BRINGING THE PERSONAL INTO THE WORLD
When people hear that I am a twin, they tend to immediately ask, “are you identical or fraternal?” Upon seeing us, it is clear that we are fraternal. The next question people ask is “who is older?” And sometimes they will follow up with, “which one is the good twin?” The answers to these questions are linked—I am older because my sister is the bad twin. Just before we were born, my twin “put” her arm around my neck. The doctors took me out first to ensure that I was breathing. Thus, I am both the oldest and the good twin. If this doesn’t make sense to you biologically, that’s okay. Family stories and science don’t always line up.
This week’s Torah portion presents the story of another set of twins who struggle in their mother’s womb, Jacob and Esau. After struggling to conceive, our text teaches that Rebekah carries twins who struggle in her womb. I picture Jacob and Esau in utero attempting to establish connection with each other, to assert dominance, and to do the work needed to establish themselves as individuals – typical twin stuff. The Torah text alludes to a power dynamic already coming into being. Rebekah pleads with Gd to understand the struggle in her womb, and Gd replies, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other. And the older will serve the younger” (Gen 25:23). Jacob and Esau are not given the opportunity to work things out for themselves; even as they struggle in their mother’s womb, their fate is already sealed, and they are given national identities.
October 6, 2017, Jew School
Dwelling in the sukkah is, for me, the quintessential New England Jewish autumn activity. Building and decorating the sukkah provides a welcome opportunity to use a different part of my brain and body than the liturgy-heavy observances of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sitting and listening to the birds chirping with my morning coffee is always an exquisite experience, even if the bird songs are competing with the noise of morning traffic. I have been checking the two-week forecast since the day after Rosh Hashanah. While I always feel invested in the weather around Sukkot, having moved back to Boston from California this summer, I feel particularly invested this year. Would it feel appropriately autumnal? Would butternut squash soup feel like the right choice for our meals? Would it rain, forcing us to do kiddush outside and then retreat inside for dinner — or perhaps to skip dwelling in the sukkah altogether? I’m guessing that some of this resonates with many of you, even those who don’t live in New England.
Raising the Voice of Our Souls
September 28, 2017, My Jewish Learning
In the past year, we have witnessed deep upheaval and uprising throughout the world. As we enter Yom Kippur, the earth is crying out to us with hurricanes, earthquakes and 85-degree September days in Boston. People of color and allies are standing in the streets and kneeling on the field. Transgender people of color and trans youth are being killed. Rohingya are fleeing Myanmar, and the refugee crisis persists. Clean drinking water is still not available in Flint and other places in the world. Indigenous communities continue to resist colonizers’ claims to their land and its valuable resources. Humanity is crying out from all corners of the world. The cries—coming in the form of pictures and videos instantly available via social media, text messages, and news articles—are overwhelming. Like the sound of the shofar, these cries break open our hearts.
This Transgender Rabbi Is Standing Up to Ben Shapiro’s Hateful Rhetoric
December 7, 2016, The Forward
Right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, speaking at Yeshiva University on Monday night, declared that “transgender people are unfortunately suffering from a significant mental illness” and that “Torah Judaism does not support social justice.” In the same breath, he delivered his views on how to be a mensch.
As a transgender rabbi, a Jewish educator and an advocate for the LGBTQ community, I strongly disagree with Shapiro’s statements on all three topics.
The Torah teaches that we are all created in God’s image. Shapiro failed to extend this teaching to the transgender community or to people with mental illness. It’s particularly ironic that he did so at Yeshiva University, an institution that relied on this teaching of “betselem Elohim” in its acceptance of Joy Ladin, a transwoman who serves as the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Y.U.’s Stern College for Women.
The QUestions that Guide us
November 9, 2016, Hebrew College
Isidor I. Rabi, a Nobel Laureate in physics who died nearly 30 years ago, once told the following story: “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: So? Did you learn anything today? But not my mother…“Izzy,” she would say, “did you ask a good question today?” That difference—asking good questions—made me become a scientist.”
What separates a good question from a not-good question? The intent, tone, and wording of a question are all important. Does the question demonstrate honest curiosity and an authentic desire to know the answer? Does the question leave room for many answers, or is a certain set of answers either assumed or precluded in the asking? Does the question spark more questions?
The Unattainable Destination Shapes Our Journey
June 27, 2016, Hebrew College
I once owned a refrigerator magnet that read, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey to get there.” Each time I went to the refrigerator, whether I was reaching for a snack, meal ingredients, or something else, I considered its truth. Surely the idea of living and learning in each moment of the day is something I preach and teach, but doesn’t the destination matter at all?
This idea gets seriously tested in this week’s portion, Shelach Lecha. With the words “send men to scout the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:10), Gd puts into motion an experience that underscores the role the destination can have in a particular journey.
An Open Letter to Tom and Transgender Teens Everywhere
March 31, 2015, My Jewish Learning
Last week the story of Tom Chai Sosnik, a teenager that came out as transgender at Tehiyah Day School, his Jewish day school, headlines. Inspired by Tom’s courage, and the need to support transgender and gender expansiveteenagers everywhere, Rabbi Becky Silverstein penned an open letter to Tom and teenagers like him. We’re proud to share this letter on Transgender Day of Visibility.
As I was preparing my sermon last Friday afternoon, I decided to take a quick Facebook break and saw the video of you addressing your school. I watched it and immediately shared it with my own social network, commenting that “while I don’t know this young man, I have the privilege of knowing others who share a similar story. Almost nothing in the world could make me smile wider than this.”
Tom, we have never and may never meet, and yet I feel as though I know you.
Gender, Privilege, and Women of the Wall
May 24, 2012, Queer Interfaith Community
A year ago I entered the women’s side of the mechitza at the Kotel (Western Wall) and tried to place a prayer written on a small piece of paper into one of the cracks. The prayer asked Gd to create space for me at the wall and in Jewish community generally, as well as for the strength to be active in creating that space for myself and others. Instead of finding itself wedged into a crack among the folded-up prayers of thousands of other Jews, it fell. As I watched it fall, I suddenly felt out of place, aware that I was wearing shorts and polo shirt in a sea of long skirts. I felt like I was invading women’s sacred space. I felt like where I was standing was not a place that I, a genderqueer rabbinical student, belonged. Before my prayer reached the ground, I had run out of the women’s section. Pacing the Kotel Plaza, I recited the line “ashrei yoshvei beitecha (happy are those who dwell in your house)” over and over again to try and slow my heart rate. I vowed never to enter another women’s prayer space again. Since then, I have entered the women’s side of a mechitza twice, but not at the Kotel. Nor have I have questioned my decision to stay out of that space – until Tuesday morning. Tuesday morning, I prayed with Women of the Wall.
Transforming Fear into Action
December 2, 2011, State of Formation
The three boys walked up the road, smiling, sometimes laughing, maybe on their way home, maybe on their way to buy groceries on the other side of the checkpoint.
They must have been 10 or 11. A bit older than the seven year-old who would try to sell me cheap bracelets that say “Palestine” later that day. I don’t know what they might have been thinking.
Surely they knew, understood, at least had been taught, that this side of the separation barrier wasn’t for them. The low concrete wall running through the street keeps Hebron divided, Palestinians are only allowed to walk on one side, Israeli Jews on the other. The soldier saw them coming. Holding his weapon across his chest, he strode towards them. Easily three times their size, he didn’t say a word, just blocked their path. The boys stopped and stared up at him. I could see the fear in one of the young boy’s eyes. Without a word they turned around and walked back down the street, and then back towards us, this time on the correct side of the barrier. We were standing by the guardpost; our Breaking the Silence guide had just begun his explanation of the separation policy enacted by the Israeli government and enforced by the Israeli army that exists in Hebron. This was just one example, and it stuck.
A Jewish Autumn
October 7, 2011, State of Formation
This post is based on the poem “A Jewish Autumn,” written by Avraham Halfi. I studied this poem this week in the Hartman Institute Seminar for Rabbinical Students.
Jewish autumn in the lands of my ancestors
sends within me
hints of Elul
Autumn is a season that resonates deep within my soul. The changing colors of the leaves, the crunch of the first apple picked from a tree, the crisp morning air that greets me as I step out my front door. In autumn, I am a New Englander as much as I am a Jew. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot occur alongside and mingle with apple picking, the Head of the Charles Regatta, and butternut squash soup. Indeed it is often the first cool night that alerts me to the nearness of Rosh Hashanah, the presence of Elul.Why else would I pick fresh apples, if not to dip in honey to celebrate the coming of a sweet, new year? Is there a better place to enjoy the first warm soup of the season than sitting in the sukkah? Living in Israel this year, I asked: what are the months of September and October without my New England fall?
These months are Elul, they are a Jewish autumn, where apples on trees are replaced by pomegranates and butternut squash soup by hummus. I have come to see more clearly what I have always known: they are a vessel for reflection, repentance, and learning. The month of Elul is both a preparation for the coming festivals and a process in and of itself, just as fall in New England is a preparation for the coming winter and a celebration in its own right.