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Toward Shabbat: Korah

Defining Our Own Identities

Nine years ago I was outed and fired for being gay. The Modern Orthodox community that raised me collectively turned their backs on me. I was 22.

Aside from the practical question of how I would pay next month’s rent, I also wondered which part of myself I’d have to give up; would I be barred from attending the beautiful Shabbat services I loved, or would I shove my heart back in the closet to gain my community’s acceptance again?

Everyone knows you can’t have both.

My mom reinforced this divide. “There are places you can go for that,” she said. Meaning: conversion therapy. She would prefer I slice off a piece of myself and hide it. The community was more important than my identity.

Of course my mom would think that way: She also made sacrifices in order to belong. Marrying my non-Jewish father turned her into an outcast years ago. As the first child of this multi-faith union, I grew up between worlds, watching my mom navigate the difficult terrain between keeping the traditions that were important to her while placating those who didn’t accept her personal life. My baby naming was held on the living room couch instead of at shul. They wouldn’t let a goy on the bimah, not even to hold his daughter while someone else recited the berakhot.

Growing up, the compromises were always present. Without an official Simhat Bat (celebration of a daughter) ceremony, the only documentation of my Hebrew name is on report cards and school assignments—one of the many clues that I didn’t belong. “Mazal Devorah is just easier to say,” my teachers claimed. They made spelling and pronouncing my Sicilian surname feel like an inconvenience. To this day strangers are always surprised to learn I’m Jewish because they make assumptions based on my name. But what’s wrong with davening Shaharit as Margaret Piraino?

There was only one person who saw me fully as both Mazal and Margaret, even though she never called me by either one. Her nickname for me was “Babe.”

Hearing that gave me floaty feelings I didn’t understand at the time. We were in high school and she was my best friend. I wasn’t thinking about kissing her, I was just eager to exchange notes with her during halakhah class. Her green pen made little stars in the margins. I waited for her screen name to show up on AOL Instant Messenger after school. We signed our emails “Love always,” and wrote each other poems on LiveJournal.

You’d think I would have called her my girlfriend, but I had no words for our relationship. I had never watched or read anything that depicted two women in love. My only context came from the tabloids in grocery store checkout lines that cast queer celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell as unlovable deviants. But what my best friend and I had together was sweet and special. “Lesbian” did not seem like an empowering word. The few connotations I had absorbed about it were negative.

The lack of representation in my world didn’t stop me from being queer, but it did make it harder for me to grow up feeling loved and safe.

I was finally exposed to a wider range of perspectives once I started attending college in Manhattan. It was liberating to meet and befriend all kinds of LGBTQIA+ folks who were secure in their identities. At last I had a word for myself: bisexual.

The first time I celebrated Pride was in 2014. I was newly out and dating my first girlfriend. At 22 years old I finally felt like I was the person I was meant to become. This alignment and deep knowledge of myself was powerful, and I wanted to share my light with others. One Saturday night, I documented my experience in a private Facebook post that I shared with someone I trusted. At the time, my Modern Orthodox community was not welcoming to those who did not fit their precise belief system, so I didn’t have the space I needed to publicly integrate my queer and Jewish identities.

The post I wrote described holding hands with my first girlfriend as we roamed the city; how we were transfixed by the shimmering rainbow lights of the Empire State Building in honor of Pride. As a native New Yorker I have never been starstruck by this building. But there was something about being acknowledged by this landmark that eased the years of longing that defined my Brooklyn girlhood.

I had eight missed calls from my boss when I woke up Sunday morning. When I finally spoke with her, her stilted explanation for firing me emphasized what a shame it was, because my work was so excellent—but my “deviance” was unwelcome.

It turns out my trusted friend had sent around a screenshot of my post. My privacy was violated over and over again as the post was forwarded around the community network until it reached my boss.

I was forced to resign. My boss, workplace, and community didn’t see me as a person—they instead saw me as an aberration. My identity had been defined by other people, and the genuine excitement about myself that I had shared in a vulnerable moment was spoiled. Furthermore, I was alienated from the only Jewish community I had ever known. I felt lost. How could I practice Judaism if I didn’t have access to the architecture that provided its structure?

The community where I had grown up, for all its love and warmth, did not discuss those outside its figurative walls. So just like I didn’t really know about queerness, I was also never exposed to representations of non-Orthodox Judaism. The rumors I grew up with said other denominations were goyishe, and that there was only one way to be a “real Jew.”

In my search for new employment, I found myself interviewing at a Reform Jewish day school. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was originally surprised to find people there who had a deep love for Judaism. This wasn’t what the rumors had led me to believe. After my initial surprise faded, I realized that Judaism was more broad and diverse than I had learned growing up, and I was excited by new possibilities for my own relationship with it. I began doing the hard work of weeding my own garden of intolerance, cutting out the exclusionary ideology I was fed from birth. Even though I had been marginalized, I also had my own unconscious biases to investigate and unlearn.

As I’ve continued on that journey I promised myself I would only work in places where I could be my whole self. Over the past nine years, I’ve committed myself to creating safe, loving spaces. It’s one of the reasons I feel so fulfilled working at BJ.

There is no trade off when I walk into the Sanctuary. I don’t have to tuck any part of myself into a back pocket or pretend to be less than I am. I have the privilege to work with and represent all aspects of my background, especially my multi-faith heritage and queer experience. While my official title is Community Engagement Program Coordinator I joke that I’m really the CBO: Chief Belonging Officer. And nowhere is that more evident than the deep engagement I do to grow our Aviv 20s/30s/40s cohort.

Once in a while after an Aviv Shabbat dinner I’ll notice someone lingering until most of the group has dispersed. When they approach me to say good night and express appreciation for the event I can sense that a deeper sharing is about to come: “I never felt like there was a place for me in Judaism because…”

I’m Korean;

I’m trans;

My name doesn’t “sound Jewish”;

I stopped caring about Judaism because I thought there was nothing left for me;

I rejected the Jewish community before they could reject me;

I haven’t been back to shul in fifteen years…

In these moments of vulnerability, my 22-year-old self is present again. Almost a decade later I still marvel at my robust Jewish life with queer friends from all across the religious spectrum. I have found my life’s purpose in creating welcoming spaces for all of us who feel different. When my partner David is by my side at Kabbalat Shabbat, I get to have both the Judaism that feels like home and the person I love at the same time. Even my mom is coming around to the idea that inclusion is a Jewish value.

My commitment to inclusion is strengthened at BJ. Every time I talk to a colleague, meet a new member, discuss programming with a spiritual leader, I’m reminded that my whole self is something to be proud of. As BJ approaches its third century, our vision is for all members of the community to seek and live their purpose to the fullest. To learn more about creating a culture of belonging, or to share your story, reach out anytime to mpiraino@bj.org.