DS is a 30-year-old gay man living in New York City. He’s white (Eastern European), college-educated, grew up in a mixed-religion working-class family, and is generally upwardly mobile and sometimes conflicted about that. He grew up in a Conservative egalitarian synagogue, got frustrated with Judaism in his teens and early 20s, and has in recent years been learning about various progressive approaches to Judaism (which make a lot more sense to him) and tentatively incorporating some observances into his life.

IB of JVoices: What does it mean to you to be Jewish?

DS: In many ways, I just think of it as a given–just something I was born into. I’ve varied a lot in terms of how observant I am, how connected I am to other Jews, how much I think about and/or incorporate elements of Judaism into my life, but whatever I’m doing, I’m still always Jewish.

Being Jewish has affected my life in many ways. For example, growing up in a mixed-religion household and as one of very few Jewish kids in a predominantly Catholic town has affected my ideas about individuality, sticking by one’s principles, and appreciating and working with other people. As another example, some of what I’ve learned about progressive, feminist, and LGBT-oriented approaches to Jewish community and learning have profoundly impacted what I conceive of as meaningful and engaged Jewish practice and thought, as well as my place within those various conversations.

But I don’t really think about being Jewish–more about what it means to bring the fact that I am Jewish into the many aspects of my life. It’s like a lens, maybe, that affects and informs all these other experiences.
More »

Act like a man! Grow up! Be a man! What are the messages that Jewish American boys receive about what it means to act like a man. Many of the messages they receive are the ones that most American boys hear. Be tough, aggressive, in charge, strong, successful, independent, athletic, don’t cry, don’t show your feelings, don’t make mistakes, and don’t ever ask for help. The bottom line expectation is you should never be vulnerable, you should always be in control.

Of course, some of the messages Jewish American boys hear are more typically “Jewish�? although what it means to be Jewish varies widely. What messages do boys receive in an orthodox community in Brooklyn, a reform community in the suburbs of Los Angeles, a Sephardic community in Chicago, a renewal community in Berkeley, or a conservative community in Dallas? What do they have in common? I think the messages have two things in common even though there is much overall particularity. The first message is, even though you’re Jewish and shouldn’t beat anyone up, you should still to be in control. Most Jewish boys are taught to control their bodies, control their feelings, control their tempers, and as they become adults to control their children, and their partners.

There are many ways to be in control and our different subcultures value these differently. Depending upon their culture and community Jewish boys are taught to use verbal tools, emotional skills, intellectual acumen, physical strength, financial success, and sexual manipulation to remain in control. But control is the goal.

More »

[Editor’s Note] Welcome new contributor Robin Washington–a piece written over the beginning of the High Holidays, and in many ways still relevant as we move out in celebration this evening.

This week, Jews around the world are observing the High Holy Days. “Observing’ is preferred over “celebrating,’ because the period culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s fine to wish Jewish friends a Happy New Year but, unless they’re masochists, not a Happy Yom Kippur, which is a fast day. Happy Yom Kippur is preferable, however, to a question about Passover once posed to me by a co-worker: “Is that the holiday when you Jewish people pig out?’

In my interracial, interreligious family on Chicago’s Near North Side, I did not have a particularly religious childhood. Yet it was a Jewish one. There were few Jews in our immediate area and no synagogues, so on holidays my mother would take us to the end of the line of the El to a synagogue near the high school where she taught. As testament of the city’s deliberate segregation of schools, she was assigned to a predominantly Jewish high school and, when that neighborhood changed, a school in a different Jewish area.

Though she knew the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel, I doubt we ever formally joined the congregation. But because we were only going to children’s services, who cared?

We went less frequently as my brother and I approached our teens. Neither of us had a bar mitzvah on our 13th birthdays, and by the time I was in high school, we stopped going altogether. Still, we observed the holidays on our own. At school, I was even the self-appointed Passover Policeman who’d reprimand other Jewish kids for eating a hamburger with a bun during the eight-day holiday when leavened bread isn’t allowed.

So was my Jewish life when, in late summer 1973, I got a job as an usher at the Carnegie Theater on tony Rush Street. The manager, Jose, ran a very tight ship. The fall came and he scheduled me to work on Rosh Hashanah.

“But I’m Jewish,’ I protested.

“Too bad,’ I recall his response.

I don’t know if Jose knew it when he scheduled me, but on Rosh Hashanah, the theater owner had rented out the space to Central Synagogue — South Side Hebrew Congregation. The synagogue needed the theater for its
well-attended High Holy Day services.

Rosh Hashanah came and I stood at the theater entrance to take tickets. The congregation president, a jovial middle-aged man in a blue suit whose name I think was Manny, arrived to give me instructions.

“All we need you to do,’ I recall him explaining, “is to take the tickets and tear them in half, and put them in the box.’ (Pre-paid tickets are traditional at many synagogues because money is forbidden on holy days.)

I looked at him and said nothing. He repeated the instructions, adding, “We need you to do this because we can’t tear paper’ — a form of work also forbidden — “because we’re Jewish.’

“I can’t either,’ I replied.

“Why not?’ he said.

“Because I’m Jewish, too.’

As an African American Jew, you get used to the incredulous looks, or worse, the “how-can-you-be-Jewish?’ question. Even at 16, I knew to pre-empt it with “My mother’s Jewish,’ which is the most universally accepted standard on the who-is-a-Jew issue.

When it sank in, Manny asked, “Why are you working?’ I pointed to Jose, who was sulking in his office.

“Oh,’ Manny said. This was a problem: The congregation needed the tickets collected, but they couldn’t ask another Jew, subject to the same restrictions they were, to collect them. Manny caucused with a few congregation leaders, and me. I was suddenly one of the gang — of 50-year-old Jewish men!

One of the group went off a little ways and came back.

“OK,’ he said. “I just talked to God. He says you can tear the tickets.’

The others didn’t agree and with the congregants beginning to show up, we all took turns taking, and tearing, tickets. It wasn’t ideal but at least we all were sinning together.

Finally, Manny went over to Jose and pleaded with him to call in someone else — who wasn’t Jewish. Jose complied and 15 minutes later Siddiqi arrived.

I was invited to join the services and called my mother to join me. By Yom Kippur the next week, I was practically a senior member of the congregation. I remember Manny greeting me — for services this time, not
work — smiling with his tongue hanging out, like Einstein.

The service was moving but long. I’m sure I dozed a little. As we walked out, the bemusing transition from usher to Jew-distraught-over-ritual to fasting and atonement of Yom Kippur seemed a significant journey — until I noticed the newspaper box on the street. The headline blared that war between Israel and her neighbors had begun.

Our ticket dilemma didn’t seem very important any more.


Robin Washington is editorial page editor of the News Tribune and a commentator on National Public Radio “News & Notes.”

We Love Shabbat

13 Oct 2006 In: Torah

The Shechina is the feminine emanation of G-d… and she’s our kinda gal!

The Shechina is the feminine emination of G-d.  She's our kinda gal!

In this second installment, Janis F. shared her take on Jewish identity and community. Janis is a 31 year old bisexual Reform Progressive Jew who lives in San Francisco, CA. She is a married, full time working mom of a 16 month old daughter.

IB of JVoices: What does it mean to you to be Jewish?

Janis:

  • To question/wrestle with God
  • To value family and community
  • To honor and cherish all facets of life – God did not make any part of us sinful or shaneful (heck – there’s even a blessing for using the bathroom and it’s a mitzvah to have sex on the Sabbath!)
  • Tikkun Olam (Repairing the world)
  • Peace
  • Spirituality
  • To be persecuted/stereotyped
  • To be misunderstood
  • To be erroneously associated with the State of Israel
    as it is today
  • To be educated
  • To like food
  • To honor my father
  • To have something to believe in

IB: What makes you feel connected to other Jews?

  • Going to synagogue
  • The Sh’ma
  • Hebrew

IB: What makes you feel disconnected from other Jews?

Janis:

  • Israel – I have very mixed feelings about the subject- neither pro Israel nor pro-Palestininan.
  • The boundaries of the denominations – I tend to have an eclectic view of Judaism that takes bits from everything

IB: What kind of Jewish community do you have, and what kind of Jewish community do you desire?

Janis:

Have:

  • Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, Baby Havurah, Women’s Havurah

Would like to have:

  • Don’t really know…I have much more of one than I have ever had. It feels nice to be supported – especially in regards to families.

I posed a few questions on Jewish identity and community to people from a variety of different Jewish backgrounds, and will be publishing them in their entirety here on JVoices in the coming days. In today’s installment, Felix Thomson, who is half Jewish and a mother of two kids, responds to my queries.

IB of JVoices: What does it mean to you to be Jewish? What makes you feel connected to other Jews? What makes you feel disconnected from other Jews? What kind of Jewish community do you have, and what kind of Jewish community do you desire?

Felix: I grew up in a non-religious household. My dad comes from a Scottish Protestant family, and my mom grew up in an atheist Jewish household. Her parents met in a young Socialists group. They were very anti-religion.

This feels artificial sometimes, but the main way I feel connected to Judaism comes from the tradition of activism among Jews. When I’ve gone to synagogue I’ve felt out of place and awkward. I don’t know any of the prayers or rituals. I get all anxious when the torah gets carried around the congregation because I’m not sure if I’m supposed to try to touch it or not. But I do feel a cultural kinship in the sense that if I’m hanging out with a group of Jews, I feel at home. Even if these are simplistic stereotypes, I know that in a group of Jews I can eat a lot, talk loud, argue, laugh, and I don’t have to worry that I’m overwhelming most of the folks around me.

I think about creating Jewish community in a more self-conscious way for my kids, but even with them I hold back because I have concerns about what messages they hear about women, god, and spirituality.

On the way to morning services this past Saturday, Sukkot day 1, we stopped into Starbucks for our morning caffeine, toting tallis bags and siddurim, not to mention the lulav and etrog that the rabbi asked us to bring. My boyfriend is more observant than I am, and always wears his kippah, and I had decided that morning to abandon my usual high-queer-femme regalia for some frumster drag. So the end result was that we looked like a straight Orthodox couple, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

While we were waiting for our drinks, a young man approached us and asked, “Are you Jewish?” I resisted the urge to tell him we were Catholics on our way to a costume party, and just said yes. He continued.

“Well, you do know it’s Shabbat, right? And you’re in a Starbucks? I don’t want to offend you or anything, but you shouldn’t be going into a Starbucks and getting coffee on Shabbat, you know? Because it looks bad. It tells people that it’s ok for Jews to buy coffee on Shabbat.”

My boyfriend explained to him that we were actually breaking dozens of laws, what with everything we were carrying and taking the train and all, and I told him that everyone who tries to observe any kind of tradition chooses to make some concessions to modernity. But the guy was insistent that we were somehow compromising the common view of What Jews Do for all of the residents of the upper East side. More »

Media Mishegaas

7 Oct 2006 In: Media, Mishegaas

For your weekend pleasure, interesting stories in the media:

  • Rep. Barney Frank talks about the Foley scandal
  • Review of Encounter Point, a documentary film about Israelis and Palestinians
  • Stifling debate? The Jewish week reviews challenges to discussing Israel and Palestine
  • Poll sites in churches–Orthodox Jews call for changes
  • Penises dominating politics
  • We had abortions
  • White blight
  • Dismantling childcare
  • Columbia students protest an appearance by Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, the racist and xenophobic border vigilante group–more here

[Update] The students are facing heat from Columbia’s administration, including potential disciplinary charges. You can support them by signing the online petition. The students are also soliciting letters of support and solidarity, which can be sent to them at nominutemen@gmail.com.

Statement of the Student Protestors:
We celebrate free speech: for that reason we allowed the Minutemen to speak, and for that same reason we peacefully occupied the stage and spoke ourselves. Our peaceful protest was violently attacked by members of the College Republicans and their supporters, who are the very same people who invited the Minutemen to our campus in the first place. The Minutemen are not a legitimate voice in the debate on immigration. They are a racist, armed militia who have declared open hunting season on immigrants, causing countless hate crimes and over 3000 deaths on the border. Why should exploitative corporations have free passes between nations, but individual people not? No human being is illegal.
-Those who occupied the stage

crossposted to Jewschool

52 Portions – Season Finale

6 Oct 2006 In: Arts and Culture, JVoices, Torah

52 Portions - Season Finale

by Marisa James

I was walking through Penn Station last night and saw a headline on the cover of one of those I-was-abducted-by-aliens papers which claimed that the skeleton of Jonah had been found inside the skeleton of a whale. Finally! Further proof that the Bible Really Happened!

Of course my first question was “Do people actually buy this crap?” But my second question was less rhetorical: why on earth would the article imply that Jonah never escaped from the whale? Would even the most ecstatic bible-thumper want to believe that Jonah never arrived in Nineveh, that the people did not repent and were not saved?

I’m always wavering back and forth myself between optimism and cynicism, wanting on one hand to believe that people will eventually open their eyes and start actively working to protect the earth, end war, make sure everyone has a place to live and food to eat, and buy those hip little eco-friendly cars… but on the other hand being resigned to knowing with absolute certainty that it won’t happen in my lifetime, if ever.

Jonah was certain that no matter what the people of Nineveh did, he wouldn’t be happy with the outcome, but one lesson we’re supposed to learn from the story is that you have to make the effort no matter how much you believe it won’t pay off the way you want it to.

But it worries me that people would want to buy into a version of the story where Jonah never makes the effort, where he just sits in the whale’s belly for the rest of his life, refusing to even try, content to be shut off from the world and devoid of responsibility. I worry that too many people quit too easily, shut themselves off from the world, pretend that none of the problems with the world are their responsibility.

I also worry that I take tabloid headlines too seriously, but that’s another issue.


Please note: since August 2010, JVoices has ceased publishing new work. We hope you enjoy the articles that remain live as an archive and trusted resource of bold Jewish writing of our time.

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