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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The Fast of the Apostate

TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDE, DEPRESSION

Depression tried to kill me. I survived! Let’s eat!

Speaking from the depths of a severe depressive episode, this is likely to be a shorter blog post than most of mine. I feel driven, though, to pull together a few thoughts that have been floating around in my head over the last few days.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish life at the time, and its destruction scattered Jews across the world.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish life at the time, and its destruction scattered Jews across the world.

Tuesday 15th July was a notable day for several reasons. It was the day that I had a second interview for a job that I really wanted (and didn’t get). It was also the Fast of Tammuz, a day in the Jewish calendar which marks the beginning of the saddest three-week period in the year. On that day, Jews across the world commemorate the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans in 69CE, an event which ultimately led up to the destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of the Exile which is ongoing. This year, many Jews chose to dedicate their fast to a hope for peace in Israel-Palestine, fasting alongside their Muslim cousins during Ramadan.

Tuesday 5th August was another notable day in the Jewish calendar. It was Tisha b’Av, one of the most significant fast days in Judaism, marking (among many other coincidental disasters in Jewish history) the destruction of the Second Temple. In addition to fasting, it is traditionally marked by adopting full mourning rituals, including not bathing, wearing jewellery, wearing new or clean clothes, sitting on chairs, using lotions or make up, engaging in sexual activity, or greeting one another. All in all, it’s a pretty intense day dedicated to bringing the person into as deep a state of sadness as is possible when they are so far detached in time and often geography from the events commemorated.

I have now decided to disclose the fact that I did not mark either day in any way at all.

Although I kept the fact very quiet from people around me, I have now decided to disclose the fact that I did not mark either day in any way at all, although for very different reasons.

My past blog posts both here and on other websites have hinted that I am losing my commitment to Judaism, or, as it is called in Jewish circles, ‘going off the derech [path]’. I feel as though it no longer means to me what it used to, and without a compulsion of the concept of divine reward and punishment, I have no real reason to continue to practice what I would formerly have done. It’s very much a work in progress in the moment, establishing what means something to me and what doesn’t, so I’m taking each day as it comes.

I thought about fasting on July 17th. Had I fasted, I would have dedicated my fast to the #hungryforpeace movement in hope that I was adding my voice to a call for rationality and brotherhood. As late as the night before the fast itself, I was still trying to work out whether or not I would fast, because the religious significance of the fast day just didn’t mean anything to me. Sure, there was the collective mourning, the sense of history, the solidarity with my people and my past, but I know that whenever I fasted in the past, it’s just been for show. I don’t really get into it, I don’t feel sad; I just feel hungry, and I like the feeling of hunger, so that doesn’t bother me. Believe me, I have used every method I can think of to connect with the day, but it just never really felt like a sad day. In the end, I decided that there was not enough significance for me to fast on the day of an important job interview and risk performing badly at the interview, so I did not fast. (As happens, I aced that interview! Sadly, someone else aced it more, and I didn’t get the job. But that’s by-the-by.)

On Wednesday 30th July, I crashed headlong into the most severe depressive episodes I’ve ever experienced.

In the three-week period between the two fasts, a number of factors came together in a perfect storm of horror, and on Wednesday 30th July, I crashed headlong into the most severe depressive episode I’ve ever experienced. Twice in the first few days, I came very close to ending my life, and owe my survival to a couple of very amazing people who know who they are. Although the urges have reduced a little, they’re still simmering under the surface and bubbling up every now and then. I have passed my days in a blur of tears, self-loathing, unsatisfying sleep and an ongoing battle to keep up with my daily life as if everything was fine, even though things that used to mean so much to me are now as bland and unappealing as staring at a brick wall. That last, incidentally, is an activity that I’ve done quite a lot in the last week or so.

This is my black dog. I haven't given him a name, because I hope he won't hang around too long.

This is my black dog. I haven’t given him a name, because I hope he won’t hang around too long.

I’m not sure if  I would say that the feelings I’ve had since that Wednesday have been comparable to the experience of mourning, with which I am intimately acquainted. In the immediate aftermath of my mum’s death, I cried a lot, and I felt like life could never get better again, but I still felt like I had a purpose to life. Life may have been utterly dreadful, but I still had some kind of reason to keep going, even if it was just to get back to my degree. At the moment, in the pits of depression, that purpose feels like it has just disappeared like smoke up a chimney (to use an old cliché). The black dog of depression is doing everything it can to make my life not worth living.

When Tisha b’Av rolled around, I didn’t even stop to think for a moment about the possibility of fasting. I listened to happy music. I watched TV. I had a shower. I wore my normal jewellery, and happened to pull a t-shirt out of the drawer that I’d never worn before. The fast day was completely meaningless to me, in terms of both its religious significance and the communal solidarity it draws. Ironically, though, I felt more sad and downbeat this Tisha b’Av gone than I have ever done before. This time, I didn’t need to fast on Tisha b’Av to feel depressed: my body was doing a very good job of that for me. I had been living my own personal Tisha b’Av for almost a week by then. Far from trying to bring myself down further, I was doing everything I could to find the tiniest bits of happiness in life, just like for so many years I have tried to find the tiny bits of sadness within a generally happy life.

I didn’t need to fast on Tisha b’Av to feel depressed. I had been living my own personal Tisha b’Av for almost a week.

There’s a little self-deprecating maxim that Jews throw around quite a lot to sum up their festivals: ‘They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.’ There’s also the lesser used ‘They tried to kill us, they managed it, let’s not eat’, which is what sums up the fasts of Tammuz and Tisha b’Av. Having been through what I have recently been experiencing, though, I want to alter the ditty in celebration of the smaller successes. Depression hasn’t killed me yet, and every day that it doesn’t, I’m going to eat to celebrate that. Fast day or no.