The year is 1999. I am eighteen, and she has just turned twenty-nine. It is my first year of college and I am on winter break, driving towards the snow, and the mountains, to celebrate the turn of the century. It is during this long drive, and on this particular night, when I suddenly understand that I am profoundly, irreversibly in love with her. I don’t recall any particular detail about the exact moment; not what the moon looked like, or what was playing on the radio, or if the heat was cranked up high; I can only remember the feeling of being awestruck. Two days later, and a new decade arrived. Ten years later, and I can still feel that awe if I close my eyes. I hadn’t counted on any it.
It’s hard to know what to mention first: Me being a Jew, her being a Muslim; both of us being Butch lesbians; that I came out at fourteen, and had previously fallen for feminine women; that she converted to Islam at fifteen, and had previously married men. It’s hard to know how to quantify, or to qualify, all of the ways in which that love proved surprising. But isn’t that the way with love? When she and I meet for the first time, I cross four lanes of oncoming traffic to get to her. I do not look both ways, I do not think twice, and I do not realize that this is what I have done until she tells me, months later. Yes, this is the way with love.
There is something inherently political about us loving one another, we two Butches, one Muslim, one Jew, and a decade between us, but I love her, as the saying goes, for sentimental reasons. She wakes up first, and makes the coffee, and sometimes prays in the morning. I am always sleepy in the morning, not yet a daily coffee drinker, and she teases me about being a bad Jew when I eat pork with breakfast. She takes care of me, and loves me. She is so handsome, and so kind, and so patient. People ask me about her being a Muslim; I do not know if people ask her about me being a Jew. During the Millennium March on Washington for gay rights, she wears her kufi, and I wear my yarmulke. We hold hands. Though we don’t often speak of the Middle East, our discussions are filled with trust, and the underlying message remains the same, no matter the content: That we love and respect one another. And I do not know, yet, at nineteen, how unusual any of this is.
In 2001, we attend a queer conference together. The conference is about gender, and has no content on religion of any kind, and non-gender related politics are scarce. During the second day of the conference, first thing in the morning, I look up and see a hand-written sign that someone has taped to a wall: “Israel Out of Palestine.” I feel uneasy; I am twenty, and it is the first time that I have seen such a sign, and I don’t entirely know what it means, who posted it on the wall, or why. There is no other content in the entire conference about Israel, or Palestine, Judaism, or Islam. Without any context, explanation, or dialogue, all I know is that I feel like I have to leave the room.
Later that day, I am asked for the first time if I am a Zionist. I say no right away, before I can even process the question, because I am pretty sure that Zionist is a bad word. Later that year, I learn that Zionist is the word for someone who believes in the existence of the State of Israel. I want to go back in time and say yes, yes–I am a Zionist. I feel embarrassed that I hadn’t understood the word properly. I did not yet know, in 2001, that other Jews—leftist Jews, and queer Jews, in particular—would dismiss me for this belief. I also did not know that signs like the one I had seen posted would come to replace civil discourse between Jews about the Middle East.
The first time that I experience the end of civil discourse about Israel and Palestine is while I am staffing a Jewish teen retreat. It is late at night, in the staff bunk, and another staff member brings up Israel, and Palestine, and the fence. I have just gotten back from living in Israel, and I take a deep breath. I then agree, out loud, that the situation is horrible, that I think the fence is incredibly sad, and that I wished for another way, and, at the same time, that there were many occasions during my stay when I felt grateful that the fence existed. I give an honest, nuanced, answer. The other staff member, the only other LGBT-identified person on the trip, looks me right in the eye and says, “Well, I don’t think we can be friends” and stops the conversation.
I do not tell this person, this person who wants to be a Rabbi, this person who wants peace, about the bomb shelter in the North that I helped to repair. I do not tell this person, this person who wants to teach about love, and about justice, about the years of having a Muslim lover. I do not tell this person that we don’t know each other well enough, yet, to be friends, and I do not say how tired I am, right then. As our chance for intimate discussion is locked away, all I can offer is a run-on sentence, which is: I don’t understand how you think that you can achieve peace in the Middle East when you aren’t even willing to have a totally calm discussion in the middle of the woods with a fellow queer Jew. And I have no idea, at the time, how many times I will say exactly this, in one form or another, over the next number of years.
There is the time that I receive the fear-mongering email about militant Muslims from a Jew I love, and I spend a half hour writing back, explaining how and why this kind of fear doesn’t help anyone, and how there are zealot Jews, as well, and how standing together in solidarity gives us a better chance at peace, and I never receive a reply. There is the time when a friend tells me that my name came up in a bar, between Jews, and the single thing that someone had to say about me was that I was a Zionist. It gets more surreal; There is the week when many Jews in the Jewish non-profit world speak about being afraid to express their personal feelings about any news in the Middle East for fear of losing their jobs; I am careful to say, in an interview, that the view expressed is mine alone, and no reflection on my place of work. I am asked to write this article, and I stall, and I stall, and I stall.
While I am stalling, I spend a lot of time thinking about that love relationship and how it changed me, made me better, made my heart bigger. I think about how it still does—through distance, time, and several lovers now between us, the actual tenor of our relationship, of our love for one another, is very much the same. And I remember how we struggled for words, in the beginning, both of us unsure of what to call each other, wondering what possessive, what moniker, would do us justice. I joked that she was my Trophy Butch, but it stuck; together we created a new language, took time, and love, and fought to find the words that brought us peace.
Over the past nine years, I have been struggling for answers about that first sign taped to the wall. Of course I understand, now, what that sign meant, and I also understand what would make someone want to write and post a sign that reads “Israel Out of Palestine.” But if it wasn’t a discussion then–on the wall, in the woods, over email, at a bar, at work, or in an interview, it’s even less of a discussion now. Discussions no longer even require eye contact; signs posted to walls turned into online petitions, and signs held in protests turned into messages posted on Facebook walls. Recently, I read a status update from an intelligent person who in no uncertain terms asked all of their friends who disagreed on their assessment of Israel as a terrorist state to hit the de-friend button. Is this really what we’ve come to?
In 2010, I attend a queer conference alone. The conference is about gender, has only the religious content that myself and another Jew contributed, and non-gender related politics mentioned are sparse, and center on race, and class. During the second night of the conference, there is a variety show. The show goes on nearly forever, and, right at the end, without any context, explanation, or dialogue, the last person to perform starts espousing their views on the Middle East, in language that ought to make anyone cringe. Does it matter which “side” they slander? It is not a dialogue, and it is not discussion; it is a sanctioned end to civil discourse, and all I know is that I cannot get out of the room quickly enough.
The year is 2010. I will turn thirty, and she—now he—will turn forty. Our friendship and love has spanned a decade. There is something inherently political about our loving one another, one Butch Jew, one Muslim Transman, and a decade between us, but I love him, as the saying goes, for sentimental reasons. He’s always too busy but writes amazing emails well worth the wait, and we lose track of time when we’re together in person. We proof read each other’s work, and sit together in High Holy Day services, and have ten years of stories between us. I am his reference for an interfaith organizing job, and he is how I end up working with Muslims for Progressive Values. When we speak of the Middle East, which has not always been comfortable, or easy, our discussions are filled with trust, and the underlying message remains the same, no matter the content: That we love and respect one another. And I do know, at twenty-nine, how unusual all of this is. Together we created a new language, took time, and love, and fought to find the words that brought us peace.
More articles in
ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by SimonAbramson.com