A couple of weeks ago, I attended Nehirim West, an LGBT Jewish Culture and Spirituality retreat on a ranch outside of San Francisco, CA. As the weeks led up to it and I was getting excited to attend, I kept thinking about how the group would consist of people with very intense similar experiences. Many people I told about the retreat exclaimed how niche a group this would be, asking, “how many (queer Jews) could there be!?”. I was thinking about it, trying to imagine what kind of people would come, how they would identify with each of these identities. What was most remarkable when I got there and got to know everybody was just how diverse the group was. So many ways to interpret, identify and flow between identities in each of these ‘communities’, while remembering that for many folks, these communities can be as small as one member, can be invisible, or can be very exclusive.
It was fascinating to feel like I shared a common bond, that my similarity with someone was through our ‘queerness’ or our “Jewishness”, when probably each person there defined their queerness and Judaism in very different ways. Some folks saw their queerness in their gender expression, identity, non-conformity, multiplicity. Some saw their queerness in their sexual orientation, their love for folks of the same gender or sex, their love of multiple partners or lovers, their love of self pleasure, or non-partnership, their love of ‘non-traditional’ practices and pleasures. In a similar way, many of those present held just as varied identities with the word ‘Jewish’. Some were raised in observant households or communities, many interpreting ‘observant’ differently. Some were raised in big cities with large Jewish communities and were ‘out’ about their Judaism. Some felt like they were raised as closeted Jews. Some converted to and from Judaism. Some saw their race as an integral part of their lived Jewish experience. Some were partners or allies of Jews, some were raised in Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Conservative or Orthodox communities or families. Some didn’t identify with any sect. Some saw Judaism as strictly a religion, some as strictly a culture. There was a multiplicity of ways to keep kosher with respects to when, how and where.
What, then, made this a community? And what made it a community based on seemingly similar overlapping identities? I’m not sure if I have any answers, but some of my observations include respect, appreciation (not just tolerance) of diversity, learning, teaching, sharing, and searching for ways to relate. Many of the folks there have been influential in paving some of the steep paths from which many benefit and upon which many continue to pave.
In a TED talk given last year, curator, Thelma Golden described Harlem as a city that is always being described in the present, past and future tense, simultaneously. This concept excites me because it also seems to describe my feelings around this ‘Queer Jewish’ community. So much of this intersection is derived from a long history of what it means to be a Jew and what it means to be queer. It points to struggles, triumphs, family history and migration, rejection and tight-knit community. It points to notions of ‘passing’ through assimilation and acceptance and also to distinguishing and ‘outing’ in proud and intentional ways. This identity intersection is also very alive in the present with movements of inclusion and policy-making, boundary-pushing and overcoming hatred and exile. It also would not exist if not for the drive to allow it to flourish in the future, always for ‘our children’ and the next generation. Many have fought and are fighting hard to pass laws and policies that guarantee equal, basic human rights to all.
It is also fascinating to see these intersections intersecting. With rabbis saying prayers before transgender men bind their chests; before folks inject hormones; while same-sex couples marry; while single parents, same sex partners and gender queer folks adopt children and expand their families; while conversions are celebrated. What I ultimately found is that this rally to push boundaries, to include people, to celebrate and embrace diversity and love one another exists because of these binds that unite us and differences that make us each so unique.
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