Queer author reinvents Jewish history in new book

  • by Michael Nugent
  • Wednesday March 22, 2017
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A local queer Jewish man has published a new book that reinvents Jewish history, his own family, the Talmud, and the Hebrew Bible.

Andrew Ramer spoke about "Torah Told Different: Stories for a Pan/Poly/Post-Denominational World" earlier this month at the Pacific School of Religion's Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Berkeley.

Ramer, 65, lives in Oakland. He is an ordained maggid (a sacred storyteller), teaches at USF's Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice, and is also the author of "Queering the Text: Biblical, Medieval, and Modern Jewish Stories." In all of his writings, Ramer is focused on telling stories.

"My dad was a failed playwright, and my mom an unpublished poet, so I was genetically programmed to write stories," said Ramer at the March 6 event.

"Every book I've done starts with the regrets and leftovers from previous books," he said. "I wanted to tell stories differently, create a distinct way of (re)telling stories. This book is a gift to my grandmothers, all of whom told me stories. The most true thing is a story, and we are a people of stories."

Ramer's Jewish and queer identities are deeply intertwined. "My tradition is you have to tell stories. It's a survival mechanism for outsiders," he said. He has attended and spoke at the Gay Spirit Visions Conference in North Carolina for over 20 years. That conference transformed Ramer, he said, as he overcame his shyness and learned to use the Jewish outsider's lens to tell gay, reimagined stories.

In Jewish culture, a midrash is a re-contextualization of a story. Ramer said, "Even the Bible is a midrash, a retelling of even older stories."

In "Torah Told Different," Ramer reinvented the Hebrew Bible, casting aside the two official Talmud (commentaries) and creates three new Talmud. Ramer does this to dismantle patriarchy and narratives, putting women back in stories where they used to be.

Some of the Bible's stories have bothered Ramer his whole life; one in particular is Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac.

"I thought this was not acceptable, so I rewrote it from a different perspective," he said, sharing a tale of Abraham's wife Sarah rejecting God's request to cast her child down a well; this stands in sharp relief to God's disappointment in Abraham for being ready to kill his son, forcing God to send down an angel at the last moment to intervene.

Another story recounts Elias' humorous and touching modern day encounter with God while he is in the bathtub. When Elias mentioned he is only half Jewish, God replied, "Well I have no religion myself," paraphrasing Gandhi's quote. God also said, "I am particularly fond of non-gendered languages," encouraging Elias to pick up Tagalog or another such language.

The feminist and queer storytelling in the Bay Area deeply impacted Ramer. "Living in Oakland, I was sitting at parties listening to Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde speaking, and listening to them telling stories," he said.

"Some people write for now; I'm writing for after now," he said. "I love playing with words."

Touching on the current political climate, Ramer said, "I've never heard so many people say they keep thinking they're living in an alternate reality."

"Art is essential in such times, telling stories is essential. Is this the wake-up call we've been needing? It makes me think of AIDS, and all those alliances and clinics that were created, people that came together who otherwise would not have," he added.

"I use my privilege of resistance," he said. "I've lived long enough with incredible teachers, where I gradually felt empowered to tell the stories inside of me that I'd felt too scared to tell previously.

"So go and tell sacred stories �" that will be the healing," Ramer said.


For more information, go to http://www.andrewramer.com.