Wholly Jewish: Everlyn: Bring Your Whole Self to Everything

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.” Join April Baskin, the Union for Reform Judaism’s former vice president for Audacious Hospitality, as she speaks with Jews of Color who share their experiences, insights, and how their identities enrich and create a more vibrant Jewish community.

In this episode: Meet Everlyn Hunter, a west-coast psychologist who is insightful and honest, refreshingly real, and ready to stand-up and claim all of her "ands".

Three ways to listen:


[Everlyn Hunter] Because I bring all of myself to every situation. So I'm never just Jewish in any one situation. I'm never just black in any situation. I'm never just a lesbian in any particular situation.


 I am all those things at all times.

[URJ Intro] Welcome to Wholly Jewish, a podcast from ReformJudaism.org. Everybody knows there isn't just one way to be Jewish. And there isn't just one kind of Jew. In this podcast, we talk to people about their different identities and how those identities intersect with their Judaism. Or in other words, what makes them Jewish and and? And what makes them wholly Jewish?

This season, the Union for Reform Judaism's immediate past vice president of audacious hospitality April Baskin interviewed members of the Jews of Color Cohort, the Jew'Vnation Fellowship. Today she's talking to Everlyn Hunter.

[April Baskin] It's so great to have you on the show today. My first question for you-- what's your Jewish and, and-- dot, dot, dot-- identity?

[Everlyn Hunter] My identity-- is-- how I choose [INAUDIBLE] I should say-- is for me very much dependent on context. So when I'm asked that question, it depends on who is asking and the context in which I am. So it could be a whole range of things.

So I'm Jewish. I'm black. I'm also multi-ethnic. I identify as a lesbian. So I identify with the LGBTQ movement. I'm definitely female, a cisgendered female. And there is a whole host of other identities I have. Professionally, my identity is I'm a psychologist. I work with kids. There's a whole lot. So yeah, it's situationally dependent.

[April Baskin] How would you say these identities interact with one another?

[Everlyn Hunter] That's a difficult question, you know? We all talk about intersectionality. I don't know. I am all of those wherever I go. I bring my whole self to every situation that I am in. It's hard for me to talk about. The question kind of forces me to prioritize or pull out or make single something that is always a whole.

So it's difficult for me to answer that question because I bring all of myself to every situation. So I'm never just Jewish in any one situation. I'm never just black in any situation. I'm never just a lesbian in any particular situation. I am all those things at all times. So when you say to me--

[April Baskin] And more.

[Everlyn Hunter] Yeah, exactly, and much more. So all of that, all of who I am, exists at all times in every context and informs everything that I do. So it's difficult for me to answer that question because that's just not how I function.

[April Baskin] Right, right. And so what I'm hearing from you is that you really made a conscious choice to choose to live an integrated life. What I've seen in society is that often people with multidimensional identities don't always live an integrated experience. And what I'm hearing from you is that with you-- on your path-- that you've made a conscious choice to live holistically.

[Everlyn Hunter] There was a moment when that was carried home to me, very much so. When I was in college, I was one of the codirectors of the lesbian and gay student alliance on campus. I was also black and involved with some of the programs for black students on campus, as well as the women's center and the women's group on campus.

And I was feeling-- now, this is towards my senior year, where I was feeling very much pulled apart because I realized that I was being asked to check parts of myself whenever I went into any of those individual situations. So for instance, I'd be with black students but felt that I had to check my lesbian identity and also repress to some extent my gender and prioritize, give primacy to, a male gaze in those black environments.

As well as in the women-centered environments also, I couldn't be black. And then in the LGBTQ spaces, I also had to sort of check being a woman and being black in the spaces. And it resulted in my feeling just incredibly pulled apart. On a personal level, it was really hard to not feel whole.

And fortunately, I happened to meet, of all people, Bell Hooks at the time, who had come to our campus. And I had the opportunity to speak to her one on one. And I explained this dilemma I was having. And she was the one who said to me, bring your whole self. You have to bring your whole self to everything.

And I didn't completely understand what she meant at the time. But over the ensuing years and decades since that time, I think I've committed to trying to learn how to do things that no matter how difficult or how much negative feedback I get because it just feels better. And I'm all about being healthy and whole, so yeah.

[April Baskin] Right. And I'm just setting aside my major fangirling and jealousy that you had a personal conversation with the legendary Bell Hooks. That's phenomenal. But my second piece for you, just to elicit a little bit more from what you just said about that journey, is about how that changed for you over time.

Can you speak a little bit more to that as you work to integrate the wisdom that Dr. Hooks gave you? How did that come to have more meaning for you over time?

[Everlyn Hunter] How did that come to have more meaning?

[April Baskin] How did you live into that wisdom?

[Everlyn Hunter] Yeah. Well, an example I guess I should say. So for instance, if I'm in LGBTQ spaces and I'm having a conversation, or something happened to me in the world that is not necessarily specifically about my being a lesbian, I bring it to that space if I feel that it's relevant.

The only example I can think of recently was I happened to be at a Thanksgiving-- last Thanksgiving-- dinner. And a friend invited me to some friends of her's Thanksgiving dinner. And it was a great time, all women of color, all identifying as LGBTQ. And we happened to be in the backyard just hanging out, chatting.

And most of the folks there happened to be in the entertainment industry. And suddenly, the conversation started-- not with me, but with two women within earshot-- about how Jews were over-- there was a Jewish mafia in the entertainment industry, a very anti-Semitic flavor.

And so suddenly, I was confronted with the choice. Do I remain silent? Because if I did, no one would know I was Jewish. Or do I bring my entire self into that space and generate some uncomfortable conversations? And having made a decision that I want to be my whole self, the choice was evident then. I couldn't not identify myself as black, lesbian, and Jewish. I had to.

So I essentially said, you know, by the way, I think you ought to know. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am Jewish. And that was it. And that's all I want to say to you guys. I am Jewish. And I am black. And I'm here. And I went quiet and just waited to see what the response was. And one woman actually came up to me and apologized and said, you know, I get it. And we were absolutely inappropriate. And that was not OK.

So that series-- that's one example of a series of ways that-- because I've made a conscious decision to bring my whole self to whatever situation and whatever environment I'm in. Having that be the goal then reminds me in each moment that I don't have a choice to not, to separate those parts of myself, particularly the parts that are not so visually apparent.

[April Baskin] What's interesting to me in what I'm hearing about-- you're saying that this may not always be the case, but that consistently in making this choice, there's a tremendous amount of courage and energy that it elicits in order to fully show up and to be understood and seen in the fullness of your identity.

[Everlyn Hunter] Yeah, it does. But it also takes an enormous-- there's an enormous cost as well psychically, I think, if you don't show up at each point. At least that's how it functions for me. Because what would happen if I had not said anything in that situation? If I had not revealed myself, I would have walked away.

And I don't know how anyone else deals with stuff like that. But it would have been on my mind for years. I would have replayed that conversation. I would have just worried about it you know, whereas now it's something that I feel has been resolved. I feel OK about how I dealt with it.

So there is a psychic cost as well to not being whole and to not bringing your whole self to it. And for me, that cost is probably greater than the cost of speaking up and bringing my whole self to the situation. I'm not sure if I'm making sense.

[April Baskin] No, you're talking perfect sense. No, that makes-- it's profound to me because it's quite a place to be in. But I'm hearing the moral clarity that you're bringing to these situations, or at least the greater sense of self-awareness that you have about what's at stake in these moments-- that it both requires a sense of courage.

But there also, as you said, is a significant cost if you don't. Can you tell me of a time where you either had a light bulb or a significant shift in your life experience that affected your Jewish identity?

[Everlyn Hunter] You know, actually, yeah. This is before I-- As I'm thinking about it, there's quite a few, actually. But the one that first occurred to me was before I was aware of my Jewish heritage and before I had made the decision to be more fully Jewish in terms of being involved with my synagogue, as well as a Jewish life.

A mentor, I would call her-- I was working in a school for students identified as being emotionally disabled. And she happened to be the job training work person-- an older woman, Mrs. Solomon. And she was just incredibly-- I don't know, giving, enormously wise-- I know, Solomon, wise, right-- person.

So I found just about every excuse I could during the work day to make it to her office. And one day, it was Yom Kippur. And it was going to be Yom Kippur. And she was letting everyone know she wouldn't be at work for the next two days. And we were driving somewhere together.

And I just started asking her. I said, what is the significance of this for you? Because clearly, given what I know about you, you are a person of depth. So what is the meaning of this to you? And she started explaining what it meant to her.

And it was just a profound moment, where I thought, wow. I really want to be-- she explained it, I should say, as a time of reflection for her of reflecting over the course of the year-- which now I know. Then, I didn't-- reflection and going back over who you've wronged, what you've done, and taking time to actually repair any damage that you've made.

And it was just such a profound conversation that for me, something filled inside in that moment that was unspoken. At the time, I would not have been able to articulate what. But I knew something. I felt something profound happen.

And I think it put me on the path of seeking out a connection with my spirituality that I could go back to. And I think that was, for me, the very beginning of coming back into the Jewish movement or really seeking that out. So yeah, that's one.

[April Baskin] That's beautiful. And as you were saying it toward the end of the story, I almost envision like-- my first thought was, a seed was planted. But then I was like, no. That's not the right metaphor. The seed was watered for the first time. It almost seems like that it wasn't clear what was going to be growing or what was going to come to be, but that something received water that needed it and that something was growing.

As a person who is Jewish and black and has multiple additional ands, what's something-- this is a two-part question. What's something you never want said to you ever again?

[Everlyn Hunter] I never want to hear somebody ask me why do-- OK. I'm trying to find the way to phrase it and the way it's been phrased to me. Why would you choose to be Jewish with all these other-- what do you call it-- all these other prejudices against all of who you are? Why would you choose this additional burden? I don't want to hear that.

[April Baskin] Yeah. You never want to hear that again.

[Everlyn Hunter] Again, I think it kind of hearkens back to forcing me to prioritize and pull myself apart all of those identities and not be my whole self. And that's not a place I want to go back to.

[April Baskin] Right. And what's interesting to me about that specific question is that it also has an element of internalized Jewish oppression that has this very negative view of Jewish identity. And why would you ever choose to choose Judaism?

[Everlyn Hunter] Yeah. It is. It does come from a place of that. You know, to be quite honest, I haven't completely pulled that apart-- all of what it means. I just know viscerally, it feels not OK to me.

[April Baskin] Yeah, on multiple levels. Because to me, it both is specifically targeting you in that question, and it also has a critique of what it means to be Jewish. That's a very specific vantage point and perspective. And so on a lighter note, what's something that you have been waiting to hear or that you would love to hear?

[Everlyn Hunter] It's not so much what I would love to hear. It's more what I'd love to experience.

[April Baskin] And what is that, Everlyn?

[Everlyn Hunter] You know, what I would love to experience is to be able to walk into a Jewish space and feel-- without maybe even words or without anyone saying anything-- just feel my whole self is welcomed and understood. And I don't know if-- that might be an interaction of what's said, of body language, of what's communicated.

So I guess it's more an experience that I want-- not to be stared at, not to have these pregnant silences, not to have people be hesitant to talk to me or to be afraid that they'll say the wrong thing. It's all of that. I would love to be in a space where I don't even have to think about it.

[April Baskin] It breaks my heart a little to hear in the subtext of that, which is clearly that you have not felt that yet.

[Everlyn Hunter] I would say I have felt that in moments with individuals, with different people. There are people in my life who are Jewish and with whom I can be that and with whom I feel that. But I would say, in group spaces, I have not necessarily.

[April Baskin] And finally-- and you can interpret this however you like-- who or what inspires you to be a better Jew? That's up to you what "better" means.

[Everlyn Hunter] Rabbi Lee Edwards is currently the senior rabbi at my temple at BCC, Beth Chayim Chadashim. Her and my mother-- they are the only two people in my life, past and present, who inspire me to be the absolute best person, Jew, human being that I can be in all moments, even when they're not around.

And they don't do it because they nag me. They do it because of the example that I see. I can see them living their truth at every moment. Those are the two people I would say who inspire me to be a better Jew, a better human, a better person at every moment.

[April Baskin] Do you have a specific story about one of them that spurred that feeling within you or something of their lived example that blew you away, that wasn't anticipated, or that challenged you and later you reflected and realized that was something that you wanted to emulate or embody?

[Everlyn Hunter] We have an annual awards brunch. And it usually happens around, I think, April or May or something, which is a two-hour trip. It was a four-hour round trip. So we did it. But I thoroughly enjoy kind of hanging out with Lisa. And that was just a great thing to do.

But on the way back, she was asking me about a work situation that occurred. And I was kind of complaining about this one person and how negative this person was and how I just saw all ill intent of this person in every action that they did. And Lisa listened very quietly. She was driving. She listened to me.

And I think I went on for quite a long time about this. It was a two-hour ride. And she said one question that completely changed everything. What she said was, do you think there's another reason why this woman might be doing this other than what you've laid out? And it stopped me in my tracks. It absolutely stopped me in my tracks. And I thought, hmm, OK. I guess maybe I need to rethink this.

And that actually stuck with me because now what I do-- and I myself am even doing this with other people-- is that when I get stuck in a rut of only one way of looking at an issue regardless of what that issue is, I hear her voice say, do you think there could be another way of looking at this? And it's that quiet voice. And so it resonates with me. And I'm reminded at all times.

And I find now that at times, when I'm talking with people and I kind of hear them being stuck in that way, I pose the same question. Do you think there might be another way to come at this or there might be another way of looking at someone's intentions that might not exactly put it in such a light where you get stuck or hardened into a particular position that you can't step out of? So yeah, that's a moment.

[April Baskin] Everlyn, thank you very much for engaging in this conversation and for sharing your insight and strength and clarity.


[URJ Outro] 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-- L'hitraot. See you soon.