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Wednesday, 2 October 2013

UNLESS WE ARE KIND


We are fortunate to be interviewing R, a bisexual Jewish woman, an artist, a professor of anatomy and an activist. She says that the body is the template of all experience, and there are ways to think about that that can lead to a state of empathy." In short, she's very very smart about some things we could all stand to know more about. Can you tell you me about your life, growing up?
R: From the time I was twelve, my neighbourhood was all chassidic. It was a chabad neighbourhood, with a lot of orthodox people, and also a lot of Israeli immigrants, and religious sefardim. I didn’t know any gay people at all then, much less gay Jews. Since then, I figured out that I knew gay people even then. My best friend first came out as bisexual and then came out as gay! 
My grandparents had a drug store and considered themselves very modern, though they were observant. They kept kosher but they weren’t as observant as the people I know now. My brothers and cousins were all sent to cheder, but I didn’t get to do the Jewish milestones or have a Jewish education because I was disabled. I’ve talked to a lot of other disabled Jews who had the same experience. I was very jealous of my brothers.
In high school, I planned to make aliyah. I memorized a lot of Hebrew songs and poems and prayers. I still mostly know my prayers by the music. I can lose my place without the songs. I got into Betzalel (Art college in Israel) but it was right at the time of the bus bombings, and my family wouldn’t let me go. I was heartbroken. Three years after that, they ended up letting my little brother go, and once again, I missed out on Jewish exposure.
                                NO FAIR!
In my last year of high school, I met a lesbian. She was sitting in her station wagon, and I stood there staring at her and I really wanted to go up and talk with her and go sit with her in the station wagon. I felt very confused. I don’t even know that I was attracted to her, but I couldn’t stop looking at her for some reason.
In college, I moved into a chavurah for almost two years, and it was very observant, shomer shabbos, kosher, we kept all the holidays. There were nine of us. We were a quarter mile from the Hillel and we became one of the community rallying centers for the University. One guy from Poland spoke fluent Yiddish and we had decent folk musicians and dancers. It was really joyous. We had giant shabbos dinners every week and the house would just explode with people. Once, I spent two solid days making blintzes for Purim.
                                   Did I hear you say BLINTZES?
What is your family like?
R: I have two brothers. One is eighteen months younger than I am. He’s observant, and he was the lay rabbi at the Cheyenne Air Force Base, right next to the mountain where the nuclear missiles are. They only had a handful of Jews, and he ran the services for years.
My other brother was the one who was went to Israel when he was a kid. When I met his fiancĂ©, I told her about my wife. My brother’s fiancĂ© was very upset. She kept saying that G-d wanted me to get married and have children. 
                                Puppy blintz...er...blitz
I told her I had surgery when I was a teenager that meant I could not have children. “What does God want me to do now?” I asked, and she said, “G-d still wants you to get married and have children.” It was crazy! I felt like I’d been betrayed.
When they got married, my wife and I went for the oifruf, but I’d been told not to say that he was my brother, not to say that I was related to the groom. At the wedding reception, the entire family was seated at the front, but my wife and I were seated at the catering entrance, at the back with strangers. It was horrible.
Recently, I was supposed to visit my brother and his six children, but when I told him I was coming with my partner, he said I can’t come. He said that his kids would not accept me. He said they would be furious. It makes me upset: What’s worse? Either that statement that his kids wouldn't accept me isn’t true and he’s just making up a story to keep me away, or it IS true, and he’s fine with that kind of behaviour!
I try not to generalize and think that it’s a reflection on the religion. I’m part of the larger Jewish community and I don’t generally get exposed to this kind of behaviour. I’ve began to think about prejudice and frum Jews: gays and Jews aren’t two tastes that go great together! 
In the past, I just thought that it was specific to his dedicated asshole-ism, rather than a more general feature of Judaism, but now I’m not so sure.
                                Donkey blintz
Was there anything that changed your negative view of the connection between being gay and Yiddishkeit?
R: I’ve always felt in some ways detached from Judaism because of the early message that I wasn’t worth educating. Not a warm and cuddly relationship. 
Tiger roll blintz
Then I met this frum gay woman and I started learning a lot more about what happens to frum Jews who are gay.
                                Bad hair blintzes
What is your understanding of the way the community treats Frum Gay People(FGPs)?
R: The reactions that come the way of frum gay Jews when they come out are similar to other communities. I don’t know if you can trace it to the holocaust, because of the pressure to reproduce and make up for the lost Jews. We have always been so familiar, and we rely on each other for everything. Our insular ethos intensifies a lot of things. You can see that in a lot of other communities where people have been ghettoized and forced out of the general community. 
My partner has just written a book about gay steel workers, Anne Balay's Steel Closets and its similar because in the steel mill, it’s a continuous life and death situation, constant hard core risk, death by fire, and so people are there for each other. You have to absolutely trust that the person you are working with is going to lay down their life for you. Orthodox Judaism is a bit like that historically: All the external threats create this intense situation of life or death.
In that situation, everyone has to be all doing the same thing, or there is this fear that it’s all going to blow apart. It’s a lot of pressure, and that’s what causes homophobia in both places. There is a fear that gay Jews, or gay steel workers, aren’t really working on the same project because the gayness sets them apart. They become symbols of unreliable community membership, partially because there is secrecy involved. If you are under duress, you can’t rely on their honesty, and so you create distance. Then it becomes challenging to become a community member of the larger society (whether Jewish or steel mill) and do the milestones. If you aren’t doing the same steps as everyone else, what can they do with you? They are really homogenous communities.
It’s only a very recent idea that gay people have children. Very recent. Until the last ten or twenty years, it’s mostly been people who were in straight marriages and then came out afterwards who brought kids into the gay community. And that sets gay people outside the community, as outsiders. That’s like disabled people too, being forcibly kept out of the reproductive community, and as such outside of cultural acceptance.
                                 Are you calling me a FRUIT?
Do you think it’s possible or will be possible for frum gay Jews to live a meaningful spiritual life, and how does that speak to what you just said, about the internal pressures of closed societies?
R: There’s an essential problem. Of course it’s possible. The "otherness" of being gay is transformed by the community at large. It takes a while but it always filters down. The problem I see is because of the density of text in Judaism. If you are orthodox, you have an enormous legacy of interpretation, and on a certain level, there will be resistance to reinterpretation.
I think this ongoing legacy of interpretation is amazing and if anyone can do it, we can. But the project is exhausting, and there have been a lot of losses in the meantime, a lot of lost people who gave up from exhaustion and left the religion.
Are you afraid of anything?
R: Being in love. Stephen King, you haven’t written about scary until you have written about being in love. Letting someone else define the parameters of your love…that’s not so easy.
If you could ask one thing from the frum community, what would it be?
R: It’s the same thing I’d as of any religious community. Please try to remember that kindness should be the centre of belief. What is the point of being religious, if it’s not to remind yourself to be kind. Religion is a giant string around the finger, just to bring your attention to that one point. 
And if there is a G-d, I can’t imagine he’d want anything to do with us unless we are kind.

                                                                    Riva Lehrer Fine Art

Disclaimer: No blintzes were harmed in the making of this interview