What It’s Like Being An Out Queer Cantor

“All I could think about was how all the clergy were gay!”

Photo by iStock

In 2011, when my girlfriend and I moved from Israel to Boston for college, it was immediately obvious that I was going to have to find a job. Or three. Tuition, at that time, was about five times more expensive than the college I was attending outside Tel Aviv. Within a week of getting off the plane, I was meeting with Rabbis and Cantors and interviewing for an array of jobs that I fondly call Professional Judaism. It started as a way to make rent and to minimize my student debt, but it turned into something else pretty quickly.

I taught religious school classes—on everything from history to songwriting to bible studies—and subbed for all ages, often at the last minute and often with little to no lesson plan. I led empowerment groups for teen girls. I officiated countless Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and taught kids to read from the Torah and to speak modern Hebrew. I also found myself singing in a wildly diverse array of sanctuaries across the country, partly by touring as a guitarist and singer in an all-female Jewish-Israeli girl band. (Yeah, that’s a thing.)

My work has brought me some pretty unforgettable encounters: warm and poignant conversations to take home, pull apart, and contemplate. Also some infuriating, offensive, or just laughable moments. Here’s a few of them.

1. “But I only have two moms!”

I’m subbing for a fourth-grade class at a school in a Boston suburb. I’ve only been living in the USA for a few months, and even though it’s ostensibly spring in Boston, it still seems a lot like an Israeli winter, but colder. It’s almost Passover, and the lesson plan provided has the kids in groups, translating a holiday counting song, “Who Knows One?”. Each number represents an element of Jewish culture: one is God, two are the tablets of Moses, three are the forefathers, four are the foremothers, and so on, all the way to thirteen.

I’m going table to table and helping out the nine-year-olds with their assignment. At a table near the door, one little girl is struggling with her paper, balling up her fist, seeming frustrated. I kneel down beside her.

“What’s up?”

“I don’t get this one.” The one with the four foremothers.

“Well, let’s see, if Eema means mother, what do you think Eemahot means?”

She thinks, chewing her pencil.

“Mothers?”

“Yep, you got it! It means the four mothers!”

I thought she’d be pleased, but her eyes get big and she’s clearly stressed out.

“But I only have two moms!” she cries.

I’m totally caught off guard. I just moved here from Israel, where queer couples raising a family are few and far between. Not widely accepted, to say the least.

This kid just said she has two moms, and her classmates didn’t even blink. I glance at the TA who’s working with me. (She also happens to be gay.) We smile and explain the Jewish theory behind the song, show her how to continue. Everything carries on. Like nothing happened at all. Like this fourth-grade class isn’t blowing my mind right now.

Incidentally, a few months later, I would randomly run into one of her moms at another school where I worked. Turns out we were neighbors.

2. “All I could think about was how all the clergy were gay!”

It’s the first day of Rosh HaShanah. I’ve just finished singing all morning and am attending a really lovely lunch, hosted by a congregant. I had officiated the services with my wife, who accompanied me on piano, the other Cantor (a gay man), and two Rabbis (one of whom is also gay, and had attended with her wife).

At lunch, we’re mostly focused on the smoked salmon, the kugel, and the coffee, and chatting with two women who had attended services the previous evening. It’s going pretty well. Everyone’s lovely and funny, and the food is delicious. All in all, a good time. Then one of the women leans in conspiratorially and smiles.

“You know,” she says, “last night was really amazing.”

Silly me, I think she means the music, the prayers, maybe the sermon.

“Thank you,” we all reply, a jumbled chorus of gratitude.

“I’m telling you!” she goes on, “It was something else. The whole way home, we talked about it.”

Now I’m just smiling since I have a mouth full of chocolate-covered strawberry.

“So many gay people leading services!” she exclaims, eyes wide with excitement. “We talked about it all evening. We’ve really come a long way, don’t you think?”

We all glance at each other, and silently agree to let it go.

“Totally!” I answer, adding, “Yes, oh, you were talking about that, I thought you meant the service.”

“Oh that, too! That, too, of course!” She laughs and changes the subject, and we move on.

3. “What if she’s marrying a GIRL?”

Back in Boston, I had spent a year teaching religious school, as a homeroom teacher for 24 rambunctious fifth-graders. I loved those kids. We had a blast that year playing Hebrew tag, learning blessings, asking tough questions and laughing.

I tell my students that I’m not going to make it to the end-of-the-school-year party. The classroom fills with groans, and “BUT WHY?”s, and a wild cacophony of young voices.

I quiet them down and reply, “The truth is, I’m getting married in a couple of weeks.”

Immediately, their disappointment is replaced with excitement and more noise. They’re losing their shit. Suddenly I’m in a cloud of questions. All the kids are demanding, “Who is he? Who is he? Tell us about him! Who is he??”

I don’t really know what to say, or how to handle this. It’s a more conservative congregation, and I don’t want to make any parents angry. But I’m also not about to lie to these kids, nor hide the truth about who I am. And then, suddenly, I don’t have to.

One of the girls in the front row says in a loud voice, over everyone else’s inquiries, “WAIT! What if she’s marrying a GIRL?”

Silence. They’re all looking at me.

“Thanks, hon.” I say, “Yes, that’s right. I’m marrying another woman.”

I tell them my fiancée’s name, and a little bit about her. They bubble with excitement for another few minutes. They’re surprised but, thankfully, not upset at all. We get back to our material. I get a lot of hugs at the end of class that day.

When I come in for my evaluation a few weeks later my boss tells me that that little girl’s mom had called to say that she was so glad I had shared my news. Her daughter had never met a gay person before. And she was happy that I was her first lesbian. Which was a little weird, but also kind of nice… I guess?

4. “Another female Rabbi of girl-on-girl persuasion.”

OK, this story didn’t happen to me, but it’s too gross not to share. I’ll tell it as it was told to me.

My friend is at a fancy academia dinner with her wife, who’s working as a resident professor at a pretty classy university. They’re seated at a table with a lot of older, straight white dudes (her wife’s colleagues), and are chatting about nothing much. In the course of the chit-chat, one of the men asks my friend what she does for a living, to which she replies that she’s a Rabbi. He seems bemused, which isn’t too weird. People still tend to think of Rabbis as men, so she doesn’t think this is unusual. But then it gets weird.

He looks at her and says, “Huh. You know, I recently met another female Rabbi of girl-on-girl persuasion.” As though this is regular dinnertime small talk.

According to my friend, she and her wife were basically stunned silent.

Finally, she recovered and said, “Oh, OK.” Then she excused herself and went aside to try to figure out how to unpack the myriad ways in which that sentence was offensive. The faculty dinner continued undisturbed.

5. “I get it, it’s a GIRL mohawk.”

I’m officiating a holiday morning service. It’s one of those holidays that has a special liturgy, special melodies, and includes a memorial section where we recall those who have passed. It’s very involved and includes a lot of moments of joy, but also of grief. The congregation prays with me for a few hours, and I think I’ve done a pretty decent job of relaying the emotional quality of the holiday. It’s worth noting at this point that for a lot of Jewish services the clergy person has their back to the congregation, as I had had for most of that morning.

I’m packing up my things, getting ready to shmooze over bagels, and a congregant approaches me with a smile. She’s a sweet woman who I’ve noticed at services in the past, and I smile back.

“Cantor, I so enjoyed the service.”

“Thank you,” I say, “I’m glad!”

“And, you know, the whole service I was just looking at your hair, trying to figure it out. But then I finally understood. It’s a girl mohawk!”

I nod, “Yes, yes, it is.”

“Oh, well it’s very unusual,” she continues, patting me on the arm. “In any case, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I offer. She walks off towards brunch, and I follow a few moments later.

Being queer in religious leadership roles hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes it’s been momentous, like when my middle-school student came out to me, seeking guidance on how to talk to her parents. I was so grateful that day to have been able to be the role model that I had needed so badly when I was growing up. At times it’s been downright bizarre. Other times painful. I know that, for many people I encounter, I am their first lesbian religious leader. Seeing my wife and I pray together is a surreal and dizzying experience for them. And sometimes they say massively inappropriate things in response.

Still, I have faith in people. I choose to believe that, mostly, they don’t intend to be hurtful. They’re trying to figure something out. I see my job, in part, as being compassionate and helping them engage. Every day we try to navigate the road together.

I’ve never hidden who I am or who I love from congregants or students, and I think that’s helped them to be open with me in return. And that’s been more blessing than curse.