Beyond the Binary – A Speaker’s Journey

I start my presentation on gender with a snippet from Free to Be You and Me and an embarrassing personal story – the time I realized that I knew far less about gender than my children do, far less than I thought I did. The time I learned (again) that one of the best ways to guide our children is by listening to them, not trying to teach and correct them all the time.

When I speak, I tell my audience that I began writing about gender because I couldn’t find much in print or online from a parent’s perspective. And once I began writing, I was asked to speak on the subject – first to a retirees’ education group, a year later at a Jewish learning festival; I was asked to facilitate a discussion with local educators, and then served on a panel with college counselors and admissions officers from around the world.

Last year, I proposed the session for the Independent Educational Consultant Association’s annual spring conference, a place where I am known as the college essay lady, not the gender mom. But who knew? They respect my expertise; maybe they would give me a platform. Maybe I could fill a conference room.

And then, thanks to Covid, the conference went virtual. Instead of flying to Connecticut, members could join from their kitchen tables and home offices. Registration exploded. Hundreds of people streamed dozens of sessions.

By the time the conference ended, more than 500 people had viewed my session – far more than the 80 or so who would have selected it from the menu of in-person options.

The morning the conference started, I received an email from a colleague I know only peripherally; someone I like and respect, kind of a big shot in our professional community:

I’m 20-something minutes into your video and I just have to say this one of the most remarkable sessions I’ve seen at a professional conference. The content is so thoughtfully curated and the delivery is pitch perfect. And my first [conference] was in 1994 so I know what I’m talking about. Thank you for putting so much head and heart into this. What a great start to my day!

What a great start to my day.

I had no idea how this would go over. My experience as a parent, presented to a group of independent counselors. It certainly hit a nerve. I received heartfelt messages from people I knew and many I didn’t. Parents of trans and non-binary children. Counselors trying to support their student clients.

Another colleague, the Director of Learning and Development at CIP, a post-secondary transition program for young adults on the autism spectrum and with other learning differences, asked if I would present a similar session for CIP staff and families. I wouldn’t be talking about autism or learning challenges, but she said that gender was a big topic of conversation in their community. She would open it up to the public.

Again, amazing.

During that webinar, I talked about community support and engagement, about the ways in which parents, teachers, counselors and others can do more than simply accept gender non-conforming youth; how we can engage in learning and sharing related to gender. How we need to practice the names and pronouns of our children and students when they’re not with us, so we’ll get it right when we see them face-to-face.

Again, emails and thank-you’s.

If you’re interested in the webinar, CIP has generously made the recording available to the public. You can check it out here.

And let me ask you something too: Spread the word. Our children know more about gender than we do. Listen, learn and practice. Give them space to create the world they know they need. And then dig in and do the hard work of participating.


Praying During a Pandemic

I stopped praying in early April.

God and me? We’re fine. It’s just that prayer has always been something I do with others. These days, the safest way to gather is on Zoom. And Zoom is no friend to a religious service.

Here’s how you do it: The leader keeps her microphone on. Everyone else goes mute. We can watch each other sing, but we can’t hear anything. Leading this type of gathering means praying alone, but on camera.

It’s disconcerting. I’ve never liked the performative aspects of leading services. I find it meaningful and moving to facilitate prayer, but to muster the appropriate kavanah, or intention, I need to hear the other voices. I need to settle into the communal silence. I can’t do that on a video call from my living room.

I can sing. I have the right kavanah. I care. All of that makes me a good shaliach tzibur – literally the “messenger of the community,” the one who has been sent to approach God on behalf of the congregation.

As a qualified leader, should I put aside my discomfort to ensure that others can fulfill what many consider an obligation, and which at the very least, is a central component of organized Judaism?

Maybe. But it seems disingenuous to play the role just because others need me to.

Is that selfish? A cop-out?


I’m still figuring it out.

I’ve always considered the shul, the synagogue, an extension of my home. It’s the place I brought my children when they were small, where I go to be with my chosen extended family: the cranky, conservative uncle, the fawning cousin who hugs a little too much and a little too tight, the gentle aunt who you know has a more interesting life than you can imagine as a child.

I miss that home. I miss the people.

I miss the folks who drink coffee in the social hall during services. I miss the ushers who pass out prayer books and hugs as we enter the sanctuary. I miss the blue upholstered chairs and the light above the Ark with its awkward folding doors and needlepoint panels. I miss carrying the Torah around the room before the sermon, making sure that everyone has an opportunity to touch its cover before I return it to the Ark.

I miss taking my turn cutting up cantaloupe for lunch in the kitchen.

For the last few months, instead of praying on Shabbat mornings, I wander the neighborhood with a friend. We say we’re on vacation from shul. We feel relieved and a little guilty.

After decades of religious services, I know that I like two varieties: Friday evenings when we invite friends and neighbors into our living room, a service where we bang on tables and can get up to grab a drink or a snack; a service where we face one another in full song to welcome Shabbat.

I can’t even begin to imagine when or how we’ll do that again.

I also like the kind in the synagogue on a Shabbat or holiday morning, where I’m facing away from the congregation, engaged with God, drawing my synagogue family into that space between here and there with my words, my voice, my pacing, the call and response.

When my oldest child celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah, they lead musaf, a central part of the Saturday morning service. After I knew they had mastered the words and the melodies, I explained that serving as shaliach tzibur is a responsibility. You’re not just singing up there, I said. You are helping the congregation pray.

From the earliest days of communal prayer, back when no one had books, the leader chanted on behalf of the congregation. Amen signaled that community members heard and agreed with the leader’s words. You had to get it right.

Whenever I learn a new service, I spend hours going over the words. It’s old fashioned stuff, archaic Hebrew, some Aramaic. Nothing you’d hear on a city street.

Then the melodies. I play the recordings while I run early in the morning. I sing under my breath as the sun rises. Over and over, until I’ve absorbed the phrasing, the rising and falling, the pauses and punctuation. I make cryptic notations on the pages. I can tell you when and where I learned a specific prayer. I know which ones I mastered in Sunday school and which ones I worked on during summer vacations in Maryland or West Virginia.

Our rabbi called Sunday afternoon. He wanted to know if he could count on me to help lead Shabbat morning services again, the way I used to. We’re trying something new – Zoom services on Saturday morning. Even the most observant congregants, the ones who don’t use technology on Shabbat, can justify this approach: Log into Zoom before sunset Friday, then join the gathering Saturday morning.

To those unaccustomed to the laws of Shabbat, this may sound like splitting hairs. As someone who is quite accustomed to the laws of Shabbat, I’ll admit that it sounds like splitting hairs to me too. But that’s not the point. The point is that we’ve found a way to gather, albeit imperfectly.

Will I do it?

No, I said. I can’t.

I am sad about this, but I can’t facilitate something that makes me cry.

Do I have an alternative?

No. At least not yet. I can’t pray on a video call, and so I cannot lead my community in prayer that way. I am sorry to let them down, but I know they will find a way without me.

Maybe it’s a cop out. Maybe it’s a sidestep. Maybe I’ll miss it and change my mind.

For now, I like my fluid Saturdays. I like my walks. I like my friend’s four-year-old keeping his distance from my puppy as we go in search of big trucks and lawn mowing crews.

I like the trees and the sidewalks, and I’m getting used to the dance of neighbors stepping into and out of the street to give each other space.

It’s not a substitute for communal prayer, but for now it will have to do.


I’m on my second cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll – not my usual morning routine.

I’m baking cheesecake for my youngest child’s 16th birthday.

I’m on news overload, and I can’t stop scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, looking for something true.

Photos: Kelly Jordan, Detroit Free Press

My oldest was arrested in downtown Detroit Tuesday night, held with 126 other protesters in what was described by the city as a socially-distanced arena basement, but which – according to those who were there – was crowded and sometimes brutal (way to support the community, Ilitch family and Little Caesars). My 22-year-old was handcuffed with zip ties. They were loaded onto a bus. They lost their backpack, glasses and keys in the shuffle.


You probably care about this because I’m telling you a story about my white, Jewish child – the artist, the one who may have babysat for your kids. The one who wins writing prizes and is thriving at a top university.

But what about all the others? The ones whose parents can’t just say, “Go online and buy yourself another pair of glasses. I’ll pay for it?” The Black and brown folks who walk through life being profiled every day?

Did you know that the protesters were loaded onto crowded buses, then lined up side-by-side on the floor of Little Caesars Arena?

Can you say Covid risk?

Did you know that some of the protesters left custody bruised and bloodied?

Did you know that officers in riot gear called for the group to disperse, but also surrounded them on both sides? And then, when the crowd did not disperse, arrested 127 people?

Yes, protesters were out past the 8 pm curfew, but really? How were they supposed to get past the armored police officers? Run and hope for the best?

Say what you want about cops only doing their job, about law and order and the protection of property. We can have that discussion another time.

I am not telling you this so you will feel bad for my child. They are part of a group working with Michigan Liberation, serving as jail support, documenting what happens as people are taken into and released from custody, posting bail when necessary, offering rides home to those who need a lift, taking notes and photos outside city jails.

While they were not planning to get arrested Tuesday night, they are fully aware of the risks.

I am telling you this because it is easy to comfort ourselves with words: “Isn’t it too bad… Isn’t racism awful… I care, but really, what more can I do?”

I have repeated those words to myself for too long.

If you’ve been living with and fighting racism your entire life, ignore me on my soap box. But if you live like me and look like me, it’s time to step up.

Here’s what I am doing instead of wringing my hands:

  • Joining a family march on Friday in my very white town, a march that I hope will encourage the white folks among us, in our comfortable enclave, to recognize and challenge our privilege. And then to do more.
  • Reading How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. This book has been on my list for a year, sitting next to my bed for two months. I finally cracked it open.
  • Donating to The Bail Project, not because young people like my kid are getting arrested this week, but because I’ve learned that cash bail is just another manifestation of our racist criminal justice system. You can learn more here.
  • Listening to my children. They think my left-leaning liberalism is pretty weak. That’s their prerogative. I taught them to hate inequity, but I didn’t really do anything about it. They are taking action. The least I can do is pay attention.

These are changes I’m making within myself – working from the inside out – and ways I’m trying to support change in the world around me.

How about you?

Scroll through social media and you’ll find lots of books to read, funds to support, slogans to shout. You don’t need me to make you another list.

I’m a little jittery from all that coffee, queasy from the sugary pastry. The top of the cheesecake burned, and I had to scrape it off. I’m feeling off-kilter, unmoored.


Time to do something about the injustice I’ve tolerated for far too long.

Crepes with Van Gogh: Corona Quarantine Phase 2

Last night, sheltering in place got the best of me. I was scrolling through texts and landed on a thread from late last year about who was bringing what to a potluck of some sort. Reading it made me cry.

I miss all of you, I texted my friends. I need a virtual gathering. I’ve had my share of open ended “How are you doing” sessions with various people, which are great, but I’d like to DO something if anyone has any ideas. Unfortunately I don’t.

Easy Crepe Recipe - How To Make Basic Crepes—

Twenty messages later, we had a plan: Zoom meetup Saturday night. We’ll visit the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, where Vicki will screenshare/guide us through the Van Gogh exhibit. BYO crepes and wine.

A month into this experience, we’ve moved into a new phase of coronavirus reality.

This is it, we seem to be saying.

What’s next? How do we manage longer-term?

Yesterday a case of toilet paper landed on our front porch from the local janitorial supply service. It’s the grayish, thin kind you find in gas stations and dive restaurants, where the restroom looks like it belongs in your house, not a commercial establishment. The type of restroom with a pink lotion soap dispenser, where – way in the distant past – you might have wiped your hands on a damp cloth looped on a metal-framed holder and then dried them for real on your pants.

Why did we order so much? Because we were just so damned tired of thinking about toilet paper. I needed it off my mental list. And while each roll of what looks like about 20 sheets of two-ply toilet tissue will not last long, I feel such relief knowing those puny, paper-wrapped rolls are stacked on a basement shelf.

I also feel fortunate to have a basement shelf. And an extra carton of milk in the fridge. And three dozen eggs, and a giant bag of spinach. All of which reminds me that I have to figure out when and where I am going to shop next week. Three dozen eggs will not last long around here. The spinach will be gone by Friday.

As my friends and I were firming up our Saturday night plans, I started searching for games to play online. I found versions of Scrabble and Rummikub, but when I downloaded the apps and tried setting one up on my phone, I stopped mid-registration. I don’t want to link my account to Facebook. I don’t want to create a screen name. I just want to do something familiar with my friends.

I want to sit in a room full of people and talk around the dining room table. Then I want to get up and perch on the edge of the sofa next to someone I haven’t seen for a while and catch up while the Superbowl halftime show plays in the background and everyone else finishes dessert.

For now, I’ll have to settle for a virtual museum tour and a solo glass of wine. Yes, with friends. But still sort of alone.

None of this is easy, though there are occasional bright spots. I’ve been ordering a produce box from Detroit’s Eastern Market each Monday for Saturday pickup. This time I added ramps, tortilla chips, salsa and a loaf of whole wheat bread to my cart. Last week we had the most gorgeous blue oyster mushrooms I’ve ever seen, which Birch turned into pasta sauce Monday night.

So it’s not like everything is bad. It’s just not how I want it to be. I want my college-age children to live with their friends in their grubby campus houses. I want them to have summer jobs. I want camp for my youngest.

Vicki shared a crepe-making video to get us in the mood for Saturday night. I’m contemplating where I want to sit for this pretend outing. Should I pick the spot where I usually set up Zoom, or try somewhere new? Maybe the weather will cooperate and I can sit outside.

Should I wear a hat? Wrap myself in a colorful shawl?

Perhaps we’ll post pictures. Probably not. I look forward to our gathering. I just hope I’m not too sad to enjoy myself.

How Are You Doing?

I am drawing blobby shapes on my sketch pad, filling them in with colored pencils while listening to Haydn piano sonatas.

I am advising my youngest baker on what to do with the over-cooked marshmallow concoction that was supposed to become a buttercream icing base. (Start again. Can we substitute dark corn syrup for light? Not sure, but what the heck?)

I am deciding whether butter is an emergency supply and needs to be purchased right this minute from a nearby gas station. (No.)

I receive texts with photos of baking projects from my cousin in Chicago. Last week, challah; this week, bagels. They are gorgeous. He says they’re a bit doughy. He’ll try again.

My children are making dinner, one night each: red lentil & sweet potato curry, pad thai, tempeh-cauliflower stew, lemon-ricotta pasta. I am relieved not to be cooking so much.

I run through grocery lists and meal plans in my head multiple times a day. I fill virtual grocery carts, only to find that the food can’t be delivered till … till never. Try again later. Or tomorrow. Or the day after that.

I realize I don’t have parsley or horseradish for next week’s seder. A friend says she’ll share if I can’t buy my own before then.

I connect with a Covid-infected friend daily. She is in New York. I am in Detroit. I feel like we are only a week behind them. I am scared.

A friend leaves five heads of garlic on my front porch. I will buy flour for her with my next grocery delivery.

I help my children move furniture. They are swapping dressers, clearing out closets, moving books to the basement or to the giveaway pile in my room, which is growing, and which I cannot deliver to the charity thrift shop until who knows when.

I don’t know what to do with the overdue library books. Where should I put them so I’ll remember to return them when it’s time?

I do online yoga on my bedroom floor. I use two mats because hardwood is not that forgiving.

We sing Happy Birthday to my mother on Zoom, all of us in silly hats, huddled around the laptop camera.

Today we will deliver her chocolate birthday cake covered in buttercream. Once she’s seen it whole, we’ll cut the cake in half and take a portion back home. Maybe we’ll set up the computer on the dining room table and eat it together.

Chicken and Poems

Yesterday I brought a friend 7 pounds of frozen chicken. It was the only thing I could offer when she and her family went into sudden home quarantine. Her husband’s doctor declared his relatively mild symptoms “assumed Covid-19” and told him to stay hydrated and as separate as possible from the rest of the family. So he’s spending the next two weeks in the guest bedroom, which got me thinking that they’re pretty lucky to have a guest bedroom. Continue reading

A Prayer for Engagement and Community

There is a spot in the Shabbat morning service where we pause and acknowledge the community. We bless our leaders throughout history; we pray for those who keep the synagogue running and fund the kiddush; we pray for our country, and we pray for Israel.

35895262-tulip-flower-imagesBut what about those sitting next to us in the pews? How do we acknowledge, embrace and value one another? When our rabbi asked me to consider answering those questions with a new prayer, I spent months pondering the answers. I journaled about them, asked them aloud, and posed them to myself. I even searched the Internet. Surely someone had attempted this before. I found prayers celebrating disabilities and prayers for queer communities and mental health. But I couldn’t find one that asked me to slow down and pay attention to the assumptions I make about the people around me. Continue reading

Gender: Listening without Judgement

I listened to the interview Saturday night, under the covers with David, not sure if I would still like my answers to Piya Chattopadhyay’s questions.

Piya, a Canadian radio personality, hosts a program called “Out in the Open” on CBC Radio, where she explores one topic each week from multiple perspectives. The most recent episode, Whither Gender, includes an interview with me, talking about coming to terms with having a non-binary child.

The show offers a multi-faceted exploration of how we think and talk about a certain gender construct. Is it as complex and complete as it could be? Certainly not. But it’s still excellent. And anyway, that’s not my point.

Continue reading

Pronouns – Self-Correcting, Haircuts and Parenthood

Last week I received this comment on my blog, I am the Parent of a Non-binary Child:

I’ve read this post more than once since my kid came out to me as non binary. I just need to give a shout out somewhere to all the self-correctors out there. For all those friends and advocates who are working hard to make sure my kid feels accepted for who they are… Every time you use an old pronoun and then immediately update in an almost hyphenated fashion…we hear you. We hear you trying. And we thank you for your efforts. It’s not automatic or easy to make this adjustment or to admit a mistake in the same breath, in your very next word… to a child. I just want to give credit where it is due.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

image - pronoun sticker

I just had this conversation with Amy, who has been cutting my hair for as long as we’ve both had children (me first!) She cut my children’s hair when they were younger, and always asks about them. Sometimes she gets Miriam’s pronouns wrong, and I correct her. And we laugh. Because being a mom is complicated enough without giving each other a hard time for something that’s hard to remember.

Don’t apologize, I tell her. Don’t apologize, I tell my friends, my extended family, the people I meet along the way. Just correct yourself. Say it again. Listen to what “they” sounds like, what it feels like in your mouth.  Continue reading

What Can I Do for You?

We like to ask, “What can I do for you?”

Frequently the answer is, “Nothing… but thanks for asking.”

How can this be? If I am sick or lonely or sad, and you ask what I need, shouldn’t I speak up?

A hug.

A gallon of milk.

A basket of laundry, clean and folded.

help image.jpeg

We answer, “Nothing, thank you,” because we don’t know what we need, or what we need is too much, or we can’t imagine how we would ask for the thing we need.

You didn’t even ask what I need, but I’m going to tell you anyway. I need something big. Continue reading