Keshet as part of UK LGBT History Month 2015
By Searle Kochberg
In Interaction Ritual Chains (2005), Randall Collins proposes that successful rituals “create symbols of group membership and pump up individuals with emotional energy”.
A lot of what follows is directly or indirectly Reconstructionist, based on the ideas of Mordecai Kaplan. It is an approach to Jewish custom and belief that aims toward communal decision making. For us in the LGBT community, it is Liberal Judaism that has led the way on this one in the UK by being responsive to social need, and by being “practical in so many ways” (Rabbi Janet Darley, 2015). It is Liberal Judaism for instance that pioneered same sex ceremonies/ blessings.
As a filmmaker, in the last 4 years I have had the great pleasure of working with the LGBT Jewish London community on 3 big projects: my film PhD My Jewish London, the Rainbow Jews project (National Lottery funded), and the Ritual Reconstructed project (AHRC funded). What struck me from the off was the way the LGBT community has – since the 1970s –indeed created symbols of group membership that “pump up individuals with emotional energy”.
Let’s start with the orange on the Seder plate: not something you expect to find on the traditional Seder plate, but this is a key ritual motif for many inclusive Seders. Indeed, the Ritual Reconstructed logotype is an image of this. Where does the orange motif come from? Well…”some years ago, a group of students at Oberlin College wished to make a statement about Jewish inclusiveness… Either they, or a Jewish feminist called Susannah Heschel, had the idea of using an orange to symbolise inclusivity: It was made up of many segments, but it formed a whole”. At South London Liberal Synagogue, at Beit Klal Yisrael, at other synagogues throughout the UK and elsewhere we add the orange to our Seder plate at Passover as a statement “that no one should be excluded from the life of our Jewish community.” (Rabbi Janet Burden, 2015).
The 2 rabbis quoted above do not – as it happens – identify as LGBT. What they are, are ALLIES. Torch-bearers. If I start by quoting them it is because my experience tells me that change, renewal, positive symbols of group membership that “pump up individuals with emotional energy” need wider community action, AS WELL AS LGBT action.
Notwithstanding that, much of the drive to change has, of course, come from within our own LGBT community. We are very lucky in the UK that we have many “out” LGBT Rabbis, some of whom have a history of activism. One of the most notable is Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah. Over coffee recently, Rabbi Elli was talking to me and my RR colleagues about (re)constructing inclusive ritual. She kept the story very simple. The set up: Shabbat, its closing ceremony, Havdalah. The log line: a multi-sensory ritual employing speech, sight, smell and taste to define the spiritual boundary of the sacred and the everyday. The ritual: the lighting of the special Havdalah candle with several wicks, the blessing for a cup of wine and the smelling of sweet spices. And the reconstructionist element, what was that? Well, as a leader of a diverse Brighton community, Rabbi Elli uses the Havdalah candle, its many intertwined wicks, to symbolise the intersection of diversities within the Jewish community: gender, sexuality, class, race, age, you name it… I was immediately struck by the simplicity and innate beauty of her ritual. Symbolic actions, rather than words… Children love lighting this candle, and I couldn’t help but think what a positive example of inclusion and diversity it is for them.
Sometimes we forget that LGBT is not only an acronym for Lesbian and Gay. Inclusivity means the full megillah. That’s what Rainbow coalitions are all about.
Last year (2014) marked the first interfaith Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony in the UK. It was held at the Metropolitan Community Church in Camden. There, a new (for the UK) Transgender Jewish ritual saw “the light of day”, or a “candle light of night” to more precise, since the ritual coincided with the coming of Shabbat. The ritual enacted at the TDoR was largely sourced online, based partly on the writings of Rabbi Ruben Zellman (see webpage http://www.transfaithonline.org/tdor/resources/sample_services/).
Take note: for new rituals and ceremonies, the internet is a vital source, by sharing experience amongst widely spread communities of people. A poignant liturgical prayer called Twilight People was read out to herald the Shabbat and to signal the “crisscrossed paths of memory and destination, streaks of light swirled together…” Now, on reflection, it is interesting for me how this prayer so clearly mirrors the Havdalah candle ritual in Rabbi Elli’s twilight Shabbath service. Included also in the Twilight service was the lighting of the Shabbat candles and the Yahrzeit candle (in remembrance of a person or people who have died). What was new here was that the ceremony reconstructed was a Shabbat service through the prism of the Trans community. The message was clear: ALL peoples’ lives make a difference, and marking Trans persons lives with continued light leaves us ALL with the hope that their lives help us to bring more light to the world.
At the opening of the Rainbow Jews exhibition at the London School of Economics in Spring 2014, the project manager, Surat Shaan R Knan put together with the help of the Community a wonderful exhibition of objects that were part of religious and secular LGBT Jewish ritual since the 1970s.
One of the most prized was an AIDS quilt, originally made by a local Jewish drag artist and given for safekeeping to gay-identified, UK based Rabbi Mark Solomon. This magnificent relic from the original AIDS quilt project is a patchwork of rainbow colours, sequins, pearls, torn bits of cloth, and symbols of peace and light – the dove and the menorah. What lay behind the quilt’s original meaning was that “out of those torn lives… something of beauty” comes forth (Rabbi Mark Solomon, 2015). The visual motifs are as powerful today as they were in the 1980s, as every year the quilt retains its central place in the World Aids Day Shabbat service at progressive London synagogues and elsewhere. In the middle of the menorah are the Hebrew letters of the alphabet marked out in pearls, and around the margins of the quilt the English letters in sequins. The maker of the quilt has left us with a legacy of immeasurable importance. Here letters can be configured to spell out any number of names – of loved ones, friends, or of anyone we want to remember.
Finally to Purim, the drag fest par excellence. What can I say? Anything goes really. We have fun. We let it all hang out. Drag queen, king, villain, whatever…This year, as part of the Ritual Reconstructed project, we remounted a reconstructionist Gay male version of the Book of Esther, originally presented in the early 1980’s. What a hoot it was, with some of the original cast featured, and some new cast members. One thing was for sure: the dated script showed that rituals need to be revisited for every generation for their relevance, and that we are part of an evolving LGBT history. After the ribald entertainment, we had a group discussion regarding issues raised by the musical play – gender politics within the LGBT world and beyond since 1984, the historical nature of camp, etc etc…
As my experience shows, there are MANY people out there who are busy reconstructing LGBT Jewish life and ritual, “pumping” it up with positive emotional energy, and continuing to renew our spiritual lives, and those of our allies in the wider Jewish community and beyond.
A final word of reflection… It remains important to be counted, and VISIBILITY is key. Although I fully support the inclusivity offered by the Progressive Jewish movement to LGBT persons, let us not blend too much into the background. Like all Jews in the wider world, we need to strike that balance between maintaining a distinct identity and integrating. To lose our unique identity, our unique HARD WON rituals and traditions, is to disappear.