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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.

Noach dvar

Two phrases stick out to me in the Tower of Babel story. In 11:1, the people use the "same language, and same words". And in verse 4, the answer to why are they building this tower? "To make a name for themselves."
Some scholars interpret "same language, same words" to mean they were of one mind, as well. To me, that couldn’t possibly be true for all thoughts. But it might have looked that way from the words they spoke.

When I hear "same language, same words" I think about the way a phrase’s meaning gets flattened and shifted over time. I think about framing, about controlling that shift: words and phrases created with underhanded intentions.

I think about the erosion of modern discourse due to the actions of right wing conservative groups, and their expertise in framing.
  • Family means a straight white couple and their children.
  • Religious freedom means Christianity, or anti-gay sentiment, or a crusade against birth control.
  • And of course, they’re not anti-abortion, they’re pro-life.
It makes me think about the carceral state. And internationally, to, about about the war on terror and the US’s long legacy of "making the world safe for democracy".
In Haamek Davar on Genesis 11:4:2, Netziv interprets "And we will make a name for ourselves" to mean: "people were set up to watch and be in charge of the thing, and they were army chiefs in charge of punishing those who would cross, […] And all that was due to fear/suspicion."
There is a direct relationship between violence and suppression of speech. Propaganda reinforces the message that we are one people, using the same words and having the same thoughts about the same shared experiences.
Terrible people exist, now, as they did before the flood. They do the sins they have always done: ruining the environment. Being corrupt, avoiding justice at all costs.

But we are past the time of Noach, now. Gd’s gonna keep his bargain and not exterminate all life on earth, which, thanks, probably! But he will not topple the tower of neofascism for us.

It’s our turn, and our responsibility to do Gd’s work against evil in the world, whether that means surviving as marginalized individuals, crawling out of bed on day five of a hideous depression slump, or figuring out ways to unbuild the tower our forefathers built, brick by brick.
Shabbat shalom.


in the wake of Pittsburgh.

On Wednesday, a violent racist tried to enter a black church. He was turned away, went into a Kroger, and shot two black shoppers.

This morning brought us the second hate-motivated shooting in under a week, this time in a synagogue. The violence is accelerating.

The synagogue where the shooting happened usually has a youth shabbat program. It was cancelled, today, so fewer children were in the building than usual. This is what fucking counts as good news. At least eight people are dead, including police and congregants. I have not found a count that separates the two tallies. I hate that jewish groups will take this as reason to work more closely with police.

How many people in how many communities are talking about this week’s torah portion, Vayera, and don’t know, yet, about the shooting? How many panicked phone calls are waiting until havdalah?

As I was reminded earlier today by Rabbi Emily Cohen, it is in Vayera where Lot bargains with Gd about Sodom and Gomorrah. His home. Are there 50 good people? Would you save it for 50 good people? How about 45? all the way down to 10. If there are any good people here please save the city, this is my community, yes i know it’s full of evil people, it's flawed but I live here.

And there are not. So Lot and his family leave, and Gd destroys the cities, leaving Lot with nothing. His wife looks back for one last memory of home and is obliterated for it.

I’ve had conversations with a number of friends recently about escape plans. About where we will go, if we can. About where we can go, and might, to escape the acceleratingly-fascist US for the less-fascist elsewhere.

I regret my choice to stay but have not yet changed it. Am I making the right choice? Is it a choice to stay and fight, or a choice to put on blinders and slowly die? Is it a choice to confront the bigots or a choice to slowly give in, a choice through inaction? But—my resources are here. My loved ones are here, for a broadly defined here.

The torah portion also includes akedat yitzchak, the binding of Isaac. Abraham takes his beloved son to be sacrificed, as he believes Gd wishes. Even as Isaac asks: Where is the sheep for the offering? You have shown me the knife and the wood, they continue up the mountain.

Am I allowing America to bind me, restrict my movements and hide my self in preparation for a sacrifice? There will be no Gdly intervention, this time. There will not be a hidden sheep, opening the way and allowing us to be free. We must not be passive. Leave or stay, we must take action. I do what I need to in order to stay alive, and I speak out against fascism. And I support others doing what they can.

We are here, and we are many; there are more of us than of them. There are more than 10, more even than 50 righteous people living in the evil and pushing back against it. If we remember to push, together.

There is no shame in leaving to preserve your life. But no matter where you are, we must work together against fascism and racism, transphobia and antisemitism and all other bigotries.

Gd calls me to write and to organize and to help and to heal, and I reply, like Abraham: Hineni—I am here.

You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father's hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.
And if you call me brother now,
Forgive me if I inquire,
"just according to whose plan?"
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must,
I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must,
I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform,
Man of peace or man of war,
The peacock spreads his fan.

Btzelem / tattoos

I don’t have any tattoos.
For a long time, I’ve wanted one of a jellyfish. gorgeous shading, some white ink work and pastel highlights, on my left thigh with tentacles flowing down the leg. I was originally inspired by Haeckel’s gorgeous illustrations and others of that era, but when I found out about his connection to eugenics my thoughts on inking his work on my body changed. Still, it might happen someday, and there are equally skilled and less problematic biological illustrators whose work could be adapted to body art.
When I read Bitch Planet, I knew I needed a non-compliant tattoo. Not solid black, either outline or patterned or in a color, somewhere on my body. The stories speak to something in my core, something about being different, wrong, incorrect-for-society, correct-for-me.
And now, as of this June, Pride month of 2018, I know I need a tattoo in hebrew. I know there’s a variety of responses people have to hebrew tattoos, most of them disparaging, but I know I need this like I know I need the noncompliant symbol, and I want this like I want the jellyfish.
One word: b’tzelem. We were each of us made in G-d’s image, btzelem elokim. People who don’t quite feel at home in their bodies often speak of how their tattoos make their bodies feel their own; how they feel at home in their bodies again.
I am trans. I am nonbinary. I am still working out what, for me, transition means; but one component is that things that make me feel more comfortable and whole, more as myself, bring me closer—not farther—from being in G’d’s image.
As transition brings our inner and outer selves closer together, we come to a nearer approximation of G-d’s image. As we use art to reclaim our bodies, we take a step closer, not farther. As we choose how to change our meat suits, our external selves, to fit in some but not other times, in some ways but not others, to fit the parts of ourselves we can and only compromise where we have to, to have control over whether and when to have a break between self-image and external perception—each of these struggles and decisions can be viewed through the lens of g-dly image.
I need a b’tzelem tattoo mirroring my noncompliant tattoo. One for the tradition I was born into, and one for the world I am forced to fit in; one to remind me where I am headed and another to remind me about my bullheaded roots. I am made in G’d’s image and I am non-compliant.

israel, temple, moshiach

Judaism has been diasporic, temple-less and landless, for almost 2000 years. We have flourished and spread, been attacked and survived, built homes and made homelands, participated in global atrocities as aggressor and as victim. We are nomadically alive, full guests and participants in others’ homes and countries, sometimes enough to make them our own.

One of my ancestral homes is Ioannina, more recently than anywhere in the levant and possibly for more generations. I don’t speak the language there, either, and the jewish community has faded enough to nearly die—but the connection many jews feel to jerusalem, that I felt once to Israel, that is the connection I feel when I walked through the old market and the roman fort’s walls, when my father pointed out the house my yiayia was born in, when i looked over the mountain and ate fish from the lake. Diaspora homes are our homes. Diaspora communities are our communities.

Other peoples live in the holy land, now. If we want to live in peace, Israel must loosen their grip on being first and foremost a Jewish homeland. Israel must step back from violence.

Israel—jerusalem, in particular, but not exclusively—holds deep history for jews and for other people. Deep, complicated history. It’s skipped around and whitewashed in different directions, impossible to detangle one solid historical truth for multiple narratives of owning and belonging, colonizers giving their unjustly seized land as a gift to survivors of a genocide so that we can regroup and move forwards—to act as badly, or worse, as the original colonizers did. This is not necessary, nor is it justice.

Now, there is a mosque on the temple mount. I was raised to see this as an insult, another religion’s stealing of our holy site, leaving us to pray at the one remaining wall. (neatly segmented into a large men’s section and a small women’s section, requiring respectable dress and behavior to the frummest common denominator, locking out participation from nonbinary jews or those who prefer to not pray in gender-segregated environments, greatly restricting behaviors available to those in the women’s section in the first place.) Those Others pray their Wrong Bad prayers atop it, where Our temple once was. In the days of the Second Temple, when it was destroyed, Someone built a BadWrongPagan place of worship on there to spite us, and look—still, someone else has a BadWrong Place Of Worship there. This is, at best, incorrect. To begin: they pray in a different language, with different customs, but to our same G-d. They built a mosque there as the place is holy for them as well—they did not build a place of worship to spite us or to keep us out.

We are supposed to want and move towards a rebuilding of the temple so that the moshiach will come. Why? Two holy buildings trying to occupy the same space is moshiach's problem to handle once they get here.

Until then, I want to look at where we have come from and understand and appreciate it. I want to pray for peace and the arrival of the moshiach, but I want my steps towards that to be in the form of tikkun olam and introspection, improving myself and helping others, tweaking structures so fewer are harmed, building community and in the process repairing the world.