Wholly Jewish: Noa: The Beauty of Taking Up Space

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 season finale of Wholly Jewish season 2, we are joined by NYU student and college organizer Noa Baron (they/them)! Noa shares the personal and Jewish and significance of their name (and their Jewish name-changing ceremony), the importance of deep listening to the queer community, their aspirations as a trans Jewish leader, and the beauty LGBTQ+ Jews bring to the Jewish community. “I think I’ve been able to shed a real sense of fear…and in this, I’ve been more myself in all the ways that I can be,” Noa says. “I want to tell people like me that there is space for us…in Judaism and in the world and that someone like me who lives in this weird in-between space of gender has…the right to exist and the right to take up space.”

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Transcript

Noa Baron [00:00:00] And I said to my sibling, I said, “Am I allowed to be trans, too?”, and I remember them being really kind and really reassuring. And I think in some ways I'm on this, like, constant journey to finding who I am. And it's not a race. But it took me a long time. And it's still taking me a long time to figure out who I am. Yeah. 

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:00:21] 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 Noa Baron. 

Shira Kline [00:01:01] Hello, dear Wholly Jewish community. It's wonderful to be here today. This is Shira Kline. I use she/her pronouns and I'm very excited to be here today with Noa Baron, who I believe is calling from home in Chicago, but is a New Yorker and NYU University student. The exciting thing about being here with you today, Noa, is that it's our second interview and it's really an honor, because the last time we met, you used a different pronoun and…  

Noa Baron [00:01:32] I did.  

Shira Kline [00:01:33] Yeah, and a different name. So, Noa, it's really an honor to be here with you today. And I'm really glad that we get to do a second interview. So, we get to meet you today and who you are. So, Noa, I believe that you've been really on a kind of a journey of gender and identity. Would love for you to tell us about how you identify today.  

Noa Baron [00:01:56] Yeah. So today I identify as a queer, non-binary Jewish person. That's not how I've always identified, but that's how I've always known who I am. I think, in some ways. And I’ve just recently found that I've had the strength to use those labels. And that's where I am today. Yeah.  

Shira Kline [00:02:16] From where you sit today and all of your wisdoms of learning. How do you even define queer, personally?  

Noa Baron [00:02:23] I think queer for me is being able to be outside of the box in terms of gender and sexuality, not having to fit in one category necessarily, but letting myself kind of flow between them and not having to sit in one little section, but understanding that I can be expansive and nonconforming, and…yeah.  

Shira Kline [00:02:49] Can you tell us a little bit about, like, when did this path appear and open? 

Noa Baron [00:02:57] I think in some ways I've always known this is who I am. Since I was little I've known that I didn't like associating with masculinity or femininity all the way. But it was really, I think, on Trans Day of Remembrance last year, which I think is in November. And I remember seeing all of these social media posts everywhere honoring the memories and the lives of trans people. And I think I thought to myself, you know what? I can't keep living inauthentically. I owe it to all of these trans people who have lived before me to live as myself. So, the first person I remember texting, I think was my little sibling who is actually trans and who's been out since they were like 11 years old or 12 years old. And I said to my sibling, I said, “am I allowed you to be trans, too?”, and I remember them being really kind and really reassuring. And I think in some ways I'm on this, like, constant journey to finding who I am. And it's not a race. But it took me a long time and it's still taking me a long time to figure out who I am. Yeah. 

Shira Kline [00:04:05] Wow. It's really moving that you got such, you know, shared reality with your sibling. That's amazing. And so…I think…which pronouns do you use now? 

Noa Baron [00:04:20] I use they/them pronouns.  

Shira Kline [00:04:23] And how are you finding that? Like, how has your reality changed?  

Noa Baron [00:04:28] Sometimes I’m finding it difficult, but I also find it very empowering and very beautiful. I think it's very beautiful to live in the in-between and that people like myself who live in the in-between have a lot to teach and offer the world. It's sometimes difficult because not everyone understands how to use they/them pronouns. Teachers and friends and colleagues don't always understand, but it's a learning process for us all. And I'm willing to learn and grow with the people alongside me. So, it's been wonderful.  

Shira Kline [00:05:03] What I'm wondering is, what about the Jewish part of this? Is Noa, you know, you've chosen a Hebrew name that has a beautiful depth and mythological storyline as well. Noah is seen sometimes as a visionary and a source of peace and comfort in the world. And, like, tell us a little bit about how this is a part of your Jewish journey.  

Noa Baron [00:05:28] Yeah. So, the name was picked super deliberately. It's a name that’s just, like, resonated with me for a really long time. A long time, I think, before I even knew the biblical stories that accompany the name. And I picked the name because of two different stories actually of Noah, not just the story of Noah of Noah and the ark, but also the story of Noah, who is less known, but is one of the daughters of Zelophehad. And these two stories, remind me of stories of my ancestors who I was originally named after when I had my name before. So, the story of Noah, who is the daughter of Zelophehad, she is, um, she goes up to Moses with her four or five sisters and they together ask for property rights after their dad dies. And for me, this is a story of, like, women advocating for themselves. Not often seen in the Torah a ton. And it, like, reminds me of the story of my great grandma, Doris, who is this, like, strong woman who was always advocating for herself. And she was like, you know, this kind of awesome woman who was really like with it. And she had the strength in her that sounds like Noah to me. And the other reason I picked Noa was because of the story of Noah that people know of Noah's Ark. And you the well-known part of the story is that the Noah saves all the animals, a pair of each animal, but at the end of the story, God creates a rainbow. And I’ve always really loved rainbows. And I was I was named after my mom's, my mom's uncle Danny. And he was a gay man. And he died in the 70s or 80s when it was a really hard time to be a gay man. And so, for me, when God creates that rainbow at the end of the story of Noah, that reminds me of my uncle Danny and reminds me of like rainbow people or something to celebrate. And that I’m something to celebrate. And so with these stories, this name was picked so deliberately. And then they get to carry the stories of my ancestors, and my name is something that I find really holy and beautiful.  

Shira Kline [00:07:44] Yes. What a great teaching. And thank you for bringing that just like sense of…so how…partly what I'm wondering is, how has your queer identity changed? And again, like I'm wondering how this is connected to your Jewish identity, I'm curious, like if you…do you ever feel like you are queering your Judaism or does it, does your Jewish identity inform your queer identity? Like, where do these two, kind of, where did those particular flowing paths, where do they meet?  

Noa Baron [00:08:16] Yeah, I do feel like they're connected in, like, a really intertwined way. I feel like at this point I can't really piece out which part is queerness and which part is Judaism, because they're so like deeply connected with each other. Like, actually when I changed my name, I had a ceremony, a Jewish ceremony, a Tekes Ma'avar - a ceremony of transition - with a rabbi. And for me, that was just an important moment of like queering my Judaism and Jewing my queerness, of like bringing it all together in this culminating beautiful moment. Because, like, for me, being queer and being Jewish are both such important parts of who I am. And to be able to celebrate them together is such an important part of who I am.  

Shira Kline [00:09:04] Tell us a little bit more about that. Tell us about the ceremony.  

Noa Baron [00:09:07] Yeah, so I wrote it with Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, who, who's the reform rabbi at the Bronfman Center at NYU. And it was part of a Havdalah ceremony. And it was honestly one of the most gorgeous things I've done my entire life.  

Shira Kline [00:09:26] OK, hold on, hold on. Tell us. OK, so you just dropped a really good word that has to do with flow and transition. And that is Havdalah.  

Noa Baron [00:09:33] Yeah.  

Shira Kline [00:09:34] Can you remind us a little bit what is Havdalah and when does it happen? What does it mean?  

Noa Baron [00:09:38] Yes, so Havdalah is the ceremony that separates Shabbat from the rest of the week. We light a candle with multiple braids in it and we smell spices to bring in the sweetness of, to remember the sweetness of Shabbat. And we drink wine, and we say blessings over all of it. And it's a, it's a ceremony of change, of in-betweens, Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath with the family in-between, between Sabbat and the rest of the week. And so, we, like said, a blessing over change. And I spoke about the name. And Rabbi Nikki wrapped me and my family in a Talit, in like a ritual garment with fringes on it, and gave us a blessing. And then we say the blessing over seeing a rainbow. And it was really so beautiful. A beautiful ceremony. Some of my friends were there. And it was a very touching moment in my life.  

Shira Kline [00:10:44] Like, what do you feel like you have been able to shed? You know what is, like, what have you been carrying all this time, that you're learning is no longer necessary to you?  

Noa Baron [00:10:54] Yeah, I think I’ve been able to shed a real sense of fear. I think I’ve been afraid of being judged or afraid of being what it means to be like, well, not true to yourself. It's scary to show the world who you truly are. But I think I've been able to shed that, and in this, I’ve been more myself in all the ways that I can be. Yeah.  

Shira Kline [00:11:24] Well, you're just a gigantic bright light, and it’s really special to be here with you. All right. So, tell me what's on your mind these days. You know, like, you know, with this, you know, I can see clearly now the rain has gone like, you know what, what are you seeing anew these days? Like what's on your mind as a queer Jew? You know, what do you think, what are you seeing?  

Noa Baron [00:11:53] I think what I’m seeing is I wanna tell people like me that there is space for us in Judaism. I think for a while I wasn't totally sure. And for a while, I think a lot of people aren’t always sure. But there is space for someone like me in Judaism and in the world and that, like, someone like me who lives in this weird in-between space of gender has the right and the right to exist and the right to take up space. Yeah.  

Shira Kline [00:12:25] OK, let's dig into that a little bit more. Like tell us more about that. Like what, what do you mean? There's a place for people like us in Judaism. What do you mean, what are you holding there? 

Noa Baron [00:12:36] There are prayer books coming out for LGBT people and there are ceremonies coming out like the ones that I did, for people like me and that there are wedding ceremonies that are adapting. And how there are communities that are creating rituals and adapting and creating space for people who look different than people who came before them or people who always have looked like us, but now we're recognizing them.  

Shira Kline [00:13:05] So what does that mean? What are you saying about Judaism as it stands, or like as it was given to you as a child? Like, what were the indicators that there wasn't room for that? What are you seeing in that, like, huge shift?  

Noa Baron [00:13:21] I was lucky enough to grow up in a pretty liberal congregation, so it was never explicit that there wasn’t LGBT friendliness. But never explicit that there is LGBT friendliness. And I think that explicit celebration of LGBTQ+ identities is the change, and that explicit, like, saying “We want you here. We accept you and support you and love you”, is a beautiful change and an important change. And I want to see that everywhere in Judaism.  

 

Shira Kline [00:13:54] Mm hmm. OK. I also happen to know that you have dreams of becoming a rabbi or taking on that role one day, and because of that, I, I just want to keep going a little bit. I want to keep unpacking. Like, I want to know, like, what do you think? The non binary, trans, flowing, gender nonconforming, all of that, what are the gifts that this community is giving to Judaism?  

Noa Baron [00:14:26] I think our queer world understands people as individuals in a way that Judaism sometimes hasn't always Judaism is a religion that I think appreciates systems and appreciates structures. Which is something I always have loved. We’re a religion that is made up if laws and made up of structures and holidays and rituals. And I love that. It keeps me grounded, it keeps me sane and keeps me...makes me in love with the world, in love with time. But queer people see, people, I think, because each of us is so colorful and so different. We see individuals for the colorful people that they are. So, we can combine both the regimented division of time with the colorful, sparkly-ness of queerness, and then you get something really beautiful together with that. And like URJ, the Union for Reform Judaism, is doing a lot of cool work. And a lot of different places in Judaism are doing a lot of really cool work. I see a lot of young Jewish people doing cool stuff. Like I run a minyan at my…a group of Jewish students at my university at NYU, and we’re just figuring out ways to adapt to student’s needs. I participated in a queer Talmud program that was amazing. Lab/Shul does a bunch of really cool stuff, that just kind of has queer energy. There’s just so many beautiful queer things happening in the Jewish world. And that makes…warms my heart and it gives me hope.  

Shira Kline [00:16:08] It's like, it's like everywhere you look, you are able to see the rainbow. All right, Noa, let's just take a like a larger view out for one second. How can we, how can this feeling, this sort of elated feeling of like evolution and love and radical acceptance, which embraces both the old and the new and the unknown, how do we hold space like this, like you said, for Jewish communities everywhere that aren't necessarily in New York City, where there's a plethora of local queer leaders just renegades, you know, doing their work unabashedly? I'm thinking like, in other in congregational life, like, what do you want to see out there that will help us change from other to all?  

Noa Baron [00:17:02] I think I really see people listening to queer people and young people, because they are everywhere, right? There are LGBTQ+ people in every community, even if they're hidden or closeted. And they are in every community, pretty much, I think. There are young people in every community and they have ideas and they wanna be heard. So, I'd love to see them being listened to and their voices being amplified, because I think that's the key to turn change into evolution, is listening to each other and listening to the people who aren't often listened to in our communities. And that includes People of Color in our communities. That includes Jews who have converted. That includes Jews who are single. That includes Jews who are from interfaith families.  

Shira Kline [00:17:54] Mm hmm. Can you remember a time when you yourself experienced like change and growth from really good deep listening?  

Noa Baron [00:18:02] I think it's a constant thing. I don't think it's like one time. Yeah, I think that's why I can't think of individual stories, because I think deep listening, it’s really not a one-time event. I think it's a constant process. And it's not easy. It takes constant work to listen deeply to people. To actively listen to someone is actually not, I think, instinctual, for me at least. I often listen to respond and don't listen to listen. And so, when I listen to listen, instead, and to actually hear someone, I see them deeper. I see them on a deeper level. And so, I think trying to do that all the time, I better understood people. And I better understood, like, where people are coming from. And I have more empathy for people. But I don't think it's like, I don't have a single story of doing that. I have a constant practice of doing that all the time.  

Shira Kline [00:18:57] Yeah. And it's like a meditation almost to remind yourself. If you had to just narrow it down, and by narrow down, I mean expand exponentially, what would you say is your Jewish-queered superpower? 

Noa Baron [00:19:14] Oh goodness, my Jewish queer superpower? 

Shira Kline [00:19:16] Yeah. 

Noa Baron [00:19:17] I actually think it has something to do with rainbows. I have to think of something specifically off of that. Um, either seeing rainbows in people, maybe seeing everyone's rainbow? Like that everyone has a rainbow within them, that they are each beautiful and diverse and magical and sparkly in themselves. Yeah, I think that's my Jewish queer superpower.  

Shira Kline [00:19:43] Love it! 

Noa Baron [00:19:43] I think that comes from Judaism and queerness.  

Shira Kline [00:19:45] So, it's been such a pleasure and thank you for calling us back and saying, “Hey, we need a second round of this interview”. It was a really wise and bold choice. And I think all of us here are really grateful to get to know you and to continue to know you. So, let's stay in touch. And it's really been an honor to speak with you today. Thank you so much, Noa.  

Noa Baron [00:20:11] Thank you so much.  

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:20:14] 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.