Wholly Jewish: Gina: The Path I’ve Chosen

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 Gina: opera singer, recent bat mitzvah, mother and so much more, as she shares her ups and downs on the merry-go-round of her beautiful journey of Judaism. 

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[Pullquote:] I inspire me to be a better Jew. I just want to live with the intention knowing that if I -- if I! -- can be the best Jew, that maybe that question doesn't always have to get asked of me, like, “Are you Jewish?”

[ReformJudaism.org Intro:] Welcome to Wholly Jewish, a podcast from ReformJudaism.org. Everybody knows that there isn't just one way to be Jewish, and there isn't just one kind of Jew. And 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 of the JewV'Nation Fellowship. Today, she's talking to Gina Drangel.

[April:] My first question for you, Gina, is what's your Jewish and-and identity?

[Gina:] Ah, ok. So, I identify myself as a Black, Jewish, woman, mama, human being. That's how I feel. I walk into the world, my blackness is what people see first. And being Jewish is just how I live my life. And waking up every morning and just feeling so whole with my Jewishness and my blackness, it really completes me. Being a mama is one of the most fulfilling obligations that I have ever taken on. And I didn't know how powerful it would be. And now that my daughter is getting bat mitzvah, it's... It feels like the journey is really -- obviously it's not complete, because it would never be complete. But it's at the point where, exactly, where I definitely wanted to go. And now I'm seeing it. And my family tree has now been uprooted and changed in a totally different direction, that my daughter is going to be going forth as a Jewish woman who happens to be Black. I mean, she's going to probably identify herself anyway she wants, but that's, you know, that's how I see it. And, yeah, so I'm filled with so much emotion, this full year was just such a transformation for me, because I got to know myself and accept myself and not -- yeah. That's a real great question. Thank you.

[April:] Can you say more about this year of transformation? That sounds revelatory.

[Gina:] Well, 20 years ago, I converted to Judaism. And I remember the rabbi asking me how would I raise my family? And before Eddie and I even decided to have kids, or, I mean, we knew we wanted a family, but, you know, it wasn't having one right away. But all I kept thinking about was how I really wanted my kids to have a strong identity and a strong sense of self in terms with their Judaism. Judaism and their blackness.

While for me growing up, it was just my blackness, and I had some identity issues with that. And I was raised Catholic, and it just was really hard for me to accept my blackness in a way where I felt comfortable with it -- because of how people reacted, you know, when they saw me walk through doors, or what-have-you. So, I don't want my kids to feel that way. I wanted them to walk through a door just knowing who they are, not having to feel questioned. So, when the JewV'Nation Fellowship came up and came about, I have to say I was nervous because I didn't know if I was really even good enough or valid enough to be a part of it. And so, when that came to be, I allowed to be me more fully, and more holy. And I'm accepting it and embracing it. And that's all part of the transformation for me. There's no turning back for me, there's no -- because, I mean, through the 20 years, I have to say this is the first year that I don't feel any fear. If someone looks at me and says, If I wear my Jewish star and someone says, "Oh you're Jewish."-- Yes I am, you know, yes I am. There's no hesitant feeling, or saying, or should I say that, or I'm going to make someone feel uncomfortable -- no. No, this is who I am.

[April:] And that, just, you know, that hits me so deeply in the sense that just from what I know about you, that you're now the Director of Sisterhood of your synagogue and you've been a member of your board for -- how many years were you...?

[Gina:] Well, I've been a member of the Temple since 2005, but this year was really my first full year as being on the Board of Trustees, and my first year as Sisterhood President. And it's been such a -- that's where all the transformation is happening, it's -- I'm in circles where people saw me as Gina. But now, Gina's actually can make decisions and leading. And yeah. And it's. And that's another step that I didn't think that I could even do.

[April:[ My second question for you is: was there a pivotal moment that affected your Jewish identity?

[Gina:] The pivotal moment for me was when my relationship with my family, my blood family, changed. Because I realized that I am obviously walking through a different path and walking on a different journey...

[April:] And that's a big shift.

[Gina:] ...That, you know, that I was raised in. And trying to keep that connection with them has been difficult. And that's what I feel has been holding me back to embrace me completely on my journey. And this particular year, going through my daughter's bat mitzvah planning and preparing everything, I realized that sometimes, we have to choose our family in order to, kind of, break free. And it's hard to say. I mean, I'm always going to love my family. But in order for me to embrace this -- my whole journey completely, I have to accept that they're not too into it or too comfortable with it. But it doesn't make me a negative person or...it just makes me a growing, fulfilling human being. And until they can embrace that part of me, that that's so.... That's what's hard. And that's going to be a struggle within me for a long time. You know, that's not going to go away. But, I realize in order for me to really, just to really feel free and... is that I have to realize that. So, this past -- everything happened within this year though. I had my bat mitzvah for this year which was really --

[April:] Oh! Mazel tov!

[Gina:] Thank you. Thank you. April -- it was April 27th. Yes. And it was a real powerful experience for me when I was able to read from the Torah for the first time. And it's like a magnet. You know, I felt like I was a magnet to the Torah, it was like it was something that was just already a part of me. And it was very powerful. And I got to sing with the cantor, which also made it really special, and my family, my Temple family is so important to me. And they were there, celebrating me, and my in-laws, who are just phenomenal, were there. And my husband and my kids... Even though I converted 20 years ago and stepped in the mikvah and came out, you know, a beautiful proud Jewish woman. This moment. You know, and what was so great about it was I was a member of the Temple for 13 years. So, and we had, you know the bat mitzvah, and--

[April:] Perfectly timed.

[Gina:] It was. Yeah it was--.

[April:] Bashert. Totally meant to be.

[Gina:] Thank you. Todah.

[April:] It sounds like it's bittersweet and complicated, and I can relate to that in my own ways, in a different sense. And yet amidst that complexity, you're thriving.

[Gina:] Yes. Yes.

[April:] And I can barely keep track of all this. You had your bar mitzvah. Board of trustees -- you're on the board of trustees, you're -- the Sisterhood, the Women of Reform Judaism, president of your synagogue while -- during your bar mitzvah year, the same year your daughter's getting bat mitzvah'd, the same year you're doing this North American fellowship.

[Gina:] It was a lot this year.

[April:] This doesn't even include your full time job!

[Gina:] I know, right?

[April:] Or your husband. Or your son!

[Gina:] It feels, it feels really... I get a thrill, I'm just getting a thrill out of it because I'm doing everything that encompasses my whole being. You know, I just love being Jewish, so I'm always at Temple and always trying to become part of any committee, or what-have-you. And I love singing in the choir. I mean, I love singing, so being a part of the choirs is great. I love, I just love people, so just -- and like I say, the Temple family has really become my family. They really have. As my husband always says, he goes "Now, you know, why don't you just get a job? You know, in the whole Jewish world, so you could just live your full life that way!" I'm trying! I want to!

[April:] And you mentioned you love singing with the choir. What are some of your favorite songs? Either that you sing with the choir or that help your heart sing outside of that space.

[Gina:] Well, singing for me is more like ...prayer. It's real -- it is very meditative for me. For ten years, I was an opera singer, and that was what I did. I have a master's degree in music, and it was really my passion, and I wanted to be the next Jesse Norman, you know, at [UNINTELLIGABLE] Lean's embrace, you know, those were my big things. But I did it, and there was something missing behind it. You know, for me, and when I sing in Temple, it's prayer for me, it's really meditative. And, you know, when I sing with the cantor and I spoke with this about her, and she obviously, she understood it. It's not like I'm performing. It's like I'm being transcended -- and, you know, another place. And it's very, it's very prayerful, and I really wanted to be -- after all that, you know, getting all that experience singing in the Temple. I was like, oh maybe I could go to cantorial school, so, you know, I tried it. And I took one class and I said, "Wow this could be really something," but for obvious reasons. I mean, like I say, I can't do everything, so I try to --

[April:] Or at least not all at once.

[Gina:] Right. Right. So. So, as much as I can get to sing in Temple or in any space, that's, you know, in a spiritual way, makes me feel really good.

[April:] And do you have any favorites of songs you....that help elevate your spirit?

[Gina:] Oh, I love the Hashkiveinu. That's such a beautiful piece, I love that.

[April!] Me too! I love that song!

[Gina:] I wish I knew more classical Jewish music.

[April:] You have time. And you only mean one favorite. Do you have other favorite songs from your childhood that still feed your soul in any way, or, whether it's the song itself or the melody?

[Gina:] I love Whitney Houston. It is like...

[April:] Incredible.

[Gina:] Yeah. If I hear a song like, my father used to love to sing, and he used to play all the records, like the Stylistics and the Motown. And this is one song called "Life is a Three-Ring Circus." It has its ups and downs, like a merry-go-round, go around and around, around, around, around. And every time I hear -- if I hear that song, he just pops up in my head. So that's one song that really sticks with me.

[April:] That's lovely. That's lovely. Thank you. So, this is a two-part question I have for you. As a person who is Black, and Jewish, and a woman, and a mama, and a human being who loves life: What's something that you never want said to you ever again?

[Gina:] "Are you Jewish?" I guess that's it. You know, I just want to be able to not be questioned about that. Which, I mean, I don't think people should question it because, I mean, no one's going to come to me and say, "Are you Black?" You know, because, I mean, they could see a person of color whether you are Black or what-have-you. But they're not going to come and say that to me. But I will always get a question, "Well, are you Jewish?".

[April:] Even though you're so involved in the community and you're a regular?

[Gina:] Well, at my Temple, I don't get questioned that. But if I'm outside of the space and in public and I happen to meet people who really don't know me, and something comes up, like a holiday or whatever, and I say, "Oh yeah, I'm going to have to leave early for Passover, or what-have-you." There's this, like, initial look like.. "Oh." I mean, I had an incident like that at one point, and I felt I needed to explain my story to this person. And I don't think I should have to do that.

[April:] That's fair.

[Gina:] So.... But things but things like that. I guess that's the only. It's just that question, you know.... And people have the right to be curious. But get to know me, you know, just get to know me. Just don't make an assumption.

[April:] Conversely, what's something that you've been waiting to hear, or what's something that you would love to hear?

[Gina:] Something I would love to hear.

[April:] Yes!

[Gina:] I would love to hear so many things! I would love to hear, "Gina! There's an interview for you. The highest Jewish organization of the world!" Well, let me give you the opportunity to learn from me, and learn all the Jewish music that you can! And sing and sing!

[April:] Those are pretty great ones. Anything else you'd love to hear, that you've been waiting to hear?

[Gina:] I'm just waiting to hear my mama say she's proud of me, and she loves me. And that's it. Yeah.

[April:] Yeah.

[Gina:] There's nothing like a mother's love. So... That's the struggle.

[April:] Your life and your integrity and your love certainly merits it. So, I have one more question for you. And you are welcome to answer it seriously and poetically, as you have done with all of the other questions, or you can answer it in a lighthearted way. It's your choice. Or both! It's up to you, it's your prerogative. Who or what inspires you to be a better Jew? And it's up to you what "better" means. Who or what inspires you to be a better Jew?

[Gina:] Me! It's me, it's me. I inspire me to be a better Jew. I do.

[April:] Tell me more about that.

[Gina:] Well, I just do, because if I don't, then my kids won't see it. You know, so every morning, I wake up and I just want to live with the intention knowing that if I can be the best Jew, then maybe that question doesn't always have to get asked of me, like, "Are you Jewish?" If I be the best Jew, you know, maybe people can realize that we are coming in all colors, you know, we're not just, we all are one! If I could just be the best Jew, I can make... You know, my footprint in a way where, just, questions aren't asked. We're just accepted. I'm just accepted anywhere I go, and not to feel like I am an intrusion. And I have to explain myself for.... I could just be. The only way I feel as I have to be -- I have to be better. You know,, so when I wake up, you know, I make sure I read my Torah portion every week, so I can understand exactly what the Torah portion really is about, and just live my life accordingly, and just live in really great, wonderful intentions. And just to embrace, just, everyone. But I'm really doing it for my kids. I want them -- They're great. They're so great, and they are such lights. And when they come home and say, "You know mommy, so-and-so questioned me, you know, they don't understand how I could be Jewish." I don't want that. I don't want that. So instead of finding it, I just have to be better to make it not be so...

[April:] That's so powerful. You know I almost, I envision as you say that. It's like I just, like, the phrase or word that comes to mind for me is like... Catalyst. What I hear you saying is that especially as someone who has chosen this path, that you are the fire-starter, right? That you are feeding this fire.

[Gina:] That's how I feel because, I just, I feel so passionate about. I mean, when I found Judaism and when I read the book "To Life," and when reading that book it was -- it spoke to me. It spoke to me as a person, and how I saw myself already.

[April:] What about it spoke to you?

[Gina:] The fact that we are human, and there's one God, and God and you have a relationship, and that relationship is -- can go so deep that you don't need anybody else. Anyone else. Just you and God are in this relationship. So, when I chose this path, that's how I walk the world. It's me and God in this world together. And I have to say, becoming a Jew has -- I just, I felt my whole Blackness just fall right into place, you know, like a little melting. It just fell right in there. Like, I felt, I just became one. I just became one with myself, because there was a separation being black and being Catholic and being a woman. It was just all the separation inside of me. And when I found Judaism, it just all came together. I just didn't feel all these breaks. It was just one unit.

And, I mean, I just love being Jewish.

[April:] You feel like you embody it.

[Gina:] It's just who I am. You know, it's just -- I can't explain it. Sometimes, I say to myself, I really should take you know that ancestry.com DNA [test] just to see if... What if there is, what if there is, you know, [Jewish ancestry].

[April:] Totally feasible. So many people of color are finding that in their DNA, that they have Jewish heritage.

[Gina:] So, that's something always in the back of my mind, but I am!

[April:] But either way you know it, right, whether or not you see it on a DNA test or not. It is clear to you and to everyone who is in your proximity, sister!

[Gina:] Yeah, you know. Hineni, hineni!

[April: Hineni, Here I am! Here you are! Absolutely.

[Gina:] Yes.

[April:] Gina Drangel, thank you so very much.

[Gina:] Thank you.

[ReformJudaism.org Outro:] Thanks for listening, and we hope you tune in again for our next episode. We would love for you to rate and review us on iTunes, and you can always visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "Wholly Jewish" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

And until next week -- l'hitraot!