls I sat with at lunch ogled over one celebrity or another. And, in college I would nod knowingly when someone talked about how Jewish mothers are or how their rabbi was terribly long winded.

I remember the first time that someone read my appearance as Jewish—I was ecstatic. I was passing with flying colors!  But it wasn’t long until passing felt like erasure.

Being seen as Jewish did not leave room for my family. I didn’t have space to acknowledge that my curly hair was Puerto Rican and Cuban—or that Hanukkah and Passover time at my house looked a whole lot like Christmas and Easter. The passing was suffocating and I longed to take a deep breath.

I knew that the only way to breathe was to do what I’d done before: come out.

But this time I saw things differently. I’d been in queer circles where I was introduced to the idea of “inviting in” rather than “coming out.” Sharing this piece of me was my choice and an invitation to come in and share this part of my life—rather than handing over information in a way that would leave me feeling exposed and vulnerable. This coming out as a Jew-by-choice would be framed by my agency in sharing.

Now, every aspect of my life is enmeshed with Judaism. I moved to Boston from Georgia and have found myself in a population where Jewish people are not an anomaly. I’m a JOIN fellow seeking to find Jewish framework for the organizing that I do. I work as the Boston Community Organizer for Keshet bringing queer Jews together and moving Jewish institutions towards inclusion.

I chose to wrap my life up with Judaism and I acknowledge how that choice, if I’m not careful, would allow others to paint over my Jewish story with assumptions and wash my identity away.

During my conversion process I searched every nook and cranny of the internet for stories to relate to and voices that could speak to my own experience as a queer Jew-by-choice. I came up short, and felt pretty alone. I know that had someone else come before me it would have been easier. It is my hope that being a visible queer Jew-by-choice makes other’s searches just a little more fruitful. And maybe, just maybe I can be the hope Harvey Milk talked so much about—a hope that being visible makes room from someone else to live their truth.

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Posted on October 6, 2014

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The Burden of Coming Out

In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

“For National Coming Out Day I’m coming out … as a Keshet blogger!”Profile-Bowtie

*crickets*

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.”

*crickets*

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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Posted on October 1, 2014

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Parashat Ki Tavo: Fine-Tune Your Spiritual Hearing

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 weekour reflection comes from Maggid Jhos Singer, who shows that standing up as a Jew takes guts and deep self-knowing.

This week’s Torah Portion, Ki Tavo, reads like it might have been penned by Jimmy Swaggart
and Charles Bukowski with just a little editing by Stephen King.

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.

radio-microphone-on-the-airThe 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.

CS1819640-02A-BIGRebbe 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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Posted on September 8, 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