I was moved by a story I heard on NPR last week. Krista Tippet, host of NPR’s show “On Being,” spoke with Joy Ladin, Professor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University, is the author of Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, and has also published five books of poetry.
Joy shared her story candidly, in the interview and an accompanying photo essay. She also shared insights such as the following question posed to her, and the life-altering answer (and subsequent questions) that followed:
‘“Did anyone ever teach you to be true to yourself?’ a therapist once asked me. I had come to her in the midst of what I call my gender crisis — the physical, mental, and emotional breakdown I experienced after 40-plus years of living as the male I knew I wasn’t. I had just told her about my shame about hiding for decades my lifelong sense that I was female. Having failed to keep faith with my own gender identity, how could I now break my covenant with my wife, my children, and all who knew me as a man?”
This interview aired only a week or so before the ISJL’s Education Conference. At the conference this year, we had a keynote session for all participants, with five brave panelists willing to lead the conversation about privilege, and how privilege manifests itself in life generally and in Jewish communal life in particular. We discussed privilege and assumptions in terms of poverty, physical ability, mental illness, sexual identity, race – the wide range of ways in which some are granted privilege in our society while others are stigmatized or overlooked.
There are many privileges associated with having a gender identity that matches the gender assigned to us by society at birth. Many of us have the privilege of going about our daily lives without having to hide our gender identity from the people who are closest to us. For those of us who have been given this privilege, it is hard to imagine what it must be like to live a life in which we own one gender identity but seek to live the life of another.
Joy was afraid to reveal her true self to her students – students at Yeshiva University, a community primarily comprised of religious Jews. To her surprise, when she finally did tell them that she identified a woman and wanted to live as such, some of her students were most upset not by this revelation but by the fact up until that moment, she had been deceiving them. By living as a man, she had betrayed their trust. It is uplifting to know that it was of utmost importance to Joy’s students that Joy live as Joy; it is sad to imagine that Joy may have been tormented by the possibility that her students would reject her. The students’ true response, which surprised Joy with its level of acceptance, demonstrates that it is not sufficient to be accepting and welcoming, quietly. If people don’t know that we are understanding people, people will not have an easy time being who they are around us. If Joy knew that the culture around her was more accepting, perhaps she would have revealed her true self earlier and with less fear.
One question that emerges after listening to this interview is: How can Jewish institutions and congregations communicate a genuine interest in celebrating the diversity of the Jewish people? How can we encourage people—ourselves and people who fear coming out of hiding–to be as Joy says our “truest selves”? How can we support one another as we go about our “lifelong work of being at home in ourselves?”
We started some great conversation on this topic at the education conference, and we would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
I saw a post on my Facebook feed yesterday that confused me. The post was from a friend who happens to be a Jewish educator, and this is what she shared:
“Dear JC Penney, I am sorry the rest of the world is so bananas! I think your new kettle looks lovely and it NEVER crossed my mind that it looked like Hitler!!! Seriously people!!!!!”
Clearly, I hadn’t spent enough time on social media this week, since I had no idea what she was talking about. So I Googled “JC Penney Hitler kettle.” I found lots of articles, and the image in question – and I have to say, I agree with my educator friend.
The billboard has been taken down, but Twitter and Reddit and Facebook are all still full of people boiling over, whistling about how offensive this is; Jeffry Cooper, the Mayor of Culver City, CA, where the billboard appeared, issued the following statement: ”As a Jew, I am offended, [and] as an elected official, I am mad that the city I represent is linked to this.”
Really? As a Jew, I’m not offended, and as someone who used to work in advertising, I’m picturing the poor creative director out there somewhere who signed off on the billboard. She’s surely shaking her head and saying “Oy! I never saw Hitler when I looked at it.”
I’m sure she (or he) didn’t – because quite obviously, there was no malice intended here. I seriously doubt there was some subliminal pro-Nazi message embedded in this ad. If anything, for a big ol’ corporation, JC Penney has taken lots of surprisingly inclusive stances. So why are they being put through the ringer for this?
Growing up in the rural Midwest, and living for more than a decade now in the Deep South, I’ve been someone’s “first Jewish friend” on more than one occasion. I’ve come to appreciate but also be wary of over-sensitivity. When people go out of their way to make sure that I’m not offended or excluded, it’s incredibly sweet. What I worry about is when we (in this case, Jews and our protective friends) swing that pendulum a little too far, and get up in arms over something that’s actually harmless. While it is everyone’s job to be as kind and sensitive as possible, it’s also our job to sometimes say “No, no – in this case, it’s really okay! I get it – no offense intended, and no offense taken!!”
Don’t get me wrong; cultural sensitivity is incredibly important. But if we make a mountain out of every mole hill, how will we be taken seriously when we’re trying to fight for what really matters?
What is seen can’t be “un-seen,” as they say, so at this point it’s best that JC Penney took the billboard down. What else could they do? Once the dictator was pointed out and a furor over the alleged resemblance to the Führer went viral, JCP wisely responded by saying buh-bye to the kettle – but you never know when something might backfire: the billboard is down, the item is no longer selling on JC Penney’s website… but the now-infamous “Hitler Kettle” is currently going for $199 on ebay. Oops, y’all.
Do you agree, or disagree? Was this billboard culturally insensitive – or a silly mistake? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Only this Jewish woman – this devoted, active, works-in-the Jewish community Jewish woman! – would meet and marry a man named Christian from “Body of Christ” (Corpus Christi!), TX!
In all seriousness, one of the realities of growing up and living in the South is that there are fewer Jews here. If there are fewer Jews, it’s not surprising that within the Jewish community here, there are many interfaith families and Jewish families that include non-Jews. But, what is the difference between interfaith families, and Jewish families that include non-Jews?
Though each family has its own identity, I do see a distinction. An interfaith marriage (or family) consists of two adults who each have their own faith, and maintain these separate faiths, bringing both faiths into the family. A Jewish marriage that includes a non-Jew can be shared between a Jew and a non-Jew, if the non-Jewish partner has no particular faith preference or faith expression, and their shared home is simply Jewish.
I think whatever you decide about who you will marry, how you will structure your lives, how you will celebrate holidays, involve yourselves in the Jewish community, and raise children – these are some of the most important decisions you will make. And they’re all decisions that should be made BEFORE you walk down the aisle! Frankly, a Jew marrying another Jew coming from a different religious observance background has to make some of the same decisions as a Jew marrying a non-Jew. Will you keep a kosher home? Will your son have a bris, or not? Will your kids go to Jewish Day School, or not? Will your family attend services on a regular basis, or not? Will Friday night dinner be a family Shabbat event, or not?
For all couples, the list is long, and the most important thing is to know where you both stand before you say yes! When it comes to the unique conversations around religious observance, interfaith, shared, or one-Jewish-partner-one-not, the resources at Jewish Outreach Institute are truly wonderful and inclusive of all. I would recommend that anyone look to JOI, or Interfaithfamily.com, for guidance and support.
My fiancé and I are to be married on the Saturday night before Passover, and we could not be more excited! Along the planning process we have spoken to the Rabbi and the Cantor, reserved a Chuppah, ordered Kippot with our names on them, and have assembled all the rest of the ingredients that make up a Jewish wedding – including, of course, our Ketubah.
When it came to the Ketubah, we did face a dilemma: Chris doesn’t have a Hebrew name. Actually, to be honest, I was not given an official one at birth myself; however, I adopted the name Hannah because it is the closest to Ann in Hebrew. Just for the heck of it I looked up the Hebrew equivalent of his name and, drum roll please… it’s Mashiach! Yeah, that was NOT happening. After we picked ourselves off the floor from laughing, we chose to phonetically spell out his name in Hebrew, Kuf, Reish, Yud, Samech (KRIS), and fill in the blank that way.
What are your thoughts on Jewish weddings, and what makes a Jewish marriage?