The past couple of weeks has been full of highly emotional events, times of joy and times of anguish. On weeks like these, I am glad I have a synagogue home.
Friday night, Linda and I went to services at Temple Sinai. We arrived extra early, but it almost wasn’t early enough. I wasn’t surprised that the parking lot was full. I’m not the only one who wants to attend services at my shul after a tough week.
After the service, at the oneg, there were hugs and stories exchanged. The guy who was organizing the group to march at Pride in San Francisco was at one table, signing folks up. Regulars and newcomers were crowded around the cookie table, and another little group (me included) were crowded around the hot water for tea. I had an impromptu subcommittee meeting with one person, and set up with another for study later in the week.
Synagogue is a place Jews go when we need to be with fellow Jews. In moments of great joy or great sorrow, after bad news from Europe or Israel, after anything in the national news that touches us strongly, it is good to sit with the Jews and take it all in. After 9-11, which took place in the midst of the High Holy Days, we gathered anxiously to ponder the meaning of events. During the Gaza War last summer, attendance was high. At such times, we need to be together.
And true, these are also times when newcomers seek out the synagogue, because they haven’t felt the need for one until just that moment – and that is fine. They’re welcome, and odds are, they’ll see us at our best. But synagogue is even better when it’s a familiar place, with familiar faces, and you know who gives great hugs. (If you are reading this and thinking, gee, my synagogue isn’t like that, may I suggest How to Succeed at Synagogue Life?)
Why join a synagogue? Because after a Very Bad Day, it’s wonderful to be able to go there and feel at home.
This is an updated version of a post I originally published on Open Salon in September of 2010. In thinking about the things I’m grateful for this LGBTQ Pride Month, it occurred to me it was still very timely.
I posted it again in 2012, when things had changed a lot. And now I find I’m reposting it again, partly as a reminder that we’ve come a long way, and partly as a warning that if we are not vigilant in preserving our progress, we may be back there someday, heaven forbid. Here’s my 2015 version.
I came out in 1988, just after a rancorous divorce became final. A very nice woman asked if I’d ever tried kissing another woman, and a few minutes later it was clear to me that I’d been barking up the wrong tree all my life. It was a moment of great joy, followed by sheer panic.
I had two little boys, ages 4 and 6, and nothing, absolutely nothing, was more important to me than the two of them.
Was I going to mess them up for life? Was I going to lose them? Should I just declare celibacy and give it up? I wrote to an acquaintence who had been “out” many years, with two daughters from a previous marriage, and poured out my fears. She wrote me back with the phone number for the National Center for Lesbian Rights saying, “Call them. Do whatever they tell you.” Then she said my kids were going to be fine.
I did, and they are. But there’s much, much more to it than that.
The attorney to whom NCLR referred me informed me that for the umpteenth time in my life, I was the Queen of Dumb Luck. My divorce had become final in one of the very few counties in the United States where my orientation alone was not grounds for taking my kids from me in 1988. My best bet was to come out of the closet completely, so I did. On March 17, 1988, I phoned my ex and told him. To his credit, it has never been an issue.
I told the boys that I had fallen in love with a girl. They liked her. Unlike their boring mom, she was good at catch and knew everything about baseball. Sure, fine, and what’s for dinner?
The kids were in kindergarten and first grade, and there I wavered. Surely this was my private business. Surely it wasn’t appropriate to phone up the principal and say, “Hi, I’m a lesbian.” So I waffled along for a while, hoping for the best. And that’s where I went wrong.
Aaron began getting into fights at school. The teacher called. I went in to chat, and it turned out that he was out there defending my honor. The words “gay” and “fag” were favorite schoolyard epithets (in first grade!) and whenever someone used them, he took it personally on my behalf. He told them to take it back, and then two little boys would roll on the ground, fighting.
I outed myself immediately to the teacher, explained that this was a young man defending his mother — and please, could we just ban those words on the playground?
“You are what?” she gasped, and when I repeated it, she said she’d have to take it up with the principal. Over the next few weeks it became clear that the words “fag” and “gay” were a lot more acceptable than a lesbian mom and her spawn, and we needed to find a new school if my kids were going to feel remotely safe in class.
Finding a new school where we could be out as a queer family turned out to be quite the project in 1988, even in the liberal East Bay of the liberal San Francisco Bay Area. Initially I was hopeful: “diversity” was a big buzzword. So I went from school to school, asking directly if “diversity” included “lesbian parented children.” I was privileged to have the means to check out every school in town, and I was hustled out of most of their admissions offices like an unwanted peddler. [All those places now trumpet the fact that they love queer families, and all I can say is, hallelujah. I am not naming names, because the guilty parties have mended their ways.]
God bless St. Paul’s Episcopal School. When I asked the admissions director, Laroilyn Davis, if a lesbian family would be welcome at St. Paul’s, she said, “It’s time we included a family like yours.” In the years to come, the administration there always had our backs: individuals might find our presence distasteful, but there was never any question that we belonged.
But the damage was done. My children spent far too long in a situation where they knew we were a second-class family, where we were the objects of open disgust. I am well aware that my younger son is a social worker partly because he has a special affinity for children who don’t feel safe. His older brother will still offer to punch you out if you use the word “fag.”
And as for me, I am torn between gratitude for being the Queen of Dumb Luck, who came out in the most liberal area in the country, who had the means to seek out a safe place for her children, who had legal support and moral support and two courageous sons — and fury that any of that was necessary.
Things are much better for LGBTQ families in California now than they were in 1988. We are kidding ourselves, though, if we think that Marriage Equality fixes everything. There is still a long road ahead for employment rights, immigration rights, and for the simple safety of transgender persons. We are not done.
When we discriminate against any group of people, we are all the less for it. When are we going to figure that simple fact out?
June is almost gone, and I haven’t written about Pride yet.
We’re waiting for a big Supreme Court decision that will be a big deal for lesbian and gay rights, the question about whether same-gender couples should have the right to marry in the states that haven’t yet proclaimed that right. (I am sure a lawyer could have put that more elegantly.) What I want everyone to notice that if this does come through, it will be great for the L’s the G’s, and maybe the B’s. It isn’t going to do all that terribly much for the T’s. Life is still very, very hard for transgender folk, and that hasn’t really been changed all that much by a certain transwoman appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair.
How is it hard? Transgender persons face discrimination in school and in the workplace. It’s a little better than it was, but it’s not good. Come out as transgender if you aren’t already a celebrity, and you’re going to have a hard time finding work, even if you’re very good at your job. Once you’ve got the job, then you have to navigate bathrooms – bathrooms! – and a million other details. You will have to navigate a web of discrimination when you seek housing, a driver’s license, immigration, even prison. In all these areas, you will have to deal with people in random positions of petty power pulling rank on whatever simple thing you are trying and insisting that no, you cannot have what you want until you tell them about your genitals. Then maybe you can have whatever it is or maybe you can forget it.
In fact, you can’t have a conversation with quite a chunk of America without that topic coming up: what do you have, what do you no longer have, did it hurt, and oh WHAT do you do in bed? (We lesbians used to get that last one all the time, and boy, did it get boring. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have strangers inquiring about specifics of the plumbing on a regular, casual, social basis.) People, this stuff is Not Our Business.
I hope and pray that whatever happens with the Supreme Court, we don’t act like a bunch of [insert rude word here] and tell our transgender neighbors that they are on their own. Because they are us, and they are threatened daily by violence and oppression. Transgender women of color are the most vulnerable: those statistics should break the hardest heart.
How can you help? Glad you asked. There’s an organization doing fantastic work on transgender rights, the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, CA. They have excellent leadership and they make every dime stretch to its limit. They have an impressive list of accomplishments for an organization that has existed less than 15 years. (Click on the link and see!) If you want major bang for your tzedakah buck, TLC is a great investment. I have been a supporter for a decade and I think the world of them.
How can you help if you don’t have any money? Don’t make jokes about transgender people, and discourage such “humor.” Don’t ask about people’s privates, and explain to others who speculate that it really isn’t cool. DO treat a trans person with the same respect and courtesy that you want for yourself. And when and if you have an opportunity to support legislation that makes things more equal, show up and vote.
Today Linda and I had a business meeting over in San Francisco. I’ve been dithering forever about taking BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) on my scooter, and I figured today was a great opportunity, since we were going together.
BART is great for reading San Francisco without having to park or fight traffic on the Bay Bridge. It is less than lovely in some other ways, namely, the hard-to-find elevators and the sometimes-rude riders. I practically had to run over a guy to get him to allow me my wheelchair spot on the train.
After our business meeting, we stopped to get a sandwich and then traveled a few short blocks to the Contemporary Jewish Museum. I am embarrassed to say this was my first visit, since mobility fears had kept me away.
The facility is truly beautiful and wonderfully accessible. I never once had any problem accessing anything, and the security guard was extremely pleasant. Architecturally, the building is a fabulous mix of old and new, the old Pacific Gas & Electric Jessie Street Substation with a dynamic contemporary structure by architect Daniel Libeskind.
Exhibits at the CJM are staggered so that there’s always something interesting to see. We toured Bound to be Held: A Book Show by Josh Green. It was an intriguing combination of elements: a collection of books donated by famous and private individuals, with personalizations (“Read by Famous”) and The Library of Particular Significance, a lending-library of 1,000 books significant to the people who donated them, with which viewers could interact via post-its or by (imagine that!) reading them. It was both fun and thought-provoking.
The current work on view in In that Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art was somewhat less engaging for us. Bay Area visual artist Anthony Discenza collaborated with New York-based author of horror novels Peter Straub to present a piece on Das Beben, a nineteenth century artistic movement who apparently managed to have themselves and their work burnt up in not one but two catastrophic fires. None of their actual work survives; we were apparently supposed to imagine it from the descriptions. We were mystified and left feeling a bit stupid, but we tried!
We are now members of the museum and will return to see other exhibits soon. It’s a wonderful building and clearly the curators are looking to challenge visitors. If you are in the Bay Area or planning to visit, I recommend it!
Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar used to say: Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger, nor comfort him while his dead lies before him. – Pirkei Avot 4:23
On the face of it, this saying makes no sense. Why shouldn’t we appease someone who is angry? Why not comfort a person when he is bereaved?
The clue to Rabbi Shimon’s meaning is hidden in the second clause. In Jewish tradition we do not attempt to comfort a mourner until after the burial of the dead. The stage of bereavement before burial is called aninut. During that time, mourners are relieved of all Jewish responsibility except the responsibility of providing for a proper funeral and burial. We do not speak to them unless absolutely necessary and we do not bother them with comfort. This is not a cruel practice, but a kind one: we understand them to be in terrible pain and to be carrying a great burden (the funeral.) Anything we might say would only be a distraction.
So the teaching here is: don’t try to comfort people until they are in a position to take it in, until it is time.
Then we can look at the first part and make more sense of it:
Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger.
Rabbi Shimon is advising us that when people are very angry, they can’t listen to reason, any more than a person who has just lost a loved one can be comforted. Appeasing an angry person won’t work, and arguing with them definitely won’t help matters. In both the case of the mourner and the angry person, the only thing that will help is time.
As time passes, the mourner will bury the dead, and will gradually become ready for comfort and human connection. The angry person, too, may have a chance to cool off and have a genuine discussion (unless, of course, they choose to work themselves into greater and greater anger.)
Over the last months, as the discussion on racism and America has heated up on social media, many good people have been very upset. African Americans have very literally had to mourn their dead, and they are legitimately angry about the way too many of them have been treated. Some white Americans have felt attacked by things that African Americans and other whites have said. Some whites have been taught to fear African Americans, too, and that feeds the evil of racism. Attempts at communication have gone awry. Angry words have flown.
So when I happened to read Rabbi Shimon’s words today, I was glad to be reminded of Jewish teachings about grief and anger. Shimon is saying that we do not get anywhere when we tell people how they “should” feel. When emotions are high, it’s a time to listen, not to argue. If listening is impossible, then it’s a time to step back.
It is important to treat every person with dignity. The rabbis tell us that embarrassing a person is no different than shedding their blood. Take a person aside to say privately, “Are you aware of how your words sounded? The words “x,y,z” sounded racist – surely you didn’t mean it that way!” Calling a person racist is just going to enflame the conversation, but pointing out words or behaviors gives them something they can change. Maybe they need help hearing themselves. And maybe, if the words were angry, they need time to cool off before they can hear anything at all.
Name calling never helps. We get farther if we talk about racist behavior and language, rather than racist people. Calling people names never won their heart. Pointing out behavior is different than calling names. People can do something about their behavior.
Leave politics out of it. So many insults have been hurled between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, that we’re all walking wounded. When someone says to me in a spiteful tone, “That’s just like you liberals,” I feel that nothing I have to say will get a hearing from them. I am sure, from what conservative friends tell me, that the converse is also true. For our own sakes, we need to lay off one another, no matter what the folks at Fox News and MS-NBC do. Let’s drop the insults and name-calling: have you ever known it to add to a fruitful discussion?
Give each person the benefit of the doubt. Actually, that’s another quotation from Pirkei Avot. When it is time to rebuke someone in private, assume that they meant well. Maybe they did or maybe they didn’t, but how can anyone know for sure?
Finally, when we are beside ourselves with strong feelings, it’s time to take a step back. It is only natural sometimes to feel angry or hurt, especially if we feel that we’re doing our best and we are not understood or appreciated. There is no shame in saying, “I am too angry/upset/tired to have a conversation right now.”
None of us are perfect. Torah calls us to love the stranger and who is stranger than the person with whom we disagree? Let us embrace this difficult task together, and work towards a day when
…everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid. – Micah 4:4
Getting there: The museum itself is in a complex of buildings at 1 Nieuwe Amstelstraat, and the closest tram stop is Waterlooplein. The entrance for visitors on wheels is a door to the right of the main entrance; ring the bell and a guide will come to assist you in navigating to the ticket counter. They were happy to let me take my scooter everywhere I wanted to go.
The museum seems like a huge disjointed puzzle, but there’s a reason for that. It is actually a complex of four historic synagogues, the New Synagogue (1752), the Great Synagogue (1671), the Obbene Shul (1685), and the Dritt Shul (1778). All four were Ashkenazi synagogues and they were active until the 1940’s, when the Nazis closed, looted, and gutted them. Today Amsterdam is still home to many Ashkenazi Jews, some of whom pray in new synagogues built since the war, and some of whom are completely secular.
The permanent exhibits are impressive: one can get a good feel for the history of the Jews of Amsterdam from them. I thought I understood how important these people were to American Jewish history but half way through the exhibits realized that there are connections I never imagined. (More about this in a future post!)
The museum’s planners took advantage of the layout of the Great Synagogue to assemble the best exhibit on Jewish religion I’ve seen anywhere. The bimah has been restored, so that visitors can stand on the bimah and see an open Torah scroll (under glass.) Exhibits around the periphery explain Jewish holidays, the Jewish life cycle, the calendar, and home observance. All is brought to life with various artifacts and objects, some on loan from families and some on loan from the Portuguese Synagogue.
There is also an impressive exhibit on the secular lives of Amsterdam’s Jews, from the first arrivals in the early 17th century until the present day. I got a sense of a vibrant community that was merely tolerated when it first arrived, but which would have had few choices without that tolerance. The city fathers of Amsterdam were adamant from day one that the Jews must take care of their own and contribute to the prosperity of the city. This stricture was tested when the Ashkenazim arrived later in the century, fresh from the pogroms of the Ukraine and nearly all penniless. With the help of their Sephardic cousins, they eventually did well and built the four synagogues which make up the museum today.
What I did not realize before I visited the museum was that not all Jews in Amsterdam were prosperous. Some were almost unimaginably wealthy, but others were desperately poor. I followed the exhibits with interest and am still very curious about the economic disparity and how it played out in their communal life. I look forward to learning more about this in future, even if I have to learn to read Dutch to do it.
It’s a great museum. One sad thing: we visited on two separate weekdays, and both times had the museum largely to ourselves. Tourists, even Jewish tourists, seem to visit the Anne Frank House and the Portuguese Synagogue and then feel that they have “done” Jewish Amsterdam. For me, this museum and the Holocaust memorial at the Hollandishe Shouwburg were the highlights of my visit. I look forward to writing about the H.S. in a future post.
I could write for a very long time and not tell you everything about the Jewish Historical Museum. I recommend the website very highly for a “virtual tour” of the facility.