A Queer Eye for the Jewish People
Erev Rosh Hashanah 2012
Rabbi Dawn Rose
Last year I began having an issue with my eyes. They didn’t seem to be looking at the same things in the same way anymore. I went to an ophthalmologist who told me that I have optical dysphoria. He explained that’s when your eyes become restless and stop working in sync. It’s like there is a traditional and biological expectation of what the eyes are supposed to do, and then there is what the eyes are actually doing. Luckily, he explained, they can make corrective lenses with prisms to help my eyes work together. That’s what these are, and they work very well.
At first, I was a little put off over this eye situation. However, I soon realized there were at least three major advantages to having optical dysphoria:
1. Now I have yet another thing in common with Barbara Streisand.
2. When people find out about my optical dysphoria they want to see it happening—admit it, you do too—which means that when they talk to me, they look straight into my eyes, and, frankly, as a rabbi, that is exactly where I want you.
3. And—this was entirely unexpected—with these super-duper prism-equipped corrective lenses with frames by Scott Harris, iPod and computer screens, movies, artworks, certain colors, textures, and even floral arrangements appear to me now in 3D.
Today I walk through the world with certain scenes, images, colors, and designs popping out in layers and altitudes with such clarity that I might reach out to verify their shape, size and whereabouts. Sometimes seeing this third dimension is a welcome, even humorous addition to my day. Other times, I find that old symbols and layouts are illuminated in surprising ways.
However, once in a great while, particularly with certain kinds of art, the effect can be altogether unsettling or even frightening. The first time I experienced this was at a coffee shop in downtown Lowell where they frequently hang cartoonish postmodern art. I went in and was utterly shocked by these scary red cartoon characters that came leaping out at me from the walls. What was really weird was that I seemed to be the only one in the coffee shop who noticed.
I confess, once I got past the initial shock, my next thought was, “This is what it is like to be a Jew.” We look at the same scene as anyone else, and we’re the one who sees jumping out at us the threat, or maybe the blessing, the connections and patterns that no one else sees.
This is what it is like to be a Jew, or a gay person, a Cambodian, African, or Armenian, or maybe a mom or a dad. We see the world around us in ways that other people do not. We see danger and opportunity, connections and dis-connects.
Let’s examine for a few minutes how this optical phenomena happens.
Two so-called normal eyes work together to provide a certain balance and range of information so we can walk and function in our environment. That perception, which seems so objective and absolute, is already biased according to where we stand.
For example, let’s consider my homeland, the American West. Of course we all know that the name “The West” was given by people who were looking at it from the Eastern part of the country. To the millions who saw it from the Mexican territories, it was El Norte, the North. Chinese and Russians saw it as America. And the millions of Indians who already lived there, well, just like me, they called it home. What you see and how you name it is literally a product of where you are sitting at the time.
This does not for a moment suggest that what the Easterners, Mexicans, Canadians, Russians, Chinese and Native Americans were wrong in what they saw and named. To the contrary, each group had true information about the land they were entering or already living in. Any complete history of what we in the East call The West, must include all of their perception and information, their stories and their truths.
Because of who we are and where we have been, how our eyes work and what our brain remembers, each of us individually and all of us as a group sees and interprets the objective reality around us differently. Each of us perceives and knows stuff the other doesn’t—and even though there are always contradictions, it’s all true. All those divergent accounts of the same thing are valid and necessary to know the whole Truth. Each one is necessary to the whole picture, whether the subject is a history of the Wild West, the meaning of Moby Dick, or the nature of God, revelation, and mitzvot.
Judaism has always known this. On every page of Talmud there are several rabbis arguing the law. Everyone’s opinion and reasoning is included, even those from previous generations who are no longer present. What are not on the page are any decisions. Long before ideas like pluralism and diversity, Judaism knew and modeled that what was important was not solution but the very respectful process of seeking truth out of divergent standpoints. I think there is good reason for this. I want to suggest that a lot if not most Jews are dysphoric, or at least have dysphoric eyes.
Because of our particular histories, Israel and the Holocaust, Inquisition and Africa, Torah and Mt Sinai, we see through prismed lenses and what leaps out at us from the array is often much different than what a non-Jew might notice.
Further, because we are a responsible people trained to fight for the betterment of the world, we strive to share this queer knowledge to others in a ways they can understand.
A profound example of this occurred in our own back yard.
In 1956, the year that I was born—you can do the math later—playwright Arthur Miller was subpoenaed before the HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee chaired by now infamous Senator McCarthy. Charged as a Communist sympathizer, he enraged the committee with his refusal to name other names. He was subsequently tried and convicted for Contempt of Congress.
That same year, a New York Jew named Arthur Miller, traveled to Salem Mass, to study the infamous witch trials of 1692. Even before his conviction by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Miller had been drawn to the terrible story of Puritan fanaticism, mass hysteria, and perverted justice. He subsequently wrote the astonishing play, The Crucible. It is said not a week goes by without this play in production at least one place in the world. It is a play meant to highlight in 3D the similarities between Puritan witch hunts, McCarthyism, and, the mass hysteria of Nazi Germany. On opening night, the audience was so frightened by the implications of the play that they left afterwards in silence, without even clapping. The play itself is particularly poignant and partially autobiographical, featuring a main character, the farmer John Proctor, who, like Miller, refused to name other names and is thereby convicted.
Seeing the connections between the murder of 19 women, one man, and two dogs in colonial Salem, the extermination of six million Jews by Nazi Germany, and the persecution of artists and writers, largely in Hollywood requires a certain kind of eye, an eye that has been knocked out of lockstep with the so called majority, by being Jewish, by experiencing the Holocaust as something that happened to his people, and could happen again.
Two normal eyes operating in tandem might offer a nice, balanced view of the one thing right in front. However, for most of us, for Jews and gays, Africans and Armenians, the world is not so perfectly balanced, and the most important things are not in front. The circumstances of our lives have given us the wandering eye with which to see imbalance and asymmetry clearly.
I would propose that our optical ability to see and report from those imbalanced places is vital to the integrity and very survival of the human race.
Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, with dysphoric or, if I may, queer eyes set to the second power, being both Jewish and gay—like some of us here tonight—saw in the earth-shaking AIDS epidemic, not a Puritan, but a Mormon, and a madwoman, a Puerto Rican drag queen, a gay McCarthyan lawyer, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg—a woman executed for being a Communist, all in a play about AIDS. Oh, and, thank God, he also saw an Angel. He saw in the midst of plague, the opportunity, the opening, the possibility, the necessity, the very actuality of a really present angel.
Kushner wrote this humongous work of some 10 hours for just 8 actors who all play more than one character, many of whom are of the opposite sex from the actor. All of this queerity and complexity is opened with a story of Jewish immigration to America.
Opening scene, the ancient Rabbi Isidore Chemelwitz of the Bronx Home for Aged Hebrews—in the HBO production played by Meryl Streep, with the teeth and the beard—is giving a eulogy for a woman he never knew, but of whom he can still say the following:
She was…not a person but a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania….
Descendants of this immigrant woman, you can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. In you that journey is.
Kushner spies with his little queer eye the imbalance and dysphoria of American Jewish existence, ever hovering between Old World and New, people or religion, safety and danger, tolerance and assimilation. Throughout the epic production, this spiritual and physical dysphoria of American Jewry will be worked though the central character of Prior Walter, a non-Jewish cross dressing gay man dying of AIDS. Only he doesn’t — die.
At the end of the play, Prior is a PWA, a Person Living With AIDS. He is still very much alive and hoping for another year. He is the goyishe Greenwich Village Fiddler on the Roof, perched ever precariously between life and death. It is his message that brings the play to a close.
This is his final message to all of us; I have interpolated some connective words:
This disease [this Holocaust] will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated, and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secrets deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
Is he speaking here of gays, of PWAs, or is he speaking of Jews? Just as Arthur Miller made clear a connection between Puritan hysteria, McCarthyan witch hunts, and Nazi Germany, Kushner connects Mormons, Jews, gays, and PWA’s in a way that sheds new light on all, emphasizing commonality and connectivity. At the very least, we learn about the Other. Ideally his play brings disparate groups together in a spiritual bond.
It is clear that what was once received as a weakness, optical dysphoria, is in fact a blessing and strength: to not see things the same way as every other person on the planet. Whether from age or trauma, inherited history or a people’s memory, from gender or sexuality, plague and mortality to have eyes that notice in raised relief connections and patterns that few others see is a strength, a blessing, a life-enhancing—perhaps even life-saving—power. Born of whatever circumstance or sorrow, our composite and individual optical dysphoria blossoms into what is perhaps our greatest offering to the world.
But, as it was said by Spiderman, the dysphoric teen swinging between human and arachnid, also envisioned and created by a Jew,
“With great power comes great responsibility.” And as I see it, these are two of ours:
1. To love, honor, nurture and preserve our own eyes and those of every each other: Jew and/or gay and/or African and/or Armenian and/or transgendered and/or PWA, learning and growing, allowing ourselves to change and be changed
2. In the spirit of the Talmud, to model among ourselves and for the world how to treat, honor, and learn from our own and each other’s unique vision—without fear.
In Toni Kushner’s Angels in America, gays face homophobia, and PWA’s face death and abandonment. In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, anyone who is dark skinned or creative or given to passion, or just different is executed as a witch.
We who are gathered here tonight live the in and through the nexus of discriminations and with these eyes that have been knocked out of lockstep, we see the connections clearly. Let us continue our work in building our congregation in multiple truths and in diversity. Then it shall be, to quote the Isaiah, the prophet who was one man or many and lived in Israel while exiled in Babylonia:
Our House shall be called a House of Prayer for all Peoples.