Shabbat shalom and welcome to a roundtable about Judaism and why we, a diverse bunch of queers, love being Jewish!
For this round table I asked Autostraddle staff and readers, A-Camp staff and participants, and a few of my close friends who I hope will become avid Autostraddle supporters: What do you love about being Jewish? I’m going to be honest, I thought I’d get a bunch of bullet point lists about food and summer camp – and don’t get me wrong, food and summer camp are definitely strong themes in this roundtable – but instead I actually received 20 thoughtful, joyous, resilient, and beautiful short essays about what Judaism means to the folks in this roundtable.
I cried multiple times while putting this roundtable together – good tears, loving tears, but also just like, emotional tears. Things feel so difficult right now. The anti-Semitic shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last week took 11 lives and a lot of our (precarious and sometimes naive) feelings of security. But we’re all still here together, loving our religion, our selves, and each other. We will outlive them.
Thank you to everyone featured in this roundtable for opening your hearts and going deep. And to all our Jewish readers and commenters – keep the conversation going in the comment section! What do you love about being Jewish? Why do you love being a Jew? Thank you for being in community together with us as queer Jews. I love being Jewish and I love you!
As a kid I didn’t love being Jewish. I was usually one of two or three Jews in my grade, and I envied my classmates who got Cadbury Cream Eggs and giant stuffed bunnies the same week I got sad, atonement-flavored matzoh-and-butter sandwiches. Christianity seemed more fun and more popular and Judaism was just another thing about me that made me different. Like most things constructed with Kid Logic, that disdain didn’t hold up as I grew up. Also like 50% of my disdain was that I couldn’t play Rec & Ed soccer ’cause it conflicted with Religious School.
I love being Jewish! Even though I’m not the most observant Jew and sometimes go years without attending services, it feels integral to who I am as a person and what I want my life to look like. Also I mean, Jewish moms are a force to be reckoned with so you really have an automatic bond with anybody else raised by one.
I love that I never had to choose between my religion and my sexual orientation. I love that the majority of Jews are liberal. I love the focus on community service and social justice that is not aimed towards conversion or evangelicalism but just making the world a better place.
I love Hebrew. I studied just enough for my Bat Mitzvah and then took two years of it in college. I love how biblical Hebrew looks and I love how conversational Hebrew is organized, it’s so beautiful and easy to learn!
I love the emphasis on education, questioning, exploring, and learning rather than simply accepting doctrine that you don’t fully understand.
I love re-appropriating Dayenu to secular situations, I love the eight levels of Tzedakah.
I love latkes and matzoh ball soup and french toast made with challah, and noodle kugel and charoset.
I love my two tattoos that are about being Jewish. On my wrist I have the phonecian symbol for yod (just ’cause getting a yod alone would’ve looked like a comma or apostrophe). Then I have a chai on my right thigh; it’s the first tattoo I ever got and a million people have told me about getting buried in the corner of the cemetery but I think we can all agree it would be a little crowded at this point.
And I love my Jewish friends, and I am including the fictional character of Ilana Wexler as one of them.
There’s a part of me that appreciate the otherness that comes from being a Jewish American; we are so separate from what a lot of the country just expects us to be part of (Christmas season, just as a mild example). I’m not a religious person but I do appreciate Jewish values and traditions and Jewish grandmothers are easily my favorite kind of people in the whole world. There’s something about the rapport and shared understanding I have with my Jewish friends that’s become very comforting.
I could write a love epic to my Jewish identity, but I’ll stay on brand and say: Shabbat. Shabbat is a deep breath when I couldn’t breathe. It’s the intention that redirects my life. It’s the community I begged the universe for as a lonely teen. It’s my queer home in an unfriendly straight world. And it’s so, so Jewish. It’s challah, and light, and gratitude, and home-cooked meals, and healing, and joy.
What I love about being Jewish is that it taught me how to accept and be proud of being different. I grew up in south Texas, and my family was the only Jewish family in my whole school. I had the opportunity to teach others about Judaism, in words and in action. In a highly Christian atmosphere, I was the kid standing up against religious songs during band concerts and refusing to play my instrument. Judaism taught me at a young age the importance of service and taking care of others, and I carry those principles with me to this day. Growing up Reform, I was taught about Judaism’s views on homosexuality, and remember having our Rabbi tell us about the importance of embracing same-sex marriage and adoption. Even when I wasn’t ready to tell other people about my growing queer feelings, I knew that I was still accepted and loved. To radically accept and embrace others has always been the meaning of Judaism to me, and especially lately, I am very happy to be as vocally Jewish as I can be in acts of service, political dissent, and loving thy neighbor.
Even though I come from a Jewish family, I was not raised with Judaism. In high school, I was curious about my family’s heritage and took to Google. I learned that in Judaism, debate is considered a way of praising G-d. I couldn’t shake how true that notion felt for me. I followed it to the Jewish student center on campus, which lead me to a Jewish sorority, a Jewish social action fellowship, working in synagogues, and eventually to the magical life I lead now, where most of my evenings are spent talking and laughing with a tight-knit group of queer Jews who want to make the world a better place. The man who killed 11 Jews in Pittsburgh hates Judaism for the exact reasons I love it: because Judaism believes in reaching out to the stranger, and in the inherent dignity of all people.
This Saturday (today!), exactly a week after the terrible shooting in Pittsburgh, I am becoming a Bat Mitzvah at age 25. I am deeply sad that anti-Semitism is prevailing in our country right now and mourn those lives we lost, but I am incredibly proud to be standing on the Bimah at this time. I have a passion for learning Torah and I fall in love with the divine repeatedly through my ritual practice. This Saturday, I am going to chant Torah, and dance, and cry, and celebrate, because no anti-Semite can take away my Jewish joy.
I grew up minutes from Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue – I keep feeling like I should feel scared now, or maybe resentful of being born Jewish. But I would never. Almost ten years after first coming out, I’m only just now starting to feel comfortable walking into capital Q Queer space as a bi femme, but I’ve never for a second had to question my place in Jewish spaces. Never felt I had to prove myself, never had to look a certain way or act or think or be a certain way. My Jewish identity has always been home, plain and simple. Not in the religious practices, which I’m still learning to navigate, or the faith, which has always felt ancillary. For me, it’s a way of viewing, processing, structuring the world. I was taught that at its heart, Judaism is about trying to leave the world a little or a lot better than you found it, and I love that I’ve never met a Jew who doesn’t try. I love the deeply troubling, inappropriate humor that has helped me through every hard moment in my life, as my parents have, as their parents had. And as a Pittsburgher currently living thousands of miles away from my own heartbroken, grieving community, I love that I can still surround myself with rituals, songs, foods, and kind and familiar strangers who tell me: “You’re never actually alone. You’re with us.”
I’m a yogi and an empath. I believe in ancestral magic and the power of people joined together who share history. When I’m around other Jews – I literally feel the reality of it in my body. I love how resilient Jews are. I have a complex relationship to Jewish community as a person of color; invisibility abounds. But those times when I have felt seen and welcomed were really fucking special.
Bagels. Bagels and lox. Bagels and white fish shmear. That feeling of family, so when you meet other Jews for the first time they somehow don’t feel like strangers. The way we all know the same songs and prayers, sometimes in different melodies, sometimes in different pronunciations, but we can sing them together. Our persistence in the face of struggle – so much struggle. The way we talk over each other loudly in conversation yet can still understand every interrupted thought. Yiddish-isms. The smell of matzoh ball soup wafting up the staircase. The smell of brisket wafting up the staircase. The smell of yeasty challah wafting up the staircase. The way we encourage questioning and a critical eye. The soft first bite of chocolate babka and a warm cup of coffee to break my Yom Kippur fast. My dad starting a Jewish group at shul for parents of Jewish queers. My mom asking me if I’m going to services even though she knows I’m not. The lingering smell of frying latkes after a Hanukkah party. The singing, the dancing, the celebrating with many, many cups of wine. The introspection. The rituals: around birth, around death, around coming-of-age and the end of the week and the different cycles of the seasons. The summer camps and wearing white on Shabbat and walking through those first steps of adulthood in the weathered paths between cabins. The way apples taste of Rosh Hashanah and parsley tastes of Passover. The way you can bring together Jews from all walks of life to share a holiday together over a meal made with love and a table filled with candles, wine and challah, and we can join together in song and laughter and interruption and feel quickly like family because, well, we are.
There is a whisper in the air each time I light the candles on a Friday night. A taking in of my breath as I murmur the same words that have been a part of numerous homes, lands, and experiences. Being Jewish, for me it is a gift of connection and grace, of knowing that when I share challah with my family and loved ones, when I dip apples into honey, when I share the story of Passover each year, I am reminded of the humanity and sanctity of the world around me when it is often easier to feel the opposite. I am grateful for my faith, for the conversations it has inspired, for the elders I have held hands with, for the questions it has raised in my life. As a queer POC femme mother raising two beloved gender expansive children in a world where I could and sometimes do feel very isolated, I am reminded each day through my Jewishness that we are intrinsically knotted together, that this world that can feel so desperately brutal and callous can also hold miracles and joy. We are all still here, fighting for what we deeply believe, for the whisper in the air on our Friday nights and for connection and grace.
Judaism has its flaws, similar to those of any religion, but it was lovely to grow up with history and songs and language and traditions. It gave me a place in the world and helped me to understand myself. Judaism gave me context for who I am, and explains, well, a lot about my personality.
Before I ever discovered my queerness, my Jewish identity taught me what it’s like to be an outsider, and the meaning of community. My Jewish neighbors and I spent our childhoods attending Sunday school together, where we learned to read the Mourner’s Kaddish in Hebrew and about the horrors our people have suffered throughout human history. We gathered with all of our families for dessert every Pesach, covered for each other secretly feeding our tamagotchis behind prayer books in synagogue, journeyed to B’nai B’rith retreats upstate and summer camp in the Poconos, supported one another through our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. We looked out for each other like we were family. But this kinship has always extended far beyond my neighbors. Each time I meet other Jews, there is an immediate connection, a feeling of familiarity that arises from our collective history and culture, from the stories we share and the traditions we all honor. There’s a song we used to sing at camp that I think neatly summarizes this feeling. You know the one: “Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish / You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew / So when you’re not home, and you’re somewhere kind of new-ish / The odds are, don’t look far, cause they’re Jewish too.”
Being Jewish was my first identity, it feels as inextricable to my being as being queer and being trans. To me, being raised Jewish was about values, many that I still hold dear and prioritize: family, community, tradition, questioning, acts of kindness. Being raised Jewish was also about anti-assimilation. By that I mean that I learned about anti-semitism very early on (though I would not consciously experience it until my teens), and I also learned that because Christianity informs the dominant culture in the United States (much like heterosexuality), to move through this country as a Jew means to assert your identity if you want to be recognized. That is, culturally, I learned that I am a Jew first, that I cannot extricate myself from my Jewish identity. I learned that our community spaces and our synagogues are sacred and important places, and I still believe and experience that. Religiously, I don’t always agree with or practice everything, and politically, I know we don’t all agree with each other (because Jews are not a monolith), but there is actually something very Jewish about that. I am proud to be a Jew.
All of my ancestors are Jewish, and it was a huge part of my upbringing up until age 12, when I moved away from most of my family. Coming back to Baltimore to celebrate the Jewish holidays kept me feeling close to my family and my heritage, and it always felt special, like something that connected us through food and togetherness. In my adult-ish years, I’ve redefined my own relationship with Judaism through my queerness, and my ceramic work. I now make rainbow menorahs, and unicorn mugs that say things like Oy To The World, Jewnicorn, and JEW-ish. I’m proud to be Jewish, and finding ways to integrate it into my life creatively feels really good.
For me, it’s always been about the culture. I have really complex feelings around organized religion and don’t feel very comfortable in a synagogue, but always loved the traditions that are done in the closeness of the home. My mom is from Brooklyn and is a fourth or fifth generation New Yorker. I equate my brand of Judaism with food and people yelling in Yiddish at each other.
I grew up in an area in Northern California where I was one of a handful of other Jewish kids and it always felt like this weird thing. I hated it when people told me I looked Jewish. I hated my nose because I felt like it was some sort of signal that I was this other thing – TURNS OUT THE OTHER “THING” WAS THAT I WAS A HOMO!
As I have gotten older and met more queer Jews, Judaism feels a little more approachable to me. It feels special to be ethnically Jewish and be part of the rich (and very complicated) history of the Jewish people. According to my mom we are from the Levi tribe. ALTHOUGH… I do feel like everyone is told they are Levis.
Regardless, I’m Jewish and proud.
My favorite thing about being/becoming Jewish is the ritual. My PhD research has been thinking about how rituals can take marginalized folks from a place of bewilderment to a place of wonder. What drew me to Judaism were these centuries old rituals that hold a diasporic people together. But even within these old, old, traditions, there’s breathing room. I’ve observed Shabbat with many different people and we each do it a little bit differently, but we all light candles. We all drink wine. We all eat (sometimes gluten-free) bread together. I almost always feel a slight panic, and being able to settle into these traditions and rituals has been really lovely for me.
I’ve never been observant enough to keep kosher or anything but being Jewish has always been woven into the fabric of who I am. I was very active in my Jewish youth group in high school and when I came out I found more support there than I ever could have imagined. I went to a Jewish college (Brandeis) where I was lucky enough to connect with incredible Jewish queers from around the country. In these way, being Jewish and being queer are forever intertwined for me. They are inseparable parts of who I am.
I feel so lucky that I was born into a community that supported me and encouraged me to read and study and ask questions. And what can I say? Now I’m literally a Jewish doctor.
To me being Jewish means never being alone. Being Jewish means someone always knows the same songs as me. Being Jewish means someone always sees me.
I grew up in New Jersey; our family was one of two Jewish families in our small predominantly Italian Catholic town (population 6,146 in 1990). My mother once petitioned our elementary school principal to place a menorah next to the Christmas tree in our school cafeteria (which turned into ME having to light the thing every day by myself). The other Jewish family in town had a brick thrown through their front window once. We were luckier.
My entire family is Jewish, on both sides. Nearly everyone who has married into the family is Jewish too. I am a Hebrew school dropout. I never had a Bat Mitzvah. I have never been a very religious person, and in terms of beliefs it’s hard for me to say that I am anything other than an atheist at this point in my life, the tender age of 36.
But for as long as I can remember, being Jewish has been part of my identity. It’s deeply intertwined in my queerness too, as they were both part of the very real “othering” that I experienced throughout my youth & young adulthood. It’s one of the only things that has kept me connected to much of my extended family (celebrating the Jewish holidays together over the years). It’s how I was raised, and part of the lens through which I see the world.
I have been trying really hard not to center myself and my feelings the past week, lots of internal dialoguing (monologuing?) about whether I’m queer enough or Jewish enough to be scared or sad or upset about current events (and then feeling shitty about wasting energy on this), but I think that we are all trying to feel less scared and less alone and that’s okay.
Being Jewish, to me, means being part of a history. It’s remarkable to me that the Jewish community, stories, and traditions go back so far. There can be such variance in our beliefs and customs, but we are all a part of something larger than ourselves. At its best, our story is a story of solidarity and survival, of resilience and justice for others.
I’ve also got to say, whether Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, or Beta Israel, I’ve never had bad Jewish food.
Like a bunch of other queer Jews I learnt about the importance of community and chosen family from growing up Jewish, years before I encountered these ideas in a queer context. I’m an only child and my parents moved us to England from the US when I was eight, leaving my extended family on the other side of an ocean. The friends my parents made in the Jewish community became family to me. In the queer community we often talk about the importance of standing together, and looking out for people who are marginalised within our community. That attitude is something that I see practised by my Jewish friends and family and is something that makes being Jewish so, so important to me. When people are dismissive of “organised religion” or claim that as a society we’d be better off without delineating ourselves into religious groups I can’t help but think about how being Jewish has made me a more empathetic and caring person than I might have otherwise been.
I’m not always sure I believe in God, but being Jewish is one of the most important components in who I am.
How I conduct myself, the things I say, the way I try to live my life — all of that has more to do with my Judaism than anything else. What’s always drawn me to it, what makes me love it and believe in it even when the wolf is at the door, is the Jewish philosophies and ways of thinking that have shaped me. “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” “Say little and do much.” “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you permitted to abandon it.” I’m not going to quote everything at you, but Judaism’s emphasis on the work and the acts of faith, more than the belief itself, has always been so important to me. In times that are hard, I remind myself that what we do is who we are, whatever we say or think. It reminds me to be the person I want to believe I am. I mean that, and, as an ornery country Jew, I have years of “they tried to kill us but fuck those guys, we’re still here” behind me. I love that, too.
So the funny thing is, I never really knew that I was “very Jewish.” Unlike a lot of people who contributed to this roundtable, I grew up in robust Jewish communities in Toronto, Ontario and Newton, Massachusetts. My parents are South African – we immigrated to North America when I was four – and wherever we’ve lived they’ve always found other South African Jews. Sort of like how wherever I live, I always find queers. I guess what I’m saying is I learned how community worked very early on in life, and I always felt very safe and held in Jewish community.
My brother and I went to Jewish Day School and then Hebrew school, and the places I lived were always populated with lots of Jews. Actually, my life was so filled with Judaism that in elementary school, when we learned that Jews made up less than 1% of the world’s population, I thought surely my teacher must be confused! We were like, at least 80% of the population, right?! Everyone I knew was Jewish, so that seemed more accurate to my six year old self. I went to college in New York City, so I’ve gotta be honest, that perception that Jews were 80% of the population wasn’t exactly challenged. Until I moved to Oregon, and suddenly I had to work really hard to find Jewish community, and suddenly I realized: oh, wow, I am very Jewish.
So what does that mean? Oh, it means so many things. I love being Jewish. I love cooking for Shabbat. I love having shared favorite foods that span three generations. I love every Jewish person having three opinions on any one topic. I love knowing that I’m gonna be a Jewish Mom (and Riese is right, Jewish Moms are a force! Watch out, if you think I’m A Lot now, JUST WAIT!). I love that connection I feel with other Jews that I can’t really describe – I will sometimes feel SO CLOSE to someone and I can’t pinpoint why and then we’ll realize we’re both Jewish and it’s like, oh, duh. I love celebrating Jewish holidays. I loved going to Jewish summer camp. I love laughing about Jewish summer camp while watching Wet Hot American Summer. I love bagels!!!
I love loving my religion.
Now when people tell me they see me as “very Jewish” I understand a little better what they mean. And I’m flattered, because I am very Jewish, and I love being Jewish, and as evidenced by this roundtable, I am in very very good company!