I’m a white gay Jewish man. Up until a few years ago, I didn’t even know what “cisgender” meant.
Three weeks ago, I went to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Germany with a group of LGBT Jews. At Sachsenhausen, gay men or those accused of being gay were forced into isolated heavily guarded barracks in order to prevent “infection” of other prisoners. These men were tortured, castrated, and used in scientific experiments.
Their families denounced them. They had no support network for food or care. When a gay man entered the camp his life expectancy was ten weeks. For Jewish homosexual men, it was a week. When the guide told us this kernel of information, as a group of mostly gay men, we were stunned. How could people do this to each other?
Later on in the week, one gay man reluctantly asked me, “Why do we have to include the ‘T’ in LGBT?” It sounded like a chore. I almost choked on my curry.
And then the next question: “Why should a gay man care about trans issues?” Gulp. “What is a gay man’s responsibility to trans people?”
This wasn’t light dinner conversation. No one intended to be rude. It just wasn’t obvious. He knew to include the “T” but didn’t know why. To satiate their hunger for an answer, I put down my fork.
After reviewing all the arguments in my mind, the complexity was reduced to this:
While I am a trans ally, it’s really that I’m a human ally. Trans people are people. I firmly believe that every person should live with full dignity and have full access to opportunity regardless of whether or not they fit within society’s restrictive and rigid binary code for gender or sexuality. I firmly believe people should feel safe expressing themselves fully in their community. Every person deserves the right to be visible and heard. As a human ally, I want a world where my future children see every person treated with respect and are taught to do the same. I want my children to live and succeed, not just exist and recede into seclusion. They shouldn’t feel alienated, be called freaks, or attacked for being true to themselves.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to be a human ally. Trans issues resonate with me more strongly as a gay man. Not only can I understand a feeling of terror at the thought of telling my friends and family about my “dark, deep secret,” but I can identify with feeling oppressed and repressed. In middle school, I was taunted for having a “high-pitched” voice. In high school, I was made to feel like an outsider because I didn’t play a sport, which didn’t conform to preferred gender norms. This type of homophobic gender policing is directly connected to transphobia. It is tied to a fear of gender variance.
Fortunately, as a gay man, I can identify with a sweet relief of having a safe and welcoming environment where I can relate with others who’ve also felt this way. I understand how much stronger I feel when I’m surrounded by allies who are willing to walk with me.
I care about Trans Day of Remembrance because I have lived with the fear of being other and because I have glimpsed what it feels like to have a supportive community. I’ll hold a lit candle for trans people who’ve faced violence, been murdered, or committed suicide just because they refused to be invisible. In my mind, as a Jew, I will remember the denial of humanity which resulted in 6 million Jews murdered and countless more for being “other.” I will praise those courageous enough to be visible and my fellow allies who refuse to compromise on protection from abuse and discrimination.
I ask you do to the same. It is scary to speak up and to be an effective ally is hard work. It’s worth it; for the sake of seeing a society in which each person is guaranteed the right to live a dignified life with the ability to make choices about their own body, health, and pursue happiness as they see fit.
Thank you for walking with me. I feel stronger already.
I remember Yom Kippur when I was 13. I was in synagogue, proudly wearing the tallit I had been given for my bar mitzvah some months earlier, sitting with my family in the seats we traditionally occupied throughout the High Holidays, four rows back from the bimah and the Ark where the Torah scrolls were kept. It was the Ne’ilah service, the closing moments of the holiday, and the congregation was rising for one final recitation of the Vidui, the collective confession of sins. With the infamous words of Leviticus 18:22, part of the traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon, still ringing in my head, I too stood up and began to recite the litany out loud along with everyone else. But one sin, one above all, spoke up and demanded I confess it, repent from it, and pray for divine forgiveness: the sin of being a transgender person.
“For the sin that we have committed against You by identifying with a gender other than that which we were assigned at birth” isn’t part of any confessional liturgy I ever learned—it was more like “For the sins which we have committed against You both in the open and in secret”. But it didn’t matter that I could barely even express what I was thinking. I placed my hand over my heart, struck my breast, and begged God to forgive me for all the indiscretions within me: for desiring more than anything to be someone or something other than what I was, for having failed to fulfill the divine plan for me, whatever it was, for not having been strong enough to resist my yetzer ha-ra, my inclination to do evil. I prayed fervently, cried a little even, wishing that God would take away my transgender nature, and hoping He would make me, well, normal. Somehow.
The recitation of the confessional ended, and shortly the service came to a close with the words Adonai Hu Ha-Elohim, “The Lord is God”. The final shofar blast was sounded, and I remembered the verse: Vayomer Adonai solachti ki-d’varecha, “And God said: I have forgiven, as you have asked,” and I knew—or really thought I knew—that, like the people Israel after the High Priest had performed the Yom Kippur sacrifices, I had been cleansed. I went home happy that night: everything would be okay.
As I recall, that lasted two or maybe three weeks.
The next year, feeling even guiltier, I made the same supplication on Yom Kippur. And the year after that. And the year after that. I prayed earnestly for God to forgive me, to take it away, to make me normal, just like everyone else. When I grew older, and was beginning therapy in earnest, one of the questions I was asked was “Why do you believe you are transgender?” When I was younger, I believed it was because God had made an honest mistake. But as I got older and somewhat more theologically
sophisticated sophomoric, I believed it was some kind of test, the purpose of which I could only guess at, and I wasn’t sure whether it was benevolently or malevolently intended. However, every time I prayed for God to “take the transgender away,” it only got stronger, and I ended up feeling, over and over again, miserable and worthless, like I’d failed the test.
I now know something I didn’t at the time: that many other people—trans, queer, both—have prayed that very same prayer alongside me. I was never alone; I always had company. I was not the first, and I will not be the last.
And every time I prayed it, it was an earnest, genuine prayer. But I discovered another prayer, a cry from my soul, that is even deeper, even more earnest and genuine. It took me long enough, but I finally heard it calling, from my kol d’mamah dakah, the “still small voice” within me.
The rabbis teach that all the rituals of confession, all the prayers for forgiveness, all the external trappings of Yom Kippur can only serve to atone for sins that are between a human being and God. Yom Kippur, they teach, does not bring atonement for sins one person commits against another, until the person who did wrong seeks forgiveness from the person who was wronged. This is one of the fundamental lessons of repentance and forgiveness in Judaism. The Hebrew word for “repentance” is teshuvah, which means, among other things, “returning.” The time between the start of the year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called the Ten Days for teshuvah, for turning and returning inward, for the rediscovery of our selves. Yom Kippur asks us to return to the truth about ourselves; not to hide from it. It asks us to be genuine with ourselves; when we deceive ourselves, we cannot forgive ourselves.
I want to ask my younger self to forgive herself for not being perfect, for wronging herself by denying her inner nature, her truth, for failing to heed the kol d’mamah dakah within her. I want to reassure her that everything will be okay, that God doesn’t hate her, that she will eventually find and build a loving, accepting, and affirming community. I want to seek her pardon for the years of denials, purges, secrets, half-measures, traumas, deceptions, and lies I will inflict on her future self.
But the temporal continuum only works in one direction for us mere mortals, which means this exercise is doomed to failure. I cannot literally commit teshuvah by going back in time; I shall have to content myself with a metaphorical teshuvah. But I trust the kol d’mamah dakah within me, which tells me that this teshuvah must be more genuine than any other I have ever professed to make. I have to be willing to forgive my past self for not knowing that things would change, and both my past and present selves for being so hard on themselves, for demanding such perfection, for not giving themselves permission to fail. And I can try to return the courtesy to my future self: to give her permission to screw up, to fail, to commit wrongdoings and to learn from them. It’s a small comfort, but it helps.
A very wise friend of mine told me that beating myself up, as so many trans people do, for not having transitioned earlier is pointless. Whatever happened in the past, she pointed out, whatever decisions I made, were necessary at that time, because they kept me alive and got me to where I am now. When I introduced my blog (with this very point!) as “my record of surviving,“ I was not speaking metaphorically. And I am learning that part of survival—more than simple survival, actually; part of living—is having the ability to forgive myself.
So this is my Yom Kippur prayer this year. May I learn to accept and embrace the person I am, even if I do not know who she is yet. May I have the strength and the courage to forgive myself for the wrongdoings that I have committed against myself in the past, or will commit against myself in the future. May my teshuvah be sincere, and may it bring me closer to knowledge of my own truth. May I learn to recognize and to listen to the kol d’mamah dakah within me, and may I write my own Book of Life in that voice this year. May I love myself, may I remember that I am loved, and may I be at peace. Kein yehi ratzon—may this be so.
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbis Elliott Kukla and Reuben Zellman examine parashat Ki Teitze, proving that clothes most certainly don’t make the person.
For all those who have ever struggled with how to discipline children’s bad behavior, this week’s parashah, Ki-Teitze, offers an easy answer: stone them to death! (Deut. 21:18-21)
Thankfully, Jews have recognized for over a thousand years that this is an unacceptable solution to a common problem. In fact, we learn in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) that this apparent commandment of the Torah was never once carried out. Our Sages refused to interpret this verse literally, as it conflicted with their understanding of the holiness of each and every human life.
With this scenario in mind, let us look at another verse in our parashah: “A man’s clothes should not be on a woman, and a man should not wear the apparel of a woman; for anyone who does these things, it is an abomination before God.” (Deut. 22:5) Just as classical Jewish scholars reinterpreted the commandment that says rebellious children should be stoned to death, they also read this portion’s apparent ban on “cross-dressing” to yield a much narrower prohibition.
The great medieval commentator Rashi explains that this verse is not simply a prohibition on wearing the clothes of the “opposite gender.” Rashi writes that such dress is prohibited only when it will lead to adultery. Maimonides, a 12th-century codifier of Jewish law, claims that this verse is actually intended to prohibit cross-dressing that is for purposes of idol worship (Sefer haMitzvot, negative mitzvot 39-40). In other words, according to the classical scholars of our tradition, wearing clothes of “the wrong gender” is proscribed only when it is for the express purpose of causing harm to our relationship with our loved ones or with God. The prohibition that we learn from this verse is very specific: we must not misrepresent our true gender in order to cause harm. Otherwise, wearing clothing of another gender is not prohibited. The Talmud puts it most succinctly: v’ein kan toevah — “there is no abomination here” (Babylonian Talmud, Nazir 59a-b).
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Alex Weissman examines parashat Re’eh, which contains rules and directions for Temple worship.
This week’s parasha starts with the kind of moralizing binary we are quite accustomed to seeing in Torah. If you do X, great. If you do Y, curses. X and Y are then elaborated in great detail, including instructions on when to worship (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), how to worship (tithes, votives, sacrifice the firstlings of your herds and flocks), what not to worship (false prophets or dream-givers), and what not to eat.
The name of the parasha, Re’eh, means “See” as the first line begins, “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse” (Deut. 11:26). Here, we are compelled to see the acts, be they blessed or cursed, and to see each other, blessed or cursed, depending on those acts. We are to be mutual observers, holding our communities accountable to the laws of Torah. Like so many commandments, these are designed to make us kadosh – that is, both holy – and set apart.
Essentially, Torah is asking us to draw a line—a line between “good Jews” (those who follow the mitzvot) and “bad Jews” (those who do not). It’s certainly a line people draw all the time today, often in our own lives. How many times have we heard, “Oh, I’m a bad Jew,” from friends or ourselves as we’ve bitten into a bacon cheeseburger, skipped Shabbat services, or forgot to daven. What constitutes good Jew vs. bad Jew may be different for different people, but the very presence of that line is something that has been deeply embedded in our communal psyche. Today, while we may not be sacrificing the firstlings of our herds and flocks anymore, we still draw these lines in different ways, including lines around “good” and “bad” sexual beings.
As we “see” each other in our communities of accountability, what are the lines that we draw for blessings and curses for sexual practices? As queer theorist Leo Bersani reminds us in his book, Homos, “visibility is a precondition of surveillance, disciplinary intervention, and at the limit, gender-cleansing.” Being seen and visible may seem like a desirable goal, but it can also be dangerous.
As queer people, sexual moralizing has been used against us to promote violent systems of transphobia and heterosexism with painful impacts on our bodies, our lives, and our souls. But what happens when we respond to this external moralizing of our community’s sexual practices with a moralizing of our own? All too often we are pressured to represent ourselves reactively in an attempt to paint a sanitized version of our lives that erases the richness of sexual differences we could be proud of. Bersani again cautions us, “[In] our anxiety to convince straight society that we are only some malevolent invention and that we can be, like you, good soldiers, good parents, and good citizens, we seem bent on suicide.” Bersani is concerned that in our reactive desires to appear “respectable,” we risk further erasing the members of our communities who are already at the margins and do not have the ability to appear respectable even if they wanted to.
Imagine a contemporary version of Re’eh that enumerated the dominant sexual morals imposed on LGBTQ people. My guess is we would easily find practices that would place large portions of our communities at those erasable margins: protected vs. unprotected sex, with one partner vs. multiple partners, with a significant other vs. a stranger, in private vs. in public, not in exchange for money vs. in exchange for money, vanilla vs. BDSM, etc. Yet in our sexual lives, many of us engage in, or even desire to engage in, many of these marginalized sexual practices. How do we recognize the pleasures, risks, desires, and differences in our sexual lives in a way that does not buy normalcy at the cost of sacrificing our margins? The answer lies in Talmud.
“As the curse was pronounced by the Levites, so the blessing had to be pronounced by the Levites. As the curse was uttered in a loud voice, so the blessing had to be uttered in a loud voice. As the curse was said in Hebrew, so the blessing had to be said in Hebrew. As the curses were in general and particular terms, so must the blessings be in general and particular terms. And as with the curse both parties respond ‘Amen,’ so with the blessing both parties respond “Amen” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 37b.).
Blessing and curse are inseparable; if we utter a curse, so must we mutter a blessing. They both come from us in the same ways because we cannot and should not be ashamed of either—we say them both loudly, in Hebrew, and in relationship to others. Given their equal footing in ritual, I want to suggest that the blessing and curse are so intricately bound up with each other that curse and blessing actually bleed into each other so as to become one. In just a few chapters (Deut. 23:3-6), we’ll revisit the story of Balaam, whose curse for the Israelites turned into blessings three separate times! Blessing and curse collapse into each other as the boundaries between them are blurred.
If we see curses and blessings as such, perhaps we can see, as we are commanded, each other as Jews and as sexual beings who are simultaneously worthy of curses/blessings, which are determined not by the shaming practices of moralizing heterosexism, but by communities of righteousness and love who understand that, as Walt Whitman taught us, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Re’eh ends on a hopeful (albeit masculinist) note with more instructions on how to worship, “They shall not appear before Adonai empty handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that Adonai your God has bestowed upon you” (Deut. 16:16-17). If our holiness before God is determined “according to blessing that Adonai your god has bestowed upon” us, then God recognizes our holiness to include our curses as well. Let Re’eh be a model for us all to see the blessings, curses, and multitudes that exist within ourselves and each other as we celebrate the complexity of difference in our sexual and religious lives.
In the course of our work to create and nurture welcoming, inclusive, Jewish communities, we have the privilege of working with incredibly diverse people, institutions, and communities. And yet, over the years of doing this work, we’ve come across a few different messages and responses time and time again. We’ve collected five common things we hear from well-intentioned communities trying to be welcoming, but who aren’t sure where or why to begin. If you see yourself in any of these, don’t fret! We’ve all been there, or somewhere similar, before. Below each common message is some of our thinking about how to deal with this situation in your community, and we’d love to hear from you if you have other ideas, or additional questions!
1. “We don’t have a need for this kind of training; we don’t have any gay or trans people in our community.”
There are LGBTQ people, our families, and our friends in Jewish communities of every denomination, affiliation, size, political persuasion, and in every state and province of North America. (Abroad, too!) Living in a world that repeatedly tells us to be less than our full selves, a world marred by homophobia and transphobia, many of us learn to search for the subtle clues and indicators that it is safe for us to come out. If we don’t see them, we may stay silent about who we are – or who our family members and loved ones are – or we may simply leave in search of another, safer community. Often, when communities are proactive about creating welcoming, inclusive safe environments for LGBTQ Jews and our allies, we show up in unexpected places! (Like next to you in services, at your neighbor’s house for a shiva call, in your son’s Hebrew High class, and on the bimah.)
2. “We already have a lesbian on staff/in the congregation/on a committee/who came to an event once – so we’re already welcoming!”
It can be easy to see one LGBTQ person joining your community, or taking on leadership, and mark it as a harbinger of successful inclusion work. And it’s probably true that you’re doing some things right! But it’s important not to tokenize the one or two out LGBTQ people in your community. Tokenization is when we expect people of a particular identity to be the only folks speaking about, raising issues related to, or advocating for the needs of people who share their identity. Queer people shouldn’t be the only people carrying the flag of LGBTQ inclusion in your community. Because sometimes that flag gets heavy, and they might need to set it down, or hand it off to someone else. It can be exhausting to constantly advocate for yourself and your needs, and if you’re doing all of that work on your own, it’s easy to burn out. So while it’s important to make sure that LGBTQ people are connected to, involved in, and informing the work your community is doing for LGBTQ inclusion, also be sure to check in and see if it’s what they want to be doing, and be diligent about working to recruit other allies who care about LGBTQ issues to help out, as well.
3. “It’s fine to be gay here, we just expect people not to make a big deal about it.”
Try substituting “Jewish” in for “gay” in the above sentence. “It’s fine to be Jewish here, we just expect people not to make a big deal about it.” Hearing that would probably rub most Jews – and hopefully most of our allies – the wrong way! Does that mean we can’t talk about Hanukkah? Does it mean we aren’t allowed to daven mincha if we can’t find a secluded, hidden space? Does that mean we shouldn’t be too loud, or serve too much food, or have a nose that is bigger than yours, or in any other way too closely jive with your painful, damaging stereotypes about who Jews are and what we do?
What we hear when we hear phrases like that is that the people saying them are less interested in actually seeing and understanding the complex shapes and diverse realities of our lives as LGBTQ people than they are in appearing inclusive and welcoming to a disinterested outsider. How should we judge what it means to “make a big deal about it”? Often this kind of language is used to police our behavior so as to limit the risk that we discomfit others in the community by being our full selves. This means that we have to second-guess our rights to an authentic gender presentation, public displays of affection, talking about our partners and families, naming our identities, or otherwise ever giving hint to the full realities of our lives. This equation often gives a great deal of weight to the comfort and ease of straight people in a community, and is largely missing a consideration of the inherent risks in living in a homophobic and heteronormative environment – namely pain, fear, rejection, isolation, shame, and both emotional and physical violence.
4. “Well, we don’t talk about sex here/with the kids at this age, so I don’t think this discussion would be appropriate.”
Queer people’s lives are about more than sex, and to talk about LGBQ* people doesn’t necessarily mean talking about sex at all. The perception that LGBQ people are always talking about sex when we talk about our identities is usually rooted in heteronormativity, and an inability to see LGBQ people as vibrantly complex human beings seeking meaningful connections and relationships in many of the same varied ways that straight people do.
Sometimes people ask: “Well then, how do you describe being gay to a nine year old?” Probably if you asked everyone at Keshet, you’d get a different answer, but here’s one possible conversation you could have:
Adult: You know how your parents really love each other, and how they really love you?
Adult: They probably like to show you and tell you that they love you, and that they love each other, all the time, right?
Kid: Yeah! Sometimes my dad puts me on his shoulders so I can touch the trees because I love trees and he loves me! And my ima kisses my knees when I fall down and sings me songs at night because she loves me! Sometimes they kiss each other and cook dinner for each other because they love each other.
Adult: That’s so great! Isn’t it awesome to show the people we love that we love them? You know, as you grow up, you’ll probably love a lot of people, which is really nice! Some people find one person that they fall in love with for the rest of their lives, which is pretty exciting for them.
Kid: That sounds neat.
Adult: Yeah, it is. Have you heard the word gay before? Sometimes boys fall in love with boys, and sometimes girls fall in love with girls and when that happens, they might call themselves gay. It’s a word that people use to describe themselves if they love people of the same gender. Also, sometimes people fall in love with people regardless of their gender. What’s most important is that people who love each other are kind and caring toward each other, like your parents are to each other and to you.
There’s lots of ways to talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people without talking about sex, when we remember that our sexual orientation can describe the orientation of our mental, emotional, and physical attractions to people.
But also, LGBTQ people do have sex, and that’s a totally normal part of human sexuality. So when you are having conversations about sex (with adolescents, teens, or adults), it’s really important that LGBQ people’s experiences, needs, and sexual health is included and reflected. There are a lot of excellent resources and tools our there for LGBTQ comprehensive sex-education. Here are a few to start with:
- Sacred Choices, the Union for Reform Judaism’s sex-ed curriculum
- Planned Parenthood has a very large list of comprehensive sexual education curricula and resources, available here.
- Our Whole Lives sex-ed curriculum, developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ
5. “Well, we don’t let the boys wear the Esther costume on Purim because they’re just preschoolers, it would confuse the other students and we don’t want them to be bullied.”
Children begin to hear and absorb cultural messages about appropriate gender roles at a very young age, and they simultaneously express gender variance at a very young age. It can be easy to presume that other children will react the way many adults in our world react to seeing gender variance: with fear, hostility, ridicule, or violence. And yet, when we model a response to gender diversity that is safe, encouraging, and accepting, children follow suit.
One of the most powerful messages an adult can send to a young person is that they have the safety and security to take risks, including taking a risk with their gender. Gender play and exploration is a very natural and healthy part of a young child’s life and growth. While many children who experiment with gender at a young age never express a gender variant identity, for those children who eventually grow into a gender identity that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth, early messages of acceptance can be profoundly empowering
What would it take for your community to be safe enough for young people to take risks with their gender? What could happen if the next time Josh reaches for the Esther costume, instead of being told “remember Josh, boys dress up as Mordechai or King A,” Josh was instead told “remember Josh, it’s important to share. We only have one Esther costume, and Rachel, Zach, and Ariel all want to dress up as Esther too”?
*There are a lot of intersections in inclusion work between issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, but they aren’t identical. When it comes to sex, and assumptions about people based on whom we think they have sex with and how they have that sex, we’re often talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer people. Some lesbian, gay, bi, and queer people are also trans, but those are two distinct facets of their identities. In responding to this fear of talking about sex when we talk about gay people, we focused on issues of homophobia, and the stigmas facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people’s experiences with sex. So we’ve left off the T in our acronym for this response. Not because trans people don’t matter – but in fact the opposite, because it’s important not to conflate gender diversity with sexual orientation, or transphobia with homophobia. When we do that, trans people’s experiences get lost and collapsed into homophobia, and we all lose out.
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Ari Lev Fornari examines parashat ekev, which includes the second paragraph of the Shema.
Chest Binder: an undergarment worn by female-to-male (FTM) transexual, transgender and genderqueer people, and anyone else who chooses to flatten the appearance of their breasts.
Talit Katan: an undergarment traditionally worn by Jewish men which has knotted fringes tied to its four corners to be a reminder of the 613 mitzvot found in the Torah.
“Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.”
“B’shem mitzvat tzitzit v’mitzvat hityatzrut” (“For the sake of the mitzvah of ritual fringes and the mitzvah of self-formation.”)
—Rabbi Eli Kukla, Director of Education, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
I say this bracha (blessing) quietly to myself, as I bind these words, as I tighten the Velcro fabric that presses my breast flat. Let them be a sign: that I am not a woman, I think, that I am maybe a man, I hope, that I am holy Jewish and genderqueer, I know.
This week, in Parashat Ekev, we read the second paragraph of the Shema prayer. I hold these words close in my prayers as I tie my tzitzit (ritual fringes) the edges of my chest binder.
Instructions: There are sixteen strands in a pack – four long ones and twelve short ones. Separate these into four groups with one long one and three short ones in each. The longer one is called the shammash and is the one used for the winding.
There are four knotted strings that hang from the corners of my chest binder. “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments.” (Numbers 15:38) It has been one year since I started wearing clothing that compresses my chest and asking people to use both male and female pronouns. Sometimes this feels empowering and exciting, but a lot of times the thick, sweaty fabric is just uncomfortable, making it difficult to breath and making my sternum ache.
Even out the four strands at one end and push the group through one of the corner holes in the talit. Even up seven of the eight strands (the four being doubled) and leave the extra length of the shammash hanging to one side.
It is not always easy to learn Jewish rituals traditionally reserved for biological boys. Non-orthodox Jews, especially women, FTM’s, and gender variant folks, need to consciously access information on how to halakhically [legally] observe the 613 mitzvot. But even then, they sometimes need to be made applicable. Wearing a talit katan chest binder is somewhere between observing and reclaiming. I want to fulfill the commandment, in light of and in spite of my attempt to simultaneously subvert gender norms and transgress gender boundaries. I bind the words of Torah close to my heart, bringing the intention of the Shema into my daily life, making my gender a sign “when I stay at home and when I am away, when I lie down and when I get up.” (Deuteronomy 11:19)
With the four strands in one hand and the other four in the other hand, make a double knot near the edge of the material. Take the shammash and wind it around the other seven strands in a spiral – seven turns. Be sure you end the winding where you began – otherwise you may end up with 7 1/2 or 6 1/2 winds. Make another double knot at this point (four over four).
I am not always sure I know how to pray. By which I mean, I don’t always know how to connect the motions with my intentions, the Hebrew with my thoughts, the English with my traditions.
Spiral the shammash eight times around. Double knot. Spiral the shammash eleven times around. Double knot. Spiral the shammash thirteen times around. Final double knot.
Recently, I have been trying to enter Jewish traditions from a place of textual knowledge. Learning what they are about and then figuring out how I can connect with their intention in my own life. The talit katan chest binder empowers me to be active in the formation of my gender, my Judaism, my connection to the divine. Carrying the intentions with me, feeling them on my body, holding them in my heart, this I can do.
“And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD, and do them? and be holy unto your God.” (Numbers 15:39)
Talking to Joy Ladin is like speaking with your favorite professor from college — the one who wove words in a way that was simply magical, who would drop bits of wisdom into a conversation that you wouldn’t even notice until days later, when you remember them suddenly. She is clearly an incredible teacher.
And that makes sense, because Joy is that professor for plenty of students at the Stern College for Women, part of New York’s Yeshiva University. Joy made headlines in 2007 when she became the first out transgender professor at an Orthodox institution.
She is the David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University. And lucky for us, she also joined Keshet’s board this spring. You can see Joy speak at a number of upcoming engagements, including at the Yale Hillel on September 11, 2012. (Exact time and location will soon be posted here.)
Through the Door of Life is a remarkable, soul-baring memoir. You chose a title that immediately lets people know that your story is a Jewish one. For anyone who hasn’t read your book yet, can you explain briefly how Judaism structured your “journey between genders”?
I grew up as a trans kid in hiding, but I also grew up as what my rabbi, Jill Hammer, calls a “feral Jew.” I was very drawn to Judaism, but my family wasn’t religious. It was very freeing, actually. I didn’t have anyone else’s version of Judaism to push against, so I could make it up as I went along, and not feel like I was bound to those Bronze Age laws.
It was the portrayal of God in the Torah that really grabbed me. God is an alien — in the sci-fi sense — and I felt like an alien. God has trouble communicating, and is very lonely, and has no real body and that’s how I felt, as a kid. So much of holiness is about how people relate to one another. The core of Judaism is this longing for contact with humanity despite all of the obstacles that our bodies put in the way.
In a profound way, Judaism gave me a language to express my longing to relate to other people.
Each week Jews read sections of the Torah, known as parshiyot, inspiring endless examination year after year. Each week we we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Dr. David Shneer, one of the editors of Torah Queeries, examines Parashat Devarim, which deals with the retelling of the Exodus story.
“Ale ha-devarim asher diber moshe el col yisrael be-ever hayarden…” (These are the words that Moses said to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan).
In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites and the now very elderly Moses have reached the Jordan River, the physical and metaphorical boundary between before and after, between wandering in the desert and being a Jewish nation, between a generation marked by the scars of slavery, to one that only knows slavery as memory told through the stories of the community’s elders-what some people in the context of the Holocaust would call the “2nd generation.” “Devarim” or “words,” the portion that opens Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, has Moses recounting a history of the Jews’ experiences over the past 40 years, a history of miracles, no doubt, but also a history of struggle, failure, and disappointment.
Why dwell on such a depressing history? Moses tells “all of Israel” the story of their Exodus from Egypt, the gaining of the commandments and the many struggles of their sojourn in the desert. It is not a glorious history, but it is, nonetheless, the history of this people. In some ways this is Moses’ tsavuah, or “ethical will,” to his community. As the elder, he has the responsibility to tell the Israelites their own story.
The ability to recount a history shows that a community has reached maturity. It shows that a community has, in fact, become a community. It is the birth of a collective memory, often retold by elders as oral history, and these collective memories include the painful recollections of struggle and loss. But delineating the hardships of a nascent community is one of the key ways of defining a community. These words are spoken to “all of Israel” suggesting that as much as it might be a series of acts, rituals, places, and people that define the community, it is also a series of words, stories, and memories that unite the Jewish people. The word “devarim” also means “things” in modern Hebrew, reminding us that words can become tangible. In some ways, words can mark and define our world more concretely than inanimate objects.
Moses’ retelling of the relatively grim history of 40 years of wandering (get a GPS, Moses) is a way of showing that the Israelites have literally and metaphorically arrived. In his speech, Moses spends quite a bit of time on the geographic details of where “all of Israel” finds itself at the moment of telling and also where they have been. The portion opens, “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, concerning the Wilderness, concerning the Aravah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazerot, and Di-zahab; eleven days from Horeb, by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea.” It’s a pretty long list of obscure places and landmarks of the history of this community. They have a history, a history of struggle, failure and disappointment, but nonetheless a 40-year history rooted in time and place.
National and communal histories almost always have mythic origins and battles to be overcome, and they are peppered with important names, dates and places that create time and space for the community. Moses, the elder, is not just passing on Israelite history. He is, like elders in other communities, creating that history. This opening portion of Deuteronomy shows the importance of both historical text (the first four books of the Torah) and oral history (the fifth book) to communal identity. Text alone is not enough.
This desire to have communal histories, defined by both a key set of texts and stories, in other words, by both history and memory, has reshaped the way history is taught in the United States today. Since the 1960s, new kinds of histories, particular histories, have been added to the curricula at universities, and sometimes in high schools, junior highs and even elementary schools. We now have African American history, women’s history, queer history, and others. At my university, I teach a class called “Queer in America, Now and Then,” a history and sociology course that takes Moses’ challenge seriously and blends history and memory to create a narrative of a particular community.
Each of these histories needs both the texts and the memories of their respective communities to carve out particular communal identities. Some historians have criticized this trend in history, calling it the splintering of history, the destruction of a history common to all Americans. Some of my colleagues claim that “queer history” is too much about identity and not enough about history. “Do you have to be queer to take your class, David?” I have been asked on more than one occasion. Such questions force us to reflect on the purpose of telling history. Some historians might say it is simply “to know the facts,” but as we’ve seen, it can also be about creating community.
So then we can go back to Moses and ask why Moses was telling “all of Israel” the story of the desert. He suggests that the primary purpose of history and memory is the making of community, and that one needs both history and memory, both text and voice, to create collective memories of events, places and people.
In lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, there are too few elders recounting our stories, too few elders creating those collective memories that help define a queer community. Perhaps it is because many of our elders are too quiet or too afraid to speak; more likely it is because “kol qvirim,” or “all of queerdom,” is not interested in hearing. Lucky for Moses that God didn’t give the Israelites a choice. They weren’t asked if they wanted to hear their own history or not. And so Deuteronomy, which comes from the Greek for “second telling” or “retelling,” reminds us that communities need oral history and memory before they can pass over the Jordan, even if those who pass on that history do not cross along with them.
This summer, Chaplain Linda Sue Friedman was installed as President of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico — the first time an out lesbian will hold the position of Federation president. Friedman, who joined the New Mexico Jewish community in 1999, when she moved from Wisconsin, has received the woman of valor award from Hadassah for her outstanding contributions to Jewish community. She is a member of the Lion of Judah society of women and recently received the MOVE (Mayors Outstanding Volunteer Award) from the city of Albuquerque for her work with Jewish Family Service (JFS). Keshet chatted with Friedman about her decades of work with the Jewish community, how being out is — and isn’t — a big deal to the people she works with, and why it’s important to claim your stake.
I’m curious about how you came to this historic position — being the first out lesbian Federation president. Were you always out? Were you ever afraid that coming out would limit your work in the Jewish community?
I’ve been involved with the Jewish community for years and years. I used to be married to a man, and I was very active with my local Federation even before I got divorced. By the time I got involved with my partner — it’s our seventh anniversary soon! — it was a little difficult for some people who’d known me in the context of my marriage to adjust. It was actually my turn to be president, but some people said it would be too much for the community, having a lesbian Federation president.
When the position opened up again for this year I just reminded people, hey — it’s my turn. And everybody basically looked at each other and said, yeah, it is.
I think part of my easy acceptance has just been that I wear so many hats in the community — as a chaplain, working with Jewish Family Service of New Mexico, as an advocate for our hevra kadisha — that I’m not just identifiable by my gay hat.
But have you encountered barriers in your work as a gay Jew?
Honestly? No. So many people who I work with knew me before I came out, which probably helps.
What is the Federation like vis-à-vis inclusion?
We think we’re pretty diversity-open — and we’re working on engaging trans people right now. The community itself is pretty welcoming to trans folks — they’re a part of local congregations, and I’m always fascinated by how many trans folks are active and vocal in our hevra kadisha work. I was excited to hear about trans issues at a recent Jewish funerals conference, because it actually is a huge issue — making sure a hevra kadisha is designed around the gender you identify as.
Our JFS office makes a point to post queer-friendly signs, we’ve got other gay employees at Federation, and we give money to the local GLBT film festival.
Really, though, I think you can most see how our community operates in this: when I first came out, one of our major donors had a big problem with it. I mean, she was just so uncomfortable with me. The first thing she said when she saw me, the first time after I came out, was “I’m not gay!”
But you know what? She never stopped supporting Federation, even when it became clear that Federation still supported me. She’s remained a major donor to this day, except that now, she socializes with me and my partner — she just had us over for dinner with her family. That’s the kind of community we are.
As the first out lesbian to be the head of a Federation, you’re a role model for queer Jews everywhere. Who are your queer Jewish role models?
I know it’s important to have queer Jewish role models, and I’m touched you referred to me that way. But when I think about Jewish role models, the person I think of most is my Hebrew school teacher, from when I was just eight years old. She’s the person I remember teaching us about the Holocaust. We read children’s poetry from the Shoah, and that’s the first time I remember crying over literature. She was straight, but sometimes just having a human being who can be a role model for what you want to be in the world is a real gift.
A retired kosher butcher, his young lesbian writing teacher, and a letter from the heart: Lesléa Newman’s short story, “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” has moved readers for over two decades—and now it hits Broadway! With songs like “What A Shanda” (listen here – click on the “music” tab), the show debuts at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, July 23-28, with music by Laura Kramer, lyrics by Ellen Schwartz and book by Jerry James.
We caught up with Lesléa to get the back story about how her short story became such a universal symbol, how it became a stage sensation, and what’s next for both it and her.
Learn more about Harvey Milk and Lesléa Newman, including behind the scenes photos, at lgbtjewishheroes.org.
It’s wonderful that a short story you published in 1988, as a letter to a public figure killed a decade before that, retains such resonance. What is it about Harvey Milk that still captures our imaginations and our hearts?
Harvey Milk was completely human. He was smart, kind, funny, honest, strong, vulnerable, and brave. He took many risks, and always did things with a sense of humor. He made himself very accessible – he was someone people felt they could sit down and talk with over a cup of coffee. Plus he was OUT at a time when there could be (and often were) grave consequences for that. I think many of us who didn’t know him personally still felt a sense of personal loss when he was taken from us in such a terrible way. With each new victory for the GLBT Civil Rights Movement (the recent ruling that DOMA is unconstitutional, President endorsing gay marriage, etc.) I often wonder, “What would Harvey Milk think of that?” Or, “What a shame that Harvey Milk didn’t live long enough to see that.” He lives on in our hearts and minds. He was a pioneer, and he deserves the status of hero.
At the same time that “A Letter to Harvey Milk” is fiercely Jewish, it emphasizes strongly how universal the man’s appeal was. In the musical, this is represented in lines like “You don’t have to be a Jew to love a bagel, or gay to love a leader who is gay.” How Jewish is the story of Harvey Milk? Versus how universal? What’s it like working with that tension?
“A Letter to Harvey Milk” was written out of the experience of being Jewish and gay, and it is about the human experience. Maya Angelou once said, “I speak to the black experience but I am always talking about the human experience.” I feel similarly about being a Jewish lesbian and writing about the human experience. If one’s characters are portrayed as fully human, anyone can relate to them, even when coming from a different background. Perhaps especially when coming from a different background.
“A Letter to Harvey Milk” went from fiction published in Lilith magazine to the titular short story in a collection, and now to musical on stage in New York City. What’s it like to shepherd a work through such changes? Does the message change with the medium at all? Does it reach a different audience?
The story was also performed as a one person show all over the world (including Israel and Germany), made into a short film by Yariv Kohn which was shown at many Jewish film festivals, read on the radio by Carl Reiner as part of a series produced by KCRW Santa Monica and hosted by Leonard Nimoy entitled “Jewish Stories: from the Old World to the New” and turned into a teleplay shown on Canadian Public TV which won a Gemini (the Canadian equivalent of an Emmy). I gave each project’s creative team full artistic freedom, and I am happy to say that all of them stayed very true to the original story, augmenting it with their vision and talent. The story has taken on a life of its own, and I am very grateful that it has reached such a wide audience because of that.
You’re quite famous as an author of children’s literature. What’s the relationship between writing work for kids and stories like “A Letter for Harvey Milk,” which is for an older audience?
As far as I’m concerned, writing is writing. I don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write for kids today” or “I’m going to write for teens today” or “I’m going to write for adults today.” I just start moving the pen across the page (yes, I still write with a Bic pen and a spiral notebook!) and see what happens. Then once a project begins to take shape, I stick with that piece of work until it’s finished. As the writer Gene Fowler so famously said, I go back to “staring at a piece of paper until three drops of blood appear on my forehead.”
After this incredible journey, what’s next for “A Letter to Harvey Milk”? What’s next for how we in the queer Jewish community relate to his memory?
Next stop, Broadway! (from my mouth to G-d’s ears)
The show is really incredible, with 18 (note that auspicious number) funny, touching, sad, inspiring, and original songs, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves. And Harvey’s dream and vision lives on through the Harvey Milk Foundation. The Foundation, through Harvey’s dream for a just tomorrow, envisions governments that celebrate the rich and universally empowering diversity of humanity, where all individuals – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, the young, the disabled – all who had been excluded can fully participate in all societal rights without exception.
And what’s next for Lesléa Newman?
On September 25, 2012 (erev Yom Kippur) my book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard will be released by Candlewick Press. The book explores the impact of Matthew Shepard’s murder upon the world in a cycle of 68 poems that are fictitious monologues written from many points of view including the silent witnesses of the crime: the fence Matt was tied to, the moon that looked down upon him, the deer that kept him company all through the night. My hope is that the book will inspire readers to erase hate and replace it with understanding, compassion, and love.