Tuesday, July 24, 2007

How Inclusive, really?

Last Friday, the SG and me were foiled by the usually competent public transportation system. The bus we were going to take to go to "Da Minyan" (more on that another time) blew a tire, and another one seemed a long time in coming. So we tried to walk to catch another bus to get to Beth Elderly. No luck, just as we got to the stop, the damn thing peeled off.

Great. So we decided we'd go to a new shul, one that I'd heard about but hadn't gotten a chance to visit yet: Temple GLBT, or, as a high school friend once called it (in whispered tones) "The Gay One." Of course, not knowing its exact address, we had to be assisted by Shiska Girlfriend's kid sister way back in another timezone. Let me tell you, there is nothing like yelling transliterated Hebrew into your cell phone in a crowded bus station to get attention from the old Chinese ladies.

So we hop on the next bus and head down. The architecture was very cool; the shul is a giant rectangle and the sanctuary is on the third floor, giving it a great vaulted ceiling and pretty cool windows. It was nice seeing the sun set as we went through Kabbalat Shabbat.

But, I admit it, I was kind of weirded out about going to "that shul," particularly as the GF and I are, as she puts it, "painfully straight."

Let me explain. I have gay godparents, I have bisexual and transgendered friends and acquaintances. Sure, for a while I was uncomfortable with my brother painting his toenails, but he grew out of it. So it's not an issue of not being ok with GLBT people having their own space or activities, it's a question of whether the shul is "GLBT-friendly", or specifically for GLBTs. Just like the term "Gay-Straight Alliance" can either mean exactly what it says, or can be a code for, "this is where the queer kids hang out, everybody else just beat it." Those were some of the anxieties running through my head as we headed inside.

For the most part, my fears were unfounded. There were same-sex couples there, but we weren't the only male-female pairing, either. We didn't get any dirty looks; in fact they were among the friendliest folks we've encountered so far. And I was very impressed with their prayerbook: giant Kinko's tomes with a ton of Shabbos songs in the back, a bunch of which I'd never heard of, and fascinating commentary on a lot of the liturgy from a GLBT perspective. Originally, I was sort of turned off by the (IMO) strange decision to offer three or four different versions of prayers (traditional, "mystical," gender neutral or alternative, etc...) which just seemed sort of confusing and reinforced the fact that everybody wasn't on the same page, literally, but about halfway into the service it stopped being so noticeable. I also appreciated that their custom is to not take out any traditional liturgy, only add new and optional stuff (with the possible exception of some gender stuff, I think). Particularly moving was mentioning AIDS in a Misheberach prayer, and a special prayer for "our GLBT brothers and sisters" that suffered in the Middle Ages, Holocaust and today, that gave a whole new spin on the concept of suffering and persecution in Jewish history. It was a real insight into how it must be for GLBT Jews to have their history and suffering not be acknowledged in liturgy or popular Jewish consciousness, and made me all the more appreciative of the fact that they had figured out a way to include this without getting dragged into the reverse; ignoring or excluding straight Jews because they didn't quite share in the same narrative.

Also, SG really liked that their siddur had Hebrew, transliteration, AND English translation, so that she had something to read while the rest of us were doing our thing.

What I like most about these guys was that they seemed to have achieved a nice balance between their gender or sexual orientation identities and a strong background in Jewish practice and tradition (at least in the context of the service). It wasn't so much, a "If you think about it, Moses was probably gay, man" thing as the congregation having their own particularistic bent on Judaism and Jewish history. And once you got past the initial liturgy weirdness, it was essentially a fairly traditional service, much more traditional than, say, Temple Touched by God's re-enactment of the Levites' serenade (plus a violin for that "Old Country" flavor).

The cantor's drash was pretty interesting. She spoke about health care (there was some tie-in to Isaiah I didn't quite catch) and how the shul was working, in concrete ways, to get affordable healthcare for every city resident. I was happy to hear about some actual Reform tikkun olam in practice, as opposed to say, Temple Touched by God, which mostly consisted of bitching about Republicans and then talking about how we could supposedly raise awareness about global warming by "checking out" some website.

Things that bugged me:

- Kabbalat Shabbat lasted, literally, all of fifteen minutes. Just a personal thing, but I think those psalms and melodies are really beautiful, and I was annoyed that they skipped most of them or excerpted the hell out of them. It left more time for Maariv, but the reality is, I strongly prefer K.S. to Maariv, for exactly the reasons given above.

- Having 10 different versions of the Amidah. I realize this verges on the hypocritical, given my usual liberal Judaism bias. Maybe it was just seeing them all together that did it. Anyway. I don't object on principle, it just seemed weird in practice. Not sure what the answer is there.

- The siddur having like, ten million eclectic and obscure Yiddish & Hebrew songs is somewhat undercut when the cantor picks one and then has to stop halfway through because she doesn't know the tune.

- This is the second drash in a Reform temple I've visited that's incorporated a popular movie. I know Sicko is in theaters, but that's not why I come to shul. I also, incidentally, didn't come so you could tell us about all the great work you guys do and how I need to come to your town hall meeting. This is a drash, not an announcements section of your newsletter. Less plugging, more Torah. Come on, guys, it's not like Jews don't have anything in the tradition about healing the sick.

To conclude, nice bunch of guys, I'd definitely check it out again, and I'm glad to see there are Reform shuls that aren't quite as "off" as Touched by God. But I don't think I'd make it my regular stomping-ground.


Friday, July 6, 2007

Coming Out

The big news of the previous Shabbat is that SG "came out" to the gabbai of Beth Elderly toward the end of the potluck. We had previously discussed how she wanted this to go. She originally wanted me to talk to the gabbai for her, but I wasn't entirely comfortable with this- not the least of which since I wasn't quite sure what his reaction would be. In some ways I figured that, if his response was less than positive, it might be better if he was just talking to random shiska rather than said shiksa flaunting the apple-cheeked bochur she was taking captive with her back to Babylon.

I played wingman for her by talking to a few of the elders so they weren't all swarming around her, since I figured that would make things even more stressful.

* * *

This isn't the first time SG has had to deal with the "passing" issue. In fact early on, when her parents heard that she was shul-hopping with me, one of their first questions was, "Do you pass?", to which she responded, "it's kind of hard not to." The general assumption tended to be that you were Jewish unless you mentioned otherwise, and unless there was a reason, she usually preferred to keep such information private. At our monthly Carlebachian minyan, she occasionally reminded the organizers that she wasn't Jewish, just to make sure that she wasn't causing a halachic problem for anyone.

In college, I had a Lovely Orthodox Professor who had become a baal teshuvah and married Super-Mussar Hubby. She regularly invited SG, myself, and my dear roommate to her house for Shabbos. LOP was great but SMH was sort of a jerk (and very right-wing), so we could always count on a fun time when going there.

For SG's first time, we came early and were a few of several guests, including a frum female high school student spending the weekend at LOP's house while checking out colleges.

The troubles started almost as soon as we arrived. LOP knew SG wasn't Jewish but we didn't know who she had told, and, not knowing their position on interdating, SG was eager to avoid problems. LOP's friends asked SG if she wanted to do candlelighting. SG looked at me. This was in the days before we had even bought a transliterated bencher. I could barely get through the brocha, much less SG. She politely declined. In the meantime, I wandered around the living room to give the women their space (I could give a hoot about kol isha, but there was no reason to make an issue of it. While doing this, I noticed that the high school student had gone down to the basement, presumably to be in her own "women's section." A little strange, but her prerogative.

SMH came home with a buddy from the local Chabad shul and we sat down to dinner. SG and I sat on the far end of the table, right next to the student. SG was wearing an outfit that wasn't entirely tznius (darn collarbones) and was absent-mindedly rubbing my arm. Things that, in our circles, would barely get noticed, but to the high school student, we might as well have been dry-humping on top of the challah. At one point, she asked SG, "How do you guys know each other?" SG replied, without really thinking, "Oh, he's my boyfriend." I couldn't tell if it was the dating thing itself or her unabashed candor that caused the poor girl to go into a fit of blushing.

Over dinner, SMH started picking on my friends a little. My roommate comes from a pretty serious Conservative family and really knows his shit- Hebrew, Talmud, he knows it all. And he consciously made a decision to go the route of the ritually observant but ideologically apikorosdik Jew, which tends to get him noticed by folks like SMH. Also, they both love to argue, in part because they both like to show off. I also suspected that my roommate enjoyed going to SMH's house because it gave him a chance to play the heretic, whereas in college he tended to be considered one of the most "religious" students on campus (ah, the folly of labelling!)

SMH and his buddy noticed that my roommate could say the brochas in a perfect accent and without even looking at the benchers. The buddy commented, "Did you used to be observant?" Not-so-hidden subtext: You know what you're doing but weren't at the only "real" shul in town, mine. What gives?

Roommate: "I was raised in a Conservative household."

Buddy: "Really? Where?"

Roommate: "X."

SMH: "X? Frum highschooler, isn't that where your family lives?"

FH: "Yup."

SMH: "Did you guys know each other?"

FH: "I don't think so. Did you go to Machmir Orthodox High? That's the only Jewish school there."

Roommate: "Um, actually, there are a bunch of other Jewish schools. I went to middle-of-the-road Conservative Day School."

FH looks like a deer in the headlights. My roommate decides to be kind and let it go.

Buddy: "Well, you should really drop by the shul sometime."

SMH: "Or the kollel. That goes for you, too, Friar Yid."

Me: "Oh, I'll definitely think about it."

SMH's attention then turned to poor SG. "So, I hear you're from the South."

SG: "Yup."

SMH: "Was it difficult living in [suburban Southern hellhole]?"

SG: "Well, it didn't have any of the benefits of a big city. We had to drive across state lines to see Fahrenheit 9/11, for instance."

SMH: *Clearly miffed at her movie choices.* "Yes, but, did your family find it challenging to stay involved with the community there?"

At the c-word, SG tenses up a little. Did LOP really not tell him? She decides to play along.

"No, we mostly kept to ourselves."

SMH: "Uh huh. Did you work in the summers?"

SG: "I worked for years at a barebecue restaurant."

Buddy: "Really? Beef?"

SG: *Confused* "Uh, no. Pork, mostly."

The whole table inhales. SG looks around, a little freaked out.

Buddy: "Um, was that an issue for you?"

SG: "Well, I was a vegetarian at the time."

Buddy: *Relieved* "That's good."

I forget what actually did it, but right as SMH was about to point-blank ask SG about her family's observance level, she cracked.

"I just have to be honest, I'm not actually Jewish."

Again, the table did a collective inhale. All eyes turned to SMH. He stood up and hit the table with his fist. "Why I never! And I can't believe nobody told me!..."

He trailed off and chuckled. LOP shot him a death-glare. The guests all had a belly laugh and tucked into the brisket. SMH leaned back in his seat and grinned at the oil print of the Chofetz Chaim on his wall like they had shared a private joke.

When we got home, SG said she didn't really mind. "It's not like I didn't know what I was getting into."

She took it a lot better than my parents. Mother Superior Yid said that people like SMH were an embarrassment to Jews everywhere. Abbot Yid told me I owed SG an apology and made me promise to never take her back there (which I broke within three weeks, if only because LOP was so nice and SMH was irresistible in his narishkeit comments).

* * *

With all this background, I was a little nervous for SG as she went up to talk to the gabbai. Even though Beth Elderly has a great reputation for welcoming everybody, who knows how the individual congregants feel, especially those who are old-school?

Apparently, I needn't have worried. SG thanked the gabbai for asking her up on the bimah. He grinned. "I have a tough job of keeping track of who goes up to the bimah and remembering who does and doesn't like it. I'm glad that you enjoyed it."

SG: "I just thought you should know that I'm not actually Jewish."

The gabbai chuckled at her behind his rimless glasses and said in a thick German accent, "Who knows? Maybe you'll convert someday. I don't really care." He walked off to get a cup of coffee, and she squeezed my hand. Another mini-milestone.

It's nice when the truth sets you free.