Sunday, March 2, 2008

Jewish Or Not...Lesbian Or Not

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

Realistic Appearance and Apparent Reality

This weekend, I read an article in the Sunday "New York Times" magazine, that focused on how particularly Jewish-American immigrants in Israel need to prove their Jewish identity when they wish to marry there, since marriage is overseen by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, rather than by the government.

Yesterday, a friend told me that he felt somehow Jewish, though to his knowledge, he came from a family that even had its own crest. I woke up this morning, thinking of a Yiddish expression I've heard my mom use: the "pintele Yid" (the "Jewish spark"). She always applied it to reluctant Jews, who somehow seemed to be drawn back to their heritage in later-life. This was not the case for my friend, but still, it reminded me of the attraction my mom spoke of.

This afternoon, one of my mother's long-time, actively, culturally Jewish friends, who she hadn't seen in some time -- and who I hadn't seen in years -- said that her daughter had been with her female partner for 25 years and yet unlike me, the daughter had not yet wanted to be affiliated with any Jewish community [due to the Orthodox rejection of her as a lesbian]. "I need to work on her," she said.

"For me, I think I was nostalgic for the tunes and rituals I learned in [Modern Orthodox Jewish] school and so I couldn't stay away," I said.

Telling me goodbye, she said a bit urgently, it seemed, perhaps, in case we never saw each other again, "You look well and should stay well. I'm in the forefront of gay marriage activism [at nearly 90 years old]."

I kissed her cheek in response and said, "Thank you for your leadership."

If she didn't declare it, no one would know of her activism just by looking at her. And perhaps no one would know her daughter was a lesbian if her daughter didn't tell them explicitly; I had no recollection of "gaydar" [rhymes with radar and means being able to sense when someone is gay] being triggered in me by any of her children. No one would know about my Christian friend's paradoxical pintele Yid either, unless he told them.

When I worked in Schaumburg, Illinois, for the technology arm of Sears, Roebuck & Co., one of my colleagues wanted to know how it was possible that I was Jewish, since I had blue eyes.

I wrote about this here before, I think, but I responded, "Both of my parents have blue eyes; Russia, where both sides of my family are from originally, had a lot of pogroms, where soldiers pillaged Jewish villages, so maybe they're from that time; I don't know...."

What if I weren't really Jewish?

How ironic! During the era of the Holocaust, people had to prove they were not Jewish and today, in Israel, they had to prove they were. What a strange sensation -- to be worried that anyone would ever challenge the veracity of my Jewish identity, and what a luxury, I guess, compared with the danger my people had been in at various times historically, where they would have been happy to pass as non-Jews.

Blue eyes and tall height aside, growing up, I did always feel that people, who had met other Jews, and who did not yet know my name, which is a giveaway, wouldn't be surprised to learn that I was Jewish. (In my experience, the majority of Jews I have known have not been particularly tall or blue-eyed.)

My parents reinforced the identity so much that it never was a question for me until my colleague challenged me at work. And then, I provided a flippant, yet perhaps realistic, answer.

Fierce Pride

Just as my parents nurtured me to be proud of my Jewish identity, I nurtured myself -- with the help of the gay, lesbian, bi and trans (GLBT) community -- to be proud of my lesbian identity. And that identity got challenged a bit more often, oddly, since I felt, also, that I did not pass as heterosexual. My mother had a colleague, for example -- a fellow art collector, who was in his eighties -- who told me even after meeting Pat, "If I were 20 years younger, I'd woo you."

I just looked at him incredulously.

Today, I saw him again, a few years later and he said, "You're looking as beautiful as ever. Where's your partner?"

"She's not interested in the topic of the lecture."

"You're still together, though?"

"Yes, for nearly 16 years so far."

"That's longer than I was married to either of my wives."

I smiled at him and kept walking.

In the same edition of "The New York Times," this weekend, I read that "Tootsie" and "Some Like It Hot," both of which were films about men, posing as women, were deemed the top two funniest films of all time.

What was it about people, watching people, being fooled by mistaken identity that was so ultimately entertaining?

Why was it hilarious as fiction, but in reality, depending on the era, at a minimum unbelievable and at worst, highly dangerous? And how could my pride have been anything other than fierce with the challenging histories that the Jews and the GLBT communities have had?

Over the years, a number of people asked me why I was so earnest, particularly around role-modeling. Last week, I was asked again after saying that although it was a lot of pressure, I tried to be exemplary as often as I could....Now, I did not define what I meant by "exemplary," which when I considered it further, mostly meant, striving to be authentic; in any case, a black colleague asked me, "Doesn't that get exhausting?"

I wanted to respond, but did not: "I can't believe you can't relate. As someone from an historically-underrepresented group, I would think you'd understand the aspiration to be a leader despite your minority status, along with the importance of making it, so that the next generation of your people could see hope of success by your example."

Perhaps, I was just extra-conscious of my identity compared to most people....

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