Homophobia and Respectability Politics

I joined an adult Jewish education class. I jokingly referred to the class as my weekly Jew Cult because my experience with this type of Jewish education has been Birthright trips— which I’ve experienced as Jewish education marketed as a social way to meet Jews your age and reconnect with your history and heritage (while swallowing blatant propaganda to unconditionally support Israel and don’t forget to marry Jewish).

But if this course will eventually turn into pro-Israel propaganda, I won’t stay in the class to find out.

Last week’s class was about Judaism and relationships. The Rabbi spoke exclusively about straight relationships, describing marriage between a man and woman as the pinnacle of Godliness and that heterosexual sex is the pinnacle of pleasure. I asked what this says about same-sex relationships and the Rabbi told me to ask again at the end of class. At the end of class he still would not answer my question. He said he preferred to speak about this issue one-on-one because he likes to know whether the person raising the question is connected to the LGBTQ community.

I talked with him for two hours after class because I wanted to know two things:

  1. Why did he not answer my question for the whole class to hear?
  2. What does he believe the Torah says about queerness?

His interpretation of the Torah is that while God loves everyone, gay people are not natural. That trans people should try to fix what’s going on on the inside before altering God’s plan for their bodies. He used pitying language, that he feels bad for me. He compared queerness to depression and that people need to get help.

He did not answer my question during class because he considers this information to be a “hard truth” of Judaism. If he told the class, he would lose members and his goal is to promote the positives and the joys of Judaism first. And then, once people are on board, trusting that God has a plan, then he might bring up these “hard truths” if someone asks. He must know what he says is offensive and derogatory, if he knows there are people who would walk out of his class if he said such things to group. But he said such things to me because I asked, because I sat down and listened.

He said he respected me for not walking out of the room. But I should have walked out.

I play respectability politics around gender and sexuality. My brain is wired on logic first and emotion second and so I can play the rules of debate like man.

I sat with the rabbi for 2 hours to hear what he had to say, to debate, to let myself be heard, to determine if I should come out to him (I did and he briefly attempted to fix me, suggesting I find a feminine man, before settling on the fact that the Torah does not command women to marry, so if I never get married I can still be an upstanding Jew). I wanted his respect. I wanted him to see that I was not an emotional woman and that I could have this “hard truths of Judaism” conversation without succumbing to base emotions. I could rely on rationality and an intellectual exchange of information.

More than what he said, I’m confused and upset because I don’t know what to feel or think now that the interaction is over. I’ve told him I’m not coming back to class and he understands. On one level he shows me great respect by talking with me for so long, but his ideas are so disrespectful. When I tell my friends, I don’t know what I want them to say. Do I want their pity? Their sympathy? I know I’m not crazy or imagining the insult. Am I wallowing in this act of discrimination?

I didn’t grow up where Judaism was homophobic. Or maybe I did and never noticed. I didn’t figure out I was ace until mid-high school, long after my bat mitzvah and the end of my Jewish education. One of my favorite things about Judaism is that I never felt a conflict between my religion and my sexuality. And I still don’t.

I don’t want to quit the class. I want to learn about Judaism! I want to speak with people who have different views and opinions than I do. I want to be respected.

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1001 Holocaust Poems

At work, we’re in the process of reviewing applications for which students to accept into the college access program I work for. And nearly every  applicant’s graded assignment they shared in their application, was in reference to the Holocaust unit in their 8th grade curriculum.

Every student had a Holocaust poem. At least ten applicants said if they could go back in time they would want to interview Hitler.

And on the one hand, it’s great. Here is a whole generation of incoming high school students who have (at the very least) a cursory understanding of one of the genocides of the 20th century. Some students were even aware that the Nazis murdered queer people, people with disabilities, the Romani, political prisoners, and others.

download (3)Learning about the Holocaust teaches compassion, empathy and a tangible way to see how oppression can lead to justifying violence. Students have the opportunity to question their role as bystanders.

But on the other hand, there are not many Jewish students at the school where I work. And I’m concerned that the only exposure to Judaism, comes from a clinical view that labels Jews as victims. If the only way students hear about Judaism is through the Holocaust then schools are erasing Judaism and Jewish students from a larger historical conversation. Jews exist in the past, in this specific box of victim status. Jews do not exist in the present.

If we are not oppressed then we have no place in the history books.

This narrative is limited and harmful and keeps Jews as Others. You can care about the genocide against us because we’re White enough to look like you, but if we are not victims we are nothing. We do not have a history beyond the Allies liberating the concentration camps and (maybe) the foundation of the State of Israel. Students do not know to question the role of Jews today.

As Passover arrives at the end of the week, it’s important to know that Jews are not yet free in many places in the world and at the same time, that we are responsible for restricting the freedom of others. We are not just perpetual victims. We are also perpetrators against Palestinians and Jews of color.

I cannot stomach another Holocaust poem, knowing this unit of history, this poem might be a student’s only engagement with Judaism.

Experiencing White Privilege

As a Jewish person, I do not always feel White. I’ve talked about this before because I see White culture as Christian culture. And yet, I look White, I grew up thinking I was White, and I have White privilege.

I went to the bank a few nights ago to deposit a check and one of the tellers told me the bank was closed. “Please go to the drive up.”

“I just need to endorse a check.” I told her. “Can I come in for a moment to use a pen?”

She told me no, that it was against policy for her to let me in. For a moment, I was upset. I felt I deserved to be able to use a pen at least. Then I realized, I was operating from a position of White privilege. The teller didn’t owe me entry. The teller didn’t owe me anything.

I was about to walk away when the manager got involved. The manager (a White male) told the teller (a Black female) to let me in. “It’s okay,” I told him. “I can use the drive up. It’s not a problem.”

He insisted I come inside and as I was endorsing the check, he quietly chastised the teller. I took the check and headed out so I could use the drive up window, but the manager continued to insist I remain in the branch and speak to a different teller behind the desk to deposit my check.

White privilege was happening to me and around me and I didn’t know what to do to stop it.

I would never feel comfortable saying I’m a person of color because I’m not! I walk through the world as a White person, where people like the White bank manager open doors for me (both literal and figurative) because they view me as one of them. Even though I am female, I am, at least a White female and therefore given certain rights as if they are my due.

Yet, I told the high school students I work with that I am Jewish, female and White and saying I’m White somehow still doesn’t feel right. Maybe, I am speaking from a desire to not be White and to not take responsibility for racism and the oppression I am a part of.

Paul Kivel, writes of a similar issue in his essay I’M NOT WHITE, I’M JEWISH. BUT I’M WHITE: Standing as Jews in the Fight for Racial Justice” for Dayton University. Kivel says that at an Academic Conference on Whiteness (can we talk about privilege to hold such a conference?) none of the White people said they were White. From gender to sexual orientation to class, everyone had a reason to say they were not White.

I do not want to be that person. I am open to thoughts and insights into what it means to claim Whiteness, not just White privilege.

 

Privilege: The World Doesn’t Owe You

I’m Jewish but I’m perceived as white. I don’t usually identify with white culture because white culture in America to me means white Christian culture (a divide exacerbated with the holiday season). Yet, I have white privilege and I’ve been reminded of it more and more in recent weeks.

I volunteer at an organization fighting poverty and I had a conversation with a black man who mentioned that I’m white. His comment struck me because that’s now I would identify myself, but it was his perception (and I’m sure many people’s perception) of who I am and where I’m from.

And I began to think that this might be a normal rock of the boat for someone with white privilege: when you’re white no one needs to mention your race because you are the norm.

I’m coming to realize that no matter how I work through my Jewish identity, I have white privilege. I have white privilege because every day I need to remind myself that the world doesn’t owe me anything for the accidental color of my skin. This is an even more difficult pill to swallow than being reminded that I appear white, because I need to police myself and my own thoughts.

The first step to eliminating white privilege and working toward an anti-racist world is seeing your own white privilege. The second step is knowing what your white privilege means.

L’Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year!

Happy Jewish New Year! This will be my first year away from my family as well as away from an organized Hillel during the High Holy Days.

applesandhoneyAnd though this is the first year I have a vehicle and (officially) independent, I still am not necessarily free to go to High Holy Days services. As was the case at my college, my job dictates that if I take a day off for a religious holiday I am taking a personal day. This wouldn’t be a problem unto itself, but under Christian hegemony, those who are of the Christian faith (most denominations at least–there are exceptions to everything) have their holidays off work and school as a matter of course. No one has to worry about losing a day of work or catching up on school assignments because they celebrated Christmas or Easter.

Yet, one of my friends is making me rethink how I can celebrate, even if going to a synagogue is currently not an option. They sent me a link to tips and projects for a DIY Rosh Hashanah.

I want to send this post out as holiday greetings to anyone who’s interested in a sweet year ahead and also to start thinking about our options in celebration, whether we’re religious or not, whether we have a community, want a community, or just want to dip some apples in honey for a sweet new year.

L’Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year!

So, You’re Jewish

download (3)I was riding the train home tonight and spoke with one of the passengers about his glasses. I told him that I needed new glasses. He nodded, paused the conversation, then asked, “Are you Jewish?”

“Yes.”

“I thought so.” he nodded again as if proud of his Jew-dar. He asked me, “Is she Jewish too?” He meant the woman sitting next to me, a woman I had never met before.

She told him she wasn’t and he said, “Oh well, I was right fifty percent. Fifty fifty odds.” He was smiling as we both got off the train.

I don’t know what to make of this conversation or this man. I don’t understand. I didn’t do anything that should have singled me out. Maybe I look Jewish. I don’t know. My Jewish education taught me to fear Antisemitism to a debilitating extreme. My great-aunt reminds me to be afraid but also proud of my heritage but also conceal that I’m Jewish because it’s dangerous. I don’t want her to be right. I live with enough repressed fear walking around as a woman with the audacity to travel alone. Living under rape culture is enough to be afraid of.

I didn’t feel threatened on the train, though maybe I should have. I don’t understand what happened. If anyone has any insight or advice, please let me know. I appreciate it.

My Jewish Life in Taboo

From my experience as a Jew, saying “G-d damn” was not taking the Lord’s name in vain, but to say “Jesus” was anathema and a rejection of Judaism. Growing up in a conservative Jewish home[1] while living in a majority Christian town, my religious community sheltered me from the Christian world. I grew up with a paranoia I couldn’t quite name that translated itself into a fear of saying “Jesus.” To say his name would give power to the Christian world over me and bring Christianity into my life, usurping Judaism. My taboos are religious taboos, but have become self proscribed taboos that reveal a fear of Christianity I am trying to overcome.

No one ever told me not to say “Jesus.” Within my Jewish family, no one had to. It seemed that only Christians talked about Jesus because, it seemed, only Christians cared about Jesus. But I’ve begun to understand that I’ve refused to talk about him precisely because I had to care as a religious minority living in a Christian community. Jesus had to always be a part of my consciousness because as Jews, we were defined (and defined ourselves in the process) by what we were not and we were not believers in Jesus. Jewish vocabulary, and a lack of Christian vocabulary, became a marker of difference. And to be a good Jew, was to reject Jesus not just as a savior, but as a person or a concept for discussion. To say Jesus’ name was to give him legitimacy as the son of G-d and reject Judaism in the process.

I didn’t know it was possible to talk about Jesus outside of the Christian context of “Jesus-as-savior” (words I am hesitant to even type because I am still bound by my own fear of this taboo). During a world history class my freshman year of high school, I struggled when we learned about Jesus; it was my first time learning about him. Studying for a history exam with my mother, I found that, lacking a euphemism, I called him “Jesus of Nazareth” and opted for historical accuracy with none of the religious potency of naming him as “Christ”. Even so, I feared I would emerge from studying somehow less Jewish than before for having said Jesus’ name. And if I wasn’t Jewish then what was I?

It has only been in college, surrounded by irreverent (and mostly atheist or agnostic) friends that I’ve begun to say “Jesus.” But saying Jesus remains a rejection of Christianity for me, and remains a loaded word I need to think about before, during and after I’ve said it. With my friends, talking about Jesus is a joke, a means of insulting Christians who do believe. I can be part of this conversation because I’ve never believed. A few weeks ago, my friends discovered the website AnswerMeJesus, a Jesus-inspired magic 8 ball. You ask questions and receive answers such as “Hallelujah” or “Pray harder” or “No chance in Hell.” And while my friends asked questions about the anti-Christ and “What would Jesus really do?” I didn’t know what to ask. I couldn’t think of anything other than to ask if I was going to Hell, or other questions that would reveal my insecurities about Judaism, and my continued reluctance to call Jesus by name or speak about him. Against my wishes, his name limits my speech and I continue to view Judaism as not-Christianity. My friends can joke about Jesus because they were raised Christian, but “Jesus” continues to hold power over me, my speech, and my understanding of myself as a Jew.

I am far more comfortable speaking about Islam and Muhammad or any religion except Christianity. I work at an organization dedicated to interfaith dialogue but rejecting Christianity remains a primary concern of my identity and my language. Even though my mother will now occasionally refer to Jesus as “Christ” without meaning any harm and my brother has used “Jesus Christ!” as a curse word for years, I am barely comfortable saying “Jesus” with my friends. For me, he will never be “Christ.” Long after the taboo disappeared in my family, it remains as a self proscribed taboo of my own prejudice and fear of Christianity taking over Judaism in my life. I’m attempting to overcome this fear by separating Jesus, the historical person, from Christianity and the historical bad blood between Christians and Jews that fuels my fear. I hope to eventually feel free to speak about Jesus as a historical figure of significance, who holds no further bearing on my life.


I wrote this for an English class at my university. I assumed that the professor would understand that it was personal, but he did not. He called on me during class to explain what I wrote because he found it an interesting point of discussion. And because of the power-dynamic between teachers and students I felt obligated to share. When a professor asks, “Cheryl, do you want to explain what you wrote?” there isn’t the option to decline.

After I explained, the professor said he found it interesting how much Jesus still holds power of me. He laughed saying, it was as if “Saying his name would be taking Christ into your heart.” He laughed.

I felt attacked and ridiculed for my faith because I am not Christian. Until power dynamics shift away from Christian hegemony, of course “Jesus” will continue to be a taboo in my life because even progressive places like academia are not always accepting of minority religions. If anyone else ever feels targeted in the classroom for their faith or lack of faith, this post is for you.

[1] Conservative as a Jewish movement or denomination, not conservative as a political leaning.