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.
In June 2002, Queer Jews came out in a big way. A collection of essays, memoirs and cultural analysis co-edited by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, the volume explored everything from queer parenting to trans issues in traditionally gendered Jewish spaces to the creating of new rituals (including the ever-popular Queer Naked Seder). As part of a larger canon of queer Jewish writings, which first appeared on the literary scene in the early 1980s, Queer Jews marked an evolution in the form, as authors went beyond exploring their own stories to consider the impact queer Jews have on the larger Jewish community, and on Judaism itself.
Ten years since its publication, Keshet caught up with Dr. Caryn Aviv, Posen Lecturer in Secular Jewish Culture at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, author of three books and numerous academic and journalistic articles.
Since Queer Jews first came out, there have been many changes for LGBTQ Jews—legalized same-sex marriage in several states, the ordination of out gay Conservative rabbis, etc. If you were to reissue the book now, what would you want to see included? What change or changes do you think have been the most significant?
If we were going to reissue the book now, I think the most important thing to include would be a resource guide for rituals that queer Jews have created for marriages, for baby namings, that sort of thing. I’d love something like Ritualwell.org, but specifically for queer Jews. I’d even love to have one online, as a companion to the book.
I think it would be wonderful to include a piece on “Tales from the Front in the Battle for Marriage Equality.” I don’t want to lose people’s stories and memories, especially since those encompass both the legislative battles, but also the fights to change or update values within our own communities; I think it’s vital that those be collected somehow, that we create an archive of these for history.
You know, the whole idea of marking time through the anniversaries of books is really interesting. We just passed the 10th anniversary of Lesbian Rabbis [published in 2001], and that’s something that jumps out at me. We’ve now got a critical mass of queer clergy who are really visible. I think a piece—really you could write a whole book!—with perspectives on assuming positions of power would be a wonderful reflection.
If we were going to do it over, I’d love to include the voices of kids with queer parents, along with those of queer elders. Those are two sets of voices we really didn’t delve into in Queer Jews, and I’m fascinated by them. For kids, it’s this idea of, how did these multiple identities — being Jewish, and not necessarily queer themselves, but having this different point of view — how did that influence who they grew up to be? And the issue of queer elders is one I think about a lot these days. We have all of these established facilities for Jewish elders, and there are queer residents in them, but we have no programming specifically for them. I’d love to see a celebration of this group, and I’d love to get some of their voices published.
Speaking of Lesbian Rabbis, many of the essays in Queer Jews reference Twice Blessed, a seminal collection of pieces about being lesbian or gay and Jewish, published in 1989. Do you think Queer Jews now occupies a similar place in the queer Jewish canon? You must hear from people who use your book all the time–what has the feedback been like in the course of the last decade?
Well, let me give you this anecdote by way of an answer: I just got a $50 royalty check for Queer Jews in the mail the other day — and honestly, most of the time I can’t believe it’s still in print and people are still buying it. Who would have imagined, in 1989 when Twice Blessed came out, that there would be such a thing as a queer Jewish canon? Now I have a whole bookshelf!
I feel grateful and blessed to be part of a group that includes volumes like The Tribe of Dina, Nice Jewish Girls and Twice Blessed. They represent the first generation of authors and activists trying to integrate and deal with their Jewish and gay identities. We were influenced by them, of course, but we were also influenced by ACT UP and Heeb magazine — a little more in-your-face, edgier. Queer Jews, like those books that came before it, was of an era, and it used a particular generational lens.
I imagine that the volumes that will follow ours will stand on our shoulders the way we stood on our predecessors’.
What’s on your queer Jewish reading list like now?
To be totally honest, I’m preparing to enter rabbinical school through the Aleph program, so my reading list is a little less radical and a little more Rashi, right now. I must say, though, since I’m reading and writing about the Torah so much, I’ve been happily rereading my copy of Torah Queeries [edited by Keshet staff member Gregg Drinkwater, Rabbi Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer]. It’s a wonderful resource.
In another ten years, what do you think we’ll be talking about in the queer Jewish world?
Let me say this – I’d love to see Keshet go out of business. I mean that in the nicest way possible, of course. What I mean is that I’d love to see the mission of full inclusion fulfilled, that queer Jews are essentially a non-issue, because we’re so pervasively accepted, not because anyone is invisible.
I have no idea whether marriage equality will be settled federally. I think the most we can hope for is that the law catches up to where people are socially.
I’m a parent, so of course I’m also very interested in the visibility of queer parenting, and more conversation about the various ways that queer people parent. I’d love to see kid’s literature and Young Adult lit that nonchalantly incorporate queer families.
I really don’t know what we’ll be talking about, but I’m excited to see it!
A Queer Ancestor in the Butch-Trans Border War
As the month of Tammuz draws to a close, we have the opportunity to mark the yahrzeit of a queer ancestor, the rumored-to-be-lesbian, potentially-transgender, and definitely awesome Maid of Ludomir, otherwise known as Hannah Rachel.
Growing up, one of my favorite pastimes was poring over dusty literature and historical annals, searching for the slightest of homoerotic nods from the author, the vaguest of historical conjecture in the biographies of famous dead people. Rumors about Eleanor Roosevelt or Emily Dickinson simultaneously titillated and comforted me, easing the burden of isolation that is felt by some gay kids who turn to a voiceless past, seeking to anchor themselves in historical precedent and human community.
And, like others, I’ve also searched for traces of myself in my Jewish past. The sometimes threadbare language of the ancient world provides a number of opportunities. David and Jonathan’s love for one another turned a few cogs in my imagination. The mere hint of romance between Ruth and Naomi kept me awake during Shavuot. And in the Talmud I have glimpsed the pretty boy Yochanan in just one too many questionable bath scenes.
There’s always some danger, of course, in assigning posthumous identities—you risk presumptuousness and factual error, to mention nothing of anachronism. The curious case of the Maid of Ludomir illustrates both the delight and the risk inherent in reclaiming queer heroes of the past.
The Maid of Ludomir, whose real name was Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, broke from the ranks of routine anonymity assigned to other females in her Hasidic community in the early 1800s. While visiting her mother’s burial site, she fell into an open grave, or so the legend goes. During a lengthy convalescence in which she drifted in and out of consciousness, she appeared before the Heavenly Court, where she was given a new soul. Finally, she awoke from her trance-like state and immediately took on a new identity, that of a rebbe. Immediately breaking off an impending marriage, she donned tallis and tefillin (clear markers of masculine privilege in the Hasidic world) and began teaching. She was said to dress in male garb and it is reported that she recited Kaddish in public after her father’s death (a duty the Hasidim would reserve for male relatives).
Widely respected for her great learning, she eventually attracted her own circle of faithful Hasidim. She was known to preside over tischen (communal Shabbat meals headed by a rebbe) and to distribute shirayim (leftovers) to her eager devotees. When, later in life, she and a fellow mystic joined forces to hasten the arrival of the Messiah, Elijah himself intervened, fearful that the pair’s efforts would succeed in a world not quite ready.
Like too many people in history whose communities have deemed them queer in one way or another, the Maid of Ludomir does not have a happy ending. In addition to attracting the attention of learners, she also attracted attention from the patriarchal establishment, who were rankled by this bizarre aberration in their orderly world. A powerful and well-known rebbe took her to task, coercing her to forfeit her teaching role. She complied, turning in her tallis and tefillin, and also acquiescing to a series of doomed marriages, all unconsummated. She finally died in utter obscurity without any descendants to mourn her.
Recently she was dredged up from the depths of anonymity and is once again attracting talmidim (students). In 2004 a memorial stone was unveiled on the Mount of Olives to mark her supposed burial site. Some now observe her yahrzeit, which is the 22 of Tammuz, falling on July 12 of this year. Books have been written about her. Jewish and feminist blogs have buzzed about her.
The Maid of Ludomir attracts the especial attention of both butch lesbians and transmen, two sets of identities between which there is sometimes camaraderie, sometimes a creative tension, and sometimes bitterness, anger, rejection, and misunderstanding. She is claimed by the lesbian community, on the one hand, who can picture her tzitzit dangling beneath a man’s suit, and who smile in recognition: butch.
At the same time, she is claimed by the transmasculine community, who retell the rebbe’s story in male pronouns, recognizing the person whom the Hasidim of the 1800s could not: transman. A queer Jewish zine published a piece about Hannah Rachel, with handwritten black ink correcting the female pronouns, calling the reader’s attention to the supposed injustice we do when we use female pronouns for this figure. One naturally must wonder what Hannah Rachel would have thought about the correction, if it is in fact a correction.
The push and pull between butch and trans has been described by Jack/Judith Halberstam as a “border war.” The choice of words may seem drastic, but ask someone who stands in that liminal space and you may be surprised to find the term fits. The term, while conjuring the image of territorialism, also serves another purpose, as Halberstam explains, “A border war suggests that the border is at best slippery and permeable” (from Female Masculinity, 1998).
And many indeed have passed over that border and back again. Queer Jewish writer S. Bear Bergman, who once identified as butch and is now a self-described gender-jammer, has written about this blurry zigzag that we draw between butch and trans. Bear wryly purports to clarify the issue for us, “Butches are not beginner FTMs, except that sometimes they are, but it’s not a continuum except when it is” (from Butch is a Noun, 2006).
And, of course, there are others for whom the distinction between butch and trans makes no sense. Redwolf Painter, a Heyoka writer, asks plaintively, “Can I tear myself apart and put myself back together to name what part of me is butch and what part trans?” (from “Split Myself Apart,” 2011).
To be sure, the once-forgotten Maid of Ludomir has no voice with which to clarify her identity for us, nor would she even understand the identities we assign her, lacking the century of context which makes such conversation comprehensible. Ultimately, her legacy will elude the specifics. Both butch lesbians and transmen who are seeking a clear Jewish precedent will have to turn the page and search on. Or maybe it is my own desire to claim her that is speaking: I want a Jewish ancestor of my own, someone who has straddled uncomfortably the border, an arbitrary demarcation that is at once real and imaginary, between butch and trans.
One thing that is easily recognizable, however, is that the Maid of Ludomir was, without a doubt, queer, and that this is an appropriate time both in the year and in the arc of our history to reflect on the legacy of this curious ancestor, wherever our imaginations or needs may lead us in that contemplation.
On July 1st, Massachusetts moved one step closer to living up to its reputation as the birthplace of democracy – the Transgender Equal Rights Bill that passed in November 2011, went into effect!
Massachusetts joins 15 other states (plus Washington D.C. and 143 cities and counties) in adding non-discrimination laws for gender identity in the areas of employment, housing, K-12 public education, and credit. Hate crimes laws were also updated to include gender identity.
This is a major victory for equality.
However, the bill doesn’t extend protections in public accommodations—meaning that while it’s illegal to fire a hotel employee for being transgender, it’s not illegal to refuse service to a potential guest for the same reason. Keshet, along with other activists and committed state legislators, will continue to fight for full equal rights.
In Massachusetts, Keshet spearheaded the Jewish community presence on the Interfaith Coalition for Transgender Equality (ICTE), a multi-faith alliance to mobilize support for transgender rights legislation in Massachusetts. To the best of our knowledge, the ICTE is the only interfaith group in the country working for transgender inclusion and civil rights.
Almost 60 Jewish clergy, community leaders, and organizations signed a formal declaration of support for the civil rights bill. Below, you can read the powerful testimony of several rabbis in Massachusetts who spoke out on this issue.
Rabbi Joseph Berman
Massachusetts State House
Monday, April 4th 2011
I’m Rabbi Joseph Berman and I serve as the Rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in Revere. I’m honored to be speaking with you here today.
A few months ago my congregation, Temple B’nai Israel, signed on to the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign launched by Keshet, one of the coalition partners. The campaign calls for an end to homophobia and transphobia in the Jewish community. In the words of Julian Lander, who grew up in Revere and Winthrop, runs our ritual committee, and has been out as a gay man in the congregation for many year: our synagogue took this step “in order to state publicly and explicitly what our community has already demonstrated with its actions: that we believe in the fundamental dignity and worth of each person.” Continue reading