Tag Archives: Passover

Passover, AIDS, and the Indigo Girls: A 90s Coming Out Story

21 Jun

Pride Shabbat Sermon 2018

During my teenage years, the smells of a chicken boiling, silverware and dishes clanking, and my Mom singing in the kitchen were my wake up calls on the morning before our Passover seder. The preparations during the day often involved a lot of “to dos,” that in my mind now looking back are our family rituals. One of these rituals was the search for all the Passover Haggadahs and my Dad’s messy pile of printed seder supplements.

My Dad always led our seder with a lot of feeling and drama in his voice. Every word he read he believed in. This was his opportunity to teach and preach those words to the people around the table. He really saw and continues to see himself as a part of the sacred drama of the Passover story.

When we would come to the maggid (story) section of our Haggadah, he would dramatically hold up the matza in the matza cover and say these words (with feeling), Ha lachma anya…”This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate while in Egypt.” His teenage daughter, me, would often roll her eyes at his dramatics. Embarrassed and wishing for a life filled with joy and cheerfulness I wondered, why did the Passover seder have to start out with such a downer? And why did my Dad have to emphasize it?

Why do we begin the story of our exodus this way? Why not start on a better note? Our rabbinic tradition prescribes that the telling of the Exodus from Egypt should present a contrast: beginning with disgrace or lowly status and ending with glory and pride. This tradition has been a constant from antiquity until today. As adults, this narrative arc probably resonates. How many times in our own lives have we moved from a place of despair and loneliness to a place of  joy and pride? This motif for better or worse often strengthens us and allows us to feel gratitude and compassion for our journeys.

So, I stand here this evening thinking about my teenage self at those Passover seders. In a place in my life, where I was lonely and filled with despair. I felt fearful, enslaved to anxiety, and the icky feeling of feeling different. I couldn’t see the pride. Perhaps, that’s why I hated that Passover started in such a heavy place. It mirrored  how I was feeling.

In 1994, when I first started high school I realized something wasn’t right…or at least that’s how I saw it. I tried to make myself believe that I liked boys, but the truth of the matter was everytime I said I liked a particular guy to friends at school my mind was preoccupied with a girl. I couldn’t quite figure out… Was this just high school infatuation? Or something else?…something I assumed wasn’t normal.

My freshman year I became friends with a girl who was “out.” And now that I think back on it….how brave! I was glad to be friends with her and also hated being friends with her. Typical teenager. I was glad because perhaps she could help me figure out what was going on with myself and I hated her because, what if I was like her. One thing I learned about her seemed to help me feel better.  She told me her uncle was gay. And my uncle was gay. And so thinking that being gay was genetic made me feel better. If being gay was genetic, then I really couldn’t control how I felt because I was born this way. I want to tell you about my uncle…

My Uncle Russell had the most amazing laugh. If I think really hard I can still hear it in my head. He also wore a bolo tie to my Bat Mitzvah. And I had never seen a bolo tie and I thought how brave to wear a bolo tie to very conservative and a bit vanilla Westport, CT Bat Mitzvah. My uncle had longish dirty blond hair and a mustache and lived in San Francisco. He was a graphic designer and an artist. He made beautiful pillows with crazy cool and eccentric fabrics. He was the youngest of the three Lerner children…my Mom, my Aunt, and then my Uncle Russell and he always seemed to carry that sweet babyface third child energy whenever he was with the family.

In Chicago, in 1983, soon after my sister was born, my Uncle asked my Mom to drive him to the airport. He was going to San Francisco and it seemed that he was not coming back. He told my Mom not to tell my grandparents. My Mom was devastated that her brother was leaving Chicago, their childhood home, where they had grown up and where all our family was living. Though she also knew it was probably good for him to move.

He couldn’t be openly gay in Chicago and San Francisco was the place to be to live a free and open gay life. As my Mom has put it, “He was sowing his wild oats in the San Francisco community. If you wanted to be out and feel safe than you went to Castro street and went to bars and met people.” My Uncle’s first boyfriend that my Mom knew about was Jim. Though no one would admit it, including my uncle. Jim was his “roommate.” He later than met his life-partner Steven. He never officially came out to my Mom. My Mom outed him to her. She told him she knew what was going on. My Mom’s best friend was gay and as a result my Uncle saw my Mom as a part of the extended gay family. He knew she was ok with who he was, so why did he have to come out to her? My grandparents though were another story. He didn’t come out to them  until 1990, when he was diagnosed with AIDS.

He was still living with the disease in 1994 when I started struggling with my sexuality. I thought a lot about coming out to him or at least telling him what I was struggling with so I would feel less alone, but I never felt confident or comfortable enough to do so. I remember going to visit him and Steven during winter vacation of 1994. It was my first time in San Francisco and really seeing gay people living their lives. I remember sneaking into my uncle’s bedroom and seeing a tape with the Indigo Girls on it. My Mom and I learned about the Indigo Girls from him. A long lasting gift from my Uncle Russell because those Indigo Girls became the soundtrack to my life. They comforted me as I struggled with trying to figure out my identity. They were role models for me because they were both gay, out, and living lives that appeared to be “normal.”

Even though I saw my uncle living a “normal” life in San Francisco, everything was the opposite of normal. He was sick. He had pill bottles all over his house. My Mom and him spent most of their time together talking about new treatments they were hearing about. When he came to visit us in Connecticut one of my sister’s friends wouldn’t come over while he was there because he had AIDS. (And get this her parents were both doctors!) Even I nervously wondered if I could catch AIDS from him. Even though it was clear at this point AIDS was passed through bodily fluids I still naively worried. None of this was normal.

During the first week of June in 1996 my Uncle came to Westport for my sister’s Bat Mitzvah. He was incredibly skinny and weak. He couldn’t come up to the bima for an aliya. My Mom took him to New York City and he insisted on going to the fabric district to buy tons and tons of cool fabrics as if he had years left of his life to sew and make things out of what he bought. My Mom believes this is what kept him alive for so long. He never thought he was actually going to die.

A month later in July of ‘96 he died. I was in Israel for the very first time with NFTY. My counselors broke the news to me. My group held a memorial service for him even though none of them knew him and they hardly knew me. I went to the kotel with one of my counselors and I prayed for the very first time at the wall. I can’t remember exactly what my prayers were, but I can imagine I prayed for strength, clarity, and ease and comfort for my Uncle and my family. I never got to tell my Uncle I was gay. He never got to meet my partner Michelle whom I know he would love. A few years ago, she got to meet his partner Steven. They got along so well.

We now recite an 11th plague at our seder. And that is the plague of AIDS. A plague which could have been stopped sooner than it was, if this country hadn’t been filled with rampant homophobia. In  particular, homophobic elected officials in the 1980s. Perhaps lives could have been saved. Perhaps, my Uncle or my Mom’s best friend Brian could still be alive today. When I look back on my coming out story and when I think about my Uncle’s coming out story…Before there could be pride…there was struggle, there was pain, and there was hardship.

Now it’s 2018. And we have marriage equality. And I am an out lesbian rabbi on this bima celebrating pride shabbat with all of you. I pray my Uncle has gotten to catch a glimpse of all of this from a realm beyond this world. It is his shoulders on whom I stand tonight. It is the pain of his generation and generations of LGBTQ folks before me that without their suffering we couldn’t all experience pride.

So how do we ensure pride for future generations? How can we support those coming out today so they can be proud in 25 years from now? First fo starters, let’s take a hard look at how we understand the word “normal.” In many ways, I wish we could eliminate this word from our lexicon. I can imagine that all of us in this room at some point or another have felt abnormal or haven’t fit into the norm. Acknowledging this, might lead to thinking harder about how each one of us reacts to difference. Can we do better at seeing beyond “normal” frameworks?

Using queer theory can assist us in that endeavor. When something is being “queered” (as a verb) it usually means deconstructing a social construct that is dictating normalcy. Its attempting to debunk how we have come to understand what is natural and unnatural. We ask the question, “Why does it have to be that ONE way?” So I invite you all this evening to try and be mindful through a queer lens. Deconstruct what you think is normal particularly when it comes to gender and sex. Take a look at the spaces you inhabit and the relationships you have…how do you reinforce society’s concept of what is normal and how can you choose to act differently? How can you break open the proverbial “boxes” that keep us closed up into categories?

Here in our congregation how can we walk the walk when it comes to being an open and welcoming synagogue? Imagine walking down to the lower level to use the restroom and seeing a sign that says “all gender” bathrooms. Think about the welcoming message this would send to transgender and queer folks who are in our building. What if we had a rainbow flag or a rainbow sticker up all year round instead of just in June? Imagine how inviting it might feel to anyone who identifies as LGBTQ to see a rainbow flag as they are wondering if BHS could be a home for them. I know how happy and invited it makes me to see that symbol when I am out and about.

We should also try and rid ourselves of notions of “normalcy” when it comes to Jewish practice. Jews love minhag…we love tradition, but what aspects of our tradition actually keep us stuck in binaries or in heteronormativity? Every Friday night we are suppose to bless our children separated by gender and the blessing teaches that our boys should be like boys and our girls should be like girls. We say for boys may you be life Menashe and Eprahim (Joseph’s sons). And girls be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Perhaps we need to expand or change this. I imagine we want to bless our children with qualities we want them to possess, such as kindness, good health, happiness, etc. These are human desires that have nothing to do with gender.

I could probably go on and on. And maybe you have ideas now too. Let’s talk! And let’s really talk. As the more we do, the more we train our minds to think outside of the box. A box that only exists,  because we decided it does.

I want to go back now to that smell of chicken soup and matza balls. To that phrase from the beginning of the maggid section of our passover haggadah…”This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat it with us.” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks asks a different question about this verse, than I did at the beginning of this sermon. He wonders, “What kind of hospitality is it to offer the hungry the “bread of affliction”?” He offers this response:

Matza was both food eaten by the Israelites as slaves and  it was also the food eaten by the Israelites as they left Egypt in a hurry because they didn’t have time to let the dough rise. So it’s the bread of affliction and  also the bread of freedom. When we eat Matza alone, we only taste the suffering. But, when we offer to share the matza with others we can taste something else: the sense of a freer world that God promised us we can create.

Sharing the matza so it takes on a dual meaning, reminds that when we are suffering, reaching out is often a really good first step to getting out of the darkness. During my first week of college I came out to my freshmen year roommate. She was so loving, so kind, so accepting, so understanding…it was the first time I didn’t feel so abnormal because I was gay. And those experiences continued and continued as I came out and as our world got more and more accepting. My personal narrative began to move towards pride and joy.

I pray that kids who are coming out today don’t know those feelings of abnormalcy that I felt. And I pray that our cities, towns, and homes can all be places where LGBTQ folk can live openly and safely. So they don’t have to feel like my Uncle did…having to choose between his family and being an out gay man. And I pray that we can all open up the boxes we find ourselves in or the boxes we put others in. And look through that opening and beyond, and break free from the narrowness of being enclosed.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rest and Ice Cream Cones

7 Apr

I’ve been enthusiastically lounging over the past two days. I envision that this really is how Chag (last day of Pesach) and Shabbat should always be spent…reading, resting, singing, chatting, and enjoying the outdoors.

Some of my favorite things over the past few days have been singing Shabbat songs around the camp fire last night with drumming, searching for the chametz that had been hidden away for the week, chilling out under the big green tarp that Walk About Love puts up on Shabbat, and getting to know my fellow walkers even better. Oh and also getting a lot of practice with my Hebrew!

Over the past 48 hours, Maggie from our group often exclaimed “What a time to be alive!” every time someone would come to visit our group over Chag and Shabbat with food and drink! While we did have food in the truck, which we made good use of including the American classic Matza Brei (which I supervised), we were a bit sick of matza and tehina, matza and chocolate spread, matza and matza. So…it really was pretty exciting (great to be alive) when a bottle of tequila was brought to us, ice cream and ice cream cones, pita, hummus, labaneh, cheese, pastries, kanafe, and baklava!

We are camped at Har (Mt.) Amasa in the edge of the Yatir Forest about a 20 minute drive by car to the north of Arad. Amasa is named for King David’s nephew who ultimately heads his army at the end of Second Samuel. Right near us is a small village also called, “Har Amasa.” They have a room that they leave open for hikers and back packers and have been very welcoming to us who didn’t go back to civilization for the weekend.

On Thursday we left Arad, walked past Tel Arad, and then climbed Har Amasa to arrive here. We passed many Bedouin shepherds as well as a village inhabited by the Falahim who are known for having lived in caves many years ago and unlike their Bedouin brethren who are primarily nomadic the Falahim are committed to agriculture. I am still in shock how green it is everywhere. I really feel like we entered Oz after a long four weeks on only a “yellow brick road.”

Tomorrow we start walking and (Gd willing) by the end of next week we will reach Jerusalem. I can’t believe it! Shavua tov!

This Year in Haifa

1 Apr

I’m on a train heading back down south to meet the Walk About Love group to start the second half of my journey on the shvil. I feel rested, relaxed, and renewed. I felt thankful for every hot shower I took, sleeping indoors on a comfy bed, a bathroom (!), and dear friends. Ok I’ll be honest I definitely even felt grateful for sitting on a couch, digging my feet into a soft rug, and I I hugged my very clean clothes after they came out of the dryer for a long time. It’s amazing how easy it is to take for granted such things and then without them how grateful one can feel when reunited with such pleasures!

I wrestled a lot with how to spend Pesach this year while I was in Israel. Do I stay with the group on the trail and celebrate amidst the desert backdrop at a campsite or do I leave the trail and be with friends and be at a seder that would feel similar to what I am used to at home?

To make my decision I thought a lot about what the words, “next year in Jerusalem” mean at the end of the Haggadah. Originally these words made it into the Haggadah to symbolize ultimate redemption. We will only truly be free once the messiah is here and we are all in Jerusalem. Over the centuries before the state of Israel came to be this phrase also represented the longing of the Jewish people to have a homeland. “Home” being the key word there for me.

As I reflected on what those words meant to me this year, I realized they mean a desire to feel at “home” for the holiday. And since I am not physically home with my family then I had to think about what would feel like the next best thing. And so I was so thankful to be welcome into the home of the Ben-Chorin family…dear friends with an incredibly warm home.

And as I uttered the words “bashanah habah b’yerushalyim” this year I thought about what “Yerushalayim” translates to…yireh – he will see God, shalem – complete or wholeness. And this to me is what is important to me when celebrating and observing holidays…being with people who make you feel whole and complete and feeling a sense of divine presence in the celebration, whether in Jerusalem, Haifa, New York, Connecticut, or Texas!

I definitely wished to have been in three places at once this Passover as it’s hard to be away over holidays, but I am truly filled up and excited to get back on the trail!

Wishing everyone a moadim L’simcha (happy holiday)!

Passover Jokes 2016

22 Apr

1.Why did the matza feel so crumby?mrs_moses

“It went through a brake-up.”

2. Why did the parsley jump into the pool?

“Cause it was sick of dipping in salt water.”

3. How did Grandma Rose catch a carp?

“She guilt a fish!”

4. Why did the Israelites run through the parted Red Sea?

“Cause they didn’t want to walk like an Egyptian.”

5. What was Miriam’s first dance after she crossed the Red Sea?

“A free’s dance!”

6. What is a parsley’s favorite 90s dance song lyric?

“When you dip, I dip, we dip.”

7. What did Elijah say when he got to the Passover seder?

“What do you mean it’s last call? I just got here!”

8. Why couldn’t the seder guests eat the afikomen?

“They couldn’t find it.”

9. Why did the Israelites wander in the desert for so long?

“They lost their Waze.”

10. Why did Hilary Clinton refuse to get rid of her chametz?

“She didn’t want to feel the Bern.”


Facing God In Our Passover Haggadah

19 Apr

Shabbat HaGadol, loosely translated in English as the “Great Sabbath,” falls on the Shabbat preceding Passover, which is where we find ourselves this evening. According to Jewish law, it is on Shabbat HaGadol that we observe the beginning of the process of the Israelite redemption from Egypt. We are instructed to study the laws of Passover and there is even a tradition of reading portions of the haggadah as a rehearsal for the upcoming seder. The reasoning for this is to familiarize ourselves with the content of the haggadah so that we show up to the seder prepared with our questions and our answers. Like most ritual and religious experience, the more prep we do the more meaning we may find. It is with this in mind that I want to share with you this evening some thoughts on the content in our haggadah that we will read at our Passover seders next weekend.

I began thinking about the narrative we encounter in the haggadah after I met with a man who adamantly told me he was an atheist. “Even though I don’t believe in God, I care about Jewish tradition,” he told me.

And then he shared that Passover is his favorite holiday. In fact, it seemed to me his passion for the Passover seder was almost equal to his passion for atheism. So I asked him, “How do you relate to all the talk of God in the Passover Haggadah?” And he said to me, “Oh we just don’t make a big deal about those parts.”

I assume that he is not the only one who takes this approach. I bet many of us are more interested in spending time discussing the themes of slavery and freedom over the subject of the dominion and might of God. Themes of slavery and freedom are more tangible and more easily applied to the societal injustices we face today. Yet, if we skip over the God parts we risk not fulfilling our main obligation of the Passover seder, which is to tell the story of the Exodus. A story, where it is hard to ignore God. The biblical commandment of how to observe Passover calls on us to, “tell your child on that day, saying, ‘Because of that which God did for me when I went out from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8) According to this text God is the main protagonist, God is the mover and shaker, leaving Moses, Pharoah, the Egyptians, and the Israelites all in supporting roles.

If we were to look through our haggadah we may find that theirs is actually too much God to ignore.

The text says, “Adonai Brought Us Out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm and with great awe and with signs and wonders.” The imagery of God using God’s strong outstretched arm and strong hand is frequently repeated. God is behind the 10 plagues according to the haggadah, “These are the 10 plagues that the holy one of blessing brought upon the Egyptians of Egypt.” God is the star of one of the famous Passover songs, Dayeinu. The core message being that of God’s might. “If he had brought us out of Egypt and not brought judgment upon them…Dayeinu (it would have been enough…” You know the song…it keeps listing all the ways in with Gods help we were able to get out of Egypt and then the song expands reminding us that it would have been enough if God had given us Shabbat (dayeinu). It would have been enough if God had given us the Torah…dayeinu!

So what do our modern and perhaps skeptical minds do with these notions of God as miracle worker, God as punisher, God as mighty?

One option may be to simply say, “that was then and this is now.” God no longer reveals Godself in our world and in our time. Therefore, it is up to us to bring about redemption to those who are not yet free. Yet, when we hold that line of thinking we make the assumption that God only reveals Godself through signs and wonders and through reward and punishment. If we don’t see those things today then God must not exist, but what if divine presence and divine acts exist in different ways and what our haggadah present is how our ancestors saw and experienced God.

None of us may truly know what God is really like. We can only interpret, make assumptions, and experience. This how we as humans cope with and manage something that is ineffable. Dr. David Arnow argues that the haggadah’s, “theological polemic likely comes as a response to beliefs within and beyond Judaism that recognized the existence of more than one supernatural actor carrying out pivotal events in Jewish history.” Meaning our Exodus story was an attempt by our ancient ancestors to make sense of events that were inexplicable. They believed and were committed to the notion that God is an active God, that God had the power to shape the course of human events, and that there are times that God must act in ways that are harmful. If we see the haggadah as a recounting of our ancestors understanding of how God works in the world then the descriptors for God can be seen as metaphor. God may not have an arm and a hand, but this is the language our ancestors chose to describe God. This is how they knew how to speak about God.

So when we read the text we can view it as the mindset of those who came before us. The words of our haggadah are how they understood what happened in Egypt. Our task at the seder then is to discuss how we make sense of what they concluded about God and God’s actions. We then have the sacred opportunity to offer our own gloss just as generations of Jews have done before us.

Our Rabbinic ancestors did just this. They suggested that God is only as powerful as our willingness to acknowledge God. In a commentary on this topic they wrote, “When you are my witness, I am God, but when you are not MY witnesses, I am not God, as it were.” Or put another way, “God saves us, but acknowledgment of God provides redemption.” So imagine reading from the haggadah as witness to what happened in Egypt, as witness to the plagues, as witness to the parting of the red-sea. When we witness something it is our role to take note, to acknowledge, to be present to the events that are occurring. We are not called to pass judgment. We are just called to pay attention and in doing so perhaps we can see God in a different way. We can imagine the pain God must have felt to see God’s children, “the Israelites” enslaved. The work they endured everyday. Their powerlessness in the face of the Egyptians.

Perhaps, God felt helpless for decades until God said, “Dayeinu” and decided to intervene. We can imagine the look on God’s face when the Egyptians were drowning in the sea. Our Rabbis certainly did, and as a result wrote a midrash that says God scolded the angels who wanted to sing while the Egyptians were drowning. God cries out, “The works of My hands are downing in the sea, and you would sing in My presence!” When we go through the haggadah as witness we don’t have to judge whether it happened or it didn’t, whether God was fair or not, all we have to do is be present and experience. And in witnessing perhaps being open to seeing the many faces. God’s glory and God’s pain.

For those challenged by God in the haggadah, who identify as atheists or those who can’t make sense of an all powerful God, a punishing God, a non-compassionate God, or a God who we just can’t possibly believe could make frogs rain down from the sky there is the option to skip over the parts you don’t understand or agree with. Or you could choose to find a haggadah that meets your own personal theological needs.

However, if you don’t want to make that choice or if you feel connected to the traditional text you can wrestle with has been passed down you can choose to look at it through a new lens.

When we risk seeing God and the Passover story in new ways we leave room for the possibility of coming out of our seders with new insight …we leave room to maybe even come out as new people…changed by what we have experienced. We can be curious observers of our ancestors, analyzing their interpretation of God and how they thought to make sense of all the events that unfolded in the story. We can zoom out and act as witnesses to God as main protagonist. We can stretch our logical and intellectual minds to see what might be revealed to us. The Kotzker Rebbe teaches, “Where is God? Wherever we let God in.” May we enter Passover this year with our hearts and minds open to the retelling of our people’s journey from a narrow place to an expanded place filled with possibility.