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Shabbos not so much Frivolity: Shvaygn=Toyt

Your Humble Blogger was trying to come up with a bit of Shabbos Frivolity for this Tohu Bohu, and went on a bit of a web wander, ending in a very strange conceptual place. So I’ll try to retrace my steps a bit.

First of all, my Gracious Host linked to an It Gets Better video from The Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association. It’s a good video, although I was disappointed (for myself) that they didn’t talk about the choice of being frum and gay; with the fellows addressing the camera directly, it isn’t even clear whether they are wearing yarmulkes or not. Still, that’s my curiosity, about observance and traditionalism and the Law and so on, and the ways people find to live with those decisions.

Still, that’s my own interest, and not the interest of the people making the video. And, going back to an earlier note about the project, there’s another layer to the question of the purpose of the video. And really, when you think about it, one tremendous element of the whole thing is simply that Silence = Death. Not, at the moment, because of AIDS, but because of, well, because silence really is equal to death, in lots of ways, over lots of issues.

Y’all may know that the first Klezmatics album was called Shvaygn=Toyt, back in 1988, when being out meant something different for Lorin Sklamberg and Alicia Svigals than it does for a lot of young musicians today. In 1996, the Village Voice could quote the great Paul Morrissett asking How come nobody wants to talk to the only heterosexual Quaker in the band?; the military was not allowed to ask recruits if they were homosexual, and Ellen was just about close to being sort of out of the closet, kinda. But in 1988? Who was out? Ian McKellen wasn’t out yet.

But, of course, the idea of coming out, of being out, was a big part of the Silence=Death project and of ACT UP generally. In 1988, ACT UP held a Kiss In, more than one, actually, but there was one famous one which brought a good chunk of the city to a halt. That’s the incident behind “The Kiss”, which is one of my favorite Klezmatics tunes. So I was poking around the web looking for the footage of that music over the footage of the Kiss In, which I remembered seeing back in the early nineties somewhere. I couldn’t find it for ever so long; it turns out to be part of the documentary Fast Trip, Long Drop. You can watch the whole hour-long film here; the footage I was looking for runs from 6:19 to 7:14, more or less. There’s a lot of pretty rough stuff in the rest of the movie; I can’t say I had forgotten what the late eighties were like, but I don’t feel those memories really strongly anymore, either, most of the time.

But I was talking about my web wander, and the thing is that in looking for that footage, I came across something entirely different that uses a Klezmatics tune that (on the brilliant Jews with Horns album) shares a track with “The Kiss”. This video is a fundraiser for the Forest Hills Jewish Centre in Toronto. Specifically, they are raising money for a new building, which will replicate (in its façade, anyway) the Great Synagogue of Jaslo.

My people are from Jaslo, as it happens. My Dad’s parents were born in Jaslo and brought up in Jaslo, fled from Jaslo during the War and then returned to Jaslo after before fleeing again for good in 1930 or so. It’s possible that one of my great-grandfathers is in one of those photos in the beginning of the video. Probably not; my father’s father’s father was a modern who shaved his chin and cheeks; I believe that his father was somehow involved with the Alliance Israelite Universelle and the Baron Hirsch schools. But it’s possible, particularly as there is little evidence for any of the Old Country stories in our family. There isn’t even much evidence that they were in Jaslo; their names don’t turn up on the rolls, which (given how the record-keeping was) doesn’t prove they weren’t there, but certainly doesn’t prove they were. And, alas, their names do not show up in the memorial books; we don’t have any idea at all what happened after the day my only surviving great-aunt left town. Which is a story in itself.

But I don’t know whether my great-grandfather wound up in a death camp or was killed on the streets (as most were). I don’t know if he managed to get away and survive for a time. I don’t know if any of his other children died there in Jaslo, or in Belzec or some other camp, or in Przemysl or one of the other ghettos (where some few hundred of the Jews of Jaslo were shipped), or in the woods of Warzyce, or in some peasant’s barn, or where. It’s all gone, all that family history. And the generation before, and the generation before that? Gone, gone. My grandparents were lucky, not refugees but relatively safely and serenely smuggled in across the ocean and all the borders. Still: they didn’t bring with them all the family history, the heirlooms, the books, the records. Why would they? Jaslo wasn’t going anywhere. Except, of course, it was: the Nazis were unable to sufficiently Germanify it, and pretty much destroyed the whole town in 1944.

The Great Synagogue had been down for some years, of course. There are some photographs (here and here), and now this FHJC is planning to rebuild it on Spadina Road. Now, Your Humble Blogger has been known to mock façadism. And the whole project is, to my mind, quite questionable. If I were part of that community, would I prefer to have my new center be a replica of an old building in another country, even taking into account the connections my current community has with the old one?

But today, having come across the thing by accident, not looking for Jaslo but for ACT UP, what comes across is another way in which Shvaygn=Toyt, and this project as an attempt to speak into that silence. It can’t resurrect the town. It can’t give back my family history, which is silent and dead. But it can raise a defiant finger in refusing to admit defeat. It will be defeated, ultimately, by death and silence, as everything is. But it can rage against it, can fight it. It can act up.

The connection between a bunch of angry gay troublemakers in Greenwich in 1988 and the multi-million dollar Toronto architectural project may not really be there, except today in my web wander. That connection exists only in my head. And, maybe, in yours, if you have read this far without rejecting it altogether. Max and Gianna Glassman might reject it, Larry Kramer might reject it, Lorin Sklamberg might reject it, and the guys in that video (remember the video?) might reject their connection with it, too. All totally within reason to do so. But there is still a connection, and that connection is this: Silence=Death.

And if there will still be death, and still be silence—then what? Does that mean that it does not, in fact, get better? No, it just means that it gets better at the same time that it gets worse; both are always true. Fighting for either side is ultimately doomed. But… not fighting is ultimately doomed, also. And fighters against silence and death have at least the knowledge that their (inevitable) victories are better than their (inevitable) defeats; those who stay silent lose both ways.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


This is a lovely and excellent entry; thank you for it.

I don't have anything much to say in response, so I'll just add a note about one tiny side bit of your entry:

It’s a good video, although I was disappointed (for myself) that they didn’t talk about the choice of being frum and gay

Yeah, I noticed that too. I suspect that they felt (and that they were right in so feeling) that it would distract from their focus, though, because that's such a huge and hotly debated issue these days.

(And: if you're sending a message of hope to gay teens, are you gonna tell them that they need to be celibate? Are you gonna tell them that they need to reject Orthodoxy? Are you gonna tell them that some of Orthodoxy's tenets are wrong but others are right? It gets tricky and complicated; I think sidestepping the issues for this particular video may've been the right choice. Easier and clearer to just say: You are a good person. You are not alone. Don't try to be someone you're not. It gets better.)

But I think it's important for people to talk about that stuff, and there are other places on the web where people do; see, for example, my links from earlier this year to the Yeshiva University discussion about being gay in the Orthodox world. In particular, the speaker I found most compelling in that discussion, Mordechai, I think is one of the guys in this new "It Gets Better" video.

I think you are right about the focus, and of course I am neither the explicit nor, really, the effective audience for this video, in that I am neither going to be subject to nor active in anti-gay bullying, oppression and abuse in the frum communities. And your link led me back to my own long, rambling post on that YU panel, in which I said that what struck me most were the stories of the harm they took as kids, rather than the discussion of how to treat frum gay Jews.

So, when they participate in a panel at a university, intended for Yeshiva students and teachers, I concentrate on the treatment of kids. And when they participate in a movement about the treatment of kids (and teens), I kvetch about their slighting the stuff that Yeshiva students and teachers should be discussing. Sigh. And I'm on their side in all this.


Er, one more thing. I meant to link to celebrabbi Shmuley Boteach's WSJ opinion page column My Jewish Perspective on Homosexuality from a couple of weeks ago. I can't say I endorse Shmuley in a general way as a teacher, and there's plenty in the column I disagree with, but if this were what gay frum Jews had to endure, then there would be lots of interesting stuff to discuss about the parameters, etc, without necessarily needing for focus on, as you say, You are a good person. You are not alone. Don't try to be someone you're not. It gets better. As it is, yes, it's good that they are focusing.


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