Transgender Jews celebrate Shabbat at a California synagogue
My friend and colleague Jay Michaelson’s op-ed “Include Me Out of This Jewish Community” calls into question the value and utility of “LGBT inclusion” in the mainstream Jewish community. I agree with some of Michaelson’s overarching points that being included in the mainstream without participating in fundamental change lacks meaning. But my experiences working for full equality and inclusion for LGBT Jews for the past 14 years as Executive Director of Keshet have led me to a radically different conclusion than Michaelson’s.
I do not believe that inclusion of LGBT people simply translates to the status quo with queer window-dressing. When LGBT Jews get a seat at the table, we have the chance to change not just the seating order, but the very structure of the table itself.
When a transgender rabbinical student is brought on as the rabbinic intern at a traditional Conservative shul, the look, feel and structure of the institution starts to shift.
When a Jewish film festival turns to a transmasculine Keshet leader who grew up poor to speak on a panel about Israeli women’s films, I see rigid conceptions of gender start to soften.
When a federation hosts a Keshet program and our staff explain why we are putting “All-Gender” bathroom signs up, the Jewish establishment begins to look different.
This month, I will be speaking at several Pride Shabbat services around the country and will challenge the congregations I meet to think critically about who is absent from their community and why; who is seen and who remains invisible. When people remain engaged in these conversations, the gulf between the margins and the mainstream begins to close. I believe LGBT Jews can change the Jewish community from the inside out. It is happening already.
Idit Klein is the Executive Director of Keshet.
Israelis take part in Jerusalem’s annual gay pride parade in 2011 / Getty Images
What do you reckon is the busiest time of year for Tel Aviv’s hotels — maybe the High Holidays? Perhaps Christmas/New Year’s, when America’s families are on vacation? How about Gay Pride Week?
With the annual Gay Pride parade scheduled for this Friday, Tel Aviv’s hotels are doing booming business, and anyone who didn’t book a room in advance is probably out of luck.
The Marker, Haaretz’s daily business section, reported on Wednesday that
Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride parade… is expected to bring 5,000-7,000 gay and lesbian tourists to the city…. Hotel occupancy rates are high, with prices rising accordingly.
… “[Gay tourists] live well and they eat well, in particular they eat healthier,” says Omer Miller, co-owner of [two Tel Aviv restaurants] that fly the pride flag every year. “Gay tourists also leave really big tips. Not every tourist in Israel comes to celebrate; [Pride Week visitors] really come for a week of partying.”
… According to a hotel manager in the city, “It’s the busiest time of the year…. There are guests who made reservations six months ago. I’ve known for three months that I’m completely full.”
City Hall has gotten in on the act, cooperating with local hotels to promote Tel Aviv as a gay travel destination, not least because — unlike visitors who come on pilgrimage — Pride tourists tend to stay in boutique hotels, rent cars and go shopping. Moreover, life on the Mediterranean presents an opportunity for year-round event planning that’s impossible in Europe. If Tel Aviv plays its cards right, folks who visit in June might very well come back in January.
Samer Bisharat, star of Oscar-nominated “Omar,” in Project X / YouTube
If you’ve ever seen the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” you’ll immediately be reminded of it after watching the newly released short film “Project X.” The basic plot is the same. Except instead of Jim Carrey trying to erase Kate Winslet from his memory, you get an 18-year-old Palestinian who’s having the memory of his girlfriend forcefully taken from him — by a team of Israeli doctors.
Why are the docs trying to rid the Palestinian protagonist of this girl? Because the memory of her keeps him from doing what they so desperately want him to do: enlist in the Israeli army.
The teen is approached earlier on by an Israeli army recruiter (trying really, really hard to sound like a native Arabic speaker — and failing), who tries to sell him on military service by promising it’ll “open a million doors.” In return for his service, he’ll get “a backbone that no one will mess with.” Also: “Land — land that you’ll own.” Imagine!
Still, the Palestinian resists. And because he resists, he ends up on an operating table, where Israeli doctors who specialize in “brain programming” are tasked with making him more amenable to the state’s demands. They succeed: Stripped of the memory of his girlfriend, who was always telling him that “this is not the way for us,” he ends up a soldier in uniform — with his own people’s blood on his hands.
Dan Cantor, right, isn’t exactly broken up over the political demise of the man who shares his last name.
Not all Cantors are mourning over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning fall from political power.
Dan Cantor, the national director of the progressive Working Families Party, shamelessly celebrated the downfall of the man who shares his last name (and little else).
The GOP Jew’s loss “should not be seen as a referendum on Cantors everywhere — only on right-wing ones,” Dan Cantor said in a statement.
“Progressive Cantors are seeing more success than ever,” the politically liberal Cantor continued. “Eric, this means you’re bringing the barbecue grill to the next family picnic.”
The Cantor nemeses are not related, but both are Jewish. All the more reason to celebrate, according to the WFP leader.
“He’s the only Jewish Republican in congress,” Cantor told the Forward. “Now there are zero – which is better for us all.”
The Republican Congressman lost his seat in a June 10 primary upset by Tea Party favorite Dave Brat.
Jewish Republican Eric Cantor campaigning in 2012 / Nathan Guttman
Nineteen months ago, on the eve of the 2012 elections, I asked the following question in these pages about Tea Party Conservatives and neo-conservatives like Eric Cantor: “Who’s using whom?”
That question may never be answered. But like Dr. Frankenstein, Rep. Cantor has just been killed by the monster he helped create.
The monster, of course, is the Tea Party. For years, Cantor — a conservative, but not an extremist — has been feeding this beast a regular diet of anti-Obama, anti-immigrant, and anti-gun-control rhetoric…when it suits him to do so. Many of Cantor’s Jewish supporters have basically tried to assure us that he doesn’t really mean this stuff, and is only saying it to get elected.
Unfortunately for Cantor, that’s exactly what many Virginia Republicans came to believe as well.
(Reuters) — The shocking defeat of Eric Cantor was dubbed an “apocalyptic” moment for the Republican mainstream as Tea Party populist conservatives showed off their grassroots muscle — and proved virtually no lawmaker is safe from a challenge from the right.
Cantor’s defeat to a political unknown is likely to halt any efforts to craft a House immigration reform bill, as nervous Republicans hustle to protect themselves against future challenges from the right ahead of the Nov. 4 midterm elections.
It could also make Republicans even more hesitant to cooperate with President Barack Obama and Democrats for fear of being labeled a compromiser.
“We all saw how far outside the mainstream this Republican Congress was with Eric Cantor at the helm, now we will see them run further to the far right with the Tea Party striking fear into the heart of every Republican on the ballot,” said U.S. Representative Steve Israel of New York, who heads the House Democratic campaign committee.
The victory emboldened conservative leaders who had seen a string of primary losses by Tea Party candidates this year to candidates backed by the Republican establishment, and it could encourage a conservative challenge to Boehner at the end of the year when the new leadership team is chosen.
“Eric Cantor’s loss tonight is an apocalyptic moment for the GOP establishment. The grassroots is in revolt and marching,” said Brent Bozell, a veteran conservative activist and founder of the Media Research Center.
Newly elected Israeli President Reuven Rivlin with Benjamin Netanyahu / Getty Images
Is Reuven Rivlin’s ascendancy to the post of president good news for left-wing Israelis?
Progressives should cheer Rivlin’s election not because he supports equal rights for Israeli Arabs or because he wants to give Palestinians the vote in an Israeli-annexed West Bank, but because his new position in the limelight will help to clarify what should already be abundantly clear: that official Israel’s support for a two-state solution is a farce, and has been for a long time.
It’s true that as president of Israel Rivlin will hold a mostly ceremonial, symbolic position. But figureheads are important in their own way. They telegraph to the world what a country (putatively) stands for — its most cherished values and ideals. When Shimon Peres held the top spot, he made clear the value of the two-state solution. Rivlin, by contrast, will signal the exact opposite message: an undivided Greater Israel is, to him, the supreme and ultimate value.
Immediately upon being elected president, Rivlin swore he’d represent all Israelis — not just the right-wing annexationist Jew crew of which he is a part. But that kind of assurance is completely beside the point. Everyone knows what Rivlin really stands for: a State of Israel in which Palestinians get the right to vote, but give up on the dream of national self-determination in the form of a sovereign Palestinian state.
Israel’s newly elected president Reuven Rivlin / Getty Images
For some reason, whenever a Palestinian (or an Arab American, for that matter) expresses one-state views, he’s accused of threatening Israel’s existence. When an Israeli voices the exact same view, he’s labeled a hawk, a Zionist hard-liner. That’s precisely what happened when Reuven Rivlin, the former speaker of the Knesset and a seasoned Likudnik politician, was elected on Tuesday as the new president of Israel.
Liberal Zionists and progressive commentators were quick to describe his election as bad news, a threat to the peace process and to Israeli-Palestinian relations. But if we take a closer look at Israeli politics and Rivlin’s personal views, we get a different picture.
Rivlin is definitely a vocal opponent of the Oslo accords. He rejects the very idea of giving the occupied territories away. But, on the other hand, he also proposed giving Palestinians Israeli citizenship, full civil rights and the right to vote in a much-discussed Haaretz interview back in 2010.
Just like Netanyahu, Rivlin would like Israel to keep the West Bank. But unlike Netanyahu — whose agenda works to maintain the status quo, making the occupation permanent — Rivlin suggests making the West Bank into part of Israel and its inhabitants into full Israeli citizens. That’s not a minor deviation.
Alexander Imich at 111 years old / Guinness Book of World Records
Ray Bradbury, in his classic 1955 story “The Last, the Very Last,” has a child encounter a 108-year-old man believed to be the last known Civil War veteran. The story, reworked as a chapter in his novel Dandelion Wine, introduces the veteran to Bradbury’s childhood alter-ego as a “time machine” whom he uses to see the events of the past through the veteran’s retellings.
Conducting oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors, I often feel the weight of history as I speak with such “time machines.” But no encounter has so reminded me of the two reincarnations of Bradbury’s story as the afternoon I spent last July with Dr. Alexander Imich, who passed away on June 8 at the age of 111.
Born February 4, 1903 in Częstochowa, Poland (then part of the Czarist Empire), Imich was — like the man in Bradbury’s story — the very last veteran of a war, in his case the Polish-Soviet war of 1918-1919. He was also, as best as I could figure, the very last Jew to have been Bar-Mitzvahed in the Czarist Empire. He was the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor and the last man to have received a PhD in the 1920s. But his advanced age was far from the only reason I had sought him out. As his Wikipedia article states in sterile un-ironic prose, “he was one of the few super-centenarians known for reasons other than longevity.”
I had first heard of Imich when I was 12 or 13. At the time I was fascinated by the paranormal and Imich was — at the age of 98 or so — just beginning another phase of his career in the field. Two years earlier he had founded the Anomalous Phenomena Research Center, which he would run for the rest of his life. As the last active parapsychologist who had published during the golden age of paranormal studies in Weimar Germany, Imich was then, in the early 2000s, regarded as the field’s preeminent elder-statesman.
Although I had long lost most of my interest in the paranormal, I still instantly recognized Imich’s name last spring while pouring over lists of possible interview subjects for the Yiddish Book Center’s oral history project. After getting in touch with him through his great-niece Karen Bogen, Imich decided that he wasn’t “Jewish enough” for the Yiddish Book Center. Despite my best efforts I was unable to dissuade him of the notion. He did, however, agree to let me interview him after I told him about my interest in the paranormal.
Gender-segregated elevator in Jerusalem / Walla
Apparently, gender-segregated classrooms, playgrounds, buses, sidewalks and healthcare centers aren’t enough. Now Israel has gender-segregated elevators.
Yosef Cohen, the owner of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox event venue Armonot Chen, has started divvying up elevator space using a nylon mechitza, with stickers inside and outside the elevator directing men to one side and women to the other.
“There are people who want to guard their eyes on the wedding day,” Cohen explained in an interview with Walla news. “If four men and four women enter the elevator, how will they behave? This way there is a mechitza and this solves the problem.”
Phew! Finally, we can rest easy knowing that Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox couples aren’t going to be canoodling — in groups of eight, no less — on their way up to their friends’ wedding ceremonies! I was really worried about that one for a while, you guys.
The Beastie Boys, Groucho and brisket are all together here. It’s the quiz equivalent of a Reuben!
In her recent editorial, Jane Eisner confronts what she views as the problems with Judaism’s current conversion process — and conversion’s potential usefulness in “sustaining the future” of the Jewish people.
When we speak of the modern conversion process, it’s important to separate social practices from religious mandate. Many of the issues that Eisner notes are social in nature: the stigma of calling a person a “convert” rather than a Jew, the potential shame of using one’s “Hebrew name affixed with ‘son of Abraham and Sarah’ rather than with his (presumably) non-Jewish parents,” and potentially exorbitant fees for conversion classes.
These are issues that may need to be seriously addressed, but they are problems within our own personal outlook and our own sad struggle with the Biblical injunction to “love the convert” — not problems with the mandated conversion process.
What surprises me most about Eisner’s words is the glibness with which she thinks conversions should be performed. As if being Jewish were membership in an exciting club or the latest juicing fad, she suggests that Judaism should be made accessible to everyone who merely “like[s] being [a Jew] and want[s] to pass that along.” In Eisner’s eyes, Judaism is “essentially an emotional decision” — a decision that people can easily make if they want a simple path towards a meaningful life.
But being a Jew means more than just being an ethical and upright person, enjoying a bagel with shmear, and appreciating Woody Allen, Lena Dunham or even Heschel and Buber. And Judaism already offers a potential path for non-Jews looking to live a more spiritually endowed and meaningful life: They can find it in the Seven Noahide Laws and the universal Jewish teachings on the unity of the Creator and the spiritual potential we all possess.
()TA) — Will he refer to Reform rabbis as rabbis? We still don’t know.
Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s front-runner in this week’s presidential election, has signaled recently that should he be elected, his goal will be to embrace non-Orthodox Jewish communities rather than antagonize them.
Rivlin got a boost in the race on Saturday when his main rival, Labor Knesset member Binyamim Ben-Eliezer, ended his campaign due to an emerging corruption scandal. The Knesset will vote Tuesday for the president who will succeed current Shimon Peres and fill a largely ceremonial role as Israel’s head of state.
JTA reported last week that Rivlin, a former Knesset speaker and elder statesman in Likud, called Reform Judaism “idol worship” and “a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism” in a 1989 interview. In 2007, he declined to say whether, as president, he would refer to Reform rabbis by their title.
But in an interview and an Op-Ed this week, Rivlin said that his reputation for reason and tolerance extends to all religious communities. While he would not tell the Jerusalem Post in an interview Friday whether he would refer to Reform rabbis as rabbis, he said he respects religious leaders regardless of denomination. “I respect any person chosen to lead his or her community, and God forbid I invalidate him because he is from one stream or another,” he told the Post. “The President’s Office represents all streams and denominations in society. The job of the president is to bridge conflicts, not create conflicts.”
I think it’s high time we deal with the issue of mamzerut.
I was exposed to the subject as a result of my work as a rabbinic advocate in Israel, working with women who were denied divorces and agunot, women chained to dead marriages. Through this work, I became familiar with a host of issues surrounding mamzerut, defined as one who is born as a result of sexual incest relations prohibited by the Torah or of relations between a married Jewish woman and a Jewish man (married or not) who is not her husband.
Many women who had been separated from their husbands and some who waited years for divorces became pregnant by other men, giving rise to these situations:
• women who had abortions rather than give birth to a child who would be labeled a mamzer
• rabbis who suggested women abort rather than give birth to a mamzer
• women who were sorry they had not aborted children now labeled as mamzers
A woman once said to me, “I waited 25 years for a divorce from a recalcitrant husband. I became pregnant by another man, but I aborted the fetus rather than give birth to a child who would be stained with the stigma of mamzerut. This child would now be 21 today, and he cries out to me, ‘How awful that you aborted me! I wanted to be born and to live!’” This woman is now aging and has no children at all.
A mamzer is forbidden to marry someone considered part of the community of Israel. He or she is permitted to marry only another mamzer or a convert, and the offspring are forever considered mamzerim according to Jewish law, even after 10 generations. While the sages gave theoretical priority to a mamzer who was learned in Torah over a high priest who was an ignoramus, the conventional attitude toward mamzers is closer to what was expressed by a rabbi who asked me: “Would you let your child play with a mamzer child?! Would you let your child sit in school next to a mamzer child?!”
An Israeli observes the Iron Dome system in action / Getty Images
Almost one in two Jewish Israelis think that their country could withstand a substantial decrease in American support.
In a new poll by the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, conducted in the light of U.S.-Israel tensions over the end of the peace process, 44% of Jewish respondents took this view. This is remarkable in itself, given the massive funding that the U.S. provides, and the fact that the most admired defense innovation of recent years, the Iron Dome missile defense system, was made possible by the United States. But it’s particularly remarkable given the domestic political tensions.
The defense establishment is facing large budget cuts, and claiming that this will impact on its ability to perform. And so, the confidence of such a large proportion of the Israeli population at this time that loss of U.S. funding could be sustained is highly odd.
What’s more, if you look only at Israeli Jews who define themselves as right wing, this belief that Israel could dispense with U.S. funding is very dominant. Some 70% of those rightists think Israel could withstand a substantial diminution of American funding.
Yet it’s always the political right that is most emphatic that defense spending can’t decrease — and it’s no different with the current budget cuts. Unfortunately, the poll didn’t ask respondents for names and addresses of those who they reckon will fill the gaping hole that a U.S. funding cut would leave.
An Israeli lesbian dressed up as an ultra-Orthodox Jew at the annual Gay Pride event / Getty Images
What do you do if you’re ultra-Orthodox and gay? You almost certainly hide.
On Thursday, Israeli daily Yediot reported new figures released by religious-gay support group Hod indicating that “two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox homosexuals [in Israel] have chosen to marry women despite their sexual inclination”; almost all of the more than 1,100 men included in Hod’s report admitted to having sex with other men at least once a month.
According to Hod founder Ron Yosef, an Orthodox rabbi and gay activist:
The situation of homosexuals in the Haredi society is much more difficult because of the social isolation they live in. A gay Haredi man cannot share his situation with his friends in the community or the yeshiva, his family members or rabbis, and “coming out of the closet” is definitely inconceivable.
It should be noted that Hod’s statistics are based on information received from gay ultra-Orthodox men who turned to the organization for help — which is to say: They reflect a self-selecting population, men who have heard of the group and reached a level of stress, or degree of openness, that would allow them to reach out. It’s hard to know how much the two-thirds figure actually tells us about the lived reality of gay Haredi men, but then, that’s a community about which it would be particularly hard to produce solid polling results.
Samson and Delilah, a cautionary tale against mixed marriage, by Rubens / Haaretz
(Haaretz) — On Shavuot, Jews around the world read the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of how the heroine - a Moabite woman - married her way into Judaism. Later rabbis adopted the story as a model of how a Jew may marry a non-Jew.
According to the story, after Ruth’s Jewish husband died, her mother-in-law urges her to find a new husband in Moab. Ruth refuses, saying “Entreat me not to leave you, Or to turn back from following after you; For wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, And your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:6-7)
Ruth moves to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, where she meets Boaz, a relative of her dead husband. Following the advice of her mother-in-law, she enters his tent in the dead of night and seduces him. They marry and live happily ever after. Their son Obed, we are told, is King David’s paternal grandfather.
This story so obviously supports mixed marriages that some scholars believe it was written in response to increased regulation enacted by Ezra the Scribe in the late 6th century BCE against marrying foreigners.
An image from the “Invisible” exhibit in Ottawa, Canada / Mira Sucharov
An art exhibit in a quiet gallery inside Ottawa’s City Hall has caused an international stir. Accusing the exhibit of “glorifying terror,” the Israeli ambassador to Canada met with the mayor to express his concerns. And dubbing it a “monument to terror” and a “travesty,” the Jewish Federation of Ottawa called on the City — unsuccessfully — to remove it.
Titled “Invisible,” the exhibit, by Canadian-based and Palestinian-born artist Rehab Nazzal, is comprised of a series of multi-media experiences. One is a series of colors accompanied by audio from protestors being teargassed in the weekly demonstrations at the West Bank village of Bil’in; another is audio feed from an IDF training exercise-turned-fatal in a Negev prison, with a series of abstract-looking stills on a nearby wall. Most controversial, though, is a digital slideshow called “Target.” In it, a series of names, dates and sepia portraits flash by, each encased in a circle of light. These individuals are Palestinian activists who were assassinated by Israel.
On the day I saw the exhibit, the room was empty, before one or two others wandered in. I flipped through the comments book. The ping-pong nature of the discourse wasn’t surprising. Some thanked the City for bringing the Palestinian experience to light. Others complained of “taxpayer money” funding what surely isn’t “art.” Some pointed to the omission of the fact that those assassinated by Israel were themselves responsible for many murders, and others invoked the “glorification of terrorism” accusation. To that, some responded that surely Israel and its supporters would have no problem featuring Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir in a similar exhibit.
At least three questions strike me from all this. Those who find themselves offended by the political message inherent in the artwork are demanding context, balance and objectivity. They seem to want to insert footnotes, to proclaim that there is another side to the story. But art isn’t meant to serve the same purpose as a newspaper article, a history textbook or an encyclopedia entry. By its nature, art flows from the experience of the artist. It is necessarily and inherently incomplete, a fragment of expression.
Burmese girls at school in Thailand’s Mae La refugee camp / Getty Images
Even though I was raised in a Washington, D.C. suburb, I never spent much time in the district and definitely never toured the White House.
But last month, I joined 150 Jewish activists from 18 states to lobby my elected officials to support the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) — part of the inaugural Policy Summit of American Jewish World Service (AJWS). My civic participation helped me identify the pronounced incongruities between culture on the Hill and the lives of Burmese refugees in Thailand on whose behalf I came to speak.
This moment was a long time coming. Last August, I applied to the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship. I traveled to Thailand with 20 Global Justice Fellows — rabbinical students, graduate students and law students — to learn more about the humanitarian crisis on the border of Thailand and Burma. We met with local organizations, supported by AJWS, that are working to advance basic civil and human rights for Burma’s ethnic minorities and Burmese refugees in Thailand.
My most meaningful encounter in Thailand involved the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO). The Karen State in Burma is largely undeveloped; people are mostly subsistence farmers and have weathered atrocious human rights violations during the decades-long conflict with the ethnic Burmese military government.
Over rustic yet delicious green curry, I sat with KWO leader Zion Dany, who described abominable conditions in the nearby Mae La refugee camp. More than 50,000 Burmese refugees live there, many since the camp opened in 1984. Zion spoke of a young woman who was raped and murdered in the camp weeks earlier. After the incident, camp officials cremated and disposed of her remains without conducting an on-site rape kit to identify and bring the assailants to justice. Zion spoke with conviction about the absolute necessity to establish protocols so that rape victims receive justice and legal protection, regardless of their citizenship or refugee status.
(JTA) — Just in time for Shavuot, with its reading of the Book of Ruth about Judaism’s first convert, a Tennessee family of 12’s conversion to Judaism has prompted an outpouring of support from Brooklyn’s haredi Orthodox community.
On Sunday, Sholom and Nechama (originally Chad and Libby) McJunkin brought their 10 children to Brooklyn to complete 12 conversions and have a Jewish wedding ceremony.
Their wedding, held in the backyard of Rabbi Tzvi Mandel’s house adjacent to his small synagogue in Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood, attracted 100 people. Many of the guests were gift-bearing strangers who had learned about the family through an impromptu surprise online wedding registry established Saturday night by Alexander Rapaport, executive director of the kosher soup kitchen Masbia.
The online registry, which was featured Sunday in the Vos Iz Neias newspaper, includes various staples, such as Judaica and kosher grocery gift certificates, for the family’s newfound Orthodox Jewish life. By midday Tuesday it had raised almost $10,000 from 235 people.