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.
Recently, I read an article about a punk-rock production of “Fiddler on The Roof.” The article caught my eye for several reasons. First of all, I’m a theater nerd, and any new-twist-on-an-old-favorite will at least earn a passing glance from me. Second of all, I have my own interesting “Fiddler” tale (which I’ll get to in a minute).
Third of all, um, hello – punk Fiddler?! As a kid raised on Topol’s performance of Tevye, picturing him wearing ripped jeans and black nail polish while screaming into a mic was enough to make me giggle.That’s what drew me to the article, but what stayed with me after I read it was not the article itself; the comments from other readers were what lingered in my mind.
There were a few positive or “hmm, that’s interesting” responses. But more prevalent were critical comments. Some of these criticisms were about this particular production, i.e.:
“G@d forbid we tell [the student actors] that dressing and acting Punk isn’t a good Jewish thing. What happened to a Jewish theater group teaching something Jewish? I am appalled”
… and others were even about “Fiddler” as a show, period:
“In it’s [sic] original it is the worst affront to traditional Judaism. The whole play is about children rejecting the laws and customs of Judaism. The only Jews who actually “love” Fiddler are those who rejected traditional Judaism themselves, but still take comfort in the memories of their grandparents’ tables. Turning it punk only added another level.”
Oy. Pretty harsh – and pretty unfair. As far as the punk version inherently being “not teaching something Jewish,” I’d argue that punk is about rebellion and questioning and figuring things out in your own way – AKA “wrestling with big questions.” AKA something pretty Jewish, if you ask me. My historian friend Stuart also pointed me to this article about how Jews contributed to the creation of punk music. We’re proud of Barbara Streisand and Mel Brooks; why not Jeffry Hyman, AKA Joey Ramone?
As far as “Fiddler” itself being an affront to traditional Judaism, I’d say it’s the opposite. Tevye, a traditional Jew, is the story’s protagonist, and he’s a sympathetic, likable character. Traditional Judaism is treated with warmth throughout this story; we feel the pain alongside Tevye when his daughters move away from the traditions that have shaped his life– even those of us who are not “traditionally observant” can identify with struggling to understand our loved ones, and fearing our own values may be lost. More than anything, “Fiddler” is a story of transitions, choices, navigating one’s own identity and the choices of our loved ones; of finding our own way and wrestling (there’s that word again) with the angels and obstacles in our path. Like it or not, that happens to every family. Jewish, and non-Jewish.
Speaking of which, here’s my “Fiddler” story, as promised earlier: soon after I moved to Mississippi, I started auditioning for plays. As fate would have it, the first role I was cast in was Golde in a local production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” This was odd for two main reasons: first of all, I was 21 at the time, making me way the &*%$ too young to play Golde; and second of all, I was the only Jewish person (at the time) in the entire cast and crew of this “Fiddler” show.
The first item was fixed with a wig and tons of age-makeup. The second item led to a lot of questions, conversations, gentle lessons in how to correctly pronounce “L’Chaim” – oh, the stories I could tell!
But here’s the incredible thing: despite the majority of the cast being largely unfamiliar with any sort of Jewish heritage, “Fiddler” resonated for everyone in the show. They got it. They learned something about Judaism, but also they found something incredibly universal in this particular show. Because “Fiddler” is very Jewish, and also very human.
If you took away its Jewish particularity, the story wouldn’t be as powerful; after all, a specific example is always better than bland general-ism. Yet within that specificity, there is so much room. The characters that choose tradition, those who have change thrust upon them, those who choose change – none are demonized. There are lots of different characters we can cheer for, because there are lots of ways to be [Jewish/in love/political/etc]. People find reflections of themselves, somewhere, because all of us know what it’s like to feel as if our lives are as shaky as … as … as a fiddler on the roof!
And if finding a way to tell a story about how complicated and beautiful and crazy-making family life can be isn’t Jewish, well, I don’t know what is.
That’s why I will continue to defend ‘Fiddler”- be it the traditional, punk, or a heartfelt, Southern-accented version.
What are your “Fiddler” feelings? Affection? Offense? Share your comments below…
This blog originally appeared on Lutheran Confessions, and is re-posted here with permission from the author, Pastor Clint Schnekloth.
Although I in no way mean to imply that Lutherans and the Jewish community in Northwest Arkansas are identical, it is true some of us wear similar t-shirts (I have a t-shirt that reads “The Lord be with y’all”).
It was our honor and privilege to attend Hanukkah celebrations at Temple Shalom in Fayetteville this evening. The evening began with a blessing over the separation (Havdallah, the candle lighting to end Sabbath).
This included a nice hymn, “A good week. A week of peace/May gladness reign and joy increase.” Also the Kiddush, and blessings over the spices and the candles. We sang these standing in a large circle, then danced to the song even most non-Jewish communities know well, the Hava Nagila (let us rejoice).
Two enthusiastic Fellows from the Institute of Southern Jewish Life taught many of the traditions. The Institute sends out nine Fellows each year. They spend their year conducting Sunday school type programs in the synagogues they serve.
I love Temple Shalom’s mission statement, “Temple Shalom is located in the city of Fayetteville, nestled in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. We are a small, tight-knit, welcoming congregation representing a diversity of practices, and dedicated to serving as the focal point for Jewish life in our small corner of the world.”
Although past years have seen 50-60 participants in programs like the Hanukkah party, this year over 150 people were in attendance, almost all (with the exception of our Lutheran household and a few other visitors) were Jewish. Although I do not know all of the reasons for this growth, my guess is that a) it is an attractive community engaging in effective forms of outreach, and b) more Jewish families and individuals are moving to NWA.
After prayer, we lit the Hannukah candles, and we ate. I think my favorite were the latkes. I’m a huge fan of potato pancakes soaked with sour cream or apple sauce. “Latkes (Yiddish: לאַטקע) are traditionally eaten by Jews during the Hanukkah festival. The oil for cooking the latkes is symbolic of the oil from the Hanukkah story that kept the Second Temple of ancient Israel lit with a long-lasting flame that is celebrated as a miracle.”
Then there was the potluck. Lots of great hot dishes and more latkes of various shapes and flavors. We focused some of our attention on the sweets. I have this evening eaten a chocolate version of the Decalogue. Certainly evocative of Psalm 19: “The law of the Lord is perfect, sweeter than honey.”
But the best part of the party was the fellowship. Although we had to leave early for family bedtimes, we had the opportunity to spend an evening with neighbors and friends we love and deeply cherish.
We share this common story, the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Lutherans and Jews also share a common immigrant story to Arkansas. Here’s to lighting candles together, lights that fend off the darkness and give indication of our joy.