|The author, in a favorite shabbos skirt.|
What makes the skirts on the guys work on Purim is that it is a transgression. In fact, Purim drag is such a commonly accepted transgression in the Jewish world that one wonders if it can actually count as transgression any more.
I also, from time to time, find myself in shul and even on the bimah in a skirt. Not often, but not never either.
Very few people in my own community are surprised by this, or at least give voice to their surprise. After all, they’ve opted to be part of the shul whose unordained rabbi moonlights as a performer in a 20-year-and-counting drag a cappella troupe called The Kinsey Sicks. And that turns out to be a draw in this outpost in Sonoma County, California. For Jews who have felt excluded from the tradition, joining up here is a vote for doing things differently. It is an opportunity to reconnect with tradition, but without feeling the pressure (or having the appearance) of buying in unquestioningly to elements of the tradition that have been troublesome.
Interestingly - well, at least to me - is the fact that my wearing of a shabbos skirt is not an outgrowth of my life as a drag performer. The shabbos skirt was an element of my personal practice before I ever set foot on stage as "Winnie," the awkward, marmish character whom I play (and love) on stage. Many people smarter than I have written about drag in theory and practice; what can I add? Except that my experience tells me that drag relies on its naughtiness, on its transgression, or even just on irony, to pack its punch. But my shabbos skirt? It has a reason; it has a history; it certainly communicates something about me and how I see the world. But it is not draping my body for a naughty or transgressive or comedic purpose. Wearing it is just as meaningful to me when I'm alone or with my family as it is when I'm at shul.
Because it is meaningful for me, period. In the way that wearing a tallit or kippah might be for others. It has become ritual garb; something that moves me into my shabbat consciousness. It represents a shabbat - a rest - from a world in which I'm always aware of the pressures of gender. On shabbat I like to feel, to imagine, the world as a kinder place. A friendly place even for the sissy boys.
My, that was a jump!
So let me back up. I should tell a little bit about how I came to be a shabbos skirt wearer. And then maybe what it means to bring that into shul with me, in a community where I serve a rabbinic function. And maybe ask the overall important question: is my shabbos skirt good for the Jews?
Becoming a Boy
When I was growing up, I had a remarkably keen awareness of gender codes in our culture, like a little gender-role prodigy. I never felt terribly boyish, and so the way that the world was poking and prodding me toward a set of male behaviors, affects and preferences always felt artificial to me. Boys had to act and dress and behave in specific ways, and mostly these ways made no sense to me. Aggression? Athleticism? Taunting girls? These values were alien and distasteful to me; my experience of them was something like what a Jew feels observing an activity that our people curtly dismiss with the term goyim naches.
And the goyim naches comparison is not ill-founded. Much of what constitutes masculinity in American Jewish culture involves activities and values absorbed from the mainstream, and tends to displace an earlier, softer, less aggressive vision of masculinity that has been prized in Judaism both in antiquity and in our Ashkenazic shtetl roots.
Maybe that's why I was also drawn so young to Judaism, and especially to the rabbi stories of both the Talmudic era and from Chasidism. These were heroes honored for brain not brawn. They weren't fast-shooting cowboys or men of steel or suave James Bonds. No matter how much they dominated the texts that they learned to the letter, they were submissive to God. (I am grateful to Jay Michaelson for this insight about Jewish male heroism.) They provided a model of manhood that was not all about asserting mastery over others, and that was very welcome to me as a non-mastery kind of kid.
Yes, gender convention was very visible to me. I knew very young that the punishment for non-compliance with the male set of behaviors was being teased (if you were lucky) or physical violence (if you weren’t). So I studied and mimicked how other boys walked, sat, crossed their legs, carried their books, etc., in the hopes that I would somehow fit in enough and that these efforts would keep me safe. (Spoiler alert: efforts unsuccessful.)
I didn't ever think that through practice, walking like other boys would become natural. I always understood it to be a pose. I always understood that my own walking, my own sitting, my own crossing of legs, would get me beaten up.
But I was lucky. While my parents also half-heartedly pushed me toward traditional male behaviors and interests, it clearly stemmed from their concern for my safety, not as clearly out of any belief that those behaviors were inherently right. Certainly they had traditional understandings of gender roles; they were post-War American suburbanites after all. But on the other hand, as Jews, they were accustomed to a softer masculinity. Men who kissed and who cried. So their pressure was always ambivalent.
In any event they loved me enthusiastically, despite my obviously being a sissy, and I felt and internalized that love. So deep down I felt that I was okay. And I am aware that not all queer people of my era grew up feeling either okay or loved, and I am grateful to my parents beyond words.
But maleness was, for me, not a fact, but a project. Rules to learn, like a second language. If you speak it well enough, you might even pass as a native. But unlike when you learn your Mother Tongue, a second language makes you keenly aware of the arbitrariness of grammar. Your first language is just talking. You don't need to know what a verb is. But for your second language you do.
So I, nebech, studied the verb charts of masculinity. I never got terribly fluent; but I got good enough. And I hung out with other non-native speakers: brainy girls, nerdy boys (although, I’m ashamed to say, hanging with other sissies was too risky), Jewish boys who, like me, were studious and had un-rugged fathers. Even the Jewish jocks, though not my friends, would protect me from bullies.
So blessed (or cursed) with this awareness of the clunky, conventional nature of gender, life went on. I grew up. I came out, supposing that the gay world would be a less rigid place. And it largely was. It was hugely liberating. And still, the gay world had internalized the language and values of traditional gender. Conventionally masculine men were prized. Sissies were honored as sources of wit and commentary. But they were not sought out as boyfriends.
AIDS, Radical Faeries & Reclaiming the Sissy
Something shifted for me in 1987. It was October, and I was at the March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. I was a law student, serving as a legal observer for a mass civil disobedience at the Supreme Court. This was the 5th year of the AIDS epidemic. 20,000 Americans, almost all of them gay men, had died, quickly and horribly, leaving the gay community shocked, traumatized, decimated. The Names Project AIDS Quilt had been unrolled for the very first time the day before on the Capitol Mall, looking like a vast military graveyard. President Reagan had only that year for the first time mentioned AIDS publicly. He then announced an AIDS commission that included the likes of New York's Cardinal O'Connor, whose only qualification for the appointment was his public condemnation of homosexuality.
Against this backdrop, the Supreme Court had, the previous year, handed down a ruling in the now infamous case of Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), which upheld the the right of the states to criminalize gay sex. The ruling was a referendum on gay people’s right to full personhood and much of the country was shocked by it. In fact, 18 years later, when it was finally reversed in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), the Court apologized for the earlier ruling. In Justice Kennedy’s words: “Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today."
So at the March in 1987, many hundreds of queer Americans and allies asserted their full personhood by participating in civil disobedience at the Supreme Court. The activists wanted the Court - and all of America - to see our pain and desperation and determination.
Protestors organized themselves into "affinity groups." Wave after wave would wash up onto the steps of the hall of justice, and wave after wave would be carted off in police wagons. I suddenly saw an affinity group made up of members of the Radical Faeries - a group founded by the visionary activist Harry Hay. Back in the 1950s Hay had founded the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the US. Mattachine was dedicated to equal rights for gay people in society. But over the intervening years, Hay’s philosophy had evolved. With Mattachine, Hay had fought for gay people’s right to be like everyone else. In founding the Radical Faeries, his objective was to nurture gay people’s right and ability not to be like everyone else. In today’s language, you might say his goal was to locate and honor the productive difference that gay people represented. Instead of trying to assimilate into an oppressive culture, gay men, in his view, had a different experience of the world, from which perspective they could live and teach and perhaps change the culture in the process.
I looked at these beautiful men in their skirts and boots and beards and glitter, these brave and rugged sissies, doing what was clearly, palpably, holy work, as they locked arms and were dragged off for arrest. I looked at them and a world opened up for me. They were not just speaking but wearing my own experience; they were making space for my personhood in a world where no space was given. Skirts were suddenly liberation.
In the Habit of Ritual Garb
I confess that I have always loved ritual garb, in the same way that I love sacred space. I love the simple magic that can wrench a place or a moment out of the ordinary flow and heighten or deepen it. There is a Talmudic meme addressing how something out-of-the-ordinary in the physical world can affect you in a spiritual way. It goes: im tashiv mishabbat raglecha. The idea of this principle is that whatever you set aside for Shabbat will eventually become a strong, almost Pavlovian entry point for you into a Shabbat consciousness.
As a kid in Jewish summer camp, on Erev Shabbat, we would replace our shorts and t-shirts with long pants and white, buttoned shirts. This was Shabbat's dress code, and it made us (or me) feel different, elevated. I still have a preference for a white, buttoned shirt for Shabbat (even with a skirt!), dating undoubtedly from those Wisconsin summers.
After moving to San Francisco, I began to find myself on the fringes of Radical Faerie community. The Jewish Renewal chavurah I joined, called Queer Minyan, was influenced by the Faeries, as well as other feminist and pagan groups. Queer Minyan included a number of men, myself included, who began to wear skirts for Shabbat and Yontiff ritual. Im tashiv mishabbat raglecha. This personal custom became habit, and when I most wanted to be myself, to honor who I was inside, with a ritual intention, the skirt could bring me there in an instant. In a skirt I’d feel Jewish, I’d feel beautiful, I’d feel a little freer from the constant hum of gender rules that form so much of the world’s background noise.
Invisibility on the Bimah
I've only worn the skirt on the bimah in my Northern California community a few times. I tend to hesitate, because I don't want the lovely shift of consciousness I feel in the skirt to be jeopardized or drowned out by my anxiety about what other people will think.
I worry about it because the skirt's being meaningful for me doesn’t mean it is without impact on others. Especially in religious environments, those in leadership are “symbolic exemplars.” In addition to what they intentionally bring to the experience, rabbis are also the repositories of congregants' expectations. Their personal choices are inevitably seen as symbolic. It is very hard ever to be on the bimah without a self-consciousness or anxiety about what people are seeing in you, and whether it is the you that you intend people to see.
When I'm in front of that room, I want people to have an experience. I want them to feel connection with tradition and each other, a bunch of belonging, a lot of uplift and maybe some transformation. So how do I negotiate being present enough to cook this up and also make sure I, as a visible presence in the room, don't get in the way.
Rabbis are typically taught in rabbinical school to try to make themselves invisible on the bimah so that they do not distract the congregation from its spiritual process. But for some people invisibility is easier said than done. And for some people invisibility can have a painful edge.
Invisibility hasn't always been the custom for religious leaders in Judaism. In antiquity the priestly caste would wear special garb described in Torah – robes, a choshen, or jeweled breastplate; I seem to remember of headdress of some sort. This would set the priests apart from the people. After the destruction of the Temple, the practicing priesthood disappeared. Cantors, or chazzanim, became the day-to-day ritual leaders. They were not of a divinely chosen hereditary clan but were sh’lichey tzibur, emissaries of the community. That is, they were of the people. Rabbis also were teachers before we came to see them as ritual leaders; their origins are also from among the people. And so rabbis and cantors would typically dress like the congregation because they were the congregation.
With the rise of Classical Reform Judaism in the late 18th Century, rabbis came to wear robes in the modern style -- that is, in the style of Protestant ministers. And so would the cantor and the choir. These robes would likely be more ample and pleated than the traditional kittel. They would achieve uniformity among the clergy, but press a sharp distinction between clergy and laity.
So “invisibility” really would mean different things depending on the context. In a community where the rabbi dresses in robes, it would mean, “wear robes.” In a community where the rabbi dresses like the laity, it might mean something like “dress conventionally.”
This kind of invisibility is, though, not as obvious as it looks. I canvassed some rabbi friends (in a statistically irrelevant kind of way) about their experience of how to dress on the bimah. While the men I asked told me they dress invisibly by wearing jackets and ties, the women rabbis did not seem to have the luxury of invisibility no matter what they wore. Almost every single female rabbi I asked had a story to share about her appearance being publicly or privately criticized or commented on. They'd been told by congregants or board committees or sisterhood groups that they should wear more jewelry, less jewelry, more makeup, less makeup, some nail polish please, higher hems, lower hems, higher heels, lower heels, skirts not pants, nothing too flashy, nothing too butch, no color orange, no cleavage, and even that they should consider electrolysis. The men had virtually no parallel experience.
This suggests to me that invisibility is a perk that comes with being part of the dominant class. It is pretty much impossible for a Black person to achieve invisibility in white-dominated environment; it is impossible for women to achieve invisibility in male-dominated environment. (In these cases I don't mean "invisibility" in the sense of "being ignored" but in the sense of "blending in.") And Judaism – and the bimah in particular – continue to be marked as male space even as we strive for it not to be. Despite our protestations of egalitarianism, the bimah reflects a sexist double standard around clothing and appearance.
Must Men and Women Dress Differently?
Okay, maybe it's time for a quick tangent. A pet peeve of mine. Although reflecting, obviously, a big social inequity that's relevant here. The double standard in how men and women are required to dress bugs me, and our being so used to it that we don't notice it, bugs me even more.
This is an issue I’ve taken up before in a drash about Torah's prohibition on cross-dressing. And I could talk forever about how women in the modern world are dismissed for dressing too girly and disdained for dressing too butch and are constantly negotiating appearance in a way that men never have to.
But I'll skip the discussion and go right to an illustration. This is a picture I snapped in Washington, DC last year:
The point is that clothes and personal appearance are one of the places where our culture remains most invested in keeping a clear divide between men and women, a line that in general causes men no big inconvenience, but costs women time and money and lifelong anxiety about their appearance.
And so me in a skirt, crossing that divide, is inevitably going to bring up some deep reactions from people, especially (but not exclusively) when I'm on the bimah. And that is why usually I don't do it. Because I want people thinking about the Shema or the Shechinah and not about my skirt.
Rabbi as Teacher, and the Problem of Discomfort
So I usually decline to wear a skirt to shul. But on the other hand, don't I have something here to teach with my skirt? Some Torah of my own? Most rabbis teach with their words. But many go beyond their words and teach with their actions too. Heschel famously marching next to Martin Luther King, saying that his feet were praying. This is very important Torah, expressed not just through the black flame of the words but through the white flame of example.
So at what point do I judge that what I have to offer through my actions is worth violating the elusive principle of invisibility on the bimah? (A principle which, thanks to not having gone to rabbinical school, doesn't really bind me.)
Invisibility is not neutral. What makes my male rabbi friends look invisible makes me feel conspicuous. In a suit, I feel like I'm in someone else's clothes. I wobble from foot to foot like an awkward kid. I may be leading a prayer, but some part of my mind is wondering if my pant cuff is caught on the tongue of my shoe. So what looks like invisibility is not without cost or consequence.
On the other hand I know I can't be invisible in my skirt either. Still, when I wear it, I feel more like myself. Which holds within it the possibility of being a better, more authentic leader.
So I'm doomed. But that is also the nature of being an instrument of change. It means sometimes being conspicuous. It means living in the discomfort. And living with causing discomfort. Anyone who's been part of a social change movement knows this. Anyone who's ever come out of the closet knows this. That causing discomfort is sometimes the only thing you can do with integrity.
And what is discomfort anyway? I think it's for the most part a reaction to the new. An anticipation of change. Our goal as thinking, evolving people is not to never feel uncomfortable, but rather to change through our discomfort.
One of the colleagues I’d surveyed about clothing was Rabbi Shefa Gold, ordained in both the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, and a pioneer in using new modalities to bring Jews into a deeper connection with spirit. In response to my inquiry, she related this personal experience:
There is a tendency to take whatever we are used to, and make it right. I remember when I used to be at Elat Chayyim [an East Coast Jewish retreat center], there was a wonderful guy that worked there. He liked to wear skirts, and at first it did make me feel uncomfortable . . . because I just wasn't used to it. After a while I did get used to it . . and I enjoyed being in a community that embraced different styles of expression. So why was I uncomfortable? My guess is that I was conditioned by gender rules of what's right, and I had never confronted that conditioning, which soon dissolved in the light of Reality.I've also learned not to presume that people will necessarily be uncomfortable just because I'm doing something new or different or challenging to a certain kind of status quo. The most recent time I wore a skirt to shul, the oldest member of our congregation, an 85-year old lesbian activist, bounded up to me and took me by both my hands to tell me how snazzy I looked. My skirt, in all its unorthodoxy, had created more room for her and who she is. And the comfort of those who have felt excluded in the Jewish world is of huge importance. So it's important for me to remember that I'm not alone. And that when I do something that is out of the box, there are others who feel more embraced than they had before. And that has got to be good for the Jews.
One of the things that I love about Judaism and that I think is frequently misunderstood, is its dynamic nature. Judaism changes all the time. Through a variety of mechanisms. Sometimes the change is gradual and incremental. Sometimes it happens all at once. For instance the inclusion of women in synagogue ritual, including through Bat Mitzvah. This sea change waited for its time, it waited till it could not be contained, it waited until there was the right leadership and the right milieu, and then it exploded into existence.
On March 18, 1922, everything changed for women in Judaism, thanks to the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Mordecai Kaplan, and his daughter, Judith Kaplan, who that day not long ago by Jewish standards celebrated the first Bat Mitzvah.
The reason I like to think about this change is that it came from a great shared impulse for justice. It might be even described as a Jewish impulse for justice. Unlike, say, a rule about kashrut, it did not come from a rabbinic process of pilpul - of debate and slow consideration. Undoubtedly the progressive movements had been having debate on this topic - we'll let the historians fill us in on those details. But at some point doing became more important than debating. Kaplan faced the prospect of excommunication for having called his daughter to the Torah. But it was too late. Women's equality in American Judaism could not be rolled back.
So here's the question: was sex equality an incursion of non-Jewish ideology into Judaism? Arguably it was. But Judaism has always grown and changed as a result of exposure to new values and understandings.
Rabbi Benay Lappe writes about the powerful concept of svara – the strong moral instinct that permits or even requires us, according to Talmud, to nullify words of Torah if they result in an injustice.
The inclusion of women despite threats of excommunication and cries of heresy comes from a deep place of svara. And maybe my own particular svara, my own deep impulse for justice, has to do with questioning the orthodoxy of gender codes. I have a Torah that is about gender, and I have a lifelong desire to create the Judaism that I want to be part of.
The Torah of the Skirt
I guess when it boils down to it, my Torah, my teaching, is this: that unless men can wear skirts -- not for a laugh, not to make a clever social commentary, not to work the Esther look on Purim, but stam, just because -- then we're not serious when we say women are equal. As long as a man is diminished by wearing an article of women's clothing, then we have to own that we as a culture continue to hold women in lesser esteem.
My brilliant friend Emily Doskow said to me more than 20 years ago that we won't have true gender equality until we start dressing our little boys in skirts. At the time I understood the point but the idea still felt outlandish to me, as it might feel to you right now. But finding it outlandish is in fact proof of the problem. Why is it outlandish? It is only outlandish to put a boy in a skirt if it is an insult to the boy to be mistaken for a girl. It is only outlandish if being thought a girl is a serious problem. That being incorrectly thought a girl is wrong, or harmful, or confusing, or any one of a number of well-meaning but probably just-not-true adjectives you could put in that spot.
We might say we protect our little boys from skirts to keep them out of harm's way; to protect them from bullies and detractors (most of whom are probably adults). But they are only in harm's way because we believe, or we go along with the idea that gender is a line not to be crossed. And that it somehow lessens a boy's capital to be too closely associated with common signifiers of femaleness.
So maybe this is a piece of my Torah too. A reminder that we are all equal. That men and women are not opposites. That our species holds endless variation. That we should question our investments in a sharp distinction between male and female - in our laws, our entertainments, our rituals and even our metaphors (including our beloved Kabbalistic symbolism, which is fueled by the supposed yinny-yanginess of male and female).
In any event, I am not at this moment proposing that we put skirts on our boys (although it's worth considering). And I confess I am in awe of the growing numbers of little boys who insist on skirts and the growing ranks of parents who support them in their choice. But that's not what I'm proposing.
I don't need to wear a skirt to shul every week. But I want to be able to. I want to be able to express who I am, wear what makes me feel comfortable and beautiful and soulful and Jewish. I want to wear what makes me feel solid in my very unsolid gender. And I want everyone else to feel that same freedom to express who they are even when they're in the confines of synagogue or other Jewish space.
Discomfort as an Invitation to Change
So where does this leave me? I can wear a skirt, and other men can too, and people can continue to try to work through the pitfalls of gender duality using whatever creative means are at hand.
But what about other people's discomfort? Well, where there is discomfort, there is also an invitation for change, for liberation, for an opening up.
To know for certain that working through discomfort can open a door to wonderful things, I have only to look at my mother, Marilyn Keller, z"l, who was the greatest example of this quality I have ever known. Life threw her a variety of uncomfortable curves. She had two queer children. One became a performer in drag. She came into proximity with many gay people and many transgendered people too. And she came to be a grandmother in a very alternative family structure.
In each instance, there was initial discomfort. And she would push through it, armed only with love. She would in short order dispatch her discomfort as an unuseful thing. Her old ideas held no nostalgia for her. Instead she would become proud - of what she'd learned, who she'd become, who we'd become. She went from discomfort right to pride, without pausing at "tolerance," which her honest heart quickly told her was just discomfort with a smile.
This is how my mother grew and how we all grow. It's how we change for the better. As individuals, as communities, as Jews, as a species that longs so very much to be bigger than its biology. It is how we become holy.
Purim Time is Here
So here it is Purim again. A time for masquerading and for unmasking. I've done a little unmasking right here. And for all you Jewish guys trying out the Esther look this year, I have a suggestion. When you're done working your costume for laughs, stay in it a while longer. Quietly. Without an agenda. See how it feels. See what you learn about the world, and the pressures on women. See what you unmask about yourself and who you are inside. If you're going to transgress this Purim, don't just do it with clothes. Transgress your own beliefs, your own presumptions, your own comfort zone.
That willingness to look, to listen, not to be so certain of what we know, is how we make a world that's richer, deeper and safer for every one of us.
And to my mind, anything that enriches our spirits and our love for and appreciation of this tremendous and complex creation in which we live is, ultimately -- no, immediately! -- good for the Jews.
So I'll keep wearing my skirt. Maybe not so much on Purim. But on shabbos, for sure. For me, there's nothing better.
I had so many wonderful conversations whose insights and flavor I tried to capture, but undoubtedly failed. I am grateful to Rabbi Marla Subeck Spanjer, Rabbi Rachel Timoner, Rabbi Eli Cohen, Rabbi Chaya Gusfield, Rabbi Shefa Gold, Rabbi Ted Feldman, Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman, Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow, Rabbi Deb Kolodny, my chevruta partner Eli Herb, Atzilah Solot, Anne Tamar-Mattis, Shari Brenner, Alan Ziff and Shira Hadditt. I am thankful to have you all in my life.