Joel and I met at a feminist club meeting during our first year at the University of Nevada. He was a smart African American guy from New Jersey, I was a friendly Jewish girl from California, and we both hated being surrounded by SUVs and Republicans. Thus, our epic friendship was born.
By the end of that year, Joel was president of the Queer Student Union, I was president of the fledgling Hillel, and our little progressive corner of Nevada was off to a great start. He came to Shabbat dinners, and I went out dancing at the gay bar. To this day, Joel makes some of the best challah I’ve ever tasted, and I miss him every Friday night.
So, when it was suggested that I write something this month relating to Black history, I took the opportunity to look into my own personal history and tokenize one of my favorite people, interview-style. Enjoy!
Joel, on Facebook your religion is listed as “Christian with Jewish tendencies.” What are your Jewish tendencies? What are your Christian tendencies?
I think my Christian tendencies include my immunity to Jewish guilt! Seriously, my Christian tendencies revolve around my identity as an African American person and the strong influence Christianity has on the African American community, both historically and today. Obviously not all African American people are Christian, but much of the cultural memory of the Black community revolves around shared experiences of going to church as a place where they were accepted, supported, and encouraged to achieve. Christianity also provided a faith to rely on during slavery, the civil rights movement of the 60’s, and through experiences that are based around institutionalized oppression of the African American community.
Additionally, being raised in a Protestant denomination of Christianity, I was taught that people should have an individual relationship with God. We were taught that you did not need a priest or a minister but that God is everywhere and in everything, with no one person being closer to the Divine than anyone else. That person relationship is probably what makes Judaism so appealing to me. Obviously there is a long history of Judaism being an organized religion, but the onus of a person’s faith is on them as individuals. What makes a good Jew is not someone who goes to temple every week, donates a lot of money to their local Hillel, or keeps kosher (not that I am saying those things hurt), but it is someone who has a closeness with God during the “good” and the “bad.” From that place of faith, then someone could be moved to participate in a community of faith, donate to causes to help people become closer with their own faith, and wants to keep God’s laws. Being moved to improve the world by love, a love that is the Divine, are my Jewish tendencies.
How do you feel culture and religion interact in your life?
Religion acts as a unifying space where I can meet people and create community with one common goal. In my life, religion helps to maintain my cultural identity. Growing up on the East Coast, the Jewish community and cultural contributions to the overall Mid-Atlantic cultural is all around. Part of my culture shock moving to Nevada was that many people didn’t know anyone Jewish, didn’t know anything about Jewish holidays, and didn’t understand why the history of the Jewish people is so important to us as a society and for humanity. Speaking of Judaism, it was important to get involved in Hillel and the Jewish community because it felt like home.
The odd part about religion, is that religion can have a dividing effect on the work that I do with the diverse communities I work, in which I mean that many people use religion as a justification for their own discrimination, bigotry, and hate of people in other communities and of the LGBTQIA community in particular.
Do you think all of our progressive clubs in college would have been able to form such wonderful bonds if we were in a larger and more diverse area?
I think that it certainly helped us that Reno, Nevada was not the most diverse location to go to college, but I think that it is a matter more of campus culture. I think that by necessity the smaller groups of diverse, pergressive students came together to try to effect change on campus and in the community. In the case of a more well funded, larger organizations, there wouldn’t have been the need to reach out to other groups, to pool our resources.
I think Jesus would have come to our potlucks in college. What do you think?
Considering the “never ending bottle of vodka,” sometimes it felt like he was there! Jesus would have definitely come to our potlucks, but I also think that Buddha, Mohammed, Vishnu, and Joseph Smith would have come to our potlucks, because, in fact, their followers did. I think what we experienced is what I would for everyday within diversity in higher education (first at the Center for Student Cultural Diversity at UNR, and now working as Coordinatoor for LGBTQIA Programs & Services at UMKC), for people to be able to embrace all of their identities no matter the event, space, or group they are in, moreover, for the other people around them to be not only supportive of that person’s unique background, but also to be genuinely excited and engaged about that person’s diverse background.
In our most recent gchat conversation, we hatched a plan to make a Birthright for gay kids, where we help connect gay college students from small towns with friendly places to crash in New York and San Francisco. Do you think it’ll really work?
Well, the realist in me says that there is no guarantee. The time, money, and energy needed to do something like that is great. What is interesting is that the realist in me also says that when a group of motivated people get together they can accomplish great things. When that same group of motivated people also have the strength in other areas of their lives (like physical and spiritual health), then they can accomplish almost anything.