Showing all posts tagged jewish:

Difficult learning

When I was younger I wanted to be a science communicator, maybe a science writer. Science was—is!—can be—one of the best ways for me to experience wonder about the world, about the beautiful arrays of colors in plants or rock layers building up mountains or cats growing fur between their toes or how ears focus sound waves or the pleasant fizzy complexity of fermentation.

But science is hard. I like learning science and I like doing science but I’m not particularly good at it. Sometimes in a bodily way—my hands shake just a little, I don’t have strong endurance for 10-hour days—and sometimes in a mental way; I can’t stay focused on one topic or remember all the pieces of a formula or theory without notes.

It surprised me, then, how much I loved (some pieces of) organic chemistry class. I liked introductory chemistry fine. It’s fun to think about acids and bases and indicators, about how different types of chemicals react together differently, learning about the shuffling around of ions in solution to make a new precipitate, about solubility and chromatography and fascinating bubbling fluids of all kinds. But in OChem, we got to connect the theories together. Each individual atom, with such-and-such proton count and electron orbitals shaped like this, forms a particular number of bonds with other atoms resulting in molecules shaped like this! We built little stick and ball models of them. We learned about what complicated-ass molecule names mean and how to interpret line diagrams of chemical structures, what a benzene ring is drawn like and what it acts like, how different sticky-outy bits from a main carbon chain means a chemical reacts differently because of the actual tiny shape there!

That’s really what got—and continues to get—me: the connection between theory-rich discussion of atom counts and suchlike and the actual physical 3-dimensional spatial relationships between chemicals, which are after all just molecules made of atoms! The nitrogen likes making 3 bonds but makes them at a different angle to (say) a Carbon that’s bonded to an oxygen and two hydrogens; there’s a bonus pair of electrons on the end of a Nitrogen that push just like a bond would that the oxygen doesn’t have, and they all repel each other, trying to take up as much space (or as many steradians) as it can around the atom; so the Nitrogen has four things sharing space and the carbon has 3.

But when we teach organic chemistry, it’s short on wonder. Students get lost in a morass of memorizing lists of reactions and names of chemicals; a pile of flashcards in a 200-person weed-out STEM class where, if you’re lucky, your smaller section is a chaotic busy lab taught by an overwhelmed graduate student where you accidentally spill ether all over your hands repeatedly and get docked points for not filling out your carbon paper lab notebook with the correct margin size.

It’s difficult for all the wrong reasons.

Some parts of science are difficult to learn because they take a brain-shift, a change in perspective, zooming in or out incredibly far in time and space, or maybe holding multiple types of ideas together to track how they interact. The difficulty can be eased some through explanations or practice but can’t be skipped. But when the focus is on remembering the specific wording of the parts that necessary for the MCAT, you don’t have as much brain to apply to the difficulties and achieving actual understanding is that much more difficult.

That being said, some jargon is probably necessary, or at least useful to streamline learning discussions. Where I come down is: there’s no reason to disallow a vocabulary sheet in any learning context. Building reference sheets or tiny molecule models is one way to learn the patterns and a potential pathway to pick up on the interrelations and joy in them. We then can use the memorizable pieces to carry through discussions and problem-solving on a more abstract level rather than memorizing everything involved and hoping for the best.

I have zero training in education, to be clear. I am not a teacher. I have been a student at the undergraduate and graduate levels in various disciplines, including the basic sciences, and lifelong in a more independent way.

My more recent learning has been of a very different type though similar difficulty level. I take a queer-centered talmud course in Seattle called Gaymara. It’s taught Svara-style. We learn in a pretty traditional manner, including going through the text in the original hebrew and Aramaic with a dictionary close at hand. We build knowledge of the language as we go, discussing in chevruta (learning pairs) as we explore the text and its potential meanings and applications. After small-group learning, we come together to discuss as a whole class, figuring out where/if we messed up individually and building knowledge relationships as a whole.

And as the first piece of chevruta study, we work on memorization. We memorize because, historically, antisemites have a habit of burning Jewish books, but also because it can be a useful step in building knowledge. We recite back from memory (or as close to as possible) the text we learned the previous week: in Hebrew/Aramaic; in English as a direct/clear/simple/literal language translation; and in English with colloquialisms. Crucially, we do not memorize things we don’t understand; we (hopefully) encode things into our memories only once we understand them and their significance.

When we come together as a group for the second half of class, we discuss and teach and learn all at once. We sound out the language and, in the process, keep it alive in between turning pages of an inscrutable dictionary I love to hate. Language learning, like science, is difficult in some intractable ways, and interpretation of texts rooted in a different culture than ours is too; doing them at the same time helps root each learning in the other.

I’m learning vocabulary and some grammar word by word, but I’m also learning how to tell if the text shifts from Hebrew to Aramaic or back; I’m learning which rabbis lived where and when, and gaining a much deeper grasp of jewish history and our relationship with diaspora than I could by reading a translation, even if the text we’re studying is about something else entirely.

I took Organic Chemistry a decade ago. I passed, but not by very much. Time is its own ingredient: I don’t know if I would do better in a traditional classroom than I did last time, or worse; but I feel interested and capable in taking on the source material now in a way I wasn’t then.

I want to re-learn organic chemistry. I want to remember long-forgotten pieces of molecules and how they work together, electron pairs and covalent bonds, I want to think about perpendicular rings and little bitty structure diagrams. And I want to do it more like how I learn talmud: with a dictionary in front of me, and a reference sheet of definitions I build as I go. Talking about steps and meaning and shapes with a fellow learner (which, arguably, I really should have done the first time around), and trying to remember it not through rote repetition devoid of meaning but in connection with pieces I've learned before, and little models, and trying individual phrases and reaction diagrams on for size bit by bit until it clicks into place as part of a coherent and beautiful narrative.

Responsibility and guilt on the high holy days

Content warnings: self-hate, bad feelings, mentions of suicidal thoughts and intrusive thoughts

This is the first year I have been able to attend Yom Kippur services and avoid suicidal thoughts. I even managed to stay away from more pedestrian intrusive thoughts of self-harm. I am being blatant and specific about this because I have not read other people doing so. I have wanted to read these words, or words like them, and I have needed to feel less alone in a sea of "Yom Kippur is hard for everybody" and "at least you don’t have to fast" (because of my physical medical problems) and "Really? I love Yom Kippur."

This year, for the first time in my life, I actually felt a sense of closure with Neilah services. What I usually feel is continued guilt over my "sins", lasting through the evening and the year. Other people feel relief, an end to the closer-than-usual consideration of their own negative actions, but I (and people like me) can’t really stop just because we’re supposed to. I fall into guilt not only for the bad things I’ve done, but into a cognitive distortion spiral of depression, feeding what I call my jerkbrain (so named because it is a lying jerk).

I am immensely pleased I’m not dealing with a depression spiral this year. I’m not sure exactly what to credit with this change, but there are three main differences from previous Yom Kippurs: I have been seeing a therapist consistently and we’ve made real progress; I went to both Kol Nidre and Neilah services, but skipped the daytime prayers and rested at home instead; and I went to a service that did not use the full traditional liturgy, specifically using an altered (though no less harsh) vidui.

Jews do vidui (confession) in first person plural. We have done [insert list of bad things here], because we as a community contain people who might’ve done any of those things. If you personally have not done a given bad thing in the list, you still say it along with everyone else. We as a community are responsible for each other, is the message, while also reinforcing that we do need to consider a little closer what sins we’ve actually done. The bulk of vidui consists of two acrostics: a longer (Al Chet) and a shorter (Ashamnu).

Pieces of the original Al Chet text chafe for me. It includes 'perversion’ and ‘lewdness’ when I see queer sexuality as a source of holiness and joy, ‘frivolity’ when I do not see seriousness as a virtue. It forces us to apologize for ‘a confused heart’ when doubt and questioning are jewish values, and decries 'pride and stubbornness' when I have been working hard to inhabit these as strengths when appropriate.

The version of Al Chet that I experienced at Kadima this year was more fitting and better suited to introspection that answers the questions I actually need to answer: For what are we collectively and individually at fault? Where should we step further into repair work? It was divided into four levels: self, family, community, society, being pointed in the questions of our time politically and interpersonally, about forgiving the self and building community we all need. Each section was still punctuated with the traditional refrain: V’al kulam elohai slichot, slach lanu mchal lanu kaper lanu. For all these, G-d of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us. And an English addition: For all of these we ask for forgiveness. For each one of these misdeeds, we forgive.

Vidui has a worthy purpose, but it is designed for brains that are not depressed. It is for people that start out assuming they have not sinned. It is designed to take people from a place of "I’m probably doing fine" to "oh shit, I am complicit in bad things; let’s look into some specifics and do better next year." For people who start from a place of assuming they are wrong, whether this is a result of faulty brain chemistry or a reaction to past abuse, reading a list of things bad things ‘we' have done is the opposite of helpful. We start at a place of ’this is bad, I am saying I have done this, therefore I am bad’ and arrive at 'I am unforgivable and unrecoverable’, which is not actually an accurate view of any person.

When I discuss this issue with people, the first advice I get about this is to be kinder to myself. It’s a good goal, but only half the puzzle. My aim for the self-reflection and internal accounting in the days of awe is not necessarily a less negative result, but a more accurate and less distorted one. I don’t want to change vidui to make it easy. I honestly believe everyone could use the self-reflection involved, if we can manage to think about where we’ve actually missed the mark rather than how we are, individually, The Worst.

I have, for my entire life, experienced Yom Kippur and teshuvah in general through the lens of guilt. It would be better to approach them through the lens of responsibility. We have all done things we need to atone for. By situating these harms in guilt we focus on ourselves, our feelings and (if your brain works like mine) Intrinsic Badness instead of centering those harmed. Responsibility is a better frame. Responsibility centers the problem or the restorative action necessary. It contains potential for teshuvah, while still being clear and honest about ownership of righting the wrong.

The traditional shorter acrostic, ashamnu, uses each letter of the alphabet once, with one exception. It ends with two lines for the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet: we have gone astray and, separately, we have led others astray. We have all done bad things, and been complicit in bad things happening. The optimal reaction to this is not avoidance or focusing on self-centered guilt; it is owning our responsibility and working towards teshuvah on personal, interpersonal, community, societal levels. We need to do work to forgive ourselves as much as we need to collectively act towards tikkun olam, whether that takes the form of climate justice work, activist art, everyday mutual aid, or something else entirely.

"You are not the bad thing," says my therapist, "even if you did a bad thing." I am working on believing her. Hearing this from a trusted person who knows me helps the pieces slide into place. I have responsibility for my mistakes and bad actions, but thinking about them should not poison my thoughts for all eternity or be tools for my brain to convince me to harm myself.

May all of us be sealed into the book of life for the next year.

Tashlich: purity is fake

Hello! I decided to make up a tashlich service. Enjoy.

[gather queer people at a body of water]

A thing I know about the history of queerness is that they try to erase us. They forbid depictions of us, positively or at all; but we know it was there, because otherwise why would they be specifically trying to erase it? Similarly, for tashlich, we can trace its origins back to a rabbi trying to ban it.

Fuck that guy. Let’s throw some (biodegradable and/or natural) metaphorical sin in the water, and watch it float off, and say some blessings.

(Cast crumbs or etc; shake out clothing)
In addition to throwing crumbs out into the water, I want you to shake the crumbs out of [article of clothing or accessory that means a lot to you]. Traditionally the talit katan, but maybe it’s a scarf/hat/hankie. Kabbalistic traditions do this to rid ourselves of not just individual sins so much, but kelipot. Literally just found out about these today! Nothing like learning as you go.

Kelipot-the-word means shells/husks/peels, the outside that protects and also hides the tasty parts of a lotta plant foods. There’s four concentric ones, they’re negative attributes and sorta the opposite of sefirot. Kelipot-the-concept means, more broadly, either evil or spiritual obstacles. There’s four concentric layers. The innermost one touches the holiness of G?d and interacts with it; it exists, like humanity, of good and bad, according to some having an ability to transform one into the other. "Repentance out of love retrospectively turns sin into virtue, darkness into light." —R. Wikipedia

Leader chants Micha 7:18-20, available here: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/text-of-tashlich/
Group sings Min Hametzar together (also at link)

There’s a lot more I don’t want to do let’s talk about divine sparks of light instead. In creation, G-d’s light overflowed our vessels, too holy for us, entirely outside our conception. But! After creation, sparks of holiness remained within us and among the rest of the world. It is our job as humans to uncover this holiness. The shaken-off pieces from our garments, the sand in our shoes and crumbs in our pockets—these are our sins and misbehaviors, and as we sift through and shake off the pieces we discover previously-hidden sparks of holiness, covered by the kelipot (demons? Evils?) of our lives, both the everyday and the exceptional. The kelipot trap these sparks and hide them; but through The Work, we rediscover them. Through art and through justice, mitzvot and tikkun olam.

We are destined to find sparks in ourselves and also, for each of us, particular ones in the outside world. This is our assignment and our destiny, such that one exists: shake off the kelipot, peel the fruit, and discover the divinity meant, specifically, for us. "When all the sparks have been reclaimed for the holy, the Messiah [alternately: revolution] will come". (From: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/holy-sparks/2/)

Optional: close out by singing Ana B'Koach


9 Av

Tisha b’Av is a day for being in your feelings. Traditionally it's about feelings of despair over our people’s history of being persecuted, our holiest places set on fire and debased, then after rebuilding ruined again; our people (including some of my ancestors) taken as Roman slaves. The point of Tisha b’Av is to feel the thing. To sit in the sorrow and mourn what has been, and what could have been. To think of ourselves as a people and the tragedies we’ve faced. Tisha b’Av is the day we reserve for screaming into the wind and ham handed metaphors trying to explain our pain, it’s when we let go of embarrassment and stop trying to distract ourselves and feel the depths of it with the promise that tomorrow we will stretch to the bottom and be a fuller self able to attend to the rest of life.

It is a people’s, not an individual’s or even a family’s, mourning. It is the feeling queer people had after Pulse, each American city’s after their own mass shooting. it is seeing war and loss and climate change. It is about letting ourselves grieve the violent change that resulted in a beautiful Jewish diaspora. Some diasporists go so far as to be grateful for the exile, for us being kicked out of Yerushalayim back when it was holy, for the destruction(s) of the Temple(s). Without the exile, we wouldn’t have the talmud; the reinvention of judaism post-Temple destruction in babylonian exile is responsible for large parts of judaism as it exists now.

I am not there, and I do not see myself ever getting there. I can recognize what we have now and the geographic spread of Judaism as a positive, with its decentralization and diversity, held together with continued mourning of tragic events from thousands of years ago. These changes were fueled by a huge cultural trauma and loss. I am mourning exile and refugeehood even as we celebrate Jewish diaspora and work to enrich it. I mourn the Temple’s loss, I mourn a type of traditional Judaism I wouldn’t have had access to even if I lived then.

A few weeks back, I attended an art event on talmud and diaspora, connecting new works of art with some traditional old-school text study on how and where wisdom is centered, whether a people’s heart lives in its past or its present or its future or all of the above; the attendees spoke about justice struggles in their own lives, on the peoplehood-level about other groups and about Judaism and about specific sub-groups within; about personal experiences protesting injustices; about hope and futility both.

The destruction of each of the two Temples and resulting exile(s) from jerusalem caused a sea change in how judaism was practiced not just as a religion but in how our culture was structured; it was, literally, a breakdown of authority. The ability to have a priest-class or even a Jerusalem-centered high-authority sanhedrin (high court) changed; bavel (babylonia) became a center of the jewish world. The talmud works through these issues in between conversations about all kinds of other things around Jewish life. I mourn the unreachability of the before time, even though I do not want to reach for it directly.

I am an anti-zionist as well as a diasporist. I do not want the state of israel to exist in its current form, or in any form that overrides other rightful inhabitants of the land. My antizionism also works with, not against, mourning the destruction of the Temples. On Tisha b’Av, as with all holidays, I reject zionist connections between the eretz yisrael we had in the early days of Jewish peoplehood and the state of israel now. I believe there is potential for Jerusalem to once again be a holy city. I believe, right now, that it is not—that the way the israeli government holds it and behaves is itself a sin, desecrating the potential for holiness and moving us farther from the age of the moshiach.

Sitting with my feelings is not something I’m good at, regardless of scale. I can shove them down or hum them or turn them into words or blurt them out to the person they’re about, but how do you feelingsblurt to G*d, praying: I am so sorry for our sins, we have misbehaved and the world is ending, please allow us to correct ourselves at the last moment and stay our total destruction as you have before in times of crisis?

It’s uncomfortable to sit with a feeling and not do anything about it, not force it into a shape or process or do anything but feel and mourn in a group of people feeling and mourning. But sitting with your feelings is the most important piece of noting, consecrating, existing through the 9th of Av. It’s a day where it is ok to be selfishly sad about your and your people’s experiences, even though others have been treated as badly or worse.

Things are bad. Things been bad. Give yourself permission to feel the negative feelings around the edges and sit with them a little. This is not giving up; it is part of experiencing the world. It is ok to be sad.

I am glad there are people preaching hope. I am sometimes one of them. But sometimes we have to sit on the floor and be sad for a day before we can go back to work. Monday we’ll get up and push back on it but maybe today can be for sitting with it, grieving, processing.

We are at a time in the US where everyone is having a depth of sorrow and panic and mourning. We are facing two shootings in one day in the lead-up to 9 av, and an additional one since the fast of tammuz. We are in a time of change, where we are constantly facing questions: are mass gatherings, festivals, events safe?

Simultaneously, we are facing an era of Never Again, of "what if I were an average German citizen during the shoah". Jewish groups organize #NeverAgainIsNow protests days apart around the country, at regional ICE headquarters and detention centers, in partnership with immigrant rights groups. Saying the United States are a nation of immigrants undermines indigenous sovereignty and rights to the land we currently occupy, but we as Jews are truly a nation of immigrants, our forefathers (ideological or biological or both) traveling between lands in search of our own, then exiled from there repeatedly and perpetually, whether our "there" is Cordoba or Jerusalem or New York City or somewhere else entirely.

So, here we sit and lament. Digest feelings. Sometimes of fear or terror, sometimes of thought, sometimes of itching for action.

The next month in the Jewish calendar is Elul. We go from peoplehood-level experiences of mourning straight to personal recollections of sin and teshuvah (repentance). In the Jewish calendar as in the rest of the world, the difficult and important things cluster in time. If we act now, and act frequently—today or tomorrow or next week or next month—maybe true justice will be closer. If we feel and process today, maybe we will have better endurance for the work, whether that work is the internal reflections of Elul or external justice actions.

The point is the doing, but before that: here is our day for processing our very own large-scale intergenerational trauma. Sitting with it, and attending to our feelings, doing the uncomfortable bad self-care, dealing with the parts that don’t involve indulgence or responsibility, just digesting and collectively processing thousands of years of loss.

Tomorrow, more work. Today, I sit.

Ruth and Queer Family of Choice

I led a 50-or-so minute discussion session based on this at an inter-community tikkun leil shavuot June 9th in Seattle. Enjoy.



The book of Ruth is a story about a family of choice, and how it was formed; how a queer migrant became Jewish. After a loss, two women cleave to each other and work together to subvert social norms and expectations of family, as well as rules around property ownership, in order for them to stay together.

The specific concept and verbiage of family of choice was coined by Kath Weston in 1991 as "kinship practices and feelings that do not depend on biological filiations and are not based on reproduction". The concept of family being not-only-blood, not-only-marriage, has existed especially in queer circles for much longer. We exist often exist on the edges of society, and we support each other (hopefully) and tend to cluster, and as such we have always built families and social groups outside the norm.

Sometimes queer family ignores "official" family markers, but sometimes it directly subverts them. Before they could get married, gay men in the AIDS crisis sometimes adopted a younger partner so they’d have a legal family tie that overrode their family of origin. Queer family looks like Freddie Mercury declaring he’s his friend’s new mother after said friend’s birth mother passed away. Queer family is a couple’s additional partners coming together to celebrate and/or officiate their marriage. Queer family is taking in kids you’re not blood-related to who were kicked out of their homes for being gay. Queer family is buying a house so you have a rotating free guest room for whoever needs it this month, free of charge.

Queer readings of Ruth are classic, but tend to focus exclusively on the feelings and love between Ruth and Naomi. I prefer to focus on the next steps: what did they do with that love? What choices did they make when confronted with the oppressive social expectations of the time?

In the beginning of the story, Naomi is devastated. She just lost her family. She is in crisis. Ruth sees this and needs to communicate that she has not lost her entire family, and expresses her devotion in 1:16-17. This sometimes gets interpreted as romantic only, or out of love for the jewish people only; to me, it reads as both. No matter your view of the feelings between these two women, this pledge is an expression of love and of intention stay with Naomi for her life and beyond, to keep building the family as it stands rather than going home to start over.



Even with all that, Naomi’s sad and still wants to go home. She renames herself Mara, sees herself as a bitter old woman, and keeps going forward while trying to figure out how to keep everyone alive and happy as best she can.

There is a problem: women can’t own property. Naomi and Ruth, as women unattached to men, are in danger of losing everything they have. So Naomi plans for Ruth to hook up with and possibly marry Boaz, her relative who’s a pretty good dude. She sends her to him, they have sex, and also a conversation.

There’s a linguistic quirk in this conversation. Boaz says to Ruth: I was told everything you did for Naomi. But when he says that, the word told is repeated. The rabbis point this out and have a whole discussion about it, but my interpretation is a little different. Part of existing queerly is hearing unsaid implications and speaking a hidden language. I was told, and i was told: i heard the surface level, and also what was actually said. I understand you and Naomi are close. I understand you are dedicated to her, and to our ways.

We all have complicated methods of negotiating safety and unsafety. We say "are you family" instead of "are you gay." Sometimes we can’t hold hands in public with our loved ones. Sometimes we introduce partners as friends or friends as partners. Sometimes these categories themselves blur. Sometimes we imply as subtly as we can that we see each other’s truth, piece by piece: I like your hair. Nice (rainbow) pin. Dropping hints about girlfriends or a same-gender spouse to open the conversation and create an environment of safety. I was told—and I was told. I hear you—and I hear you.

Also during this conversation, Boaz points out there’s a closer relative, who’d be a more legally sound choice to marry and keep property in the family. Boaz has treated Ruth well; he treats his workers well; his workers treat Ruth well. We do not know if this other relative would do so, but Boaz is not vulnerable the way Ruth would be. He has the power to be seen as a person in ways they do not, and wants to participate in the group mission of keeping Naomi’s property in the family but in as above-board a way as possible.

So anyway, Boaz talks to the closer relative who is like "fuck that i’m not sleeping with HER" using language of impurity. The closer relative doesn’t want THAT woman, the one who’s foreign, the one who’s so close to Naomi. He doesn’t want the impropriety sullying his genetic line. Boaz at this point basically goes "well, your loss, my gain," and Bigot McRelativeSon is forgotten to the annals of history and doesn’t even get a name, just referred to as ploni almoni (hebrew for joe schmo).

Later, Ruth gets pregnant and gives birth. All the women are thrilled and say "Naomi your kallah (either daughter in law or young bride) loves you and is so good to you!" The baby gets passed to Naomi! Naomi nurses the baby! The women say "a son is born to Naomi!" Boaz is not mentioned, really, but in my mind he’s off minding his own business in the fields and threshing floor and nobody’s bugging him about getting married or producing heirs anymore.

They have, Ruth and Naomi and Boaz, built a family that fills everyone’s needs together. Ruth is married, so the property can stay in the family. Naomi raises the child birthed by Ruth, conceived by Boaz and Ruth’s marriage, or the three of them do as a family, maybe.

In a fuck-you to traditional bloodlines, and to the idea that they are all straight normal people all the way down, that child Obed was King David’s Grandfather. King David, whose love of his friend Jonathan was greater than his love for women. King David, whose line will bring about the Moshiach. We are here; we have always been here; we are important; we will always be important. Families that differ from the way families are expected to look have always been crucial in Judaism. We need to support and accept them not despite their differences, but because of them; both because it is the right thing to do and because queer families are crucial to our ancestral tradition and heritage.

Counting the omer

When I was a kid, my dad and i would sit together every night before bed and count the omer. It was a special "us time", counting together, practicing the numbers in hebrew and doing quick math to turn the day-count into weeks.


Marking time is good for me. I get depressed, especially but not exclusively in winter, and I struggle with time slipping away from me since I exist in an relatively unstructured life. There’s bills that need paying, there’s laundry that needs done, there’s groceries and cat litter and medication refills, so I have to pay some attention and stay tethered to a linear timeline.

But there’s also the cherry trees blooming, including the one outside my kitchen window that tends to hit a little earlier than the rest. There’s traditional shabbat services I help lead the 2nd shabbat of each (gregorian calendar) month. There’s flipping the month over in each of the 4 calendars in my apartment. There's shabbat shalom texts in the family group chat. There’s looking at the Radical Jewish Calendar when I feel disconnected and unimportant, and seeing things that happened today in history connected to my political and philosophical and religious ancestors, seeing ActUp meetings and activist yahrzeits next to the week’s torah portion.

Judaism is not, broadly speaking, for people who feel like they have it all figured out. It is for people like me and people like you, people living a day at a time and trying to have that make sense in a context, in any context. It is a religion of people for whom counting each day, one by one, between the pilgrimage holidays of liberation and of receiving the torah, of planting and harvest, is an achievement. Of people who struggle with introspection and self-improvement, of people who have mental illnesses or trouble existing sometimes, who come from weird families and broken people and persistently forever trying to overcome intergenerational trauma and hereditary mental illnesses.

It is for us.

This is the second year of my adult life I’m counting the omer with the sefirot. For each day, we say the standard blessing, count the days in between, mark the time, and think on a combination of Gdly attributes. I use this guide, primarily, tweaking wording as occasionally my interpretations of the attributes differ from theirs (based on my surface level learnings from Rav Wikipedia, of course). There’s a bunch of similar guides on Ritualwell, including this list of shorter daily prompts. I am tracking my daily reactions to the prompts in this Mastodon thread if you’d like to read them.

The sun will set tonight, and rise tomorrow, and set again, and after each of these sunsets I am committing to (at least) saying a few sentences in hebrew with a blessing, and if I can manage it thinking about chesed/gevurah/tiferet/netzach/hod/yesod/malchut in pairwise combinations, reflecting on whether I am managing that particular combination (in that order) well or poorly, where to improve, what my goals are, and who I want to be.

TransJewCon and an abundance of disability feelings

I’d heard of Rabbi Emet Tauber zt’’l before my New York trip, and very much wanted to meet him at the Trans Jews Are Here event (or elsewhere, I’m not picky). Because I didn’t know him, because our social connections remained indirect, maybe because he didn’t know either, I had no idea he was so close to death. Even though I don’t know him, R’ Emet’s death is fucking with me, emotionally. I forget sometimes that EDS is terminal, not just inconvenient and disabling. At least one of my favorite people has EDS, as does their kid; my old doctors thought i might too.

I know I’m not supposed to want a cure, or feel sad about disability, but the abundance of people like me in communities like mine is rough. How many people die young, and how many of us are suffering? The number of disabled folks at Trans Jews Are Here was both fulfilling and difficult for me. Disability and impairment rob us of productivity, not just in the shitty capitalistic way but creatively, spiritually, interpersonally, religiously. It’s at best a tax paid in money or time we could be spending elsewhere, whether due to demanding access in a world built for other people or pushing back against a body behaving poorly or both. How much time that could be spent creating trans jewish art and spaces and community is spent waiting at the pharmacy? We are suffering, and some of the best of us are dying young. How many Jewish trans folks are destined to become rabbis but can’t? How many trans disabled people are destined to become Jewish but can’t?

It’s frustrating existing in a world not built for you, and it’s lonely as hell having to build so many spaces, to put time into projects that might disappear, even just as an attendee to balance complaints and criticisms with worries about whether they'll be seen as an excuse to cancel the next one. Disability is alienating. Transness can be too, depending on where you are; same with Judaism. It is hard to be like this and find community, even temporary, even in miniature talmud retreats and friend of friend connections, in chavurahs that make a minyan maybe once a year, in I-see-you nods across a crowded shul to the other GNC mobility device user, in sitting on the sidelines with a nice lesbian couple at the yiddish socialist concert where your chevruta’s in the opening band and you were worried about there not being a place to sit but wanted so badly to go anyway.

It feels so good and beautiful and necessary to make these spaces, and it is so tiring, and much harder if you’re disabled. My favorite part of this weekend was that I didn’t have to plan it, that I was around so many trans jews and I didn’t have to pinch-hit read torah or set myself a reminder to ping the email list or see if my friend is out of the hospital or give people rides or check on the organizers. I’m burning out, and I don’t work, and I have a secure living situation, and I don’t do this full time or for a living, and if I stop, maybe the next Emet will die before he finds any of us, so I can’t stop.

I can’t stop thinking about how I don’t have the mental energy to lead two seders this year, so I won’t be doing another internet seder when the one last year made me friends and was the only one at least two people could attend and the only one more people wanted to go to.

I can’t stop thinking about the many, many, many trans jews by choice I know, so many also disabled, continuing to struggle to find a class and rabbi that doesn’t deny their existence, that doesn’t take transness or queerness or nonbinariness as a reason to reject someone, when they deserve a community that will truly bring them into the fold and love them fully as trans jews.
I can’t stop thinking about the Kaddish podcast episode about trans tahara. What happens when nonbinary Jews die? Who performs tahara? Do I need to up my observance levels and go birth stealth and be trained so there is somebody here? Can I even do that, physically? What if I die, what if my friends die, what happens?

I want the world to be better than it is, for us and for them and for future generations, and I constantly run into inaccessibility struggles for myself while trying to bring the world into a position closer to the next, tiny increments closer to wholeness, repair, moshiach. I’m holding fragments. We are all holding fragments. What now?

Retaining agency in death

One Saturday in March, 1911, a New York factory full of recent immigrant workers—Irish and Jewish women, mostly—were working their shift, locked into the building as per usual. A fire broke out. They could not leave. They died.

Mayn Rue Platz was written in 1911 by someone who worked in sweatshops, about his family and friends who worked in sweatshops, after the triangle shirtwaist factory fire. A yiddish poem about death in sweatshop conditions, bodies left to burn up and be forgotten by all but their families. Its been put to music and sung multiple times, in multiple languages. My current favorite is Geoff Berner’s version available on Bandcamp.

The sweatshop workers did not have a choice about their post-death situation. Most bodies were unidentifiable, inseparable from the ruins of the factory—their final resting place.

I’ve been thinking a lot about agency after death. About whether people’s wishes are respected, and how particularly dehumanizing it is when they’re not.

Trans people are misgendered in death all too frequently. The deceased’s blood relations often end up making decisions of obituary wording and names used; if the person wasn’t out to their family, or had cut ties, or had bigoted family; if the family’s not in the picture, but the person hadn’t been able to update legal documentation of their name or gender; endless reasons, really. We slip through the cracks a lot.

It’s cultural violence when we are misgendered after our deaths.

James Miranda Barry, renowned surgeon and medical pioneer, was a man assigned female at birth. He was not widely out in life. He did have lovers, and bore at least one child, but he was a man and viewed as one until the day he died.

Once he passed away, not only did people find out he was trans, but his story began being told differently. Some now see him as a pioneering woman, in fact.

There is a cis woman writing a book about him, under this assumption. To her, Dr. Barry acted as and dressed as a man only to gain the social power and prestige men hold; to her, he was truly a woman all along.

How do we affirm someone's specific humanity in death? Are cultural practices recognized, or personal wishes, when the two conflict?

Are our bodies cleaned and prepared for burial, or unconsidered trash? Are we buried in marked or unmarked graves, or even at all? Are our requests about our bodies honored, if we even thought of having them?

What of fictionalization in a way that erases one’s true nature, or the struggles one faces?

The publisher has since said they are still publishing the book, announcing today (February 26, 2019) on twitter:

"In response to the discussions arising from the acquisition of the novel The Cape Doctor, Little, Brown publisher Reagan Arthur says, ‘As publishers, we support the freedom of writers to imagine any kind of life and situation, including ones based on historical people and events. E.J. Levy has written a novel that it [sic] is based on a real person, Dr. James Barry. it is a work of imagination, not a biography or a representation of fact.

‘Over the last week, we have listened carefully to members of the transgender community and their allies. We will work with E.J. Levy to publish her novel with sensitivity to the issues that have been raised, including the use of the proper pronouns to describe Dr. Barry’s embodiment. These are important issues that we take seriously, and we look forward to continuing this conversation as we bring The Cape Doctor into the world.’"


A true representation of trans life, and respect for trans death, may start at using the correct pronouns but it does not end there. I do not believe that the book that results will truly respect his legacy, or his life. No matter how many individual trans people serve as sensitivity readers, no matter if he/him pronouns are used in the book, the veneer of fictionalization has been spread by someone who sees Dr. Barry as a woman. It is a profound insult, a shame and a disrespect to a gentleman who lived a hell of a life, to treat him this way. I only hope that competing publishers are seeking out trans man authors to do his story justice.

Tu Bishvat Seder

Tu Bishvat is the new year of the trees! The "tu" in the holiday’s name means 15; the month is Shevat; B’ means of. So: Tu Bishvat. Most of the traditions for the holiday involve fruit. Some eat a new-to-them fruit; some make a point to find and eat carob/St John’s Bread; some just eat any particular fruit for the first time that year.

Kabalist Arizal (R. Isaac Luria) started some of the traditions for Tu Bishvat, including the seder itself organized around the sefirot, attributes of god, and mystical levels of reality.

R’ Luria had a tradition of eating 15 different types of fruit, which sounds like a fun challenge, so that’s what we’re going with. We’ll be eating these in a few stages, but if you need to snack obviously go ahead and do so, just don’t finish up anything we haven’t gotten to yet.

My least favorite thing about Tu Bishvat is what the zionists have done with it, centering the whole thing around the contemporary state of israel and fruit from/of there and its colonialist green-the-desert ecology. Fuck that shit. Let’s practice some diaspora-centered earth-friendly traditional hippie judaism.

There are four glasses of wine or nonalcoholic alternative, like at Pesach, but this time forming a gradient from light to dark. These correspond with the four worlds, ABiYA, each of which has connections to Gdly attributes.

Let us begin.


ONE
Pour a glass of white wine. Don’t drink it yet.

Azilut is emanation. It is where the infinite light of Gd still exists and is connected to its source. It is a dimensionless point, both fixed and diffuse.

The Gdly attribute associated with azilut is chochma, or wisdom. Chochma means a lot of things, including that first inspiration moment where an idea exists without limitations. This plane of existence is beyond even the highest angels; it is part of the concealed world, along with the next world/level we will explore.

Remember back to the perfection of summer, lying on the beach and listening to the water, being part of something bigger than yourself. Unquestionable good, if you believe in that sort of thing.

Wine blessing:
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם בורא פרי הגפן
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melech ha-olam, borei p'ri ha-gafen.
Blessed be You, who creates the fruit of the vine.
Traditionally, we eat the fruits and nuts where the outside is inedible but the inside you can eat. I’d like us to take a fruit from the most local source available and eat it. Fruit! Right here! In January! It’s very cool.

Fruit blessing:
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם בורא פרי העץ
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melech ha-olam, borei p'ri ha-eits.
Blessed be You, who creates the fruit of the tree.


TWO
Pour a glass of white wine, but leave room for a couple drops of red. Or pour a glass of rosé.

The second world we visit tonight is beriya, the world of creation. Here, things exist, but without form. The Gdly attribute for this world is bina, or understanding. Self-awareness begins, the separation of other organisms from Gd.

In Autumn, we eat apples and crunch leaves and begin to worry about the cold creeping in. The world increases in complexity and we have some FOMO for summer fun.

Wine blessing:
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם בורא פרי הגפן
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melech ha-olam, borei p'ri ha-gafen.
Blessed be You, who creates the fruit of the vine.
Here we eat fruits with a pit and no shell: soft edible outside interrupted by hard inedible inside. Olives, dates, cherries and other stone fruits. Jewdas suggests fruits that are edible due to a combination of human ingenuity and nature, which is pretty much all fruits as far as I’m concerned, but let’s eat olives and celebrate.

Fruit blessing:
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם בורא פרי העץ
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melech ha-olam, borei p'ri ha-eits.
Blessed be You, who creates the fruit of the tree.



THREE
Pour a glass that is half red half white.

The previous two worlds are part of the concealed world. As autumn becomes winter and we pass from the concealed to the revealed world, we progress closer to the world we inhabit.

The third world is yetzirah, or formation. Beyonce’s here, probably, along with the rest of the angels.

The Gdly attributes here are the six at the branches of the tree of life: the emotions. Shit gets increasingly complicated, as we get closer to the material world.

There is Chesed, lovingkindness; Gevurah, discipline/severity; Tiferet, beauty/symmetry/balance; Netzach, endurance/eternity; Hod, sincerity/surrender/splendor; and Yesod, foundation, which we use to cohere ideas fully. It’s a different kind of incomprehensible than before; we’ve moved from difficult-to-conceptualize pure good to figuring out how to center ourselves, let alone counter too-close-to-home evil.

In the dark of winter, a deep part of our hindbrain is afraid the sun is gone forever. We hunker down and try not to panic, remembering that survival is work worth doing. We try not to think too hard about the futility of the actions we can take to minimize the destruction of our environment. We push back against impending fascist doom knowing that success, should it happen, will not quite reach our hopes. We push anyway, but it’s harder than it has any right to be.

Wine blessing:
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם בורא פרי הגפן
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melech ha-olam, borei p'ri ha-gafen.
Blessed be You, who creates the fruit of the vine.
Let this be the end of the hopelessness of winter, sweet and bitter and sour joining together to see us through. Here, we focus on fruits where the entire thing is edible. Grapes, figs, berries. Kumquats, probably.

Fruit blessing:
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם בורא פרי העץ
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melech ha-olam, borei p'ri ha-eits.
Blessed be You, who creates the fruit of the tree.


FOUR
Pour a glass of red wine, with a drop of white in it.

The fourth world is our material realm, Asiyah. The physical plane, in all its complexity.

The Gdly attribute associated with Asiya is malchut, or kingship. Asiyah means action; I like to think of this combination as a call to activism. It’s on us now. We are stewards of the earth and must take action.

I think of Mrs. Which in A Wrinkle In Time, announcing: "weeeeee aaaaare heeeeeere".

It is spring. The sap is rising in the trees; soon they will begin to bud, then flower, then fruit. It is not a perfect world, or a perfect situation. But we have survived the hardest part of the year. I hear a wise man once said that the long arc bends towards justice. With a little help, we can push this to happen.

Wine blessing:
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם בורא פרי הגפן
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melech ha-olam, borei p'ri ha-gafen.
Blessed be You, who creates the fruit of the vine.
Take in the essence of some tree or another. Maple syrup, cinnamon, bay leaf, cedar. Enjoy the sweet smells and build hope for the future.

Sweet-smelling tree blessing:
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינומלך העולם בורא עֲצֵי בְשָמִים
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam, borei atzei b’samim
Blessed be You, who creates sweet-smelling trees.

This is where we honor Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and all others who fight for justice. This is where we face the complexity of being humans who fucked over this earth using our small power to prevent further destruction.

I do not know what is next, but we are here to build it together.

Let’s close with the traditional bracha, blessing, used in the first Tu Bishvat seder by R’ Luria, translated by R’ Wikipedia: "May all the sparks scattered by our hands, or by the hands of our ancestors, or by the sin of the first human against the fruit of the tree, be returned and included in the majestic might of the tree of life."


This Tu Bishvat seder was cobbled together from various sources, including neochasid.org, Wikipedia, and the Jewdas 2019 Tu Bishvat seder. Traditions vary, including when to eat which fruits; I did my best to merge them coherently.

Ben Grimm And Other Jewish Things

"I don't talk it up, is all. Figure there's enough trouble in this world without people thinkin' Jews are all monsters like me." —Ben Grimm (The Thing)


The Fantastic Four are elemental, both in the fire air earth water way and that they are foundational to superheroes as we know them today. Basics, classic features of the marvel universe are sourced in their very first issues; they open the door to the weirder cosmic Marvel with shapeshifting skrulls and evil autocrat rival scientist Dr. Doom.

It’s a known fact to most Jewish people that when we go out into the world, we represent all Jews. It’s in a subtler way than for other racialized groups, and arguably we’re not as confined by it, but Jewish respectability politics do exist.

A popular view of Judaism, both from outside and within, is that we have a choice between Orthodox jewish practice or assimilating into mainstream culture.

Maybe you stand from the goyim, but do your best to fit in at shul; marry young, have a big family, do as many of the the right things as possible, while still fitting into your community. This is not the environment I grew up in, so I have less to say about it; but it is stifling in ways I don’t know how to interact with, and being a genderqueer individual facing a highly gendered space I don’t intend to start now.

The one I am more familiar with: you don’t stand out, or call attention to yourself for jewishness. You send your kids to hebrew school and go to shul on the high holy days (if you don’t have to work, or if your boss is tolerant), but otherwise you dress and act and look like everyone else. Maybe you light shabbas candles at home, but you assimilate, or you hide in pursuit of safety.

In either case, there is often not room for misfits to be our true selves in Jewish community. You show off the nice boys and kind girls and beautiful babies and smart doctors and suburban families. You’re kinda embarrassed about the older singles and the gays and the rock monster who moonlights as a hero.

I understand the role of safety in choosing to assimilate. But when respectability politics run roughshod over which Jewish people are allowed to represent judaism, what it teaches the rest of us is this:

Judaism does not want us; judaism does not have space for us; judaism is only for picturesque white straight nuclear families who form promptly and produce children.

But—Judaism has always been an evolving and changing religion of weirdos. It has always been a space where it is difficult to be us, where we are chosen to live eternally in covenant with Hashem, where we are responsible for doing the work and keeping community with each other. It is not just for the nice jewish boys and girls, for the abled until old age, for the ones who agree with the rabbi week after week; it is not for Americans who ignore local politics and choose instead to send funds to the israeli military.

It is for cripples, and it is for queers, and it is for all of us messy people and monsters and the people who love us.

I still struggle, when I talk about Judaism, when to get my politics and embarrassing lumps and clarifications out of the way. Whether I am going to be a Model Jewish Person this time or a Proper Leftist With The Correct Palestine Politics or a Nice Jewish NotQuiteGirlOkCloseEnough. How am I representing my people? How much of an embarrassment am I?

My grandmother was obsessed with propriety, and how things looked, but she loved my weirdo self fully. She clearly didn’t always understand, and I will have her slightly distraught "oh, Meli" as a soundbite in my head for the rest of time.

She taught me that we all find our family members embarrassing sometimes, but you can be a little embarrassed while also being proud of a person. You don’t have to hide what you don’t understand, even if you’re not looking forward to explaining to your charity board friends that your granddaughter has purple hair now and maybe you wish she’d waited until after the annual luncheon.

You don’t have to "get it" to support it. And maybe that’s what we need to be about, instead of black-and-white correct ways of being Jewish, so our current-day Ben Grimms aren’t embarrassed into hiding their jewishness.