Home Perspectives Personal Essays How chronic pain and queerness transformed my Jewish practice

How chronic pain and queerness transformed my Jewish practice

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Oliver Thompson FLICKR

A standard morning from my mid-twenties illustrated the struggle to feel whole as a queer Jew living with a disability. I’m going back five or 10 years to take you somewhere beyond the painful closets and identity politics – though we’re going there, too. At that point in my life, chronic pain – the source of which couldn’t be determined by the slew of medical professionals I visited – had rooted itself in my hips and pelvis, casting a wide map over my body from there.

I would wake up in some single-digit hour. My body ached. Didn’t it sleep? The clock blankly testified yes. But pain was a rude, burping houseguest overstaying its welcome in my pelvis, so achiness rose for breakfast with consistency.

Someone else would awaken too. Laura would yawn and stretch across the red duvet. Laura was… um, a person. Definitely not a cat. She was also a… um, friend, and, as my personal queer revisionist history later would later reveal to me, a partner. (There, I said it).

We were friends, though not just friends, and also not quite dating, either. We just slept together. And yet, I wouldn’t just sleep with any friend the way I would just sleep with Laura. But if we looked for labels or clarity – we didn’t, that would mean turning towards the ineffable – we’d be lost. There was too much ambient homophobia and other noxious societal elements swirling around us to be true to ourselves in the curious format we had assumed – or might assume, were the world not so noxious.

Years later, Laura and I would confess our past love for one another from a global distance, via e-mail. I would be in Washington, D.C. at the time, and upon reading her words to me would make a pilgrimage to Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotskyat the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Laura’s honour. Or my honour.

Frida, the chronic pain warrior. Queer daughter of an Ashkenazi father.

The struggle of my mornings didn’t end with the pains of my chronic pain disability or my stifled queer desire. Tfillin. The wrench was tfillin.

I’d been wrapping since the summer I spent at a traditional, egalitarian yeshiva. I was davening Shacharit too, confident in my faith brought to life through daily prayer, and comforted by the feminist inquiry that let me claim this aspect of Jewish tradition.

But Laura wasn’t interested in wrapping tfillin, and my pain couldn’t decide if it was. It (my pain, that is) wanted to be prayed for, but more than standing for Amidah it anxiously wanted either some exercise to obtain some relief or to proceed directly to breakfast. It wanted anything that would reassure it directly, materially (“stretching,” say, or “protein”) that I could do tasks that day. So regularly wrapping became sometimes wrapping.

In this way, my Jewish observance and my chronic pain constantly sparred with one another, their relationship strained by logistical tensions: With limited time and energy in a day, should I pray or do movement? Sit in shul for hours in physical agony or sleep in, since I need nine hours minimum to feel human? Meticulously adhere to the Old Testament Diet, or put my resources towards the Irritable Bowel Syndrome Diet and increase my odds of digesting food?

READ: WHY, DESPITE MY BELIEFS, I AVOIDED THE OCCUPATION AT A SHIVA

The worst tempests were not physical but psychical. I was trapped in circuits of shame, struggling to be the right human but feeling simply wrong much of the time. This sense of being wrong only intensified in the years that followed, and as it did, I strayed more and more from my Jewish practice.

I’m often reminded of an early memory I have: I’m a little kid and I want to do some activity I love but I can’t, say the adults, because whatever that thing is it’s happening on Shabbat. And so I am filled with guilt. Guilt about my desires. Desires that clearly ruined sanctity and called into question, I felt, my very lovability. (Kids learn fast!)

The guilt stayed with me. It remained sufficiently powerful that even when I chose, of my own volition, to observe Shabbat in adulthood, a part of me was driven by that toxic fuel. As I became more aware of this, and as I tended in earnest to the long process of my healing, Shabbat and Jewish observance had to be dropped.

You see, my faith, as my energy levels, has become increasingly strained. Something had to give, and what eventually went was the stuff that felt not foundational to my basic wholeness, to my body, health and desires. Namely, what gave were the tfillin.

Since my mornings with Laura nearly 10 years ago, my Jewish practice has definitively fizzled. My tfillin sits in storage beside a neglected havdalah candle. Laura resides on another continent and remains a cherished friend. My chronic pain disability, on the other hand, grew more ferocious, wrapping tentacles around numerous dimensions of my life. Thankfully, my queer pride matured lovingly in the opposite direction, a fact I credit, in part, to some amazing role models and the loving partnerships of various inspirational women.

Today, as I continue to struggle daily with pain, I have not revisited my Jewish practice. I’m still not sure how my Jewish self might fit into the complicated pyramid of my person, alongside my striving for good physical health and my need to feel secure and loved, to freely express my sexual orientation. But I’m pretty sure wholeness, however defined, is going to stand at the foundation.

And wholeness means that all bodies, identities and life stations are valued and respected, whether the sick, the queer, the can’t-digest, the gender non-conforming, the racialized, the social assistance recipient, the trauma survivor. Additionally, in order for me to feel whole in Judaism, the community would need to better promote healing.

I will keep powering Jewish community to lift up marginalized people. I admit that I’m less clear on how Jewish community can better support people’s suffering, whatever the cause, and encourage healing.

I suspect, however, that the more my mornings begin with the sense that I am worthy, and whole, the closer I’ll get to figuring this out.

Emily Glazer is a Toronto-based health advocate exploring healing through research, writing and meditation.