Rabbi Deborah Waxman has been many firsts in her life. She was one of the first bat mitzvahs to be celebrated on a Saturday morning in her hometown of West Hartford, Connecticut in 1979 and now she is the first female rabbi, and the first lesbian, to lead a Jewish congregational institution.
Waxman, 47, took office as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities on January 1, 2014. Since then, Waxman has made it her business to bring a Reconstructionist perspective to a broader public conversation. She has been invited to speak at a number of settings from the JCPA Plenum to the WAMC public radio station in the Berkshires that broadcasts to 6 states.
Growing up in a Conservative Jewish family, Waxman is a middle child of a family of five. Her father was a traveling salesman and her mother was involved in their synagogue. Waxman earned a Ph.D. in American Jewish History from Temple University after her M.A. in Hebrew Letters from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Before that she’d earned a B.A. in religion from Columbia University.
Waxman now lives in Philadelphia with her partner, Christina Ager.
The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Waxman ahead of her October 26 inauguration ceremony to find out about the changing culture of Judaism. When asked why she puts an orange on the Seder plate every year Waxman quotes an Orthodox rabbi who once said, “A woman on the bimah is like an orange on the Seder plate.”
Dorri Olds: When did your orange on the Seder plate tradition begin?
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: We’ve been doing that in my home for the past 30 years. I see the orange as both a symbol of celebration and of challenge. In the Reconstructionist movement we can celebrate [this change]. In the wider Jewish world it’s still a challenge. One of the things about bringing a Reconstructionist analysis more fully across the wider Jewish community would be a shattering of what seems to be a glass ceiling. Instead, it should be what I see at the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.
Back in 2011, I wrote about a ruling by Israel’s High Court of Justice that allowed couples that already had several children to apply to have an additional child by surrogacy. Until the ruling, preference had always been given to childless couples by Israel’s surrogacy approval committee overseeing applications and protocols.
I wondered whether this ruling spoke to the fundamental right to parenthood, and whether it would have an impact on the rights of gay couples to start families in Israel.
(As of right now, the only way for gay couples to have children is to pay exorbitant amounts of money to do surrogacy abroad. One Israeli couple even took to crowdsourcing resources over the internet. It is virtually impossible for a gay couple to adopt a child either in Israel or in another country.)
Well, it does look like things are moving in the right direction. Health Minister Yael German announced on December 11 proposed legislation that would allow gay couples to engage surrogates in Israel. The bill will be introduced to the Knesset on January 15, 2014, and it is based on May 2012 recommendations by the Public Committee for the Legislative Evaluation of Fertility, that if enacted, would make Israel one of the world’s most liberal countries in terms of fertility law.
However, the panel, known as the Mor-Yosef Commission, recommended that gay couples only be allowed to engage a surrogate if the arrangement were “altruistic.” In other words, the woman who would bear the same-sex couple’s child would not be paid.
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.
Jodie Foster’s speech at The Golden Globe Awards Sunday night was rambling, provocative and prompted strong reactions. She seemed to come out as a lesbian, upending one of Hollywood’s oldest open secrets. And she made an ardent, funny case for respecting her privacy. Some people loved it. Others did not. Based on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, lots of folks struggled to follow what she was trying to convey. But I found Foster utterly comprehensible. And the justification of her desire for privacy, for her right to keep private whatever part of her personal life she wishes, reminded me a great deal of Debbie Friedman.
Debbie died two years ago, on January 9, 2011, when she was 59 years old. Her second yartzeit, which fell this week, will be honored with a singalong tribute on January 24 at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, which posthumously named its cantorial school for Debbie.
When Debbie died, and even before she had been buried, gay activist David Levy made public a part of Debbie’s life that she had neither advertised nor hid: That she was a lesbian. Anyone close with Debbie knew she was gay. Levy’s decision to invade her privacy offended me, as I wrote at that terribly painful time.
I would love to have been able to chew over with Debbie what Foster said at the award show. I think she would have related strongly to it.
I came out when I was 28, old by “normal” standards. I’d been dating the woman I’m with currently for about six months at the time and while I’d never been in a relationship with a woman prior to this her, I knew that it was serious. I knew it wasn’t a phase and I knew that this person was the person I would spend the rest of my life with. It was the happiest and saddest time of my life. My mother, who was and still is my best friend, was left completely in the dark. She was normally the person I spoke to about everything and on this most important thing I remained silent. I’d told her one day after many glasses of wine that I was in love with a woman and she brushed me off and told me not to talk about it anymore. A few weeks later I mentioned it again, with more urgency-I needed to talk to her about it. She refused to listen and insisted I keep it to myself and not tell anyone else.
I hung up the phone.
And e-mailed my family and friends.
On my 29th birthday I was gay bashed for the first time while leaving the Museum of Natural History with my partner. An innocent-looking man with a guitar strapped to his back rode by us on his bike. He circled back around and said, “I hope you’re holding hands out of sisterly love and not sexual love.” He proceeded to tell us that we were sinners and gave us suggestions for a place we could go to be cured. I was a practicing Episcopalian at the time and instead of backing down to his stupidity, hatred and bigotry I pulled nearly every gospel verse in my arsenal to contradict the things he was saying to us. I finished with, “and my priest is a lesbian!” My girlfriend dragged me away and I shook my head bewildered that hatred continues to dwell in Holy books.
A year later and not yet officially Jewish I got bashed again on the train, perceived to be Jewish by the Tanakh in my hands. In both instances religion was the catalyst for the insults and bigotry, both men trying to tell me that I was wrong or damned to hell based either on my religion or sexual orientation. It was for this reason and the need to fully explore the integration of my identity as a black, gay Jewish woman that I started my website. It is why I continue to work, write and talk about the need not only for diversity education in Jewish community, but full inclusion of all Jews; gay, straight, trans, bisexual, black, white and brown.
The public acceptance of gay marriage by the President of the United States — a position that most Jews support — is hardly the end of the struggle for full equality for LGBTQ citizens, who continue to lack many of the same enshrined rights and protections as other minority groups. Similarly, Barack Obama’s historic announcement of what many of us long suspected lay in his heart already will have almost zero impact on policy, and likely little impact on the election, since the issue ranks far below economic ones with most voters at the moment.
Instead, it represents a benchmark. Because his choice of words does show that both feminism and the gay rights community have made inroads where it matters most: our definition of relationships. Obama’s evolution echoed ours.
After all when Obama spoke about the “committed, monogamous” relationships of his gay friends, he was positing marriage as a simple, straightforward commitment between two equal people, not as a patriarchal social construct with the man as the head of the household, literally receiving his wife from her father. That very different vision, after all, is what marriage used to be (after, of course, it evolved from Biblical-era polygamy). Marriage once was a transaction between a bread-earner and a child-bearer. And yet when Obama spoke of marriage, he said:
As I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.
His words reflect nothing of these old visions of marriage. Instead these images conjure up love, commitment, raising kids as partners (not one person raising kids), and even an unspoken freedom from “constraints.”
The LGBT–oriented Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan, led by openly gay Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum — a Sisterhood 50 selection — was front and center in the fight to get same-sex marriage legislation passed in New York state. (Kleinbaum also made headlines when she put her arm around an ultra-Orthodox man protesting the legislation, and was spat on repeatedly.) Two of CBST’s most active members, Rose Ann Herman and Jake Goodman, spoke with The Sisterhood about the implications of bill’s passage for the Jewish community and beyond, and what’s next for LGBT activists.
Elissa Strauss: First off, congratulations! How do you feel?
Jake Goodman: It’s an amazing feeling to know that, in terms of marriage, all New Yorkers are finally equal. It seems like such a simple, obvious thing, but clearly, it is not.
Rose Ann Herman: I am indescribably happy for all the young people out there whose lives have been validated by our state; I adore the Republican senators who showed real leadership and courage, and voted for what was right, and beautiful and good.
Can you speak a little about the efforts of the Jewish community in getting this law passed?
Rachel Isaacs has known, for as long as she can remember, that she wanted to be a rabbi. But Isaacs, who on May 19 became the first openly gay rabbi of either sex to be ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, knew by the time she was in college that she wouldn’t be able to become a Conservative rabbi because JTS, at the time, did not ordain gay clergy.
When the Conservative movement changed its policy five years ago, after nearly two decades of painful and divisive debate, Isaacs was in her first year of rabbinical school at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion — and deeply immersed in her studies there. “I loved my teachers and classmates and couldn’t imagine being someplace else. I was happy for the [Conservative] movement but was unsure what it meant for me personally,” she said.
After returning to the U.S. from Israel, where she learned in yeshiva and began her studies at HUC, she moved to Brooklyn and joined the Park Slope Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue with an openly lesbian rabbi (Full disclosure: I’m a PSJC member.) “My thinking shifted. It was a living expression of the Judaism I believed in and wanted to foster as a rabbi. It’s a community that is progressive and traditional and has an openly lesbian rabbi. The more I was at PSJC, the more I thought ‘this is what I want to do.’ “
Tune into what is now the highest-rated program on Israeli television, “Big Brother,” and you will encounter a female character never been featured before on local screens. Her name is Frida Hecht — a heavy-set, outspoken, recovering heroin addict with a crew cut. She’s a lesbian, and about as far out of the closet as it is possible to get.
A Tel Aviv restaurant owner, Frida does not hesitate to assert herself, cheerfully acknowledges her flaws and limitations, and is outspoken about the more bourgeois residents of the “Big Brother” house and their “empty materialistic lives that are all surface and no content.”
Declaring that she is unafraid of being voted off of the show by viewers, she has no problem taking positions that are unpopular with the audience. Early in the show, she insisted on taking the house copy of the Bible in to the bathroom with her, saying that she needs to read something while on the toilet, and that is the only book in the house. When Yoram Cohen, an Orthodox resident of the house was offended by her bringing the holy book into the bathroom, Frida stood her ground and a screaming match ensued. More than 2,500 viewers then signed an online petition calling for Frida to be voted out of the house as a result of her behavior. But her sympathizers outnumbered her enemies, and Cohen ended up being the one voted off the show.
A new anthology, titled “Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires,” includes essays by 14 women who identify themselves as part of the GLBQT community. Some remain part of the frum community, and write anonymously. One is from a prominent politically conservative family and talks about her family’s gradual acceptance process of her and her non-Jewish partner. One woman easily passes as a man in Israel, while she doesn’t in America. While most of the essays are personal coming-out stories, one is a scholarly review of Torah sources and Jewish legal literature on lesbianism.
The book is edited by Miryam Kabakov, a founder of New York OrthoDykes. Kabakov now lives in St. Paul, Minn. with partner Mara Benjamin and their two daughters, who are 4-years-old and 10-months-old. Kabakov directs the Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival and calls herself “post-modern Orthodox,” attending Conservative movement-affiliated Congregation Beth Jacob.
She answered a few questions for The Sisterhood, and will be the subject of a forthcoming episode of our podcast interview series.
Every year at the end of Passover, my mother takes a box of matzoh and puts it aside for a few weeks. Then, on the 14th day of Iyar, exactly a month after Passover eve, she takes it out and eats it — as do many other Jews around the world — to remember the holiday of Pesach Sheni, the Second Passover. This practice reflects the biblical story in which a group of Jews came to Moses very upset that they missed out on the first Passover in the desert because they had been in a state of impurity and were thus excluded from this seminal national event. Moses, baffled, approached God, who replied by creating the Pesach Sheni ritual. From then on, any Jew who was unable to take part in the Passover festival, whether for reasons of impurity or logistical/economic difficulty, celebrated Passover a month later, in a quintessential second chance.
In the spirit of Pesach Sheni’s powerful message of inclusion, this year for the first time, Pesach Sheni was marked on Monday, April 26 as the “Day for Religious Tolerance.” The celebration, initiated by Bat-Kol, the organization of religious lesbians, and Kolech, an Orthodox feminist organization in Israel, was explained by Bat-Kol activists Dina Berman Maykon and Tamar Gan-Zvi Bick:
When I was growing up in Canada, I always looked up to Israeli teenagers. I was fortunate to spend my high school summers in Israel and participate in programs together with Israeli teens, which served to intensify my admiration for them. I thought they were strong, bold and courageous for both getting drafted to the army and living in a country without American jeans and sneakers and where movies came out only months after their American debut.
Although I am now over twice the age of a regular Israeli soldier, and Israel today is not lacking in the way of materialistic culture, I still admire Israeli teens. Far more than many North American youth, they seem to have the courage of their convictions. None so much as the gay and lesbian Israeli teens who visited San Francisco’s Jewish community last week as part of the Out in Israel LBGT Culture Festival sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific Northwest and the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation together and other local organizations.
As a straight, married woman, I often refer to my husband as my partner. Sari, in your recent post on The Sisterhood, you wrote that you’re discomfited by heterosexuals’ use of the term “partner” to refer to their significant other.
I’ve used the term consciously not because I wanted to steal anything semantic from gay folks, but because I was trying to make a subtly intentional point about the nature of our relationship. That is, flouting the unfortunate American norm, my husband is my total partner in parenting and keeping our home; we both work outside the home as well.
He does about 98% of the cooking — he loves to do it, and to satisfy his slightly OCD need to have things done just so, insists on washing the dishes. I’m no slob, but the guy even sometimes remakes the bed because I apparently haven’t made it well enough. I, on the other hand, am in charge of laundry (and am particular myself about not mixing whites and colors) and do our family’s bookkeeping, along with what feels like the endless stream of paperwork involved with having three kids in various schools and summer camps.
When it comes to parenting, we really share responsibilities. He probably changed nearly as many diapers as I did, and is equally likely to tuck our children in at night. I buy the kids’ clothes, but he does all the grocery shopping. Luckily for me, particularly because he grew up in the very traditional world of Lubavitch Crown Heights, my husband seems to have no embedded bias about conventional gender roles.
It’s hard for straight people to know what we’re supposed to be using these days. If he hasn’t already, Larry David could do a whole episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” around it.
“Partner” is also the best term to use when you’ve just met someone who you think is probably gay but don’t want to run the risk of getting that one wrong. The term “spouse” just sounds too bureaucratic to use comfortably in conversation.
A hetero who counts lesbians among my good friends and a gay couple as our downstairs tenants, I believe strongly that gays and lesbians should have absolutely equal civil rights of every kind. But I admit to some discomfort when a gay man calls his male spouse his husband. Why? Because it leads to the mental question of “Well then who’s the wife?” I know is an awful, outmoded notion but the one that pops into my (and, perhaps, most straight people’s) head nonetheless.
So you see, the nomenclature to use in these transitional times for gays is confusing to we straights, too. But the transition of language to meet — or lead — changing social norms is nothing new. You can read more in this Wilkipedia entry about the transition of the word gay.
Maybe a few years from now, once California’s Proposition 8 has been overturned and same-sex couples can be married in all of the 50 states, and never again have to worry about visiting their partner/spouse/husband/wife in the hospital, or about their legal status as a parent of the children they’ve had together, we’ll have the language all figured out.
It will probably be just in time for things to change, somehow, again.
Lately, something confusing has started to happen. I’ll find myself at a wedding or an academic conference or a dinner party and I’ll meet a heterosexual who invariably makes reference to his or her “partner,” a term once employed mainly by gays and lesbians to refer to same-sex significant others. Now, in what seems to be the spirit of political correctness, well-intentioned straight people have co-opted the term and made a mess of its former status as gay signifier. (A recent article on the “partner” free-for-all can be seen here.)
As a Jewish lesbian with a straight past and a feminine appearance, I find this especially aggravating. For me, the term “partner” was a way of casually outing myself to colleagues and new acquaintances. “My partner and I live in Cambridge,” or “My partner is at home grading papers tonight; she was sorry she couldn’t be here.” I relied on this single word to communicate the truth of my sexual and social identity as a gay woman, but lately it’s not doing the cultural work it used to do.
A few weeks ago, I was having drinks with a group of new-ish friends, and a stylish, thirty-something man was introduced to me. We began chatting, and he referred to his “partner,” at which point I continued my friendly exchange with him, assuming he was gay and therefore not only above suspicion as a source of unwelcome sexual advances, but an all-out brother-in-arms with whom I might share a sociopolitical history and, perhaps, even a network of friends, bars and jokes. Imagine my surprise when he explained that his partner loves “her” job as an art teacher! I reorganized my mental geography, re-positioned this new male acquaintance as a sensitive-new-man type and toned down my extroversion. After all, he probably didn’t know I was gay since I had relied on “partner” to do the job for me.
This is but one example of the kind of social chaos that ensues when people start using language promiscuously and depriving words of their intended function. I’ve noticed this to be the case quite frequently with straight women who seem to relish the kind of mystery they can create around their romantic status. It can often unfold as a kind of power-charged guessing-game.
Take this recent encounter, for instance:
Me: How long have you lived in the city?
Woman with Partner: Oh, we’ve been here for ages. My partner works at Columbia.
Me: Wow — that’s great. What does your partner do?
Me: Hmm. Is he or she happy at Columbia?
WWP: Yeah … He is.
After such a dialogue, there is a kind of satisfaction in excavating the strangely concealed pronoun, and yet it is coupled by the deflation of the heterosexual revelation. Was she simply trying to seem like an ally? Does she get off on maintaining an aura of sexual unknowability in spite of her wedding band?
I know she probably, but not necessarily, meant that although she is not married, she is more committed to her relationship than words like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” would suggest. Still, this transition into a connotation of ambivalent heterosexuality has deprived “partner” of its useful queer subtext. And considering the political exclusions we suffer, shouldn’t we at least be granted sole rights to a term that indicates love without the benefit of the law?
I guess now I’ll just have to find another word. There’s always “wife.”