Hanukkah, The Closet and the Assimilation Trap

It’s the fifth night of Hanukkah. My candles have burned themselves out and I’ve not yet started another DVD to aid my continued attempts at hiding from the ever-present Christmas that has taken over the supposedly multicultural country and definitely multicultural city in which I live. I worry from time to time that my friends might get the impression that I hate Christmas… I don’t. But the apparent compulsoriness and seeming inescapability of the celebration is hurting extra hard this year and I feel like I am drowning in Other-ness and alienation.

And so I thank God for Hanukkah and its timely message about what to do in the face of overt and covert pressure to conform and to be something I’m not: hold fast to who you are, to what you are and the truths you hold dearest. Yes, you’re different and that’s okay.
I take Hanukkah every year as a challenge to re-dedicate myself to living my truth as a bisexual, transgender, disabled Jewish man and insisting on being all those things at once no matter how many people tell me I can’t be. I accept the challenge to be who I am as openly as possible; refusing closets and refusing the false comfort of assimilation into the surrounding norms.

Hanukkah reminds me of the miracle of the Jewish people still existing after thousands of years and hundreds of attempts to stop us. And I think also of the miracle that is every LGBTQ person and community surviving and thriving despite the oppression we have and do face. The miracle of Autistic communities and people insisting that we do not have to pretend to be non-Autistic to be acceptable, Disabled communities and people insisting the world change to accommodate us rather than expecting us to change to fit into it. And this year especially I think of Muslim people and communities and of Black communities and People of Colour communities continuing to exist in a world that is increasingly hostile.

I light each flame and watch as they light up the darkness and are not consumed by it. I remember the times I have felt pressured to hide my “light”; times I have been pushed to be less visible, to stand out less, to be more like what surrounds me. I try to picture myself as a flame, burning bright amidst dark surroundings.

I have never “fit in”. Sometimes I have wanted to. Sometimes I have suffered for my inability to stop being “different” from others or Other than what I was expected to be.
Sometimes I have tried to blend in. Let people assume that I’m straight or let them assume that I’m gay. Deliberately suppressed my Autistic body language or desperately attempted to hide my difficulties with numbers and writing. Taken off my yarmulke when it would have been safe but uncomfortable to be recognised as Jewish. I spent years trying desperately to be a girl out of fear of the consequences of admitting that I’m a transgender man.

The message of Hanukkah, for me, right now, is this: Be yourself. Assimilation is a tempting option but don’t let it trick you into being someone you aren’t.

As I’ve explored frequently on this blog, not feeling like I could be openly who I am and trying to at least appear to be something else has caused massive mental harm to me and right this second this same harm is happening to thousands of people. Hanukkah reminds me that one way I can help bring about a world in which no one has to hide the truth of themself away for fear of the consequences of living openly is for me to insist, as much as I can, on living openly now in this imperfect world, letting my light shine to banish just a bit of the darkness.

Who are we?

Below I will describe a group of people who are marginalised and live in Europe, America, Canada and Australia. Who are we?

We are part of a tradition stretching back centuries.
We can and do live in every part of the world.
We are sometimes considered to be a race or a nation yet we are of many races and have no particular leader, government or land.

We have no leader yet each of us is held responsible for the actions of others like us.
We are each made to explain over and over that we are peaceful and acts of violence committed in our names were wrong.

We suffer violence daily in the so-called “Western World”.
Our children hear racist taunts.
We are harassed by strangers in the streets.
Our religious clothing is openly mocked and derided.
We are attacked and even killed.
Our places of worship are frequently graffiti-ed and desecrated.
We are stereotyped, mocked or invisible on TV and in films.
Our symbols and art are appropriated.
We are pressured to conform to white christian national norms.
If we manage this, we are mocked. If we fail, we are still mocked.
We form communities of our own and are accused of not trying to integrate.
We try to integrate and find ourselves isolated.
We can feel the target on our backs whenever we are out of home.

People who even “look” like the racist stereotype of how we “look” face the same slurs, the same exclusion, the same violence.
We try not to “look” like ourselves.
We are told we are ugly.
We can never do enough to “fit in”. Our names, our clothes, our food, our bodies will betray us.
The target never quite disappears.

We make ourselves small.
We make ourselves quiet.
We try to be “moderate”.

We are told we “take over” spaces; we take too much space.
We are accused of having too much influence; we “control” too much.
And we are called radical even if all we ask is to live our lives in peace.

Our loyalties are always suspect.
We cannot claim loud enough to love the country we live in,
Sending money abroad is a sin if we do it.
If we cannot love this country, we are told repeatedly to “Go home” –
No matter how many generations it’s been since “home” meant anywhere else.

Who are we?

The answer isn’t: “Jews”
And it’s not “Muslims” either.

It’s “Muslims AND Jews”.

Islamophobia and Anti-semitism are two sides of one very racist coin.

And that constant feeling of being a target, being unwanted, being impermissible because we can’t or won’t live within white christian cultures? That pressure is hurting Muslims and Jews across Europe and I suspect across the US, Canada and Australia as well.

My Yarmulke Is Not For Your Entertainment

I wear a kippah / yarmulke every day. I wear it to remind myself to act as morally because G-d is watching me. My yarmulke marks me out as different from others – most people here don’t cover their heads unless it’s raining. I started wearing it in full knowledge that doing so might engender stares, questions, maybe some hostility and other Jews seeking me out.

I somehow forgot to expect to be fetishised. I should maybe have guessed it would happen but I didn’t and now I’m fed up of it.

All you men out there with a thing for observant Jewish guys, who think Jews are “soo cute”, want to know what sex with a circumcised man feels like and are looking for a Jewish man to help you with that or who want to add a Jewish guy to your “list” – guess what? I don’t wear my yarmulke for your entertainment. 

My yarmulke is not a sign which says I’m up for talking about my genitals (and it’s wrong to assume all Jewish men are circumcised, many aren’t not least because some of us are haemophiliac or intersex or trans). It’s not a reason to assume I need special Jew-specific chat up lines. It’s not a stand in for my personality.
When you treat Jewish men like we’re all the same or we’re interchangeable – you’re being antisemitic. When you seek out a Jewish man because of some idea you have about Jewish men, whether it’s that we’re sensitive or we’re smart or whether you think we’re all circumcised or we’re all feminine – you’re being antisemitic. When you refuse to believe I’m Jewish because I have blue eyes and straight hair and you swear that all Jews have curly hair and brown eyes or you won’t accept it when I tell you that most Jews aren’t Hasidic and look (gasp!) more or less like everyone else – you’re being antisemitic.

When you approach me because I’m Jewish and ask me why some other Jewish man broke up with you *six months ago* like I’m going to magically understand the motives of someone I’ve never even met because we happen to share connections to a broad and ancient religious tradition – I reckon that’s pretty fucking antisemitic.

I am not all Jewish men. I am a Jewish man and I demand to be treated as an individual. Yes, I wear a yarmulke and that means you can see that I’m Jewish – but that’s all you can see. You can’t see my politics or my genital configuration, you can’t see what denomination I am or how often I pray. You can’t even see for certain that I believe in G-d.

If you’re ever going to get to have sex with me, you’re going to have to treat me as a person, not a stereotype. I will not settle for any less than that.