Passage to Shabbat

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate.

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

I am not Jewish and am not planning to convert to Judaism. Nevertheless, as a Christian with ancestral roots in Eastern Europe, it’s increasingly difficult for me to ignore the links between my own identity and practice and that of the people of Israel.

While always mindful to try as best as I am able not to participate in the age-old anti-semitism that is endemic to Christianity, I have been seeking ways to animate Jewish practice in my own life and community, not to appropriate for a Christian cause but to celebrate as inherently valuable in its own right.

As a result, I’ve become a big fan of Shabbat.

Of course, I love that it’s essentially an excuse for a dinner party, one where the rabbis encourage us to drink plenty of wine and delight in tasty food.

But more than the roast chicken or freshly baked challah I appreciate the anticipation of Shabbat. Come Friday afternoon I start tying up loose ends, clearing the decks, winding down the week, and preparing to be free to enjoy what is, without concern for creating something else.

Several Friday afternoons ago, I had not made explicit plans for Shabbat or even a general Friday night out, but my slate was clean and I was feeling festive so I made my way to the lounge at the local Indian restaurant, which you might think of as a neighborhood watercooler or even our very own Miriam’s Well.

Sidled up to the bar, gin and tonic in hand, I greeted friends old and not-yet-met in what felt the most natural and appropriate way: “Shabbat Shalom.”

Being newly adjacent to the Hebrew people, I’m not always aware of how or even necessarily what I’m signalling, but now I do know wishing a largish group of strangers a good shabbos is a sure way to out the b’nai mitzvah and forge bonds of belonging.

As we talked about the very different ways we’d each come to Judaism and experienced it over the years, I was reminded of this delightful film of elderly Jews who celebrate Shabbat at Wendy’s.

And then, I thought, what if we did Shabbat here, at Passage to India?

The Jews of India have a long and fascinating story.

Naan is a perfect stand-in for hamotzi and and there’s plenty of wine to order.

I’d been using resources from One Table to teach myself the blessings, and felt reasonably comfortable in being able to keep us on track.

So we cleared our plan with the staff and wrote it in the books. Two weeks hence our rag-tag band of wandering souls would gather again at Passage for Shabbat.

Over those next two weeks I was mostly looking forward to what we’d dreamed up, until that morning when I read in the local newspaper of an act of anti-semitism in the next town over. It was nothing overtly violent, “just” slurs hurled at Jews doing nothing more than walking down the street being visibly Jewish, but it did rattle me.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how freedom of religion in the United States is different from freedom from religion (laicite) in France or especially and most complicatedly different from the kind of established or preferred religious expression as found in England, the Islamic State, or the imagination of many conservative American evangelicals.

And, I’ve certainly participated in my share of public religious expression, most of which I now mostly view as attempts to taunt officials and intimidate non-Christians (I’m thinking especially of events like “See You at the Pole.”

But this time the stakes were much simpler and starker.

We’d be publicly practicing a minority religion with an established history of being violently oppressed. We were well within our rights both constitutionally and institutionally, but was it unnecessarily risky? We weren’t exactly just going to quietly bow our heads and appear pious to the knowing for a few moments.

But we did it! And it was glorious, and we’re going to do it again. . . And I’d encourage you too to find yourselves some Jews and build together a sanctuary of time.

[A note to Christians, though: please don’t do this by yourselves, and definitely don’t do it with messianic intent.]

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Express Yourself!

So enjoyed Express Yourself‘s 25th Anniversary Performance last week at Boston’s Boch Center-Wang Theatre. . . Blue Man Group, Stomp, Amanda Mena from America’s Got Talent, 300+ young people representing various programs of The Massachusetts Department of Mental Health and this extraordinary poem from poet Regie Gibson.

Emerson said (paraphrase): 
In a world bent on making you into someone else
the greatest accomplishment you can achieve is merely to be yourself.
 
Accept your bumps and bruises, lumps and contusions, 
fears and confusions, 
contradictions and complexities 
as all part of the art of your unique humanity.
Even though some of us in our smallness
may laugh at your all-ness— 
Try and make you feel stigmatized and bizarre— 
like you should apologize for being who you are…
Don’t be concerned—  Learn to stand firm! 
Don’t wreck yourself. 
Don’t let your self 
be made into a lesser self
Respect yourself!—then express yourself!
 
Say to the world: 
I will not be a book unopened.
I will not be a word unspoken.
You will not shatter me-
scatter me-
and leave me  broken—
even though I am scarred and scared
and far from being near 
the masterpiece I will one day be…
Just give me time.
I am fine.
This is me!

Dare to Dream: A brief history of Eurovision

My first memories of the Eurovision Song Contest come from 2005. . . In an empty bar in provincial Kalmar, Sweden, an immigrant proprietor keeps the lights on for two surprised and delighted Americans rooting for the dramatic Maltan despite the sexy Greek racking up votes. I don’t think I’d ever been so bewildered or charmed.

Note especially the dramatic bridge at about 2:20.

Helena Paparizou from Greece ended up winning.
Her performance still makes me very uncomfortable.

I didn’t pay much attention to Eurovision after that, though. Despite a global audience of some 200 million (compare to 100 million for the Super Bowl and 10 million for Game of Thrones), Americans are not free to watch. The official live stream is geo-blocked, and while for the past two years the US-based Logo network attempted a pitiful broadcast of the longest-running annual international television contest and one of the world’s longest-running television programs period, they did not renew their broadcast rights this year. [I watched Saturday’s final streaming the Swedish national broadcast which for some reason is not geo-blocked (Thank you Swedish tax payers!) and started watching consistently after meeting a Dutch super-fan a couple years ago.]

Why can’t Americans watch Eurovision? I think it has something to do with the American media landscape not having the capacity to make content available that is not explicitly a vehicle for advertising. But it’s probably just in keeping with the simple stereotype that Americans don’t care about anything other than themselves.

And there definitely is an argument that Eurovision is not by or for Americans (Ahem: Madonna, maybe you should have just stayed home this year.)

The Eurovision Song Contest was established in 1956 by the Swiss-based European Broadcast Union as an overt attempt to bring together post-war Europe through song.

Have you heard of ABBA or Celine Dion? They’re past winners (1974 and 1988 respectively).

Or maybe even Conchita Wurst and “Rise Like a Phoenix,” which became a sort of anthem for Trans inclusion?

And lest you think Wurst’s dramatic 2014 performance was ahead of the trans curve, note that in 1998 Dana International became the third Israeli and first trans person to win the european song competition, with “Diva.”

Yes, Israel competes (and hosted for the fourth time this year, since winningagain last year). Also, Australia, which is admittedly weird and confusing, until you start applying a liberal definition of “European” and then map that community to epicenters of queer culture (e.g. Sydney and Tel Aviv). Then it starts to make some sense.

I haven’t yet been to the Met’s Costume Institute’s exhibition, “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” but for me, Eurovision is the epitome of “Camp.” [See Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” for a full explication.]

Indeed, despite unifying platitudes of love, love, peace, peace, etc. Eurovision is mostly a celebration of difference and diversity, not homogeneity and sameness.

Consider Finland’s winning entry from 2006, Hard Rock Hallelujah.

And, Portugal’s 2017 win, which took me a long to understand, but now I really like. (Can you imagine either of these appearing on American Idol, let alone winning?)

Check out this formula for winning Eurovision featuring 2015 winner Mans Zelmerlow and lots of cameos from past winners and contestants.

The politics of language at play are also fascinating. English is ostensibly the official language of Eurovision, though it’s clear not everyone speaks it well. Since the United States doesn’t participate, the UK consistently comes in last, and Australia’s presence is sweet, but kind of irrelevant. . . Why? French used to be the dominant language of the festival, and if there’s a second language of Eurovision, it’s definitely le francais. But, when did it change and why? And more importantly, why don’t more performers sing more of their songs in their native or even preferred languages? Sure, you want the melody to be singable, so just do that part in English. . . pourquoi pas?

By this point you might be shaking your head at all this Eurovision silliness, but Shayna Weiss, associate director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, said it would be a mistake to underestimate Eurovision’s significance.

“Cynics criticize the festival as a cheesy competition with bad music and outrageous costumes and mock its naïve sentimentality,” Weiss wrote in the Jewish Review of Books. “But not taking Eurovision seriously or ignoring it altogether means ignoring the power of cultural politics and performance.”

A Passion for American Art

I’m on a second pass through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path To Higher Creativity . In addition to reading weekly essays, writing my three daily stream-of-consciousness “pages” (I don’t do mine in the morning) and taking my inner artist on a date each week, I’ve been tackling the series of tasks Cameron lays out for each phase of the Way. Some are easy and entertaining, like list five hobbies that sound fun, and some are not, like list five old enemies. There are also tasks that just feel stupid. Cameron encourages working especially on those.

For Week 5: Recovering a Sense of Possibility I was confronted with one of those “stupid” tasks: List ten items I would like to own that I don’t. I get that the goal is to articulate desire and differentiate preference. . . I like this and not that. . . In a sea of possibilities, these are the ones that speak to me particularly, and that’s then where I should focus time and energy digging deeper and going further. Nevertheless, my inner Judeo-Marxist who takes Jesus at his word to “consider the lilies,” recoils at the idea of celebrating the stockpiling of earthly treasure.

A hallmark of Cameron’s Way, is one’s increasing experience of “synchronicity.” The same effect has been given different names by many others: karma, faith, the Promise, fairy dust. . . Regardless, it’s hard to dispute the sort of cosmic science at work when the Universe always seems to manage to manifest the new tools I need, just when I need them. It’s practically Newtonian.

And so it goes, that the week I’m resisting writing about ten things I’d like to own, I get invited to the press preview of a major museum exhibition featuring 200 important, beautiful things one Marblehead couple chose to own.

Best known for heading Fidelity’s Magellan Fund, the best performing fund in the world, Peter Lynch and his wife Carolyn, through travel, exploration, and intellectual curiosity, amassed a broad ranging personal collection of American painting, furniture and decorative arts.


So, I’ll do the task, but in my own way. Rather than flipping through catalogs from Ikea or Sotheby’s and lusting after objects that would no doubt make life better if only I possessed them, I’ll identify ten objects I will never own, but that do spark joy from the exhibition catalog of A Passion for American Art: Selections from the Carolyn and Peter Lynch Collection at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum through December 1, 2019.


  1. J.O.J. Frost, The March into Boston from Marblehead, April 16, 1861: There Shall be No More War, about 1925. Oil on fiberboard. Gift of Peter S. Lynch in memory of Carolyn A. Lynch. Photography by Kathy Tarantola/Peabody Essex Museum

2. John Singer Sargent, Olive Trees, Corfu, 1909. Oil on canvas. Collection of Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch. Photography by Bob Packert/Peabody Essex Museum.

3. Dale Chihuly, Aphrodite Blue Persian Set with Carnelian Lip Wraps, 2002. Molded and blown glass. Collection of Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Stephen Petegorsky.

4., 5., 6., 7., 8. View of Dining Area, Peter Lynch Boston House. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Stephen Petegorsky.

9. Otto Natlzer and Gertrud Amon Natzler, Left to right: six plates. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Stephen Petegorsky.

10. Sam Maloof with Mike Johnson, Larry White, and David Wade, Rocking Chair, 2005. Walnut. Collection of Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Stephen Petegorsky

Advent IV

O Come, O Queer Immanu’el: God with (q)U(eer)s

Week 4: Gaudete Vipers

It was during those days that Yochanan the Immerser [John the Baptist] arrived in the desert of Y’hudah and began proclaiming the message, “Turn from your sins to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” This is the man Yesha‘yahu was talking about when he said,
“The voice of someone crying out:
‘In the desert prepare the way of Adonai!
Make straight paths for him!’”
Yochanan wore clothes of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Yerushalayim, from all Y’hudah, and from the whole region around the Yarden. Confessing their sins, they were immersed by him in the Yarden River.
But when Yochanan saw many of the P’rushim and Tz’dukim coming to be immersed by him, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to escape the coming punishment? If you have really turned from your sins to God, produce fruit that will prove it! And don’t suppose you can comfort yourselves by saying, ‘Avraham is our father’! For I tell you that God can raise up for Avraham sons from these stones! Already the axe is at the root of the trees, ready to strike; every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown in the fire! 

Matthew 3 (The Complete Jewish Bible)

The third week of Advent (I know I’m behind) is traditionally called Gaudete, latin for “rejoice,” and marked with a pink candle.

How queer. . .

In addition, the lectionary introduces the great queer prophet of Jesus’s day: his bosom buddy and BFF?, Yochanan the Immerser. Or, if you prefer conventional anglicization, John the Baptist.

Living literally on the margins of society, dressing so unconventionally as to merit mention, and boldly breaking purity codes with his diet, John’s queerness echoes Isaiah’s prophecy that it is a cry from out-there in the wild wilderness, not here in the safe and known, we need to be listening for and paying attention to.

And what’s the fuss about?

Sure, he eventually gets around to making a messianic claim for Jesus which tends to be what we reduce the function of Yochanan’s message to today, but who’s he talking to? about what?

+++

Though anchored in the primary color red, pink isn’t actually part of the electromagnetic spectrum. When we call something pink we’re not identifying actual wavelengths of pink light. It’s “extra-spectral,” which means other colors must be mixed to generate it. Algorithms are notorious for being largely unsuccessful in searches for “pink art.” When it occurs in nature it tends to be connected to the body (e.g. the mouth).

It wasn’t until World War II that pink started to take on the feminine/effeminate characteristics many of us attribute to it today. We can thank the Nazis for that. . . in the same way they forced Jews to identify themselves by wearing a yellow star, they forced homosexual men to identify themselves with a pink triangle. (They had a whole taxonomy of colored triangles to label various categories of social queerness.)

While much western thinking about pink is still rooted in the Nazi’s taxonomy of queerness, in contemporary Japanese culture pink is perceived as a masculine and mournful color associated with warriors falling in battle.

How often do we use pink in non-gendered contexts? Why?

+++

You brood of vipers. You massing of power and poison.

I don’t believe John is condemning the Judaism of his fellow Jews or that the gospel writer is saying something specific about a particular group of religious leaders in a particular historical moment.

I believe he’s saying something bigger–something queer-er. A universal truth across time and space and social location about how God’s people relate to God’s work.

John’s message makes clear that the purity of one’s birth or the self-righteousness of one’s religious piety is irrelevant; is indeed a hindrance to God’s work in the world. God will find God’s people, most likely wandering in the wilderness, and the fruit that they bear will scatter the proud, disrupt the established order, and stir up a radical revolution.

We can work to create and celebrate gloriously fruity fruitcake or writhe about frightful and futile attempting to secure a status and privilege that never existed and is not possible.

The choice is ours.

O Come, O Queer: Immanu’el: God with q(U)eer(s)

Week 3: We are the Champions

And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
    I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
    I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
    the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
    on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
    scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
    he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
    beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

The Song of Mary (from The Message)

The Magnificat, the Song of Mary, the Ode of Theotokos is one of the most ancient canticles, or hymns with a biblical text, of the Christian liturgical tradition.

Anyone who has ever been to an Anglican service of Evensong will have heard it sung or chanted alongside the Nunc Dimittis or Song of Simeon.

Despite its ubiquity, the words are quite radical: “He hath exalted the humble and meek,” “He hath sent the rich empty away,” or my favorite, “He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”

Queer Theologian Robert Goss has written of this essential Christian text: 

“While traditional churches read [The Magnificat] as the narrowing-down of women’s roles or idealization of women’s subordination, the centrality of women in the story of God’s liberative action is revealed. God shatters the normativity of heterosexual patriarchy.

“Mary the queer prophetess sings how God will upset the social world, bringing down the mighty and elevating the lowly. God’s actions will queer the world by turning it upside-down, for Mary will bear a child who will queer the world, disrupting the social world.

“Mary sings a song of liberation of the queer community and for all oppressed peoples and for all queers forced to experience sexual shame.”

In the tradition I grew up in, we paid no heed to Mary or her song or its message, which is a shame, I think, as she and it clearly mirror the dissenting, anti-establishment ethos out of which that tradition springs.

What I’m finding most interesting about Mary’s song at this moment, though, is not simply that God chose to reveal God’s self outside of the established patriarchal order, but that Mary connects her assumption of annunciation to an ancient promise. 

On this last night of Hanukkah I think it’s important to remember that despite the thousands of studied arrangements that give Mary the voice of a pure Anglican chorister angel, she was a just queer Jewish girl with an amazing gift to give the world.

I’m thinking the soundtrack of Mary’s Song is less English Cathedral and more Zoroastrian rock star?

Something like L’dor Va-dor set to We are the Champions?  

From one generation to another we will 
declare Your greatness, 
and forever sanctify You with words of 
holiness. 
Your praise will never leave our lips, 
for You are God and Sovereign, great and 
holy.

An Advent Study II

O COME, O QUEER, IMANU’EL: GOD WITH (Q)U(EER)S

WEEK 2: Who are your people?

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

-Matthew 1

I’m very skeptical of DNA ancestry testing, not just because of the potential privacy issues the nature of which we don’t have the capacity to even begin to contemplate, but mostly because I think claims to offer eternal life are always overstated. Is a profit-driven, libertarian-minded corporation really where we think a messiah will emerge?

I was especially struck recently by a New York Times Magazine  piece that followed 62 year old Sigrid Johnson as she discovered who she was as it were as defined by a couple of these commercial DNA tests

Johnson has light caramel skin. She grew up in African American communities. She graduated from an historically black university. She identifies, presents, and engages with the world as an African American woman.

According to her DNA test results though, she’s not actually African. . . she’s 45.306 percent Hispanic, 32.321 percent Middle Eastern, 13.714 percent European and 8.659 percent “other,” which included a mere 2.978 percent African. Raised as an only child, she also learned she had a slew of siblings.

Despite the evidence and experience of her life, the results of Johnson’s DNA ancestry tests show she is not African American, nor she is in fact an only child.

“You turn 65, take a DNA test and find out your whole life is a lot different than you ever thought it was.”

The stories we tell ourselves about where we come from and who we are, are powerful tools for creating meaning and purpose in our lives. They tell us who our people are and aren’t. They can tell us what we’re for and what we’re against, or help define where we’re going and why.

I think the writer of the gospel of Matthew had this in mind when they decided to open their telling of the story of Jesus with an extensive genealogy.

We mostly skip over the details of these dense verses in our nativity narratives, short-handing their perceived function: Jesus descends from the House of David, which fulfills the messianic prophecy.

But just like Sigrid Johnson, what happens if we look at the details of where Jesus came from and not just the traditional story we’ve told ourselves about it? Are there new connections to make? New kinds of stories to tell?

I think so.

Embedded in this long list of fathers and sons are the names of five women: among them a prostitute, a widow, King David’s “other woman” identified by the name of her husband who David had killed, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. The gospel writer tells us Mary has a husband, but not that Jesus is born of him.

In this telling, Jesus descends not from a neat and tidy line of dignified prophets, judges and kings but “his people” include prostitutes, adulterers, and adolescent girls giving birth out of wedlock.

I can understand how and why the dignified storyline became the popular one.

But I think it’s more important to always remember Truth is bigger than story.

+++

Who are your people? Are some of your roots more prominent than others? Why? What would happen if you made an effort to dignify the lesser known stories of where you come from?

An Advent Study

O Come, O Queer, Imanu’el: God with (q)U(eer)s

Week 1: Stir Up Sunday!

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

– The Book of Common Prayer

Our British cousins have a somewhat odd-to-American-palates tradition of enjoying fruitcake for Christmas. The best Christmas Cakes are rich and boozey, bejeweled with a vast array of candied fruits and nuts. There are endless varieties and preferences that all require a lot of labor and most importantly, a lot of time to mature. Some families even go so far as to make next year’s Christmas pudding, this year.

To accommodate this tradition, many Anglican communities observe an informal ritual known as “Stir Up Sunday.” On the Sunday before Advent, the short general prayer, or collect, assigned for the day, begins with the words “stir up” and goes on to exhort folks to bring forth their fruit. It also serves as a subtle reminder that it’s time to gather willing stirrers and get the Christmas cakes going so they’ll have time to ripen.

Over the past couple years, I’ve invited an assemblage of willing neighbors to gather our fruits and stir up Christmas cakes together. (We’ve used a variation of this recipe.)

But, this year, I wanted to take the call a little further.

Within queer theology, there’s a strain of scholarship that uses the word “queer” inclusively, thinking more about the Old English meaning to “stir up” than one’s particular sexual identity or affinity with the LGBTQ community specifically.* It’s this orientation to empowering diversity, privileging the uncommon, outing the out of the ordinary, celebrating the unusual, and dignifying the non-conforming not just out there, but with, in, and among ourselves that I’m inspired to explore this Advent.

In ‘queering’ the nativity narrative, I’m looking to ‘query’ it, stirring up new configurations and insights.

And, what better way to launch that adventure than a good old fashioned fruitcake!

Fruitcake itself has of course its own queer heritage. In Polari, the cant slang or secret language of British queer folk primarily in traveling professions dating as far back as the sixteenth century, “fruit” refers to gay men and can be used positively or negatively depending on the speaker’s orientation and intent. Even today among mainstream English speakers “fruitcake” can be used, most often pejoratively, to refer to LGBT people.

Perhaps this linguistic heritage has something to do with the bad reputation fruitcake suffers from today?

Or, perhaps many fruitcake-haters simply haven’t had the opportunity to savor a proper one: made with love, mature, and chock-full of surprising and delightful fruits and nuts.

In this way, the task I’ve given myself over the next four weeks of Advent one might describe as making proverbial “fruitcake” out of the Christmas story. Depending on your orientation and intent that might sound dull, disgusting, or irrelevant. I, however, am of the persuasion that with a little work and maturity, the story of Jesus’ birth will bring forth some pretty surprising and delightful fruit.

  • What surprising and delightful fruit is being stirred up in you? In your community? Are you taking your turn to get the work done or getting in the way?
  • Do you identify as mostly conforming or mostly non-conforming? Are there areas of your life where you are more likely to conform? Or more likely not to? Why?
  • How do you experience the nativity narrative? What parts do you find common and ordinary? Can you describe intersections with the uncommon and extraordinary? How do attempts to queer that experience make you feel?

*Throughout these weeks I’ll be drawing liberally from The Queer Bible Commentary.

Julia Child’s Birthday

How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?”
― Julia Child

I’ve learned a lot from Julia Child over the years.

As a young boy watching her on public television, I learned that the kitchen was a place I could work hard and find immense pleasure.

As a young man, she inspired me to tackle complex projects in support of cultivating a rich and engaging community.

So, as her 106th birthday approached I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to celebrate her life and the contributions she made to mine.

Many years ago (April 25, 2010 to be exact), I launched the “Julia Child Supper Club.” It was ostensibly a reaction to the film  “Julie & Julia.” I hated the character of Julie, but I loved her brief: master the art of French cooking, one Julia Child recipe at a time.

And so I claimed the project as my own: I’d cook through Julia’s master work, but worry less about ticking off each recipe and more about engaging an ovarian American text while immersing myself in a globally significant tradition.

At that moment in my life, I’d hardly spent any time in France. I knew little about putting together a menu. I thought cheese was an hors d’oeuvre and salad was an appetizer. . .

As I look back at the record of that first dinner (yes, we kept a log), it strikes me as rather pitiful. . . . We were just barely eight and for the price of $10 and a bottle of wine, I served store-bought salami and cheese, boeuf bourguignon with sauteed potatoes and a chocolate cake (le marquis) gussied up in the guise of my favorite spicy chocolate cookie, the ChaCha.

All sturdy, classic, and satisfying to be sure, but also rather simplistic, uninspired, and mundane. More the cooking of a leisurely Sunday supper with friends you don’t care about impressing, than an inspired, tour-de-force deep-dive into the complexities of the French culinary arts.

Regardless, over the subsequent years, I went on to debone a duck, and stuff it with pâté I’d made myself and wrap it in puff pastry I’d made myself. I created menus inspired by colors, plays, and artists. Instead of buying cheese, I made it, and I even took the Bible up on its suggestion to boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Through it all, even when I was experimenting beyond her oeuvre, Julia was my joyful, methodical guide.

So to celebrate her birthday, I wanted not just to honor her spirit but to bear witness to the impact she has had on who I am and how I work.

For our special birthday celebration, we increased club dues to $30 plus a bottle of wine to accommodate inflation and build capacity for luxury (I still lost money on the venture). We struggled with the guest list: social media had not always been the force it is now. . . there were more than eight we’d like to invite, more than eight would like to come. . . I set out designing a menu worthy of Julia and satisfying to me. . .

Julia’s favorite upside-down martini (three parts vermouth, one part gin) should be the signature cocktail.

I thought it was important to have both a hot and cold hors d’oeuvre: classic chicken liver mousse and in honor of our shared New England home, lobster canapé.

As a starter, ouefs en gelée, that bizarre mid-century beloved of poached eggs encased in aspic, which I thought would be fun to modernize using tomato instead of beef consomme.

We’ve been talking about “that fish dish” since I first attempted filets de poissons en souffle with mousseline sabyon on July 18, 2010, so that should be our fish course.

Since we’re in the height of summer, I wanted to do a beautiful assortment of macedoines, marinated vegetable salads, like I remember having at a bbq in Villefranche-sur-Saone, taking advantage of the colors and textures on display at the farmer’s market.

Since we’re in the height of summer, I struggled with what to prepare for our main. I didn’t want anything heavy or hot. . . but meaty and flavorful. . . reading Julia’s headnotes more thoroughly, I learned daubes, a variation of beef stew, could be served cold with salad, especially popular in Provence where Julia and Paul eventually spent their Augusts. That would work.

The rest of menu would be shopping. . . cheese, chocolate, and a seasonal fruit tart, flambeed tableside.

It was all a lot, and a lot of work, and not all of it happened as to plan. . . the gelée didn’t exactly gel, the fish soufflé didn’t exactly rise, the local artisanal bakery was out of seasonal fruit tarts. . . but the tomato consomme was a revelation, the fish delicious, and in the end nobody really needed to eat a slice of pie; a pan of flaming cognac was sufficient in itself.

A lot has changed since that first Julia Child dinner: the complexity and sophistication of my cooking and the scope and commitment of my community, to name two. But perhaps more importantly, the liberation from the tyranny of replication that comes through knowledge, experience and faith.

I don’t need to tick off each recipe. I don’t even have to follow the recipe.

Jacques Pepin has described recipes as rivers. They maintain their names over years, they occupy the same general space from generation to generation. But moment to moment, one experience form another, the river is impossibly recreating itself.

Just jump in, and go with the flow. It’ll be great!

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A Thoroughly Modern Beefsteak Banquet

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According to Wikipedia:

Beefsteak banquets originated among the working class of New York City in the mid-1800s as celebratory meals or “testimonials”. The meal would generally be set up by an organization wishing to laud or raise money for politicians, newly promoted friends, or celebrities.

Early beefsteaks were held in a relaxed, men-only atmosphere, with diners sitting on crates and eating with their fingers off of rough, improvised tables in saloons, rental halls, or residential basements. Food and drink were the focus of the evening, and entertainment often consisted simply of those present telling stories and singing amongst themselves.

With the passing of the 18th [Prohibition] and 19th [Women’s Suffrage] amendments to the U.S. Constitution, in 1919 and 1920, respectively, the traditional men-only, beer-soaked format of the beefsteak began to change. Politicians began including newly enfranchised women voters in their beefsteak banquets after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and with the attendance of women came corresponding social niceties. Cocktails, popularized by illicit drinkers during Prohibition, replaced pitchers of beer, and “fruit cups[,] and fancy salads” were soon added to beefsteak menus. Orchestras were hired in place of old-fashioned brass bands and storytellers, and the long-forbidden knives and forks began to appear on beefsteak tables.

By the 1930s, according to Joseph Mitchell, beefsteaks were no longer the manly, messy affairs they had once been; they were now closer to formal meals in which beef and bread happened to feature heavily. The cheerful gluttony of the past was tempered by female sensibilities; “women,” Mitchell reported, “do not esteem a glutton, and at a contemporary beefsteak it is unusual for a man to do away with more than six pounds of meat and thirty glasses of beer.”

Beefsteak banquets have largely vanished from New York City, where they originated, but remain widespread in Bergen and Passaic counties in New Jersey. The institution is now almost entirely limited to these areas, save for a popular biannual beefsteak held in Brooklyn. . .

. . . as well as an annual beefsteak banquet in Salem’s Historic Derby Street Neighborhood.

I love a festive communal meal especially one with historic resonance, and all the better if I can disrupt gendered spaces in the process!

For our third annual beefsteak banquet, I cooked at my female-identified friend’s house and we invited guests of all genders to come taste our meat. We provided no utensils, but plenty of pesto butter. And in a nod to modern conventions asked guests to bring a finger-friendly veg (if they were so inclined).

Also, I steamed lobsters.

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Despite being in mixed company we made no concessions to weaker sensibilities. We were vegans and Paleo-ites, old friends who’d lived in the neighborhood for decades and new friends who’d just moved from a foreign country. It was perhaps a self-selecting crowd, but all were more than capable of breaking into a lobster claw with their bare hands, and none afraid of getting their hands dirty.

In the past, I’d ordered fancy beef from a fancy source, but this year for whatever reason I simply picked up a couple eyes of round at the neighborhood grocer that I dry-brined overnight and found a clever sounding roasting technique (7 minutes per pound at 475 Fahrenheit, then turn off the oven but DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR for two hours).

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Alas, my understanding of the relationship of surface area to heat distribution is a little fuzzy, so while our beefsteak was delicious, and quite tender especially after a dunk in jus and a dollop of pesto, it frankly resembled “the other white meat” more than boeuf. . .

[In hindsight, I should not have calculated using the total weight, but something like an average, and it probably would not have been ruinous to open the oven and take a quick internal temp mid-rest.]

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For a while, I attempted to correct folks complimenting the delicious and tender “pork,” but eventually realized, “why, bother?”

Their joy and delight was the same whether the subject of the sentence was accurate or not, and the subject of their sentence had little invested in being correctly identified. Pork or beef or lobster, eaten by male or female identified, the goal’s the same: delicious delightful decadent.

We’ve broken a lot of beefsteak rules over the years, but we’ve also been militant about maintaining the integrity of the tradition.

How do we decide where to draw the line? What’s essential to the experience, worth defending? And, what’s a relic of a particular time and place, ripe for expansion and creation?

It’s a series of questions that’s relevant to much more than reinvigorating nineteenth century dining traditions. Indeed, it’s essentially the framework for civilization’s evolution, and I’m starting to think the “answers” can be found in the grammar. . .

What’s essential are not really the subjects: men, beef, pork, New York.

What’s worth defending is the spirit of the experience (verbs): camaraderie, abundance, getting your hands dirty, freedom from dependence on tools (technology).

Diving deep into the nature of experience, exploiting the potential, and expanding the invitation are, I believe, the root of expansive life affirming traditions.

How different would some of the seismic debates we’ve navigated over the years be if we spent less effort arguing over the subjects (e.g. Amendment 19, Who gets to vote?) and took more care defending the spirit of our shared experience (e.g. Amendments 18 and 21, Prohibition and its repeal)?