Welcome to our fifth installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers. Here, we interview Rabbi Elliot Kukla.
Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. You can also read the first four posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, and Rabbi Denise Eger.
How has being LGBTQ informed your work as a rabbi?
I work in a team of four rabbis at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, providing spiritual care to those struggling with grieving, illness, or dying, and I also direct the Healing Center’s hospice spiritual care volunteer program. The experience of being a transgender and queer person with a body and life trajectory outside of mainstream expectations is what led me to this work. I don’t consider being queer or trans a form of illness, but for me, being transgender and building a queer family and community has theological implications that also impact the way I respond to illness and aging. If we really embrace the idea that all of our various genders and desires were created in the image of God, we must believe that God wants and needs difference. This means that all bodies as they stretch, sag, shrink, grow, age and heal are divine; and all phases in the life cycle are holy and deserve sacred attention and care. Continue reading
The Torah is strewn with transgendered hearts.
How can that be true? The Torah, as we know, is not written for or about transgender people, and in any case, “transgender” is supposed to be a noun or adjective, not a verb, an umbrella term for the millions of people whose gender identity or expression is more complicated than “male” or “female.” “Transgender” gathers gender-complicated people into a broad, simple category – the equivalent of “African American” or “Latino” – and implies that our identities, like those of other minorities, are a matter of fact that is not up for discussion. But though “transgender” has real advantages for describing ourselves to others, for many of us who identify as transgender, identity is an often-messy, ongoing process, not a simple, settled fact. For me, “transgender” isn’t just something I am – it is an active, terrifying, exalting process of unmaking and remaking a self that will never quite fit established categories of gender or identity. Continue reading
They invented the term 100% trans Jewcore, and as Schmekel they are rocking our world! Keshet caught up with the members of the band – Lucian Kahn, Ricky Riot, Nogga Schwartz, and Simcha Halpert-Hanson – to talk about musical influences, what they’d love to see in the Jewish world, and what the heck “Jewcore” is, after all. We’re bringing you a longer post than usual, but you know what they say: one band, four Jews, lots and lots of opinions!
RR: “Jewcore” loosely refers to anything within the rock realm that has Jewish influences. It is a description that makes sense for us in this fortunate era of complicated genre classification. For me, the Jewish part of it is liturgical and other traditional tunes, and Israeli songs. As of a little more recently, I’ve been listening to klezmer bands, like the Klezmatics. The rock part of it is pretty eclectic. I listen to some classic rock, like the Doors and Jimi Hendrix, and as of more recently punk bands like the Dead Kennedys and Limp Wrist - yes I know, I got into punk way after the fact. I also like the Israeli riot grrrl bands Hamachshefot (The Witches) and Poliana Frank. The artists whom I would actually call influences though, meaning ones I have listened to long ago enough for them to be considered an influence, are the Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Sleater-Kinney, the Distillers, the Smiths, and They Might Be Giants. But oddly enough, I grew up on showtunes and most of my music collection consists of jazz.
SHH: I think we all collectively came up with the term “Jewcore” as a way to describe our sound to inquiring minds. Our community in Brooklyn has coined the term “Transcore” to refer to bands like ours that have all trans* members and sing about trans* experience, so we just took that to the Jew level. That asterisk, by the way, denotes that the word “trans” in this context does not just mean “transsexual” but all folks that identify under the “transgender” umbrella – there’s great information here. I use the term “Jewcore” to reflect the unlikely combination of Jewishness with punk rock, rap, or hardcore – like what Schmekel does or what our friends Yiddish Princess does or what Moshiach Oi or SoCalled does. When you think “Jewish music,” you don’t think the kind of sound that we or the other bands I mentioned make.
In terms of influences, I love bands that think outside of the genre-box that they’re categorized in, like Against Me!, the Dresden Dolls, Modest Mouse, and Tool. I think it’s artists like those – that play with genre and keep genre flexible, that produce really interesting and ever-relevant sounds.
NS: I don’t know who came up with the term “Jewcore.” I have referenced our sound as queercore, transcore, and “yidcore.” Lucian has used the term Schtickrock to describe us as well. I guess it doesn’t matter what you call it really. Our music is influenced by a large catalog from punk to polka, klezmer, and even some good ole rock and roll. Our lyrics talk about our experience as queer, trans* Jews. I would say that that more or less can define some aspect of “Jewcore.” My personal influences come from classic rock and lots of punk and ska, I could list some here but it hurts my head to think of all the bands and musicians I pull from.
Can we talk for a moment about the infamous matza photo shoot with Amos Mac? What was that like? What were the responses – in general and, you know, from your mothers?
LTK: Dirty jokes are the matzoh meal that holds my family together, so even my grandma laughed at the pictures. Actually, she’s a psychologist and used to be a sex educator back in the ‘70s, so it’s hard to shock her with something as innocuous as a bunch of half-naked Jews covered in unleavened bread. As for the rest of the world, I was surprised that some of our fans interpreted those pictures as sexy. In fact, The Advocate called us sexy and reprinted one of the matzoh shots. Personally, I was going for ridiculous. Is sex really a viable option when there are dry crumbs involved?
RR: I’m sure my parents have seen these pictures but we never mentioned them. Honestly they do scare me a little because my other career is teaching, so I just hope they don’t get into the wrong hands. But hey, you live once; how many people can say they posed naked for an international magazine with matzohs?
NS: I felt like a schnitzel by the end of that shoot. Before we did the matzoh photo, we took a photo of Ricky pouring wine into my mouth and I got covered in it. Then we rolled around in matzoh… plus the lights, I was ready to be served. On the plus side, my boyfriend really enjoys the picture.
SHH: I have to admit I was pushing a lot of my boundaries posing for that shoot – there were more than a few moments with that picture in particular in which I felt, exposure-wise, like I was at the gyno. We all sang Echad Mi Yodeah [Who Knows One, a traditional Passover song] for most of that photo, to loosen up (of course). The shoot was in a massive warehouse with dividers between studios, so the entire first floor heard us singing about knowing one G-d, two tablets, etc. It was a unifying moment for me with the band — being stark naked on the floor with matzoh shards, singing about HaShem.
I’ve heard you’ve been upset after certain interviews that focus more on your bodies then your music. Do you get tired of educating the public on gender issues?
LTK: To be honest, at this point I just find it boring, which is actually a privilege. I’ve been pretty much done with physical transition for over two years, and I’ve been with the same boyfriend for almost as long, so I don’t have to think about the fact of my trans body on a daily basis anymore. It still comes up in random ways, such as dealing with doctors or bureaucratic paperwork, but since I’ve mostly come to peace with my body, I don’t feel like talking about it all the time. I’m definitely at a different place now than I was when I wrote the lyrics for the “Queers On Rye” album.
RR: Yes. I get tired of it both with the public as a performer, and as a regular person. I also happen to occasionally do some educating at LGBT Jewish retreats and I don’t mind educating in a time and place where that is the intended goal. I just don’t like being asked about my body in a casual social setting, or when press is more interested in our transitions than our music.
NS: The focus that many non-trans people put on trans and gender non-conforming bodies is sometimes overwhelming. As Ricky said, when there is a time and a place, sure we can talk about it. We are people also and do other stuff. In this case we are a band that performs and plays music about many subjects besides our bodies.
This happens, unfortunately, within the queer community as well as out in the general public.
I recognize that I will forever have to qualify myself to people who have never before met a trans* person and that until olam haba [the world to come] becomes olam hazeh [this world], educating will be a fact of life, but I am especially tired of teaching specifically transmen about why I’m not one of them and qualifying the existence of genderqueer as a separate gender. It’s really disheartening to me that so many trans* people have internalized the sexism and binary mentality that made it difficult for them to realize themselves to begin with.
Can you discuss the queer Jewish music scene? Where can people go to find new bands and artists?
RR: The Shondes, Athens Boys Choir, Y-Love, Isle of Klezbos, Metropolitan Klezmer, Yiddish Princess, Gay Panic, GLTR PNCH (pronounced “Glitter Punch”), and Evan Greer are all great artists to check out. And I’m sure I could name more if you give me some time. Some of those are queer and Jewish, some just queer, some just Jewish. Where to go is wherever they are playing.
NS: There is an amazing NYC/Brooklyn queer and queer Jewish music scene. Multiple nights a week one can find a venue playing rad music .
SHH: I feel really lucky to live in New York City and be inside what I consider the pulse of queer Jewish music. The big names in klezmer — the Yiddishist scene in general tends to feel pretty queer — are all here playing in synagogue basements and concert venues around the city. A lot of Jews For Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) events, like their annual Purimschpiel, bring in queer Yiddishist artists and klezmorim. As far as how to find out about new bands and artists, I’ve found Facebook groups an immensely helpful tool to get to know my community and all the innovation happening in it. Currently, I belong to Young Jewish Brooklyn, Brooklyn Jews, Thursday Night Chulent, Trans* and Judaism, and Punk Jews and all of these groups in one way or another have turned me onto artists and musicians I hadn’t previously heard of touring both across the country and around NYC.
I’d love to get more personal about what being a part of Schmekel means to you – to be making music as part of a Jewish gender non-conforming group.
LTK: If we’re getting personal, to me being part of Schmekel means having three siblings to rock out, celebrate the holidays, get through hard times, go on road trips, and joke around with. Schmekel is home to me, which is probably not a sentence that a lot of people have uttered.
RR: This didn’t start out as a political statement, but Jewish trans visibility is certainly important. Mostly, I like making the kinds of music I like and singing from a queer perspective at the same time. And also everything Lucian said.
NS: Ditto to what Ricky and Lucian said. I am not actually a musician at all… I picked up the bass for the first time in 10 years to get to make music with these folks. Ricky and I were in a band when we were 17. It kinda sucked in that awesome high school garage band way. I continued to always want to be a rockstar… but never thought of pursuing it, till Schmekel happened.
SHH: Schmekel to me has been an experience of pushing myself to take my art and my identity in two presently disparate groups seriously. It has been a process of coming together with three other people with varying degrees of shared experiences in the Jewish world and in the trans* world and working together to build bridges with each other and others around us. It’s been an amazing opportunity to have come to such a family space with this band and to have seen the fruit of that relationship be a Yeshayahu-worthy vision of Jewish unity across religious convictions and personal identities.
Given, amongst all of you, your many and varied experiences of inclusion and exclusion in Jewish community: what would you like rabbis, teachers, and other leaders, to know?
NS: Hold the judgement. It is the purpose of people in leadership positions to help facilitate a supportive environment and assist those in search of a relationship with community and G-d. It is not their, or any other person’s, place to judge or dictate how one should pursue their path. Leaders and teachers and rabbis are there to present halacha, discuss, assist, and support. Not to shut down, excommunicate or pressure an individual in any specific direction. Also, take the time to educate yourself: it is hard to self-advocate all the time. When someone is coming to you, they are probably coming for support and guidance, and it is worth it to be in the know about what the community needs are to better help.
RR: That gender is complicated. I would love for rabbis to read some gender theory books and talk to queer and trans people and the doctors and therapists who deal with us, and formulate an informed opinion about how they want to define gender. There is a movement of acknowledging gender in Judaism as a social category and not just a biological one among halakhically committed Jews, and that movement also has insightful things to say that I would love for other rabbis to check out. Let’s face it, our existence presents a challenge to their observance. It also presents a choice to either take the easy route and dismiss our experiences and insist that our queer and trans identities aren’t real, or do the work that it takes to keep us Jewish and to keep us safe and emotionally healthy. They don’t need to compromise their religious practice, but the Jewish thing to do would be to learn about our experiences and respect us as human beings. I would like for teachers to know that teachers often gender-police their students without being aware of it, and it is damaging. I encourage them too to educate themselves about the experiences of their queer and trans students.
SSH: I would like Jewish leaders to know that kol yisroel arevim zebazeh [all Jews are responsible for one another] applies to all Jews everywhere and that “Jew,” thank G-d, comes in many profoundly different manifestations — all of them Torah sanctified. Education — Trans* 101 workshops, learning about queer sexuality, patriarchal oppression as well as how gender is a mutable idea rather than a static fact — has to be a priority to understand each other. HaShem put us all together as Am Yisrael — the idea that the mere existence of one Jew invalidates the existence of another is not a productive way to bring about the messianic era and will only deter the healing that klal yisrael [the entire Jewish community] was created to bring about for the world.
You can catch Schmekel at:
Werk Those Pecs: Valentine’s Edition
Saturday, February 16th, 2013
SlateNY, 54 W. 21st St.
Doors at 9pm
A benefit for Werk Those Pecs, an organization dedicated to raising trans visibility by funding gender-affirming surgery, supporting queer businesses, and showcasing queer artists.
Even in a society that is making progress on LGBT issues, as demonstrated by the victories for marriage equality in the recent election, it’s incredibly challenging to be an LGBTQ youth. From our series “Jewish LGBTQ Youth Voices”:
When I heard that there was going to be a workshop on “De-stigmatizing Stealth” at the Keshet LGBTQ youth Shabbaton, I was a bit skeptical.
As a trans* person who had done an extensive amount of thinking and research on the issue of being stealth, I was sure there was nothing anyone could say that would make me lessen my opposition to the practice of trans* people living in their preferred gender roles full time, and not telling people that they were assigned a different gender at birth. (A note on terminology: These days there isn’t just one type of transgender body or identity. Some people are transgender, transexual, bigender, a-gender, genderqueer, etc. The trans-asterisk is used as a way of recognizing and respecting this diversity, while still keeping a condensed title for the community as a whole.) The topic is a heated one both in trans* and queer communities and in the larger culture. On one hand, I understood the desire to be stealth. If you are a trans* identified person who has gone through so much to transition, and you acknowledge that you are and have always been, say, female, then why would you want to keep coming out all the time, and permanently call attention to your gender identity and choices?
But as I always saw it, trans* people have a responsibility to come out to people and live openly as trans* people. I was sure that this second option – not being stealth, but rather always coming out – was the moral high road. It was our responsibility to bring visibility to an incredibly underrepresented minority. The importance of continually coming out seemed an extra burden assigned to one the day they decided to start using their preferred pronouns, but it was a burden I felt was necessary. The idea of “de-stigmatizing” stealth made me a little suspicious.
In the workshop, we were led through an activity where we imagined ourselves in two scenarios: one speaking with our friend’s grandmother, and the other a club or organization at our high school interviewing us for membership. In both situations we were supposed to think of three responses to the other person saying “So, tell me a bit about yourself.” We discussed what parts of our identity we disclosed and what parts we didn’t. This, of course, prompted the question, “Why?” Why not tell the other participant in the conversation that you were queer, or that you were Jewish, or anything else for that matter? The answers varied. Some based their decision off the listener, deciding what to put forward based on the other person’s age, relation to them, politics, and the like. Others said that it just didn’t come up, or that it wasn’t something that was in the forefront of their mind. There was a real diversity of responses.
Everyone has their own reason for being stealth. It’s not just that coming out is hard/awkward, sometimes it’s dangerous, sometimes it’s just not that relevant to the conversation. Whatever the reason, I realized that no one should have to disclose their full biological history (or any other kind) to someone whose business it just isn’t. I was changing my mind, softening towards the idea that maybe being aggressively out, as opposed to stealth, wasn’t necessarily a responsibility or requirement, but wasn’t being out still the “right” thing to do?
Gender-Stealth, Religion-Stealth: My First “Aha!” Moment.
Later I was talking with a friend about how I no longer desire to be “out” as a convert to Judaism either. That is not to say that I want to stop being identified as Jewish – I want to stop being described as a different and, to some minds, lesser-than Jew. I was tired of explaining the story of why and how I “decided to become Jewish.” I was tired of biting my tongue when I wanted to say that I never had to become Jewish, because Jewish is what my soul has been all along. I grew weary of being looked upon with judgmental eyes and fielding questions about my Jewish knowledge and observance, as if it was some sort of pop quiz to prove my Jewishness.
I was tired of all eyes watching how I dressed, spoke, carried myself, all breaths held as they searched for signs that there was some deceptive disconnect between who I said I was, and who I actually was, who I used to be. I knew I’d fail if I didn’t meet some stereotype. I was ashamed that I began to question myself and allowed these questions to slowly chip away how valid I felt in my identity. I was comfortable in my own skin, and didn’t feel like “convert” was a necessary labeling. I didn’t feel a need to highlight the differences between myself and my peers; I’d rather just focus on the similarities.
And at the end of the day, my background is nobody’s business. It doesn’t affect them and shouldn’t affect how they relate to me. I had already gone through a transformative process to have the powers that be legitimize my identity; I didn’t need anyone else’s validation (and I no longer needed to hear “I would’ve never known,” or, “You don’t look like a ______.”)
In the face of all these complaints, I realized what I had to do. I had to try on being a “stealth convert.”
Was I betraying my roots, erasing my history, being selfish?
I’m not sure. I don’t think so, though. Maybe not every person needs to know that I wasn’t “born and/or raised Jewish.” But if I were to encounter a person considering conversion, and wondering what the process is like or how it feels to come out on the other side, I would tell them my story. For those I didn’t choose to disclose to, it wouldn’t make me a liar, poser, or “trap.”
Replace every reference in the above paragraph regarding my own Jewishness/“convert” with “Transgender;” “other Jews” with “queer community;” and “Gentile” with “cisgender.” Now you can join me in a groan over how silly I was being attaching stigma to my trans* brothers, sisters, people who choose to be stealth, instead of continually coming out.
I’m not sure how final my decision is on the matter of being stealth, either as a trans* guy or as a “convert” to Judaism; but in the mean time I’ll choose who I want to or don’t want to disclose to, and I certainly will not waste any of my time judging those that choose to keep that part of their lives private.
So my friends, I submit this article anonymously. A way of affirming and embracing that being stealth, in any context, is an intensely personal choice and should be respected (even if you don’t necessarily agree). Maybe one day I’ll reveal my identity, maybe I won’t, but either way it is my journey and I intend to take control of it.
LGBTQ Jewish youth: Let us know if you’d like to write for the Keshet blog! We want to feature your voices as you explore your experiences, speak your minds, and challenge your communities to be more inclusive. You can read a previous post in the “Jewish LGBTQ Youth Voices” series on “Senior Year: APs, College Prep, and Coming Out in My Orthodox High School.”
Judaism, a religion that focuses primarily on life, rather than the afterlife, provides a meticulous set of standards regarding the handling of corpses, which must be shown great respect. The body is washed, dressed in a simple gown, and never left alone before burial. All of these ministrations are carefully provided by a synagogue or community hevra kadisha, or holy committee.
Because the body is traditionally cared for by those of the same gender, making sure that a hevra kadisha is informed about and sensitive to the needs of transgender and genderqueer people is very important.
Here, Eliron Hamburger, a hevra kadisha member at Chochmat HaLev, in Berkeley, provides a checklist for all hevra kadisha members to consider. The answers may vary from community to community, but the questions themselves are thought-provoking, challenging us to look at this life-cycle event through the lens of transgender inclusion. Consider bringing it to the ritual committee at your synagogue or sharing with your family.
Welcome to our second installment of “Queer Clergy in Action” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers. Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. If you missed our first post in this series about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first out gay Orthodox rabbi, you can read it here.
In 2003, Reuben Zellman became the first transgender rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform Movement’s seminary. Ordained in 2010, Rabbi Zellman has spent the past two and a half years at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA, as Assistant Rabbi and Music Director. We were thrilled to catch up with him by phone.
How has being queer informed your work as a rabbi?
The primary ways being queer has informed my work are really twofold. First of all, I wouldn’t have even considered becoming a rabbi if not for support – serious nudging, actually – from the queer Jewish community of which I was a part. I belong to Sha’ar Zahav, which is such a supportive community, and people there basically convinced me that I could – and should – be a rabbi. Continue reading
We hear from trans-activists (including on this blog – see yesterday’s interview with Nick Teich) that one impediment to transgender inclusion in the Jewish community is that many people are unsure what trans inclusion actually looks like. The suggestions below provide a vital entry point for allies seeking tangible steps to make their community more transgender friendly.
These steps are excerpted from a pamphlet created by Rabbis Elliot Kukla, Reuven Zellman and TransTorah, in collaboration with the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation and Jewish Mosaic, which in 2010 merged with Keshet.
Share these steps with friends, family, clergy, and others in your community.
Did we miss any? Add your suggestions in the comments section.
Nick Teich is a busy person. In between pursuing a Ph.D. in social policy at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, working as a licensed social worker, and founding and running the first-ever summer camp for transgender and gender-variant kids, Nick wrote Trans 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue, hailed as a go-to source for “students, professionals, friends and family members.” We caught up with Nick to ask him about the inspiration for the book, how it’s been received, and why a “simple guide” is so vital.
How has this book not yet been written? What inspired you to write it?
There are a lot of books out there that are clinically-focused, academic, or just plain memoirs. I thought it was important that students of gender-related disciplines, students who will be working with people in a clinical setting, and the public in general learn what transgenderism is, starting at the very beginning. I run into a lot of people who feel like their questions are “dumb” or that they should know more about the subject than they do, and I believe that holds them back from learning more. This is not a subject most people know much about, if anything. I wanted to give people an easy-to-read and somewhat entertaining way to learn about transgender people and the issues they face in society. It was important to me that there be some levity because the subject is often so serious, so I added cartoons, one for each chapter, that playfully mock ignorance and discrimination toward transgender people.
As October moves on into November, we move from LGBT Month into Trans Awareness Month, culminating in Transgender Day of Remembrance. (You can find much more about Trans Day of Remembrance in our Jewish Guide to Marking Transgender Day of Remembrance.) Check out this series of videos of transgender Jews and allies created as part of the “I AM: Trans People Speak” project. We’re grateful to Keshet members Alex, David, Stacy, Stephanie, and Suzie for sharing their lives with us and to the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition for this project.
“Eventually, [my job] became unbearable because the senior staff were making my life miserable because I was open about being transgender. So even somebody like myself, with all these credentials and all this training and all this experience — still gets discriminated against. I can’t reach my full potential, because of other people’s discrimination against me. [Judaism] connects me throughout the generations, with people all over the world. …Being Jewish has helped me in dealing with being transgender.”
We know that this post is much longer than our usual posts. We do hope you’ll stick with it to the end – Rafi’s story is very compelling. We promise it will be worth your time!
(This talk was delivered at Bonai Shalom, Boulder, Colorado, November 2, 2012)
My name is Rafi. I am a transgender Jewish man. This means that I was born female and transitioned to male. Thanks to advances in medical science, this is not something that you can see when you look at me. I’m an appropriate height for a (Jewish) male, I have lots of facial hair and other fur, my voice has deepened to the level of a higher-pitched male. For the most part, I “pass” as a dude.
When I was a little girl growing up in Colorado, I felt there was something different about me. I yearned with all of my heart to be a boy. I wasn’t particularly masculine as a child. Although I did love going fishing and “fixing things” with my father, my favorite colors were pink and purple, I played with baby dolls almost exclusively, I loved drawing and coloring, and playing make-believe games with friends. But at night, when I was about to go to sleep, I would pray, “Dear G-d, please make me a boy,” and was disappointed when I awoke and was still very much a girl. Continue reading