Who am I as a Jew?

Remember when I started a blog? Probably not. But it’s a new calendar year, and while I don’t necessarily believe in resolutions, I do believe in intention. And one of my biggest intentions for how I want to spend my time is writing. I wrote this post as part of a midyear reflection for a Jewish community organizing fellowship I’m part of. Enjoy – and please comment and watch this space for more!

Who am I, as a Jew? Asking myself this question feels almost like asking myself who I am as a person. Can the two even be extricated? Should they be?

As a Jew I care deeply and genuinely about justice and liberation. As a human being, I care deeply and genuinely about justice and liberation.

But growing up outside of the Jewish community means that I have not always had a sense of when and how my values line up with those of Judaism. Who I am Jewishly is a question that I am answering, increasingly, with the values that inform the way I live my life, instead of simply my ethnicity, culture, or even practices. Who I was Jewishly used to be someone who lit candles at Chanukah, had Seders at Passover, and ate my grandmother’s honey cake on Rosh Hashanah… and not much else. Now, who I am Jewishly is someone who lights candles and says prayers on Shabbat, explores text study, and is learning Hebrew – but my Jewish identity is about more than what I do: it’s about how I view the world and my place in it.

Who am I, Jewishly? I am on a journey into myself, and the journey really is more important than the destination. I am curious. I am fascinated by and in wonder of all there is to learn about Jewish culture, faith, and history. My path towards Judaism has also, not insignificantly, lined up more or less chronologically with my gender transition.

Often I hear converts to Judaism describe themselves as “New Jews” or “Jews by choice.” Although my experience is somewhat different, these terms resonate with me. I am new to Jewish community, having only had such connections for two years or so. I am new to Shabbat, Torah, many of the holidays, and exploring my own belief in the transcendent.

I also connect to the idea of choice in my own life. There are those who don’t consider me Jewish, because my mother isn’t Jewish. When I was younger I felt both indignant and ashamed by that. I could have internalized the message that I didn’t have any claim to lay to Judaism. Or I could have easily gone on living my life as a self-identified “half Jew” – but there came a time when being “half” anything ceased to make sense to me. Choosing to engage more deeply with Judaism was something that made me feel whole. So, yes, I chose to “be” Jewish as well as to “do” Jewish. I make the choice to incorporate Jewish practice and community into my life. And I can’t speak to whether I chose my sexual orientation or gender identity – nor do I think it matters – but I do choose to inject testosterone every week.

As a Jew raised without formal Jewish education or community, as a queer and trans Jew, I will always be somewhat of an outsider. I definitely feel the insider/outsider tension that has long been a part of Jewish history, and I embrace it. Because I came to Judaism as an adult, I have the chance to learn on my own terms, to question, and to figure out what my own beliefs are, both religiously and politically. I commit to remaining critical of what the mainstream Jewish community holds up as what we “should” do or support as Jews – and of myself.

This spirit of questioning and complexity, indeed, is part of a long tradition both of the Jewish people and of my own family. There are a whole lot of arguers and skeptics in my own ancestry and in our history as a people.

And I am part of that history. Along with locating myself in a current American Jewish context (and my own queer and leftist Jewish communities), I see myself as part of a long, rich, and resilient Jewish history that I am just beginning to discover.

I belong to a legacy of so many righteous Jewish thinkers, activists, and justice workers, from Rabbi Hillel to Abraham Joshua Hecshel to Emma Goldman, Anne Frank to Les Feinberg to Allen Ginsberg, Howard Zinn to Harvey Milk to Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz.

I belong to my family legacy as well. I am the great-grandchild of my grandma Frieda (who I was blessed to know in my lifetime), who came to this country from Russia-now-Ukraine as a child and worked as a hat maker in New York as an adult, staying quick-witted well into her nineties. I am the grandchild of her daughter Roz, who grew up in Brooklyn, went on to college and graduate school, and became a watercolor artist who loves poetry and still sometimes plays tennis at age 90. I am the grandchild of her husband Larry, my late grandfather, another Jewish child of Brooklyn who became a successful lawyer, could beat anyone at cards even after he lost his eyesight, and was a generous, logical, theatrical soul who touched many in his community.

I am the child of my father, an atheist who believes in science, common sense, left-wing politics, and protein at every meal. And I am the child of my mother, who, yes, was raised Catholic – and left the church as an adult because she was never given satisfactory answers to her questions.

Who am I, Jewishly? I am a son, a friend, a community member, an organizer, a queer person, a lifelong learner. I am both an insider and an outsider, defiantly myself. I am discovering my Jewish values and working to act on and live by them. I am building a life centered on justice, generosity, community, learning, questioning, ritual, kindness, love, and world repair. One of my favorite Jewish values is the concept of kavannah: intention. My only new year’s resolution for 2012 was to live my life in a more intentional way. As I move towards that, as I continue to explore and engage with Judaism, I come home to myself and what my best self could look like.

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shiloh jolie-pitt and the gender police

can we talk about shiloh for a moment? yes, i do mean angelina jolie and brad pitt’s four-year-old, not that movie about the dog that made me cry as a kid. for months, celebrity gossip mags have been in an uproar over shiloh’s – gasp – short hair, boys’ clothes, and reported preference for male names and pronouns.

the media has milked this shit for all it’s worth, calling it a “shocking transformation” and insisting that angelina is a bad parent, pushing her own agenda, and harming and manipulating her kid. one life & style cover claims that angelina is “forcing shiloh’s obsession with being a boy.”


think for just a minute about all the gender-variant kids being forced into gender norms by their parents. think about the female-assigned children forced against their will into itchy dresses on easter, and the male-assigned kids who are called sissies and punished for wearing their sisters’ lip gloss. think of all the trans, queer, and gender-non-conforming adults with painful childhood stories of being forced into genders that weren’t right for them. those parents, not angelina, are the ones harming their children.

we should all be so lucky as to have a parent like angelina, who says that shiloh cried over having long hair and asked her to cut it. so what did she do? she cut it. she respected her child’s wishes and happiness.

i’m not the only one who thinks the panic over shiloh’s gender is ridiculous. but all the defenses of shiloh i’ve seen just reinforce the fact that in our culture, a little “girl” dressed in “boy’s” clothes is still a lot less threatening than the other way around (can you imagine the shitstorm that would arise over one of angelina’s sons insisting on wearing dresses?). people are happy to offer up stories of “tomboy” relatives or friends of theirs who grew up to be perfectly normal, feminine, heterosexual women.

thomas beatie, the guy who made headlines for being THE FIRST TRANS MAN EVER TO GIVE BIRTH, was even featured in life & style assuring the public that “unless shiloh identifies as male, she is not transgender.” (of course, the quote from thomas was accompanied by his previous name and a pre-transition picture, because trans people are incomprehensible unless we can be pinned to the genders we were assigned.)

well, you know what? transgender is an umbrella term. identifying as male is not the only way for a female-assigned person to be transgender. moreover, shiloh is four years old. who’s to say if shiloh is transgender or not? why does it matter? shiloh could grow up to be a trans guy. or a butch dyke. or a straight woman who likes to wear doc martens and work on cars. or any combination of the above. the only voice missing from this “debate” is shiloh’s – because the poor kid is four. leave shiloh alone.

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i didn’t mean for the first post to be about sex.

…or DID i?

turns out today is national sexual freedom day, and the woodhull freedom foundation has announced a blog carnival in response. and carnivals (except for when they have to do with insane clown posse or projectile-vomiting cotton candy) are always fun, right?

the questions posed by the folks at woodhull: what does sexual freedom as a human right mean to you? what legislative or social changes would you like to see to promote sexual freedom?

let’s talk about the word freedom for a second. it’s at the top of this page in big spray-painted letters, but it’s a concept i tend to struggle with. the world itself has been so co-opted – when i see it in the name of an organization or rally, it usually means thinly-veiled right-wing nationalism and xenophobia. (remember “freedom fries,” anyone?)

but freedom as i believe in it means liberation. freedom FROM oppressive systems, and freedom TO live fulfilling lives that celebrate our whole selves and all that makes us human. and part of that for many, many people is sex. not to mention it’s where the majority of us got our start on this planet.

it’s important for me to remember, borrowing heavily from gayle rubin, that sex and sexuality is not just repressed, but also oppressed. there’s a social hierarchy of what kind of sex is and isn’t okay, and groups of people (queers, kinky people, polyamorous folks, sex workers, etc) are marginalized based on what kind of sex they’re having. aside from the obvious example of prostitution being illegal, there is plenty of legislation in this country governing sex – from sodomy laws to states in which you can buy guns but not vibrators.

queer and trans liberation, for me, are inextricably bound up with sexual freedom. mainstream LGB folks will protest time and time again that it isn’t about what we do in bed. but you know what? it is. it is about who we fuck – and who we love, and who we are. i can bet you that 90% of homophobia is rooted in fear and disgust of gay SEX. and so much of transphobia relies on panic over what’s in our pants.

so, bear with me for a second and imagine the alternative. imagine a world where people believed in the ethical slut‘s proclamation that “sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.” not “good for you in the context of marriage,” or “good for you in a loving, monogamous relationship,” or “good for you when done by straight people.” just good for you, period.

imagine a world where children were given full information about sex, how their bodies work, how to protect themselves, how to say no AND how to say yes. imagine if consent wasn’t a radical idea. if condoms, gloves, and dental dams were given out in schools. a world without the “slut/stud” double standard, where women’s bodies weren’t seen as material objects and used to sell consumer products. a world where it was safe for people of all genders to walk alone at night wearing whatever they please. a world where sex work was not only decriminalized but safe, accepted as a legitimate profession, and unionized. a world where rape and sexual abuse were no longer woven into the fabric of our culture. a world where people weren’t still dying of AIDS.

in my ideal world, the diversity of sexuality would be considered beautiful, and anything consensual would be acceptable. everyone would have agency, and everyone would have fun.

besides, how much of a better place could the world be if we were all sexually satisfied?

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storm warning: 100% chance of glitter.

welcome to CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF GLITTER, where i’ll be blogging about queer politics, race & class & gender, feminism, immigration, pop culture, and the random interactions i have on public transportation…all from the point of view of a fagtastic jewish-ish boy navigating a gender transition.

either that, or i’ll just post beyonce videos and pictures of kittens.

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