Jewish and Queer…and holding the Tension

February 23, 2011

By Pen Bruskin, Jewish Organizing Initiative Fellow, Keshet

Punk Torah: Powered By Hashem

As my title suggests, I’m Jewish and queer. Well, more specifically, I’m a trans-masculine, gender queer, queer community organizer. I’m also a Midwestern, Ashkenazi Jew who was raised in a reform, Zionist household. Without going into everything, it’s fair to say I often haven’t felt comfortable bringing my multi-layered self to these communities. Yet while these communities have been uncomfortable, I’ve also continued to stay at least marginally engaged in these spaces.

Here’s a highlighted example of this tension, circa 2004:

Less than a semester into my new life as a Freshman at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a queer-friendly college town with only a small, somewhat insular Jewish community, I decided to go home to Milwaukee, WI to spend the high holidays at my home congregation—this was an important part of my annual ritual of connecting with my Jewish identity and community. My parents reserved tickets at our huge Reform congregation in the suburbs. To make sure that we’d get seats near the choir and the bimah, it was my job to rush to the front of the rope-barricaded mass of Jews waiting for the early service to let out.

As I moved to the front of the line, I recognized some of the parents of kids I’d grown up with and Hebrew School teachers who were friends of my parents. But as I turned to meet their eyes and wish them a happy new year, I realized that many of them didn’t recognize me. I had recently cut my hair in a masculine style (it was one of the first things I did after leaving home to go to school). I was also dressed in slacks and a sweater vest with a collared shirt. I was expecting to connect with my community, but instead, I developed a ton of anxiety over the idea that I would have to “out” myself in order to connect with people. Instead, I put my head down and waited for my parents to join me in line.

Of course, when they arrived, my parents had to “catch up” with everyone else in line. The first time my mom turned to an old family friend and re-introduced me as her daughter, I slumped my shoulders in to hide my chest and swept my bangs into my eyes in my embarrassment. This happened repeatedly. To my relief, some recognized me and welcomed me back home with a hug. Others asked me if I was a freshman in high school (since we all knew I looked like a nice, Jewish pre-pubescent boy). I always wondered if they would try to set me up with their nice, Jewish grand-daughters, but my mom was always quick to clarify that I was a girl and that I was in college. The rest of the pre-service schmoozing seemed to revolve around upcoming marriages, those who were having babies, and who was entering into law/medical school—these were expected rights of passage in our community. Although I was en route to getting my bachelor’s degree, I felt like I was masquerading as being part of the community.

I understand that many of us have felt tension between the way we see ourselves, the way we want to live and being validated members of our communities and families. So when our Jewish Organizing Initiative Fellowship class was trained on the concept of holding tension in one of our latest sessions, I had no trouble finding significance in this theoretical discussion that focused on how/why we stay engaged with our somewhat contradictory truths and values. There’s a reason why I continue to seek out spaces that are both familiar and rooted in the things I’ve come to appreciate and love. But until moving across country and building networks, I had neither access to these communities nor the knowledge that they even existed.

Because of this, it’s been really hard to feel included in Jewish spaces (especially those with more rigid gender roles and expectations). Many Jewish communities have been wonderful in reaching out to Jewish gays and lesbians by including more gender neutral language and by officiating same-sex marriages. But where do queer, bisexual, and transgender members or others who may not be interested in marriage or nuclear families fit into these Jewish communities?

Likewise, in GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) spaces, I continue to advocate for the visibility and inclusion of gender non-conforming voices and perspectives. As important as it is to push for GLBT rights in a broad sense, it’s always been difficult for me to feel included with GLBT communities that continue to understand sex, gender, and sexuality as dichotomies: Am I male/female or gay/straight? What about the options, “none of the above” or “a mixture of the listed identities?” As someone who identifies as gender queer and queer, advocating for the inclusion of dichotomous, GLBT identities in non-GLBT communities has never really cut it for me. So how am I able to work within communities in which I continue to be a minority voice among marginalized identities?

One thing that has really helped me is finding other folks who are visible and are creating more space for others who don’t always have a space. For me, one pivotal person was Katz, a trans and queer spoken word artist, of Athens Boys Choir. I’ve also connected with a network of gender queer advocates who have helped frame discussions of gender variance beyond male/ female and broader ideas on queering gender performance/ perception/visibility. My friend, Jac, continues to do amazing advocacy through midwest genderqueer. Keshet and Trans Torah have also helped me find adapted queer, Jewish community and practices while also revealing the more subtle queerness within Judaism.

While I’ve found much of what I’ve been looking for in Boston, my goal is to make these resources, ideas, and communities even more readily available and present nationwide. Other Midwestern, Queer, gender-variant Jewish folks shouldn’t have to move across the country to be part of communities where they can bring their whole selves.