The Gay Child in My Daughter’s First Grade Class

February 18, 2016

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

It was a parenting moment that came much sooner than I thought it would. My six year-old looked over at me at the dinner table and told me that her teacher had said that a boy “can’t marry a boy, and a girl can’t marry a girl.”

I paused, chewing.

“Well, what do you think?,” I asked her.

“Well, I know that isn’t true.”

She knows that isn’t true because we have had gay couples at our Shabbat table. She knows it isn’t true because she has a friend with two moms, and because her little sister has a boy in her class with two dads. She knows that sometimes boys marry boys. She knows that gay people exist. This is 2016.

I responded by reminding her (and my two- and four-year-old, who were also at the table) what I’ve told my kids many times: It’s true that MOST of the time, a boy marries and girl, and a girl marries a boy. But SOMEtimes, it does happen that a boy marries a boy and a girl marries a girl. (I think that “married” is the only word they have for attraction and romance, not to mention domestic partnership.)

I told her that it made me sad that her Morah said that it doesn’t happen. It made me sad for the people who are gay. This is how Hashem made them, and this Morah is pretending they do not exist. What I didn’t tell her, is that I was most sad for the gay child in her class. Because chances are that yes, even in her Orthodox day school, there is a child, or children, who will later discover (or might already know) that they are gay. Think what it does to these children to hear their Morah deny their existence.

My daughter knew her teacher wasn’t right, not only because of the gay people in her life. She also had read, many times, our books by Todd Parr, such as The Family Book, which states unequivocally, “Some families have two moms; some families have two dads,” along with “Some families look like each other; some families look like their pets.” Also true.

My daughter had also recently read a book called And Tango Makes Three, a true story about penguins in Central Park Zoo. Two boy penguins are not interested in the girl penguins, but are interested in each other and become companions. They are sad when they discover that they do not have an egg in their nest, like all the other penguins. The zookeeper finds an extra egg that had no penguin to take care of it, and Tango is born, making their happy union into a family. My daughter got the message, that if it’s biologically true for penguins, it could also be biologically true for humans.

These books were baby gifts from a dear long-time friend of my husband’s, who happens to be gay. I have to admit that, while I was content to read the Todd Parr books to my kids right away, I hid away And Tango Makes Three for many years – six years to be exact. I had only just pulled it off the top shelf and left it around for my first grader to read. It was not because my children weren’t ready for the book, but because I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready for what my children’s questions might be. I wasn’t sure of my own feelings about homosexulaity in the Orthodox community. I wasn’t sure how I would respond, how I would engage with my children’s curiosity.

What I’ve learned, as a parent and as an educator, is that many of these conversations can be quite simple. Especially with young kids, and even with older ones, the most important message is simply that gay people are here. They are all around us, they are among us, they might even be us. They are Jewish and not, Orthodox and not, married and not, with children and not. A simple dinner conversation, spoken in soft tones, and in six-year-old language, can make it clear to children that gay people are here, and that Hashem made them that way.

Thankfully the Orthodox community is beginning to address the reality that LGBTQ individuals are among us. But beyond that, I write this piece in order to model what it might look like to have conversations with our children about complex and difficult situations. LGBTQ issues are only one of many tough subjects that may arise around the dinner table. Be ready for other important conversations, too. Be ready to explain that we don’t drive on Shabbat while other Jews do, without demonizing or disenfranchising those other Jews, and without diminishing our deeply-held value of halacha. My daughter recently said that all Jewish girls wear skirts that cover the knee. I needed to address the fact that even though it is what we do in our own family, there are Jews who dress differently. Complex conversations like these also happen outside the Jewish realm, of course. We need to discuss racism in a way that children can understand, explaining that there have been times in history when people with a different skin color were treated differently, terribly, were even enslaved, and this is wrong. Somehow, we are well prepared with robust information for our children about why they shouldn’t talk to strangers and why it’s important that they work hard in school. Let’s also be ready to converse with them about the complexities of life.

The conversation I had with my children about homosexuality was not complicated. I didn’t quote psukim from the Torah, or enter into halachic discourse. There will be time for that. Parents of adolescents will need to take a more nuanced approach. However, if parents speak openly and honestly about these complex topics when children are young, then the conversations when they are older become less fraught, more open and honest.

And then there’s my daughter’s teacher. I think about what that teacher might have responded. Had she been adequately prepared and trained for this kind of question, she could have spoken about the fact that each person is created b’tzelem Elokim, in God’s image. She could have been honest about the fact that gay marriage is legal in Canada, and has been for over a decade. She might have even been able to voice her own discomfort (or the halachic difficulties) with gay marriage, while also acknowledging that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of. But the teacher was clearly caught off guard, and was not prepared to offer any answer, hence she simply brushed the question aside.

I was inspired by this video from an Eshel retreat. I hope that someday, every LGBTQ Orthodox young person can say something like this: “I’m still a Bais Yaakov girl; I just happen to be queer.” I think about that gay child in my daughter’s class. Will that child find a safe space to be both Orthodox and gay? Will he need to bifurcate his identity, thinking that he cannot be both frum and homosexual? He will, no doubt, face many challenges. But let him at least be recognized, rather than invisible.

Let us urge our day schools to equip our children’s teachers with the skills and sensitivity needed to respond to their questions. Let us open the door for these conversations with our children while they are young, although it is never too late to start. Let us take responsibility for making our community open and honest about the fact that gay people are among us. Do it for the gay child in your child’s class… who could even be your own.


The Pesach Seder: When we all must become children

April 6, 2012

“One is obligated to see themselves on the Seder night as if they are actually now leaving Egypt.”  -Maimonides

“The child at the Seder asks: “Why is this night different from all other nights?  On all other nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread but on this night only unleavened.  On all other nights we eat regular vegetables but on this night bitter herbs….””                                                                                                -The Talmud

If the Passover Seder meal is one of remembering that God redeemed the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery, why not do precisely that?  Read the Biblical account of the Exodus (which we do not); ask about slavery and freedom, divinely brought plagues and miracles, nationhood and history.  Why all the questions about why this night is different?

Children live in the present, their questions straight forward; they observe and ask, observe and ask.  According to some Jewish sources we do strange actions at the Seder meal, like dipping our food, drinking many cups of wine and delaying the meal, precisely so that the children will notice and ask: “Why is this night different?”

“When your child shall ask you: “What is all of this ritual?” Then you shall answer them, “With a strong hand did God take us out of Egypt.””        -Exodus 13:14

God did not take “us” out of Egypt, God took our ancestors out, and that was over 3500 years ago.

The past is long gone, yet always at hand.   Only the present is real, yet always a product of our past.  The Passover Seder is paradoxical, a meal of recalling the 3500 year old Exodus, an experience very much lived in the present:  “Why is this night different?”  It is the child, who always lives in the present from whom we must learn this.

One hundred years ago Sigmund Freud and his circle of psychoanalysts discovered that though we live in the present, we do so almost entirely conditioned by experiences we have had, and ways we have lived, in the past.  The past can not really be integrated or changed through remembering what is past; it must be experienced and understood in the powerful present.   The past is formative but, as a memory, impotent.  The present integrates our past.  The here and now is colored by our past but much more powerful.  Thus the present can lead us to insights about the past and about whom we are, more so that remembering and analyzing past experience.

The Passover Seder is like the process of psychotherapy.  Its function is to understand, to clarify, to integrate the exodus of the past in our present lives, yet this can only be accomplished in any real way, though living in the present.

We do not ask: Why did we leave Egypt? How did we leave? What did it mean to leave Egypt? Why did God think it so important that the Jews be enslaved and redeemed?  Such would only be an intellectual process of remembering the past.

Instead it is the child who asks:  Why are we dipping twice now?  Why are we reclining now when we eat?  Why the flat unleavened bread?

Children know how to be in the present.  All they have is now.  On Passover we must all be children.  Living the past in the fully present we must leave Egypt in our lives now -a gift from the past.


What’s in a beracha (blessing)- by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 8, 2012

In this past Shabbat’s parsha Yaakov blesses his children with unusual blessings.  We imagine blessings to be good wishes or promises for the future, here though Yaakov seems to bless his children by describing them, their strengths and weaknesses, in some instances, such as Shimon and Levi, only mentioning their weaknesses.  What kind of blessing is this?

 

Perhaps Jacob, whose whole life has revolved around the question of blessings from his brother to his fight with the angel, understands that a true blessing is not a prophecy, or good wishes, or a hope for some future bounty, but rather a deeper look at the self and one’s potential.  To help the receiver of the blessing truly create their own blessing.

 

Human beings have strengths and weaknesses and usually they are two sides of the same characteristic.  As the Talmud says “whoever is greater than his neighbor so too is his yetzer (his [evil] inclination) greater than his neighbor.”  All aspects of our personality are both a strength and a weakness.   A true beracha is not a mystical incantation bestowing good luck; it is a kind of therapeutic interpretation, a highlighting of one’s midot, ones character traits, and shedding light upon how they can be used as a strength instead of a weakness.

 

This idea can help us understand several Rabbinic ideas regarding berachot.

 

Why is the beracha of a hedyot, a regular person, not to be taken lightly (Talmud Berachot 7a)?  Because a beracha is not prophecy or powerful incantation, rather it is insight into the receiver, a reflection on who they are.  Perhaps this is also why we do not bless ourselves, since one can not usually see themselves and their own strengths and weakness clearly.

 

The Talmud says when we judge a person wrongly; we must make up for this by blessing them.  The logical undoing of judging someone wrongly (seeing their characteristics as weakness rather than strength, bad rather than good) is to bless them, to judge their personality licaf zecut, meritoriously, and find in them their strengths.

 

What about blessing God, which we do so often? It is in this vain quite appropriate to bless God.  In blessing Hashem we are finding Hashem where Hashem seemingly is not.  Looking deeper into life and the world and finding the tov, the good, the force of the Divine in the physical.  This finding of God’s goodness, as it were, is to bless God.  Berachot on food, on mitzvoth or natural wonders are all to find God where he is hidden, in this world.

 

This approach to blessings can help us to understand the following particularly strange piece of Talmud.

 

It was taught: Rabbi Ishmael bbn Elisha says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akathriel Jah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me: Ishmael, My son, bless Me! l replied: May it be Thy will that Thy mercy may suppress Thy anger and Thy mercy may prevail over Thy other attributes, so that Thou mayest deal with Thy children according to the attribute of mercy and mayest, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And He nodded to me with His head.  -Berachot 7a

 

God is blessed to use God’s midot, God’s characteristics, to benefit people.  This is the essence of a beracha, to help another to see the strengths of their midot and use them for good and not bad, even God in this case.

 

In our Torah portion, Vayichi, Yaakov, after a lifetime of wrangling for berachot, finds that he is the master of berachot.  He is a good parent in that he stays connected to all of his children no matter what they do and sees their different sides, their strengths and weaknesses, clearly.  He then points them out, like a good therapist, in the hopes that they will learn from the blessing and indeed be “blessed.”