Chanukah is a time when we display our Judaism as a proud badge of honor — we light our menorahs by our windows and come together as a community to celebrate a shared history and a shared identity.
While we are all proud of our shared Jewish identity, we also would like to take this Chanukah season to highlight the stories of the other, intersecting identities within the Jewish community. Kolbo Fine Judaica Gallery is excited to share the first post of our Intersecting Identities series, written by guest blogger JoJo Jacobson.
It is not an easy time to be Jewish, and it is not an easy time to be queer.
How can one see the attacks in the news and then continue to live one’s life, to go out to work and face the world? What do we do when it feels like there is a deluge of horrors, like every single day the bullets get closer and closer to home? How do we keep going when it feels like the only safe thing to do is to hide under the covers and never come out?
As someone who lives and works in a secular world, I frequently have to “come out” as Jewish. I have to tell people that I won’t be able to make a meeting scheduled on a holiday, and I have to tell people I can’t eat the food that was catered for an event. In our current society, this can, unfortunately, still present challenges for many.
Similarly, and perhaps even more so, coming out as queer is still an act of resistance, and one I don’t take lightly. In different contexts, it can be easier or harder. Depending on the audience, coming out can be a very dangerous activity.
Haifa, and Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv
I have a very unusual favorite pastime in Israel. It goes like this: I get up in the morning, and Suzie goes to do her work. (We’re always there for Suzie’s work; we don’t go for fun.) She goes off to meetings, and I go to the shuk. I find a coffee shop in the mid-morning, when it’s not very busy, and I sit down at the counter and order coffee.
When the barista starts talking with me, I’m friendly and forthcoming. And when the barista says, “so what are you doing in Israel? Are you visiting?” I’m honest.
I say, “I’m here because I’m married to a rabbi.”
And they say “oh, an American rabbi. Is he Orthodox?”
And I say “no, SHE is not.”
And this is my favorite pastime. The barista, who is almost always a secular Jewish Israeli, pauses and says, “She? A rabbi?” And then they look at me and say, “And with you? Married?” And I smile and shrug and nod. Yep, me! And the barista always says, “that is SO COOL!” And they ask a thousand questions, and I answer them to the best of my ability, and we chat and I order a second coffee, and we spend some time talking about gender and politics and religion and life. It’s a fun way to spend a few hours. And I tip well. And by the time Suzie is done with her morning meetings, the barista greets her entrance to the coffee shop with a cheerful, “so you are Suzie, the rabbi!”
So that is how my favorite pastime in Israel is coming out.
One time, however, it was not my favorite pastime.
Suzie and I were packing up to go from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, and we had our luggage with us as we were waiting for the bus. A scraggly older Orthodox man came towards us. I told him we didn’t have any cash on us for tzedakah, and he said, “that’s ok, I want to give you a blessing, a blessing for you and your…” he looked at Suzie, “your son.”
Suzie was struggling with one of our bags and hadn’t heard him correctly. “We don’t need any blessings,” she grumbled.
I felt my face growing hot. “She’s not my son!” I opened up my mouth before I even knew what I was going to say. “She’s my wife!”
Suzie looked at me in terror for one brief instant. She grabbed as many bags as she could hold. “Let’s go.” She tried to get away from the man before he started shouting or cursing at us.
“No no,” the man looked surprised, but kept his earnest and cheerful demeanor, “it’s okay. I still want to give you a blessing.”
I was curious. Suzie was anxious.
“May you be happy and healthy and prosperous and may your families love you,” the man said with a beatific smile.
That was it. No anger. No lecture on Leviticus.
I thanked him, and the train came.
We sat on the train, tired and sleep deprived and a bit stunned. Was he praying we’d turn out straight somehow? Was he accepting our queerness? Did he know anyone in the LGBTQ community in Jerusalem? We didn’t know. The world is full of surprises. I don’t know who that man was, but there’s at least one old Orthodox man in Jerusalem who is kind to queer folks.
I was thinking of my brave trans and genderqueer friends, of my nonbinary friends and the people in my life who don’t pass as straight, of how this political climate is bad and getting worse, and how I push so hard to balance politeness and authenticity. I was thinking of all of that and more today at lunch when I took a deep breath and turned around to go back and talk to that lady in the park.
I do not usually discuss my identities at my work. It doesn’t come up, and I don’t bring it up, because I don’t want to distract my students. I have worked in higher education for years, and I’ve helped students improve their writing even when it’s clear they wouldn’t feel comfortable if they knew I was Jewish or married to a woman.
(Years ago I even helped a student improve a paper that was advocating against gay marriage. When I sat down with the student in the tutoring center and realized what the paper was about, I thought, “this paper is against me.” But then I thought, “this student needs my help.” And I also thought “this paper is poorly reasoned.” And so I didn’t recuse myself, and I didn’t reveal my identity as a queer person. I was a professional.
I am always a professional, almost to a fault. I focus on my students, not myself. But maybe the time has come to start questioning that? My students are adults, after all.)
The lady in the park was an adult today, maybe about 25 years old. I was coming back from my lunch break, appreciating the crisp fall leaves as I rushed through the park, trying to remember whether my meeting was at 1 pm or 1:30. She was sitting at a table with donuts and coffee and flyers, and the breeze caught a few of her flyers and they blew right in front of me on the path. We picked them up together, and I asked what she was doing at her table.
She was friendly and easygoing, and she smiled when she told me about her organization. Something to do with campus Christians, and she worked at several art schools in the area. I smiled and said something nice about the weather as I turned to walk away.
She didn’t know I was queer. They never do.
She also didn’t know I was Jewish.
And I walked away, thinking of this broken and fragile world, full of people who are vulnerable and people who are hateful. I thought of how many Christian people I’ve met wanted to convert me. I thought of how I had a friend in high school who was convinced I was going to hell.
I thought of how many people don’t know any Jewish people at all, and many don’t know any out queer or trans people either. How it’s so easy to make assumptions about people one doesn’t know, about how assumptions and stereotypes can be so dangerous, how we all live in echo chambers on social media, about how important and rare random face-to-face encounters can be—but wouldn’t it be awkward to turn around now? But what would I say?
I thought how sometimes meeting one nice person can change your entire perspective. I thought how that young woman at the table thought I was nice but didn’t know I was Jewish or queer, and maybe she didn’t know anyone queer at all, and maybe other people who practiced her religion told her to hate people like me, and she might never know.
I turned back and ran up to the young woman at her table.
“Hi.” I was breathless and awkward, but determined. “I just wanted to say, I’m Jewish, and I’m queer.” The young woman looked up at me quizzically, apparently confused at my identity-related outburst. “And I wish you well with your Christian stuff. And, I hope you wish me well with mine.”
“Oh! I do.” She squinted and half smiled at me.
I smiled at her and turned back to my day.
Yes, it was awkward, and a bit anticlimactic. And perhaps none of it mattered. But it was one more person who had met a nice Jewish person, one more person who had met a nice queer person. One person to potentially speak up to others when they make generalizations. One more nice person in the world.
I don’t know how to handle the deluge of horrors in the world. I am only one person, and I can’t solve everything myself. But I can make sure that every interaction I have makes the world a bit kinder, one person at a time. Those baristas in Israel, the old man on the street, the young Christian woman in the park—all of them can say they met a nice queer person once. That they met someone who was both queer AND Jewish, that I am possible, and that they wished me well.
People like me have been killed in a synagogue in Pittsburg, and people like me have been killed while dancing in Orlando.
However, I’m not going to stop going to synagogue, and I’m not going to stop dancing.
And I’m not going to stop coming out, one person at a time.
JoJo Jacobson is a queer rebbetzin who works in higher education in Boston. She likes having dinners with friends, and she has a whole philosophy about how glitter represents our broken world.