Dating with a Sucky Brand

Jake Goodman
December 19, 2011
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My Branding Problem:  Overview

A date is an interview, a testing of waters, an attempt to envision what a shared life with a particular other individual might look and feel like.  Once the basic standard of attraction has been met, the real question we all seem to ask ourselves is, “Can I stomach sharing my life with this person?”  (Oh, just be cynical with me for a minute!)  People who go on dates with me all seem to have to ask themselves, “Can I stomach sharing my life with a religious person?”  The answer to this question is important because it probably determines, as far as he is concerned, whether or not there will be a subsequent date.

But it’s a real problem for me, mostly because I don’t think of myself as a religious person and it stinks that he inevitably will!  (It would be like someone meeting me and questioning whether or not he could stomach sharing his life with a guy who loved his pet parrot more than any other person.  I don’t have a pet parrot!)  What it comes down to, I’ve learned, is that I suffer from inconsistent branding.

On the one hand, I am a professional queer who is increasingly trying to dedicate my life to ending religious intolerance and bigotry against the LGBTQ community.  Just to establish my street cred, here are just two of the activities I’ve engaged in within the last year:

  1. In God’s Name: Hate is the Abomination.” In December 2010, I helped conceive and organize a direct action with Queer Rising and broad coalition of the Jewish community in response to anti-gay comments from a fringe ultra-Orthodox rabbi.  We made clear the direct link between hateful rhetoric spoken “in God’s name” and the violence and self-violence assaulting the LGBTQ community, and affirmed that “hate is the abomination,” not queer people.  (Click here to watch the video, located at bottom of the linked page.)
  2. Easter Day Protest. In April 2011, I participated in an Easter Day protest directly outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, organized by Connecting Rainbows & Queer Rising, to oppose the Catholic Church’s incendiary lobbying efforts against LGBTQ rights.

On the other hand, I am a professional Jew who earns the majority of my income from work within Jewish institutions, who studied three years in a seminary, who finds text studies titillating, who genuinely enjoys (but rarely attends) synagogue services, who does not eat shellfish, and who derives significant meaning from my Jewish heritage and community.  And, I don’t consider myself to be a particularly religious person.  And this is confusing to people I date.  They tend not to believe me.   Then, when I mix in the professional queer aspect, heads spin.  As I said, my branding blows.

Of course, many queer people—Jewish and otherwise—do consider themselves to be religious and would love to date someone who is similarly religious.  More power to them, but that’s not me.  Why?  Well, let me tell you!

Suspicion & Distaste

Any guy I date is going to have to have a passing knowledge of history, be on the progressive side of the political spectrum and, obviously, be queer.  This means that we will both likely come into the room with, at the very least, a healthy suspicion of, and moderate distaste for, organized religion.  Why?

Throughout history, people have consistently committed hellacious atrocities in the name of religion.  In my view, these acts are damning and unforgivable.  [Do I need to provide examples?]  (One could argue that being more religious would help me be more forgiving.)  Sure, it’s also true that, throughout history, people have also consistently committed awesome acts of world-changing good in the name of religion; but this truth does nothing to mitigate the first point.

As a progressive person, the word “religious” has been made pretty unpalatable by the Religious Right and the political movements that seek to mobilize these particular people of faith by manipulating what I see as their proud ignorance, wild xenophobia and distrust of any “Other,” hawkish tendencies and shameless proclivities to restrict people’s rights and personal liberties — all of which belies a shocking lack of empathy for others.  The 2004 election, in which Ken Mehlman (the then-closeted-but-now-openly-gay-“hero”) managed George W. Bush’s re-election campaign and motivated religious voters to go the ballot box by adding an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment in 11 states, was, for me, the final straw.

As a queer person, I often experience religion as a weapon used against me, as a justification for and shield against people inflicting harm based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  Not a day passes in which I do not encounter some news story, video or quote in which LGBTQ folk are slandered in the name of religion.  (The Joe.My.God. blog is a great source for current examples.)

A personal favorite:  a lady from Westboro Baptist Church using Lamb Chop to spew hate.  I’m sure Shari Lewis was rolling in her grave.

A personal favorite: a lady (I believe from Westboro Baptist Church) using Lamb Chop to spew hate to protest the impending Marriage Equality vote. I’m sure Shari Lewis was rolling in her grave.  (Albany, 2011)

Less outrageous, perhaps, but more offensive.  This "man of the cloth" apparently speaks for both God and MLK.

Less outrageous, perhaps, but more offensive. This “man of the cloth” apparently speaks for both God and MLK.  (Albany, 2011)

For many of my friends—and strangely, for many of my gay friends, in particular—this is “just the way things are.”  But not for me.  And not for anyone I want to date.

Awareness of history, attention to modern politics and acknowledgment of one’s own queer identity — all dating prerequisites for me — will likely make someone, at the very least, skeptical of religion.  And, likely, skeptical of me.

Some of My Best Friends Are Jewish

I grew up in Wisconsin, within a family whose Jewishness was core to our identity and, truly, a wholly positive force in our lives.  At risk of speaking for my other family members without permission (sorry!), I believe it’s accurate to say that we all attribute many of our favorite qualities to being Jewish:  commitment to social justice; dedication to education; centrality of family; broad, wet, irreverent sense of humor; love of noodles and other carbs; taste in art; choice of community.  With these values, how could it be a problem for my parents that 67% of their children turned out to be queer?  (Isn’t that funny?!)

I think of my Jewish heritage as a very long link chain that connects me to the very tallest branches (or deepest roots?) on my family tree.  I never knew any relatives beyond my grandparents, whom I loved, but by simply knowing what parts of the world my more distant relatives lived in at certain times, and knowing something about Jewish history, and understanding the Jewish calendar, I can imagine what their lives were like.  It just feels so special!  I feel so lucky!  This connection to family, who I only imagine with the same warmth I feel when thinking of my living family members, grounds me.

As a professional Jew, I work with some of the most conscientious, thoughtful, empathic, justice-oriented, talented people in the world.  Some consider themselves to be religious, some do not, but who cares? So may of them do great good in the world so habitually it seems to be a reflex.  They all try (with varying levels of success) to treat others well.  Many of them work within the Jewish community specifically to create the changes they believe are necessary for their own communities and tradition to be more ethical: they fight patriarchy, racism, queerphobia, oppressive narratives and practices.  I love them and am blessed to know them.

I am also blessed to stand on the shoulders of Jewish giants in the field of social justice:  Andrew Goodman (no relation, alas), Emma Goldman, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Susannah Heschel, Judith Plaskow, Miriam Peskowitz, Bob Dylan, Stuart Appelbaum, Betty Freidan, Bella Abzug, Larry Kramer, Naomi Wolf, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Judy Chicago, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Rabbi Burton Visotzky, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Franny Silverman, Naomi Less, Chana Rothman, Justin Wedes, Amichai Lau-Lavie…

Finding a Jewish Practice:  Being True to Myself with a Sucky Brand

All this is to say that, given all of these tensions, along with the fact that I’d generally like my dates to go well, I’ve been struggling with how to represent myself.  No only do I hate being misrepresented, misunderstood and mislabeled, I’d also like to get a second date!  (Well, sometimes.)  There’s no way to hide my resume and I’m not really interested in lying about who I am or how I feel.  (But isn’t it interesting that those are the first two options that pop into my mind?  Really, how many closets does one guy have to come out of?)

Navigating my way through this question—how do I represent myself on dates—has become my most authentic Jewish practice.  My most current strategy is to simply embody my dual brands and remember that it’s his job to judge, not mine.

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Jake Goodman is an LGTBQ activist, Jewish educator and performer. He holds an MA in Jewish Education with a specialization in Infomal and Communal Education from the Davidson School at JTS and a BFA in Acting from Emerson College. Jake has worked increasingly to advocate toward full equality for LGBT people. Jake is a founding member of Queer Rising, a grassroots organization that demands queer rights through direct action, is on a committee to confront homeless queer youth with the Ali Forney Center, and is currently working on a book. Jake is also a proud company member of Storahtelling, previously serving as Associate Director, and serves as senior faculty for the 14th Street Y's LABA fellowship. He has served as educator in various capacities at seminaries, synagogues, JCCs, camps and pre-schools around the country. In the theater world, Jake has performed across the country and internationally at The Berkshire Theater Festival, Actors Theater of Louisville, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Alma in Tel-Aviv.

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