When the clergy decided to focus our summer Divrei Torah on profiles in Jewish Living, with a weekly look at an inspiring Jewish public figure, I could have guessed that for one of them, I might choose Elie Wiesel, my selection from last month. I cannot say I expected that I would choose this week’s selection: the Nanny, Fran Drescher. Yet, at the American Conference of Cantors concert we hosted earlier this summer, the hilarious depiction of Fran Drescher moved me deeply. Because Fran Drescher truly knows who she is.
In her interview in the book on which the concert is based, called “Stars of David,” Fran says, “I’m Jew up the wah-zoo.” The foundation of her Jewish identity? She grew up in Flushing Queens, idolized Barbra Streisand (I know the feeling), and her parents did not waste a scrap of food. When Fran pitched the television show, The Nanny, the network proposed she play the character more “Italian.” Meaning: less Jewish. The whole essence of her humor comes from her background, so she said: “This is it: what you see is what you get.” The musical interpretation puts it this way: “Ech, what do they know? If you try to be somebody else, you won’t get very far. So don’t be who you think they want. Just be who you are… Don’t be a third-rate someone else; just be who you are.” Fran knows it and we know it: most of us face real obstacles in our effort to just be who we are.
I recently returned from my 2 weeks on the faculty at our Reform Movement’s Camp Harlam. At camp, I witness extraordinary Jewish education and community-building best practices as well as the opportunity to be embedded in another organization. And Camp Harlam offers a model for something we strive for here as well: safe space for authenticity, a place where people can just be who they are.
At camp, I had the opportunity to teach many different age groups. One session I led was in the K’far Noar unit of 9th graders. The topic was transgender issues from a Jewish perspective, where I helped campers to perceive transgender issues as a case study, for authenticity of all kinds. As you might be able to guess, the adolescents were quite comfortable with the conversation and were educated in LGBTQ issues and terminology. With all of our concerns about the next generation being over-programmed, over-screened and over-parented, they often bring sophisticated awareness and when given the time and safe space, these teen-agers have important things to teach us about authenticity. They spoke to me about how critical it is for people to figure out who they really are, and how vital it is to be a supportive friend when someone comes out to you. And together we explored related Jewish text.
Our Jewish tradition includes complicated texts regarding gender, and other issues of boundaries, that can exclude, and some of these, I reject. Yet there are challenging texts that, with a second look into the nuance, may have something to offer through a progressive lens. In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Torah prohibits a woman from dressing as a man, or a man from dressing as a woman. The law, in Hebrew short-hand called Beged Ish, meaning“man’s clothing,” has long been understood as anti-transgender.
And there are, in fact, many traditional interpretations that would strike us as too exclusionary for our own time. However, a deeper look reveals that Beged Ish might have a modern application today, if not in the letter of the law, then perhaps in the spirit of the law.
Rashi, the medieval Torah commentator par excellence, teaches that the Beged Ish law means, we must be careful to avoid resembling something we are not. That word, resemble, doh-mah, can also mean disguise. We ought not disguise ourselves as something we are not. Here, if we turn the original text on its head, we have a principle that helps us today. For a transgender person might say that dressing or expressing themselves, according to their assigned gender, feels to them as though they are disguising themselves as something they are not. Furthermore, that word, doh-mah, disguise, is also a word for silence. A contemporary interpretation of Rashi’s comment might teach us: we ought not disguise ourselves; we ought not silence our true selves. This reading could actually support transgender because it supports authenticity, saying: Reveal your truth; voice your authentic self. Or in Fran’s words: Just be who you are.
The updated principle I draw from the ancient Beged Ish text illumines challenges far beyond transgender issues. Every culture and every person encounters different obstacles to authentic expression.
At Camp Harlam, on Shabbat morning, two female Israeli counselors read Torah for their first time. I’m guessing they grew up in households in Israel where there was little religious involvement, but the synagogue they didn’t attend, was Orthodox– meaning, they never went to synagogue, but if ever they did, it would be Orthodox. The brothers in those families became Bar Mitzvah with a very simple Torah reading, the girls did not. Now exposed to the Reform Movement, these Israelis wanted to explore their Judaism in a new way. The camp offered to make their Torah readings into a Bat Mitzvah. They were not quite comfortable with that. Still shy about where they were from, what their parents would think and who they were becoming, they were not quite ready to reveal themselves completely. Yet, they did discover an important part of their authentic selves. And although they did not want an official Bat Mitzvah, they accepted our compromise, as we surprised them by throwing candy.
The atmosphere that Camp Harlam creates allows for a safety for young people to both discover and express their authentic selves, in ways I do not always see among teen-agers. In a session in the Chavurah unit with 10th graders, I taught about spiritual freedom from the perspective of internal courage and fear. Some of the fears that slow us down from moving forward are fears based in reality. Others are what Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav calls phantom fears– the anxieties that can paralyze us. In the conversation, the 16-year olds were brave and trusting enough to share their fears with me and with each other. One expressed the fear of entering a new school, another of simply stepping into a social setting and breaking into a conversation. So concerned about their fears about what other people think in the rest of their lives, they were able to thrive in a safe space and actually share those authentic fears without worrying about what those peers would think, in that moment.
You don’t have to be 16 to worry about what other people will think when they discover who you really are. This is not a teen challenge; it’s a human challenge, to decide you ought not disguise yourself; you ought not silence your true self. To reveal your truth; voice your authentic self. Or in Fran’s words: Just be who you are.
The 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber taught: Every person born into this world represents something new; something that never existed before, something original and unique.
As the close of summer draws near, many of us have family, friends and neighbors heading off to college, or starting a new school-year, or another new experience the season brings. As we send them off, perhaps our well wishes will simply be: Be authentic; just be who you are.
Our congregation’s sacred task is to create time and space for us all to discover that which is unique within ourselves. May we in our community empower all of our generations to explore and affirm our authentic selves, and in Fran’s words, to just be who we are.
by Rabbi Jill Maderer