I’m what you would call a reluctant business traveler. While I am the director of the Education Department of the ISJL, with the main office being in Mississippi, I actually live in San Antonio, TX.
Thanks to technology, I mostly telecommute, but once a month I fly into the Jackson office. I HATE flying. I mean I really HATE flying. Although I fly a lot, I am a very anxious flyer and as a result I have developed a very fixed coping routine mixed with superstition, prayer, and just a splash of OCD. I will spare you the details but just know that I recite the Shema A LOT!
What makes matters worse is that most of the people around me seem to be fine with flying. Some of them even look cheerful and like to make all kinds of new friends. It shouldn’t surprise you that I am not fond of plane chatting. I am often in my own world of Shema-ing and yoga breathing, and don’t really feel much like hearing where people are headed or the reason for their travel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not rude and I will always answer questions when asked but I have figured out what to politely say that will end the conversation quickly.
Here’s how it usually goes:
Passenger: Is this trip work or fun?
Passenger: What do you do for work?
If I say I work in education, there are immediately more questions….
Passenger: Oh, are you a teacher? What grade do you teach? What subject do you teach?
Then I have to explain that I’m not actually a teacher…..
Me: I actually work in the-non profit world.
Passenger: Oh, how interesting. What’s the name of the non-profit? What does it do? Have I heard of it?
When I bring up the word Jewish, the questions/comments reach a whole new level…
Passenger: Oh! Are you Jewish? I have a Jewish friend named ____________. Do you know him/her?
The conversation/questions can go on and on and can involve my own personal belief system or could just involve some comments about Jewish foods they have tasted. Regardless, I just want to sleep or cope with my flying anxiety, so I have come up with what to say that provides some information but that shuts down the conversation as soon as possible.
This has become my new go-to response?
Me: I work for a non-profit providing educational training and developing curriculum and programs.
This usually sounds uninteresting to most, and I am done with my plane chatting for the flight (phew!). But every once in a while, someone really just wants to chat. Last week on my flight was one of those times. She was a nice middle aged woman who let me know that she was going to visit her son and help him to move into his new apartment. She had an art magazine in her hands and continued to let me know that she was a painter. For her day job she worked for a printing company in Jackson. She was getting ready to retire in the next few months and paint full-time. After she had given her me her back-story, I knew that she was ready to hear from me and that my usual end the conversation technique would be ineffective.
Nice lady: What do you do?
Me: I work for a non-profit providing educational training and developing curriculum and programs.
Nice lady: Oh! That’s exciting. We do a lot of printing for non-profits. What’s the name of your organization?
Me: The ISJL.
Nice lady: Oh my goodness!!! We do all of your printing!
Me: You do!? I’m the one that has y’all printing all of those spiral-bound curriculum books each year. They are lessons for the teachers we work with. I’m soooo sorry that we get them to you so late each year, but you always come through for us.
Nice lady: We just love working for y’all.
Me: I’m so glad to have the chance to say thank you. Those lessons are important to many schools and we couldn’t do our work without you.
Nice lady: I have a Jewish friend named____________. Do you know her?
Even though my conversation that morning ended up being predictable, this one was also special. Sitting next to me was a stranger that I couldn’t do my job without. She took our words, ideas, and experiences and literally put them on the page so that we could share them with roughly 500 teachers throughout our region. It was a nice connection, and a chance for me to say thank you. After we chatted LOTS more, I returned to my role of grumpy business traveler… but with a pretty full heart.
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.
A few weeks ago, Rachel Stern wrote about the real blessings technology can bring, particularly when you’re outside of a major metropolitan area and want to connect to Jewish life.
This holiday season, we’re excited for another resource that will be streaming our way. This one takes the form of a new and ongoing podcast series, demonstrating the power of passionate teaching by preeminent Jewish educators. It’s a project of The Covenant Foundation, broadcast by JCast Network.
Marking the Jewish New Year, the series – From Dreams to Deeds: Join the Journey – debuts with Dr. Erica Brown, a 2009 Covenant Award recipient and Scholar-in-Residence at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Upcoming podcasts will feature Jewish educators influential in their own communities and nationally – in the realms of Jewish education, religious thought, community building and generational continuity.
Podcasts will feature, among others, Rivy Poupko Kletenik, Head of School at Seattle Hebrew Academy and author of a monthly Jewish advice column; Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, Dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey, NY, Founder and Director of Project Y.E.S., and a prolific writer on issues concerning parenting and children at risk; and the ISJL‘s own Macy B. Hart, who will talk about Jewish life in the South and taking a regional approach to Jewish community and programming. Segments are hosted by Darone Ruskay, Executive Director and Producer of JCast Network.
From Dreams to Deeds: Join the Journey will live at jcastnetwork.org/covenant and on iTunes. Each segment may be played immediately or downloaded to computers and mobile devices. We’re excited to tune in and take advantage of this learning opportunity – especially when we’re on the road, on our way to visit communities. Should be great conversation starters, and those meaningful conversations are ones we love to have. It’s also the perfect time to tune in for some streaming, stimulating Jewish content that will inspire you to think, to do, and to share – what better way to welcome the new year?
Thanks, Covenant and JCast, for making this resource available to everyone, no matter what your zip code!
L’shana tova, y’all!
How do you take advantage of things like podcasts? Do you listen to them alone? While running? Have you ever used them for a program or in any interactive way? Will you be tuning in to “Dreams to Deeds?”