This is about my queer Jewish journey, so I will start with the fact that I have two moms. I was raised in Buffalo, New York, with two moms, one being Jewish and one not Jewish; my biological mother is Jewish. I was raised in a Reconstructionist household, but I went to a Conservative Jewish day school because it was the best education available in Buffalo at the time, and my mom wanted me to have a Jewish education. And for my non-Jewish mother, Linda, because it was very important to Jesse that we were raised in a Jewish household, it was important to her as well, and so Linda and Jesse sent us to day school.
At that time, I had no sense of my own gender identity, no sense of my own sexuality, but I knew very well what people thought of my parents. I can remember one class specifically, we were talking about Shabbat, and whose job it was to say Kiddush, the blessing over the wine. They brought in community rabbis as teachers, and the rabbi was going on about how the father, the husband, the man has to say the Kiddush and that the woman does the candle lighting. So I put up my hand—I think I was in sixth grade—and my whole class, it was a class of twelve, they knew me very well, we’d been together since Kindergarten, so they knew my family, though he did not—I put up my hand and I said, “Well in my family we don’t have a father, and so my mother says Kiddush every Friday night.”
And he kind of looked at me, he was uncertain as to what to do. I said, “I have two moms, and my mother says Kiddush.” Then we went into this whole conversation about how homosexuality was a sin against the Torah and you couldn’t have a place in the world to come—it was a whole big to-do. And I was just sitting there, unsure of exactly what to do with this. And I said, “So what are you saying about my parents?” I mean this is my household, this is my Jewish home. He cut off the conversation, I think, before it got more awkward and painful. But little things like that happened at day school, where I was constantly made aware that my family situation was not standard and was not wholly accepted. And so, before I had a concept of my own identity, there was this tension in school between sexuality and religion.
Now in synagogue, that tension was never made apparent to me. I went to a Reconstructionist synagogue in Buffalo, to Temple Sinai. I grew up there my whole life, and there my family was accepted no problem. My family was the odd family, but they didn’t care. So in shul, in temple, it wasn’t an issue, it was never apparent to me, but when I first got to Kadimah, I was the only kid with out queer parents, I was pretty much the diversity case of the school. And then four years later my sister joined me, and then many years after that other kids from my family’s social circle joined. But I was the first, and I was alone for four years.
So that was the first time, and I just remember thinking to myself, you know, “Obviously this isn’t okay in every circle.” Being queer, being lesbian, is not okay in every Jewish community.
I was a late bloomer in terms of sexuality: hadn’t thought about it for almost all of adolescence, I didn’t care, I wanted to play sports, other people didn’t interest me at all. So it was towards the end of high school when I started to really realize, "Oh wait, I do care about other people in a sexual attraction way." And then, it was not a hard decision, I didn’t really struggle with who I felt attracted to. I first used the work “dyke” because I didn’t have any other language. And when I grew up, I had all these really powerful, political, strong women around me who were all dykes, and so I thought dyke was clearly the best thing that you could be, and that was the best word. I was going to be a dyke, and that worked really well for a while. And it wasn’t something that clashed with my faith because I didn’t bring it into faith community. At the temple I grew up in as a kid, everyone still saw me as the child I had been my whole life, and so the idea of me having a sexuality was not really present there, until I went to college.
I went to Brandeis because my mother told me to, and also because it was a Jewish college. Within my first year there I got language like “queer,” like “genderqueer,” like “trans.” My language around my identity completely shifted to “queer” and “genderqueer” by the end of freshman year of college. For me, my gender identity is fluid. I don’t identify as a man, I don’t identify as a woman. Some days you can find me prancing around in a prom dress, and other times I will be binding and I will be really trying very hard just to blend in with whatever masculine crowd I’m around, and it changes daily. And I prefer no pronouns, but nobody can really do that, so I accept female pronouns because it’s easier and it’s less of a fight for me, but ideally I wouldn’t have any. In a way, I’m kind of in a closet, because it’s just a fight I just don’t have the energy to have most days.
I tried going to Jewish communal spaces at Brandeis. They didn’t have Reconstructionist services at the time, and I wasn’t interested in Reform services because I wanted more Hebrew in my service, so I went to Conservative services. And I showed up in a huge tie-dye, floor-length rainbow skirt. I might’ve had a mohawk at the time, I definitely had a lip ring, and I was essentially cold-shouldered the entire service. People looked and me and blatantly looked away. The more I prayed, I feel like, the more uncomfortable they got. I'd been raised in a Conservative day school, I knew all of the prayers, the liturgy was very well-known to me. The more I expressed knowledge, the more uncomfortable people got. I think if I had been a completely clueless kid who just wandered in, they would’ve been happier about it, but I knew what I was doing and that seemed to make them very uncomfortable. I did that twice, and then I never went back, because it was the same experience both times. At the end when people were saying, “Good shabbos,” no one even looked at me. I was just sitting there being like, “This is so awkward, and so not Jewish.”
So in college I didn’t really have a Jewish identity that was communal. I really focused a lot on my gender identity and my queer identity and figuring out what that meant for me, and where that put me. I kept my religion at my house, and then everywhere else I was the queer trans rugby player. And it was lonely, it was really lonely.
When I got out of Brandeis after four years, and the rugby was done, and the pace of undergrad was done, and everything had kind of calmed down, I just realized how much I missed Judaism, and how much I missed having a community. I came back to Buffalo for my master’s in social work, and the first thing I did when I got home was go back to my childhood synagogue. The very first thing I did as soon as I got back was to go to shul. And I joined as a single person a few months later, and I went every Friday night from then on, through the rest of grad school. And it was wonderful, it was really nice to have that sense of community again, though I was still not, I mean I wasn’t broaching these topics outright.
My partner Ethan is a trans person, a non-passing trans person. He’s also Jewish, but largely started exploring his Jewish identity around the time we met. His father’s Jewish, his mother’s not, and he wasn’t raised with a lot of culture in terms of Judaism. So I started taking him to shul with me when he would visit and he wanted to come. So at shul they knew who my partner was, but I’m pretty sure they thought we were lesbians. I’m pretty sure most of them still think we are lesbians. And that was something we were trying to navigate—his comfort, my comfort, what do we tell all these people? The rabbi knew—we spoke with him and Ethan was taking classes with him, and he actually married us so we could get health insurance in New York, so he knew—but the majority of the synagogue probably thought that we’re nice lesbians… probably still think that. Which is not ideal, but also, how much do I want to do? I mean, I’m going to shul to pray, and do I really want to have those conversations when I’m trying to be in a spiritual state of mind? Not always. It’s an old congregation, like I said these people knew me from the time I was baby, they knew my parents. I think it would be logical for them to assume that Jessie and Linda’s daughter, which is the language they would use, grew up to be a lesbian like her mothers. I’m sure that completely makes sense, I can kind of see how that would make sense, but it’s completely incorrect.
But nonetheless, we were welcomed. They welcomed me back like I was coming home, they welcomed Ethan as my partner, no problems. Like I said, they welcomed us under slightly false pretenses, but it was wonderful. It was really wonderful. I felt finally I was home, Jewishly. During grad school in Buffalo there really wasn’t a very big active queer/trans community that I could find or tap in to, and, as I’ve been switching off communities my whole life, in grad school I had the Jewish community that I wanted, but the queer/trans community was lacking.
What really changed everything, and started me on the path to where I am now, in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where for the first time in my life I actually feel whole in terms of these two parts of my identity, was a string of deaths, and then a mind-blowing spiritual awakening.
In the very end of my first year of grad school, my great-aunt passed away. She was a huge presence within my Jewish identity, she was always asking about Judaism, and she was just a wonderful, beautiful person. So there was that loss, and then the first day of my second year, my grandmother died. It was literally the first day. And the cantor for my childhood synagogue, Susan Wehle had been on the plane that had downed in Clarence, around Buffalo, and so she also died in that two-year span of grad school. She had bat mitzvahed me, she was a very close family friend, she had been at my parents' wedding when they got married in my Freshman year of college, she had said prayers and done songs for them. She was an incredibly beautiful person with a gift for facilitating people’s connecting to the divine. The whole Buffalo community was devastated.
And so, I was in a state. Everyone was just dropping dead, and I was miserable in social work school. I went to social work school to have deep, meaningful connections in which I could help people empower themselves, and I also felt like I was spending every day defending my gender identity. I was in a horrible state.
The year after Susan’s death, my old rabbi was going to lead a healing service for the whole community, because the whole community was still grieving. We all pretty much know each other in Buffalo, the liberal Jews, there’s not that many of us. So I’m in this room with people that I’ve seen my whole life that I know to varying degrees, we’re all sitting in chairs in a big circle, Rabbi Jamie Arnold is playing the guitar, and we start chanting, “Ana el na rafa na la,” which is what Moses says to God when he asks god to heal Miriam when she gets tsara'ath, or leprosy, after she’s supposedly gossiping about his wife; it has become a prayer for healing, a plea for healing that is used in many spiritual, religious circles in different parts of liberal Judaism.
So we’re chanting, and we’re chanting, and he’s playing the guitar, and he says, you know, if anybody wants to share what they’re praying for, or who they’re praying for, feel free to stand up, and you can share. And at first everyone’s kind of just looking at each other. We all know each other, but it doesn’t feel communal, it feels like parallel play. But then, one by one, you know, one person gets up and says something, and then somebody else gets up. And the things that people were sharing, some of them were devastating, all of these horrible, painful things. And one by one, as more people shared, you could feel the room change. And it seemed that people started to realize that we were all individuals who had the same world around them. I mean, when I go through my daily life, I’m thinking about all the things that vex me, that trouble me, that weight on me, it’s all about me. I can see other people, and it’s easy to forget that those people have that same swirl of things around them. And to see that all of these people were experiencing these great painful moments and to see their strength and their beauty, and to realize that we are all literally in the same position, just in different ways—it was mind-blowing.
Communal prayer, I’d never experienced it before, I didn’t understand it—intellectually maybe, I mean I’d gone to Yom Kippur services my whole life, but never did I feel like we were praying as one. But by the end of that service, we were. The whole room had changed. People were looking at each other differently. It was overwhelming, and by the end of that service, the only thing I could think of was that I needed to be a rabbi so that I could do that.
I applied to RRC, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. It was the only school I applied to. If I was going to go to Rabbinical college, that’s where I was going to go. And on their website in terms of identities that were protected, they listed gender identity and expression and sexual orientation, and I felt from the get-go that that was extraordinary for a Jewish institution, but I didn’t understand how extraordinary until I got there. I rolled up for open house, and a number of cars had rainbow stickers on the back, and I was just thinking to myself, "Is this the Rabbinical college? Did I miss it? There are that many openly queer or queer supportive people?"
And I walk in, and there was at least one other gender non-conforming person at the open house with me (who identified themselves that way), there were a number of openly queer faculty members, there was a number of openly queer students who were there talking with us. I was kinda just thinking, maybe they’re doing this for open house? Maybe they brought out the diversity elements to make us feel comfortable? I had never been in a Jewish space where I could be wholly Jewish and wholly queer, it had just never happened, I had always had to pick. And depending on my needs, depending on the space, depending on safety, I picked. For twenty-five years, that had never happened in my life where I had been able to be, at least in those two aspects of my life, wholly present. And so I was blown away. I fell in love with the school, I applied, and when I got in and I showed up, I realized it wasn’t just like a gimmick for open house.
When Transgender Day of Remembrance came around—in trans spaces, my experiences have typically fallen into two categories: hostile to faith, or overwhelmingly Christian. There’s sometimes a hostility towards faith because so many people have been rejected. People can’t wrap their heads around how you could maintain faith when they’ve been thrown out of families, out of churches, out of synagogues, out of everything else. So people don’t want to talk about your belief in God—sometimes they’d rather bash God, , but they don’t want to talk about how you feel connected to a god or to a divine power. And so a lot of Transgender Days of Remembrance that I have been to have either been heavily Christian, or they’ve been somewhat hostile towards religion. But I had never been in a space where there was any kind of real acknowledgement of Jewish presence, or Jewish trans people, or any connection to that kind of faith (or any other faiths). [That year] two other students at RRC led morning prayers, and it was all themed around the Transgender Day of Remembrance. And I’m not somebody who tends to get emotional in public, that’s not something I enjoy, and I was weeping the entire time. I had never in my life been able to hold those two things at once. Ever. And it was the first time that it had ever happened. And it was absolutely—it was mind-blowing.
I have no issues, my identities are not in conflict inside of me. I don’t have any questions as to whether or not you can be trans or queer or gay or lesbian or whatever else you may be, and be a person of faith. I don’t believe in a supernatural God; I believe all humans are created as humans, and are inherently equal in that. I do not believe that the Bible condemns in an all-encompassing way any kind of queer or gay identity. For me the Bible is a product of its time, it is created by human hands. I understand it very much as a historical document, and I understand that there were things in that time period that they found problematic that we don’t. And there are things that we find problematic in their time period that they did not. So for me there’s no conflict. But it’s been really hard to find a space in which that comfort and melding of identities can exist outside of me, and RRC is the only place in which I can say that has really fully happened.
I’m not conflicted, it’s the outside world.
Eventually, when I graduate, I want to be a congregational rabbi. I need a community that’s going to accept not just me, but my partner and my family, and I’m not interested in having a community in which I have to lie.
In the broader Jewish community, how will I get a job if I don’t hide this part of myself? I have no idea. My two jobs this past year have no idea of my identity either way, gender or sexuality. My job for next year, I don’t know what my supervisor has assumed about me, but I’ve mentioned my partner and I’ve gendered him, so I’m assuming she thinks I’m a heterosexual woman. I have not challenged that. I need a job, and I need experience, and I want to do this work. So maybe… maybe I’m being too pessimistic and I could tell her, but if I do, and I lose that job, then I’ve lost a job, and now I don’t have a job or an income anymore. I’m not necessarily willing to do that. I can play along for a year, and maybe some point in the year when we’re close and I know her, I’ll be like, ‘by the way, I’m not a woman, and I’m not straight, just so you know!’
Like, for Passover, this past year, I was leading a Passover Seder, and my boss said, you know, “is your family going to be around?” And I said yes, my family is going to be around. It’s easier when you can use a gender-neutral word like “family,” because my family is two mothers but she didn’t know that. And she said, “Oh, we would love if they would come.” And I was like, Okay. “Oh and your partner, you should bring him too.” And I thought, oh my goodness, when my two moms and my partner roll up, this retirement community is going to hit the roof. Thankfully—well—in a way thankfully, for him and for me, my partner couldn’t make it. And it’s horrible to say thankfully, because that’s ridiculous. I want him to be fully present in my life, and he wants to be fully present in my life, but it was easier for all of us that he wasn’t there, I’m convinced of that. And terribly saddened.
But my mothers came. I hadn’t prepped anybody, I’m not gonna prep you for my family. You want my family, my family shows up, this is what you get. So my moms showed up, and for a little while the language was, “This is Rayna’s mother and her mother’s friend.” And I kept on saying, “This is my mother Jesse, this is my mother Linda, these are my moms.” I mean they’ve raised me, Linda was in my life before I was born, Linda’s been there all these years, they have been together my whole life, these are the only parents I have ever known and they’ve been together my whole life, and are wonderful amazing and incredible parents. By the end of it, people had kind of—it had worked out well. But it was massively anxiety-producing. And the whole night I was kind of just trying to read faces, like, am I going to be well accepted when I come back next month to do Shabbos? You know, what are people going to say?
For me, I think, coming to my queer identity, experiencing queer life, processing all of that, has made me more sensitive to those on the margins of community: who’s not at the table, who’s not speaking, who’s not invited. Who is looking down at the floor when they’re breaking up the room in a certain way, who’s trying to not be seen? I’ve been that person so many times, and going through that in Jewish spaces, it has given me an awareness, which is really wonderful.
Being in Jewish spaces has really given me this strong desire to want community. I don’t trust community, I feel like I haven’t found many communities, but I want one.
I feel like I’ve gained skills and positions from both of these parts of myself, but, outside of very hand-picked groups, I don’t know how to put them together functionally. And I know that this is not unique to me.
This text is condensed and edited from a Queerituality conversation Rayna Grossman recorded on June 16, 2013, in Philadelphia, Pa. Thanks to Arch Street United Methodist Church for allowing us space to record, and to Haley for transcribing.