OyChicago articles

Reconciling sexuality with religion

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Reconciling sexuality with religion photo

One would be hard pressed to find instances of Orthodox Judaism and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) occupying the same sentence. Yet for the women whose stories appear in the anthology, "Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires," reconciling the two is a familiar task.

After coming across "Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence," a collection of stories from women in convents coming to terms with their sexuality, editor Miryam Kabakov was inspired to publish the first Jewish equivalent of the anthology. She began by conducting an experiment to elicit responses from Orthodox Jewish women as to how they build integrated religious and sexual or gender identities. Kabakov connected with 13 women whose stories comprise "Keep Your Wives Away from Them." The contributors boast a range of backgrounds and lay claim a host of different experiences, yet each of their essays affirms the possibility of being a member of both LGBTQ and Orthodox Jewish communities.

Still, that's not to say they effortlessly continued practicing Judaism without sacrificing their sexuality or gender identity. As a lesbian or transgender individual in the world of Orthodox Judaism, struggles inevitably ensue.
One contributor, reflecting on her initial brush with lesbianism, admits that if she were to say she liked girls, the backlash would have felt like a "permanent door was closing on her religious community." Another author reveals the difficulties of being transgender and coming out as female when living in the all-male environment of Chabad. Certainly, the women given a voice in the anthology each attest to feelings of fear and deprivation when first approaching the intersection of religious and sexual or gender identity.

"When you come out in the Orthodox Jewish world, a lot is at stake," Kabakov says. "An adult could lose his or her family and lose status in the community."

The essays in "Keep Your Wives Away from Them" give consideration to life after the struggle to come out, when Jewish LGBTQ men and women are faced with the task of integrating religion and sexuality. A number of the authors seek out and form support groups where they can continue practicing Judaism in a familiar, Orthodox environment and connect with one another, keeping religious communities alive.

Eshel, devoted to creating understanding and support for gay and lesbian people in Traditional and Orthodox communities, is one such group. Formed in 2010, it offers educational initiatives for its members, including training and empowerment of Traditional and Orthodox speakers. Safety and confidentiality are essential components of Eshel, as people involved in its programs are taking a risk by showing their faces and may not be comfortable divulging their sexuality to the greater Jewish community just yet.

Urging Traditional and Orthodox communities to welcome gay and lesbian members is fundamental to Eshel's mission. Kabakov, a member of the Eshel board, says, "It's hard to be different in the Orthodox world. Other Orthodox Jews who are ostracized should show empathy for gays and lesbians."

Eshel is also introducing its first summer vacation retreat this year. The Shabbaton will be held on July 5-8 in Watervliet, Michigan and feature a weekend of educational excursions, prayer, singing, dancing, painting, and leadership projects, in addition to an appearance by gay Orthodox Jewish hip-hop artist Y-Love.

"Keep Your Wives Away from Them" and support groups like Eshel are taking the lead in giving LGBTQ women and men opportunities to speak where they have previously been silenced. "We have to show members of the LGBTQ community that Orthodox Judaism and homosexuality are compatible," says Kabakov. "If we don't provide a model for them, they won't maintain religious observance."

 For more information about "Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Unorthodox Women, Orthodox Desires," visit www.keepyourwivesawayfromthem.com. Go to www.eshelonline.org to learn about Eshel and its upcoming Shabbaton retreat.

Stinking Flower

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Stinking Flower photo

Jews have had a long tempestuous relationship with garlic. The Talmud suggests that men eat garlic on the Sabbath because Friday was the night devoted to conjugal love. This testimonial from Ezra the Scribe: “garlic promotes love and arouses desire,” pretty much says it all but garlic was also used as a means to disgrace Jews with the term “foetor Judaicus,” the “Jewish stench” of degeneracy and garlic used as an anti-Semitic stereotype.

Allium sativum, commonly known as garlic, is a species in the onion family. Dating back over 6,000 years, garlic has been a staple in Asia and the Mediterranean. Used for a variety of medical issues including stabilizing blood sugar, lowering blood pressure and treating infections and cancer, garlic is a useful component in medical laboratories as well as kitchens.

Spring garlic is my favorite. Tender green shoots and a bulb with tiny cloves that do not require peeling and a very soft and sweet garlic flavor makes spring garlic a standard in my spring arsenal.

This pesto is sweet and very herbaceous and not overwhelmingly garlicky. It is perfect schmeared on bread, stirred into potato salad, dolloped on grilled steaks or drizzled on fish and pasta. Make a large batch and freeze some for later this summer. Spring Garlic pesto will keep frozen for up to 3 months.

Spring Garlic Pesto

¼ pound spring garlic, beard and tips removed, cut into 2-inch pieces
½ cup basil leaves
½ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon walnuts, toasted
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Rough chop the garlic (use the green shoots and bulb) and basil. Place a large pan, lightly coated with olive oil, over medium high heat. Quickly sear the garlic and basil leaves for about 10 seconds. (This will help keep the color bright green.)

2. In a blender, mix the basil, spring garlic, and olive oil. Add the walnuts, salt, and pepper, and continue to blend until smooth.

A look at the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team

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Let’s look at some former Maccabi Tel Aviv players, who are not Jewish, but who played in Israel. As Maccabi Tel Aviv continues to be a European powerhouse, these players have kept them at the top of the league.

A look at the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team photo 1 

Maceo Baston— 2003-2006 were Maccabi Tel Aviv's glory days. We all know about Anthony Parker, but he played alongside Maceo Baston who also had tremendous success for Maccabi. Like Parker, Baston went on to the NBA. Baston played for the Pacers and Raptors but did not have too much success. He then went on to play in the Ukraine and Spain. Baston came back to Israel where he made a name for himself but only played seven games for Bnei HaSharon. He was waived by the Pistons during the 2012 preseason and remains a free agent.

A look at the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team photo 2

Marcus Fizer— In 2007-2008 Fizer played for Maccabi after six seasons in the NBA. But like most of his career he did not spend too much time in the same place. Fizer, once a top NBA draft pick, left Israel for Puerto Rico and then one game in Taiwan. In 2011 Fizer announced he wanted to make an NBA comeback but faced an uphill battle with three torn ACLs. In 2012 Fizer and his family created a KickStarter, for a creative project called The Rad Ones.

A look at the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team photo 3

Carlos Arroyo— Arroyo spent the 2008-2009 season in Israel, where he played point guard and was the MVP of the Israeli League Finals. He averaged 15.3 PPG and 5.8 APG. Arroyo had been in the NBA for six years before he went off to Israel, but his great season in Israel warranted a second run in the NBA. Arroyo signed with the Miami Heat. Currently Arroyo is playing in Turkey for Besiktas Milangaz and is considered a solid guard who has had great success on the international level. Arroyo plays for the Puerto Rico National team.

A look at the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team photo 4

Alan Anderson— After Arroyo left, in 2009-2010 his point production was replaced by Alan Anderson. Anderson was a NCAA star at Michigan State playing for Tom Izzo. After a successful year he went on to sign with the NDBL. This year he finally reached the NBA and is currently under contract with the Toronto Raptors. In 17 games, Anderson averaged 9.6 PPG and became a late season starter.

While it looks like we have probably seen the last of Baston and Fizer in the NBA, and while Arroyo plays overseas let’s hope Anderson keeps progressing and representing Israel through his NBA success.

And Let Us Say...Amen.
- Jeremy Fine

Fellowship offers Jewish social entrepreneurs tools to pursue social justice

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Fellowship offers Jewish social entrepreneurs tools photoxx

Josh Altman, Chair of JCC PresenTense Chicago, with Courtney Sharpe, a fellow mentioned in the article.

There is no doubt about it— for decades we have seen a slide in Jewish engagement in America, particularly among young adults. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen remarks, "Fewer and fewer Jews see themselves as obligated to support the collective interests of the Jewish people, to feel attached to Israel, or even to relate personally to the very notion of the Jewish people at all." (eJewish Philanthropy, Nov 24, 2009). 

With these troubling trends in mind, the Jewish Community Center of Chicago (JCC) has launched JCC PresenTense Chicago. It's an innovative program that resonates with young Jewish adults by offering an avenue for social justice activism, interpreted through a Jewish lens.  JCC PresenTense Chicago provides a 6-month fellowship to young Jewish social entrepreneurs who wish to develop their socially responsible ideas into sustainable businesses. 

Launched only nine months ago, JCC PresenTense Chicago accepted its first cohort of 12 fellows in December 2011. Each fellow has worked closely with at least one mentor and one coach— Jewish professionals who have volunteered their passion and expertise to provide guidance and support. 

The fellows are developing social ventures that focus on many different social problems, but they all share an idealistic mission and an urgent desire to make our imperfect world a better place:

• Jill Zenoff is co-founder of The Gan Project, which serves as a hub for urban agricultural activity for the Chicago Jewish community and is housed on land at Bernard Horwich JCC. She is launching L'Dor V'Dor, an alternative organic food system. She says, "The conventional food system is broken in every way and is in gross violation of the cornerstones of our Jewish faith."

• Menachem Cohen has served since 2003 as rabbi of Mitziut, an independent, non-denominational spiritual community in Rogers Park. Through his venture, he hopes to expand upon his work with Mitzuit, recognizing that many disenchanted young Jews will not seek connection inside the walls of synagogues. He wishes to find them where they are at— not necessarily with the purpose of bringing them to worship— but to provide them with Jewish-based spiritual guidance at the alternative places they enjoy, such as street festivals, funky dance parties, or drum circles.

JCC PresenTense Chicago fellows are not the only young Jewish adults who have benefited from the program. Their coaches and mentors also have been inspired and enriched by this experience. Jacob Forman is Courtney Sharpe's coach, whose venture, "Grandma's Kitchen," proposes to offer more nutritious alternatives to fast food in communities that have limited access to fresh produce.

Jacob comments, "I admire Courtney's courage to confront one of Chicago's most poignant problems. An estimated 384,000 Chicagoans live in food deserts. My coaching experience has taught me that seemingly insurmountable social problems can feel less daunting if we work on them together." 

Eric Davis, Jill Zenoff's mentor and founder of the "Global Citizen Experience," adds, "JCC PresenTense Chicago generates a flurry of relationships and economic opportunities. We [entrepreneurs] are successful because we have the will to endure."

If you are inspired by these voices, and the social good that JCC PresenTense Chicago aspires to accomplish, we invite you to attend Launch Night. At this event, the fellows will showcase their business ideas through pitches and booth exhibitions.

Josh Altman, Chair of JCC PresenTense Chicago, talks about what inspired him to volunteer his time, and his view of Launch Night. "Launch Night is about solutions posed by those among us who have dared to take a risk by bringing an idea to the table and testing it out," he said. "These 12 fellows are living the lesson taught by our Rabbis in Pirkei Avot: 'It is not necessary for you to finish the task of making the world a better place, but you most certainly are not free from making an effort.' It is incumbent upon us to support them, with our business know-how or our financial capabilities, so that their ideas do not die on Launch Night, but thrive to enrich our city and our world."

Launch Night will be held at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, on Tuesday, June 26 from 7 to 9:30pm. To register for free-admission tickets for Launch Night, go to www.jccpresentensechgo.eventbrite.com.

Sara Massarik works for JCC Chicago and is Program Coordinator for JCC PresenTense Chicago. Questions? Contact Sara Massarik at smassarik@gojcc.org.

The Jewish Community Center of Chicago (JCC) is a partner in serving our community and receives support from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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