Feb 21, 2013

It's Not What You Say, It's Where You Stand

By Rabbi Laura Sheinkopf

As a rabbi I have done my fair share of invocations and benedictions for community events, interfaith gatherings and organizational meetings. I think of it as the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to interfaith relations.  Coming from the liberal east coast circles where I was raised, being a female rabbi is not all that interesting but it’s a different story down here.  There are a surprising number of people I meet who know very little about Judaism and even fewer who are aware that there are female rabbis.

So a cameo appearance at a non-Jewish event has real educational value – a lesson I learned soon after I arrived in Houston over ten years ago as a newly ordained rabbi.  It was following an interfaith panel discussion at a local University and a little old lady made her way over to me, grasped my hands in earnest enthusiasm and said with a pronounced Texas drawl  “I am so glad they invited The Jewish here today.” Both stunned and amused I thought to myself “honey, you are not in Kansas anymore.”  And from henceforth I have always tried to show up when asked and rarely regretted doing so.  
Some years ago I was asked by an acquaintance to give the opening prayer for the annual meeting of an national organization of Drag Queens who stage elaborate performances to raise funds for a variety of local causes.  He was being sworn in as a new board member and being Jewish he thought he would try to find a rabbi.  Normally, I would not have hesitated to say yes but it was not a particularly good time in my life.  My husband and I had recently separated and the event was on Valentine’s Day.  “We knew you would probably be free, rabbi.”  And that was the truth.  I had no plans for Valentine’s Day or any other day.  I was just trying to get through the day at that point so what would have sounded like a blast under normal circumstances sounded like an invitation to an evening of public humiliation.  It was a sad statement about where I was in my own life, best summarized by a line from Tony Kushner’s Angels In America who said “You know things are bad when even drag is a drag.”

In the end I said yes.  I dug out the only outfit I had with some bling and hauled myself down to the club where glittering Drag Queens were already arriving.  I was seriously lost. I had no formal place in the Jewish community.  I was no longer a wife and not really sure what to do next.  Drag seemed like less effort than concealing my sadness but I too know how to perform and fortunately drag Queens understand the per formative aspect of religion.  When you speak at churches and synagogues the microphones pops, the light is fluorescent and someone is either clanking around in the kitchen or talking just as you start to speak.  But this was not the case at this crowded bar where I was, without a doubt the smallest and least spectacular creature present.  But when they called me to the dance floor someone handed me a huge fuzzy microphone that had already been tested, a soft pink light reflected off of a disco ball and onto me and there was even a sound guy behind the board who added a little reverb to my voice.
I was feeling underdressed and generally sorry for myself, but in that soft pink light and hearing my well modulated voice over the monitor I did feel a flicker of resolve.  I barely had to clear my throat to get the attention of that crowd. I opened my mouth and it was like a proverbial parting of the seas.  The room fell silent and every false eyelash was upon me, some even filled with tears as I offered a brief invocation.  It was not what I said.  It was where I stood.  It was just being there as a mainstream religious leader.  And it was the first time that in a mixed crowd being a Jew in a predominantly Christian community and a woman in a decidedly male field was utterly unimportant.  I was a rabbi and I was blessing a gathering of Drag Queens and they were moved to tears and that was it.  

A few years later, I received a call from a funeral home director who had received my name from one of the Drag Queens in attendance that Valentine’s Day night.  The deceased happened to have been involved in the club and in arranging the funeral the family wanted some sort of official clergy but they did not have a relationship with a church.  They also assumed that there would be no clergy willing to perform a funeral for an unaffiliated, openly gay Drag Queen.  “Rabbi, I understand you have done some events with this group.  I know you are Jewish but could you maybe say something?” I did, glad that he had found me.  

Rabbi Laura Sheinkopf is a Reform Rabbi with degrees in Comparative Religion and Jewish studies from Columbia University & Hebrew Union College.  She is a freelance writer, teacher, and a media strategist living in Houston, TX with her two children.  The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.


  1. Lovely piece, Rabbi Laura! I'm so glad I know "the Jewish"...you are a wonderful representative.

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