Mostly, I don’t think of myself as queer. Don’t get me wrong – I am definitely, beyond the shadow of a doubt, in lots of different ways queer. However, mostly, I think of myself as someone who has dishes to do, and marking, and laundry, and exam preparations, and kitty-litter, and review notes. I think of myself as a teacher and a mom, as a housemate and a spouse. I worry about late busses, and important misunderstood text messages. I get reminded sometimes that I’m queer by lovely events like Pride and by notes from queer friends, and that’s nice – but rare.
This week, however, I’ve been almost unable to function. Despite the looming presence of exams and the fact that the marking is now untenably huge.I find myself stopping, frozen, and remembering that I’m queer. I don’t have time for this – really I don’t. Nevertheless, it’s here and so I have to write.
It’s exactly a week since the Orlando massacre popped up in my social media news feed and reminded me once again, and not in a positive way – I’m queer. That means that people want to kill me. It’s hard for me to understand. There are many people who really annoy me and yet – I never want any of them to actually be dead. Still, out there – there are people who want to kill me because I’m queer.
There are also people who want to kill me because I’m Jewish, and while I do think of being Jewish no and then (I mean, I’d just finished blogging through counting the Omer this time last week), I still don’t usually think of Jewish as equalling death threats. I was lucky to have been born when I was, and so I was spared having to live through times when I would assume that I would be killed for being Jewish. I got Jewish education enough to know that being Jewish was a reason for people to hate you and want to kill you but I don’t think of it all that much.
Events like this tell me that I’m not safe. That it’s not OK. That things haven’t changed. That the world is a dangerous, deadly place where people want to kill me for being queer and Jewish, and probably for lots of other things about me.
So, I’ve been functioning less well. I freeze in sadness, thinking of people who died for the silly reason that someone else was crazy and couldn’t tolerate who they were. I freeze in fear. I freeze in irritation – I suppose I could have chosen to pass for straight and converted to Christianity, and then I’d be safe or something – but I shouldn’t have to! I spend far too much time reading the social medias, and looking up articles to try and make sense of the senseless (it has no sense.) I sleep poorly, with my head full of images of what it must be like. I don’t have time for this! It’s June and I’m a school teacher!
And yet…emotions aren’t reasonable or patient, and sometimes out-thinking them doesn’t entirely work. So, today I decided to take more time I don’t have and write a blog. I don’t have anything useful to say really. Just want to say out loud the litany that has been going through my head. I’m Jewish. I’m queer. This means that there are people who want to kill me. There is no safe place. It’s scary.
Hopefully, by writing it, I’ll be able to put that thought away for a while, to acknowledge it, to accept it, and to move on from it. Maybe I’ll be able to think “I’m queer and I’m Jewish – I’m strange and I’m different. I refuse to be scared. I throw my continued existence, my loving, my laughter, and my joy against the world in which people want to kill me.” Maybe I can throw my regular life – my dishes and my marking – against this tragedy and say, “I live. You didn’t kill me. I live and I love and that’s that.” Maybe I can remember I’m queer long enough to make my life as a Jewish queer woman an act of courage and defiance.
I write poetry as part of Shavuot study. This is my Shavuot poem, written partly on Shavuot night, and partly – after. (I’ve included some Torah, translated by me, to put it in context.)
- For this commandment which I command you this day – it’s not magic, or tricky, or far away
- It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it and explain it so we can do it?”
- 1 Nor is it over the ocean, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the ocean and fetch it and explain it to us, so that we can do it?”
- 14. Nope. Actually, this stuff is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart. You can do it!.
- 15. Look, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil,
- 19. This day, I call upon heaven and earth as witnesses that I told you so: I have set before you life and death, blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your children will live;
Don’t search across oceans, salt water filled, lonely
Like an ancient mariner floating; water that parches, makes crazy
Don’t search for bitter water, drawn from rock in anger,
Breaking relationship; ending; puckering faces and feelings
Search for sweet water drawn from wells of healing.
Taste on your lips drinking water from a friend
Choose water. Choose Torah. Choose life.
Don’t search in the sky, eyes distant and straining
Distraction, diversion, anything so as not to be here
Don’t search for storms of overwhelming emotion
Wild winds of despair and sadness; battering structure, destroying
Search for breezes that take away the stench and the heat
Breath, soul, God, joy filling up emptiness
Choose breath. Choose Torah. Choose life.
Don’t search in caves; dark, dank and winding
Labyrinths of confusion where people get lost forever
Don’t search high hills needing weapons to conquer
For mountains of things to climb; possessions that hide real glory
Search for forests and orchards filled with fruit and flowers;
Trees planted for fruit for grandchildren’s children
Choose earth; choose Torah. Choose life.
Don’t search flames that devour all before them
Hatred and war and the ‘pure’ nothing of death
Don’t search coals of resentment, glowing dark
Waiting for a spark to wreak utter destruction and desolation
Search for sunlight stronger than wind in promoting acceptance
Lightning inspiration and the spark of love in the eyes of another
Choose love; choose Torah. Choose life.
Ah, love! Beautiful, wonderful love. “What’s love got to do with it anyway?” A question once asked by a singer and many times by people. This, in the Jewish readings, is the season for love. (Yes, I know it’s supposed to be in spring – but Jews have always been a bit weird, and really, for those of us in northern climates where the snow just started to fall – it gives us something to do and talk about in the cold evenings.) These are the weeks where we read about Isaac falling in love at first sight, when we hear about Jacob sacrificing 14 years of his life for love, where Rachel and Leah compete for Jacob’s love. We read about broken love – love that didn’t go well between parents and children, love that didn’t go well between husbands and wives, love that didn’t go well between children. We read about qualities that are loveable – beauty and kindness, cleverness and strength, loyalty and faith.
What does love mean? I’m a fairly literal person – I like definitions. So, I didn’t like the one my friends in High School gave me when I asked them what they meant when they said ‘I’m in love.’ “Well, you know – love – it’s what you feel – when you, you know, like, love someone. You like them a lot. You … you just love them. When you feel it, you’ll know.” Irritating definition! Yes, it’s a bit like the biblical one which describes sex as knowing someone. Knowledge of self and other on an ever-deepening level? Is that love? I was not convinced.
The definition I picked was one from a book. To love someone meant that their happiness was essential to one’s own. This seemed to jibe with my experience. The more I loved someone, the more their happiness affected me – when they were happier, I was and I really didn’t feel good about the world in which they were sad. Kids, friends, beloveds – here was a definition that to different extent described how I felt about them, and I knew what to call love.
Was it Jewish though? I had often talked about Judaism as being different, because instead of being commanded to love your icky, difficult great-aunt Thelma, you were simply commanded to be polite to her, to treat her decently, to take care of her. Your emotions were your problem – your actions mattered. Yet, love is very important in Jewish writing. “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” is, literally, the central commandment in the Jewish Torah scroll. Various rabbis have indicated that it is the basis of the Torah. Some have defined God as being perfect love. (An excellent definition of God, by the way.) So what is this love that is valued so highly by Jewish writers? How does it match with my definition of love?
I was not particularly shocked to discover that the Jewish definition of love had little to do with feeling. It seems to be a combination of knowledge and action. Knowledge: we love when we see God in another. By perceiving the divine, the ideal, the true – we realize that we are looking at an embodiment of love, and we love that person. Action: love is giving without taking. It’s a beautiful definition. I found it this morning and I have been delighted with it since. Love is giving without taking. Now, you can love your Aunt Thelma even if she squicks you out. All you have to do is give, without taking.
At the same time, in Torah Study, we are discussing sacrifice. You know, giving without taking. Of course, there it was all messy and bloody and animals being killed and ick – but if you look beyond the goriness, the point seems to be that it’s the gift that matters, the giving up of something expensive (affordable – one should not give more than one has for love – but expensive to one) and important for the sake of another. This allows a new way for me to evaluate my relationships. Do I love so & so? Am I willing to give to her without taking something from her?
Of course, that doesn’t mean without accepting gifts! Accepting and taking are different and accepting is essential for otherwise the other person can’t give. But taking – demanding, stealing, removing – all these are the connotations of taking. If something is given, it cements relationship, if taken it weakens and breaks it. There are so many ways to ask this question. Am I giving privacy? Am I taking away serenity? Am I giving companionship? Am I taking time and energy? It’s not a simple definition – it gives rise to endless questions and decisions – but it is a beautiful one.
So, love. Measured in happiness and gift, knowledge and recognition, sacrifice and acceptance, a crazy involved practice with no clear meaning, but one of such supreme importance that loving is the best way we can emulate God. Exploring it tells me how much more there is for me to do. There are many people whom I could love better. By listening more, by paying more careful attention, by seeing clearer and by thinking kinder, I can change how I know them to see the divine image within them. I can let go of expectations and demands and take less from those I love. And always, I can work just a bit harder and pray just a bit more fervently, think just a little bit more and put my wants to the side more to truly give, and by giving truly, truly love.
You know, words are a special sort of thing for me. I like words. I like writing them. I like reading them. I like playing with them (please come over and ask for a game of boggle any time.) I like working with them. It’s why I blog after all. So, I like prayers. Prayers, after all, are words that I say to God. They are words worth playing with – the best game ever, really. I like the words in prayers and I like what I hear in them, because it’s something different every time and it’s always exactly what I need.
Take the Shma for example. I’m going to just look at the first line – so much in it. “You shall love the Eternal your God with all your hear heart/mind, with all your soul, with all your might/ strength/ being/ possessions.” So, when I come to it fretting about a person in my life, I hear “you shall love the *eternal your God* – and not a person, so think bigger than so & so and focus on God instead. When I am uncertain of my next choice of action, I find clarity and simplicity in an instruction to love God and do things that God might approve of. If I find myself depressed and defeated, not feeling like I can get through another day, I see the prayer as hopeful, with an emphasis on the *shall* – not as a command, but as a promise that soon I will be able to. I can simply resonate and celebrate with it, then, when I am feeling positive, hopeful, or optimistic. Yes! I shall love God, and it will be easy to do so!
I turn to the prayer to deal with anger for when I am angry, I remember that I should love God, and the people made in God’s image. It’s a reminder to do tzedaka, for the word m’odekha can be translated as belongings. On the other hand, it can also be translated as physical self or being, reminding me to take good care of my body, for how else can I love God with it? I know, when days are busy, that I need to take time for spirituality – to love God with all my soul. Should I have much work to do – well, mind, body and soul need to be doing it in honour of God, as the prayer says.
Always, it is a call for balance – too much work, and are you really being loving with all your heart and soul? Take time for study, so that the heart/mind can love God as well. However, don’t spend all day in a library, or your soul and your might don’t get their opportunity to love God. Wherever I am, whatever I’m working on, I can take a second to dedicate it to God, says this prayer. It’s a good reminder, an added spiritual dimension to what I do, and a necessary part of everyday life.
This of course, is just the first line. I can (and have, and do, and will) make the same analysis of each of the others. (In fact, here is a thought for you, my readers and followers – give me your favourite line or prayer in the Siddur, and I will do a blog about it. How cool is that? And no, I’m not smarter than you. If you want to write the blog, I’d be happy to feature it.)
Words – prayers – are fun. That’s why the facebook games of looking at the first line of page 45 of the book closest to you to understand your love life – or putting together your favourite flower and ice cream flavour to find out your magic fairy name (I’d end up being Forget-me-not Sweet cream – try to say that with a straight face) work. Words are powerful and prayers, even more so. As the people of the book, playing with words is our heritage and our destiny. I, for one, intend to embrace it.
When I was little, I went to a Jewish school – but I was completely unobservant at home. We didn’t light candles or eat kosher. We weren’t Shomer Shabbes & I never went to Mikvah. Still haven’t actually – remind me to do so at some point. Once or twice a year, we went to a Shul for holidays. The Shul was, of course, an orthodox one. In fact, the one time we saw some people walking into a nearby Reform Shul, and I asked about them, I was told they weren’t real Jews. “Why, their Shul has a parking lot!” one of the people with me said, with derision. Even then, I noticed something was somewhat odd about all that. I didn’t see why it was better to drive to Shul and park a street or two away, rather than having a parking lot. However, it was explained to me that at least we understood that there were rules, even if we couldn’t follow all of them.
I grew up clear on the concept that I may not go to Shul often but the Shul I didn’t go to was an Orthodox Shul. Then, I fell in love with my wife and I needed a Shul that was all right with that. So, I ended up in a Reform Shul. It was a shock. They had female singers! No one seemed to maintain any of the traditions! The prayerbook had some Hebrew but more English, and the English words weren’t always definitions. There were people there who said words and sang songs with *no* clue what they said. On top of that, while the Rabbi was welcoming, they *still* had trouble with two women being a household (this was 22 years ago.)
Nevertheless, it beat the alternative – being nowhere, religiously. So, we stayed. We found people we could relate to and study with – people who cared for us, and in response, we for them. We learned together, as my partner took a Jewish information class and I learned new tunes and ideas. (The bible wasn’t just given to Moses on a mountain? Are you sure?)
As I stayed, my attitudes changed. They changed again and again and again, and I wasn’t even conscious of them doing so. Sometimes, I found so much to admire in my new-found way of worship. The first time I went up to the Torah and said the blessings, my heart and soul opened and I found myself on an entirely different level of connection with God. It was startlingly beautiful. Sometimes, I laughed at my old ways of thinking – a shul that was exclusionary, that focused on form rather than spirit, that supported prejudice in any way – that became unacceptable to me. Sometimes, I despaired of them ever being the community I wanted. I couldn’t explain why it was a good idea to pray and study weekly to my friends. As my brother chose another direction, and found a modern-Orthodox Shul he was comfortable in, I felt mildly jealous – that could have been me, having people over or being over with the same large group of friends, week after week; prioritising Shabbat, saying blessings at every meal. It was so achingly beautiful too.
Was it possible to have both? Why could I not find tolerance and freedom to grow in the same place as community and strength of scholarship and tradition? Why did opening up have to mean watering down? I was talking to someone new to Reform the other day, and hearing those same opinions I had held 15-20 years ago. The high-pitched singing, the women, the lackadaisical approach to observance, the lack of true community and tradition – these were all so familiar. I realized then and there, however, that in me, enough had changed. I was proud, fiercely proud of where I was. I pointed to the holidays we celebrated together as a family and as a community. I talked about being able to express love for the Torah and for tradition without having to put up with obvious male/female barriers. Our small but mighty study group. Our choir. Our kids, growing up with the morals and knowledge I wanted them to have. I realized this was my home, here in my Reform Jewish community, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of work to do. My brother and I talk about it sometimes. He works to get his community to be more open and more modern – to accept women in more places, to understand why environmental approaches are important, to bring social consciousness into the minds of the people he’s with. Mostly, he does it by his actions – he is a feminist, vegetarian, environmentalist, Orthodox Jew and he’s proud of that. I try in my own way – to hold holidays with my community, to ask questions about tradition, to participate in and encourage Torah study with the people around me. Mostly, of course, it’s my actions that make the difference – so, I wear my kipa, pray daily, say the blessings at meals, and go to Shul every week, even if that means driving on Shabbat. I am proud to be Reform. I am proud to be traditional. The two are not incompatible – I just have to work at them both.