Thursday, January 25, 2007

"Hineini:" Judaism, Homosexuality, and One Young Woman's Strength

Hineini, Hebrew for 'Here I am,' chronicles the story of one student’s courageous fight to establish a gay-straight alliance at a Jewish high school in the Boston area. Shulamit Izen enters ninth grade longing to connect more deeply with her Jewish faith while embracing her lesbian identity. This film depicts the transformative impact of her campaign on peers, teachers, administrators, and parents.”

-Interview by Jon Robbins

I spoke with Irena Fayngold, Director of Hineini, Idit Klein (Executive Director of Keshet, the organization that produced the film), Bonnie Rosenbaum (Director of Communications and Film Outreach, Keshet; Associate Producer, "Hineini"), and the film’s star, Shulamit Izen.

How did “Hineini” come about?
Idit Klein: The project started in 2002 when Shulamit spoke at a Keshet house party and a member urged her to document the story. So I called my friend Irena, and as we started work the project grew and grew. It bloomed from a two-month project.

Irena: The school’s board early on revoked permission for us to shoot Hineini. A student, who is now a filmmaker, Arnon Shorr, had been walking around with a camera. We were completely lucky to have his footage, which comprises virtually everything shot at the high school. It really made the film possible.

Shulamit [the film's star], throughout the documentary, you get mixed messages from your teachers, the rabbi-principal of your high school, your parents, perhaps even from your study of Judaism, in general. How did you assimilate all these mixed messages into a framework you could live with?
Shulamit: In the film it is clear that my teacher gave me mixed messages, and in fact it was to her that I came out in the ninth grade. It was in a Jewish Thought class, and we had been studying Jewish views on homosexuality. We had read Maimonides where he proclaims that women who rub up against each other should be flogged. I felt so pained, and she hugged me.

Later I knew she wasn’t a supporter of the Gay-Straight Alliance that I had started, but knowing that she had hugged me, had reached out to me personally, that I remembered. Really, that’s how it was with most of the school; they could mostly accept me on a personal level.

Shulamit, do you feel that having studied texts early on, Jewish texts that are so full of mixed messages, prepared you for coming out? Did being a Jew prepare you for being a lesbian?
Shulamit: I think the Jewish concept of Engaged Argument created an environment where I could struggle and the struggle would hurt, but that was also the point.

Irena Feingold: What impressed me about Shula was her ability to live in the tension, with the contradictions. She was never satisfied to be comfortable on one side of an issue. She needed to struggle with what the text said.

Idit: There is a part of Shulamit that demands the full embrace and love of the community, even as she struggles. She says at one point in the film that she is willing to struggle in her relationship with god, but not with her community. Even there I see a contradiction.

Irena: It’s fine to talk about theory, but as adults we have to recognize that these young people are not struggling in the abstract. They are dealing with real life, and we have to deal with these issues before we deal with the theories of the text. I think Shulamit was able to deal with text in an advanced way, but not all kids at that age can. I remember boys at the school and they’re holding their ego in their hands and they just want to know that they’re okay. That’s really important to remember before you engage in theoretical conversations with kids.

And that’s what impressed me as a filmgoer, that you, Shulamit, were able to struggle without that baseline of affirmation...
Irene: But Shulamit did have affirmation at home, which some kids, and I’ve gotten letters to this effect, did not. Professionals have told me that kids cannot do without this support.

Was that your experience, Shulamit, that you found affirmation at home?
Shulamit: I think that Keshet was even more than home a place of support. After the principal of my high school shot me down when I explained what I was going through, the first thing I did was to call Keshet, whose director sat in a Dunkin Donuts with me and we talked.

At home, my mother made it clear “this is your fight, I’m not fighting this for you,” so I guess you can debate how much support that was. And clearly I wanted her on my team, but she was a weak cheerleader. She did bake cookies! [laughter all around]. But I think Irena’s right, I did have more support than others.

Jon Robbins (me) with Director Irena Fayngold

Even with the support you had, Shulamit, the task you undertook, to introduce a Gay-Straight Alliance, was brave and very difficult. Watching the film I was so impressed. How did it feel to effect such change?
Shulamit: Watching anyone change is incredible and unexpected. In this case, it happened because I had training from Keshet in community organizing. I realized that even if the rabbi [and principal] couldn’t hear me he would hear other around him. Building one-on-one relationships with those in his community was key, and then when teachers in the school came out and spoke with him, he realized, I think, that there was a lot of hurt and hiding. In the end, he is a very sensitive person and he responded.

Irena: One of the skills that Shula has is, as Idit once said, that she isn’t afraid of putting herself out there, in spite of potential rejection. I think that the rabbi’s realization at the end is that it is the responsibility of adults to help kids with these issues.

Idit: Shulamit offered people the opportunity to be allies with her, not just to help her. Her language was key in letting people see how they, too, were invested in her struggle, how it was theirs as well. I think this was extraordinary and particular to Shulamit. The strategy of approaching people one-on-one was something we taught her at Keshet, but her openness and trust is uniquely Shula.

Have you found, Idit, that many of the young people who come to your organization struggle with these mixed messages?
Idit: Sure. I mean, I have plenty of kids whose parents are good Newton liberals [fancy suburb outside Boston] who always vote the right way on gay issues, but it’s different when your kid comes out. And the fact that it feels different is totally unexpected. They’d thought they would be accepting but that’s not how it turns out. This speaks to the need for proactive affirmation for GLBT students in the curricula. Kids really need to hear ‘you’re Jewish, and you’re going to have a great Jewish life’ because the default in the world-at-large is that you cannot be holy and gay. If kids don’t explicitly hear otherwise, this is the message that sticks.

Irena: Kids live in an environment controlled by their parents and their schools, so we need to reach out and be explicit in affirming them. Just because they live in Boston or San Francisco does not mean they get the gay-affirmative messages adults can find.

At one point in the film, Shulamit identifies a teacher’s rainbow keychain, which is a way of saying, “I, too, am a lesbian.” The teacher analyzes this for the camera, and says that Shula was telling her ’I see you, do you see me?” I liked this a lot, and I wanted to ask Irena whether this was a guiding principal in the film: that once you see, you cannot help but be engaged?
Irena: Sure. I like that. And the question is also how do you get people to see. I hope this film allows people to do that.

From left to right, Shulamit Izen, Idit Klein, and Irena Fayngold

What were some of the factors that drove you, Shula, to keep active despite the obstacles?
Shulamit: When I was in a private place, like the girl’s room, for instance, people would confide in me “I just kissed a girl. What does that mean about me?” So I knew there were other people in the school who wanted to be out, and that drove me. And I’d already been active in a letter-writing campaign on behalf of gay men in Egyptian prisons, yet I couldn’t be out in my own school.

I just found that when you open up and show your vulnerability, people respond in kind. They open up and soften, and seeing this in just one person is sustaining. I realized that everyone, at some point, feels they are on the boundaries of their community, so what does that say about their community?

What is Keshet?
Idit: Keshet was started by three Jewish men who wanted a place where they could be themselves fully, as gay Jews. I’ve brought community-organizing strategies to the organization, which is now a big part of what we do. We’re now doing work to help schools formulate curricula that are GLBT-inclusive in Boston and San Diego, with the plan of incorporating them nationwide in the near future.

-Interview by Jon Robbins

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