One of my favorite podcasts is The Moth. It’s a very simple format, people come up to the microphone and tell a story. The only ground rules are that the story tellers have nothing written down, and most important, their stories have to be true.
We know that some of the most beautiful and memorable moments on this bema are when people have shared their own stories, their own true stories.
One of those times was a few months ago when a young man named Max came and spoke to us on Pride Shabbat. He told us his own true story. He spoke with intelligence, honesty, passion and heart.
He began with a thoughtful assertion, based on an old nursery rhyme:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” It’s a children’s rhyme, one that can be traced back to the 1860’s. When I was a kid, I remember hearing it all the time, from my parents, teachers, friends. It was used to teach confidence, implying that wicked comments are just that, comments, and that because they lack the ability to inflict physical damage on a person, that they are actually harmless.
“Words will NEVER hurt me”.
I think that statement is false, and actually acts as justification for people to mistreat one another. For if words cannot hurt us, then they also lack the ability to heal us, inform us, worry us, console us, intrigue us.”
Words have power.
Then Max told his own story. He told us about his family, and how wonderful they were. “When my brother and I were growing up, our parents never referred to our future spouses as our wives. They used phrases like, “when you meet someone special” and “your future partner” but they never said anything to imply that we would be spending our futures with women specifically. At the time, I wasn’t able to see how deliberate that was; it was just my parents being my parents.”
“I had out-gay and lesbian family members when I was growing up, and a transgender aunt who I saw quite frequently. I was never under the impression that homosexuality was a sin or that LGBTQ folks should not have rights; quite the opposite.”
As Max was telling his story one was left with the impression that he was a very lucky young man. Sounds like the perfect family and environment for young gay kid.
“But despite all of that, I was conditioned to believe that being gay was the worst thing I personally could be. I was called names, physically assaulted, socially excluded, and those experiences superseded that of my open and accepting community. I didn’t have a problem with other people being part of the LGBTQ community, I just hated that I was.”
Then he told us about his synagogue. “I grew up in a very progressive Reform Jewish community, one where conversations about diversity and inclusion were not only acceptable but also encouraged. My rabbi officiated same-sex weddings and was never shy about her unwavering support for the LGBTQ community.”
As I was listening to Max I thought – ‘Ahhh, that’s gonna be the source of his solace and self-confidence. An embracing and accepting synagogue community. That’s where his story is going to turn around and he’ll find happiness and love of his true self.’
But that’s not where Max went with his story. It was confusing and puzzling. He had this wonderful family, a great synagogue community. Sounds like the stuff of a happy outcome to me.
He continued, “I was in 6th grade the first time I was called a “fag”. I didn’t even really know what it meant, but I could feel what it implied. I was quite effeminate as a young kid. I sang in the choir, went to arts camp, most of my friends were girls. I never had a problem with that; no one ever made me feel like there was a problem with that. But when I heard that word for the first time, when I felt that word creep underneath my skin and make a home for itself inside my body, I understood that in fact there was a problem with that.
Words have power.
“Throughout middle school I became quite familiar with that cruel word, at certain points hearing it almost daily. “Hey faggot, what do you have for lunch today?” “That’s right, faggot, keep on walking.”
“Between the end of my eighth-grade year and the beginning of high school, I made calculated alterations to the way I acted, presented and socialized. I stopped spending time with the group of girls I felt most comfortable around and ventured into a big group of boys. I lowered my speaking voice, I walked with a slouch and I clenched my fists while running. I changed the names of people in my contact list to ensure more boys’ numbers than girls, and put music on my iPod that I didn’t like so that if someone snatched it out of my hand I would be listening to something acceptable. My freshman year I was on the soccer team, I was in Mock Trial. I was popular; I just wasn’t me.
“For years, I allowed the memories of every humiliating comment, every crude remark to dictate my actions. If I thought an activity would make me appear even the slightest bit gay, I wouldn’t do it. And if I thought something would make me seem straight or masculine, regardless of whether it was a good idea, I would usually participate in it. I spent every day focused on how best to present myself, and every night replaying the missteps of my façade.
Every year on my birthday, I would wish not to be gay, and every year I would wake up the day after, devastated by my continued reality.
This is the last image of his childhood that he shared with us:
“I remember being in gym class for a fitness assessment, and during the running portion having someone turn to me and say, in almost a joking manner, “dude you run like such a fag”.
We were standing within earshot of the gym teacher and as he turned in our direction, the two of us locked eyes. My expression was one of pleading, begging for the support and relief I knew this adult could give me, but it didn’t come. He saw my fear, my embarrassment, my need, and he did absolutely nothing.
Boys will be boys, right? I could see it on his face; he didn’t understand. That moment was one of a long string that reinforced my understanding of those cruel and demeaning comments: that being gay was not normal, that it was not desirable, and that if I happened to be gay, that I could never reveal that unfortunate character defect to anyone.”
Once out of high school, Max’s story took a positive turn. During his college years, he went through the very liberating but grueling process of coming out; first fully to himself, then one by one working his way down a long list of the people that mattered most to him in his life. This process took several years – person by person – and by the end, every single name on the list had lovingly accepted the fullness of Max’s truth.
That his story takes a most positive turn is beautifully clear in the fact that he is spending his developing professional life doing public, legal and political advocacy for the LGBTQ community. A strong young leader.
At the end of his talk I was both uplifted and confused. I was uplifted because he described wonderful, understanding and loving parents; he told us about his synagogue that seemed to teach and do all of the right things.
Yet, his middle school years and high school years were hell, despite that support.
After the Oneg that night, as I was driving Max to the train station, I asked him, “What am I missing? Who messed up? Who dripped the ball?”
He explained quite clearly what perhaps should’ve already been clear. ‘Of course, a loving and accepting family creates the core of young person’s soul. And it’s crucial and important when people work to make their synagogue a safe and welcoming place. To be a sanctuary. But growing up, kids don’t live in the Sanctuary or the synagogue. They just visit a few hours a week. So you have to work harder to change things outside of the synagogue. That’s where the work has to be done.
‘Who let me down? There were adults in my life who should’ve known better: some teachers at school. I was let down by that gym teacher. There were adults whose job it was to look out for us; and some of them didn’t.
‘The message for your congregants has to go way beyond the experience of listening to a sermon, or a lecture on being a caring and embracing community, within the walls of your synagogue.
What’s important is what we all do when we go out there outside of the Kol Ami.
If we are moved by our Jewish lives to speak out against injustice; it won’t mean anything unless we do it out there in all the other places we live and work and play.
When our children, or students, or friends use language we know to be unkind, and we are silent, then we are indeed complicit.
If we know that certain jokes or remarks are racist, but we let them slide – out there – to avoid awkwardness or embarrassment; then by our silence, we’re a big part of the problem.
Silence can be very loud.
If we know in our minds and our hearts that our mothers and wives and sisters and daughters are subject to sexism on a regular basis, yet we ignore it in our businesses, our gyms or our social circles, our schools, then we’re a big part of the problem.
That gym teacher who silently stared at Max and didn’t firmly reprimand the kid who called him “a fag”, by his very silence at that moment, he failed Max, and he failed as a role-model and as a teacher. He was a big part of the problem.
If we make excuses with idiotic phrases like “Locker room talk”, or “boys will be boys”, or “girls will be girls”, then we are part of the problem.
Yom Kippur asks us to find the broken places in ourselves and in our world and then to do the very best to fix them.
I’ll leave you with two images of finding and fixing; one involving a three-star general, and the other involving our 13 year olds at a bar mitzvah party.
The words of the general came to me by several of you this very morning from the New York Times:
“Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria, superintendent of the Air Force Academy Preparatory School, addressed cadets on Thursday after racist slurs were written outside five black Air Force cadet candidates’ dorm rooms.
One message—which was posted on Facebook by a young cadet candidate’s mom—read, “go home” (followed by the N word.
The General told the assembled students: “There is absolutely no place in our Air Force for racism, I‘ve said it before: the area of dignity and respect is my red line. Let me be clear, it won’t be crossed without significant repercussions.”
“If you’re outraged by those words, then you’re in the right place,” Silveria said of the racist graffiti. ”That kind of behavior has no place at the prep school, it has no place in the United States Air Force.”
“We would be naive to think we shouldn’t discuss this topic,” he said. “We’d also be tone deaf not to think about the backdrop of what’s going on in our country. Things like Charlottesville and Ferguson, the protests in the NFL.”
“What we should have is a civil discourse, and talk about these issues. That’s a better idea.”
“I also have a better idea about our diversity,” he continued. “And it’s the power of the diversity … the power of us as a diverse group. The power that we come from all walks of life, that we come from all parts of this county, that we come from all races, all backgrounds, gender, all makeup, all upbringings. The power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful.”
“So just in case you’re unclear on where I stand on this topic, I’m going to leave you with my most important thought today,” he said.
“If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.
If you can’t treat someone from another gender, whether that’s a man or a woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.
If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out.
And if you can’t treat someone from another race, or a different color of skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”
The adult in charge found a broken place in his world, and acted immediately and unequivocally to fix it. He knew well that words can hurt. And he used his words to protect and to heal.
And you don’t have to be a three-star general to find a broken place, to act , to fix and to heal.
Some of our own kids did just that a few weeks ago. At a bar mitzvah party in one of our own local towns, a couple of the students attending took some of the plastic masks used as party favors and wrote on them, “KKK”, and “I love Hitler”.
Of course, that’s disturbing and 100 different ways. But we should take pride in what happens next. Immediately a bunch of the kids present spoke up then and there. They insisted that those masks come right off, that those words were hateful and horrible and absolutely unacceptable.
And the masks came right off. Their school taught them well. Their parents taught them well.
In subsequent days, the incident was dealt with in all other appropriate ways at the school and with families. But the moment to appreciate here and now is the kids’ reaction, their immediate denunciation of the hateful act.
Words are powerful.
May all of us here:
Find the broken places
Where we work and play And bring healing
With the firmness of a 3 star general,
And the pure resolve of brave 13 year olds.