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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L’Shanah Tovah (Happy New Year!)

L’Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year to all who celebrate Rosh Hashanah!

It was the Jewish New Year on Monday October 3rd, but it hasn’t felt like a celebration to me in years. I grew up in a Conservative Synagogue and I associate synagogues and Hebrew services with solemnity and pretending to be Jewish enough for these holy days.

But this year I attended services through Mishkan Chicago. Mishkan believes:

“that when we gather together, where ever we are on our journeys as Jews and as citizens of the world, we create meaningful connections- with ourselves, with others, with Jewish wisdom and with God. That’s what Mishkan is all about.”

300x300This is Judaism in the world, as I’ve never experienced before. There were people of all ages, and different races, and a multitude of other invisible aspects of diversity in attendance. For the first time I felt I could own my Jewish identity, and not just because there was a rainbow flag on the wall. Nobody had to say “you’re included”; it was all through peoples’ actions.

I think a lot about the Jewish narrative that says Jews are victims. My Hebrew School education and family education taught me that Jews must always live in fear and watch our backs because we are Other no matter where we live and therefore unsafe. On one level, history has shown centuries of pogroms, and massacres and torture and conversion of Jews. But Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European descent) must also content with our current history as oppressors of Palestinians as well as discrimination and erasure of Jews of color. Previous synagogues I attended would discuss standing with Black Lives Matter (and take action to stand with Black Lives Matter), but would not even open the discussion of standing with Palestine. I struggle with my Jewish heritage and reconciling being both victim and perpetrator while having no one to talk to about these issues.

The Rabbi at Mishkan put into words all my thoughts and contradictions about Judaism, victimhood and our place in standing for justice for all people. Her analysis of the Torah portion is that when Sarah gives birth to Isaac and demands Abraham discard his second wife, Hagar, and her son Ishmael, Sarah acts out of fear and insecurity. Sarah does not act justly and neither does Abraham in turning Hagar and Ishmael out. The Rabbi’s interpretation of the text is that this insecurity is the same insecurity that allows Jews today to create an apartheid state in Israel. It is our fear of being victims that drive us to victimize others. It wasn’t right with Sarah and Abraham and it isn’t right today.

Yes, Jewish history is full of persecution. Our main narratives are “we were slaves in Egypt” and “we are survivors of the Holocaust.” Yet, we are so much more. We are people in the world with varying degrees of power and privilege, but a responsibility to lift others up. We’re not responsible because we’re Jews, but because we’re humans. For me, being a Jew means standing for justice. It means have been victimized (and some of us still are) but I will do what I can to ensure no one else goes through the same experiences.

Attending services at Mishkan reminded me that when I joke about one day becoming a Rabbi, it’s not actually such a joke. I hope to one day stand on the bema and be that welcoming, that inclusive and that truthful about Judaism and all its contradictions.

 

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.

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.

Books By Women: Parable of the Sower

Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyse yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.

Octavia Butler

In my pursuit to read books by women for a year– and specifically women of color– I turned to Octavia Butler. Last summer I read books one and two of her Xenogenesis Series (also known as Lilith’s Brood) and her short story Blood Child–a pdf is available online.

download (1)  81PLW16UMUL._SL1500_

When I read Octavia Butler, I’m ready for three things.

  1.  science fiction with the understanding that the genre is perfect for commenting and critiquing our world and culture
  2. a detailed analysis of culture
  3. a diverse cast of characters and a female lead of color

Parable of the Sower lived up to these expectations.

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The book follows Lauren, a teenage black woman living on Earth after the planet has suffered ecological disaster and the United States has all but fallen into anarchy. Lauren lives with her dad, a Minister, and her family behind a walled city, one of the only ways to protect yourself from a world where walking outside of your gate almost certainly means being robbed, raped or killed. I loved the raw and brutal depiction of the United States because the danger was real and very plausible. The narrative brought up issues of modern day slavery where most jobs do not pay or pay in company scrip from company-owned cities and towns. The economic situation pitted the poorest people living on the streets against the less-poor but barely eeking out a living families who live behind walls, like Lauren. The story is a survival story: when Lauren’s walled city is destroyed, can she survive the danger posed by her fellow human beings?

Lauren also has a secret. Though her father is a minister and she was raised Christian, she doesn’t believe in a Christian G-d. Her understanding of G-d is a self-designed religion called Earthseed, told through poems at the start of each chapter.

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
is Change.

God
is Change.
Octavia E. Butler Parable of the Sower

I’m sure I missed many of the religious references because as a Jew, I don’t know the Christian Bible and often miss Biblical allusions, but someone with a stronger background in religion would, I’m certain, have endless entertainment parsing through the novel.

There were a few things in particular I loved about this book.

  1. Lauren is black but her race is not her one and only defining attribute.
  2. Lauren has sex and doesn’t apologize for it, demean, or demonize her sexuality.
  3. the main characters are racially diverse with multiple characters who are black, white, Hispanic, or mixed. One character never serves to represent their entire race.

I have not read the sequel, Parable of the Talents, but from the summary, it seems as if it will patch up a few issues of the story I struggled with. The novel is a brilliant text and a feminist text, but I wasn’t as invested in the characters as I wanted to be. Especially as the novel progresses and we have more and more main characters to follow I have difficulty keeping up and wished the story were more character driven and less plot driven (though the Xenogenesis series had the same issue). Still, I would highly recommend Parable of the Sower for your reading list to add more female authors of color to your shelf.

Next up: the Poisonwood Bible. Keep on reading!

In between White and Person of Color

I have white privilege but I don’t identify as white. Because White, to me, means White Christian culture. And as a Jew I’m excluded. It can be as subtle as having to go to school on major Jewish holidays, or as frustrating as having to explain my religion to people as “the token Jew.”

In short, I’ve stopped identifying as white. But the problem is that I have white privilege. My family is everything Eastern European and by my skin color I am white. I don’t feel comfortable identifying as a person of color and I don’t seek to equate being Jewish as being a person of color because I know I don’t experience the same oppression.

Is there an in between?

I can check ‘other’ for my race on government surveys, and (if given the option) write Jewish, but I’ve spoken with people who say calling Judaism a race is part of what caused the Holocaust. I don’t believe that, but it’s difficult to get the thought out of my mind.

Does anyone know if there’s a way to identify that encompasses my Jewish identity and recognizes my white privilege? I would really appreciate the advice.

Pinky Promise

My college is rather progressive. We are a small liberal arts institution with a  focus on the individual. We specialize in collaborative knowledge through social exchange .  We have a feminist club and a Choice USA branch. We are diverse and, as a whole, more on the liberal end of the spectrum. I love my college and I couldn’t dream of being anywhere else.

But no matter how progressive we seem we have a Pinky Promise branch on campus. This means there is an organization where young girls pledge to be good christian women and in the name of  God  promise their fathers they will remain virgins until marriage.

But that was me paraphrasing. What does Pinky Promise say they are? According to their website:

Pinky Promise is…

A promise to honor God with your body and your life. To refuse to give your body to anyone that hasn’t paid the price for you called marriage. It’s a promise to stay pure before God in EVERY single way. It’s a promise that says, I won’t test the boundaries in my relationship to see how far I can push it sexually–but instead–I want God to have my heart.
 
It’s a promise to God that you will honor your marriage convenant. It’s saying that I promise not to step outside of my marriage, cheat on my spouse and that I’ll work through every issue.
Thanks for joining Pinky Promise. Find a group or start a group in your area, and lets encourage each other and build a bond between sisters in Christ.

On the surface it seems to be teaching good values: value yourself, don’t cheat, love God. Yet, I don’t know where to begin.  The program seems to be teaching abstinence only sex education focused around the purity myth. According to this, you can love and value yourself, but only on the basis of your virginity.  This extends not only to how you view your own self worth, but how your family views you (as you are making a promise to your father-or other male relative) and worst of all how God sees you. Tying this organization into religion is what stuns me. I do not believe religion is an evil and even if I did this would not be the place to insert my own religious views. I bring religion into this dialogue because  in this instance religion is being used as a means of control to oppress women.

The religious aspect of virginity is all part of a power game by the male dominated religious leaders who read and interpret religious texts through an oppressive lens and then let their interpretations trickle down to those of their faith as the word of God.

At its core though, the Pinky Promise movement is just another way to deny women the right to own their sexuality. For a woman, sex is for making babies not for pleasure. For men it is just the opposite. Which brings me to the point that Pinky Promise is not against sex: if they were they would have both men and women pledge to be chaste. Instead this is just for women. Women having sex is apparently a scary thing. It is, according to such abstinence only pledges, the woman’s role to keep both her own desires under control (because she obviously has a lower sex drive than a man-not in fact true) and control the man’s desires as well. From this flawed logic, it is her fault if she has sex, or is raped because it is her worth on the line and her responsibility to keep herself  pure until marriage. Why this purity matters and why virginity is being used as a test of morality is never explained.

In addition, the entire organization only accounts for straight Christian girls. What about bisexuals? lesbians? If the logic is that women must be pure until marriage, what about those who can’t legally get married and where sex is considered to be something different than male-female intercourse? What about asexuals? By these ideas are we just eternally moral or is there a point where we become to old to stay the chaste virgin? What about Jews? Muslims? Buddhists? Hindus? Are we not all women and therefore all under this umbrella of purity?

There are too many unanswered questions. In addition Pinky Promise has a limited scope and is not fostering communication with God as they claim. They are instead communicating with the patriarchy to keep women uninformed about their sexuality and using the principles of Christianity to enforce this control.

I have written to Pinky Promise but they have not gotten back to me. I will write again. I’ll talk to the organization’s leaders on campus and open up a dialogue. I only ask that you speak out as well. Be informed and be proud of your sexuality. Women are not less sexual than men, no matter what lies we are told to keep us quiet and chaste.