Experience Is To Be Lived

Reflections on life as a [relatively privileged] minority status collector


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Navigating life as a Jew-bi

It’s been a busy year since I last posted around Bi Visibility Day last year, and it feels right to pause and take stock on a year of activism in the bi community and reflect on how far Bi Pride UK has come in that time, but what’s really prompting this blog post is a bizarre gut ache of FOMO and nostalgia I got a few days ago while listening to some cheesy Rosh Hashanah-themed a capella in the office while a lot of people I know were in various places, celebrating the Jewish New Year in various ways.

Hard for me to believe, but it’s been about three and a half years since the night many things came to a head and I went ‘nope’ to the Modern Orthodox Judaism in which I was raised. The tale I’ve been telling over the years is that I finally let myself explore the hidden part of my identity, and then when I found Jewish LGBT spaces through organisations like Keshet UK, I was at last able to find a way to reconcile the two sides of my identity and live as one whole self.

I call bullshit.

There are many things to be said for the Jewish side of my identity over the last three and a half years, but ‘whole’ or ‘complete’ do not feature. I’ve used this ‘Jewish’ identifier in a loose sense, but when pushed, and I mean really pushed, I’ve got no idea what that’s really meant to me. I’ve sometimes described myself as ‘historically Jewish,’ by which I’ve meant my Jewish identity derives from an appreciation of and identification with the historical context from which I come (both in terms of the formative experiences I had when I was young and in terms of my ancestors and family tree), but that doesn’t get away from the fact that the very term ‘historically’ anything puts something into the past and removes it from the present.

There are many things to be said for the Jewish side of my identity over the last three and a half years, but ‘whole’ or ‘complete’ do not feature.

So what does it mean to me to be Jewish? I’m going to set that question to the side for the moment, and explore the other side of things: my bi identity.

Looking back through my past, I can identify many very different chapters in my life with regards to my sexual and romantic orientations, and I kind of wish that it could have just carried on the way it began, but society and heteronormativity are always on hand to mess things up.

I’m pretty sure that as a young child, I had crushes on both boys and girls, but I never thought about the crushes on girls as crushes, because I didn’t realise that was possible. I can think of at least two or three girls I had some kind of stronger feelings or connection to by the time I left primary school, though.

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Anne Shirley and Diana Barry – bosom friends, whatever that means

As a child, I think my sense of what a friendship or relationship with other girls could be was heavily influenced by two Annes: Anne Shirley (of Anne of Green Gables), and Anne Frank (of the Diary). The way that these two girls interacted with their female friends was passionate, close and all-in, and that was the kind of friendships that I sought for myself, hoping to emulate the feelings that I could read in these books. I hadn’t realised how influential these two figures were on my childhood until recently, when I read various articles which explore the possibility that both Anne Shirley and Anne Frank might be or have been less straight than the world has implicitly tried to categorise them.

Now, I don’t agree with force-labelling people as bi, and I don’t think it’s right to apply a label to someone (fictional or real) that they didn’t use themselves, especially given that both narratives exist in very different contexts to the modern world and its much more public conversations about sexuality and romantic attraction beyond the heteronormative. What I cannot deny, though, is that the ways that these girls interacted with other girls (as well as with boys) is something I wanted deeply. And with a few girls, although I didn’t have the language or framework to articulate it, I wanted that all-consuming ‘we only have eyes for each other’ friendship. Looking back from where I am now, that screams ‘crush’ to me.

As I got a bit older, and puberty kicked in, there was some point at which I realised that I was fascinated with the assigned-female-at-birth body. Everyone I saw around me, though, was doing love, marriage and babies in a hetero way, or else there were people called gay or lesbian who did the opposite, and I liked boys enough to know I wasn’t one of them. This was probably the first real inkling I had that there was something else going on, but because I didn’t have the language or the framework, I concluded that I must just be a pervert, and I needed to train myself out of these feelings and urges. I tried several different things – reward, punishment, exaggerated fixation on boys – but nothing worked, and I hated myself for it.

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Bench Crew love ❤

In my mid-teens, I found a group of people who changed my life in many ways. They were the first real group of friends I’d had at school, and they accepted me for who I was, with no back-stabbing, no rumour spreading and no bullying. The fact that many of them identified as gay or bi probably helped, but that wasn’t what brought me in (because, honestly, I had a huge amount of internalised biphobia, and some of the things I said at the time about bi people in other contexts I’m still ashamed of). What it gave me, though, was the first space in which I could safely begin to explore my identity and feelings, and it gave me the confidence to start experimenting with the label ‘bi-curious,’ which was just a way for me to express something of how I’d possibly been experiencing attraction.

If the story ended here, that would be wonderful, but of course it didn’t. There were people beyond that space who teased me for my label, first and foremost the boyfriend I had at the time. It’s amazing how easy it is to let the world around you push you down and make you conform. I had a heteronormative long-term boyfriend, and I was a religious Jew, and I was headed towards the marriage and babies thing, and I was neither equipped nor prepared to entertain anything beyond that, because if I did, things would start to unravel. This was my life and I was signed up for the long haul.

It’s amazing how easy it is to let the world around you push you down and make you conform.

It took until my final year of university for anything to change again. The previous nearly 4-year relationship had ended in the summer after first year, my world had fallen apart and begun to rebuild after Mummy died in second year, and I was back in the dating game, looking for marriage as soon as possible please because I needed something which would allow me to ignore the raw ache where my mother had been and make me ‘whole’ again. It was during this period of time that some of the Jewish student activism I was doing at university lead me to work more closely with the Pride society, and that lead to reading and researching and eventually to a late-night conversation with a new friend, and finally I was there: I knew that I was bi, and that my identity was a real and valid thing, and I was ready to say so.

What I wasn’t ready to do was allow this ‘new’ identity to change my life in any way. Yes, I was bi, but that didn’t mean anything was going to change about my relationships. I was still looking for marriage, and that meant finding a man. The man I was dating at the time turned out not to be the right man (lovely as he was), but nevertheless, a woman would not fit the life-plan I had carved out for myself (heavily influenced by the religious Jewish world I had chosen to be part of), and so a man it must be, regardless of my sexuality.

My first kiss with a woman was about 6 months after I came out. I was still religious at the time, and it was very much a drunken ‘I’ve never actually kissed a woman before,’ ‘oh, ok, let’s change that’ jokey kind of situation. What it led to, though, was me spending a lot of mental energy and time trying to work out why that kiss would be considered so much worse by so many people and by some religious perspectives just because the lips belonged to someone who identified as a woman rather than as a man, and had breasts and a vagina rather than a penis. I mean, it was just a kiss, right? Why does it matter who the person is?

It was another 6 months or so before things came to a head, and the homophobia (and occasional biphobia) I was seeing in the Jewish community I’d chosen to be a part of, combined with some theological stuff I was grappling with internally, made me go ‘nope.’ Overnight I decided that it was time for me to start exploring what Judaism meant to me without external influences, and time for me to stop suppressing the part of my identity I hadn’t even acknowledged until a year beforehand. What it led to was a prolonged period of going out of my way to be and do things that I’d never been able to before, and no small measure of feeling like ‘such a rebel’ (whilst simultaneously having a little voice saying ‘if you were still religious and cared, you’d totally be in cherem [sort of the Jewish version of excommunication] right now’). In truth, most of the last three and a half years has been about actively pushing Judaism away and wanting little or nothing to do with it.

In truth, most of the last three and a half years has been about actively pushing Judaism away and wanting little or nothing to do with it.

So why am I sharing this detailed and protracted account of my coming to terms with my bi identity in this context? It’s a painful thing to write and lay out in front of people, and it’s probably pretty painful for people who know me to read as well, especially those people who might have known me in any of the different ‘stages’ of my life without knowing what was going on inside. But I think it’s essential to understanding why, when I finally worked out who I was and the context I was in wasn’t allowing me to be that person fully, I had to break free and be true to myself. For my own peace of mind. For self-honesty. For my personal safety.

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The Keshet UK banner at Pride in London 2014

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found other LGBT Jews, and even got involved a bit with that world. Using the ‘Jewish’ label for myself in that context, I’ve told myself and others that I’d found my way to be both Jewish and bi. Being intellectually and emotionally honest, though, I’ve not. I’ve found the way to be bi with a suppressed Jewishness. In the same way that when I realised I was bi, I accepted it with the caveat of ‘but I’ll only date men,’ my relationship with Judaism since leaving religious practice has been ‘I’ll use the label, but only because it’s something that’s interesting about me, not because it’s something that I make an important part of my life.’

My relationship with Judaism has had quite a lot of fluctuations over the years, as I’ve talked about a bit in other blog posts, but the potted summary is that my family gradually became more religious through my childhood, and then through Bnei Akiva, a more religious youth movement I joined in my early teens, I became more religious still. There was a fairly constant pattern of having periods of time where I would go much more religious (‘flip out’, in the community lingo) before returning to some kind of baseline which was usually slightly more observant than I’d previously been. That all changed, of course, when I made a decision to leave that life behind and focus on shucking anything that didn’t have direct significance for me. It turned out that very little of Jewish practice actually held any real, non-performative significance to me.

And now we’re back in the present. Nostalgia and FOMO about the Jews I know off doing Rosh Hashanah things. Thinking about the fact that tonight/tomorrow is Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in a way which isn’t just ‘…and I’m going to eat consciously all day knowing that it’s against what I was brought up doing.’ Planning to go to shul (synagogue) voluntarily tomorrow, even if just for Yizkor (the memorial service for dead relatives bit). So I return to the question: what does it mean to me to be Jewish?

I can think of a few answers off the top of my head. The core principles of tzedakah (charity), chesed (kindness) and living in consciousness of the needs of others are really important to me, and I try to do what I can for other people when energy allows for it. Knowing that, as a Jew, I share things with my ancestors, even across temporal and physical distance, and that there are things which are constant through me, back to my parents, their parents, their grandparents, feels enormously powerful. Hearing Hebrew being spoken or sung gives me an involuntary feeling of connection and evokes a strong emotional response in me. I love listening to the music of my Ashkenazi upbringing and Modern Orthodox/dati leumi teenage years, even if some of it is of questionable musical quality; it makes me feel things which I can’t sum up in words. And yes, I love being able to understand Jewish in-jokes and self-deprecating humour, and groan at the really awful puns!

You can be born Jewish, but actually being Jewish is a choice, and I think that’s something I might now be ready to explore and try again.

All of these things are probably valid, but I think there’s only one answer right now which really matters. What does it mean to me to be Jewish? It is choosing to identify in that way, and meaning it. Yes, I was ‘born Jewish’ because my mother was Jewish, but when I stopped practicing, I pushed away the bit where I meant what I was saying. I would tell people I was Jewish, but I would qualify that with ‘because that’s the way I was born and brought up and that’s influenced me, but I’m not really active now.’ You can be born Jewish, but actually being Jewish is a choice, and I think that’s something I might now be ready to explore and try again. I want to see what life might be like as a newbie Jew-bi.

(See what I meant by awful puns?)

When I start looking at things through this lens, I see certain parallels between my Jewish and bi identities. Yes, I was probably born bi (or at least experienced attraction beyond gender from a young age), but there’s more to my bi identity than that. There’s a world of bi culture, social groups, differences of opinions around labels (bi? bisexual? biromantic? pan? pansexual? panromantic? queer? and so on…), and, of course, so many puns. And I’ve consciously chosen to identify into all of that, even where my opinions differ to others on a variety of topics.

At the end of the day, I’m Jewish because I want to be – some bits of my young Jewishness were shit, and some bits of other people’s Jewishness were and are shitty to me and others, and I don’t really believe in the supernatural side of things, but I agree with most of the distilled ethical code (which is common to most faith and belief traditions), and the familiarity of wrapping it up in the cultural and historical things I grew up in appeals to me. In the same way, I’m bi both because that’s who I am, but also because that’s who I want to be. Some bits of the bi community are shit and I disagree with, and some bits of what other people do and say in relation to bi identities are shitty to me and others, but other parts of this life are so wonderful and nourishing. And I wouldn’t change who I am on either count for the world.

So, in honour of Rosh Hashanah and Bi Visibility Day falling one day apart this year, I have some new year resolutions based on reflecting on the different aspects of my identity and the activism I’ve been involved in over the year:

  1. I will try to remember that my identity is not performative. Being bi is not about who I’m attracted to right now, nor who’ve I’ve been attracted to in the past, it is about who I am capable of being attracted to, and that is always 100% bi. Neither is being Jewish about what other people think about or see of my Judaism, it is about me consciously identifying as Jewish and acting on that in the way that feels most appropriate to me.
  2. I will try to remember that it is ok not to have all the answers right now. I don’t need to know exactly what being Jewish or being bi looks like to me, because identity is about constant self-exploration. I don’t need to know exactly what my bi activism will look like in 5 years’ times right now, and I don’t need to know right now how I might manifest my Judaism in the future.
  3. I will strive to assume good will in others more. Most people are working towards similar goals, to make things better for people, and it’s fine to challenge people to explore whether they’re bringing everyone along with them or leaving people behind, and for me to be challenged with that same question. If my Jewish identity or my bi identity is not working to make the world better for others, then I am not doing what I should be doing.
  4. I will try to remember that I do not need to defend my life, my choices, or my actions. My life is my own to live, and as long I am doing no one harm, I will live it in my own way. It is no one else’s concern who I am dating or not dating, or what belief systems I incorporate into my life, and I do not owe anyone my time or energy to justify it.
  5. But most of all, I will strive to become a Jew-bi who is self-reflective and authentic to every element of a multi-faceted identity. For too long my Jewish and bi identities have been in conflict. It’s time to bring them back together where they belong.
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Let It Go?

It’s funny how some distance can make everything seem small…

It’s been a while since I last wrote a blog post. My ‘blog post ideas’ Word document has been accumulating ideas, but time has not been on my side. At the same time, though, it’s been difficult to write in the interim period, because I feel like I’m both barely the person I was two months ago and even more the person I was two months ago – and now really myself. I’ll try to explain.

When I look back over my last five years, the changes, both external and internal, that I’ve gone through are pretty dramatic. I feel like that was a different me back then.

Yesterday, I turned 23. When I look back over my last five years, the changes, both external and internal, that I’ve gone through are pretty dramatic. On my 18th birthday, I was taking my French A Level oral exam (which I failed!). My mother was in remission and waiting a couple of years for an all clear, and was completely healthy with it. My boyfriend of a year and a half and I were going strong, and despite some ups and downs were looking forward to spending our gap year together. My RSI was bad, but not as bad as it had been and the medication was keeping it mostly under control, so I could function normally without too much pain. I was relatively comfortable with my religiosity and my faith, a few gripes notwithstanding. I feel like that was a different me back then.

Today I am 23. I am fortunate enough to have finished university with a first class degree, to have a good job which I secured within a few months of finishing university, and to have my RSI relatively under control without the aid of medication. To that extent, things are probably as I would have hoped to see them through the lens of five years ago. Other than that, though, I doubt much of my life today is how I’d have expected it to turn out.

I still miss my mother every day, but she acts my inspiration.

I still miss my mother every day, but she acts my inspiration.

My mother’s been gone two and a half years now, and I still miss her as much every day as I did on that first morning that the sun rose without her. Yesterday, she would have turned 57 – we’d have a collective age of 80 now! – but instead she’s in Bushey cemetery and I’m still putting the pieces of my life back together, rather inexpertly. The boyfriend and I broke up nearly three years ago, after just about making it through our gap year and then being on and off in our first year of university. My low moods, which were always a difficulty between us, have now crystallised into clinical depression, and his jokes that I was almost as interested in the women around me as I was in him are no longer jokes, because I proudly came out as bisexual a year ago. And my religion? Well, that’s been a constant seesaw ever since the very first week of my gap year, and the last two months have been no exception.

I had never been all that bothered about the role of women in Orthodox Judaism while I was growing up (as I explored in a post a few months ago), and I was happy to be religious in a normative way – or, at least, to been seen to be like that outwardly. Then I got to Israel for my gap year. A couple of days after arriving was a Friday, so it was my first Sabbath spent in the country, and we decided that the only thing we could even contemplate doing was to go to the Kotel (the Western Wall) for the Friday night services. That’s what we did. To pray with a few thousand other Jews at the holiest site in Judaism should have been inspiring, incredible. I was even lucky enough to get a spot right up against the Wall, at the furthest left of the women’s section (so right up against the barrier between the men’s and women’s sections). Despite that, though, and despite the fact there were probably enough men there to have maybe 200, maybe 300 minyanim (the requirement of ten men for certain parts of the liturgy), I was nevertheless unable to hear any of the men who were leading the prayer, and so I was left praying the service to myself. I found that pretty upsetting – surrounded by thousands with the same intentions as me and yet still very much alone, just because I was a woman and couldn’t position myself near a man leading the prayers for me. The following day, we went to the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, where there was a communal seuda shlishit (‘third meal’, the meal between the afternoon and evening services on the Sabbath), and I sat between the other two guys I was with; a few minutes into the meal, though, the rabbi bustled over and told me that I needed either to leave or to sit by myself at a table in the corner – facing the wall! – because women weren’t allowed to share the same table as men. The three of us promptly walked out.

Those experiences really shook my commitment to my faith, although not to my practice. However much I questioned the point of being religious, I always found that I couldn’t just drop the practice side of Judaism. I’m not sure whether that was because it was too habitual, a personal comfort, or an image that I felt I needed to maintain. Many people I’ve spoken to recently about similar issues (more on that later) have emphasised that the nature of Judaism is that you can keep up the practices without necessarily having the faith supporting them while you wait to see if the faith comes back, but I’m not sure if I’m convinced, because what is the ultimate point of practicing without the concept of divine authority?

What is the ultimate point of practicing without the concept of divine authority?

However much my faith seesawed, I do know that in the months running up and following my mother’s death, my faith was complete. By that point, my personal theology of prayer had developed such that I couldn’t accept petitionary prayer as a valid activity, so I rarely prayed earnestly for her to get better once we knew the cancer was terminal and wasn’t going anywhere; my prayer tended to focus on her being as pain-free and comfortable as possible, and right at the end all I was praying for over and over again was for her to go peacefully. Well, that prayer seemed to be answered, because rather than spending her final moments in extreme suffering from the various factors combined against her, she just took one last breath and was gone. I believed that the fact that she died on the seventh day of Channukah and was buried on the eighth day was religiously significant: the story of Channukah is about the oil burning for longer than anyone expected (like she outlasted her diagnosis); and the eighth of anything is the mystical beyond the holiness of the seventh, so she died on a numerically holy day and was buried and send to her eternal rest on a numerically extra-worldly day. I got enormous comfort from saying the mourners’ prayer three times a day (though whether that was a religious comfort or comfort from being able to say publicly, ‘I’m mourning and it’s OK for me to be doing so’, I’m not sure). It all really meant something to me back then.

I’m not sure where to go with my story now, to be honest. There’s a year and a half or so of internal struggle that I could talk about, but that probably all makes more sense in the light of recent events, and my sexuality in particular.

I was very clear on the fact that I didn’t see any contradiction [between my religious beliefs and commitments and my sexuality].

When I first came out, more than a few people asked me how I reconciled that side of my life with my religious beliefs and commitments, and I was very clear on the fact that I didn’t see any contradiction. A few very encouraging things I’d read and been told about Orthodoxy and its potential openness to non-heterosexuality in the weeks and months before I finally decided to come clean had convinced me that I could be who I was and still be who I’d always been. Once I found myself out of the heterosexual privilege position, though, I started to see things that I’d never noticed before. For example, the laws of modesty (tzniut) require you to be fully clothed in front of people of the opposite sex – let’s not get into gender/sex here, because it gets even more messy – but the jury seems to be out on what an homosexual or bisexual individual should be doing. Is a women’s only swimming pool really the right place for a lesbian or bisexual woman from a modesty perspective? Over time, then, cracks began to appear in my convictions…

The same-sex marriage debate is a whole other thing, and that’s really the core of this post, I think, or at least the catalyst. I’ve already written in a previous post about my views about same-sex marriage; rather, I wrote about my views as they were two months ago. Watching the concept being debated on a Modern Orthodox forum about a month ago, though, changed my perspective on EVERYTHING. My faith in God was already questionable, and I will explain that further in a blog post soon to come, but when I saw the way that discussions of non-heterosexual rights were simply descending into thinly veiled homophobia and biphobia (in the sense of a complete lack of understanding rather than actual hatred), my eyes snapped open.

Watching [same-sex marirage] being debated on a Modern Orthodox forum about a month ago, though, changed my perspective on EVERYTHING. I was beginning to wish I could just ‘be heterosexual again’.

Being bisexual is great. Twice as many possibilities. Twice as many pieces of attractive eyecandy. A complete lack of concern for gender identity in potential romantic interests. It’s more than that for me, though. Discovering myself and coming out has made me so much more at peace with myself, and I can know that even as other things confuse me, at least one thing now makes much more sense. It gives me peace, self-confidence, self-assurance, and happiness. By the end of these discussions, though, I was beginning to wish I could just ‘be heterosexual again’, because my skin is not thick enough to deal with people lumping my attraction to women with other ‘immoral’ sexual activities – physical urges which are not wrong in themselves but which should be suppressed for the sake of religion. And that made me realise that, frankly, if it was going to come down to a choice between expressing my true sexuality, a piece of self-knowledge which has made me so much more at ease with myself, and following my religion, which I can’t remember ever making me feel genuinely happy in and of itself, there is no contest.

Sometime's it's OK to let it go.

Sometime’s it’s OK to let it go.

The song Let It Go from the Disney film Frozen has become a bit of a phenomenon; I’m tempted even to call it an anthem. The sentiments the lyrics express can be used in an almost limitless range of situations, because what it champions is the idea that it is possible to break free from the restrictive bonds you’ve formerly been held back by, and that when that happens, you can reinvent yourself to be the person you’ve always wanted or needed to be – or felt that you already were. Breaking away from controlling parents or an abusive childhood (as is the case in the film). Slowly making your way out of the personal shackles of a mental illness. Getting out of an unhealthy relationship. Accepting your sexuality and coming out. Or maybe leaving behind a religious tradition that suffused every aspect of life while you were growing up but is no longer the positive inspiration it could be?

I need to strive for whatever will make me the most emotionally and mentally healthy individual I can be.

I have a long journey ahead of me, and I don’t know where it will lead me. Maybe back to Judaism and Jewish faith. Maybe to another religion. Maybe away from religion entirely. Whatever happens, though, I’m going to try to bear the ideas behind Let It Go in mind. Ultimately, I need to strive for whatever will make me the most emotionally and mentally healthy individual I can be, and if that means that perhaps Judaism is not conducive to that for me, it is OK to ‘let it go’.