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Potlucks, purim, and gay marriage

October 31, 2006

One of the speakers at last week’s “Beyond Marriage” event, Terry Boggis (who directs Center Kids at New York’s LGBT community center) spoke about all the different types of families that she has interacted with since founding the program in 1988. One of the important points she brought up was regarding the families that many LGBT people form for themselves as adults or even as teenagers. It may be because of a family that wholly rejects a family member because they are gay; it might also be because there are many LGBT people who, through breaking boundaries of sexual orientation, also learn to break boundaries of blood relations/friends/family friends/lovers, etc. This is not restricted to LGBT folks, of course, but it seems to happen more frequently among us. (there’s also the whole thing about most LGBT people being unable to have babies naturally but that’s another story I don’t really want to touch at the moment).

All of these experiences are clearly affected, if not determined, by many factors (race, economics, gender, etc.) and so I want to write from my own personal experience. I’d like to say, daringly, that my lessons in queer family began when I was growing up – long before I was exposed to any radicals (!). My parents were members of a Havurah before I was born. This Havurah was part of a larger movement to bring Shabbat t’filot (prayers) back to the community, and made a point to have non-hierarchical leadership and completely egalitarian services. The group had no rabbi and no president. Shabbat and holiday services were held several times a month, each time at a different family’s house. A potluck lunch always followed services. And there were tons of children around. Being in someone’s home, their intimate space, rather than the neutral space of a synagogue, had a profound affect on me. That community of families shared emotional and physical space with each another in a remarkably different way than most American Jewish communities. To this day, I have an aversion to Jewish communities organized around a synagogue structure and prefer the more organic Havurah model. While my parents’ Havurah has since disbanded, their closest friends today are all former members of the now-defunct Havurah. The Havurah families remain interconnected and continue to be a part of each other’s ever-changing lives. They are still growing together, as they age and lose parents and celebrate as their children have their own children.

My family became close with another family in particular from this Havurah, with whom we moved together to Montreal and shared a moving van in the mid-1980’s. We went on vacation with them every winter for over 15 years. Our families continue to depend on each other for many things and do them not simply to “be a good friend” but because it is expected, because we have created a sense of mutual obligation that can only come from a connection that I would call “family.” Some years, one family is more in need. And that, too, happens in biological families, as much as those power imbalances can be very frustrating. Caretaking without conditions is a beautiful and rare thing. And we should treasure that in whatever form it happens to appear.

Which brings me back to another fascinating part of last Monday evening’s discussion. During the Q & A, a man asked why the statement seems to exclude single people. Lisa Duggan responded by pointing out that most of the people who had this criticism of the statement were gay men. Interestingly, the statement is built on a feminist model of “caretaking and dependency,” in which our emotional lives are organized according to who we depend on and who depends on us. Single people, therefore, are obviously included in this framework; even single people have a structure of people around them on whom they depend for support (and who depend on them). I would even argue that the statement is saying precisely the opposite: why should anyone determine that our romantic relationships should be primary over others? Shouldn’t we be able to determine that for ourselves?

In a very literal sense, then, I went to San Francisco this past August not out of the need to “be a good friend” but out of what I feel strongly as a familial obligation. My best friend in the world, the youngest daughter of that family with whom mine moved to Montreal, became very sick. As she is my sister, and as she has taken care of many times in my life, it was my obligation to go. My point here, if I’m making it well, is that there is no reason for us to think of these types of things as ‘being a good friend’ if we do it for someone who is not related to us by blood. Why is the obligation any less of an obligation? Once you get through the tough parts, your bond as family is even stronger. And if the process of ‘getting through’ is long, your family is with you. Biological families, when they are around, are too small for most of our emotional needs. The only non-biological bond that the state (and our culture) values in the same way it does a biological bond is that of marriage. And when each of us thinks of the people in our lives to whom we feel an emotional obligation, the valuing of romantic connections over those other connections feels cheap.

The beauty of the Havurah, for my parents, was creating an organic community based on what they envisioned for their own Jewish community: lay-run, family-oriented, full of spirit, laughter (Purim was the BEST!), Torah, learning, a love for Israel, and home-cooked lunches. And all made up of people who lived nearby. And they pulled it off. They could never be without the bonds they have with their own siblings, parents, and cousins, but the Havurah satisfied a need that biological family could not. Everyone has needs like that, and the lucky ones figure out how to fulfill those needs. Beyond Marriage responds to the myriad ways in which we fulfill those needs: the current push for gay marriage, in my opinion, does not.

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One comment

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of those non-biological connections. I was a part of that Havurah and it was one of the most important things that happened to me and to my family. It is very important to me that the Havurah had such an important impact on your life.
    I really enjoy reading your blog.



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