Halacha dreams

19 Sep 2006 In: Jewish Identity, LGBTQ, Queer, Spirituality, Tradition

My interest in leading a more observant Jewish life seems to have saturated my subconscious. Several times a week for the past few months I have had vivid dreams about myself as a more observant (and often Orthodox) Jew. It started with a series of itense dreams in which I go to a mikvah. I woke up each time moved, disturbed, and scared of my own desire for religious community and faith. There have been other themes as well. In some dreams I am a frum Jewish woman married to a man. In some I am a frum Jewish man married to a woman who wears long skirts and covers her hair.

I have had dreams where I get laughed out of an Orthodox synagogue due to my gender ambiguity. Dreams of kashering my kitchen. Dreams in which I am physically or verbally assaulted when the members of my congregation learn that I am not a zionist. Dreams in which I am bringing my mother to a mikvah to do a ritual so that she can get pregnant (at the age of 54, no less!). In one recurring dream I am trying to figure out which side of the mechitzah to sit on.

I grew up in a small, rural Reconstructionist synagogue that had formerly been a Conservative congregation and retained some of that traditionalist spirit but did not emphasize halacha. My liberal Ashkenazi family didn’t keep kosher, but we did Shabbat dinner and prayers every Friday night together and went to synagogue nearly every week. My mom was agnostic but insisted we go to Hebrew School. After my Bat Mitzvah I didn’t go to shul as regularly, but maintained a strong Jewish identity and when I left home I found myself gradually moving towards more observance.

I have gone to services at Reform, Conservative, Renewal and Reconstructionist synagogues on both the east and west coasts. I go to a Conservative shul right now. I would like to see what services are like at the Modern Orthodox shul but worry about how I’ll be received, a boyish looking masculine woman wearing pants in a strongly gender-binary environment. My attraction to religious observance is interwoven with a lot of anxiety about peoples’ perceptions of me, making other people uncomfortable, and being the focus of attention.

I am increasingly drawn towards halacha, and towards having a strong, faith-based Jewish community… Despite my discomfort with some of it. The brand of egalitarian Judaism that I once assumed was more progressive (no gender-based rituals, avoidance of male pronouns to refer to G-d, replacing the word “Adonai” with “Shechinah”) actually feels somewhat contrived to me these days as I become more comfortable being a woman and struggle to embrace gender-specific experiences. The constant re-creation and changing of rituals and prayers in Renewal and Reform Judaism can sometimes even feel like an act of disrespect towards our tradition. But I don’t know that I have the option available to me to be part of a more traditional Jewish world, as a very non-traditional Jew… So where do I belong? I feel like a reactionary in the egalitarian-progressive Jewish world and like a radical freak in the traditional Jewish world. I hope as I find a way to integrate my religious practice and my radical political beliefs I’ll find a space where I can be all of who I am.

As a non-zionist, butch, queer woman it scares the living daylights out of me that I am drawn towards a more traditional Jewish practice that I learned to demonize in my 2nd wave feminist past and still feel much discomfort with. This journey is forcing me to confront internalized anti-semitism and rethink the ideas I had about religious people. My Reconstructionist upbringing feels like a liability at times. I don’t know how to even begin to learn all the things about Judaism that I feel I should already know… as if all Jews but me were born knowing all the complexities of Jewish practice! I haven’t yet started reconciling my identity and politics with my religious leanings. Most of all, I am unsure of how and where to find community. But I am making small steps towards observance. I recently stopped working on Saturdays, and started going to Torah service every week and using the rest of the day for restful purposes. I have started saying prayers every evening. I have stopped mixing milk and meat together in my meals and started eating only kosher meat. I am reading Jewish texts and commentary on a regular basis. For someone raised by ex-hippies in a haymish, non-traditional Jewish environment where my father often brought home shrimp for Shabbos dinner, these are big steps. Each small thing I do to make my life more Jewish makes me feel connected to G-d and connected to other Jews.

Welcoming Selihot

16 Sep 2006 In: Arts and Culture, Education, Jewish Identity, LGBTQ

A personal bend:

I received an email this morning from my mom that was incredibly moving. She told me the synagogue I grew up in and still in many ways consider my shul, Rodeph Sholom, a Conservative Shul in Bridgeport, CT is going to be screening Hineini this evening before the Selihot service. Hineini (Hebrew for “Here I Am”) chronicles the story of one student’s courageous fight to establish a gay-straight alliance at a Jewish high school in the Boston area and the transformative impact of her campaign on everyone involved. (watch the trailer) I see this in the larger context, with the change in JTS’ chancellor, and the potential passage of an ordinance for gays and lesbians (yes just gays and lesbians–no BT on this one, partly because it’s different halachically and that’s a lot of what they are looking at and partly because, well that’s how people do incremental reform work and it’s flawed for many reasons on this issue, but anyway) to be ordained this December.

Many synagogues have moving sermons on the night of Selihot to remind us as we move into this time of Elul to think about ourselves and about change. In fact, if you’re in New York, B’nai Jeshurun is having a discussion called “Forgiveness in Extraordinary Times” with South African poet and novelist and poet Antjie Krog According to the website, “Her best-known book, Country of My Skull deals with the Truth & Reconciliation Committee that provided amnesty for perpetrators of crimes committed on all sides during the years of Apartheid.”

So why is this moving for me? Because I didn’t expect it, and honestly didn’t think it would happen any time soon. I knew the potential reach of the film, but still never thought it would cross my childhood shul’s door–not because they aren’t good people, and not because it isn’t an issue, but because it is so invisible there. When I go back to Connecticut, I am usually the only visibly queer person in a large congregation. Not surprisingly, I stand out. This isn’t unique to Connecticut. I still get this in many shuls and, yes, even in many independent minyanim in New York. OK maybe there are five of us, but really unless I go to a specifically gay, and yes I say gay for a reason, shul in NY, it’s the reality.

In many ways, like Shulamit Izen, who is featured in Hineini, I didn’t know that there was a community for me, that there were people like me, and that I would come, in later years, to find much more than just a redefinition or a desire to be seen in my community, but rather a long, deep history of queer and transgender Jews who have been at the center of building Jewish life.

This year my Rabbi is retiring–in fact he has to, the shul requires rabbi’s to retire by a certain time (I can’t remember if it’s because of age or years served). I know that in the past years, he has struggled to move the synagogue to be more egalitarian amidst an old guard that couldn’t deal with seeing women counted as apart of a minyan or wearing tallit. My mom sees this as his attempt to talk with the synagogue about being open to the realities that in their halls are young LGBTQ Jews who want to be there–and because I love my rabbi, I love him for doing it, even as my time has passed and even if it is only a step, a screening since for this shul it is a big step. Even though we disagree on issues like Israel and Palestine and even if I do not know where he stands on the issue of JTS and ordination, I love him because he is where he is, he struggles where he is, he doesn’t pretend otherwise and he meets people where they are to move them–(and an aside he’s always been fiery around issues of poverty and economic justice).

And it is, indeed, a moving reminder of change and growth moving into Elul. I hope all of you have many moments (personal, communal, political and all) like these in coming weeks, months and years.

crossposted from Jewschool

Parsha Ki Tavo

12 Sep 2006 In: Arts and Culture, Politics, Torah

From 52 Portions:

One section of this week’s portion of the Hebrew bible reads like Karl Rove on meth. Nightmares that make 9/11 look like Barney will devour Israel if it fails to stay the Biblical course. This parsha (portion) also includes a midrash, a story associated with the parsha, that raises a charming vision of a world where everybody follows the same rules.

Media Mishegaas

11 Sep 2006 In: Media, Mishegaas

crossposted to Jewschool

Life has been full, but here are a few slices of my favorite media picks as of late:

  • Chris Rabb on his genealogical quest to untangle ancestry and heritage.
  • Chip Berlet tackles the continued rise of white supremacist groups around immigration
  • Guiliani cashing in on 9/11
  • wireless feminism?
  • I wonder what Blogs of Zion will think of this? Jewish Agency aids Israeli Arabs
  • The New York Times had a great editorial today on restoring the right to vote in Alabama
  • And speaking of prisons, follow the prison money trail
  • Robert Jenson tackles the costs of manliness, but I think Paul Kivel does it better
  • Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler, editors of Bitchfest, are on tour this fall–preview Bitchfest by listening to an interview with the editors.

Parashat Ki Teitze: Be As You Are: To Wear is Human

31 Aug 2006 In: LGBTQ, Torah

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Parsha Ki Tetze

31 Aug 2006 In: Torah

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sharon sleeping

31 Aug 2006 In: Poetry

sharon sleeping

if he would keep sleeping she could forgive even love the human shell
fetal, innocent

but the moment he wakes heai??i??s a butchering thieving racist
a would-be king

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and drink it

he who hated and killed so many

ai??i?? 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She’asani Isha ve’lo Ish

31 Aug 2006 In: LGBTQ

Is gender identity inborn or does it arise from environment, and the constant social reinforcement of gender roles? Psychiatrists have been working on this conundrum for a long time, and I certainly haven’t got the answer. But my experience suggests that it’s social construction, that my gender identity is a reflection of my culture.

I was a boy born into a nonreligious but nonetheless culturally Jewish family in New Jersey in 1961. At the age of 5, I began secretly desiring to be a female, furtively dressing in female clothing, which remained more or less continuous throughout my life. At the age of 12, my parents, being dissatisfied with the quality of the local public school, gave me a choice of several private schools, including an orthodox “Yeshiva? day school. I was intrigued by religion and jumped at the chance. I became very religious, insisting, to my parent‘s chagrin, that the house be kept kosher, that I be permitted to enjoy the rigorous Shabbos rest (no use of electricity, money, cars or any form of work activities), and that all religious holiday be strictly observed. A series of prayers were to be recited three times a day. The local temple was an hour’s walk away, but I walked there and back on Shabbos despite my parents’ fears. The Orthodox shul was two hours away, and I walked there on nice Shabbos mornings. I spent hours a day studying the Chumash and the Gemmarah.

I soon realized, of course, that the Bible explicitly forbade cross-dressing, although I didn’t need the Scripture to tell me that such an activity was wrong, wrong, wrong. I was a fairly bright child, and realized my activities in my mother’s closet when the house was empty were, if discovered, likely to land me in hot water. I took great pains to ensure that my parents never knew of my activities. I remember memorizing the exact ways in which her dresses were hung and underwear folded away, so as to replace the garments in the exact same way. I often vowed never to repeat such activities, but always found myself back there sooner or later.

While I had these impulses at a young age, I did not think myself effeminate. I was on the football team at the private school which I attended in fourth and fifth grades, though I didn’t find it very engaging, and held my own when violently assaulted by the miscreants at the public school I returned to in sixth grade. However, I was peace-loving and brainy. I found classes boring, and failed to thrive in the school environment, although I was considered bright. My interactions with other children were difficult, marked by boredom on my part with their childish conversation and rejection on their part for my nerdy, arrogant ways. When I arrived at the Yeshiva, I felt as if I had arrived home. We studied fascinating subjects never taken up in the dull-normal schools I attended before. We argued about the origins of the world, the meaning of angels, whether there were 39 forbidden acts on the Shabbas or 40. At the Yeshiva, debate was the sine qua non of life there. Following our elders, intense debate characterized all interactions, both inside and outside of class. Yet these debates, although vigorous, were never intentionally aggressive, never physical, and never involved any hint of a threat of violence. In fact, following religious dictates, physicality of all sorts was abhorred. Only the love of and the study of God’s word was worth any effort at all. Sports and games of any kind were anathema. They were distractions from the real purpose of life – dedication to God. The ideal image of the orthodox Jewish man that I grew up with was a thin, pasty, white man with a beard, unfashionably dressed, stooped over his book in the study hall, who spent 18 hours a day studying, slept little, and who was willingly supported by his wife to further his study. He spoke softly, with an Eastern European accent, even in Hebrew, and found it hard to focus on the material world. His focus, rather, was on God’s word, and his deeper understanding of the world and contempt for shallower materialistic and physicalistic cultures flowed from this study. He had unbounded compassion for all. I aspired to this ideal of meek masculinity with all my heart and soul.

In eleventh grade, I had to return to public school. I found a shockingly different social world dominated by jocks and punks. My first week in the school, I was challenged by a troubled student who began to pick on me and call me names. I was somewhat apprehensive about a fight, but felt that I could hold my own. I had been lifting weights under my father’s tutelage, who was trying to make a man of me, and he taught me a few boxing moves. When the bully blocked my path, called me a “pussy” and pushed me, both he and I were extremely surprised by my response, which was to punch him really hard several times until stopped by a teacher. I appeared to him to be “a pussy,? as he had loudly opined on several previous occasions. He wasn’t the only one who thought so, either. Yet I was not. Rather, I had constructed my gender identity to conform to that of an orthodox Jewish man of Eastern European extraction. It was not a sort of masculinity he had previously encountered. Clearly, to him, those who did not conform to the standard version of macho masculinity prevalent in my primarily blue-collar public school were unmasculine and therefore feminine. I hated this macho stuff and wished never to be a part of it.

Despite my feelings of vindication by virtue of winning this fight, it did not correct my unmasculine image at school. The boys at school did not challenge me, but they also left me alone in the main. The girls at school seemed generally uninterested in my version of masculinity. I muddled through high school as best I could and went to back to my orthodox religious roots, attending college at Yeshiva University, an orthodox all-male institution. I intended to go on to the rabbinate, but my mother was unalterably opposed to this, and I followed her insistence that I attend law school. When my father died, I moved home, and my religious convictions began to waver in the face of the world. I met a nice non-religious woman. I married her, and had a child. I hoped to live a “normal” life. I hoped that my gender identity issues were gone. And they were. For a while.

At the age of 33, my gender identity issues raged up again, and I began to suffer from depression, and had career problems. When my marriage, my career and my desire to live began to nose downwards rapidly at the same time, my gender seemed more than ever to be a focus of the problem. I consulted a psychotherapist and went to gender support groups. After we agreed to divorce, and I was fired from my fifth job, I felt suicidal, and thought it would be best for others in my life if I were not there. I began to seriously consider gender transition, which to me seemed a reason to live. But it was clear that wasn’t going to be easy. I did not look particularly feminine and was significantly overweight. I was clear that I would be unable to work in my profession, and would likely be unable to obtain any but the most menial employment. I had never been attracted to men, and most transgender life was found in nightclubs and bars which I didn’t particularly enjoy. This was going to make my already tenuous life more unstable. My counselors were supportive, but dubious, and did their best to warn me that life would be hard and adjustment to femininity would be a long process. But….I felt as if it were the most important thing in my life. It gave me a reason to live. I would do it.

I dieted. I took up rollerblading 10 miles every day. I lost weight, I took hormones, grew my hair out, learned to be feminine. I bought some nice clothes, learned to put on makeup. I worked on walking styles and talking through my nose. I had thought it was going to be difficult, but it wasn’t. It worked spectacularly, and I rapidly began to pass as female. Within six months, new acquaintances were surprised, shocked, astounded to learn that I had once been male. Psychotherapists and endocrinologists whose professions involved serving transgender patients expressed amazement that I had been transitioning for such a short time, as it usually took years for their patients to pass as female. Though I did go to those nightclubs, and received many meretricious offers, I took a job as a secretary, and earned a decent, honest living. I dated men, had some serious love relationships, yet still loved women too. I went back to school for a doctorate, and found a position as a professor of law. My life regained stability, and I was happy. Still am.

Thinking back on this history, I am always surprised at the fact that my desire to transition did not coincide with any effeminacy in childhood. Rather, I should say that I never seemed to myself to be effeminate. Upon reflection, however, I realized that my “masculinity? was, in fact, closer to what American culture calls “femininity? – meekness, docility, lack of physicality, cooperativeness, compassion. It is impossible to say, at this point, whether my initial desire to be a girl occurred because of some inborn genetic or psychological trait, or as a result of my parents’ treatment of me, or because of environmental stresses. Yet, whatever the reason, my orthodox Jewish religious images of meek masculinity enabled me to slip almost effortlessly into American femininity as if I had been trained for the role. Indeed, my upbringing revered these feminine qualities, though it revered neither women nor transgenders. Would I have been so successful at it, if I had a more traditional American upbringing? Would I have made such a choice? Indeed, neither did I choose it in a sense, for it was not a rational choice. Rather, there was every reason to believe it would be a disaster from every viewpoint — save one, which was that I felt I had no other choice. God had chosen for me.

Who stole my Judaism?

21 Aug 2006 In: Jewish Identity, Mizrahi, Sephardi, Tradition

First published in the Jewish Independent.

East European tradition is religious hallmark.

I entered the study hall of the Iraqi synagogue in Ramat Gan – the synagogue where I’d spent my childhood summers. Some of the women sat on the outskirts of the hall, literally outside, and others sat pressed against the right side wall, huddled together meekly. The men filled up the rest of the room, with their grand physical gestures, booming voices and uninhibited laughter. Disgruntled and disappointed, yet not surprised, I joined the makeshift women’s section.

The rabbi was dressed in standard Ashkenazi garb – black suit, white shirt, black hat – no surprise, considering that the seating arrangements and overall energy smacked of eastern European rigidity. Though he spoke of Yom Kippur customs through the teachings of Hacham Yosef Hayim, the leading religious figure of Iraq, the rabbi did so in a way far removed from traditional Iraqi practice. Each time I asked a question, he put up his hand to the side of his face, as if to block my existence from his reality, while the men clamored in an uproar that a woman had the audacity to speak.

At first, I was not actually sure if the hand went up to hush the men’s clamor or to silence me. The first two times, after all, the rabbi did answer my questions, once people quieted down. He spoke facing straight ahead, however, refusing to look even vaguely in my direction – as if doing so would sully his holiness. The third time, however, when not only the men but also the women completely freaked out about the fact that I was speaking, the hand went up again and the rabbi refused to answer my question. After causing one more commotion by turning to the women to see if they knew the answer (they did), I picked up my belongings and left.

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crossposted with Jewschool.


A repost from torah queeries, a joint project of Mosaic and the World Congress of GLBT Jews.

Parashat Ekev
Bind These Words: On Parashat Ekev
by Amy “afo” Fornari
Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25, Shabbat

Chest Binder : an undergarment worn by female-to-male (FTM) transexual, transgender and genderqueer people, and anyone else who chooses to flatten the appearance of their breasts.

Talit Katan: an undergarment traditionally worn by Jewish men which has knotted fringes tied to its four corners to be a reminder of the 613 mitzvot found in the Torah.

“Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.? —Deuteronomy 11:18

B’shem mitzvat tzitzit v’mitzvat hityatzrut? (“For the sake of the mitzvah of ritual fringes and the mitzvah of self-formation.?) —Rabbi Eli Kukla, Director of Education, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice

I say this bracha (blessing) quietly to myself, as I bind these words, as I tighten the Velcro fabric that presses my breast flat. Let them be a sign: that I am not a woman, I think, that I am maybe a man, I hope, that I am holy Jewish and genderqueer, I know.

This week, in Parashat Ekev, we read the second paragraph of the Shema prayer. I hold these words close in my prayers as I tie my tzitzit (ritual fringes) the edges of my chest binder.

Instructions: There are sixteen strands in a pack – four long ones and twelve short ones. Separate these into four groups with one long one and three short ones in each. The longer one is called the shammash and is the one used for the winding.

There are four knotted strings that hang from the corners of my chest binder. “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments.? (Numbers 15:38) It has been one year since I started wearing clothing that compresses my chest and asking people to use both male and female pronouns. Sometimes this feels empowering and exciting, but a lot of times the thick, sweaty fabric is just uncomfortable, making it difficult to breath and making my sternum ache.

Even out the four strands at one end and push the group through one of the corner holes in the talit. Even up seven of the eight strands (the four being doubled) and leave the extra length of the shammash hanging to one side.

It is not always easy to learn Jewish rituals traditionally reserved for biological boys. Non-orthodox Jews, especially women, FTM’s, and gender variant folks, need to consciously access information on how to halakhically [legally] observe the 613 mitzvot. But even then, they sometimes need to be made applicable. Wearing a talit katan chest binder is somewhere between observing and reclaiming. I want to fulfill the commandment, in light of and in spite of my attempt to simultaneously subvert gender norms and transgress gender boundaries. I bind the words of Torah close to my heart, bringing the intention of the Shema into my daily life, making my gender a sign “when I stay at home and when I am away, when I lie down and when I get up.? (Deuteronomy 11:19)

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