SM’s Helpful, Non-Comprehensive Passover Primer

It is that time of year again, folks! By which I mean: Passover. Heretofore referred to by the Hebrew name of Pesach, because that’s how it is in my head. (Note: all of the following refers to Ashkenazic practices of Pesach. Sephardic practices are very different, but I am not familiar enough with them to write a compare/contrast piece.)

 

 

For those of you who don’t know, Pesach is, to borrow a friend’s favorite suffix, crazypants.

This friend also laments the fact that when you see Jewish characters in fiction, the only holiday they usually talk about is Hanukkah, as if that is the big poobah of the Jewish calendar. To that we say, HA. Hanukkah is one of the least important Jewish holidays from a religious standpoint, since it was instituted purely by the rabbis and not by the Torah itself, and also requires relatively little action, both during the holiday and in preparation for it. Basically, you gotta buy candles or oil and dust off your menorah (which you probably got for your bar or bat mitzvah, or else you can get a cheap one from the internet or your local bodega or whatever) and be home around sundown to light it. And if you get home later than sundown, okay, you light it then. Different customs may require that you don’t do anything more strenuous than reading a book for about 30 minutes after lighting the candles. Very intense.

Pesach…whooooo boy. Where do I even start.

Well, there’s the fact that if you live in America, the first two days and the last two days of Pesach’s eight days are, unlike any days of Hanukkah, capital-H Holiday days, which I’m using here to mean that they are basically two-day Sabbaths in the middle of the week. No electricity, no driving, no public transportation, no writing with pen/pencil and paper, no igniting fires (alas), no sewing, no talking on the phone, no texting, no internet. (Fun fact: Josh Malina, the actor, once tweeted, “Good Shabbos!” and when asked what that meant, he explained, “It’s Hebrew for ‘I don’t have access to google.’ ” High fives, Josh.)

Capital-H Holidays are different from the actual Sabbath in a couple of ways, the major one being that you are technically allowed to cook on Holidays for what is immediately needed. Although since you are still not allowed to ignite a fire, there are obviously limits on what kind of cooking you can do, and therefore most people who are planning to be at home and eating all their own food for Holiday meals have to do a metric boatload of cooking and baking beforehand. You do not want to know how many quiches and kugels and casseroles and lasagnas we (read: mostly my mom) have made in the past few weeks. And that’s not counting the desserts —brownies and blondies and cookies galore.

And THAT’S not counting the fact that Pesach has its own dietary requirements. As in, you’re not allowed to eat almost anything you normally eat. Or anything that was in close contact with anything you normally eat. The technical prohibition is against chametz, i.e. leavened food, but for practical purposes (since what is leavened food anyway) chametz includes everything EXCEPT water, raw fruits, vegetables, and items that have been officially certified on their packaging as Kosher for Passover, or kasher l’pesach.  You basically need to completely restock your fridge and pantry for this holiday and cook everything with flour substitutes such as matza meal and potato starch. Also, you have to boil, cover, or temporarily replace all your dishes, pots, pans, silverware, countertops, table tops, and anything else that may have been used for chametz. Plus you must clean every nook and cranny of your house to find any other possible chametz that might be there. Lurking. Waiting to pounce.

I like to think of it as the ultimate holiday for OCD, sanctioned and encouraged by Jewish law. On the eve of the Holiday, you even get to burn the chametz that you didn’t manage to get rid of. Partay!

 

 

Lots of people avoid all this by going away for Pesach. They go to visit family who have turned their houses upside down, thereby sparing themselves the necessity of doing it to their own homes. Or they go to a hotel, which is sparkling clean already and serves them their Kosher for Passover food.

My family has never gone away for Pesach. This is probably due to a) more family in one house for 8 days? No thank you, b) a family of nine in a hotel for 8 days? Pfft, ain’t nobody got money for dat, and, probably most importantly, c) my dad is the rabbi of a local congregation and the rabbi MUST be available on Pesach to answer questions regarding Jewish law on a holiday that is this completely neurotic and overwrought, and as I said before, for at least 4 of 8 days, phone calls and internet are not allowed, so he must be available for face-to-face consultation. Also to give sermons, which he is very good at since naturally he takes after me.

Additionally, the congregational rabbi must be around very close to the beginning of the holiday for another reason — he is the congregants’ representative to sell all the chametz that was not able to be cleaned/eaten/burned/flushed down the toilet/fed to pets/hidden in gifts given to “friends”/etc. This means that in the week or so leading up to Pesach (and, let’s be real, at midnight on the last possible day), people come to our house, meet with my dad, fill out a form delineating the value and location of said chametz, exchange an object of a certain minimum value (e.g. they hand a pen back and forth), and thus my father is authorized, as is traditional, to go to a gathering in Riverdale with the rest of the New York rabbis who hold all the forms from all their congregants and sell their chametz to a non-Jew for the duration of Pesach. (There are of course stricter opinions that say this is not allowed, but we will ignore those for the time being.)

I have to admit that I find the whole selling-chametz-to-a-non-Jew to be, well…kind of hilarious, to be honest. The basic way it’s done is that the non-Jew (who is a lovely Christian gentleman who used to live locally and now comes in every year specially for the sale, which is incredibly sweet in itself) pays about a penny or two upfront, with the agreement that he will pay the rest of the untold millions of dollars the day after Pesach, or the sale will be voided. And even though this is clearly a charade and everyone involved knows it, there are apparently six different ways that the rabbis ensure that the sale is solid and legally binding, even though it will be voided in a week. And when I was there with my dad one year, in the room with like 50 rabbis, the meeting kicked off with a check on the exact value of gold or silver or something on the stock market or whatever that morning, to make sure that the pennies being paid upfront are of enough value to bind the sale. The whole affair is compulsively neurotic in that adorably Jewish way.

Lastly, of course, is the tradition that most people have heard of if they’ve heard anything about Pesach: the seder, or sedarim in plural, since in America, we have two of them, on the first two Holiday nights. You can probably Wikipedia it and get more information about the technicalities of seder procedure than I can possibly give you (four cups of wine, dipping of parsley into saltwater, recitation of the Haggadah, festive meal, singing of incredibly repetitive Hebrew and Aramaic songs, et al), but what it probably won’t tell you is that since a seder is a family or communal get-together, no two sedarim are alike, just like no two Thanksgiving dinners are alike, even though most of us Orthodox Jew types are reading the story of the Exodus from the same Haggadah.

A seder can be huge (we host our synagogue’s seder every year on the first night and this one had close to 50 people in attendance) or not terribly large (a friend of my was bemoaning the fact that his sedarim were going to have only his parents, brother, and grandmother, so he’d have to be very present and talkative and unable to slink off unnoticed). Our home seder often serves as a mini communal seder, topping out at 16 to 18 people, who can range from “fun guests you enjoy having” to “that guy with terrible hygiene who mutters incoherently to himself half the time and spends the rest interrupting people’s conversations to complain that his sister refuses to host him anymore and he can’t understand why.” Win some, lose some. In ancient times, it was typical to invite as many people as possible to your seder because the korban pesach, i.e. the Passover Sacrifice, i.e. an entire roast lamb, was required to be eaten before the dawn of the next morning; leftovers had to be burned. And while the base text that we read from the Haggadah is fairly standardized, people are free to, nay, encouraged to expound and elaborate and offer up additional thoughts, possible lessons learned, and questions about the story and the rituals of the seder. A common answer given for “Why do we do X Random Seder Ritual?” is “So that the children will ask.” It is a holiday of questions, although the answers may range from the satisfying to the creative to the ridiculous.

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Independently of one another, my 13-year-old little sister and my 21-year-old little brother have already said to me this holiday, “You know, I really don’t like Pesach,” as if this is a surprising revelation. It’s really not. I obviously find many aspects of it amusing, but I can’t necessarily claim to like it. I’m sure there are people in the universe who like stressful cooking and compulsive cleaning and having strangely unbalanced guests at their table and having to read huge chunks of Hebrew text before getting to the actual meal and having to eat obscene amounts of charred-cardboard-tasting matza and not being able to eat normal food and stammering through neverending songs in foreign languages, but I don’t think it’s all that scandalous or presumptuous to say that most of us, y’know, don’t.

This holiday is nuts. It’s over-the-top and designed to drive anyone bonkers.

It is also clearly designed, in the way that it has evolved over the centuries, to force members of families and communities to interact with each other, forging and reinforcing connections between them. The preparation for Pesach is a massive undertaking, and would not get done in my house if everyone didn’t pitch in, at least a little bit. We band together against our common enemy: Pesach. And even if you don’t have a huge family, turning everything over from chametz-tik to kosher for Pesach isn’t always something you can do alone; this year I was hired by a family friend to help her lug boxes down from her attic and restock the kitchen. It forces people to ask for help that they might not otherwise ask for, and for people to provide that help because we get it, we understand that we are all at the mercy of this nutty holiday and can’t in good conscience make it even harder for someone else.

And the evolution of the system of selling chametz, in addition to creating a situation where rabbis of various communities have a forum in which they are able to get together once a year (no other holiday has such a thing built into it), also forces people to have face-time with their community rabbi. Depending on your rabbi and your comfort level, this can be a fate worse than death or it can be kind of nice. The old joke is “What’s the difference between a rabbi and a therapist? Therapist costs money.” And many a chametz-selling meeting has taken a turn for the therapeutic, I can tell you that. I found out this year that you can sell your chametz online, and I can’t help feeling like that kind of misses the whole point.

Pesach is supposed to be a time where we celebrate our freedom, how we were Exodused from Egypt. But I see Pesach as having more in common with the slavery we were freed from than the freedom we’re supposedly celebrating. It’s kind of a holiday of endurance, not celebration. In essence, in its present incarnation, I see Pesach as a trial by fire that we have to go through every year with our families and our communities, and hopefully come out stronger on the other side, and THAT’S when the enjoyment of our freedom can kick in. We are reenacting the Exodus, people! Freedom awaits at the end; you just have to survive long enough!

Although, of course, there is also the fact that absolutely nothing in American law prohibits any of this crazypants holiday. We can be as weird and bizarre as we want and our government does not care one whit. That is freedom, folks. Freedom to be complete whackjobs and fruitcakes and never having to fear for one minute that anyone will stop you. Enjoy that. Savor it.

Chag Sameach, everyone.

 

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This post was originally published in slightly altered form as a Facebook Note on April 17, 2014. There were, sadly, no gifs in the original.

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#ThrowbackThursday — “On Family (A Confession)”

Can hardly believe it’s been almost a year since I wrote this.

Originally posted as a Facebook note on April 23rd, 2014.

 

On Family (A Confession)

 

On the last day of Passover this year, I read a book called Wonder. It centers around a ten-year-old kid named August “Auggie” Pullman who has facial anomalies/deformities that are so extreme that almost no one (other than his dog) is able to meet him and not recoil in horror. And he’s starting fifth grade in a prep school for the first time after being homeschooled by his very loving parents all his life.

Sure, Auggie’s story is interesting and all, thought-provoking about superficiality and how-would-you-feel-if-this-was-you and WHY-ARE-KIDS-SO-MEAN and so on, but (and in hindsight this is kind of “duh”) I connected much more with the brief section of the book written from the point of view of his older sister, Via. She uncomplainingly takes a backseat to August, understanding full well that he and his medical, surgical, and social integration issues are more important than whatever run-of-the-mill problems she will ever deal with. And then came this passage:

On my last day in Montauk, Grans and I had watched the sunset on the beach. We had taken a blanket to sit on, but it had gotten chilly, so we wrapped it around us and cuddled and talked until there wasn’t even a sliver of sun left over the ocean. And then Grans told me she had a secret to tell me: she loved me more than anyone else in the world.

“Even August?” I had asked.

She smiled and stroked my hair, like she was thinking about what to say. “I love Auggie very, very much,” she said softly. I can still remember her Portuguese accent, the way she rolled her r’s. “But he has many angels looking out for him already, Via. And I want you to know that you have me looking out for you. Okay, menina querida? I want you to know that you are number one for me. You are my . . .” She looked out at the ocean and spread her hands out, like she was trying to smooth out the waves, “You are my everything. You understand me, Via? Tu es meu tudo.

I understood her. And I knew why she said it was a secret. Grandmothers aren’t supposed to have favorites. Everyone knows that. But after she died, I held on to that secret and let it cover me like a blanket.

Listen, I’ve read and reread John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a tragic love story about kids dying of cancer, and it’s never made me cry. Choked up a little, maybe, but that’s all.

This passage just destroyed me. I had to literally put the book down because wiping my eyes with one hand wasn’t helping because the tears just kept coming. I had to bury my face in my arm and let them soak into the sleeve. I wanted to just keep crying until I had no tears left because how did I not know how badly I’ve always wished someone would say something like that to me?? — but I couldn’t, because I was sitting on the couch in the living room during a Passover lunch, and about 15 feet away was a table full of 14 people, a combination of family and guests, and emotional meltdowns are just not done in these situations. So I pulled it together.

Because that’s me, and that’s Via. We get that other things come first, and we’ve internalized it to the point where hearing someone say “No, you come first” is just incredible, in the sense of “not credible” — not true, not real, not possible.

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If you asked me: “What’s the best thing about being part of a big family?” I would not be able to tell you.

Or even if you asked me: “What’s one good thing about being part of a big family?” I would still draw a blank.

If you pressed me for something, anything, I’d probably eventually come up with, “No matter what you do, there’s probably always someone else around to distract your parents from being mad at you for too long.”

But that’s kind of the crux of it, isn’t it. That the best thing I can say about big families is that you constantly get lost in the shuffle? That’s not the best thing. It’s not even a good thing. But it’s the only thing I can think of off the top of my head that’s different about having a big family vs. having a small family or a close-knit group of friends.

One of my boyfriends, after meeting my parents, said to me quietly, “Your parents are amazing. But it seems like they’re always so busy; I feel like they probably could never quite give you the attention you needed.”

I defended them, but he was right, of course. My boyfriends are sharp like that.

It’s not that my parents play favorites. It’s not that anyone kid gets all the attention over the others, although I’ve heard various siblings whine about how “HE/SHE always gets this but I never do.” I’ve never felt like I’ve played second fiddle to any one particular sibling. It’s just that we all play second fiddle to the family as a whole. To the other 8 people in it. We all occasionally have our moments to shine, but nobody ever gets to be the lead, and you know that no matter what you do, good or bad, you will be forgotten by the next day or at most the next week. This is probably why I have never been obsessed with being remembered forever or of somehow achieving immortality through my actions or my writing — being part of a big family is the quickest way to learn that all glory is temporary. Which is probably a good life lesson to process early, but still, it, well, it sucks.

The truth is that in a family with seven kids (and two parents, and for six years a sick grandmother who lived with us), when it comes to attention, you have two options: Compete or Retreat.

You can demand attention in three ways: 1) by acting out, 2) by being spectacular, or 3) by getting sick. (I totally understand Munchausen’s, by the way, because the only time any of us are ever truly prioritized over the others is when we are sick. Like hospital and/or medical testing level sick, or mentally/emotionally therapy level sick.) I didn’t like doing (1) on purpose because it seemed babyish and also would get me yelled at. (3) happened all by itself and I never faked being sick just for attention, because I hated being seen as vulnerable. So that left (2) Being Spectacular, and I probably did that the most of those three choices: brought home pristine report cards; wrote a novel in high school; received glowing praise from almost all the teachers I’ve ever had, in every subject from English to History to Talmud to Gym.

And of course, if the only time anyone is ever looking at you is when you’re spectacular, that becomes very much tied to your self-worth, because you know that if you ever slip and stop being spectacular, no one will give a damn about you anymore. Or so the internal logic goes.

But for the most part, I didn’t want to compete for the attention. I wanted to imagine myself as better than that. I also didn’t want my parents looking at me too closely or asking me anything too personal, because what if they ever wanted to talk to me about God, or religion, or even *gasp* what boy I had a crush on? Worst nightmare, amirite?

In a big family, the kids who can find ways to amuse themselves, be self-motivated, and appear to outsiders to be mostly self-sufficient, are the ones who get the least attention. If you are having some kind of internal crisis and you don’t want anyone to know, the best place to hide is in a big family. So I sort of disappeared, popping up every now and then when I got sick, when I did amazingly well on a test or a paper, when I got stories published, when I got depressed, when I got scholarships, when I had a boyfriend, when I graduated from something, etc, and the rest of the time I stayed mostly out of the way. And I think the rest of my siblings did and do the same thing because fortunately none of us are “problem children” and we’re all fairly healthy and capable and self-sufficient in our various different ways.

Resources like time, energy, and money, are limited in large families, and they have to get distributed in a way that best serves the family, and my parents do the best they can. Every kid is always going to have something that is going to require a little more investment than it does for the other kids — my medical bills, for instance. Also my bras probably cost more than any of my sisters’ because that’s just how anatomy and pricing work together in glorious harmony. And because my acne was so bad in my early teens, my mother took me to Macy’s and had the saleslady teach me some basics about makeup. And when my dad found out that I liked Mr Goodbar chocolate bars, he bought me a giant one, apropos of nothing. And of course there’s the fact that even though they’re not very comfortable with where I am religiously, they never pick fights with me about it or try to fix me.

They’re great parents. They do so many things for each of us. They try so hard. But that doesn’t change the fact that on a daily basis or a weekly basis, it is simply not humanly possible to make enough time for each of seven children, and none of us wants to be the ungrateful one, or the demanding one, or the problem child, and so we all retreat. I retreat. I put the family first. I help out more than any of the other kids. I go to lots of family gatherings even when I’d seriously rather not. I calculate expenses and I tell my parents not to spend money on things for me that I don’t need. My idea of an expensive dress is one that costs more than $20.

But does part of me resent the fact that I constantly tell my parents not to spend extra money on me, that I saved them thousands of dollars by getting a full merit scholarship to college, and yet the beneficiaries of that are my younger siblings, who get that money toward their college tuition while I’m going to have to pay on my own for that automotive technician training program I’ve been eying? Yeah, I resent it. Of course I do. I understand it, I understand prioritization, I understand that they earned that money and are obviously entitled to spend it how they choose, I understand that Pratt charges an arm and a leg and probably your opposable thumb too, and I understand how whiny and bratty my resentment is, but yeah, it’s tough to swallow sometimes. But that’s family. And I know that if I ever really needed something, they’d redistribute resources this way for me. But 6 out of 7 times, I’m going to be the one who gives a little, and not the one who gets.

My novels and stories are populated with characters who often serve as a catharsis for all sorts of issues, and only after reading that passage in Wonder did I realize that this was one of them. I created characters who were only children, so that their parents would shower them with all the attention I never got. I created characters who came from families whose parents were even more overextended than mine, or parents who were outright abusive, so that whatever buried feelings of neglect I had about my family could be painted onto them. I even wrote both of those extremes into the same family once — a pair of twins whose mother favored and pampered one and cruelly neglected the other. But I never wrote a character like Via, with parents who try so hard and do the best they can but somehow it’s just never quite been enough. That would have been too close to the truth. I wanted Via to have her own story, her own book, not one centered around Auggie. But of course, she doesn’t.

People still ask me fairly frequently why I don’t particularly want to have children — “But don’t you want a family??” — and I answer them that I’ve just never wanted kids. Not in my wiring. And yes, maybe something is odd about me biologically or evolutionarily that’s responsible for the fact that I have never wanted to reproduce, but it also probably has to do with the fact that I’ve never seen family as this pure good, as this lofty ideal. It’s just a way of living, with its pros and cons like every other way of living, and to me the tradeoffs have just never really felt worth it.

And of course, not reproducing doesn’t mean I won’t have a family. I’ve got one. I can’t get rid of it.

 

 

 

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MLK Day Rewind — “On Being an Observant Jew at a Non-Denominational LGBTQ Volunteer Event”

Last year on Martin Luther King Day, I helped out at this community service initiative, and posted this on Facebook several days later. It was a very special experience, very appropriate to Dr. King’s legacy, and definitely worth a re-post.

 

(image source: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4071/4545938765_fa3d8df5fa_o.jpg)

 

“Here’s what I tell people about the photo release,” said one of the volunteer coordinators of the Hetrick-Martin Institute to a few newcomers. “Imagine that this picture could get to literally anyone. Anyone. If there is anyone out there that you can think of who could get their hands on this picture and that would be unwanted, and that would make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, don’t sign the form.”

“But we’re just helping make supply bags for homeless kids,” said one of the volunteers, confused. “Why would that be a problem?”

I wanted to high-five that lady for her confusion. Because it shouldn’t be a problem. Helping people in need should never be a problem. Sure, in the internet age, some people are wary of putting any images of themselves online, but this wasn’t really about that; this was about the demographic we were helping, and how associating yourself with the LGBTQ community can still sometimes get you into varying degrees of trouble.

For instance, five years ago, I probably would not have been so unquestioningly willing to sign that release. I’d have been worried that the pictures might find their way to my Modern Orthodox Jewish parents or other very religious members of my Orthodox community, and I’d have been extremely uncomfortable at the thought of having to withstand their scrutiny or answer their questions. Now, after several years of being very clear about my allegiances to this cause, that’s no longer a concern. But I still don’t talk about it with certain people, because I know it makes them uncomfortable.

Which is a shame, because this event, and other work done by the Hetrick-Martin Institute in Manhattan, is really wonderful, and I don’t use that word lightly.

The event I attended was organized in honor of the Martin Luther King Day of Service, and it involved assembling bags of essential supplies for New York City’s homeless LGBTQ youth. A donation drive had been held previously, and the first thing we did was dump everything out of the donation boxes and sort them into other boxes and piles, which we then put into bags: soap, shampoo, socks, gloves, Chef Boyardee cups, toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, disinfectants, condoms, and a miscellaneous box with items ranging from sunblock to earplugs to shoehorns. There were a few kosher snacks, but kosher food was clearly not a priority here. I chuckled to myself at the thought of what some people I know might say about the idea of handing out condoms to kids on the streets, but hey, it can be really important. (The most homophobic religious people I know would joke that “we should just let them all get AIDS and die out” but since that’s not remotely funny, I made triple-sure my bags had condoms in them.)

Each bag was also given a pamphlet small enough to fit in the palm of your hand,with information about the Hetrick-Martin Institute. One of the other event coordinators, June*, explained that the bags are part of their outreach program. Homeless LGBTQ youth are understandably not the most trusting people, and HMI hopes that having something to give them, something that comes with no strings or expectations or pressure, will encourage these young people to investigate further and eventually take advantage of the other services offered by HMI. It’s been a successful strategy for them.

June took some of us volunteers on a tour of “the space” to see these other services.That’s what she called it, nothing clinical like a “facility” — just “the space.” HMI is located on the 3rd floor of 2 Astor Street, and during the day the space is shared with the Harvey Milk High School, a transfer high school for LGBTQ youth who earned at least 60 credits elsewhere but for whatever reasons could not complete their educations there. After the school day ends, HMI offers programming and services for anyone who walks through the door. This includes access to professional counselors like June, who showed us her small office, and “the pantry,” which is fully stocked with clothes, shoes, food, and other essentials like the ones we’d put in the bags.

June mentioned that they make an effort to stock “gender-affirmative” clothing, for young people who may not otherwise be able to access or wear clothing that affirms their gender identity or matches their preferred presentation. “Sometimes we’ll have a young person come in, pick out an outfit, and just wear it for a few hours,” she explained. “Because out there they may not feel comfortable presenting themselves that way, but here they feel safe.” I found that beautiful and gut-wrenching at the same time, since I do know plenty of people who’d be uncomfortable at the thought of what they would see as enabling “cross-dressing” (although that term implies a gender binary that is fairly antiquated at this point), and I know it’s a complex issue in Jewish law. But I just can’t bring myself to be at all religiously concerned in any way about something like gender-affirmative clothing, that causes no harm to anyone and helps with the comfort and psychological well-being of a person who needs it.

When asked what people could donate to the pantry, June suggested clothing, toiletries, and large women’s shoes, “but really anything. We get some wild donations — someone once donated a clown nose, and a young person saw it and was like, ‘that’s exactly what I need right now!’ ” (June always used the term “young person,” not “child” or “kid,” a word choice I support because referring to someone as a “child” immediately takes away some of their agency as well as the validity of their opinions and rights, which is the last thing these young people need.) I would add that they could probably use some kosher and halal food, because you never know who might walk through those doors and what that food option might mean to them.

As a community-entrenched observant Jew, I have a great appreciation for the concept of extended, non-blood family. HMI and the Harvey Milk High School share this idea. They offer a High School Equivalency (HSE) program (the apparently very new name for the GED), and, knowing that there is no official way of celebrating an HSE, they hold a proper graduation ceremony twice a year for those who earn one, to which all family and friends are invited. They also organize events like family retreats, and June explained that they operate with a flexible definition of family: “it can be chosen family, biological family, or friends,” because if that is what you have, that is your family, no question about it.

The décor for the space is striking — vibrant colors, murals of super heroes and super heroines, the HMHS of Harvey Milk High School painted in rainbows on the walls. June’s office has an enormous Hello Kitty poster tacked up. The place exudes warmth and safety.

It makes me so happy to know that such a place exists and that all this work is being done. That people care about this cause, that people are invested, and that they’re passionate and empathetic and creative in the ways they tackle the numerous issues. But it’s bittersweet, because you can’t help but remember that the all the warmth, compassion, and rainbows are needed to combat a much harsher reality that exists just beyond the edges of the safe space. And it can be upsetting to know that people who follow my religion’s doctrines are sometimes responsible for some of that harshness.

Attending this kind of event, clearly, has the potential to be uncomfortable. It involves working with people who have no familiarity with the complexities of my cultural and religious background, and of the prejudices I’ve seen in my community, which I may have absorbed and that I work continuously to overcome. It’s certainly not an event that caters to any religious affiliation, least of all mine.

Which begs the question that my mother always asks me: “There are Jewish organizations that do these types of things too; why don’t you volunteer with them?”

And the truth is, to me, it’s about the cause. This is a cause that transcends religion. It transcends race or culture or class or any other divisions we institute in other parts of our lives. There are LGBTQ youth in every community imaginable. I am aware that specific, nuanced needs will vary — the needs of Jewish LGBTQ youth will differ from the needs of Latino LGBTQ youth, just as both of those will differ from the needs of African American LGBTQ youth, and so on — but I personally can’t waste this opportunity to overcome differences and see shared cross-cultural humanity.

While I have the utmost respect for those who fight the Jewish LGBTQ rights fight with all the nuances therein, volunteering my own time is a more personal decision. Narrowing the lens of these issues to focus only on fellow Jews feels antithetical to why I’m drawn to this cause in the first place, which is why I donate my time to places that are non-denominational. But I hope people will continue to give their time and energy to Jewish and non-Jewish causes, because both can always use it.

(*Name has been changed to preserve anonymity.)

 

 

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