(I am dedicating this learning to my teachers, friends, and supporters: Rabbi Benay Lappe, and Bonnie Kahn Martin—may their legacies be carried and magnified by their students and the students of their students and the students of their student’s students—and to the memory of Henry Genthe, the marine biologist who juggled on the sand and made everything fun.)
In 1978 I was an enthusiastic but aimless undergrad. I took classes because I loved learning not because I wanted a degree. I studied music and literature, the ocean and the forests. I loved life science and poetry, and pretty much everything except math, which I found interesting enough, but it never touched my heart. I learned wherever learning was to be had, often in whatever college or university happened to be nearby. Which sadly put me in the position of being constantly confronted by “The Academy” whose booming voice bellowed incessantly “This is not how it’s done!!” By which it meant that I had to be loyal to one subject or another. So, for a few years I disingenuously proclaimed that I was going to be a marine biologist. Looking back, I see that this was merely a ruse to keep learning what and how I wanted. In this case, if I had to forsake all other passions, I was at least going to engage in the most exciting learning situation I could. I made this career choice after having connived my way into a magical mystery tour with Jean-Michel Cousteau. Against all odds I got a slot on a research team doing a reef assessment diving project off Roatán Island with Cousteau’s Project Ocean Search.
A week before the project started, I passed my diver’s certification test in Puget Sound’s rough, murky and frigid waters. I met up with Jean-Michel and our crew of 20 student divers and 4 research scientists in New Orleans from whence we proceeded to Roatán. (An amazing trek in and of itself. Ask me more later.) After several planes of descending capacity, several boats, and a zodiac, we arrived on the island late at night in the pitch dark. We stumbled onto a dock, made our way to some huts, and zonked into blissful slumber. I woke up at around 5am, the sun as bright as if it were noon. I had the giddy feeling that I was hallucinating the azure water, white sand, thatched huts, lazing iguanas, and one large resident monkey named, wait for it, Bunky. But it was real, and for the better part of a month we dove 2-3 times a day gathering data about the ecosystem in deliciously warm, crystalline water heavily populated with fish that were proof positive that God was no stranger to psychedelics when conjuring up this world. It was one mind-blowing, life affirming, awe inspiring rush after the other. The day I learned that many of these psychedelic creatures were trans* was a watershed day—I was hooked. If I had to choose a life path, this was it. (It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that POS is to the field of Marine Biology what SVARA is to Yeshivas Mir, that is, super fun versus not super fun, though both are rigorous.) One day over breakfast one of the research faculty, Henry Genthe z”l, told me about a hands-on at-sea program in Woods Hole, MA that I should check out. So, a year and some creative application writing later, I found myself inexplicably accepted into a program in which I really had no business being. My main deficit was that I had no idea what a Marine Biologist, who wasn’t a Cousteau, actually did. But there I was, after a grueling semester of preparation, twenty years old, walking up the gangplank on a balmy Caribbean November night with a cohort of strangers boarding the RV Westward, a 125’ staysail schooner research vessel, where I would live for the next 3 months.
Students crewed the ship: we stood watch, we piloted the ship, we managed the sails, raised and lowered anchors, and maintained the yards. We worked the galley, pumped bilge, and repaired rigging. Simultaneously we ran multiple research projects: hydrocasts, salinity titrations, multi-depth plankton trawls, and the search for spiny lobster larvae in the old Bahama Channel. And task after task, it became clear that I was not cut out for the life of a sailor or a marine biologist. I was a sloppy scientist, a terrible navigator, and a dangerous helmsman–I lost control of the wheel one day, setting the boat spinning in the middle of the sea, sails flapping and the boom flying madly until the captain surfaced from below deck in a rage, calling all hands on deck until control was regained.
Somehow I wasn’t invited to walk the plank after that terrifying episode. I expect it was because I did have something to contribute. I couldn’t plot a course or predict currents to save my life, but I shined when a chanty was needed to help raise a sail, and I could spin a yarn when my shipmates were painfully bored after weeks of staring at an endless horizon, or offer a rousing toast when there was a birthday, and I could listen to a fellow when they were exhausted and wondering what life was all about. In short, I became the ship’s maggid.
One spectacular night four of us just finished standing the first watch (midnight). It was a beautiful night—the air was moist and slightly cool, providing a great respite from the inescapable and unforgiving heat of the day. We hung out together on the fo’c’sle deck (you will not find that term in Jastrow), apprehending the impossible vastness of the ocean. The moon was just radiant enough for us to see each other, the water glittering, and a sky full of stars. There was quiet except for the wind in the sails and the pulsing slusshh of the water being carved by the hull. In wonder and awe, feeling fragile and small, suspended over the deep, we sat silently, being and breathing together. Slowly and tenderly, we voiced the undeniable transcendent presence surrounding us. From there the conversation headed into religion. Two of us were Jewish, the other two protestant and of the four of us, I was the only one who had read and studied our shared Bible. Then questions began: So Jhos, what did Abraham do? What was “the fall”? Who was Moses? How did the whole Noah’s Ark thing end? I started riffing, bringing those stories and characters to life for them, drashing for the first time. My shipmates lay on the deck, listening, egging me on, “And then what? And then what?” like kids drawing out a story because they didn’t want the moment to end.
My life shifted that night. It would take another 15 years before I realized that my true calling and soul’s purpose is to tell those very stories, to plumb them to their depths, to surrender myself to the mysteries and wisdom embedded in Torah. So, I studied, with anyone, anywhere but it would be years before I stepped off on a spectacular voyage. In 2005 I boarded the good ship SVARA to get my first, salty-sweet, and delicious taste of the queer Talmud sea. And it was at SVARA that I found the bookend to that night on the RV Westward’s fo’c’sl deck. A few summers ago, at Queer Talmud Camp we studied chapter 8 in tractate Sanhedrin which explores the Torah passage that prescribes death by stoning for a stubborn and rebellious child (Devarim 21:18-21). Word by word we unfurled the sails the rabbis demanded we set and fill with the wind of our discussions, disagreements, and dialogue. Through argumentation and clever word play we tacked against the Torah’s opposing gusts, following the course plotted by the tannaim, amoraim, and stammim who adroitly teach us how to steer around every scriptural eddy and whirlpool. In the midst of their shrewd logic, deft navigation, and respectful confrontation of the Torah’s wrong-headedness I encountered three words that clarified my own journey: דרוש וקבל שכר interpret and receive reward. I felt the rabbis talking directly to me: Learn so you can interpret; learn to find your true voice; learn to strengthen and free your svara. And I finally knew that that here, at SVARA, I had found a place where I belong, a place where at long last learning for learning’s sake is the highest virtue. And I was filled with awe to have arrived on solid, sacred, and rooted ground.
May our path, however twisting and beautiful, treacherous and haunting, illogical and painstaking, wonderous and wearying as it may be, bring us steadily, securely, and safely home.
*True fact—Google https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequential_hermaphroditism for an uplifting lesson on queer zoology.