Wholly Jewish: Denis: Coming Out and Showing Up

Hosted by Jewish performance and ritual artist Shira Kline (she/her), a.k.a. ShirLaLa, this season features interviews with LGBTQIA+ Jews from the Union for Reform Judaism's JewV'Nation Fellowship. Follow along as they share their experiences in Jewish spaces, how their queerness and their Judaism intersect, and their visions of a more inclusive and equitable Jewish community.

For LGBTQ+ Jews, coming out stories differ from person to person, and the story of Denis Victorovich Kurmanov (he/him) is no exception. This week, Denis shares his experience immigrating from Moldova at a young age, the pressure he faced to present as straight, how Judaism strengthened him to come out as gay and work as at organizer in his Jewish community, and even a few samples of his poetry. “It was a very slow process of [realizing that]…if God is love, then why should I not have it [too]?” Denis says. “It was a slow coming out. But…it was with full vengeance…and there was no going back. I'd done it all. I'm never going back here. I am!”

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Transcript

Denis Kurmanov [00:00:00] It was a slow coming out, but once I came out, it was with full vengeance and there was no going back. I was like, “I'd done it all. I'm never going back. Here I am”.  

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:00:10] Welcome back to Wholly Jewish, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. What do we all have in common? We all live and balance complex and nuanced identities that when braided together, make us wholly ourselves and wholly Jewish. This season, Jewish performance and ritual artist, Shira Kline, speaks with LGBTQIA+ Jews from the Union for Reform Judaism's JewV'Nation Fellowship, to share their experiences, insights and how their identities enrich and create a more vibrant Jewish community. Today, Shira is speaking with Denis Victoravich Kurmanov.    

Shira Kline [00:00:49] Hi, everyone, this is Shira Kline. She/her pronouns. I'm thrilled to be here today with Denis Victoravich Kurmanov. Denis, calling in from Indianapolis, tell us here, like, how do you identify? You know, this is a queer Jewish Jewish queer-ish podcast, and, you know, with that in mind and like the whole insanely wide range of identity out there, go ahead and spill it. How do you identify?  

Denis Kurmanov [00:01:16] So I'm a gay identifying cis man. So, I go by he and his and the rest of it, as far as identity is always kind of up in the air, kind of moving around. Something I'm always trying to figure out.  

Shira Kline [00:01:32] Take us down a little bit of a path of how you define queerness. You know, what is it, for you, or how do you use that word?  

Denis Kurmanov [00:01:42] It's developed a lot over my period of time, especially from learning that I was not what is most common or hetero, in those cases. And it slowly developed from sexual sort of terms and it linked directly to basically like sexual preferences. And then it began opening up to more cultural ideas. And then it kind of got, and then I got introduced to queer theology. So that's a whole different ballpark. And then queer Jewish thought, which is so fascinating as well. So right now, I really like the idea that queerness is simply non common possibility. So, the way I would explain that is queerness is any possibility that is maybe not very common. It may be fringe. It may be a little just, it may be more common than we expect. But it's all of these versions, even in like literary theory and theology, social studies, etc. It's all these things that pop up and kind of shake our interactivity a little bit.  

Shira Kline [00:03:03] Really makes me even look at…it just…when I put it into terms like that, which I really appreciate your offering here, I'm able to see like the whole world kind of, it turns around like a carousel and I can see a little bit more. A little more than usual. So, thank you for that. You know, were you raised in a faith-based household? 

Denis Kurmanov [00:03:23] I was raised in a Soviet household. No religion. It was pretty much a do the right thing, please be honest and don't screw up too bad. And religion was really, I had a huge blessing in the household in that they really didn't mind what I got my feet into, very much at all. So, I had a lot of freedom to explore pretty much anything I wanted. And I became an evangelical Christian at freshman year of high school.  

Shira Kline [00:03:54] OK. I'm just going to go back for a second because your family came over from Moldova. Is that right? In ninety…  

Denis Kurmanov [00:03:59] Correct.  

Shira Kline [00:04:00] In nineteen ninety-five.  

Denis Kurmanov [00:04:01] Correct.  

Shira Kline [00:04:02] Wow. And moved directly to Indianapolis.  

Denis Kurmanov [00:04:06] Directly to Indianapolis. We were very fortunate to have a really awesome Jewish community here that was very active in helping Soviet Jews and refugees resettle here. So that was, that was my family.  

Shira Kline [00:04:20] Wow. I am definitely curious, what was it…were you out when you met the evangelical Christian world? And…  

Denis Kurmanov [00:04:29] No. 

Shira Kline [00:04:30] No, OK. 

Denis Kurmanov [00:04:31] No. I was absolutely trying to be straight. Absolutely. So, I was dating women. I was absolutely adamant that I was, must be hetero. I knew something was up. And I never called myself gay because I felt like that would have been a huge defeat because I didn't believe I actually really was. But no, no, no. Yeah. So, from freshman year of high school to freshman year of college, I was on a pretty hardcore goal there to be as, as straight as possible.  

Shira Kline [00:05:08] I do remember that moment myself as well. And so I’m wondering what happened? You know, was there, is it possible, was there like a Jewish moment that you're like, wait a minute? You know, was there, did those two things happen simultaneously? Just tell us a little bit about that, if you will.  

Denis Kurmanov [00:05:24] It was a lot of different things at once, that kind of…it didn't all hit me because it was definitely a process. Because I was still so convinced of it and there were still all kinds of things. So, one of my very good friends who had been a minister but left the ministry and became atheist and a secular practitioner, he was, he and I, we maintained a very good friendship because why not? And he and I were very, very close. And he continued to kind of give me like food in my ear about like, let's, let's think about this. Let’s really talk about theology. Let's really, really get down deep into what's what are you believing? What are you saying? So, he was kind of gently holding me through while I was getting like, kind of developing myself in a way or discovering myself. Simultaneously, in philosophy class, as we were talking a lot about health, and that was something you kind of…the idea we take for granted quite a bit. And it was something when I really started thinking about. And I went to a professor and I had a conversation with him and I said, “look, I don't really think that anything can go to hell forever. I think that's a really strange thing to say”. And he opened up a little bit about how he felt similar ideas. And it just kind of, after that, the domino effect slid. So, once I kind of stopped believing in hell and heaven, a lot of different priorities had to be set in place. Because if my faith was not about what's going to happen to me after I die, it must be what about what's going on now?  

Shira Kline [00:07:10] Wow, wow, yeah. 

Denis Kurmanov [00:07:11] So, while the filter, with the filter of my friends slowly kind of like opening me up to other, other viewpoints and scholarship and all this other stuff and just self-love, as well. And I had some other friends talking me through. It was a very slow process of me going from, “okay, I'm not going to burn in hell”. And then going, “OK, I also deserve love too. Because if God is love, then why should I not have it?” And a big justification as well, was I tried, I tried really hard not to be it. So, I really tried. So, this is not on me this time. I'm just going to be loved. There's a really interesting book and movie that the first, like, queer film I saw was Prayers for Bobby. And that's a really melodramatic, very touching book. And it was, that really, really, really struck me. I was like, “wow, like kids really, really get hurt in this”. And luckily, I had some support where I wasn't contemplating that. But that really struck me. And I had this whole, it was a slow coming out. But once I came out, it was with full vengeance and there was never going, and there was no going back. I was like, “I'd done it all. I'm never going back here. I am”.  

Shira Kline [00:08:24] Yay! I love it. I love that. OK, so I I'm just really moved by this particular moment when you said, like, when you had a teacher and I'm just like loving teachers right now, you know, good teachers, like who take the time to care and hold us through our journey, especially, you know, a sense that we need it to.  

Denis Kurmanov [00:08:45] Totally.  

Shira Kline [00:08:46] Totally. Was there any moments where Judaism, you know, your Jewish identity, your Jewish studies or Jewish community or even Jewish ancestral roots played the role of holding you? You know, was there a part when you were able to, when you found yourself in the Jewish…with your Jewish identity at the forefront, you know, as that was developing? Can you talk a little bit about that?  

Denis Kurmanov [00:09:12] Yeah, so we're going to fast forward to about when I'm like twenty four, twenty five and I'm entering the bar world. I'm, I'm doing the industry work.  

Shira Kline [00:09:23] Oh right, cause you're a bartender.  

Denis Kurmanov [00:09:24] Yeah. Yeah. And I'm really, really excited about it. But also, at the same time, I'm still continuing, just for fun, all this philosophical spiritual reading cause I just can't get enough of it. And I'm kind of lonely and I really want a community. So, but at the same time, I had spent so much time in my head about really specific nitty grittys on theology and all these details that I had given a lot of impact upon myself because I felt that the implications of them were very, very important. Which topics, I can't even remember, I kind of pushed it out of my mind. But I was very lonely up in my head, so I decided that I should do something about it. And I actually wasn't reading anything. I told myself not to. That was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I can't read anything and I have to, like, go explore. It was very tricky. But I knew that the Jewish community had brought me here and I had gone to a Jewish day school when I was younger. So, I had a little bit of experience. And because of all the confusion as to what my spiritual being was at the time, I had a little bit of like, well, I don't know if I am any more or what's going on there, but I do have some Jewish experience and I know there is a community. So, let's go check it out. And so, I slowly did some volunteering work because I really didn't want to just go to services. I felt like I should really probably like hands on and do something. Because it was it was different. It was difficult to read the prayers and pray and feel a part of it. It felt, that's, that takes a process. That's a whole different ballgame. But going and volunteering for me was an immediate, like, excellent. I can be a part of this because I'm here. And my first activity was making little bouquets to go and drive around for congregants who couldn't make it to the Purim…I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry…to the high holiday services. So that was my first activity. And I started very slow and I just met people and made friends. I promised I'd show up and I'd show up. And it was a very slow process of like dipping my feet into the Jewish community. And an opportunity opened up amongst the young professionals. They were like, “would you like to join a board to help us organize things for peers and everything?” And I said, “you know what? This is an opportunity I feel like I should take”. I've been so in my head. I've really wanted a community and really show myself to, like, help out because words are great, but they don't get that far. So, like, I really wanted to go do it.  

Shira Kline [00:12:19] Nice. And it almost sounds like this call to show up.  

Denis Kurmanov [00:12:23] Yeah, that's a great way of putting it.  

Shira Kline [00:12:25] And I want to know, like, would you say that at this point in your life, like as you reflect back and as you see yourself again, you know, in this moment in time, do you think these two sides of yourself really inform each other? Like, you know, do they speak to each other? Do they share a philosophy?  

Denis Kurmanov [00:12:50] My queer side and my Jewish side?  

Shira Kline [00:12:52] Yeah.  

Denis Kurmanov [00:12:53] Or…oh, OK. Absolutely, because it's when you experience certain things, when you're told certain things, when you hear certain things, when you read certain things, and then when you just are. Even for a moment, something. You can't really unsee it or take it back. You can change, but things are carried with you. So, questions have been a very integral part of my Jewish journey and a part of my queer journey. It's been a lot of questions. Sometimes answers, but often, more often than not, it's more of a perspective and then a priority shift.  

Shira Kline [00:13:37] Nice, well...  

Denis Kurmanov [00:13:38] So…  

Shira Kline [00:13:39] Yeah? 

Denis Kurmanov [00:13:40] So, first love myself. And then let's maybe love others. And then, let's be happy in a modest sort of way. And those two share a lot.  

Shira Kline [00:13:50] Nice. I mean, so, so what questions, what are you asking these days?  

Denis Kurmanov [00:13:56] So my question is, are relational pathways…I'm very curious about what sorts of communities impact themselves and what sorts of ways. So, if we open up a book club, how does that impact it? What sort of relations are going to come from that? Are new friends going to be made? Are old friends going to become stronger or are there going to be…What's, what's going to happen? About pushing sermons to become very social justice oriented, this is a new way of interacting on the pulpit and on the bima. And…although not all that new, we've been doing that a long time, which is a great thing. But all these new ways of doing also traditional things and also doing new things traditionally and also mixing it all up. I'm very curious about the results of what happens when that takes place.  

Shira Kline [00:15:03] I really appreciate having heard about your path. It's really interesting and I just, I know that there are people listening who have experienced a similar kind of journey and I'm thinking about today. You know, you told me you're 27 years old and you're loving in a city. And I wonder, like today, what do you personally need to feel whole in the in the Jewish community and the Jewish world?  

Denis Kurmanov [00:15:27] I would love to see a lot more Jewish camaraderie across the movements of Judaism on topics other than anti-Semitism. That would be great. And I know it happens. Of course it does. My newsfeed and Facebook feed, unfortunately, when we get together, it's usually because something bad has happened. And don't get me wrong, I'm so happy that we get together. That's amazing. And that's so important, especially in those times, because a lot of the times when we get sick, our closest friends are like, oh, I don't know what to do. And they bounce. So that's so important. And I would love to see a momentum across the board, because that would be so interesting to have those deep conversations. Maybe put on plays or all kinds…I think it's a great way to do it, actually. And really converse with each other because it may be only for maybe the purpose of hospitality and that things take time and maybe something really crazy, awesome, spontaneous, not evil will take place after all of this. I have no idea.  

Shira Kline [00:16:47] Well, let's just bring a little more art into the world. I'm with you on that one. I'm just, I just want to ask. No pressure. But I wondered if you have any poetry of your personal poetry that you may wanted to share with us.  

Denis Kurmanov [00:17:03] Ah, ooh…  

Shira Kline [00:17:04] I just, I know… 

Denis Kurmanov [00:17:04] Uh, I’ll do two.  

Shira Kline [00:17:05] OK! 

Denis Kurmanov [00:17:06] I’ll do two. So, I'll do the sad one first.  

Here, a changing family portrait, 

Not the same as I remember, 

A couple new faces added, 

And some at rest from life's endeavors, 

I see the lines upon the faces, 

As time does what it does best, 

It gives a mother three new children,  

But takes her father's life instead.  

 

So that's one. The other one is a love poem.  

 

Shira Kline [00:17:31] All right! 

Denis Kurmanov [00:17:32] So, it's called The Thin Red Line. And the thin red line traditionally is a military term in which you are really, really, uh, two battle lines are very close to each other and they can see each other's eyes, like, it's right there. But I turn it into a little different metaphor. So, it goes like this: 

The thin red line of union grows from a place unknown, 

And ties itself around the pinky's of two unsuspecting souls, 

The tension that is felt on the fingers as they pull, 

One soul toward the other, 

On a thin red line of wool, 

It can be broken, snipped and zag too low, 

And all of these threaten the union of the souls, 

But union is greater than the two and stronger than imagined, 

For God intends the line for the sake of divine passion.  

 

Shira Kline [00:18:23] Wow. This sound booth that I'm sitting in just lifted a bit. Thank you.  

Denis Kurmanov [00:18:29] Oh cool, of course. 

Shira Kline [00:18:30] That was awesome. I'm so glad I asked. All right Denis Kurmanov, I got one more. I want to know, what's your what's your queer Jewish superpower?  

Denis Kurmanov [00:18:42] I can turn anything into a cocktail, and I can pretty much break the ice with, like, anything.  

Shira Kline [00:18:49] Take that universe. Excellent. Excellent. That's great. That's a great…what a beautiful…I love it. I love it. I love it. This has been so much fun speaking to you. And just a real honor to meet you today. So, thank you for your time, and um… 

Denis Kurmanov [00:19:02] And thank you for your time and the opportunity. Thank you.  

Shira Kline [00:19:07] All right. Thanks, Denis.  

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:19:15] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of Wholly Jewish. Tune in again for our next episode. And in the meantime, you can find daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, current events and more at ReformJudaism.org. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism and on Twitter, our handle is @ReformJudaism. Hope you have a good week and L'hitraot.