Wholly Jewish: Eliana: Gender Diversity is So Jewish

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.

On the premiere episode of Wholly Jewish: Season 2, we hear from Eliana Rubin (she/her). Eliana (who went by Elias at the time of this episode’s recording) talks about when she first connected with her nonbinary transfemme identity and her desire to create more queer-inclusive classrooms. "I find that identifying as a Reform Jew and a queer person...are two parts of me that are so integral now to my core identity," she says.

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Eliana Rubin [00:00:00] And I said, “well, actually, we have more than two genders in this class”. And he said, “no, we don't”. And I said, “Yeah, we do”. And I raised my hand.  

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:00:08] 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 speaks with Eliana Rubin. You'll notice that Eliana goes by Elias in this episode, but she's been playing around with her names and preferred that we introduce her with this one. We were happy to do it. We hope you enjoy it.  

Shira Kline [00:00:57] Hey, everyone, this is Shira. Uh, she/her pronouns and I am sitting across from Elias Rubin.  

Eliana Rubin [00:01:04] Hello.  

Shira Kline [00:01:04] Hi!  

Eliana Rubin [00:01:05] Hi!  

Shira Kline [00:01:06] I've been very much looking forward to meeting you. I know that you are a local New Yorker.  

Eliana Rubin [00:01:11] Yes, Bushwick.  

Shira Kline [00:01:12] Oh, me too! Oh, no, I just moved from Bushwick. I lived there 10 years.  

Eliana Rubin [00:01:15] Oh c'mon.  

Shira Kline [00:01:16] Sorry, Bed-Stuy. Bed-Stuy. But, OK, that'll be our next conversation. But I know that you are a freelance Jewish educator...  

Eliana Rubin [00:01:25] Yes.  

Shira Kline [00:01:25] And I think maybe an artist educator...  

Eliana Rubin [00:01:27] Yes.  

Shira Kline [00:01:27] That's what I like to say. A student of theater and a practitioner, an actor, and a graduate with a BFA in drama.  

Eliana Rubin [00:01:36] In drama. Yup, yeah, from Tisch School of the Arts. Experimental theater wing was my studio.  

Shira Kline [00:01:39] Alright. Well this is an invitation to bring some of that drama into this.  

Eliana Rubin [00:01:43] Oh, it comes with me everywhere I go, so...  

Shira Kline [00:01:45] OK. All right. Bring it on and tell me a little bit about yourself. You know, I want to know for the sake of this, this is a Queer Jew podcast. And, I want to...we're going to talk about all kinds of things. But tell us first, just, like, how do you identify?  

Eliana Rubin [00:02:01] Sure. I identify as a non-binary trans-fem person, gender wise. And sexuality wise, I identify as gay. And my pronouns are they/them, and I use she/her when I am presenting femininely. 

Shira Kline [00:02:14] Um, and today, what are you presenting as?  

Eliana Rubin [00:02:15] So today they/them, I guess. I've also been thinking about this a little bit recently, because like what does it mean to present in one way or another, because everything is so fluid.  

Shira Kline [00:02:24] Yeah.  

Eliana Rubin [00:02:26] Do you want me to explain what non-binary and trans-feminine means?  

Shira Kline [00:02:29] Well, I think so, because especially as you just noted, you know, it's, like, what a great thing to point out. Like, you just saw it. Like, if you're non-binary, then what would it mean to present as one of the other? 

Eliana Rubin [00:02:39] Yes.  

Shira Kline [00:02:39] And this is so fun. And I personally think about this every day of my, you know, dress up and walk out costuming life, so yeah, get into it.  

Eliana Rubin [00:02:47] Yeah. So. So, to be non-binary. Okay. Back up. There is a gender binary that exists. Male and female. It's just what has been and what is currently, like, I guess quote unquote the norm. To be non-binary means that I fall outside of male or female. I don't really fall on the spectrum. But at the same time, I kind of fall everywhere on the spectrum, is the way that I like to think about it. There's also a phrase called gender queer or gender fluid, and then trans-feminine means that I identify on the trans scale, but not fully as a transgender woman. I was born and assigned male at birth, which means the sex organs that I have correlate me to a male. But my gender identity, which is the way that I personally perceive myself, does not align with what is on my birth certificate. My gender expression, which is the way that I show myself fluctuates from day to day. So, like yesterday I wore a dress and stockings and makeup, and today I'm wearing jeans, a button down and a sweater. And so yesterday I would have used she her pronouns. And today I use they/them pronouns.  

Shira Kline [00:03:55] You do have a scholastically rugged look.  

Eliana Rubin [00:03:58] Oh thank you so much, thank you darling.  

Shira Kline [00:03:58] I love it. Ok, well, you know, the most, there's so many fun things to talk about. But, you know, as we get started now that we've kind of, like you, like you said, the everything spectrum. What do you, how, how would you even define queer?  

Eliana Rubin [00:04:17] Oh, gosh. I think that the way that I would define it is, basically, just like outside of the societal norms, I guess. I use it as an umbrella term. So, like for me, my queerness is my sexuality and my gender.  I know for some people queer is not a word that they like to use. For me, it's a word that I have kind of taken, and um, what is the word when, when you take something and then you like put a positive spin on it? Do you know what I'm talking about?  

Shira Kline [00:04:50] Um, well...  

Eliana Rubin [00:04:50] I take it and I put a positive spin on it. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Reclaiming it. I'm reclaiming the word. There it is. And so, for me, queer is a way that I express myself, or many ways that I express myself, that then kind of all come together into this queerness that is me, if that makes sense.  

Shira Kline [00:05:10] Absolutely. Where does the Jewish stuff fit into it? Do you think there is, as a you know, a queer...? 

Eliana Rubin [00:05:19] Yeah, yeah, yeah.  

Shira Kline [00:05:19] Where does Jewish come in? Is it like you go Queer-Jewish or Jewish-Queer?  

Eliana Rubin [00:05:25] They kind of live side by side, but also hold hands, I guess. My Judaism to me is something that I'm still learning about, like what my Jewish identity is. I find that identifying as a Reform Jew and a Queer person, or a Queer Jew I guess, are two parts of me that are so integral now to my core identity. So, I realized my non-binary identity at a Jewish place.  

Shira Kline [00:05:54] Ah, tell us the story.  

Eliana Rubin [00:05:55] Yeah. So, I work at a place called the URJ Six Points Creative Arts Academy, or CAA for short. It's a Jewish creative arts camp. It's the newest URJ camp. It was started in the summer of 2018, which was also my first summer there. My role is as one of the theater arts mentors. So, the camp does a really good job, in my opinion, of combining the arts and Judaism. And it's both performance and fine arts. We have a culinary major and the kids make such good kugel, oh my gosh. On Shabbat, like blows our minds. And during the first summer, so 2018, when everything was like taking shape, during staff week, we were doing this exercise where we were each given a name tag and we wrote down our names and our pronouns. And at the time I had literally never thought about my gender identity in the way that I think about it now. I had, like, considered putting on dresses and, like, maybe wearing makeup, but it wasn't something that I thought I could do.  

Shira Kline [00:06:48] How long ago was this?  

Eliana Rubin [00:06:49] This was two years ago. Yeah. Or I guess last year, like a year and a half. June of 2018. And in my mind, I couldn't quote unquote wear feminine things or makeup because I identified as a cis man. Which I've now realized, like, even cis gendered people are allowed to wear whatever they want and present however they want. So, at the staff week we were given name tags. We wrote down the names and our pronouns. I wrote down "Elias Rubin, He/Him/His". And it was the act of physically sticking it onto myself, and it was around where my heart is, that I had this very intense, short reaction of like, "Aah, that's not right". And I just sat there for a second. And to me, it felt like an eternity of, like, my mind is just, like, racing, but was probably just a couple of seconds. And I took off my nametag and I looked at it and I took the pen. And underneath the pen, or underneath the he/him pronouns, I wrote in parentheses, “They/Them”, and I put that back on and it didn't feel right, but it felt less wrong. The next day we were doing an exercise where we had to get into groups of either masculine or feminine identifying, and as everyone was going to their groups I just kind of sat there for a second, because I thought, well, I identify as both. And I ended up going to the masculine side for a couple of reasons. The first was it was what I felt more comfortable in because it's what I had known for most of my life. And the second one was, it was what I thought I was expected to do. Throughout that entire summer there was just a lot of internal change for me that happened very quickly. I started to ask some of my very close friends at camp to use they/them pronouns when talking about me or with me. I eventually had a conversation with my parents and with my sister about it. And then, by the end of the summer, I think I made, like, a Facebook social media posting, "This is how I identify now". And for me, having this realization and taking these baby steps within this part of my identity happening at CAA was the best way that it could have happened, because CAA is a place that anyone can express themselves in any way that they want. And there is no judgment. We have campers that are on the trans spectrum or we have campers that are non-binary. I have a camper who I admire so much. He is a trans man, but he wanted to play around with his femininity, which I think is so cool because it's like, it's like an inverse of what we know gender to be. And so, for me, combining my queerness and my Judaism is all about acceptance and learning and positive challenges and change. You know, fostering this idea of like we don't have to hold ourselves to who we were as people, we are constantly changing, and we should let ourselves do that. And I think that so many people, myself included for a very long time, are just uneducated about what it means to go through these changes. Something that a lot of cis gendered people, which are people that identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth, a lot of cis gendered people never think about their gender identity because it's just not something that either they've ever considered or they have the privilege of not needing to. But for someone that is a non-binary trans feminine person, I find that I really like to question my gender identity. And the society that we currently live in is, it's not so much that it's like actively against - which in some cases it is, but there just aren't a lot of opportunities outside of one's personal identity to question these things. Like we don't have a lot of, I don't know, like programs or places where someone can go and just like openly talk about gender and sexuality. We have to, like, seek them out or create them ourselves.  

Shira Kline [00:10:47] Was there ever a time when you realized, or maybe that you realize now, that you were "queering" your Judaism or "Jewing" your queerness, like...?  

Eliana Rubin [00:11:03] Oooh, that's a great question. My mind jumps to something that happened like when I was 3, that I don't remember that my mom remembers. I was in preschool in Los Angeles. I'm from Los Angeles and my mom was a cantor at the synagogue that I grew up in. And she was coming to pick me up from religious or from preschool one day. And she walked into the room and I was in a Cinderella gown, just as a three-year-old, you know. And she said, "Elias, it's time to go". And I said, "Okay, mom". And I took off the gown and we left and my "queering Jewishness" or my "Judaism queerness", I think started a long time ago, but it's just kind of like lived underneath. Which is just to say, like, I wasn't aware of it. But the reason that I bring that story up is because there is so much about being queer and being Jewish that live within each other that we might not even be aware of.  

Shira Kline [00:12:04] You know, I wonder what is on your mind as a queer Jew or Jew queer? A Jewish queer. But, you know, what are you thinking about these days? Like, what are you seeing out there, that is just a page turner for you? That is something that you feel needs to be addressed and that you're thinking, like, my community has something to say about this.  

Eliana Rubin [00:12:27] Something that I've been thinking about a lot is the way that we address gender identity in Jewish educational circles. I teach at a couple of different synagogues in Manhattan. Anywhere from grades K through 7. And...  

Shira Kline [00:12:42] What do you teach?  

Eliana Rubin [00:12:43] Jewish education. So Jewish studies and Hebrew.  

Shira Kline [00:12:46] Okay.  

Eliana Rubin [00:12:46] Yeah. Yeah. But like letters and vowels, you know, the basic stuff.  

Shira Kline [00:12:50] Okay.  

Eliana Rubin [00:12:50] But in the Jewish studies areas on Sundays we talk about, like, the people from the Torah or the stories from the Torah. In another one we're talking about the founding of Israel. So, the curriculum ranges from place to place. What I found to be the same throughout all of them is that. Mm hmm. What I found to be somewhat consistent is when I come in presenting as more feminine, usually a comment is made and it's not necessarily a negative comment. It's just, like, an acknowledgement, because I'm going outside of the norm. So, like yesterday I was teaching a group of kindergartners and first graders and I was in my makeup, my dress, my tights and just some shoes. And I was playing around with a couple of kindergartners. And one of them just says, "why are you wearing tights?" I said, "because I want to." And she said, "But you can't do that. You're a boy". And I said, "No, I'm not", and she said "Yes, you are". And then she ran away. I was like, okay, sure. But none of my kids ever commented on the fact that I was wearing makeup or a dress. For some reason, it was the tights that like drew their attention. In another one of my classes, this was actually last year when I was a fourth-grade teacher. I like to use the word y'all when I'm talking to the whole class as opposed to guys just because, you know, break the binary.  

Shira Kline [00:14:16] Yeah.  

Eliana Rubin [00:14:17] And one of my students asked me if I was southern and I said, "no, I just want to be inclusive". And then a male identifying students said, "yeah, we want to make sure that we're including both genders". And I said, "well, actually, we have more than two genders in this class". And he said, "No, we don't". And I said, "Yeah, we do". And I raised my hand. And then we had a very short conversation about how I identify and what it means to use they/them pronouns. And I just wish that there was more conversation, not necessarily like stopping curriculum to, like, talk about gender, but having it be more intertwined within the work that we're learning about.  

Shira Kline [00:14:56] I really am excited by what, what I hear you saying about what could come next. Like what? What could happen if we were to continue to open these texts up through queer theory?  

Eliana Rubin [00:15:10] Yeah.  

Shira Kline [00:15:11] How about like our language for the Divine.  

Eliana Rubin [00:15:14] Mm. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.  

Shira Kline [00:15:15] You want to talk about that?  

Eliana Rubin [00:15:16] Sure, sure. Sure, sure. I think that in the words that we use to talk about God, something that I like to do personally is in my classrooms, is if a student ever refers to God as he, I say "Well actually we don't, we don't know God's gender". And in some transliteration in translation or, excuse me, in some translation uses male pronouns for God. But we don't know what God looks like. We don't know how God identifies. You know, we are all made in the image of God. What does that mean if we're all made in B'tselem Elohim, in God's image, but some people identify as women, some people identify as men, some people identify as both, some people identify as neither or a mix of any of these things. Then like what constitutes God's image? You know?  

Shira Kline [00:15:56] What I'm curious about is what do you imagine is the, like, queer influence? What strengths are we pulling from our queer thinking to help, you know, the evolution of language in Jewish practice?  

Eliana Rubin [00:16:10] Yeah. Yeah. Well, I I think that because queer language is still evolving, like they just put the singular "they" into the dictionary. Like that is now a thing that is, like, nationally recognized.  

Shira Kline [00:16:21] Yeah.  

Eliana Rubin [00:16:22] And language never stops evolving. You know, Hebrew is such a binary language which is both no one's fault, because it's just the language itself, and also figuring out ways on how to make it more inclusive for people that fall outside of that binary.  

Shira Kline [00:16:39] I think that the exciting path that lies ahead is that we don't know what's at the end of the path. What is the overarching goal here? You know, the door has been open, you're in the classroom. These children have the…they're growing up with the gift of hearing wider, more expansive vocabulary. So where does this go? What's your vision for the Jewish community that is diverse and filled with all of these?  

Eliana Rubin [00:17:05] Yeah, I think one part of it is just getting those marginalized voices into the room. I think that it's great to have the education happen in the first place. And I think it's important to have these stories told by the people that lived through them and then experience them. I'm currently looking into grad school for Jewish education. And I'm still learning about a lot of this too, myself. So, I think that there's also something very exciting about not just kids learning about this, but adults learning and people coming up with new ideas and in the classroom specifically. I think that by giving people the opportunity to have these conversations in the first place and to basically say this is a story that's in the Torah. Let's talk about how this could relate to X, Y, Z themes, as we do, and having X, Y, Z themes kind of expand outside of, like, the ways that we normally talk about it. So, like, for example, if we're talking about the story of Adam and Eve and you know, Eve was born from Adam's rib, so woman came from man. Why not? But then we, we talk about there in the portion of Bereshit, both the word "it" and the word "them" are used to talk about the creation of people. So, the word "it" kind of is this idea. But if Eve came from Adam, but both are in the image of God, then does that mean that it was split down the middle or was, or is there a mix, like, is masculinity inherently within femininity and vise-versa, you know? And so, to just keep on creating these ideas and asking these questions to further help educate both the youth and ourselves, I think is really important. Because, you know, we never stop learning. People just keep growing.  

Shira Kline [00:19:03] It's true. And, you know, I just had a session with a student of mine who, we studied that, we studied those exact questions about..  

Eliana Rubin [00:19:11] Really?  

Shira Kline [00:19:11] Yes, we studied how in the first chapter, you know, the two genders are born simultaneously, which some would say is our first intersex.  

Eliana Rubin [00:19:20] Yeah.  

Shira Kline [00:19:21] And the second chapter, you know, we studied how that word "rib". is actually a mis translation of the Hebrew, which really means side. So, like, it's exactly as you suggested. Like, what does that mean. Yeah. And it takes the queer reading, or the, you know, the feminist reading and theory...  

Eliana Rubin [00:19:42] Yeah.  

Shira Kline [00:19:43] To be able to unpack it in those ways....  

Eliana Rubin [00:19:45] Yeah, absolutely.  

Shira Kline [00:19:46] So, it's shift is upon, you know it's happening. I'm wondering as a Jewish queer artist, what's your vision for, you know, what kind of art do you want to make?  

Eliana Rubin [00:19:55] Yeah. I really want to make art that has people walking away asking questions and starting conversations. I always keep in the back of my mind, who is this for and why am I writing it right now? Like, why is this relevant today?  

Shira Kline [00:20:07] There's so many ways in which you are filling this world up as we go, just in the questions that you're asking. And I got to ask you, what? What's your queer Jewish superpower?  

Eliana Rubin [00:20:19] Hoo hoo hoo hoo. OK. It's twofold.  

Shira Kline [00:20:24] Yes?  

Eliana Rubin [00:20:26] One side is the ability to give empathy and to have people that might not have never had to ask questions or live in certain identities, to be able to look at someone that is living in one of those marginalized identities and saying, "Wow, I see you. I don't fully understand what you're going through, and I want to be there to help you".  

Shira Kline [00:20:45] Elias, it has been so much fun to speak with you today. 

Eliana Rubin [00:20:47] Oh my gosh, I've had such a blast.  

Shira Kline [00:20:49] A real honor to have you here and hear about your work. What a pleasure.  

Eliana Rubin [00:20:53] Absolutely.  

Shira Kline [00:20:54] Thank you.  

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:20:57] 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.