Sunday, December 24, 2017

"The Most Wonderful Night": A Christmas/Nittel Jewish Story

Holidays are always a time that people think about family, and for those of us that have no relationship with most family members for whichever reason - a time that can quickly get sad and lonely. Fortunately for myself, I only have to struggle with these feeling during Jewish holidays, as for most Secular/American holidays, there is nothing to miss. Not only does my family not celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving and New Year’s, but growing up, we were barely aware that these days exist as holidays.
Christmas (or as we called it, Kratzmakh, literally: Scratch-Me in Yiddish, a pun, usually seen as degrading: see the Forward article) however, was different. Not only were we aware of the day’s existence, but in an interesting turn of events, even celebrated it. Not just the Western Christmas on the Eve of December 24th (as in tonight), but also the Eastern Orthodox Christmas on January 7th. In fact, for most of us teenagers studying in religious school in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, these two nights where in some ways ‘the most wonderful time of the year’.
Okay now, enough with the build up. Most of you who are unaware of what I am referring to are probably having a hard time believing that the cult-ish Jewish community that believes the outside world is evil, celebrated a Christian holiday that most secular Jews don’t celebrate, any more than having family time and eating Chinese food.
Well okay, we didn’t do Christmas, or Kratzmakh, we celebrated “Nittel Nacht.” Nittel was the only night of the year, that not only weren't we driven to feel guilty if we ‘wasted’ our time doing anything else besides studying holy scriptures, we were forbidden from doing so. As a result it was the only time of the year, that we were playing games ‘guilt-free’ to some extend. Different Hasidic communities have different times of when they “observed” with the dates being between December 24th, January 7th, or one sect, January 6th - all depending mostly on where they come from. Some did from sunset to midnight, 6 pm to midnight, or noon to midnight. In my sect, we did sunset to midnight on the 24th, and noon to midnight on the 7th.
In my childhood, “Nittel” was a ‘special’ fun day. As a pre-teen, it was the only night my father allowed us free, non-guilt-driven, access to watch videos on his home computer (that obviously had no internet access). Mostly that consisted of videos of family weddings, speeches and events where my late great-grandfather was the keynote speaker, recorded gatherings of Hasidic Rebbes (mostly my great-uncle, the Bobov’er Rebbe, and at times, National Geographic films he deemed ‘kosher’. Later on, in rabbinical seminary, the two Nittels were the only two days in the year that we were allowed to play board games in the main study hall, and during a year long prohibition on listening to any and all tapes and CD’s (a story for another time), we were allowed to listen to these devices on Nittel. In true Hasidic fashion, they turned playing chess on Nittel into a whole custom, with supposed deep meanings. In my sect, the Rebbe (Supreme Leader) himself used to play chess publicly on Nittel.
If that is not ‘celebrating’ Christmas, I don’t know what is…
What is most interesting to me, and the reason I set down to write this post - which was supposed to be a short one paragraph quest for all of your thoughts, before I turned it into a storytelling rant - is the interesting part of a twisted acceptance and almost blind belief in the “Power of Christ” so to speak. Most Jews, Muslims, and followers of other faiths that don’t do Christmas, that I know today, don’t celebrate it, because, well, they don’t think there is anything divine or holy with this day/or with Christ. It is not any kind of disrespect, but merely a difference in belief/spiritual practice, something that is as old as the time the first human looked on nature and perceived the sun as a God. Hasidic Jews however, see Christ and Christmas as a powerful time, a night in which the devil reigns. They are different historical reasons for Nittel, but at least what I was told as a child, was that the evil powers are so strong on Christmas Eve, that if you study holy scriptures, it will be stolen by the ‘other side’ - metaphor for the devil and demons.
In short, a total acceptance of the powers of Christianity, a weird (and almost only) adoption of the Gregorian Calendar as having a real spiritual power, though evil. Something really weird, considering that otherwise they considered every other religion and practice as being utterly ‘wrong’ and ‘misguided’.
Pardon my rant, as I am not writing this to say that I am in a the slightest way missing my families hangout on this day, I will enjoy the party I am going to tonight way more...
What I am curious is if anyone else is aware of a similar concept in other religions - where there is a total disregard theologically to other religious/spiritual practices (so not talking about traditions that have a strong multi-faith/tradition respect), yet they are a few unique examples, where they suddenly adopt a hated religion’s beliefs in a twisted way?
(Not asking for a historical explanation of the origins of Nittel, I am referring to the way they see it today)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Na, I Am Not An Addict - But I Am: A Personal Story of Addiction and Recovery

Today is December 19, 2017, which is exactly 3 years since December 19, 2014 = 3 whole years of sobriety.  That is 3 years, 36 months, 1,096 days, and 26,300 hours since I last touched any form of narcotics, from alcohol to weed, and so on.
Okay I know that some of you are raising your eyebrows on this weird post. As a girl that is quite public about most parts of her life, this is a quite big part that I rarely - if ever - talk about publicly. Besides the occasional casual ‘Oh, I don’t drink, I don’t do weed’ I rarely ever mention that I am staying sober. A lot of my close friends probably think that I just don’t enjoy drinking (I do, or I did, big time), and besides a few friends that are also staying sober, who just know me as that friend “that never went through NA, but stays sober” (I am looking at you - you know who you are… thanks for being an inspiration) very few people see me as one of ‘these’ addicts that is working hard to stay sober.
Well thanks to a few people who have inspired me lately to tell this part of my self publicly, I wanna share this with all of you today, as I am low key celebrating what I think is one of my bigger accomplishments in the past 3 years (ya, bigger that being on ShowTime, CNN, Fox, or every other major network).
It is 3 years - since the day I told myself, and convinced myself, that if I ever wanna get anywhere in life, I better get my s***t together, and find a better way to drown my depression than the sweet and sour taste of alcohol. Struggling with Gender Dysphoria (NOT the mental illness) is never easy, and we all need ways to drown the sorrow of wanting to jump out of our own skin every day. For me, starting mainly after I got divorced in the summer of 2013, but in some ways going back to my days in Yeshiva 2008-2010, that was alcohol. During the summer of 2013 for a few months, most weekdays looked pretty much the same: Waking up at 3 pm, spending about 4 hours reading and working at Finkelstein Library, then head over to Nyack, NY, spend a few hours getting wasted, because I couldn’t stand myself,  getting home at 2 in the morning, and the cycle continued.
But I magically convinced myself that I am not an addict.
It is 3 years - since the day I very clearly realized that the hangovers, short term and long term, of narcotics if just not worth it. Throughout my entire life, I knew very clearly that I am a girl, that was clear to me as the fact that alcohol makes me forget that everyone thinks that I am a boy. However, I magically convinced myself that if I just do XYZ in life, “it is gonna go away” - kinda what we call in the Queer community, praying the gay away. When I started school in the fall of 2014, after about 6 weeks, the reality of who I am hit me once again, and I needed a way to drown it out. At that point I lived at The Bayit, and right around the corner was 1020, a bar frequented by students - and that became my safe space (or so I thought), spending hours there, losing my clear mind, getting home late, waking up late, and trying to go on with my life.
And I still magically convinced myself that I am not an addict.
It is 3 years - since I attended “Brightlights” my first big Hanukkah event with Romemu, with two good friends, and the last party I ever attended where I got tipsy. I attended it with a friend that was quite out as queer at that point, and after a short time of drinking, I found myself telling her details about my life I never shared with anyone. Another 9.5 months will pass, full of struggles, and pretending everything is perfect, before I will start physical transition, but I told her that I ‘used’ to think I am a girl, something I never shared before with someone face to face. We were both after a glass or two, but I realized quickly that I just did something from which it is hard to come back. That time was one of my darkest moments struggling with depression, and with the mental bear that was suffocating me - gender dysphoria. It became clear to me, that if I continue going down that route, trying to use alcohol and ‘edibles’ to stay sane, I would be very far from sane.
I finally realized that yes, I am an addict.
I was beyond lucky that I was able to stop myself in the tracks. Admittedly, my arrogance did not allow me to look for help in person, so besides getting some guidance from a few anonymous online forms, I didn’t join a recovery group. Part of me still insisted till lately that ‘I was never an addict’ and as if I magically stopped my addiction in the tracks, but I was fooling myself. Looking back on my experience, I had, and still have every sign of a recovering addict. Hell, I am an addict in nature - just replaced a dangerous addiction, narcotics, with a perhaps less dangerous addiction (at least easier hangovers) called Netflix. I was just extremely lucky to find the support and inspiration to be able to pull this off, and move one step closer towards full recovery, and move on with full transition - something that it is clear would've been impossible otherwise.
A Hebrew NA tag
I am sharing this story first and foremost with the silent hope that it will help at least one person struggling in silence just like me, and maybe they will find inspiration to stop, it worked for me. In addition, it is upon me to thank all these amazing people that while they might be unaware, they were my lifeline and inspiration from the day my addiction was stopped in its tracks, till today. I wouldn’t say names as I don’t want to out anyone, but you all know who you are. From the first friend who introduced me to recovery, made me go to the first NA conference (A New Years Eve dry party), and was an inspiration to show that I can do it - though I think I managed to convince here that I am just there for Nar-Anon. To a friend that I met through the Formerly Orthodox community, but who became I close friend, and introduced me to so many amazing people in recovery. Finally, I wanna thank Cortney Lovell, who I met while we were both performing with Defiant, and has been one of the biggest inspirations for me to tell this story, and write this post. Thank you all!
Finally I have one short messages to all wondering if they can do it: Yes you can! Don’t be as stupid as me, find support, find a 12-steps group, and you two can have a better life.

Happy Holidays!!!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Holocaust Remembrance Day: A Personal Reflection

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day (or Yom HaShoah in Hebrew), remembering one of the biggest, and the most brutal genocide in human history. Between 1938 and 1945, and even more so with the roll-out of the infamous Final Solution in 1942, a fascist regime - by fueling the hate, racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism in one of the world's most ‘enlightened’ cultures - killed over a third of the Jewish people. At the same time they carried out a less discussed genocide against other minorities, such as the Romani People, people of lesser physical ability, and the LGBTQ Community.
As a Jew - three of my four grandparents are holocaust survivors. As a proud member of the LGBTQ community, and trans woman - the Nazis killed thousands of my fellow community members, and set back medical transgender research by a few decades. They shut down Magnus Hirschfeld’s “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft(Institute For Sexology), burned all his research, and killed most of its members. The Holocaust formed, and is still forming parts of who I am, in ways that I want it to, and in ways that I would prefer it stays out. It is who I am.
Mass grave of Jews killed during the
Holocaust, in Kopaygorod, Ukraine
Today, I wanna share with you all a list I compiled two years ago when I spoke at the Holocaust Remembrance day ceremony at the Columbia Hillel (center for Jewish student life at Columbia). In the past years, as I have been speaking for more and more diverse communities around the world, I have mentioned a few times that over 25 of my ‘direct’ ancestors (not family - cousins, aunts and uncles, etc. that number is way too high for me to count) went through the holocaust - some survived, some were killed. Often I am met with disbelief; so here is an exact list, with some details I remembered offhand. And while I am at it, why not give you all a crash course in my genealogy.
3 grandparents:
  1. Rabbi Mordechai Stein - born 1940 in Fălticeni, Romania, survived in Fălticeni. Currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.
  2. Rabbi Yosef Moshe Meisels - born 1924 in Galicia, Poland, survived in Hungary. Died 2015 in Brooklyn NY.
  3. Malka Meisels (née Schnek) - born in the 1920’s in Kanjiža, Yugoslavia (modern Serbia), survived Auschwitz and other death camps. Died 2013 in Brooklyn NY.
6 great-grandparents:
  1. Rabbi Yisroel Avrohom Stein - born 1916 in Vyzhnytsia, Bukovina (modern Ukraine), survived in Fălticeni, Romania. Died 1989 in Brooklyn, NY.
  2. Sarah Stein (née Twersky) - born ca. 1910 in Suceava, Bukovina (modern Romania), survived  in Fălticeni, Romania. Died 1997 in Brooklyn, NY.
  3. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Meisels - born 1902 in Sátoraljaújhely, Hungary, survived several death camps, and became Chief-Rabbi of the British DP Camps. Lived in Chicago IL after the war, died in 1974.
  4. Henna Zissel Meisels (née Teitelbaum) - born ca 1900 in Bobowa, Galicia (modern Poland), killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  5. Moshe Schnek - lived in Kanjiža, killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  6. Esther Schnek (née Mentzer) born in Kanjiža, killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
15 great-great-grandparents
  1. Efroim Aaron Stein - born in Vyzhnytsia, Bukovina (modern Ukraine), died in Nazi exile in Kopaygorod, Transnistria (modern Ukraine) in 1943.
  2. Rachel Stein (née Fogel) - born in Vyzhnytsia, Bukovina (modern Ukraine), survived Nazi exile in Transnistria. Died 1957 in Israel.
  3. Rabbi Eluzer Twersky - born 1893 in Belz, Galicia (Modern Ukraine),  survived in Bucharest, Romania. Died 1976 in Brooklyn NY.
  4. Rivka Rachel Twersky (née Moskovitz) - born in Suceava, Bukovina (modern Romania),  survived in Bucharest, Romania. Died 1960 in Brooklyn NY.
  5. Rabbi Dovid Dov Meisels - born 1876 in Tarnów, Glicia (modern Poland), killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  6. Roiza Beluma Meisels (née Teitelbaum) - born ca 1875 in Sighetu Marmație, Maramureș (modern Romania), killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  7. Chaya Sheindel Teitelbaum (née Halberstam) - born in Bobowa, Galicia (modern Poland), killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
  8. Gitel Mentzer (née Goldberger) -  born in Kanjiža, killed by the Nazis in 1944.
  9. Mordecai Aaron Mentzer - lived in Kanjiža pre war, killed by the Nazis in 1944.
  10. Faige Twersky (née Rokeach) - born in Belz, Galicia (Modern Ukraine), died in Warsaw Ghetto in 1941.
  11. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kahana - born in Săpânța, Maramureș (modern Romania), killed in 1944.
  12. Mirl Geula Kahana (née Rubin) - born in Berezdivtsi, Galicia (modern Ukraine), killed in 1944.
  13. Rabbi Yitzchak Teitelbaum - born in Drohobycz, Austria (modern Ukraine), killed in 1944.
  14. Hanya Teitelbaum (née Langenauer) - Born in Hussaków, Poland (modern Ukraine), killed in 1944.
  15. Grandfather Schnek (name unknown at the moment), killed.
  16. Grandmother Schnek (name unknown at the moment), killed.
In total, 25 of my direct grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents went through the Holocaust. 9 survived, 16 perished.
When we say “Never Forget” we mean it. When we say “Never Again” we mean it. When you see us scream “We have seen this before” believe us and take action.