Speaking for the “Broader Jewish Community”: On Trans Rabbis

What's a rabbi supposed to look like?

Over sandwiches, enjoying the gorgeous weather on a Dupont Circle patio, my friend told me about his exclusion from rabbinical school.

He was told in fairly clear terms that his rejection notice came not because he is a Jew by choice or that they questioned his depth of Jewish learning, but because he’s trans.

The school, considered one of the more “liberal,” was just not so sure about him – Had he really fully developed all his ideas about being a man yet? Was he a “transsexual” rabbi or a rabbi who was trans? Has he considered that maybe he just wasn’t sure about being a man yet?

And did he really think the “broader Jewish community” would accept him?

Yeah, he really does think that they would.
As do I.
As do a lot of people.

This worry about the “broader Jewish community” came from faculty and administrators who, at one time, were themselves rejected from rabbinical schools because they are women, or people of color, or Jews by choice. They, themselves, had others concerned that the “broader Jewish community” would never want them. That their difference was “too much.”

Beyond the fact that they had no right or reason to question how sure he was about his gender identity any more than they’d question anyone else’s, their questions hit at something much deeper:

At what point do we stop throwing each other under the bus in regards to difference? When do we stop letting others work hard to gain acceptance for pieces of our own different identities, and then turn around and try to shut the door behind ourselves? Each step we take forward does not have to come at someone else’s expense – a lesson trans people know all too well, from within the LGBT community itself – because we are so worried about some imaginary version of the broader community and what we think it will accept.

That is not my version of the Jewish community.

As a Jew, I am deeply offended that these people presume such a level of bigotry in the broader Jewish community, especially when I see so much evidence to the contrary around me, in communities ranging from secular to observant. It’s insulting to all of us who care about social justice and equality and valuing everyone, AND see them as vital tenets of our Jewish identities.

Further, by using that phrase, the school’s committee members separate themselves, saying that their reputation for being more open and welcoming may exist, but that “other Jews” wouldn’t be so open-minded.

Our actual Jewish communities include many rabbis and leaders who do not look like some stereotypical version of what a rabbi “should” look like – we are Jews of color, women, non-Ashkenazi, Jews by choice… and yes, even lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender or genderqueer (LGBT). To think that the “broader Jewish community” wouldn’t accept such a rabbi, erases the existence of other queer and trans folks as members of our communities already.

When they thought of “Jewish life,” their image clearly didn’t include any LGBT people as part of that life. If they had, it would’ve been obvious to them that there are plenty of people who would be interested in my friend as their rabbi – not just because he’s warm and intelligent and spiritually-engaged – but precisely because he’s trans.

Part of the reason that GLOE exists is because in too many places Jews have been made to feel that they can either be Jewish OR that they can be LGBT; we stand as evidence that these pieces are far from mutually exclusive.

It is not incidental that we are part of a larger Jewish organization.
That we are embraced by that larger Jewish organization.
That we are active in all parts of both Jewish and LGBT life here – still LGBT in Jewish spaces, and we bring our Jewishness to LGBT life in the city.

This year, at GLOE’s National Rainbow Seder, we will highlight heroes of various freedom and equality movements throughout history. Many of those heroes were queer Jews, though frequently that fact remained unknown in their lifetimes. They understood that Passover’s lessons of working toward freedom don’t exist in a vacuum, separate from who we are. Rather, those intersections are where we  – where we all – gain strength and gain power.

To pretend that it is anything less critical, less significant, hurts everyone. That is to say, it hurts the broader Jewish community.

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Recipe: Sephardic Beans and Rice

From the desk of Jean Graubart, Director of Jewish Living and Learning

Growing up surrounded by a close Sephardic family, I often heard stories of life in Brooklyn where my mother and her siblings lived with their Turkish immigrant parents.  Both of my grandparents cooked and baked, my Nona and Nono equally comfortable in their small kitchen and their basement which had a large table and a stove.  My mother always said they had bendichos manos, blessed hands.  They could take a bag of beans and create a meal that was so delicious, everyone cleaned their plate using the crisp fresh Greek bread to soak up the last drops.

One of our favorite meals growing up was fijones, beans, cooked tender and thick and served with red rice (arroz con tomat). Each time my mother brought it to the table, she talked about this being a typical meal in her childhood home and how on Shabbat her parents added marrow bones to make the meal as special as the Sabbath. One of my great aunts used to say, “Meat is money and a meatless soup means money in the bank.”  This is a hearty meal with or without meat; it fills the house with a wonderful aroma and the body with sustenance. It’s an inexpensive option for these cold winter nights.

Enjoy this and make it your own by adding carrots or celery (or your vegetables of choice) and/or other spices. Maybe it will become a part of your family history. After all, stories added to a meal are the secret ingredient for a special taste.

Fijones

2 large onions chopped
4 tablepoons olive oil
8 cups of water
1 can tomato paste or tomato sauce
1 pound Northern beans or small white navy beans
1/2 cup parsley chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
3-4 marrow bones

Heat oil in the bottom of soup pot.
Brown chopped onions (also brown the marrow bones with the onions, if using them).
Add water and tomato sauce or paste and bring to a boil.
Add beans (no need to soak), chopped parsley and bring to boil again.
Lower heat to a simmer and half cover.
Cook 2 hours until beans have begun to soften.
Add salt, pepper and cumin to taste.
Add a little more water if needed.
Cook another 1 1/2 to 2 hours, low heat, until all flavors are blended. and meal is flavorful.

Can be served with white or Spanish rice.

Arroz Con Tomat

1 cup rice
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1 1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons oil (vegetable or olive oil)
1 teaspoon salt
pepper to taste

Heat oil in pan and lightly brown rice on low flame.
Add all other ingredients and bring to low boil.
Stir and cover and lower heat to simmer.
Do not stir again until water is evaporated, 20 minutes.
When cooked, use a fork to gently separate grains of rice.

Serve side by side or under the beans.

The Only Pitch For An End-of-Year Donation You Need to Read Before 2012

Gotten enough emails yet? From us? From other Jewish organizations? From your favorite environmental/advocacy/performing arts/social service non-profit? From every 501(c)3 with an internet connection and a functioning keyboard? Can you hear me now?

How about now?

The end-of-year donation solicitation email has joined Dick Clark, the Times Square Ball and a plethora of Top Ten of (fill-in-year) lists as one of the most reliable countdown to New Year’s institutions. And because you respect the mission of these correspondents, you overlook the awkwardness of repeated emails appealing to your noble philanthropic impulses which also subtly remind you that these impulses have a positive (if time-limited) tax-liability impact.

And you know what? That’s okay.

The end-of-year appeals are really no different than the work-a-day fundraising that goes on year-round and which is necessary for our society to have functioning religious institutions, cultural organizations, non-governmental social safety nets and issue-oriented activism. It’s the clustering of so many appeals in the fading days of the expiring year that can overwhelm. It’s the distillation of the entire non-profit sector’s life-blood into a potent stream of emotional appeals and idealistic blackmail that can cause us to shut down and turn away.

So I’m here to remind you not to.

Charitable giving is one form of tzedakah — which has many translations in English, but no one definition really suffices to encompass the totality of the word. The best I can say here, is that tzedakah is the moral imperative to complete the work of creation: to make the world a more just, compassionate, creative and healthful place. The work of tzedakah happens in large and small ways every day — from small acts of kindness to large donations of money. They’re all necessary. And when any of the work goes undone or underdone, the world is poorer for it.

We send these emails to you at the end of the year because we are hoping to get your donation for our benefit and for your own as the Gates of Tax Deductions are closing. But I like to think that we also send these emails to you at the end of the year because it is a time of reflection, a time of resolutions and coming as it does on the heels of Chanukah, a time of re-dedication. It is our hope that our message at the end of this year, will carry over to a resolve in the new year to remember the responsibilities we all have to create and support the communities we desire for ourselves and our loved ones.

So yes, it would be great if you would make a donation right now.

But better than that would be if you resolve that in 2012 you will make a contribution — be it of time, of money, of spirit to helping us continue the never-ending work of creating this Community Center…

…but you can also donate now.

Seven Questions For: David Bezmozgis

Bezmozgis (c) David Franco [Free World]David Bezmozgis comes to the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival this Sunday along with Nadia Kalman (The Cosmopolitans) and Haley Tanner (Vaclav and Lena) for the panel discussion “Glasnost’s Children” which examines new fiction on the Russian-Jewish experience. Bezmozgis has been getting lots of acclaim ever since his debut collection of short stories, Natasha and in 2010 was named to the New Yorker’s list of “20 Under 40” highlighting the most promising fiction writers under the age of 40.  What about his new novel The Free World? Well, The New York Times said:

Might it be overstating the case to include this first-time novelist in the same sentence as such fine writers as Mr. Roth and Mr. Michaels? Well, Mr. Bezmozgis’s taut 2004 debut collection “Natasha and Other Stories” suggested that he might well be of those authors’ caliber; “The Free World” goes a long way toward confirming this status.

We asked him the Seven Questions over email and got the following. I’m willing to bet he’ll be more loquacious at the panel discussion.

1)    How would you describe what you do to someone from the 19th Century?

The problem isn’t describing it to someone from the 19th century, the problem is describing it to someone in the 21st century.

2)    What did you want to be when you grew up?

Remarkably, this.

3)    Is there a book you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never read?

Many. But I’ll go with Proust.

4)    Woody Allen, Pro or Con?

Pro, pre-1990s; con, post-1990s.

5)    What’s your favorite non-English word?

Basta

6)    What issue do you wish other people knew more about?

How about the definitions of fascism and socialism? Those words get thrown around a lot. Often interchangeably.

7)    Historical figure, living or not, that you’d want to share a bagel with and what kind of bagel?

You mean we’d have to split one poppyseed Montreal bagel? Well, somebody ancient. Cleopatra. Or King David. Or Socrates.

Read all of the Seven Question interviews.

Orthodox Gay Marriage? Yes.

Rabbi Areleh Harel, a Yeshiva teacher in the West Bank, is matching up traditionally observant gay men with lesbians so that they can marry and remain in their Orthodox communities.

Interviewed by TIME, he says that it’s “healthier if both spouses are in on the secret.” Both spouses come to Harel of their own free will, to be matched with someone from whom they don’t have to hide their sexuality.

I get that. In trying to see it from his side, I do see a few benefits. It is better than lying to your new spouse about who you are. It allows people to stay within the home communities they love.

So it is a step in the right direction; Harel has not tried to “de-gay” or vilify anyone. It also gives me hope that he is a teacher, and perhaps when the subject of homosexuality comes up with his students, he would speak up against the more hateful lies about the characters of gay people that often come up, because he doesn’t appear to believe them, from what we can see in the interview.

But.

It is still encouraging people to live unhappy lives. They are in communities they love, but not with whom they love. To state the obvious, if you are not in a relationship with someone whom you truly love – romantically – you are not setting a very strong foundation for your marriage, an important institution within Orthodox life. Of course there is more to a marriage than sex. But a strong marriage relationship also builds from that kind of connection.

People are driven by what the heart wants. Sure, other factors are important, too – of course – but by saying that a marriage can work between a gay man and lesbian who are not interested in one another, we are setting them up for failure, for cheating, and for being a terrible relationship model for their children.

Harel marries them with the expectation that the couple will be monogamous, but also acknowledging the likelihood of cheating. Which is high.

About a year ago, a group of Orthodox rabbis issued their “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” which proclaimed that everyone is to be treated with respect, and that queer Jews should be welcomed as full members of the community. I think what Harel is doing both follows the proclamation, and also does not.

By not encouraging and supporting the people and organizations of the Orthodox LGBTQ community in open and honest ways, we say, “Sure, we want you, but only if you’re not really you.”

Eshel is an organization in the US that works “to build understanding and support for lesbians and gays in traditional Jewish communities,” which includes a much-loved Shabbaton weekend program. Their partner organizations join to provide an effective model for those who want to live both honestly and traditionally.

Plus, I’m guessing that the Eshel programs are probably going to be a more compelling “matchmaking service” than the one Harel is opening up next month…

What’s Jewish about butterflies? Or spiders or potato bugs?

By Leslie Hurd, Kofim teacher, and Amanda Laden, Kofim teacher

The Kofim class of three-year olds has always been a curious bunch, full of questions and ready to search out the answers.  Since our school uses a Reggio-inspired, emergent curriculum, following the students’ interests and using those to construct learning opportunities, Amanda and I were hopeful that a class exploration of animals might lead us toward the National Zoo. The kids’ interests, however, were steering us in a much different direction:  down.

As we walked around our neighborhood, the creatures that most captured the kids’ fancies were at ground level: bugs! As adults, it is much easier to see what is at our own eye level and above; for these kids, a shrub with a spider web tucked inside IS at eye-level and is an absolutely amazing thing! The Kofim were into bugs.

Kofim sketching on their Bug Hunt

Kofim sketching on their Bug Hunt

Kofim on a bug hunt

Using magnifying glasses on a Bug Hunt

We amassed a collection of clear containers (with lids) that were good for creature collecting. Working together, the Kofim collected dirt, leaves, and the occasional potato bug. Having no fear of these creepy-crawly critters, many of the Kofim helped each other ease into the “new territory” of picking up bugs with gentle hands, watching them crawl up and down arms, and then either placing them in a container or back into its hole. Ants and potato bugs were the ones we brought back to class most frequently, to inspect before putting them back outside “to play,” as the kids put it.

Kofim looking at a bug book

Using the Big Bug Book to identify the bugs

One day, a classmate brought in a jar of caterpillars for the kids to observe. Five caterpillars in a jar crawled around as the kids watched and asked questions: “Why don’t they have legs?” “How can they see?” “How can they eat?” “When will it be a butterfly?” Using The Big Bug Book, we looked up caterpillars and read about many different kinds. We also began to focus our creature searches toward areas with lots of flowers, where we would be sure to spot butterflies or moths. The kids were familiar with the idea of making a chrysalis from the ubiquitous and beloved The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but they had never seen it in action.

Drawing and painting bugs

Drawing and painting bugs

Over the course of the next seven days, the caterpillars grew to be enormous “baby monster caterpillars,” before crawling up to the top of the jar, hanging upside down, and making their chrysalises. We ordered more caterpillars (InsectLore.com), so the kids could watch the process a second time.

Releasing the butterflies

Releasing the butterflies in Arna's Garden

As each set of caterpillars metamorphosed into butterflies, the children were transfixed. They told kids in other classes about their pet butterflies, so we soon began entertaining visitors from all over the school. After keeping each generation of butterflies for roughly a week, we went out as a class to release them in Arna’s Garden in front of the J. As each one flew away, we said “Goodbye, Butterfly,” adding many of the languages we had represented in our class:  shalom, parpar (Hebrew), au revoir, papillon (French), adios, mariposa (Spanish).

Kofim at the MNH Butterfly Pavilion

The Kofim visit the Butterfly Pavilion

Not done with butterflies yet, the Kofim Class and their parents jumped on the S4 to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Butterfly Pavilion. We spent the morning watching a tarantula being fed, holding GIANT grasshoppers, and walking through a flower-filled greenhouse with butterflies fluttering above and on our heads.

As teachers, it is our job to impart knowledge to the students, to shrink it down in a way that makes it accessible to the kids. The kids are teaching us in reverse, by magnifying their own wonder in these so-called “little things” and sharing it with us.

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