Tradescantia Zebrina .:. The Wandering Jew


tales and opinions of the wandering Jew

So Much LGBTQ Jew News!

cross-posted from Jewschool.

In many cities and towns across North America (and the world), June is Pride month, honouring and commemorating the Stonewall Riots of June, 1969 and the start of the gay rights movement. Keeping with the Pride/LGBTQ theme, I have five things of interest to queer and transgender Jews (and their allies).

1 – For those who haven’t yet seen it, Trembling Before G-d, a documentary about the lives of Orthodox and Hasidic gay or lesbian Jews is now online, is streaming at Hulu.

2 – Jewish Mosaic let us know about Kol Tzedek, “an alliance of Jewish organizations working together in unprecedented ways to include transgender people in all aspects of Bay Area Jewish life.” (Additionally, they have a second focus: marriage equality and fighting prop 8.)

Over the past year, we met with a plethora of community members and rabbinic leaders to informally explore how transgender and gender variant people currently interact, or not interact, with the organized Jewish community. We compiled a report based on our anecdotal evidence and shared experiences of the perceived organizational, social and ritual needs of transgender and gender variant persons, and our wish to understand and serve this community’s needs better.

Our objective was to collect enough initial information to compile a brief report to present to the new CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties (SFJCF), Daniel Sokatch. We had a very successful meeting in which we presented the report and had an enthusiastic and receptive conversation.

The report is available in PDF here. I share it with you guys in light of their hopes for the report: “Finally, with both confidence and humility, we offer this report to inspire similar initiatives elsewhere in the United States, within and outside the Jewish community.”

3 – dlevy says “Hi.” He’s too busy to post right now, so asked me to mention him in this post about the gays.

4 – Mostly for some laughs, because does anyone actually take the Westboro Baptist Church seriously?!, check out this Slog video. At a protest outside the Stroum Jewish Community Center in North Seattle this weekend, they held signs including “Bitch Burger” (watch the video for an explanation on that one; it had me and my friends scratching our heads), “God Hates Israel,” “God is Your Enemy,” and “Antichrist Obama” – in addition to their boringly trite “God Hates Fags.” The Slog reports:

I know a lot of people may still be wondering, what exactly *is* a bitch burger? And/or is a CRAPuccino a drink that was invented in Seattle? Well, I tried to get some answers for you. Also stay tuned for Part II, where I try to find out why God suddenly hates President Obama… and, in Part III, a real live Israeli Jew asks “The Hot One” what he really thinks of anal sex.

5 – Last week CBST (Congregation Beth Simchat Torah: “New York City’s synagogue for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews, our families, and our friends”) finally released their new siddur, B’chol L’vav’cha / With All Your Heart. The siddur is for Shabbos evening services only.

We try to create the most meaningful experience of prayer we can. Jewish prayer is not a spectator sport. Each week will be different from the week before. Not every week’s service will “work” for every person. Not every service will give you what you came searching to find. But if you hang in there, if you come back regularly, the fixed portions of our liturgy and the weekly variations will most likely begin to speak to you and address those needs you felt keenly and those you didn’t even know you had. [p.14]

I use this excerpt by way of showing what CBST is trying to do with this siddur. Read the rest of this entry »


Filed under: america, gender, hebrew, homophobia, judaism, politics, queers, religion, seasons

How To Avoid Dying (and other mishegas)

First, cross-posted from Jewschool is a short piece on the power of prayer:

“A study published by researchers at Yeshiva University and its medical school, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, strongly suggests that regular attendance at religious services reduces the risk of death by approximately 20%. The findings, published in Psychology and Health, were based on data drawn from participants who spanned numerous religious denominations.

“To evaluate the impact of religiosity on mortality and morbidity, the investigators looked at variables including self-report of religious affiliation, frequency of religious service attendance, and religious strength as well as comfort, in relation to coronary heart disease (CHD) and death. It is important to note that the study did not attempt to measure spirituality; rather, it examined self-report religiosity measures (irrespective of the participant’s religion).

“Those attending religious services at least once per week showed a 20% mortality risk reduction mark compared with those not attending services at all. These findings corroborate prior studies that have shown up to a 25% reduction in such risk.” [Read more.]

I would like to thank the various independent minyanim that I attend on a regular basis for existing as, it seems, they’re to thank for my recent “got off easy” car accident. (What? I’m not properly understanding the conclusions?)

And for some more random fun, highlights from the RSS reader. (I’ve had a lot of time to catch up on the blogs these past couple days…)

Filed under: america, health, homophobia, judaism, politics, queers, random, recipes, wtf?

Machon Schechter slams its students

Two brief, incomplete, articles were published last week by the Jerusalem Post and the JTA, talking about a, uh, problem at Schecter concerning gay rabbinical students. Jewschool has an exclusive report from sources close to the story, which I recommend reading.

Some stories have been floating around the media with varying levels of accuracy, but Jewschool has obtained the full (or fuller) story from reliable sources. The real story here isn’t about gay and lesbian rabbis in the Conservative movement (that was last year’s story); it’s about the lengths to which people and institutions will go out of fear, demonizing their own students and losing all perspective.

The story begins a year ago this week, when the Jewish Theological Seminary announced that it would begin admitting openly gay and lesbian students to its rabbinical and cantorial schools. (The American Jewish University, formerly the University of Judaism, is now also admitting gay and lesbian students.) One year later, to mark the anniversary, JTS held a program on Wednesday called Hazak Hazak V’nithazek: Celebrating Strength Through Inclusion, a full day of study, conversation, and celebration.

Several JTS students studying this year at Machon Schechter (the Conservative rabbinical school in Jerusalem where American Conservative rabbinical students are required to spend a year) wanted to participate in the celebration going on in New York in some way, and since they couldn’t attend physically, they organized a small parallel event in Israel. According to email invitations sent to the Conservative Yeshiva and other rabbinical students in Jerusalem, the students invited Yonatan Gher, former Director of Communications for the Masorti (Israeli Conservative) movement, incoming director of the Jerusalem Open House, and a member of Masorti congregations his whole life (and recently profiled in the New York Times because he and his partner are having a child via a surrogate mother in India), to speak over lunch about his personal experiences as a member of a GLBT family in the Masorti movement.

The email announcing the event makes clear what this event was not: It was not intended as a proposal for an official Schechter event. It was not a discussion of Schechter’s admissions policy. (Schechter does not admit gay and lesbian students.) It was not a protest or demonstration to advocate for change in Schechter policy. It was not a halakhic debate, nor was it an exposition of a particular halakhic position. It was not an event manufactured for the media. It was not a “ceremony,” as the media has incorrectly reported it. It was simply a lunch-and-learn with an opportunity for students to listen to Mr. Gher’s personal story and to participate remotely in JTS’s anniversary event. The email says that outright.

Read more…

Filed under: homophobia, israel, judaism, queers, wtf?

Blame the Gays!

Gotta love it.

I was going to post about the earthquakin’ queers, but Rooftopper Rav beat me to it. What I would like to point out, however, is the juxtaposition of two articles currently on the Haaretz home page:

(Would it be wrong to call Haaretz a fence-sitter when it comes to LGBT issues?)

cross-posted to Jewschool.

Filed under: homophobia, israel, judaism, politics, queers

Homophobia and Hypocrisy: Yeshiva Edition

Yanked from Jewschool, a guest post by chillul Who?, who may or may not reveal his LJ persona here.

These articles from the New York Jewish Week and the Jewish Daily Forward do a wonderful job telling us what happened. The usual suspects are all there: a faith-based organization, a homosexual scandal, a Facebook protest group.
What it doesn’t properly convey is, how did we get here? So a gay alumnus was barred by his yeshivah high school’s administration from attending his 10-year reunion with his same-sex partner — so what?

The Orthodox don’t like the gays. Isn’t that all we need to know?
Not really.
I’m trying to collect my thoughts about high school, about openness, about sexuality and spirituality and about the history of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, at one time a standard-bearer of Modern Orthodoxy in America. But I keep coming back to the prophet Yeshayah.
In chapter 55, towards the start of the Haftara reading for public fast days, Yeshayah haNavi speaks in God’s name: “כִּי כַּאֲשֶׁר יֵרֵד הַגֶּשֶׁם וְהַשֶּׁלֶג מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְשָׁמָּה לֹא יָשׁוּב–כִּי אִם-הִרְוָה אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְהוֹלִידָהּ וְהִצְמִיחָהּ; וְנָתַן זֶרַע לַזֹּרֵעַ, וְלֶחֶם לָאֹכֵל. כֵּן יִהְיֶה דְבָרִי אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִפִּי, לֹא-יָשׁוּב אֵלַי רֵיקָם: כִּי אִם-עָשָׂה אֶת-אֲשֶׁר חָפַצְתִּי, וְהִצְלִיחַ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלַחְתִּיו.” ( Just as the rains and the snows fall from the sky and do not return without saturating the earth that it may sprout and blossom, giving seeds to the sower and bread to the diner: so will these words exiting my mouth not return to me empty, but they will complete their mission and accomplish my will .)
Therein lies the difference between us and God. God, it is traditionally asserted, knows the inner thoughts of every living thing, and sees the future to its farthest conclusion. We rarely know the end results of any of our actions.
Flatbush was a great place for me. I grew up in Brooklyn in a Modern Orthodox family. I was a smart kid with a vivid imagination and a bit of a passive-aggressive streak. I believed in fairness, in the Judaism I was taught, and that God was truly good and was looking out for all of us.
I still smile when I think about high school. I didn’t want to graduate and leave it behind. I have fond memories of most of my teachers, and fonder memories of rikudim (Jewish dancing) in the gym every Rosh Chodesh, pizmonim (Sephardic songs) in the school sukkah every fall, and yearly “Seminar” shabbatonim where had my first encounter with what you might call a “hippy-dippy-singing-soulful” way of being Jewish.
And while I do credit the Yeshivah of Flatbush Elementary School & High School for giving me a Jewish education that has been the envy of my peers for my entire young life, I know that the biggest thing I learned there was to love Judaism.
Judaism was deep, and challenging, and profound. It was there in the slowest songs and the quickest layups. Judaism was informed and compassionate. Science, history, and literature were crucial to being Jews. So was caring about current events and social action. We were skilled Hebrew speakers and Zionists because we were taught to see Jewishness in our bodies. And just as all of us kids were a collection of individuals, so was Judaism.
I learned that “the living words of God” actually were plural. In Chumash class we learned commentaries of the Sefer Hachinuch, the Rambam, Ibn Ezra, Rashi, and more. In Gemara class we learned using the multiple lenses of the Ran, the Meiri, the Bach, Tosafot, etc. Rationalists. Mystics. Universalists. Particularists. Chassidim. Mitnagdim. Every unit in Halacha class addressed the differing practices of the various Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities.
This is the lesson: We all had a place in Judaism. And most of the Judaic studies teachers I had were willing to sit and listen to you outside of class if you didn’t feel like you did.
Friends of mine who grew up outside the Orthodox world are frequently astonished to learn just how diverse Orthodox communities are. They’re often more astonished to discover that respect for diversity was something I learned in my yeshivah.
But here’s the problem: Sometimes, after you’ve given kids positive Jewish formative experiences, and taught them to be true to themselves, they go off and do things you don’t approve of.
Until this particular issue came up however, everyone was welcome at the high school reunion. There was no “tsitsiss check” or religious litmus test, no approved favorite movie or banned political opinion. People showed up, they brought guests, they shmoozed and ate and re-connected with their classmates. It didn’t matter what you named your kids. And it didn’t matter what halacha you may have broken in your life. Nobody asked you to testify as to which hashgacha certified your existence as kosher.
So when Mr. Eisenberg, the administrator, claims that “there are standards of halacha that guide the Orthodox community. All of our graduates are welcome to attend our reunion but only those involved in recognized halachic relationships may register to attend as a couple,” I don’t buy it. The standards of halacha that guide the Orthodox community surely exist — but they cover a lot more than the gender of who you date and marry.
Modesty rules. Ethical business rules. Rules for sabbath observance. Sexual practices of heterosexual couples.
Would you like more examples?
Holiday celebrations. Mourning customs. Communal prayer.
The Flatbush administration has no answer for what makes homosexuality so different from other violations of Orthodox norms, that gay and lesbian alumni may not even be acknowledged to exist.
Is gay male anal sex prohibited by the Torah? Sure, but so is a man having sex with his menstruating wife, and no one has ever gotten kicked out of a reunion for that. And I’ve never heard of anyone – gay or straight – getting it on at their high school reunion.
What about lesbianism? According to the majority of halachic sources, anything two women might do sexually together is prohibited as pritsut (immodesty). Maybe Flatbush should start dis-inviting alumni whose Facebook profile pictures don’t conform to the school dress code, too.
All other prohibited sex acts between two Jews of the same gender occupy middle grounds of halachic severity. Sort of like muktzeh on Shabbos. Uh-oh, pet somebody’s dog on Saturday afternoon? Your presence at the “10-year” will be shameful to the school! The administration may deny that you ever attended!
So much for “Orthodox standards”.
On the other hand, there are many compelling reasons why Flatbush should have taken another path. As a Modern Orthodox institution, YOF supposedly believes in the value of secular knowledge. Every month, more data and reports are published by researchers exploring the biological basis of sexual orientation. We know that homosexuality is not something that can be chosen — shouldn’t that simple fact be cause for an approach based in empathy? Can you honestly blame someone for finding a partner who makes them happy, though they must violate halacha in the process, if their alternative is a life of solitude and loneliness? Agunot get all the sympathy in the world because they have no halachic way to get hitched. Mamzerim too. Consistency would dictate a similar attitude towards gays and lesbians.
Someone posted to the “Open Flatbush Reunions” Facebook protest group that the talmudic dictum “Whoever embarrasses his fellow in public, it as if he has committed murder” should have been heeded here.
Another imagined the scene among the Patriarchs in Canaan: When Avraham Avinu greeted visitors at his tent, did he check if they were homos first?
I wonder if the Flatbush administration thinks it can send 28-year-olds to detention. Someone who attends their 10-year reunion is looking to reconnect with peers. Or maybe show off a little. They’re not there seeking approval from Rabbi Levy, Mrs. Sanders, or any other principal.
As for me, one day I hope to be as lucky as the alumnus around whom this controversy started, with his iron self-confidence and his happy five-year relationship. I only began to come to terms with my own sexuality years after he did, when I’d already gone through most of my college career. It was a very difficult time for me, and I lost hope more than once that I’d make it out whole and content with myself. But among the thoughts and struggles, and the condemnations and resentments that churned through my mind, two memories from back in high school stood out. In a weird, strange way they were my first positive encounters with what it meant to be gay.
Number one: A chumash teacher of mine, addressing the famous verse in Vayikra “You may not lie with a man the layings of a woman” and some misconceptions about its implications, bellowed across the classroom to make sure he was understood: “Gay sex isn’t prohibited by the Torah because it’s ‘gross‘, or because it’s ‘dirty‘, or because ‘gays are bad‘. It’s prohibited by the Torah because it’s prohibited by the Torah — and you should always treat everyone with respect.
Number two: A classmate had returned from visiting colleges, and turned around to face another classmate who’d just made a (teenage-boy-typical) joke questioning another kid’s sexuality. “You’ve got to stop,” he said, “I was just up seeing a college and I made a joke just like that to someone. He actually was gay and he was insulted! You can’t say stuff like that to people.
Is it typical for a seventeen-year-old in the late 1990’s to have a better instinct for derech erets than a 50-year-old in the late 2000’s? If so, I’ve got faith for that coming future of rainbows and sunshine chugging down the line towards all of us. But I’m more inclined to believe, in my cynicism, that everyone is basically the same, and that the YOF administration is just playing politics, like every other communal institution. They don’t want to endanger funding from wealthy homophobes in the local Syrian community. Or engender more derision from the local Ashkenazi charedim, who always could be counted on to say that a co-ed school – where girls learned gemara, where most of the students went on to university, and which taught classes like Biology & Tanach as if they were serious subjects – “wasn’t a real yeshivah anyway”.
Back in the day, the Yeshivah of Flatbush was a revolutionary school. It was founded in the 1920’s, before almost every other jewish day school in the U.S. It was religious and Zionist before the State of Israel was even founded – and through the end of the century, when I attended, all religious classes were still taught exclusively in Hebrew, to students who had been taught to communicate in Hebrew. Y.O.F. was the first Orthodox school I know of to employ a female Talmud teacher, who herself was one of the first graduates of the Drisha Scholar’s Circle program. For a long time, not only was it the largest yeshivah day school in the western hemisphere, but an extremely high percentage of the student body had parents who were alumni, and who couldn’t imagine sending their children to another school, even if they had to be bussed in more than an hour each way from exotic Highland Park, New Jersey, or far-off Cedarhurst, Long Island.
After 80 prestigious years, you’d think the administration wouldn’t feel a need to whitewash their alumni’s biographies. A friend once quoted a Leonard Cohen song to me. Standing in the shy morning light, surrounded by chilly breezes and the smell of pine trees, she taught slowly, intently: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything — that’s how the light gets in.” In the end, all we’ve got left is truth and reality, and it’s only by being true to yourself – gay, straight, Jewish in an orthodox or heterodox way – and to the reality of the people your life has bound you to – children, parents, teachers, students, friends, coworkers – that you come into your own in dignity. I think my old high school could use a little more dignity right about now.

Filed under: homophobia, judaism, queers

Graffiti: The Update

Shortly after arriving in Israel, I wrote about the rampant homophobic graffiti in Jerusalem, and posted some photographic evidence.

I’ve decided that it’s time for an update. This is best done, again, by sharing photographs snapped around town. Actually, these are all taken in a four block stretch of a major street that runs from my neighbourhood towards the city centre. Many of these have gone back and forth a few rounds (the original homophobic slur, a correction, reiterating the homophobia, a further correction…). In order to demonstrate that, I added notes to the photos on flickr, so I highly recommend you check them out individually there.

I like the alterations to the homophobia, and the different styles people are using to change the message. (Though, I admit that I don’t quite understand the squaring of the “h”.)

I’d like to thank the others who are helping with this project. I have my sharpie in hand every day, and there’s still more to do…

Filed under: graffiti, homophobia, israel, queers, wtf?

Hatred in the City of Peace

I have never taken for granted the fact that I was raised in Canada, in the big cities, to liberal parents. Some of my earliest memories involve one of m parents’ gay friends who helped my nanny take care of me when my parents were on vacation in Europe: he picked me up, on a weekend morning, and took me to my pottery lessons. After my class, before returning me to my home, he bought me ice cream. This was a huge deal: it was not yet noon, and I had not yet had lunch. In my family, dessert was for special occasions, and we certainly weren’t allowed sweets before lunch! At the ripe old age of 4, I didn’t know what “gay” meant, but I knew that adults used that word when referring to this family friend and his housemates (I later clued in that they were two gay couples sharing a house). So in my young mind, I equated “gay” with “sweet before lunch” which meant “cool.” A formative experience, to be sure. I went on to attend both elementary school and high school, in different cities, with queer teachers of different genders, and at least twice had students in my class whose gender – to this day – remains unknown. All of this was fully accepted, encouraged, and supported. It wasn’t a big deal when I came out; the first pride parade I marched in was captured on film by my math teacher and her partner, who cheered as I walked by with an LGBTQ youth group.

Which isn’t to say that my life has been untouched by homophobia. I was once attacked by a group of guys, who shouted homophobic slurs as they took their swings and kicks. I lived in a small town where homophobia was as “natural” as drinking beer. Once while sucking a popsicle in my car, another driver shouted “faggot” at he passed me by (okay, that one might have been called for!).

But I’ve written those off as isolated incidents that were few and far between. I was able to balance them with the activism and volunteer work I was doing to educate my communities on issues relating to homophobia, heterosexism, heterocentrism, transphobia, and more. Work I’ve been doing for more than half my life.

Living in Jerusalem, however, I’m having a hard time compartmentalizing, pushing down, the rampant homophobia. It started my first day in Jerusalem, walking from Rehavia to Mahane Yehuda. Scribbled on a paper recycling bin was “homo = ill,” “homo = filthy,” and “homo = dog.” I was shocked. In a city where destruction (or amelioration) of public property, through graffiti and stencil art, for political statement or “just” art, was the norm, I couldn’t believe that no one had challenged this message. As I continued my exploration of the city, I found that this message was repeated on paper recycling bins, electricity boxes, telephone poles, walls, gas metre boxes, and other public places, not just in Rehavia, but in Baka, Nachlot, Katamon, Germany Colony, city centre and Ben Yehuda, and more. I was able to determine that the hatred was all being written by the same hand.

I quickly devised a plan, supported by friends, to correct the graffiti. We started carrying permanent markers with us and changing the message from “homo = ill” to “homophobia = ill.” But the more we changed, the more we had to change. On streets where I had corrected every then-marked-up spot, a second walk a few days later would reveal new, bolder, places where the hatred was being displayed. And tonight I noticed that some of my corrections had been amended. “Homo very dangerous for children.”

I feel like I’m loosing this fight. I could keep writing messages back, correcting what has now been written to counter my anti-homophobia corrections, but it’s becoming overwhelming. This individual clearly has a lot of time on his/her hands, and I almost feel like I’m being watched or followed as I walk around making these corrections.

If you’re in Jerusalem, I implore you to take a sharpie in hand and correct them as you see them (or just cross them out). It’s exhausting living in a city where messages of hate are scribbled everywhere I look, and even more exhausting feeling like no difference is being made. If things don’t turn around soon, I think I’ll be taking this story to the press.

V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha…

Filed under: diy, graffiti, homophobia, israel, judaism, photos, politics, queers, wtf?

Photo post, the fist

At first, I thought they were limited to Rehavia, the neighbourhood in Jerusalem where I am currently staying. As EKO and I walked around last week, and then as I continued walking further on my own, I realised they were pretty much everywhere. What am I talking about? The neighbourhood paper recycling bins that have been vandalised with homophobic graffiti. Most now display homo=ill, homo=dog, homo=filth. And looking closely at them, it appears that they were all scrawled on by the same marker and hand. On Shabbat, we were talking about these, and decided to start correcting them. I did the first today:

I’m hoping people will notice that someone’s taken the time to add to the original “homo,” even though the addition may be subtle or unnoticed at first. … And I plan on fixing many more before I leave for Haifa.

Another major feature of any neighbourhood walk through are the stray cats. So. Many. Stray. Cats. Sleeping under cars in the shade, on walls, on dumpsters, in gardens, on benches, under benches…. they’re everywhere. Last weekend, I heard a constant steady cry of a cat, so steady it almost sounded like an alarm. I went out the next morning to look for it, and found a tiny cat. So small, and so still, I thought it was dead. But it’s not! I think it’s the runt of the litter, the only black cat amongst grey siblings. It’s about 15-20cm long, stretched out. And so skinny, I could easily wrap my thumb and index finger around it’s widest point. It spends most of the day and night sleeping, though I did take joy in seeing it’s siblings trying to chase it up a tree yesterday. And s/he got maybe 30cm up before the other two lost interest and scampered off, leaving it to figure out how to get back down on its own.



Folks leave food out for the cats, and buckets of water too, which is nice. And they’ve clearly honed their garbage scavenging skills too. They’re not starving, but they don’t look like healthy house cats either…

On a more cheery note, I noticed a couple days ago that R’chov Ha’Ari (Ha’Ari street) had been relabeled:


Filed under: diy, graffiti, homophobia, israel, photos, politics, queers, random, wtf?