Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Everyone is Special

A few weeks ago, I was at a popular yeshiva day school in the tri-state area. While I was there, the school was holding a “parade” to celebrate the boys’ hockey team recent victory in their league’s championship. The whole school came out to cheer the team on, as the boys were loaded onto the back of the pick-up truck. The truck was then preceded by a police officer on a motorcycle, and the team waved gleefully as “We Are The Champions” played on the loud speakers.
I completely understand the benefits of such a parade. The parade, very clearly, promoted an amazing amount of school spirit that both the team and the spectators could partake in. It was almost palpable. Winning first place is a huge triumph and the school should be proud. I can only imagine was the 3-year-olds were thinking as their own boys hockey team was paraded around by a police officer. I’m sure it made them feel proud for going to such a day school, especially at such a young age.
However, as someone who is merely sensitive to minorities within the orthodox community – what about the boys who don’t like sports? And perhaps get bullied for it? What about the few gay children who go to this school? Who might not like sports and are uncomfortable with that?
By putting the hockey boys on a pedestal, the school and community are automatically making hockey, and sports in general, elitist. Which is fine! Sports are an important facet of our society, especially within the orthodox community.
But if the model UN team won the “championship” – would they get a parade, too? If a talented, artistic student won an award for their “Best 8th Grade Painting,” would he or she be recognized as much as the hockey team was? This, of course, is just hypothetical rhetoric.
I have absolutely no problem – and in fact, I support – the hockey team’s parade. They worked hard, and the school and team deserve to bask in their pride and glory. School spirit is an important thing, and this definitely creates that feeling.
The only thing that is troublesome to me is the message this parade sends, school spirit aside. Is hockey really the only thing you can be good at to get a parade? Are sports the most elite thing you can be successful at within the orthodox community?
I recently saw the movie "Bully," which is a moving documentary currently in theaters that depicts bullying in American schools. If a child does not like sports and is uninterested in involving him/herself in them, what if he/she wants to become a thespian? Or an artist? Or the team’s manager? Not only will their successes (seemingly) not be as recognized as much as other students’ success in hockey or sports in general, but also: they are more at risk at getting bullied.
I have no proof of correlation between the parade, bullying, and un-sporty children. I only have my observations and thoughts. I’m just nervous for the future, unpopular kids; I’m nervous their achievements won’t be as recognized as those students who are recognized for their athletic talent, and I am nervous that this could, potentially, perpetuate harassment, depression, and in extreme cases (as mentioned in the film and in the media recently) – suicide.
Maybe some school administrators, one day, can think about these things, too, and help to make everyone at school feel comfortable, safe, and special – regardless of what their interests and talents are. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Spreading Knowledge and Awareness

My apologies - I’ve been struggling to find time to blog, even though my experiences and thoughts regarding my blog have been ongoing. I have much to write about, and I am planning on sharing everything scattered over the next few weeks.

I’m going to start with an event that occurred at UMD in February. I helped organized a JQY ( shabbaton at Maryland. Ten JQY members came down to campus for the shabbaton, which included three panels over the course of the weekend. On Friday night, there was a panel about “growing up frum and gay: personal narratives and Q&A.” Shabbat day included a panel titled “Orthodoxy and Homosexuality: Halacha, Community, and the Future.” Lastly, during the evening on Saturday, a final panel took place, covering issues regarding gender-identity and gender non-conformity in orthodoxy.

All in all, it was a very successful weekend. The JQY members really enjoyed the warmth and impressiveness of Maryland’s orthodox community. Additionally, the community really appreciated the panels and sharing that the JQY members did. They were greeted positively and with open arms.
JQY has done a similar shabbatonim at other Universities across America, and each one is important. For a lot of the orthodox Jews that attend secular Universities, their respective college campuses are the first exposure many of them have outside of their orthodox bubbles. It was for me and many students like me.

Through these panels and shabbatonim, JQY does two things: Firstly, and most important, they are able to impart the knowledge and awareness of the existence of homosexuality to the general student body within in the orthodox community on both a personal and objective level.

Secondly, JQY brings awareness to those few students who may be questioning their sexuality. For these students in particular, they may have never known that a community of orthodox, gay Jews exists. They may have suffered emotionally and/or felt restricted by their community. By hearing these panels and hearing the stories of several gay, orthodox individuals, some of the students learn that they are not alone; they learn that gay, orthodox Jews exist, and that they can take the necessary steps they desire to take that they may not have had the courage to take before.

There was an article written about the Friday night panel in The Mitzpeh, the Jewish newspaper of UMD.
**disclaimer: there were more than 75 people at the panel. Additionally, I feel that a lot of important information was omitted from the article**

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Be My Friend, Not Just My Shopping Buddy

Stereotype: A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. (
One could argue that our society tends to oversimplify things. We like clear, concise, and compartmentalized ideas, people, groups, and communities, etc. Thus, stereotypes exist. And people subscribe to stereotypes because it’s easier to group people or things into more umbrella categories. Shallow us? Perhaps. But in reality, it’s just the natural, judgmental tendencies of humankind.
If you identify as someone who is ethnically, racially, sexually, or religiously a minority (or some combination of these), there is likely a stereotype for you. Lucky me, I’ve had many stereotypes associated with me over the years, but most recently, of course, there is the fact that I am gay. And that’s what I wanted to dedicate this blog posting to.
You know, just because I came out of the closet and am now openly gay does not mean that I know all of Lady Gaga’s Lyrics, or that I am obsessed with RENT, or that I am a good shopper, or that I “should know these things” about fashion, or that I am up for sale as a gay best friend. Those of you who have thought this or spoken to me about this, don’t worry – you have done absolutely nothing wrong!! Our society has created these stereotypes and you have subscribed to something that is very broadly expressed in our culture.
However, I urge to look past these stereotypes just for a minute. I am more than just the stereotypical gay man and many of my true friends can tell you that. In fact, many gays lack the stereotypical labels that our culture has created for us. If those girls who just see us a gay best friends, or a shopping buddy, or someone to get fashion advice from actually got to know us and treated us like everyone else, maybe those girls could see past the stereotypes, past the negative labeling, and become true allies (True Allies!) of us gay individuals. True allies are great. They make no distinction between their straight and gay friends. And those are the individuals that don’t subscribe to stereotypes. They are rare, but they are great.
So, no. I don’t like froyo. I don’t even know who Liz Lemons is. And I have yet to have a “Wednesday Girls Night Out.” But I hope you ladies have fun. Maybe I can do your makeup before you leave? Just kidding.
This video is very humorous, but reflects this posting quite accurately:

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Boy Food

I was at an orthodox wedding a few weeks ago and noticed something very interesting. After making my way through the extensive shmorgasboard (sp?), I ventured into the “chosson’s tisch,” as per my male-y duties. It was there that I noticed a pan or two of hotdogs, hamburgers, and French fries. It hit me: why was there none of this food in the general shmorgasboard, the one intended for the woman during kabbalat panim?
I asked a few friends at the wedding why they thought such a phenomenon existed and the general understanding was that hotdogs, hamburgers and French fries are “boy food” – meaning they are less dainty than grilled Portabellos, chicken stir fry, or turkey carving stations – i.e. other, less boy-ish shmorg foods.
However inconsequential this difference in food was at the wedding, I found it perturbing. I know many a girl who enjoys eating “boy food.” Why do distinctions even exist in food? Why is food associated with gender? Why can’t boys eat dainty things and girls eat messier, meatier, and/or greasier things? My overall issue with the gendering of food relates to tradition. What it comes down to is that traditionally, men enjoy foods like hotdogs and French fries and girls have tended towards vegetables and lighter foods. But why does that need to be a case? Tradition is important, especially in religion (I know every word to Fiddler On The Roof’s musical opener). But will breaking tradition when it comes to food really upset anyone that deeply? Or cause chaos? Probably not. So let the girls eat some damn hotdogs.
My second issue with gendered food at this wedding – and this one is slightly more charif (food pun intended) – also relates to tradition. There is a heavy emphasis on tradition in Judaism (as outlined in the opening number of The Fiddler On the Roof). And for good reason, too! By being gay, however, I am intrinsically breaking tradition. So much of Judaism’s traditions base themselves upon gender, gender roles, and heterosexuality. Unfortunately, not everyone is heterosexual, and only in recent years are more and more orthodox Jews coming out as gay. In order to not only accept, but to recognize them within the orthodox community, tradition needs to be viewed differently. And we can’t start with such things as “boy food.”
I am not sure what to suggest in terms of “breaking tradition” on homosexuality in orthodox Judaism, mostly because I don’t want to get my head bitten off from angry readers, but also because I don’t yet have a flawless suggestion. Heterosexual traditions are a staple in our religion, and I am not asking to uproot those foundations. All I would like is for homosexuality to be recognized as merely existent in orthodoxy and for people in the community to respect an “untraditional” (re: gay) couple – just like they can respect a girl eating a hotdog. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Saying Nothing Really Says A Lot

Yeah, I guess I’m a little upset. Some close family and friends might think that they’re being nice and sensitive…but they’re not. They are ultimately hurting me and affecting my relationship with them.
Amongst most of my friends and fellow University students, conversations about me/homosexuality in general are open, honest, welcomed, and ubiquitous, mostly because I am the only male “out” in my respective communities and because homosexuality is tabooed in the orthodox community. And I like that. It’s a way for me to verbally express how I’m feeling and share my thoughts, but more importantly it is a way to educate other people who may be unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and/or intrigued by my situation.
However, this is (seemingly) not the case when I go elsewhere.
I was asked recently if I have experienced any outright discontent or overt hostility when I have been among close family and/or family friends since I have come out. The answer is no. But that is not a good thing.
There are different forms of acceptance when someone comes out - shunning, partial acceptance, full acceptance, full acceptance with marginalization, etc….the list goes on. When close friends and family don’t think to inquire about the coming out process, they by doing so are subscribing to not complete acceptance. And I know it. And I can feel it. And it hurts me.
By inquiring about anything related to my coming out process, or being gay, or being orthodox, or being both gay and orthodox, you are intrinsically showing you care. When you don’t ask, you are ostensibly showing me that you don’t fully accept who I am or what I stand for.
I welcome conversations about any related topic. And not for me! For all of you close family and friends who haven't yet showed me that you care. If you really care and desire to accept me, show me that you do. Ask questions. Inquire. Even if you don’t agree with my decisions or lifestyle – talk about it anyway so we can have an intellectual conversation about it.
So for my family and family friends and friends of who thought that by merely ignoring the very apparent issue at hand was a good idea, it wasn’t. You have hurt me, marginalized me, and have shown no outright acceptance of me.
I implore all of you to ask. Show interest. By doing so, you will show me that you really care.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Orthodox and Gay: A Cliche

It was my bar-mitzvah torah portion a few weeks ago. It has been 8 years since the big celebration at age 13, but I have yet to miss a year in which I don’t re-read it for a congregation. I continued reading it in high school, I read it in Israel, and I have read for 3 years in college. I really enjoy laining (reading from the torah) and I have been told that I am pretty good at it.
Not to be cliché or anything, but I really sensed a nice coalescence of Orthodox Judaism and homosexuality while I was laining a few weeks ago. As most ba’alei koreh (torah readers) do, I used a yad (pointer) while reading. As I was pointing to each word with the yad extended from my right hand, I noticed my pride bracelet on the same arm. A pride bracelet, for those who don’t know, is simply a rainbow-colored rubber bracelet that represents unity, pride, shared values, and allegiance to other LGBT individuals. The rainbow symbolism also communicates ideas, concepts and identity both within our LGBT community and to other mainstream cultures. I have been wearing one since this summer.
Anyways, my reading of the torah that week reminded me of my grounding in Judaism. Yes, I have realized my sexuality this past year and have come out as a gay, Orthodox Jew. And as much as I have altered my identity or inculcated certain values and ideologies into my life – my origins haven’t change. I’m the same Sam, the same Jew, and the same great lainer that I have always been. I am gay, yes, but I am also a Jew and I am attempting to create a balance between the two seemingly conflicting ideologies. This pride-bracelet-while-reading-the-torah incident was just a personal reminder of that, and I wanted to share it with all of you. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Blast from the Past

I was born and raised in Baltimore, MD. Although I have moved to College Park, Maryland to attend college, I still mentally consider Baltimore my hometown and colloquially refer to it as “home.” So, a few Sundays ago, I went home.

I went home to attend a friend’s wedding. I didn’t think much of this wedding; it was after a long, hard week at school and after a rather fun 21st birthday weekend, so until I actually changed into my suit and arrived at the wedding hall, I didn’t think twice about it. Once I was there, however, new thoughts and manifestations started forming in mind. There are two separate things I want to discuss about this wedding: firstly, being “out” at a public event in my hometown, and secondly, my thoughts on the wedding itself.

The bottom line was - this was the first public occasion I was at in my hometown after coming out. Truthfully, although I only go to school less than an hour from home, I really don’t go home that often. Aside from holidays and the occasional “dinner with dad” evenings, I can say I go home roughly three times each semester. And, during many of those times, I only go to my physical house – i.e. I don’t wander around the streets of Baltimore, have many social run-ins at the kosher supermarket or at the local restaurants, and when I do go to shul (re: synogogue), I tend to stick with my three of four friends who are there that day. So, I haven’t really seen the parents, families, and acquaintances who know me from the community as a child. Yet, as soon as I walked into the 500-guest wedding, my childhood raced past me in a blur or colors. A very surreal blur of colors. Old teachers, moms, Rabbis, friends, peers, family friends – they all popped back into my now-gay life. I wasn’t sure how to handle them. Can I assume they know? Do I bring it up in conversation? Should I fake who I am just because I am back in the community I was closeted in for over 20 years? I couldn’t make an objective decision myself during the socializing time, so thank G-d I had a few friends from Maryland who were there; friends who know me, accept me, and socialize with me on a regular basis.

Mingling with the Baltimore orthodox community again was both anxiety producing and intriguing at the same time. I kept seeing people who I wanted to avoid, making a make-shift list in my head, and ducking behind waiters and carving stations to escape their barraging questions and fake “how are you?!s.” It was intriguing because since I left Baltimore over three years ago, I hadn’t publically socialized in such a large, social setting. The people I grew up with are frummer (more religious) than I remembered. Is her neckline really that high? Did she always cover her hair? Why does she look so damn frafrumpt (ridiculously religious)? While it was intriguing to internalize that either my community got more religious or that I forgot how religious my community was, it was also really difficult. Difficult, because I knew that my true identity would not be so easily accepted – publically - by a lot of people in this community. Obviously there are those who do love me and accept me - but definitely not the majority of the overall Baltimore community. I am so lucky to have amazing friends and a rather open-minded community on the University of Maryland campus. I guess I forgot how religious other communities might be, and as such, how close-minded/potentially unaccepting they might be, too.

Although difficult to internalize, it gave me more strength (cliché, I know, but so true!). I was reminded that this open-minded bliss that exists here on campus might not be the bliss I find myself in once I leave here. Granted, many communities (Jewish ones, too!) have come a long way and are being more accepting, but my 4-hour excursion back to Baltimore reawakened me like a really strong cup of coffee on a Monday afternoon. I need to be prepared to deal with the challenges that may continue to face me even though I’ve come out and have been out for over 8 months now.

On another note, this was the first wedding I had been to since I have come out. Lots of hard, emotional questions manifested during the ceremonies. Will this ever happen to me? Who will walk down first? Will my parents walk me down my aisle? Will my to-be-spouse’s parents walk him down the aisle? Will there even be an aisle? Will there even be a ceremony? What kind of Jewish ceremony can happen at a gay wedding? Forget religion for a moment – will I even be able to get legally married in the state that I want to be in? Will my federal government, who preaches “all men are created equal” and “every person has the inalienable right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” ever legitimize and recognize my marriage? Will my family ever recognize my marriage? What about my dear friends in the Baltimore community? I understand that I have chosen to live a life that attempts to bridge orthodoxy/orthodox culture and being gay, and that is a tough balance to create - but will there be any place for me when it comes time to marry?

I know what the answer is: there is no right or wrong answer (for now). This is the first generation, really, where orthodox gays are finally coming out and attempting to live their lives. Most of these questions haven’t been answered yet, and I think time will only tell for a lot of them.

Mazel Tov, Mazel Tov.