the bully of britain

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England. It was briefly deleted from this site under threat of a lawsuit and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it, as well as to remove a comparison that upon further reflection was just distracting. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

The shit hit the fan last night, as it had to at some point in the formation of a new group.

Tim Winter, also known as Sheikh Abdul-Hakim Murad, spoke with us as part of my program’s “Saloon Conversations” — envisioned as informal sessions with speakers in the large room here at the castle that is known as “the Saloon.” At the beginning of the program last week, we were told that all of the speakers — and the formal lecturers as well — had been invited because of their peacemaking work and would be talking about that work in their religious contexts.

We sat down in the Saloon, the room’s comfy chairs and sofa arranged in several semicircles around the fireplace. The director of the program introduced Winter and later moderated the Q&A session.

A convert to Islam, Winter started by speaking about his work with the college that provides a one-year program for imams to give them the education, in his words, from which their religious institutions have shielded them. For instance, they learn pastoral skills and about other religions. Every year he takes the students to the Vatican, where they meet with Catholic priests, with whom they have very little in common and who are often quite frank about their hostility to Islam. It was in this context that Winter told the heartwarming story of an experience that served to bind them together: One night, they were all kept awake by Rome’s Gay Pride activities, the “sounds of secular hedonism” bothering everyone.

That was the first red flag. (Well, perhaps the second: I was struck immediately when I walked into the room by how sour and uninterested Winter seemed, which was off-putting. I think this part of his demeanor becomes important below.) I had a hard time listening after this snide and unnecessary comment. I did manage to tune back in for one of his final stories, about a young, non-Muslim woman in one of his classes (Winter teaches Islamic Studies at Cambridge University). “Immodestly dressed” (Winter indicated a sleeveless and perhaps midriff shirt), she was very moved by the Qur’an and wanted to talk with him about that experience. Expressing bewilderment, Winter said, “I wanted to help her. I figured she might have been having a problem with her boyfriend or something.”

At that point I nearly fell out of my chair, and the only reason I stayed in the room was to be able to find my friends afterwards to process what had happened so far. And then it got worse.

One of my fellow participants, a man who is married to a man, the same one who was asked about his wife at Shabbat dinner, and who had been wanting to talk more openly about his life, took the opportunity in the Q&A session to ask about Winter’s characterization of gay people in Rome. He opened by describing himself “as someone who will soon be part of the group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender clergy,” essentially — and bravely! — coming out to the group, and then asked about intersectionality. Winter first responded by stating that there was no place for gay people in the Muslim community. The different denominations of Islam, he said, agree on very little, but they are monolithic in condemning homosexuality. My classmate pushed back, and Winter conceded that he knew of one same-sex couple who were practicing celibacy, and this model was acceptable.

In response to another question, Winter went on to call a more progressive Muslim “naive” before taking and answering questions in Arabic from the native speakers. He only translated bits of those exchanges; I was later told that several questions were critical of Scriptural Reasoning (the program’s signature tool, involving close readings of sacred texts from the three traditions). The exclusion of non-Arabic speakers felt deliberate.

As the program mercifully came to an end, my friends and I began to gather and move to another room for processing, and one of the Muslim men on the text study team (academics experienced in the method) approached my classmate who had asked about queer folks and said he wanted to offer some insight into Winter’s answer. So a few us first went to talk with him.

He first explained that Tim Winter is a controversial figure. Mere months ago, there was a student-led campaign at Cambridge calling for his ouster when a 15-plus-year-old video was posted on YouTube of Winter calling homosexuality an “inherent aberration” and “inherently ugly,” among other things. Winter apologized, claiming that the video represented views he no longer held, and he kept his job. It was also shared that Winter is not an academic in the way that word is usually used — he does not have a Ph.D. — and the man providing this context also characterized Winter as more of a politician, or a community leader. (In 2010, Winter was named by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre as Britain’s most influential Muslim.) Though he considered Winter empirically correct in saying that the vast majority of Muslim leaders do consider homosexuality a sin, he felt that Winter’s answer didn’t express the nuances of the issue that is very present in many Muslim communities. Which is to say that there are of course queer Muslims, and many are accepted — if perhaps not fully — in their communities.

I have many issues with all that transpired. To start, this is now the third time during the first week of this program that I have heard homosexuality condemned: A previous “Saloon Conversation” speaker said so in passing, and then the priest at the Catholic church I visited used the week’s text (Luke 12:49-53) to inveigh against same-sex marriage. While this program certainly cannot control what is said in an independent institution, it is responsible for who it invites. And in this it must be held accountable.

During and after Winter’s presentation, I was trying to figure out who Winter was speaking to: His English was much too quick and sophisticated to reach most of the native-Arabic speakers. But he wasn’t talking to the native English speakers either: The homophobia and sexism were sure to turn off a group of Christians and Jews from more liberal traditions. So he either didn’t know who he was speaking to, which is not the case, as he’s been involved with the program for many years, or he didn’t care who he was speaking to, in which case his behavior was quite outrageous. Going back to the issue of his demeanor, I wonder whether he even wanted to be in the room.

There is of course a way to be faithful to your religious convictions and not marginalize queer folks or demean women. (He has a history of the latter as well, as the premise of his conversion story recalls the chauvinistic doctrine of original sin.) And if you can’t do that, then you ought not to be afforded a place in an interfaith setting in which we are invited into respectful dialogue with each other. One of the goals of our text study is to create a safe space for discussing differences and to learn how to disagree better — and neither of those ends are achieved by dismissiveness. And if the goal of this particular part of the program was to spark conversations about homosexuality in our traditions, which I agree need to happen, there are actually effective and non-traumatic ways of facilitating those. It shouldn’t happen at the expense of those for whom the conversations are not abstract: The other man who is married to a man (who happens to work for Berlin Pride) left the program early in disgust.

More, Winter’s views were given legitimacy by the fawning praise with which the director of the program introduced him, as well as the context into which he was invited to share them. The authority afforded a speaker in a “Saloon Conversation” results in a power imbalance in any ensuing “discussion.”

Finally, I question the choice of a white man to speak about peacemaking in the Muslim community. Putting aside the obvious reality that peacemaking is not Winter’s project, he is not representative of the British Muslim community, which is overwhelming not white. There are of course many non-white Muslim researchers and community leaders and professors who could have spoken to what Winter was brought in to share.

What happens next is not clear. I plan to share these thoughts with the program administrators and to continue having conversations with the people with whom I know it is safe to do so. I don’t know how much of my classmate’s coming out was understood by some of the native-Arabic speakers, so the fallout from that is hard to predict. Last night many expressed, simultaneously with horror at the incident, gratitude for the ensuing conversations. I’m not sure I agree; the price seems quite high for many in the room.

of hookers and crotch shots

This is the second post in this space about a current political issue in as many weeks, which is unusual for me. I was actually thinking about it last week — and then yesterday happened. And I am more pissed than ever about the attempted political comebacks of Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer.

As a reminder: In 2011 Weiner resigned from his congressional seat — he represented New York’s 9th district — after disclosing that he’d exchanged sexual messages and photographs online with six different women over the past three years. In 2008, Spitzer resigned from his post as governor of New York after it was revealed that he had patronized an escort agency for the past several years.

Weiner is now running for mayor of New York City; Spitzer, city comptroller.

And yesterday Weiner held a press conference to address further leaked messages and photos from liaisons that happened AFTER he resigned.

To be honest, I am less annoyed at Spitzer. I don’t think prostitution should be illegal, so in theory, I am philosophically not troubled by Spitzer’s behavior. To the extent that he didn’t tell his wife of his extra-marital sexual relationships and therefore put her at risk — and it seems quite likely that he didn’t, given that they separated shortly after his disclosure and are reportedly still so — his behavior was thoughtless and selfish. More troubling is the fact that Spitzer served as the state’s Attorney General before he was governor, thus directing state law enforcement — an hypocritical role while breaking the law himself, especially since he prosecuted several prostitution rings during his career. Indeed, as Spitzer said when he resigned, “Over the course of my public life, I have insisted — I believe correctly — that people take responsibility for their conduct. I can and will ask no less of myself. For this reason, I am resigning from the office of governor.” But while I am fairly sure that Spitzer’s actions represented a betrayal of his marriage, I can see the argument that they did not represent a betrayal of the public trust — at least as far as I don’t agree with current laws around sex work. (Martha Nussbaum made this argument shortly after Spitzer’s resignation.) I’ll elaborate further on my issues with Spitzer below.

Similarly, I don’t think that Weiner’s actions in and of themselves proved him unfit for public office. He certainly didn’t break any laws. And I don’t necessarily think that “sexting” (or however we’re classifying his behavior) is somehow perverted or sexually deviant, as many have charged. (Amanda Hess makes the case that Weiner’s predilections are downright boring.) And even if it were, it still wouldn’t render Weiner unable to serve his constituents.

As with Spitzer, to the extent that Weiner was not forthright with his wife — and it seems quite likely that he wasn’t, as she shared in a New York Times Magazine article about his journey back to politics — his behavior was thoughtless and selfish. What angered me about Weiner’s actions was his dishonesty after a picture purportedly of his underwear-clad erection was tweeted to a female follower of his account: Weiner initially claimed that he had been hacked and because of his lie let his Democratic House colleagues — and even his friend Jon Stewart — come to his defense. To my way of thinking, lying to your constituents and your colleagues does constitute a betrayal of the public trust. And it is definitely disturbing that at least one instance of his sexting was done without the consent of the recipient.

Many have pointed out that, in the spectrum of politician’s lies, Weiner’s is a mere peccadillo. And I agree. I would rather see politicians held accountable for their votes to send troops into battle; to cut off social safety net funding; to authorize covert operations; to restrict abortion; etc. And I’d especially like to see politicians voted out of office for the lies they tell and perpetuate in service of those votes. Unfortunately, politicians almost never admit these lies, so we’re left to condemn the ones that do confess — which almost always are classified as “sex scandals” (a most unfortunate phrase that is often used inappropriately, as in the Jerry Sandusky case, and that often serves to trivialize what occurred, as in case of the epidemic of military sexual assaults). Plus, Weiner said, when he resigned, that he was doing so because of his behavior and his lie about that behavior — which we found out yesterday that he continued to do after resignation! To say that he is untrustworthy is an understatement.

Principally, my problem with Weiner’s and Spitzer’s attempts at political rehabilitation is that they represent straight white male privilege — and the arrogance that comes with that unexamined privilege. These runs for office are not about a desire to serve the public: They are all about the men themselves, and their desire for power and prestige and second (and third?) chances. I don’t think that they should be doomed to unemployment for the rest of their lives; and indeed, both have found quite lucrative post-resignation jobs. They should stay where they are.

Can you imagine that we would even consider voting again for a gay man who resigned after being found to have engaged in sexting or prostitution? Or a person of color? Or a woman? Homophobia, racism, and sexism would kick in, and their actions would be ascribed to their being gay, or black, or female (or more accurately in some cases, not meeting the puritanical standards which are demanded of these folks). Weiner and Spitzer are given passes because their behavior — even while ill-considered — is thought to be within the bounds of “normal” for straight white men. White America can countenance the sexuality of straight white men in a way that it can’t that of queer folks, people of color, and women, who are expected to be practically asexual — or only sexual within the bounds of monogamous marriage.

Moreover, who are the candidates whose chances and future careers are being jeopardized by Weiner’s and Spitzer’s entering these respective races? I cannot believe that there is such a dearth that these two clowns represent the best options for these positions. Even if there are candidates who are only just as qualified as the two of them, shouldn’t we be supporting those who haven’t already torpedoed careers?

Update: In the September 10 primary, Weiner came in fifth in a five-way race, with less than 5% of the vote. Spitzer suffered a less humiliating loss with 48% of the vote in a two-way race. Let’s hope that these two will now fade quickly away.

“yesterday we learned that it’s okay to kill a black kid”

Last night after dinner my husband and I walked to J.P. Licks — the local ice cream shop, about a mile away — and we were able to return from that outing to our home unaccosted. This is one of the many privileges we enjoy as white people.

I had just settled into a chair in the living room to read when my phone buzzed with an alert from The New York Times: “George Zimmerman acquitted in killing of Trayvon Martin.” I yelped. I read the alert to my husband, who sighed and said, “I’m not surprised.” I abandoned my book for the night and begin to watch reaction to the verdict unfold on social media. (I don’t have TV, so I wasn’t able to watch anything live.)

I wasn’t alone in being upset. I know there are plenty of people who exulted in last night’s verdict, but thanks to the wonder of feed curation, I don’t have to know anything about them (except when someone, say, makes the unfortunate decision to retweet Ann Coulter).

The eternal optimist in me was surprised at the verdict. And then just as quickly, the realist in me was not. Other people who have followed the case more closely than I have written — and will write — better analyses of the trial: Andrew Cohen, for one, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, for another. As far as I can tell, the verdict was proof that our criminal justice system works exactly as it is designed to do: Maintain white privilege, power, and control. Mission accomplished. (And if you’re not convinced that is what it is supposed to do, I beg you to read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.)

And from my limited perspective — and by the way, unless you were one of the six women on the jury, your perspective on this will always be limited — the verdict was probably basically right. Zimmerman was probably “not guilty” (in the strict legal sense) according to the law as written in Florida. And everything about that sucks.

Following are a few notes, in highly unparallel form, mostly directed at my fellow white people, based on the social media activity that I observed..

1. Yesterday was not “the day we all learned that it’s okay to kill a black kid” (or some variation on this melodramatic statement). Maybe yesterday was the day *you* learned that. But lots of folks, particularly people of color, already knew that. Have always known that. Because their lives have depended on their knowing that.

2. You are not Trayvon Martin. If you think that “we are all Trayvon Martin” — and you’re including white folks in that “we” — then you’re missing the point entirely. This situation does not happen to white kids.

2b. A corollary: Don’t wear a hoodie. Find another way to express solidarity. Start by calling people out on their racism. And when when you say something racist (and yes, you have and you will), own up to it without defensiveness, apologize for it, and work to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

3. This is not the time (and I actually think it’s never the time) to try to convince folks that not all white people are racist. That makes the conversation about you. It’s called derailing, and it is unhelpful. Destructive, even.

4. You don’t understand exactly what people of color are going through just because you’re Jewish, or disabled, or gay, or [insert minority to which you belong]. Nobody wins Oppression Olympics.

5. Banning Florida, and Texas, and North Carolina, and [state that has passed or upheld a law you find repugnant] is not the solution. You are sorely mistaken if you think that state-sanctioned racism doesn’t happen in blue states.

6. Vote in every election, advocate to change laws (and to prevent laws like Florida’s from being passed in your own state), and DON’T TRY TO GET OUT OF JURY DUTY.

As I went to bed last night — and slept fitfully — I wondered how Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton could bear this. But I quickly realized that I’m not able to go there, not least because I’m not a parent. Whatever children I might have won’t be at risk of being shot as they walk through whatever neighborhood we might live in.

As the brilliant Audre Lorde wrote in Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference (h/t Blue Milk):

Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reasons they are dying.

race and the abortion fight in texas

On Tuesday, the last day of a special session of the Texas Legislature, Texas state Senator Wendy Davis made good on her promise to filibuster Senate Bill 5 (SB5) — which would essentially eliminate clinical access to abortion in the state; Davis stood and spoke for more than 13 hours, and she and her 400-plus supporters inside the state capitol kept the Republican-controlled body (pun intended) from voting on the measure before midnight, the end of the special session. Davis became a superstar in that half-day as thousands watched a live stream of her Herculean effort; social media sites exploded with their own blow-by-blow accounts of the action.

burnt orange in solidarity with protests at texas capitol; photo by salem pearce via instagram

burnt orange in solidarity with protests at texas capitol; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Today, as a result of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s convening of a second special session, the legislature is poised to vote again. Specifically, the bill would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, regulate first-trimester abortion clinics as ambulatory surgical centers, and restrict access to medication abortions. Make no mistake: This is not about the safety of Texas women. This is about controlling their choices and their access to reproductive care.

I wore my burnt orange today. If I were still in Austin, I would do everything I could to be at the opening of the special session, set for 2:00 p.m. CST. (I am super impressed by everyone who is making the effort to be there, especially since many of y’all were probably there last week — and both times probably had to take time off from your livelihood to do so.) In captioning my photo, I used the hashtag #standwithwendy, created last week and apparently still going strong.

I did this despite my skepticism about clicktivism (though I suppose I could make the argument that this act went one step further, since I took my “raising awareness” into the real world). I also later, after I took this photograph, added my DC Abortion Fund necklace, a silver coat hanger, which generally elicits lots of questions.

I wholeheartedly support the fine people of Texas who will turn out today at the Capitol. And I have grown distinctly uncomfortable with this project.

#standwithTX women

#standwithTX women

To the right is the graphic advertising today’s actions. Six pretty white ladies. (Included among them a pretty Jewish lady!)

Not only are these women not representative of the Texas women who will be disproportionately affected by SB5 — rich white women are much more likely have access to the resources to get an abortion out-of-state if this bill is passed — but this represents an unconscionable exclusion of the women of color who are fighting this fight, too. And have been. And will keep on doing. Because they have to. Because their communities will be devastated by lack of access to clinical abortions in a way that wealthy white communities will not.

This is not call for tokenism: The leaders of this rally should not have a woman of color featured just to feature a woman of color. There already exist in Texas women of color leading their communities in this fight. They’re not being sought out and worked with. In the modified words of a woman working on advancing female leadership  in the Jewish communal professional world (which is dominated by men): If you come up with a list of leaders that is all-white, something is wrong with your criteria. The dearth is not in availability but in the scope. (The black youth project has a great post on this topic, using the example of Texas state Senator Leticia Van de Putte.)

And this issue couldn’t be more important right now, coming as it does on the heels of the Supreme Court decisions last week. While white gay and allied America jubilantly celebrated the end of DOMA and the resumption of equality marriage in California, many others were dismayed at the repeal of the key provision of the Voting Rights Act that ensured that communities of color have equal access to voting rights as do white communities. (Over at Black Girl Dangerous, Mia McKenzie elucidates this disconnect more eloquently that I could.) If you’re queer you can get married, but if you’re a queer person of color, you might not get to vote.

It is incumbent upon me as a white woman to say no to all-white leadership in social justice movements. Because intersectionality is a thing. Because none of us is free until we are all free, and we white people cannot make everyone free (no matter how well-intentioned we are).

If we’re going to #standwithtxwomen, as we ought, we should #standwithALLtxwomen, and that includes seeking out the female leadership in communities of color, and not being okay with a sea of white faces representing Texas.*

*And this is true at the very least because of the changing demographics of Texas, which NPR is chronicling in its special series, Texas 2020.

dayeinu

At seder on Monday and Tuesday nights, we sang “Dayeinu,” the Passover song that thanks G-d for the many, many things that G-d has done for us. It’s a review of everything that happened to get us out of slavery in Egypt and into Israel where the temple was built. (Good for G-d, the song ends before those pesky temple destructions.) Dayeinu means, approximately, “it would have sufficed!” The verses take the form of, “If G-d had just done X and not Y, dayeinu!”

So we sing, “If G-d had split the sea for us and not led us through on dry land, dayeinu!” “If G-d had led us to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, dayeinu!”

But these are absurd things to say. It would have been enough for G-d to create an escape route from the Egyptians but not actually vouchsafed it to us? It would have been enough for G-d point the way to a random mountain in the desert . . . for no reason at all? Many have offered feasible explanations for each of these statements. On Tuesday, for instance, my seder host shared what she had heard from a rabbi: The arrival of the Israelites at Mount Sinai marks the first time “Israel” is referred to the singular, as a collective. So Sinai represents the beginning of peoplehood, even without the Torah. But I’m not so sure we’re supposed to take the song so literally. It seems to me that we might be simply expressing awe for each of the things G-d did for us, in a series of things that ultimately led to our freedom. But each one is actually not enough.

On Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Prop. 8 case, the referendum that Californians passed in 2008 that outlawed marriage for same-sex couples. On Wednesday, the Court heard arguments in the challenge to DOMA, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which restricts federal marriage benefits from same-sex couples (insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors’ benefits, immigration, the filing of joint tax returns, etc.), and requires interstate marriage recognition only for opposite-sex marriages.

marriage equalityOn Tuesday my Facebook feed turned red. Most of my friends changed their profile pictures to the Human Rights Campaign’s logo, colors changed for this historic occasion. Then the variations started: Yoda, Bert and Ernie, and an angry cat were added. The equal signs became penises, mustaches, animals, band-aids, matzah. I was over it even before the inevitable appearance of bacon. (The internet abhors a meme without bacon.)

I support marriage equality. And I didn’t change my profile pic. I put little stock in so-called clicktivism. One of my friends did post about how much it would mean to her if all her friends, especially straight ones, changed their profile pics as a sign of allyship: That partially melted my cold heart. And I did see a few people asking about its significance in comments on Facebook’s notification of changed profile pics. Which I imagine might be construed as “raising awareness,” quite possibly my least favorite phrase in the English language.

But my concern about this issue is deeper than my fear that people are substituting social media for real action. Many, many of my D.C. friends actually did actually go to the Supreme Court rallies to show support for marriage equality.

I worry that these cases, in the words of a good friend of mine, are “a gamble and a huge risk.” Marriage is a civil right — if perhaps not a strategy to achieve structural change — and there’s a chance it won’t be affirmed by the Court.

I came out in, and lived through, the post-Bowers v. Hardwick world, and it was an ugly time. The people who brought that case thought their odds were good too, but the result of their good intentions was a long period of time [Bowers was overturned in 2003 with the ruling in Lawrence v. Texas] when employers, governments, and courts (among others) could consider gay people de facto criminals in many states with the blessing of the Supreme Court. If we lose, and the high court decides that there is no fundamental right for gay people to marry our partners, I fear it could set back the fight for marriage equality in a huge way.

I worry that the online activism around these cases give rise to arguments that are not good for anybody’s liberation. I’m thinking in particular about the Louis CK quote [NSFW, natch] on marriage equality, which begins with “It doesn’t have any effect on your life.” Is this really how we want to garner support for this cause? So you are free to oppose issues if they inconvenience you? I’m also thinking of the argument that gay people are just like straight people. Just gay. Again, is this really how we want to garner support for this cause? So minorities should have rights as long as they are just aspiring to imitate the majority? Equal protection goes to the non-threatening? I am also thinking of the implication that marriage is a panacea for ensuring rights. Shouldn’t everyone, regardless of marital status, be entitled to the benefits denied because of DOMA? So you’re just out of luck if for some reason marriage isn’t in your plans?

I worry that, as I’ve written about before, marriage equality is the priority of only a small, privileged group of queer folks, mostly well-off white people (just look at the plaintiffs in both cases, or the sea of white that was the supporting faction in the rallies). On a current events program on my local NPR affiliate this week, the host marveled at how quickly marriage equality has gained support (contrasting it with, say, the relative torpidity of the civil rights movement). As far as I can see, the difference is that the former has had a lot of money and power behind it.

I worry that money and power thus directed limits the same towards issues that feel a lot more pressing and a lot more damaging, particularly for poor people of color. (I recognize that it is easy for me — a straight, white, married woman — to say this with the privilege of marriage already in hand.) On Thursday I visited the inmate that I am mentoring — a queer woman of color — as she finishes her college degree as part of Boston University’s College Behind Bars program. I use the word “mentoring” because that is the formal term for our relationship, as defined by the program we participate in, but she hardly needs help with her studies. I’m basically a cheerleader, a listener, and a contact from the outside world.

She’s taking a class on race and incarceration, so we’re reading a lot of the same books. As we talked about the drug war and hyperincarceration and the dehumanizing prison system, I couldn’t help but wish for the day when all of my white friends would support drug policy and prison reforms and would proudly make those known and would go to rallies in support of court cases before the Supreme Court. As useless as I find social media “activism,” a sea of profile pics demanding an end to the racist institution of the death penalty, or protesting the “virtual ‘drug exception’ [that] now exists to the Bill of Rights” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow), or decrying the dehumanizing for-profit prison industry would at least mean that the issues had gained mainstream currency.

This was a hard post to write. Tuesday’s Facebook activity ultimately left me very sad and unable to organize my thoughts. (It didn’t help that I was getting sick and mourning the death of a friend.) And changing one’s profile pic is not a wrong thing to do. And one of my best friends works for a prominent gay rights organization in this fight. And many of my gay friends consider marriage equality very important.

Our collective liberation today depends on many, many steps — as did our march to freedom through the desert. And even when we think we’ve gotten there and the song ends, the temple can be destroyed. Twice.

Marriage equality is something to regard with awe. And it is in no way enough.

feminist fishbowl

On Wednesday I spoke on a panel — or more properly, a fishbowl — about feminism at my school’s community time (held once a week for an hour-and-a-half) in advance of our winter seminar the week before school starts again in January, which will be on the topic of feminist theology and practice. Also on the panel were a faculty member (a man) and two fourth-year students (a man and a woman).

We each had four minutes (!), and I was super nervous, in part because I still don’t know the community very well, and I am just not sure where people are on feminism (yes, I know). In the end, I felt that it went really well. It was such an important experience for me personally, since, as I’ve been sharing, I’ve been having a hard time with the very painful misogyny in many of the texts that we’re studying. It felt great to have my say, to share my worldview. Which is, of course, the essence of feminism.

These are the questions that I was asked to respond to, and following that is what I said (slighted edited from notes into a more readable format, and including a few sentences I had to cut on the spot in the interests of time).

1. What does feminism mean to you?
-What is your working definition of feminism/feminist practice?
-How did you arrive at this conception of feminism?
-How is feminism lived out in your life? Your relationships? Your work? Your Jewish practice?

2. Why is it important for Hebrew College, as a community, to be talking about feminism?

____________________________________________________
My feminist practice works towards the liberation of all marginalized people, not just women. I have unerring commitment to intersectionality: The patriarchy perpetuates not just sexism but lots of other -isms/privilege: racism, ableism, cisgenderism, heteronormativism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, etc. The identity of an oppressed person is not just shaped by gender.

Essentially, our world is perfectly suited to educated, wealthy, straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered men, and there are way more people who are not that. This means that a very small group of people have power and privilege. I’d like to create a world that is suited to all people.

patriarchyI can’t walk away from misogyny, so I can’t walk away from feminism. And I won’t walk away from feminism, because it is the only defense I have in world that is hostile to me –  not the other way around.

I’ve never taken a women’s studies or feminist theory class. In fact, I spent my college years doing just about the opposite, studying classics (ancient Greek and Latin texts). The definition above was forged in the fires of the rape crisis center where I worked as a hotline counselor and hospital advocate for seven years; I received extensive training before I started and ongoing training as I continued to volunteer. I answered crisis calls on a 24-hour hotline, and I went to the hospital when patient identified as a sexual assault survivor. (For simplicity, I will be talking about survivors as women, but I want to acknowledge that women are not at all the only people who are raped.)

I understand the phenomenon of sexual assault in a feminist context: that is, rape is about power and control, and not desire or libido. It is perhaps the most violent manifestation of patriarchy, and it is a direct result of the “rape culture” in which we live.

Rape culture is set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women; it views sexual violence as a fact of life, when in fact what we think of as immutable is an expression of values and views that can change. In addition to its the part it plays in the lives of women, rape culture also narrowly circumscribes men’s roles.

A few examples: rape culture is 1 in 33 men and 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes; rape culture is encouraging women to take self-defense as though that is the only solution required to prevent rape; rape culture is the claim that sex workers can’t be raped; rape culture is the threat of being raped in prison being an acceptable deterrent to committing crime; rape culture is tasking women with the burden of not getting raped and failing to admonish men not to rape; rape culture is refusing to acknowledge that the only thing a person can do to avoid being raped is never to be in the same room as a rapist.

My feminist practice is based on the principle that the personal is political. Just to give two examples: I listen. I know precisely my experience of sexism, but that does not mean that I know what it’s like to be queer, or a person of color, or disabled, or any number of things. It behooves me to check my privilege and to listen and to accept as true others’ telling of their experiences

And on the flip side: I tell my story. As an excellent web resource says, “Because women’s stories aren’t told, it’s incumbent upon female feminists to tell their own stories, to fill that void, to be unrepentant and loquacious raconteurs every chance we get, to talk about our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, our needs, our lives in every aspect. It’s our obligation to create a cacophony with our personal narratives, until there is a constant din that translates into equality, into balance.”

Finally, why is it important for Hebrew College, as a community, to be talking about feminism? Because we’re still asking that question.

feminist teshuva

I wrote this two weeks ago as a final assignment for the fall seminar for first-year students, which looked at the Torah and Haftarah portions – and critical analysis of both – for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We were asked to reflect on something we found interesting or significant from the readings and to present that reflection to the class. I’ve edited it slightly to make it more accessible to readers not in that class.

Thus for me, teshuva between women and G-d implies not just G-d holding me responsible for the ways I have failed as a human being, but also me holding G-d responsible for failing me as a Jewish woman by giving me a world and a people and a text that continue to betray women, often making it difficult for us to uphold our side of the covenant.

I almost fell off of my bed after I read this passage from Tamara Cohen’s essay, “Returning to Sarah,” in Beginning Anew. To say that it resonated with me would be a vast understatement. I don’t think a piece of text has so perfectly spoken to me in 10 years, since I read Anita Diamant’s Choosing a Jewish Life – the main impetus for the Jewish journey that eventually led me here.

The passage gave me permission to be mad at G-d. The tradition I grew up in did not allow that, and my inchoate theology tends towards a G-d that is not directly responsible for the state of things. Our mischegas is our own.

A world and a people and a text that continue to betray women.

[B]etray women.

This is my experience, from growing up in a tradition of strict gender roles, to working at an all girls’ boarding school in North Carolina, to volunteering at the rape crisis center in D.C.

I am grateful to now be a part of a community whose commitment to egalitarianism seems to be firm, but I know this to be an aberration. (And I know that there will be failures on that front; we live in a world of male privilege, after all.)

My life thus far has been a daily, run-into-a-wall encounter between the way that I experience life and a privileged experience of life. And that’s my experience as an upper-middle-class, straight white woman – to say nothing of the experience of people of color, or queer folks.

I feel that betrayal acutely, in ways large and small.

I feel it when last summer’s debt crisis – which almost led to a default and did lead to a downgrade in U.S. credit by world debtors – ended only when the president agreed to a bill rider that prohibited the District of Columbia from directing its own tax revenues to subsidize abortions for District residents.

I feel it in the lack of basic labor protections – standard for most workers in this country – for domestic employees, the women that care for our children, houses, and elders.

I feel it when our secretary of state – our nation’s top diplomat – is asked which fashion designers she prefers.

I feel it when sports teams at my alma mater are referred to as “the Longhorns” . . . and “the Lady Longhorns.”

I feel it when I get mail, as I did yesterday, addressed to “Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Grossberg.”

Last Wednesday at hesbon hanefesh (“account of the soul”) a teacher asked us to reflect on the issue of anger, and he used a text from Rav Natan as a prompt: “Help me break my tendency towards anger. Help me practice patience in all aspects of my life and overcome my anger. I don’t want to be angry or respond harshly to anything . . . I just want to be able to serve you honestly and simply, and to have total trust in you.”

This is not my prayer to G-d. For me there is a distinction between the feeling of anger and acting angrily. I don’t want to do the latter. But I also don’t want to not be angry, when I generally feel that if you’re not angry about the world, you’re not paying attention. (Patience, on the other hand, that I pray for daily.) My anger, my outrage at injustice, is often what motivates me. It’s one of the reasons I’m here.

And if I’m being honest, I have to say that in the drama of the traditional Yom Kippur “scapegoat” sacrifice in the texts that we read, I feel less like the onlookers or even the high priest – and more like the goat. I feel the weighed down by the burden of our society’s sins against women. Like the goat, I am either abandoned in the wilderness – or thrown over a cliff.

So, how can I do the hard work of teshuva (“repentence”) when a great deal of my reflection has left me angry at G-d? Trust after betrayal is incredibly hard, especially when the betrayal “continue[s],” as Cohen notes.

Cohen’s answer is, at least in part, is for us to complete the stories about and to strain to hear the voices of the women of the Torah. We must write our own midrashim and live our own fully integrated lives. So, I’ll definitely try to get that done in the next 19 days.

Hebrew College founder Art Green, in his introduction to S.Y. Agnon’s seminal text on the High Holidays, Yamim Noraim, suggests another, or an additional, model: He notes that Yom Kippur commemorates the giving of the second of the Ten Commandment tablets. (Moses destroyed the first in his anger at the Israelites’ creation of the golden calf.) Green says, “This time the tablets were to be a joint divine-human project. Moses does the carving, G-d does the writing. Every Jew receives or fashions these second tablets on or around Yom Kippur. This is the season when each of us renegotiates our covenant with G-d.”

If I can frame it like that, I’m able see G-d as a partner in the beginning of my teshuva. But it’s also a good thing that I have next year, too.

the unlikely disciple

In mid-May I tore through Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. It was recommended to me by my friend Michelle, who knows from good memoirs, her (and my) favorite genre: She reads two or three books a week! (When I ask how she has the time to do so, she says, “I don’t watch any television.”)

Roose was a student at Brown University and a writer’s assistant to A.J. Jacobs, he of the extreme lifestyle challenges, when work on Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically took him to the mega-church of Dr. Jerry Fallwell in Lynchburg, Va. There he met students from Falwell’s Liberty University, became intrigued by his brief interaction with them, and the rest is this book. Roose takes a leave of absence and enrolls at Liberty during the spring semester of 2007.

I spent most of the book alternately laughing and shuddering at his description of the self-described “evangelical liberal arts college” and its students (both of which hit pretty close to home for me) and marveling at Roose himself.

I kept having to remind myself that Roose was only 19 when he attended Liberty. He approached the experience with incredible self-assurance and a true desire to understand what for him was pretty much “the other side” in our nation’s ever more vicious culture wars. He did everything that his classmates did — and almost always enthusiastically. He takes the requisite creationism course (though it completely baffles him); he finds a “devotional” buddy (someone with whom he studies the Bible outside of class); he sings in the choir at Falwell’s church; he prays every day; and, in one of the book’s most hilariously uncomfortable parts, he even goes to a self-help group for men who are struggling with masturbation (forbidden according to the school’s sect of Christianity).

I generally found Roose extremely thoughtful and open-minded about these experiences (sometimes to the horror of his liberal family, especially his aunt and her female partner). By far my favorite part was his reflection on his experience of daily prayer. He struggles at first to do this authentically, because he’s not sure that he believes in G-d. So he begins by articulating his hopes for his family and friends, and he comes to find that — non-belief in G-d notwithstanding — he actually enjoys the opportunity for reflection. One day his prayers for a friend motivate him to write a letter of encouragement to that friend, which was received with gratitude at a difficult time in that friend’s life. This book was an unlikely impetus for my own reflection on prayer — but I certainly felt motivated by Roose’s thoughts.

As Roose himself acknowledges, one of the reasons his experiment has success is because he is a straight, white, (at least nominally) Christian man. He thoughtfully reflects on this privilege on more than one occasion: in his interaction with one of the few black guys in his dorm, harassed for dating a white girl, then as one of his roommates because more outspokenly and virulently homophobic as the semester progresses, and then when he hosts a Jewish friend from Brown for a weekend. Unfortunately, Roose falls short in considering the experience of women on campus, except insofar as he and his friends date them. I would have appreciated his delving into a little deeper into the attitudes towards and expectations of women as evangelical Christians (besides how to date Christian men). By giving ink to only that aspect of the female experience at Liberty, Roose is as reductive of women’s roles as Liberty (presumably) is.

liberty university, lynchburg, va.

There is also the issue of the book’s subtitle: Liberty as presented is hardly a “holy” institution; no place as obsessed with demonizing gay folks, or home to such casual racism, could be described as such. In fact, one of Roose’s takeaways is that the students at Liberty are in the main similar to their counterparts on the other side of the culture war: Good-hearted people struggling to find a way to live out their values in the world — and just as flawed as anyone else. (Yes, many students at Liberty engage in the taboos of drinking, drugs, swearing, and premarital sex.) And a “sinner”? While that’s likely how the adherents to Fallwell’s brand of Christianity might characterize Roose, I was consistently struck by his earnestness and sincerity.

Coincidentally, Roose is at Liberty during two historical events: the massacre at Virginia Tech in nearby Blacksburg, and the death of Dr. Falwell. Both provided interesting windows into the university’s culture. The reaction to the Tech shooting is hardest for Roose to comprehend, as the campus ultimately settled on a this-is-part-of-G-d’s-plan-and-therefore-must-have-happened-for-a-reason interpretation of events, which attitude enfuriates Roose.

And in a turn of events that Roose couldn’t have scripted better, he ended up conducting the final print interview of Falwell’s life. Unsurprisingly, he finds Falwell to be neither the monster nor the saint that he is usually considered — but just an ordinary guy, even a decent human being. There was a time when I might have found this hard to understand, but after living in North Carolina for three years and witnessing the love locals have for Jesse Helms, a similarly polarizing national figure, I get it.

As Dostoevsky writes, “In most cases, people, even wicked people, are far more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we.”

turning anger into change

Trigger warning: This entire post is about my experience as a volunteer for a rape crisis center, details from which may be upsetting to survivors.

In August 2005, shortly after I moved to D.C., I responded to an ad in the Washington Post Express, a call for volunteers at the DC Rape Crisis Center. That action has defined my experience in D.C. for the past six-a-half-years.

I still remember with total clarity my first visit to the Center’s then-basement office downtown — and my initial interview with then-volunteer assistant Jessica Ingram (who I recently reunited with in her current position as Assistant Director of Admissions at HUC-JIR!). I fumbled some of the questions that she asked me, but I must have said something right, because a few weeks later I began the twelve-week training to become a hotline counselor and hospital advocate. Those sessions took place at the Luther Place Memorial Church, one block from where I live now, where I’ll pack up to take my leave from D.C. in a few months. Talk about coming full circle . . .

During that training, I first learned about rape trauma syndrome, about inclusive language, about rape culture, about white privilege, about “isms” — all of which have had a profound influence on my intellectual development and worldview. I learned active listening skills, how to handle suicidal callers, and challenges specific to male and to deaf survivors. I learned how to talk to survivors’ loved ones. I learned to laugh on occasion in the face of horror — and why a sense of humor is one of the most important survival skills. I learned why we say “survivors.”

Since that training — over the course of at least 300 shifts — I’ve answered hundreds of hotline calls (and completed paperwork for each one), made dozens of hospital visits (and completed even more paperwork for each one of those), and ordered countless cabs for both volunteers and survivors (see above, re: paperwork). I’ve called every homeless shelter in the D.C.-area at least once, and I’ve spoken with emergency services in four states. I’ve seen almost 20 classes of volunteers graduate after me, and I’ve led training sessions for many of them. I’ve supported new volunteers as a “big vollie” and as a back-up supervisor during their hotline and advocacy shifts. I’ve served on the Center’s board, as volunteer liaison, for the past four years. I’ve seen eight amazing women lead the volunteer corps, with at least as many (no less amazing) volunteer program assistants. I’ve seen the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program run by four different women at two different hospitals. A thousand times I’ve said, “I believe you. You’re not crazy. You’re not alone.”

My first visit to the hospital, back when survivors were routed to Howard, was in 2006. I had completed my training months earlier but just hadn’t ever gotten called to the hospital on any of my advocacy shifts. When I got the call just after midnight, I was afraid — that I wouldn’t remember what to do, that I wouldn’t be of any help, that the survivor would see my fear. When it was over, I called my back-up to lament my inadequacy. But a month later, the volunteer office shared with me a thank-you letter that the survivor had written to the Center. The initial flush of pride turned to fear (again), and I expressed the concern, “I don’t know if I can do that well again.” And that’s when the wonderful Kim Lopez smiled and said to me, “But you’ll try.”

most valvable player; photo by salem pearce

I went on to win the “most valuable” volunteer award two years in a row. But I really, really don’t want this to seem like bragging. I am definitely proud of what I have done with the Center, but I haven’t done anything extraordinary. I just used the excellent training and support that the Center offered me. And it turns out that our society — not to mention the medical and legal systems that survivors must navigate — treat victims of sexual assault so badly that it doesn’t take much to seem practically like a ministering angel. In every encounter, I strove to meet survivors where they were and to treat them as what they were: human beings in pain.

I wish I could say that I remember every survivor I met in the hospital, but over the years the many faces and stories have run together. I’ve advocated for college students and for sex workers, for tourists and for homeless people. I’ve seen a survivor laughing and chatting with friends right before the exam — and I’ve seen a survivor beaten unrecognizable. I’ve had gifts pressed into my hands — and I’ve been told to “get the fuck out of my face.” I’ve helped a woman figure out how to keep an assault from her partner — and I’ve seen a man break down while trying to figure out how to tell his. I’ve seen survivors raped by lovers, family, friends, acquaintances, employers, caregivers, and strangers.

As might be expected, the work has taken its toll on me. On the hotline, I’ve been terrified by prank callers, worn out by repeat callers, cursed at by angry callers. A few years ago I suffered a bout of severe symptoms as a secondary survivor, as a result of exposure to so much trauma. I couldn’t hear or read anything related to sexual assault without being triggered. After a volunteering hiatus and numerous therapy sessions, the symptoms became less severe. And I’ve gotten much better at self-care, setting boundaries, and saying no.

Usually when I tell people that I volunteer at a rape crisis center, they assume the experience is thusly horrific. But — and this is why I decided to write this post — the experience was unquestionably and unbelievably rewarding. As I told my mom after I got that letter: I can die happy, since I know I have helped one person on this earth.

Even more, I found myself during training: I was unemployed when it started, and by the time it was over, I had my first job in D.C. Initially I wasn’t sure if I had the qualities to be a good volunteer, but the experience first showed me that I was capable of some measure of true selflessness and sympathy.

To be sure, I’ve seen possibly the worst thing one human being can do to another, but I’ve also seen the best thing one human being can do for another — in the form of the legions of (mostly) women willing to answer a phone or go to a hospital at any time of day for a total stranger. I’ve never stopped being amazed at my fellow volunteers. And some have become my closest friends or my (s)heroes: Mara Berman (who I met the first day of training!), Kim Shults, Edda Santiago, Ana Ottman, Mahri Irvine, Stacey Lantz, Chai Shenoy, Liz Nelson, Amy Gordon, Alicia Gill.

I can say with complete confidence that I’ve gotten more out of being a volunteer with the Center than I’ve given.

And yesterday, I asked to be removed from the active volunteer email list. More than anything else, this action has made real my upcoming move. I don’t know how to live in D.C. and not be a DCRCC volunteer; I’ve known the Center longer than I’ve known my husband.

But it’s time to go.

the women behind the missionaries

caleb's crossingI recently tore through both Caleb’s Crossing and The Poisonwood Bible. The first is Geraldine Brooks’ latest, published last year. I’ve read all of her fiction; her Pulitzer-prize-winning March is one of my favorite books.

The second is perhaps Barbara Kingsolver’s most well known work, which I’ve never picked up before. Last year I inherited my grandmother’s copy, which made the reading all the sweeter, knowing that she once enjoyed it. It’s a hardcover, so I assume she bought it shortly after it was published 15 years ago. One of her familiar address labels is affixed on the inside flap of the dust jacket.

I just happened to read them in succession (I’m trying to read more fiction), and they dovetail nicely. They’re both set against backgrounds of historical events, and the narrators of both are daughters of American clergymen bent on converting native cultures to Christianity (the Wampanoag on the island that would later become Martha’s Vineyard in Brooks’ novel, and the Congolese in Kingsolver’s). Sadly, though the settings are separated by 400 years, the Price sisters in the 1960s are offered just about as little opportunity as Bethia Mayfield in the 17th century: All of the girls hear a constant refrain about the uselessness of educating women. But in both tales, these women are much smarter, shrewder, braver, and more interesting than their naive missionary fathers.

Caleb’s Crossing is an ill-fitting name for Brooks’ work. Though it’s inspired by the life of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College, the story belongs wholly to Bethia Mayfield, who achieves the book’s more lasting crossing: from the narrow realm of women’s chores to the limitless world of men’s education, from Puritanism to Wampanoag culture and back again, from her sister’s caretaker to scullery maid to wife and mother. She befriends the eponymous Caleb, the heir apparent to the Wampanoag who believes that being fully a part of the Mayfields’ white, Christian world represents the best chance for him to ensure the survival of his people. Caleb studies English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew indefatigably (yes, I was jealous), gains admission to Harvard, and graduates with honors, doing better than many of his white counterparts. But the price he pays is extremely high, and the reader knows that all of his efforts ultimately will not save the Wampanoag. Through the plot’s twists, Bethia is able to accompany him to the mainland, and it is she who is more successfully changed for the experience.

One of the hardest things as a modern reader is to fathom the attitudes of those who believe themselves to be “civilizing” cultures, remaking others in their own image. I felt unspeakably sad reading about the changes Bethia describes that Caleb undergoes as he moves from robust hunter to sallow scholar. The same process in historical fiction such as this and other books of the genre (like Things Fall Apart) makes me, to be blunt, hate white people. The story of the Congolese in The Poisonwood Bible is made only slightly less painful by the fact that the village of Kilanga is largely immune to Reverend Price’s proselytizing.

It helps that Price is something of a ridiculous character (in contrast to Mayfield’s earnest and ethical attempts to engage the Wampanoag): His daughters note his mispronunciation of the Lingala word bangala, which, depending on how it’s said, can mean “dearly beloved” or “poisonwood tree,” leaving Price to preach week after week that Jesus is the local tree that can cause intense pain and even death. But Price is lucky to have this gaffe to humanize him, because he is otherwise a vile character. His cultural arrogance and condescension are insufferable, and his complete inflexibility, even in the face of danger because of the country’s unrest (the political turmoil of the post-colonial era), rips apart his family. I spent most of the book hoping for him a violent death. It’s his daughters, who take turns talking about their experience in Congo and afterwards, who charm and delight, even in the midst of their tragedies.

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