Wholly Jewish: J: Breaking Down the Gates of Queer Judaism

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.

Being queer and Jewish means something different to everyone, and those differences deserve to be celebrated. This week, J Collins (they/them) talks about being a Jewish storyteller and teacher; their connection, as a Jew-by-choice, to Rabbi Akiva’s teachings;, repairing the world in an oppressive political climate; and the dangers of “gatekeeping” in queer and Jewish spaces.

“[I]n the transgender community, you're often hit with [the question] of, ‘Am I trans enough?,’…And I've been recognizing some of this in the Jewish community as well: ‘Am I Jewish enough?’” they explain. “[But] whether you call me Jewish or not doesn't matter. I am who I am, and you can't take that away from me.”

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Transcript

J Collins [00:00:00] In high school, like Will and Grace or Inside Out, or some of those kind of movies that were heralded as a new way to explore different identities in movies and TV, reinforce this false notion that either you were a straight man or you were a gay man. There wasn't any kind of in-between ground there.  

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:00:20] 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 J Collins.     

Shira Kline [00:00:58] Hey everyone, this is Shira, uh, she/her pronouns. I'm very excited to be here with you, J. I see that you are an educator and a public servant and that you also use the term storyteller as part of your work, and that you are a, um, in part of your teaching, that you work in game design and all kinds of interesting things. So, I'm really excited to speak with you today. And I'm here in New York, but you are, you are further out there. Where are you today?  

J Collins [00:01:26] I’m out here in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.  

Shira Kline [00:01:30] And, um, since you know this our first time speaking to each other, I was hoping you could just give me a little info and also for our listeners, how do you identify?  

J Collins [00:01:40] Like you said, usually I identify as a storyteller, but also I have identified as pansexual for most of my life, and then also came out as non-binary transgender about a year and a half ago.  

Shira Kline [00:02:00] Along with all of the other pieces of your identity, from storyteller to pansexual, will you share with us your gender pronouns?  

J Collins [00:02:07] Sure. About a year ago, I switched over to using they/them pronouns. So, as I tell my students, it's not so hard as you might think. Instead of he picks up the marker or she picks up the marker, you say “they pick up the marker”. The same way that if you found something hanging around in the street, you might say, “oh, look, someone lost their pen”.  

Shira Kline [00:02:28] Nice, leave it to a schoolteacher. Thank you. Dear world, are you listening? That was really helpful. So, I'm curious, can you tell us what does it mean to be pansexual today?  

J Collins [00:02:39] I think one of the things that I've always noticed in my life is that gender for others doesn't really, um, doesn't really trigger for me. I think there must be something that other people see that I don't. Because when I see a person, I see a person, and when I see love, I see love. I don't understand how that fits into or through a gendered lens. And some of that just doesn't trigger for me. And I think for a long time growing up, I always thought that that must be how it is for everyone. Until I started recognizing kind of the society and the invisible walls that are around you saying that, “hey, no, you, you need to like the opposite gender or if you do like the same gender, you have to just like that gender”. Right? This idea that you could love someone as a person and who they are, what they present as, what they identify as, doesn't matter or can change and have that not bother you was something that was, I think, I used to take as a given and have been grappling with what that means to live out in reality.  

Shira Kline [00:04:03] As your identity terminology has changed, has it changed a lot over time? 

J Collins [00:04:10] One of the things that confused me a lot as a kid is that I wasn't given a whole lot of examples. The examples that I grew up with, you know, in high school, like Will and Grace or Inside Out or some of those kind of movies that were heralded as a, as a new way to explore different identities in movies and TV, reinforce this false notion that either you were a straight man or you were a gay man. There wasn't any kind of in-between ground there. And it completely conflated sexuality and gender. So, I think there's been a lot of learning for me. I don't think that necessarily my identity has changed at any point. I think that the words have become more accurate. As we continue to develop as a society, we'll find more ways to help people understand who they are and help them understand their relationship to others.  

Shira Kline [00:05:02] Well, I really appreciate that. Should we try to define queer?  

J Collins [00:05:06] Yeah. I think there, there's a lot of different definitions of queer out there. And that really depends on the context that you're using. There's a very specific area of academic study, right? Queer studies. I think for shorthand, really just anyone who's not both heterosexual and cis gender. Cis gender meaning they are, they identify and express as the gender that they were assigned at birth. I think pretty much anyone that falls outside of that really narrow description kind of qualifies as queer. I don't think they really should be too much gatekeeping going on.  

Shira Kline [00:0543] Can we get to your storyteller identity? Because what I'm curious about is are there Jewish stories that have informed and guided you along the way that you particularly identify with? You know, is there any path where your Jewish storytelling and your life's storytelling kind of hold hands and walk together?  

J Collins [00:06:01] Oh, yeah, for sure. I think that, I mean, if I identify as Jewish, any story that I tell is in some ways Jewish. We, we've been exploring this a little bit in more depth at the um, at my temple. So, I belong to Suburban Temple Kol Ami here, outside of Cleveland. And this upcoming trimester, I'll be actually teaching a class on how to use games to tell our own Jewish stories. I think I was really inspired by the books and other efforts to untangle, um, untangle Torah texts, and find ways to figure out which identities were missing and why, and empower people to fill in those blanks. So, books like the Five Books of Miriam, or other works of that nature. And so, one of the ideas that I brought to my temple was I can teach games, I can teach you how to make a game. Right? And we can teach you how to understand Midrash and other different things, and other sorts of stories that have come out of the Torah over time. Can we teach you how to make games about your own identity and kind of explore and maybe fill in some of your own gaps, in those stories? So, I'm really looking forward to doing that. We'll be working with middle school and high school students first and then maybe onto adults later in the year.  

Shira Kline [00:07:32] OK, so would it be fair to say, I mean, like you said, you identify as Jewish, and so, all the stories you tell are part of your Jewish vocabulary and, and your language. And I'm guessing that, that may be the same as your queerness. And I'm kind of thinking about is there, was there a time when you saw or that you really experienced, can tell us a story about a time when your queer identity informed your Jewish identity or vise versa, like you queered your Judaism or Jewed your queerness? 

J Collins [00:08:10] Yeah, I think those two identities in many ways from - I'm a convert to Judaism or some people would say Jew by choice - and the stories kind of run in parallel to some extent. In that they both happened kind of around the same time and both required for me to do a lot of introspection and think back to my childhood and to think back to my education to say which were the parts that I had friction with? And why was that friction there? And are there better words that I can be using to, to grow from that? I think that a lot of the worry in both spaces, the Jewish spaces and queer spaces, comes down to gatekeeping.  

Shira Kline [00:09:05] Tell me what you mean by gatekeeper.  

J Collins [00:09:06] Yeah. Gatekeeper here just being somebody who says you're allowed in. And for a long time, and even now, I think that there's been gatekeepers in both of those worlds, right? There have been a lot of academics in the queer space who have tried to define what it means to be queer and what it means to be transgender. And said that “some people count and some people don't”, right? So, if you don't have hormone therapy, maybe you don't count. Or maybe if you don't have surgery, you don't count. All of this external requirements, keeping in mind also that a lot of the medical, a lot of the medical research that was conducted was conducted by straight white heterosexual men. And so, for them to come in and to say, “here's what qualifies and puts you into this bucket versus that bucket”. It's rather problematic. Now, again, in the in the Jewish world, if I if I feel like I'm allowed into this space, only if I'm this kind of person, only if I do these kinds of things, it starts to become a problem, right. It starts to become a problem when we say, “well, which rabbi converted you? Because if it's not one that we trust, then maybe you're not allowed to be here right now”. That’s what a gatekeeper is to me, and I think that that just really kind of, it doesn't it doesn't help build our community, that's for sure.  

And so, in the, particularly in the transgender community, you're often hit with these feelings of, am I trans enough, right? If I didn't correct someone when they used the wrong pronouns for me, does that mean I'm no longer transgender, right? We know the answer to these questions, but they're the things that are in the back of your head, right? This nagging "well maybe you're just faking it. Maybe you're just doing it for attention". These insecurities that you see widely across the transgender community, because of the constant social reinforcement that you maybe shouldn't be trans. And I feel like and I've been recognizing some of this in the Jewish community as well, am I Jewish enough? Now as a convert, I don't get much of a Jewish jokes that are told to me. I have no Jewish family. I have no Jewish background. I didn't know anyone who was Jewish until I graduated from high school, because of the community that I grew up in. And so, somebody makes a joke about Ashkenazi food to me, it’s totally over my head, right? I don't know Hebrew very well, if at all, depending on your…how you would consider it. I'm learning. I'm learning rapidly. And I think one of the stories that really helped me feel like, you know, no matter what anybody else says, like, I am welcome here, was really the story of Rabbi Akiva. Because guess what, that’s what he did too, right? So, I'm sitting there with my small children learning my alphabet at the same time, same time as they are. And I think that's OK. But to these, to these folks and these beliefs out there that like, well, if you didn't do this or you haven't, you don't know that word or you don't do this and maybe you're just not Jewish enough. I don't think I buy into that too much.  

Shira Kline [00:12:19] Jay, will you we take a step back and tell us the Akiba story? And feel free to tell it from your perspective today, like if you are the storyteller. How is this your story?  

J Collins [00:12:38] Sure. I mean, no big ask there. I'm sure I'll get everything right. Please don't send me any mail with corrections.  

Shira Kline [00:12:49] OK. No, no. In fact, I am not even as interested in the traditional version of this story. I'm interested in your version of it.  

J Collins [00:12:58] Yeah, I think, I think that the two images…I'll give you images, um, here. The two images that really stick out with me: one is of Rabbi Khiva, who is this kind of hapless shepherd, right? Out doing his thing and eventually one day he decides to study Torah. And this image of him sitting with, sitting with the other children, I think at the time, he's, he's over 40, right, depending on the story that you hear. Sitting on the floor with other children, learning the bare basics, right? And then going from there to really becoming one of the most well respected thinkers, great legendary thinkers of Jewish philosophy. I think that is a clear sign that Judaism is a place that can welcome people who come through it later in life. And that's not always the case with different cultures, different religions. So, I think that image really sticks with me. And I think the other image that sticks out for me is the old story of when he goes and finds a well that has been carved out over years, centuries, whatever, from dripping water. And the inference that he takes from it, as he's as he's staring at this natural phenomenon is that if water, which is soft can carve out the stone, which is hard, then how, how much the more so can the, the iron words of the Torah carve out a place in my heart? And I think I had that moment when I, when I was talking to a Rabbi for one of the first times ever, and I had no idea what I was talking about. And she and she mentioned like, “well, just so you know, you're not Jewish, right? You haven't converted. You're not Jewish”. I said, “I understand, but you can't take this away from me. Like you, you've given me this knowledge. I found it, actually. And I found these words and I found these stories. And these have changed my life. And whether you call me Jewish or not doesn't matter. I am who I am, and you can't take that away from me”. So, I think those are the two, two stories in particular from Rabbi Akiva that stick out to me.  

Shira Kline [00:15:18] Wow, these are really powerful images. And especially thinking about the water as it, because, you know, as, as it makes me think of what you were talking about at the beginning in terms of the, the flow of identity and really how it just how strong it is. And I, you know, I'm, I want to know, like, what's on your heart these days? You know, today, what are you thinking about in the, um, as a, as a queer Jew, as someone who interacts with children and, you know, clearly has your eyes open in a greater world and the cultural evolution like. What do you think is important these days? What are you thinking about?  

J Collins [00:16:04] Yeah. I think that a lot of times I go back to this moment that happened right after President Trump was elected. Um, it was the day after, actually. And at the time I was working at the U.S. Department of Education and I went and of course, we were still working under President Obama at the time. But the election that happened and a decision was made and we knew that we had to begin preparing for what would happen afterwards. And all throughout D.C., particularly in the federal worker community, there were, there were a lot of tears, a lot of people were crying. And a colleague of mine came up to me and said, “We, what have we done these last eight years? We've been talking to these kids in schools and we've been saying that it's OK. You can tell us. You can tell us if you're queer. You can tell us if you're a migrant student. You can tell us if you're an immigrant. You can tell us if you are having problems. And we'll be here because we're here to help you. And everything that we've done so far has just made one giant data collection that can be used to harm them later”. And certainly with the ICE raids and everything else, we've, we've seen some of that come to, come to fruition. I think the thing that I think about…what I work towards most often, is thinking back to the ideas around hope that we had during that administration and trying to fulfill the promises that we left on the table.  

Shira Kline [00:17:41] Thanks, J. I'm thinking about ways in which your Judaism informs that, bringing hope closer to the surface, how the Jewish community supports this or not. You wanna talk about that a little bit?  

J Collins [00:18:03] Yeah, I think it's, it's overwhelming. Right? We all deal with this right now, whether it's thinking about the plight of immigrants at the border or climate change or everything, and so it can really kind of take over your life and really drag you down. So, you know, Pirkei Avot, right? There's that phrase and I'm sure I won't get every word, right, but it's not for us to solve it, but it's not for us to ignore it either. So, you know, I try to make a difference where I can and I try to help as many people as I can. And I try to, I try to give that to my children, too. Right. So, when we're walking along and one of them finds trash and throws it in the trash on the street and throws it into a trash can, Tikkun Olam, right? Like, it's the tiniest thing. But maybe if everybody's doing some tiny things, we can, we can at least say that we're trying. So, I think that there's a strong correlation here between Jewish thought and finding hope and in times that are not so great. Certainly we have plenty of those in our own history.  

Shira Kline [00:19:15] Yes. And I really appreciate that you brought up Pirkei Avot, the wisdom of our ancestors. And you're also making me think of something I like to refer to as Pirkei Yeladim, like the wisdom of our children. Thinking about looking back and looking forward and Tikkun Olam, a really foundational Jewish concept about the healing and repairing of the world. I would sign off there, but I really want to ask you one more question. What would you say is your queer Jewish superpower?  

J Collins [00:19:52] My superpower is having a different perspective. I started to think when I first started hanging out in Jewish circles that I might be the only person who became Jewish without a um, without a family connection to Judaism, without a spouse connected to Judaism or any other sort of connection. I mean I didn't get my DNA results back, right, and found that there was some kind of Ashkenazi connection or anything like that. I just found this wisdom hanging out there, realized that I had never really understood what it was about. And really, the community that I grew up in didn't really understand that either and, um, found that there were people thinking about the things that I'm thinking and have been thinking about these things for thousands of years. It was kind of a relief, actually. I didn't have to come up with everything on my own anymore.  

Shira Kline [00:20:53] Feeling, feeling good to be in this world with you J. Thank you. Thank you for your time today. Thank you for sharing with us. And it's really been an honor to meet you and can't wait to hear more of your stories. Thanks J.  

J Collins [00:21:05] Thanks so much for having me. And looking forward to listening to the other folks on this podcast.  

Shira Kline [00:21:10] Right? Me, too.  

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:21:13] 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.