Sunday, December 23, 2007

What Gentiles should Know about the "Holiday Season"

by a cranky Jew
(revised from last year and re-posted by popular demand. feedback welcome as always.)



I do not celebrate Christmas.

Please don’t tell me to have a Merry Christmas. This is comparable to telling a Canadian happy 4th of July.


Christmas is not a “secular” or “American” holiday. It is a Christian holiday.
If you celebrate it in a secular way, it is still a secular Christian holiday. (If I celebrate Pesach/Passover in a humanist style, without reference to G-d, is it then an “American” holiday? No. It’s a secular Jewish holiday, and it’s no more universal without the G-d language than with it.)


Some Jews do celebrate Christmas. That doesn't make it a Jewish holiday.
Jews may celebrate Christmas for many reasons. Many Jews have Christians in their family. Most Jews in the US grow up in predominantly Christian communities. Many Jews have tried to assimilate over the generations, and that has meant adopting Christian practices like having a Christmas tree. It's still a Christian holiday. Just because you know a Jew who celebrates Christmas, doesn't give you the prerogative to expect or require me to celebrate, too.


Chanukah is not a Jewish version of Christmas.

Christmas is an important holiday for Christians, based on one of the central stories of the Christian faith. Chanukah is not even a particularly religious holiday. It is, primarily, a cultural/historical holiday commemorating a military victory of a group of Jews against imperial oppressors (specifically, Syrian Greeks). It’s kinda like the aforementioned 4th of July. Only older, and with miracles.


Chanukah does not occur on December 25th.

It is an eight-day festival beginning on 25 Kislev by the Jewish calendar, which is a lunar /solar calendar. The corresponding date on the Gregorian calendar, the one commonly used in public life, ranges from mid-November through late December. Therefore, do not tell me to have a happy Chanukah unless you know when Chanukah falls this year, and that it’s not over. Cheat sheet for 2007/5768: Chanukah is way over.


Chanukah may be spelled several ways
:
Hanukkah, Hanukah, Chanukkah, Chanukah, etc. That’s because it’s a Hebrew word, and it’s actually spelled like this: חֲנוּכָּה. Chanukah is probably the closest transliteration for the Hebrew - more like Channikke for the Yiddish. It sounds like it looks, only the initial H or Ch sounds like the guttural sound at the end of the composer Bach.
I don’t care how you spell it. Just don’t tell me how weird it is that it has multiple spellings. I’m over it. If you can’t say the Ch sound without spitting on me, then just say H and keep your germs to yourself.


There’s no such thing as a Chanukah bush.

Did you really need to be told that? Christian hegemony appropriated the tradition from Celtic pagans, and now is trying to impose it on Jews. We already have pretty stuff for the holiday. We don’t need Jew-ish-ified trees, wreathes, elves or mistletoe.


Some Jews Have Chanukah Bushes.

See above, under "Some Jews Celebrate Christmas"


Chanukah is not a good excuse to tell me about your best friend, neighbor, or distant relative who is a Jew.

If you didn’t care enough to tell me the rest of the year, then I don’t care to hear about it now.


Don’t try to impress me with how much you know about Chanukah or about Judaism.

It’s a safe bet I know a whole lot more than that about Christmas and Christianity. Not cause I’m so smart or so studied. Just cause y’all are everywhere.


“Happy Holidays” is not an acceptable secular substitute for “Merry Christmas.”
No matter what words you use, we both know you’re only saying it because of Christmas. Otherwise, you would say it in September/October and March/April, when I’m observing major religious holidays, as well as in December, when you are.


This is not about your Free Speech.

This year, a few people who should know better have said thing to me about Christmas that sound suspiciously like the ultra-conservative "war on Christmas" rhetoric. Stuff like, "Department stories cannot dictate how their employees greet customers during the holidays. If they want to say Merry Christmas, that's their free speech." Or "People (read: Jews) can't stop people (read: Christians) from putting up Christmas decorations in the town square. That's their free speech."
Good try, but, this is not about your free speech. Employees do not have the right to say whatever they want while they're working. They sell their free speech along with their labor during the hours they're getting paid. And despite federal law to the contrary, I do not buy the money=speech equation. Go ahead, speak about Christmas all you want. But don't use public funds to speak about Christmas.
Anyway, no one is trying to stop you from saying Merry Christmas to your friends and loved ones, or on your Christmas cards. That's exactly where the greeting belongs. I just don't want you saying it to me, especially not all day every day for all of December. And I really don't want to pay for your Christmas decorations through public funds, and be subjected to them in public spaces.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

More Gelt Trivia from Christian & Jewish traditions

Apparently the word verification has not been working for some people.

So, here's from the "food timeline," via Denise:

The eariest references we find in USA print to indivually foil-wrapped chocolates dates to the early 20th century. The oldest references we find specifically describing coin-shapes dates to the 1930s. According the the advertisements below, candy coins have been promoted as treats for pirate theme parties, anniversary decorations, and holiday gifts.

GOLD-WRAPPED CHOCOLATES
"Our big 5-lb Christmas box of 'Athletic Girl' chocolates, 99c box...Many hand wrapped in gold or silver foil."
---S. Kann Sons advertisement, Washington Post, December 20, 1908 (p. A1)

"What to serve at a buffet style "pirate" party was a recent request that came to the Tribune's cooking deparment...fill the chest with those "pieces of gold" candies which are chocoalte wafers wrapped in gold foil adn stamped to represent coins."
---"Hostess Need Not Walk the Plank at Pirate Party, Chicago Daily Tribune, December 9, 1938 (p. 24)

"Chocolate...is for things other than Santa Clauses. Toys, for which Czechosolvakia long has been famous, are being made out of it...Foil, painted realistically, covers each toy-shape...Milk chocolate appears, too, in inexpensive Christmas tree decorations--pine cones, Yule bells and so on...In addition, the versatile chocolate has been molded into "alphabet blocks"...a "zoo"...and a "sewing kit"...At Loft stores a treasure chest ($1.25) holds foil wrapped chocolate "coins," when empty, the chest may be used as a bank."
---"News of Food: Imaginative Boxes, Bewildering Contents Make Christmas Candies More Attractive," Jane Nickerson, New York Times, December 18, 1948 (p. 9)

"Hanukkah has a special delight for children. Gifts are distributed, along with candy coins covered with gold foil."
---"8-Say Observance of Hanukkah Opens," New York Times, December 11, 1963 (p. 14)
Who invented candy coins? Our food history sources do not reveal any particular person/company/place claiming to have made the first items.

And here's from Cian:
Bishop Nicholas (who was to become Saint Nicholas) was walking in the street and walked by the house of a man with three daughters. They were a poor family, and the father had nothing to offer as a dowry, although all his daughters were of marrying age. With no money, the father may have been forced to sell his daughters into slavery. St. Nicholas (who was not a saint at the time) threw a bag of gold coins
through an open window to provide enough for the eldest girl to be wed. The bag landed in a stocking that was hung to dry by the fire. He repeated the gesture twice more so all the daughters of the family were able to marry.

That is why people leave out stockings for Santa Claus, it's a carryover from a celebration of St. Nicholas Day (December 6). In a similar fashion (as sometimes the story is the daughters' shoes and not stockings), we leave a shoe by the back door on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, and he leaves treats if you have been good.

Depending on the story, he chases children and beats them if they've been bad, or
they get nothing. The shoe is by the back door as a gesture of secrecy to good deeds (which St. Nicholas was said to be very good at). There's a stress in the New Testament on having a private connection with G-d through good deeds and prayers.
And finally, the explanation that I learned growing up:

First of all, some notes about language. "Gelt" is a Yiddish word meaning "money." The words origin is from the German word for "gold," but in modern Yiddish, and I think dating back at least a few centuries, it refers to any money, not only to gold coins. And since it is a Yiddish word, it is a Jewish word. The various Christian traditions related to foil-wrapped coins may or may not be related to the parallel Jewish traditions - I'm still curious about that. What is clear though, is that Christians would never have called those coins "gelt," until English-speaking American Jews turned it into the Yinglish word that refers only to chocolate-covered coins for playing dreydl with, and not to real money at all - which I'm guessing would be some in the last 50 years or so.

So, about gelt as part of the dreydl game: At Chanukah it is traditional to play dreydl, a gambling game played with a little top (called a dreydl) which is so mind-numblingly random, I'm amazed when the game holds the attention of anyone over 4. The dreydl has 4 sides each marked with a Hebrew letters, which together are an acronym for the the Hebrew phrase "a miracle happened there," referring to the original story behind the holiday. Each player starts with a roughly equal collection of chocolate gelt. Players bet piles of chocolate gelt, and depending on which letter the dreydl lands on, coins are exchanged with the central pot of gelt.

It has always been my understanding that the dreydl game predates chocolate, and certainly predates individual foil-wrapped chocolate coins. People used to play dreydl with real pennies, or an equivalent coinage in whatever country they were in. Shiny pennies were also the traditional gift that parents gave to children on Chanukah. The chocolate came later. Perhaps the switch occurred when shiny medal money no longer came in sufficient denominations to seem like an exciting gift. I don't know.

At a Chanukah party this year, I heard at least 3 different versions of why we play dreydl. The one I've heard most often is that in various diaspora communities, ruling gentiles forbade Jews to study Jewish texts. Therefore when the Jews studied, they kept some dreydls and coinage around, and if a gentile neighbor happened by, the Jews would quickly close their books and pretend to be gambling rather than studying. Stereotypes of Jews being what they were and are, I guess people believed them. And because of the acronym on the dreydl, children could still be learning Jewish history, religion & language (as well as basic arithmetic) even as they play-acted at being greedy, ignorant money-changers.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Buddhist Gelt?

One more snapshot from the Channukah shopping:

Chanukah stocking stuffers?

Shopping for Chanukah: Potatoes, onions, carrots, soy sour cream, eggs, apple sauce, and parve (non-dairy) chocolate gelt. With some minor exceptions, a shopping list my great-great-grandmother could have could have written. That is, if she had known how to write in English, or at all.

Is Saturday a big shopping day for Christians? Must be, because it took me over two hours to get through my short list. I went to three grocery stores before finding the non-dairy gelt, and it was marked kosher-dairy. (Oh, well. Shared equipment, I guess?) By then I had lost patience and decided to go without the soy sour cream.

However I did find this charming sign, on a gelt display at Trader Joe's. Here's a closeup, so you can see the punchline:

It says, "Coins of the World / Chocolates / $1.99 / Stocking Stuffer!"

I guess they missed the whole thing about gelt being a Jewish word, for a Jewish holiday. I mentioned it to the (very pretty) young man with gorgeous long dreads who was working the checkout. He said, "That's weird, alright."

I said, not wanting to sound angry (as I wasn't really, and certainly not at him), "It's not a big deal. I mean, it's not surprising. I mean, whatever." (Eloquent, I know.) "Yeah," he said. And then, in a perfect Connecticut-Texas twang, he added "Cuz this is a Christian nation we're living in." The bagger, the other customers and I all cracked up laughing.

Later, I learned that it is, apparently, traditional to put chocolate gold coins in Christmas stockings. How or why this came to be, no one seems to know, including the Christians who grew up with the tradition. Appropriation? Or more benign cultural crossover? Or, is it possible, a coincidence? I don't care enough to do the research, but if you do, please share!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Day of Remembrance 2007

(speech given at the Day of Remembrance vigil at AIDS Project Worcester )

Welcome. I feel honored to be here with you observing the Trans Day of Remembrance. We’ve come together tonight to mourn the trans folk who have been murdered this year because they were trans. We’re also here to affirm our strength and resilience as individual trans people and as a community. I want to talk to you about both of those purposes – the mourning, and especially the affirmation.

I've been doing stuff like this for a lot of years now, and I have to say that the part where I’m supposed to talk about myself is the hardest part in some ways. I get to feeling like a bear in a zoo. Like, ooh, look a real live trans person! Any of you had experiences like that?

But actually, I’m glad that I get a chance to tell you a little bit about me. Because even though we’re here to honor our dead, this day can’t just be about dead people. We need to make space for hope, as well as mourning. In the collage over there, and later when we read the list of names, we bear witness to the life stories of a whole bunch of dead trans people. That’s really heavy stuff. I’m glad that the organizers of this event had the foresight to realize that we might all feel a little bit better if we could also spend time with the story of at least one trans person who’s still kickin.

This is probably obvious, but I have to start out with a disclaimer. I am not here to speak for all trans people. I can only speak for myself. Trans people, like all people, are diverse. My experience should not stand in for some imaginary “average trans experience,” or anything like that. My story is my story; my ideas are my ideas. Some trans people might disagree with some of what I’ll say tonight, and that’s okay. I’m speaking as an individual, not as a representative of trans people in general or of any particular trans community. I’m just gonna be who I am, and I hope you enjoy what I have to say.

So here’s one slice of my story:

I am transgender & genderqueer. I started “coming out” as trans and genderqueer about 8 years ago, when I was in college. And as I’m sure some of you have experienced, I found that in every space I was in, I ended up having to teach people about trans issues. I didn’t set out to be a teacher, but it seemed like everywhere I went, someone would say something stupid, and I’d have to school them about it, just so I could be comfortable in the space and continue to work with them. I got so much practice, and I guess I was pretty good at it, that soon, groups I was not part of were asking me to come teach them about trans issues. And so I started giving talks and facilitating workshops - around town, in other schools, sometimes in human service agencies.

Nobody ever offered to pay me for these workshops, and I didn’t think to ask. I had a few trans friends who were in similar situations, and we all just assumed that it was our responsibility as trans people to teach everyone else about trans issues. We called it “trans jury duty,” or sometimes “rent-a-tranny,” although “rent” would imply that we were getting paid, which we usually weren’t. Now, I recognize that situation as an oppressive dynamic, kind of like when the one Person of Color in an organization is put in a position of having to educate all their white coworkers about racism. But at the time I didn’t see any better options.

When I finished college, with a BA from a prestigious school, I thought I would just graduate, get an entry-level job in my field, which was child psychology, and I’d live happily ever after. It makes me laugh now, because that’s so far removed from what actually happened. But that was the myth I’d been handed as a working class kid going to a fancy school: That education was my ticket “out,” and that if you just get good grades and get a degree from this college, you can do anything.

What actually happened is that I started looking for a job, and discovered that I was pretty much unemployable.

To give just one example, I applied for several jobs doing counseling and grassroots education at various rape crisis centers. At one of these interviews, someone asked me, “How will it be for you as a trans person to work in a women’s center, since you don’t want to be a woman?”

There’s a lot wrong with that question, and I’m not going to totally pick it apart right now. What especially bugged me about it was that this particular center is not a “women’s” center per se. Rather, it’s supposed to provide services for anyone who has been affected by sexual assault or domestic violence, including men, and certainly including trans people. But this interviewer made it clear that she considered my gender identity a liability for working there. Similar things happened in a lot of my job interviews. So I was barred from some jobs in more or less explicit ways, because I was trans.

I did get one job that was sort of related to my studies. I supervised an after-school program for elementary school students. Snack time, homework time, play time … a pretty straight-forward job, I thought. What could go wrong?

On my first day at work, a 5-year-old said to me, “Teacher, are you a boy or a girl?” I knew this would come up, but I didn’t anticipate it coming up on my first day. I decided to treat it as a teachable moment. I said, “What do you think?” And then the kids had a little debate about it, right in front of me. “Well, I think he’s a boy, cuz he has short hair,” “Well I think she’s a girl, cuz she wears earrings,” and so on. And I discussed it with them: “Do all boys have short hair? Matt has long hair and he’s a boy, right? And Tracy has short hair and she’s a girl, right?” and we had a nice little conversation about gender.

The best part was when one kid said “Well I think he’s a boy cuz look at his shirt.” It was autumn and I was wearing a plaid flannel shirt. Another kid piped up and said, “Nah, my moms wear shirts like that all the time.” Later on I met the kids moms, and they do wear plaid flannel shirts all the time.

After that first day I thought, well thank goodness we got that over with. From now on it’ll be a nice easy job. But five year olds are persistent. The next day, they asked me again. They asked every day that week. And after that first week, they asked at least once a week for the next four months.

I don’t mean to make it sound like I was beaten up by a crew of five-year-olds. Actually I think it’s a reasonable question for a kid that young. They weren’t trying to be mean, they just wanted to know. I had coworkers too, who were my age, but they were even more clueless about gender than the 5-year-olds were. They didn’t back me up in the gender conversations; in fact, they mostly made it worse And so when school finally let out for winter break, I thought, this job’s not worth $8.50 an hour, and I quit.

So that’s how it went. Instead of getting a job in my field and living happily ever after or whatever I thought was supposed to happen, I pieced together two or three part-time jobs, none of them ever paying more than that after-school gig. Some of the jobs lasted a few months, some of them were just odd jobs under the counter. I was living very much from pay check to pay check, something I’m sure a lot of you can relate to.

At the same time, I was continuing to do these gigs where I’d facilitate workshops about trans issues for groups that felt they needed to be more educated. And I was still doing it for free. I ran a peer education program at a queer youth center – also mostly for free. I designed and facilitated workshops about youth empowerment, and presented them to adults who worked with youth – for free. What was I thinking? I was just doing what I was good at, and what I loved doing. I didn’t stop to think, “You know, maybe my labor is actually worth something.”

After about a year and a half, I decided to go back to school. There were two main reasons for my decision. The first was that I needed health insurance. I was having pretty major health problems, and I knew I couldn’t afford health insurance by babysitting, or painting, or working part-time retail jobs. The easiest way I could figure out to get health insurance was to go to grad school and take out student loans again.

The other reason was that I noticed that some of the adults I worked with, who were doing educational workshops similar to what I was doing, were actually getting paid to do that, and that many of them had gotten their training in a graduate program at UMass called Social Justice Education.

The focus of the SJE program is how to teach about systems of oppression like racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on, in ways that point toward liberation. So that’s what I do, now. I finished grad school about a year ago. I’m self-employed, and what I do is I go around facilitating workshops and dialogues about social justice issues. Only I usually don’t do it for free anymore.

I especially work on trans and gender issues, classism and cross-class communication, and of course to do those well I also have to look at the intersections of those issues with racism, sexism, ablism, antisemitism, anti-Moslem and anti-Arab oppression, oppression of immigrants, oppression of young people, and so on.

So that’s one little slice of “my story.” What I’ve told really only scratches the surface of my experiences as a trans person, and I know that each of you here has a story that’s as complex. So I thank you for doing me the honor of listening to mine.

The other thing I’ve been asked to speak about today is what the Day of Remembrance means to me. The Day of Remembrance means that I put aside a day every year to mourn people who were like me in a particular way, and who were murdered for being that way. (Actually for me it means I put aside another day, because I’m Jewish, and as Jews we already have a day like that. It’s called Yom HaShoah, and it is the official day of mourning for Jews who have been murdered because they were Jewish, especially but not only during the Holocaust.) So now two days a year are set aside for me, to mourn people who were murdered because of something they and I have in common.

It means, therefore, that I have to confront my own mortality. I have to recognize that next year, it could be me. I could be raped and murdered on the way home from the laundrymat, and because I’m trans, police might not even investigate. I could be fired from a job I need, or denied housing, or refused necessary medical care because I’m trans, and it wouldn’t even be illegal in most of MA. The Day of Remembrance is a day we set aside to remind ourselves, as if we needed reminding, that we are ‘at risk’.

It is also a day when we pay special attention to the ways in which the strength and creativity of our community is being sapped by deliberate violence.

And we can’t forget this part - the violence is deliberate. We’re not talking about people who were killed accidentally or randomly. These weren’t muggings gone wrong. The people who killed the folks on that list, killed them because they were trans, and because this society teaches us that trans people are worthless. Their killers could reasonably assume they would get away with it, and many of them did.

Violence against trans people is not random. It is part of a system of oppression. That system does not only operate through violence, but in many other ways as well. Eleven people this year are on the official list of names, but those are not the only trans people who have died this year because of oppression. We are not dying once a month, we are dying daily. We are dying not only of anti-trans violence. We are dying of poverty. We are dying of drug addiction. We are dying of depression and mental illness. And we are dying with AIDS. And just like the violence is not accidental or random, these other deaths are not random, either.

But here I am still talking about dead people. For me, the Day of Remembrance can and should be more than that. Mother Jones, a famous union organizer, said, “Mourn for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” It is so beautiful how we turn out at these Day of Remembrance events to support each other in our mourning. And one thing I want to make sure we take home from this Day of Remembrance is that our support for each other as a community is not only needed when we mourn for the dead. We also need to get together to fight for the living. And we need to do it not just one day a year. We need to do it every day.

Today we’re here to say, it’s not okay that trans people get murdered. We need to also be saying, every day, it’s not okay that trans people can’t get jobs. It’s not okay that trans people can’t get healthcare. It’s not okay that trans kids aren’t safe in their schools. It’s not okay that trans people are going to prison, because of their addictions, or because the only work they can find is sex work. It’s not okay that trans people who want medical transition have to jump through hoops, like trying to prove to a social worker that we’re crazy enough to qualify for a diagnosis of gender identity disorder, and also not so crazy that we can’t make our own medical decisions. And it’s not okay that some trans people lose the support of their families and their faith communities because of transphobia.

And while we’re at it, we can build a much stronger movement by saying, we’re not only concerned about trans people. It’s not okay that anyone gets murdered, or can’t get jobs or healthcare, or goes to prison. It’s not okay that any group gets left out and put down in our society. The solidarity we have here today can fuel a movement for trans people’s lives, and it can also fuel a movement for social justice for all people.

We are at risk. But we are not helpless. We can do things to make life better for us, for other trans people, and for everyone. When we leave here today, I don’t want any of us to go home thinking, “Okay, that was nice. I did my trans community thing for the year. Now I don’t have to think about it again til next November.” I don’t think any of you are getting ready to do that, but, you know, we all need reminders sometimes. Instead I want us to go home and think, what am I going to do to work for justice? What do I need to learn, or what do I have to teach, or who would I like to work with, to make the world a better place? We can do that.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Meanwhile, we are here to mourn. I get excited about activism, but of course it is also necessary that we pause from time to time to recognize our losses. Before we go on to reading the list of names, I have just one more very important thing to say.

I’ve been at a few Day of Remembrance events over the years. At almost every one, I’ve heard a story that goes something like this: “This person who was killed last year did not deserve to get killed. She was a really beautiful woman. She always passed everywhere she went. She knew she was trans since she was a little kid. She just wanted to be a normal girl and not bother anybody. And she got killed anyway. It’s not fair.”

Of course it’s not fair that anybody get killed. But personally, I don’t need to hear any stories like that this year. I don’t need to hear any stories that imply that a trans person is worth something, is worth mourning, as long as they are passing and acting normal. I want us to make sure we are honoring all trans people and all people whose gender does not conform to society’s expectations for them. For example, why don’t I ever hear a story that goes like this:

“That girl, she was the least convincing woman I ever laid eyes on. Big-boned, barrel-chested hog of a woman. Girl had more hair on her back than my great uncle Albert, and she sang bass in the church choir. And she still didn’t deserve to get beat up.”

Or how about this one: “Boy did not even try. He had a knack for making straight people nervous, and he loved it. Pissed ‘em off on purpose. Boy had tits the size of basketballs, and he would still lean over a counter and show cleavage to get a free drink, even after his voice started changing. And he still deserved safety and respect and love.”

We are a bunch of damn fine people. Instead of us saying we deserve to live un-harassed because we’re just like ‘normal,’ non-trans people … Let’s say we deserve to live un-harassed because we do, because we’re human. And let’s therefore ally ourselves with anyone who is fighting for the rights of any oppressed group. Let’s be part of a broad social movement for the human rights, dignity and self-determination of all people everywhere.

And then we will be even stronger than the amazing strength that’s here in this room right now. And then someday, no one will be ‘at risk’ anymore. And then someday, soon, and in our lifetimes, we will not need to set aside days for mourning. Kein y’hi ratzon – may it be so.

Thank you.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Thursday, October 04, 2007

ENDA News: The bullet point version.

  • On Monday, HRC Board votes to "reaffirm" support for trans-inclusive ENDA. Click here for more info from HRC.
  • NTAC and other trans leaders criticize HRC's stance, because HRC is not using their connections to push congress people to support the bill HRC claims to support. Click here for more info from NTAC.

  • A bunch of LGBT organizations have signed on to a list stating not only support for an inclusive ENDA, but also opposition to a non-inclusive ENDA. HRC is conspicuously absent.

  • Donna Rose, the only out trans board member at HRC, announces her resignation in protest of HRC not living up to their promise.

  • Meanwhile, Barney Frank defends his non-inclusive ENDA by claiming it's not as bad as NTAC says it is.
I am so not excited about this whole situation. I am posting it because it is time-sensitive information. When I am able to sit down and sort out my thoughts and feelings about it, I may write a more thoughtful piece about it.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Update on ENDA

Today and yesterday, I received literally dozens of emails following up on the exclusion of trans protections from ENDA. It is now official - the inclusive ENDA has been dropped and replaced with two bills, addressing sexual orientation and gender identity separately. Most of the major national gay rights orgs have spoken up against the change, but HRC remains ominously reticent to say anything definitive. De ja vu again.

Here is one message, from NTLC, with links for action you can take. The major cosponsors of the inclusive enda were Barney Frank (MA) and Nancy Pelosi (CA) - Especially if you vote in either of those states, that's who to call.

(I'll leave out the part where they ask you to donate to NTPC. If you want to donate money to a trans rights cause, donate to SRLP instead.)

FROM NTPC:

Dear Friends and Allies

Congress members have decided to eliminate gender identity from the latest version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act ENDA) that was introduced on the House Floor today.

LGBT and allied organizations have been working together for years to pass a bill that would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under federal employment non-discrimination legislation. We want to see all gay, lesbian,
bisexual and transgender employees protected from workplace harassment and discrimination under federal law.

The intention behind members of Congress in favor of splitting an all inclusive bill into two pieces of legislation – one for sexual orientation and another for gender identity – appears to be a fear that a bill including gender identity would sink the whole ship. We need to let Congress know that we do not want our communities and our rights torn apart.

Don't let Congress take the ‘T’ out of the LGBT movement.

What can you do?

1. Sign TLC’s petition urging the Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Frank to introduce the original version of ENDA that includes both gender identity and sexual orientation.

Sign the petition:
http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/transgender_inclusive_ENDA/

2. Call your representative today! Call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202.224.3121 and ask to speak to your representative’s office.

Find out who your representative is:
http://www.house.gov/writerep/

Here’s a link to all Representatives in Congress:
http://www.house.gov/house/MemberWWW_by_State.shtml

When the representative’s receptionist answers, you can say:

“Please tell [your representative] that I oppose any version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that does not include both sexual orientation and gender identity. Transgender people desperately need the protections ENDA would provide. Surveys of transgender people have found that more than 55% reported discrimination in the workplace, and almost 60% earned less than $16,000 a year. The entire country has an interest in seeing the transgender community thrive in the national economy. Without protection against discrimination, that is nearly impossible. Congress should pass the original version of ENDA that includes both gender identity and sexual orientation.”

Contact your representative:
http://www.kintera.org/site/lookup.asp?c=nlI2IeN1JyE&b=2579775


Friday, September 28, 2007

De ja vu - No Trans Protection in ENDA

Yahoo news and others report that Democratic members in the House of Representatives are trying to remove language from ENDA that would protect trans people from employment discrimination, because they say Republicans will use it as an excuse to vote agasint the bill. De ja vu.

Many trans folk are still nursing a grudge against HRC from the last time ENDA was up for a vote, and HRC actually encouraged congresspeople to remove the trans-inclusive language, to make it more likely to pass. Didn't work then. Now HRC has apparently changed its tune, but several of the more progressive (on some issues) congresspeople are about to pull the same old shit.

For those of you who like parallels, this is a "we'll come back for you" moment. Kind of like middle-class white feminists saying, "First we'll get job equality for us, and then we'll work on access for poor women and women of Color." It's a strategy that centralizes the needs of those whose needs are least dire (like these guys who are all about "forging a gay mainstream"), damages coalition, and divides community.

Trans people face legal job discrimination in most of the U.S., and even where it's not legal, it happens all the time. One study reported a 60% unemployment rate. It's not a typo. More than half of trans people in that study could not find legal employment. The rhetoric against ENDA often does focus on trans people, and makes untrue claims about the bill such that it would force everyone to use gender-neutral restrooms.

Below is a message from MTPC listing Barney Frank's number (he introduced the bill this time around). I hope some of you will call calmly explain to the good gay representative why this is a fcked up idea.

FROM MTPC:
This is important, please respond today

Hello everyone

It is vital that everyone call Barney Frank's office and let him know
that dropping transgender people from the bill is unacceptable.
Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) H.R. 2015.
(202) 225-5931.

Please ask friends and family to do the same... if we are dropped on a
public way this may affect our own bill here [in MA].

Please call and tell them your name and that you are a member of Mass
Transgender Political Coalition and that transgender people are fired
for coming out.

-- Gunner

Find out how you can support HB 1722 -
"An Act Relative to Gender-Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes"
visit www.masstpc.org
Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Wishing I was as Clever as This Guy

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated last week at Columbia that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Andy Borowitz responds with this short piece. I feel jealous of his wit.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Trannies in the News

Trans people get kicked out of bathrooms all the time, but we rarely make the news doing it! Check out this TV news story from Seattle, about 2 trans guys who got ejected from a bathroom by mall security. Click here to watch the story via streamed video; click here to read it as text.

I'll ruin the ending now, and tell you that both guys are okay and taking the incident with good humor. Watching this news story is distinctly less traumatic than most other news clips I've ever seen related to trans people.

Amazingly, there is very little gender-cluelessness evident in the reporting. (On the part of the news outlet, that is. On the part of the mall management, well, that's another story.) Unlike most news outlets, this TV station follows AP guidelines that trans people should be referred to by their pronoun of choice. And what really surprises me is that both the anchor and the reporter (or whoever wrote their lines) talk about trans people like they are used to talking about trans people - a tiny but still significant step in demonstrating allyship.

FYI, the "gay rights law" the story refers to is an anti-discrimination statue that took effect in January, 2006. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and so is meant explicitly to protect trans people. Here's some more on that from NGLTF. For the detail-oriented among you, I'll note that the "sexual orientation" bit expressly protects straight people from discrimination, too. So calling it a "gay rights" bill is missing the bullseye on several levels.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Short Funny Gender Story

Or, Yet Another Peculiar Conversation about My Name

Last weekend I was strolling about town with a friend. We were discussing the language origins of our names. Both my name and hers work well in numerous languages, but the meanings vary across languages. With my name, even the gender varies across languages: most Indian (from the subcontinent, not the Americas) people will hear my name as Devi, which is a definitively female name.

Just then we were hailed by Mohammed, the Indian guy who just opened a little grocery up the street from my house. Ordinarily I anonymize the strangers that I write about in my blog, but "an Indian guy named Mohammed" might apply to a larger group of people than almost any other phrase of similar construction, so I'm not worried. Business was slow, and Mohammed was bored, so we chatted for a while.

(Random footnote: The spell-checker built in to blogger does not recognize Mohammed, but does recognize Microsoft, McDonald's, and Macintosh. How fucked up is that??)

The first thing Mohammed said to us was, "Where are you really from?" I said "New York," and Mohammed said, "Really?"

This confused me. I know that people get asked questions like this all the time, but ... I'm white. I'm not even "kinda dark for a white guy," like a lot of white Jews I know. So I'm not sure what stereotype he could possibly have been drawing on, to have trouble believing that I came from New York. Then he asked my friend where she was "really from," and she said "here," and there was a similar exchange of mild disbelief. That made a little more sense to me, because she is indeed kinda dark for a white girl, in a way that not many people are, who are "really from" here.

We chatted for a while longer. I did most of the talking, and Mohammed mostly talked to me. I felt kinda bad about it, because it seemed like a gender privilege thing. But, I also thought it might be kind of chivalrous of me. My friend is femme and gorgeous and gets a lot of un-asked-for attention from men. So I thought, maybe Mohammed is rudely ignoring her to converse with me, but, at least that means he's not leering at her like most men do.

Then Mohammed looked at me, and nodded toward my friend, and said, "Is she your girlfriend?"

I said, "No," and my friend and I made eye contact and giggled, which probably didn't help anything.

He said, "Just friends?"

We said, "Yeah."

Still looking at me, Mohammed said, "Oh, are you gay?"

"I, uh ... not exactly?" I almost said, "No, but she is," but then, isn't she dating boys lately?

He said, "It's okay if you are. I accept everybody."

"Uh, great. Yeah, um..."

"You swing both ways?"

"It's ... complicated."

Somewhere toward this end of this exchange, I realized that Mohammed thought I was male. And gay, of course, because why else would I be "just friends" with a stunning and seemingly heterosexual woman? At that point my friend must have taken over holding up our end of the conversation, because I was totally flummoxed. So much for being the gentleman. The rest of the conversation is kind of a blur to me, until we decided to extricate ourselves.

I said, "Look, we really have to get going. It was great to meet you." Then realizing we hadn't exchanged names yet, I put out my hand: "My name's Davey."

Mohammed took my hand in both of his, softly, with a level of attention that I'm not used to receiving in a handshake. "Devi?" said Mohammed, "That's an Indian name."

"Yeah, I know," I said. "See you around!"

And we scrammed, before he could put the pieces together.

I can't wait to see what happens the next time I swing by his grocery store.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Vision Statement

Last month I had the privilege of attending the Jewcy retreat for the third time. Jewcy is a West-Coast gathering of next-generation tikkun olam activists. Tikkun olam means, more or less, "the repair of the world."

This year we did some amazing leadership development activities, one of which involved writing vision and mission statements for our lives. Since the retreat, I have been reflecting on my vision and mission, and trying to resolve them into something specific and communicable.

Here is my draft vision statement. I am eager for your feedback and responses. I wrote this vision statement in response to the prompt: In the next 2-3 years, what will be different in the world, because of your work?


Communities that I work with will be acting more like communities. They will develop structures and habits for nurturing their members in many ways, including emotionally, socially, and materially.

Many groups that think of themselves as communities – such as congregations, some schools, and neighborhood groups – already have structures for supporting their members socially. Some also do pretty well at supporting members emotionally. Very few such communities (in the U.S.) are in the habit of supporting members materially.

Supporting community members materially would mean sharing resources – i.e. money – such that, at the very least, everyone’s basic needs would be met. Many of us in the U.S. have an ambiguous relationship with the idea of sharing resources. We’re not quite sure it’s our job. It seems vaguely communistic. And, since it’s considered impolite even to talk about money and poverty, communities can comfortably pretend that they don’t know that a member is struggling to pay their bills. But for me, this is part of what community should mean. If a member of a community needs a place to stay or healthy food to eat, there is no reason that need can’t be met, that minute. Many of our communities have the resources to care for members in this way, if only we would decide to do it. There’s no excuse for us not to.

In order for communities to embrace the responsibility of sharing material resources, they need to resolve this ambiguity and decide that it is indeed our job to nurture community members in this way. They need to uncover and challenge the roots of this discomfort by having competent, compassionate conversations about class and across class. They need to engage with questions like, Do I deserve what I have? What does it mean to “deserve” resources in excess of what my neighbors have? How do I communicate about class and money? What aspects of my class or money situation do I consider to be “private,” and why? If I needed help from this community, would I feel comfortable asking for it? Who is responsible for making sure that members of this community have safe places to stay, and healthy food to eat? Who is in the center of this community, and who is on the edges? How do we make the center large enough for everyone?

In order to address these questions in a way that is loving, informed and applicable, communities need practice and they need facilitation. I can help communities engage in these conversations by facilitating workshops, cross-class dialogues, and cost-sharing procedures. Through these facilitated encounters members of the communities will improve their skills at communicating about class and money, and increase their awareness of their own and others’ hang-ups around class. Gradually the community will develop a shared understanding about class, and will create formal and informal norms about sharing resources within the community in order to address members’ needs.

I want to do this work because I want communities I work with to become communities that I want to be a part of. I want to do it because I feel genuine when I’m able to have honest, heartfelt, intellectually rigorous conversations, and because I know that class is one barrier that gets in the way of these conversations. I want to do it because this system is set up to divide us, and we don’t have to let it. I want to do it because I have faith that communities can and must do better.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Help me Name my new Web site!

I'm pushing it, I know. To taunt you with another post that's not one. I promise I'll write a post with real content, really soon.

Meanwhile, I really do need your help! I am ramping up my consulting/training business, trying to get enough facilitation gigs to pay off my loans a little quicker, among other things. To do this I need a website, which I'm working on. My web site needs an address - that's where you come in.

The main requirements are that it be easy to remember and easy to spell. Unfortunately, this rules out using my last name. It needn't have much to do with the content of my business - in fact, I'd rather not get very specific because I don't want people thinking I only teach on one subject. (So, no "transgender trainers . com, please.)

Some that have been proposed (some in jest, but it's hard to tell which), are as follows:

sometimesdaveywins
daveyworkshops
digressiontrainings
breakingbinariestrainings
jestertrainings (after my cat)
queerastrainings
flyingsquirreltrainings
superjustice
thinktwicetrainings
mindspringtrainings (which is so good & vague, it must be taken)
complicitous (violates the easy-to-spell rule)
redhoodietrainings (i don't always wear it ...)
knowjusticetraining (unfortunate sound-alike)
b'asherhusham (oy, the spelling!)
classytrainers
tzedektzedek
slingshottraining

and there were so many more but ... I guess they failed the "easy to remember" test. I could still be convinced, if someone reminds me of them.

So, what do you think? I need ideas! Post em in your comments, please. I need em by August 10.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Today's News

I live in a place where the lead story in the local newspaper is about a pet tortoise that got lost, and came back.

My first thought: Isn't there a war going on?

My second thought: Well, at least it means that I live in a place where people aren't getting murdered and stuff.

Then I remembered: Wait a minute, two people were murdered here just last week.

I guess the picture wasn't cute enough.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Are Jewish services more participatory?

A few thoughts and tidbits, following a friend’s post speculating on what makes Jewish religious services more participatory than Catholic ones. (It really is better if you read her post first.)

1) The language thing: Dane highlights that both Catholic and Jewish services make use of languages (Latin, Hebrew) that most congregants do not speak or understand. True. I’d add that Jewish congregations vary enormously in the proportion of the service that's conducted in Hebrew (as I gather Catholic congregations vary in their use of Latin). As a teenager I attended some services where none of the service went untranslated - much was in English, and the rest in Hebrew, Aramaic, or occasionally Yiddish, with immediate English translation. (Well, on second thought, sometimes some Yiddish did go untranslated - in the spirit of "speak Yiddish so the children don't understand" - but that's different.)

1 ½) Random halachic insertion: I learned last week that the sh'ma - a central part of almost every service - is supposed to be said aloud, by every single congregant, at least loud enough so the speaker can hear themselves (since sh'ma means "listen"), in whatever language that person understands best. I don't make this shit up, it's halacha (religious law). citation: Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 13a.

2) On praying silently: Dane also points out that the Amidah, a central aspect of most services, is conducted silently, which may discourage active participation of some congregants. In some services the silent Amidah is followed by a unison reading aloud of the same set of prayers. Is this for certain holidays only, or is it just a matter of how long a congregation wants its services to be? I'm not sure. I believe I remember being told that the reading aloud was so that non-literate congregants would also have access to the prayers. But even when the Amidah is conducted silently, people can "participate" by meditating, praying in their own words, reading along in Hebrew or, often, the vernacular, or by reading vernacular commentary and artistic re-interpretation.

3) And speaking of interpretation: For me this is the essence of participation. In a catholic mass, regardless who's doing the speaking, the text is suppose-d to mean one thing and one thing only, and the Pope gets to decide what. (Not to say it really happens this way for all Catholics, but that is the official idea.) In a Jewish service, there is no official correct interpretation. We may all recite "sh'ma yisrael" together, and we may translate it, legitimately, in dozens of different ways, and understand it in infinite more ways. The guy on my left is thinking, "Believe, you assembled Israelites about to enter Canaan …,” and the guy on my left is thinking, “Listen here, Sharon, you no-good-nik …,” and another person means, “Remember, Jews ...,” and another, “Be open to each other, you doubters who wrestle with G-d …,” and our praying in unison in a language none of us particularly understands does nothing to quash our enacting different intentions with the prayer. We participate my making meaning, which is for me one of the highest forms of engagement.

4) Congregations?: These days, and perhaps always, a whole lot of Jewish praying does not take place in a shul. It takes place at home (this used to be the great majority of Jewish praying), or in small chavurot (gatherings of friends/colleagues) that may or may not accomplish a minyan, have a leader, or follow any of the various halacha (religious law) and traditions regarding Jewish prayer. So, Dane, when you cite facts about how it’s done in Jewish services, you are being fairly specific about the kind of prayer you include in your comparison – that is, prayer that occurs in a synagogue, with a rabbi or chazzan, with sidurim, etc.

5) Which Jews?: I agree that most Jews who participate at all in religious ritual tend to be rather more active participants in it than most Christians, and especially than most Catholics – which is not to say all, so don’t jump down my throat about it. That seems like a logical effect of the structure of services in those traditions, which is the main point of Dane’s posting. On the other hand, there are a whole lot of Jews who do not participate in religious ritual, period. Many Jews are secular because their parents and grandparents were, and lots more are excluded from mainstream Jewish religious services for some of the very reasons that make these services so participatory – for example, the expectation that everyone in the congregation is able to read Hebrew or at least transliteration with fluency, has studied Torah enough to have an opinion about the leader’s interpretation, knows when to stand, when to bow, when to kiss what, is familiar with most if not all of the tunes used in a standard Shabbat service in that congregation, and so on. For Jews who do not share this basic cultural capital, attending Jewish services is no more participatory than watching a movie, and can be considerably more embarrassing.

So, good, let’s congratulate ourselves on having a religious tradition that values and encourages active participation. But let’s also continue wrestling with the various divisions that oppression and history have made in our communities – divisions of class, ethnicity, geography, language, politics, gender, class … - and let’s think hard together about what truly broad participation would look like.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Another Katrina Story

Several months ago I traveled to New Orleans for the annual HIV Prevention Leadership Summit, sponsored by a lot of great acronyms such as NAPWA, NMAC, CDC, and others. The host committee, mostly case workers and outreach workers for the New Orleans Department of Health, patiently reminded us over and over again about of the impact of the flooding related to Hurricane Katrina. Many of the New Orleanians who work in HIV prevention now live in FEMA trailers that the DOH and other providers of “essential” services managed to procure for them. It was the only way these agencies could ensure that enough staff would be able to return to New Orleans and their jobs to keep the agencies running.

On Monday afternoon (the first full day of the conference) the host committee sponsored a bus tour to the most damaged areas of the city. This kind of disaster tourism feels creepy to me, and initially I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I was additionally turned off by the many people who said things like, “You just can’t imagine the devastation without seeing it firsthand. You just have to go see it.” Those of you who read my earlier post On Understanding Injustice have an inkling about how I respond to the assumption that the only way to understand a catastrophe is to experience it. To summarize, I think that this kind of logic has the potential to paralyze us with guilt and pain, and does not fully allow for the idea of allyship.

On top of all that, I was skeptical about the validity of the claim that I “couldn’t imagine” the affects of the hurricane, and more importantly, of the levee breaches. I have a damn vivid imagination. I was pretty sure I could imagine the devastation without seeing it.

I did end up going on the bus tour, and as it turned out we were both right. I did not see anything on the bus tour that I hadn’t imagined already, but I did gain some insight from the experience.

We started off in the French Quarter, which was the least damaged area of the city. Even there, most buildings are still marred by water lines, anywhere from a few inches to several feet above street level. These marks are permanent. Some building owners have tried painting over them, but the lines come back.

We continued through many neighborhoods where houses were more damaged. In these areas, every building was marked with spray-painted symbols indicating which teams of disaster workers had checked the building, when, and what was found. In houses where pets were found alive, the markings also indicate which animal shelter the rescuers evacuated them to. I found this sign particularly surreal: “2 cats DOA, 2 fish rescued.”

The houses in these neighborhoods are in various stages of repair. Some are sound enough to be occupied while they are rebuilt. Some have been gutted, and their owners are living in FEMA trailers in the driveway while they work on them. Others were gutted by teams of volunteers and have not been touched since, because the owners can’t afford to come back. A few are still filled to the ceiling with the ruined, rotting contents.

And then we got to the lower ninth ward, the hardest-hit part of the city. In parts of the lower ninth ward, the houses are just gone. It’s been almost two years now, so the multi-acre heaps of wreckage have been cleared away. What’s striking now is the emptiness. There’s just nothing, and no one, there. Blocks upon blocks of empty lots. Blocks upon blocks of addresses that people used to live at. When they come back, how do they even know which piece of weedy ground is theirs?

This was the point in the tour where I started to get emotional. It was painful to look at the devastation. And yet it was not unexpected. It was exactly as I had imagined it. And while people around me were saying things like, “Oh, my Lord,” “I can’t believe …,” and “Would you look at that!,” the whole scene felt oddly, eerily, distressingly familiar to me.

I had a sense of what the lower ninth might be like, not from news reports, but from my imagination. And I was able to imagine it with remarkable accuracy because I had some practice at imagining disasters. I have had to imagine such catastrophe to understand my own family history.

I have a great uncle who is a journalist. He was the youngest of three siblings, and the only one of them to be born in the U.S. In the early ‘70s, after completing a freelance assignment in Denmark, he took a detour to Poland to try to find the shtetl where his parents and siblings were born. When they had left, in 1929, the town had consisted of about 500 families, about 400 of them Jewish. In the version of the story that I picked up as a kid, my uncle returns to the village some half of a century later, to find 100 family homes and 400 empty lots.

Four hundred empty spaces where houses used to be. Four hundred foundations. Four hundred families dead or scattered. As a child, I worked hard to imagine this. Reflecting now, I wonder how many young Jews force ourselves to imagine catastrophe, with as much as details as we can muster. It is not just that we want to understand the events. To some extent we need to imagine these things, simply to be able to relate to our elders at all.

Now I’ve re-read my uncle’s written account of his visit and I know that the details I remembered were slightly off. It wasn’t 400 families, it was 450 out of 500. And he never precisely says that the houses were gone. Maybe they were left standing, empty, or occupied by gentiles. But it is true that there were no Jews there. That also is something I have made myself imagine: All the Jews are gone. My people are not there, now.

One time a (gentile) professor of religion with whom I was studying suggested that I ought to travel to Eastern Europe, to visit Auschwitz and Dachau. “Oh you just have to go, without going one simply can’t imagine …” You get the idea. Needless to say I did not take his advice. I understood without visiting what my professor, apparently, did not: I can imagine, and there is nothing to go back to. If I were to visit Poland or Ukraine, to try to find the places my family came from, I would come up empty-handed. My people are not there, now. The closest I could get to them would be a Holocaust tour.

Riding through New Orleans on a bus hired by the Health Department, because they wanted us to understand, I thought about those four hundred burned-out foundations I imagined as a child. Empty lots. My people are not there, now. And I thought of children all over the U.S. who are New Orleanians-in-exile. Looking back to New Orleans. Wondering if there’s anything to go back to.

There have been whispers from some politicians in New Orleans that it might be best to give up on the ninth ward, not to repopulate at all. They whisper that there might be a silver lining to this catastrophe, an opportunity to “clean up the city.” I get nervous when politicians want to “clean up” any place. It seems the dirt they’re looking to sweep out is always Brown. The lower-ninth ward was a predominantly, almost entirely, Black area. There were thriving Black-owned businesses and Black-led neighborhoods and schools. They aren’t there now. No businesses, no schools, no houses, no people. Just empty lots.

Officially, the whispers have not been heeded. Unofficially, there is no one in the lower ninth ward. Officially, people are allowed to move back. Unofficially, insurance companies won’t approve rebuilding plans, and FEMA won’t provide trailers, in those areas. After the khurvn, the Holocaust, there was no one left to move back. About 2/3 of the Jews of Europe had been murdered, and those who survived settled anywhere else, rather than return to a place so infused with loss and violence. Thank G-d this is a different situation. Right now there are still people eager to move back to New Orleans and rebuild. Officially, they’re encouraged. Unofficially, …

No matter what happens in the lower ninth, some of the people who were pushed out by the levee breaches will never return to New Orleans. They will settle in other cities, and some will raise children there. Those children will force themselves to imagine horrific emptiness, pets and people marked Dead On Arrival, real and immediate fear of drowning, neighborhoods that are gone. They will need to imagine these things, not only to understand their history, but also to be able to relate to their parents at all. They will want to come back and visit the place their families came from. And I want there to be something for them to come back to, besides Katrina tours. I don’t want a whole generation of Black New Orleanians-in-exile to grow up knowing, “My people aren’t there, now.”

If we need one more reason to rebuild, let it be this: Another generation does not need to grow up feeling like perpetual outsiders, like immigrants from a place that didn’t want them anyway to a place that doesn’t want to know them. Another generation does not have to grow up feeling the only way to know their culture is to know pain. This is a moment when we can fix something. It is not unimaginable that we would turn our backs – after all, we’ve done it before. But let’s not do it again.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Panelspiel on Antisemitism

The following are my notes for a panelspiel I did about contemporary U.S. experiences of antisemitism. Since there were five of us on the panel, I did not have to be comprehensive, and I chose to focus primarily on examples of cultural-level antisemitism (as opposed to individual acts or institutional policies). I'm currently thinking about how to transform this into a more reader-friendly piece, to be printed rather than presented. Any ideas, feedback, talkback, or anything are very welcome.

I’ve noticed that a lot of smart, well-intentioned people, who understand a lot about the dynamics of oppression, seem to find antisemitism “subtle” or difficult to recognize. I think one reason for this is that they are looking for oppression on the basis of religion only, because they think of Jewishness as just merely a religion. Actually Jewishness is about not only religion but also ethnicity, culture, history, and other factors. The assumption that Jewishness is a religion only serves to disguises examples of cultural antisemitism, and also it is cultural antisemitism.

So I’m going to start there, and move through several categories of what I see as cultural antisemitism. For each category I’ll try to give examples from the dominant culture, from lefty or progressive culture, and also as I’ve seen myself and others internalize these ideas.

Jewishness as Just Merely Religion

In dominant culture, cultural antisemitism is

  • The assumption that Jewishness, like Christianity, is just merely a religious that can be separated from culture, and
  • That therefore Jews who are not religious have nothing to say about Jewishness or antisemitism, and
  • The invisibility of secular Jews, and
  • People’s failure to imagine Jews doing anything “as Jews” that’s not religious. For example some of my friends often fail to distinguish between me going to religious services and me going on a hike on Saturday afternoon with some Jews.

On the Left, cultural antisemitism is expressed in

  • The assumption that faith work in general doesn’t fit in the secular left, and that naming a Jewish identity or drawing on Jewish tradition is the same as drawing on religion.
  • The assumption that one can’t be a Jew and an atheist, or a Jew and a socialist. If I’m convincing as a lefty, I must not be really Jewish (or not be “very Jewish”). If I’m convincing as a Jew, I must not be really lefty.
These forms of cultural antisemitism may be internalized as
  • The sense that I am not Jewish “enough” - to speak “as a Jew,” to claim holy days off, to lead a religious service, or even to lead a secular Jewish project. And I could say that this is because I didn’t grow up religious, but actually, almost every Jew I’ve ever talked to has similar experiences. It seems there are infinite reasons one is “not Jewish enough” to “count” as a Jew – because I’m not religious, because I’m not a Zionist, because I don’t speak Hebrew or Yiddish, because I’m not connected enough with my secular heritage, because none of my grandparents were in Europe during the war, and on and on. None of these actually makes someone any more or “less Jewish.” But the sense that one is “not Jewish enough” leads to Jews silencing ourselves as Jews.

After I started thinking this stuff through, at a certain point I thought, “Oh, yeah! Christianity is not just merely a religion, either! Just like we could talk about Jewish culture, we could talk about Christian culture!” But, Christians don’t seem to know this.

The assumption that Christianity is just merely about religion, not culture, makes it difficult for Christians to notice when Christian values, habits or patterns are being privileged in society, especially if those values, habits or patterns are not explicitly religious. It also makes it difficult for non-religious people who are culturally Christian to recognize the cultural privileges that they receive. This leads me to my next category,

Privileging of Christian Norms over Jewish Norms, and belittling of Jewish Cultures

In dominant culture, this can look like

  • It is generally acceptable for non-Jews to be completely ignorant of Jewish cultures and traditions.
  • Christian traditions are considered to be normal or even “secular.” Sometimes the centralizing of Christian traditions is so thorough that people don’t even notice that the traditions are Christian. For example, last year on the Shabbos during Pesach, which also happened to be the Saturday before Easter, I went to get a haircut. The person saw me take off my yarmulke and stuff it in my coat pocket before sitting down in her chair. After “what number do you want on the sides?” her next question was, “got any plans for Easter?” I said, “I don’t celebrate Easter,” and she said, “Oh yeah, I knew that,” and she gestured to her head where a yarmulke would be, “but, it’s still like a day to have a party or something, right?”
  • The weekend is structured around Sunday as a Sabbath. If the weekend was structured around Saturday, people would get time off work on Friday and Saturday, to provide time to prepare for Shabbat. (This is particularly ironic given that many leaders of the labor movement – “the folks who brought you the weekend” - have been Jews.)
  • Jewish cultural norms, such as interrupting in conversation, speaking loudly, and disagreeing directly, are considered impolite.
  • Yiddish, the language of Ashkenazi Jews, is used as a comic stunt. When I use Yiddish in public, people laugh at me even if I am not making a joke. Until recently, many scholars did not consider Yiddish to be a “real” language at all.

In lefty/progressive culture, this comes out as

  • The assumption that all religion is like Christianity, and is oppressive and regressive. (For example a professor once declared to me, “All religion has a problem with sexuality that’s not for reproduction,” which simply is not true of Judaism.)
  • In groups or committees when we establish group norms or guidelines, certain items like “not interrupting” privilege white, upper-class, protestant culture.
  • Supposedly secular progressive groups would never dream of scheduling a meeting on Christmas Day, but they do routinely schedule meetings on major Jewish holy days, often without apology.

When we internalize these norms, here are some effects:

  • As a kid, and still, gentile friends think it’s polite to ask me to join them for Christmas parties, Easter egg hunts, etc. I feel cautious about inviting gentiles to Jewish events, and usually invite only a couple of gentiles who I trust a lot.
  • Likewise when I was a kid I went to Sunday school and church with Christian friends of mine, because that’s just what they did on Sundays and if I wanted to hang out with them I would have to tag along. I have almost never invited gentiles to Jewish religious services. The few times I did, it was someone who was my best friend or lover, and every time I felt nervous that the experience would put distance between us. Some times, it did.
  • When I went to church with Christian friends, I knew to tuck my Mogen David into my shirt so no one would see it. Nobody told me to do this, I just knew. When my Christian friends (rarely) came to synagogue with me, they did not think to put away their crosses, and had to be reminded to cover their heads.
  • The sense that it’s too much to expect for it to be any different than that, even from adult gentile friends now.
  • At least three of my great grandparents had two first names – a Yiddish one they used in Jewish company, and an English one that was on all their legal documents. I didn’t learn their Yiddish names until I was 24 years old (although I had met two of them multiple times when I was a child).
  • Jews (including my family) celebrating Christmas because it’s the American or “secular” thing to do.
  • When I was a kid, wanting my hair to be straight and shiny because that meant pretty. (After I went to Jewish summer camp and was exposed to the idea of “Jewish hair” being kinky and dark, I wanted my hair to be kinky and dark so I would “look Jewish”.)
  • People who are visibly Jewish, for example people who wear a yarmulke in public, are subjected to stares, ignorant questions, and sometimes outright harassment.

Jews as Rich and/or White and/or Powerful, and therefore Antisemitism as Not a Real Issue

In dominant culture, the assumption that Jews are necessarily rich, white, and/or powerful looks like:

  • The recurring conspiracy theories about Jews running the banks, Hollywood, New York or the world.
  • Ignorance about how small the Jewish population is, in the U.S. and in the world.
  • The invisibility of secular, poor and working class Jews, Jews of Color, Sephardim and Mizrahim.
  • The sense that antisemitism only ever happened in Europe, and anyway ended in 1945.

In lefty/progressive culture it looks like:

  • Resistance on the Left to seeing antisemitism as a unique phenomenon worthy of study and action, seeing it rather as just a side effect of the real issue, which is usually race or capital. For me this means that when I name an example of antisemitism, I often feel the only way to convince progressives of its legitimacy is to make a parallel to racism. But sometimes there is no parallel; racism and antisemitism do not work in all of the exact same ways.
  • The sense that Jews who speak up about antisemitism are distracting attention from the real issue, usually race or capital.
  • The sense that white Jews who talk about antisemitism obviously aren’t dealing with their own white privilege. (And sometimes, the use of this idea to shut down white Jews by claiming that whiteness is the relevant factor in a situation and Jewishness is not relevant.)
  • The failure to imagine degrees of antisemitism. If we’re not in immediate danger of being gassed, it must not be antisemitism. (Jews do this to ourselves, too.)
  • The use of race/ethnicity as if they are one concept – which does not allow for the positionality of white Jews as privileged in racial terms and oppressed in ethnic terms.
  • I think race is complicated. I can see this especially among Jews. The correlation between skin color, ethnicity and racial identity is far weaker for Jews than what we usually assume. I know white Ashkenazim (who are “obviously” white in the dominant construct) who are easily mistaken for light-skinned black folks, and Mizrahim (who are “obviously” people of color in the dominant construct), who are easily mistaken for white people, and other Mizrahim who are easily mistaken for Black Africans, or who are Black Africans. The antisemitism part comes in when I point this out as a nifty, convenient example of that race is a social construct, and gentiles (including people who study race and racism for a living) say, “Yeah, Jews are so complicated,” rather than, “Yeah, race is so complicated.”
  • The habit of some progressive people of blaming racism, sexism, or especially homophobia, on “Judeo-Christian” values. This not only blames Judaism for oppression, but also fails to distinguish between Jewish culture, and 2 millenia of Christian cultural interpretation of ancient Jewish texts.

When these assumptions are internalized, they may come out as

  • The fear of “maybe it is a conspiracy – maybe it’s not okay for me to be strategizing with other Jews about antisemitism we encounter in our community.”
  • The sense that any antisemitism I experience is not bad enough to complain about, because it doesn’t compare to what my grandparents went through, and/or because antisemitism currently is not “as bad as” racism, U.S. imperialism, etc.
  • As Jews we are taught to believe that we don’t deserve allies, and that we can’t trust our allies. (As a child when I first learned about antisemitism, I found myself judging friends based on whether or not they would have hid me.)
  • The sense that it is probably dangerous, or at least unwise, to be talking about my own internalized antisemitism in front of a group of mostly gentiles.

The Thing about Israel

In dominant culture, the thing about Israel is simply

  • The assumption that all Jews are Israelis (or at least Zionists), and all Israelis are Jews, and
  • Blaming American Jews for U.S. policy in the middle east, which may benefit or appear to benefit the State of Israel.

In lefty culture, it comes out as

  • Blaming American Jews for U.S. imperialism in the middle east, which may benefit or appear to benefit the State of Israel. (What’s that? I said that already? That’s because in this case, lefties often use exactly the same anti-Jewish rhetoric as people on the conservative right. They may disagree with U.S. policy for totally different reasons, but both groups find it convenient to scapegoat the Jews.)
  • The left’s passion about voicing very legitimate and necessary critiques of the policies of the State of Israel, while failing to leverage the same critiques at the U.S., at France, at Sudan, at Germany, or at any other nation that is currently enforcing racist policies.
  • The reality that any Jew who speaks on any progressive cause must sooner or later identify their position on Israel/Palestine. If I’m out as Jewish, and I’m working on something like, say, a union rally or a GLBT event, especially if I dare to mention that my Jewish values are part of what brings me to this work, people are going to start asking me if I’m a Zionist.

When we internalize this, some wacky things can happen:

  • The sense that, as a progressive Jew, I am not a good enough activist because Palestine is not the primary issue I’m working on.
  • When I have a date my mom usually asks, “is s/he Jewish?” and she’d be okay either way, but the correct answer is “yes.” One time I met a guy at a Jewish event, so my mom knew he must be Jewish. So instead she asked, “is he very Jewish?” and the correct answer was “no,” and it took me a while to figure out that what she meant was “is he Zionist”.

Jews as the perfect outsider, or as just terribly irredeemably weird.

In dominant culture this may come out as:

  • The client who, upon learning that I was Jewish, asked whether I was related to the one other Jew he’s ever met.
  • The occasional gentile who still feels tempted to feel a Jew’s head, to check for horns.
  • In elementary school, the other kids’ holidays were recognized with parties during snack time. My holidays were recognized through projects for Social Studies.

Internalized:

  • The sense that I am just different, will always be on the outside of communities, that no one will ever understand me.
  • My great-grandmother immigrated to the U.S. from Poland in 1929, which was the last year that most Jews could get visas into the U.S. until the end of WWII. One time I asked my dad, how did she know that it was time to leave? His answer: “I guess she was just tired of living in a country where she was a foreigner.” A foreigner, in Poland, where her family had been living for approximately four hundred years.
  • I never felt drawn into patriotic events or language. When politicians speaks of “Americans,” I’m never sure they mean me. Just as my great-grandparents were never Jewish Poles or even Polish Jews, but always “Jews living in Poland,” I have noticed I think of myself as a Jew living in the U.S., or as an American Jew, but never as a Jewish American.
  • On GLBT panels people often ask me when was the first time I knew I was different. I’m always tempted to say, “Well, always … but being queer might have been the least of my differences.”