First Person



In season 2 episode 8 of PBS Digital Studios' First Person, host Kirya Traber sits down with Odelia - a teen poet who is navigating the equal importance of her queer and Modern Orthodox Jewish identities. Odelia shares what it was like to come out in an Orthodox community and the role poetry has played in her personal evolution.

AIRED: August 07, 2017 | 0:08:06

- Maybe tell me a little bit more about

what your faith means to you.

- I've been an orthodox jew all my life.

I go to the orthodox community,

like something like 60% Jewish or something,

so a lot of Jews.

I've gone to orthodox Jewish day school

for the last 14 years, will continue

to do so until I go to college.

It's just an integral part of who I am,

I remember thinking once like,

which would you pick, being gay or being orthodox

and it's like, I can't choose.

It's like picking between your parents like,

you can't choose that, there's two incredibly

important parts of my being and like,

I would make different jokes if I wasn't orthodox

and I would speak differently and use different lingo

and have different cultural references

and not know all the text knowledge,

that a lot of text knowledge that I have,

I'll just be a total different person.

Even though it might have a grain of truth,

it does frustrate me when people

equate religion to homophobia, just because

I'm a very deeply religious person

and the idea like, people just write it off.

They're like, "oh, it's all homophobia anyway."

like, read the text, get to know the text,

understand the times people were living in

and understand the context in which they were speaking

and then, maybe you can judge a little better

instead of just writing it all off

as just like, "oh, it's all just homophobic."

- Yeah, so when did you first start identifying as queer?

- I first thought that something was wrong with me

for awhile, it's not something

that's often talked about in the orthodox Jewish community

or if it is, it's regarded as as a tangential topic

or something that's for another time

and I think, I knew something was wrong with me

when I was about...

I thought something was wrong with me

when I was about 12 years old,

I looked into my best friend's eyes,

he's a boy, he has very pretty eyes

and I remember looking at him and thinking it was,

just like him, like you should like him,

like, he's everything to you, you like him

and I realized I just, I just didn't

and if I couldn't like him, how

am I gonna like any other boy.

So, I started using the words,

I used the word, asexual for a little while

before I realized that wasn't accurate,

I used the word gay, for a long time

and I still use that label, used the word, lesbian

and I still use that label and

I used the word, queer pretty recently.

- Let's deal with another label that you use, writer.

- I find it very cathartic, it's something that I

tend to process things to poetry,

a few months later after they happen,

or immediately after they happen,

I think like, I dated someone recently

and I immediately processed it through poetry.

Processed that breakup through poetry

and then, things like that are just, like a different...

I do a lot of therapy, it's like

a different kind of therapy.

- So yeah, you talked about identifying as queer

and at first, there was some confusion and maybe, shame?

- Yeah.

- Is that something that you've been able to work through

or talk about in your writing.

- Oh, yeah, definitely, I write a lot about

being queer and how that affects me personally

and communally, and the way that I feel

obligated to my community and to God and things like that

and I think that, working through that

through poetry has been very helpful and very cathartic.

It's really interesting, I think, having my work

be very public, like even doing this is very public

and it's very strange, a little bit like,

writing about sort of this thing

when you were 12 years old, you thought

you'll never tell anyone and you'll never share

and only you'll know about it and

I shared it in front of 1,500 people at Apollo theater

and I was like, "great, now 1,500

people know I'm gay, cool."

which was like, super weird and eventually,

a lot of my poetry is essentially outing myself to

virtual strangers all the time, which is very scary.

- What kind of responses do you get?

- In my school, I go to a Jewish day school called,

Yeshiva, I mean, it's not called Yeshiva,

but it happens to be called a Yeshiva.

We have a league within other Yeshivas

of poetry, which is actually really great, really amazing.

But, with that, it's a bit more of a sheltered community

and I think the response I get are very different

from the response I get in like, urban word

and other places like that, like,

I tend to get a lot of like, at urban word,

it's a lot of like, "wow, I'm gay too, like

that was great, I love it."

and then at like, Yeshiva poetry

slams is a lot more of like, "oh, I can never relate to that

but like, that's really great."

and it's really supportive but it's very much

a different community in terms of like,

people willing to out themselves

to people they don't know or people willing to say,

that inspired me and I've had people

tell me like, I'm queer too, that really resonated with me,

but only in private in Yeshiva communities,

only over text or Facebook, never in public.

- And maybe we should explain for the audience at home,

what is urban word?

- Urban word is a youth literacy organization

that does a lot of education regarding literacy,

poetry, hip hop and just lots of other amazing things

and they work with middle schools and high schools

and different foundations and grants

and they do something called, slam season

which is, preliminaries, semi finals and finals

and they have a team, that represents New York

in the Brave New Voices slam every year.

- So, what about in your own family too?

- My parents took a little while to come around,

but they're totally supportive now,

which is amazing, I'm very thankful for them.

It took them about two years to sort of,

get around the surprise and shock of like,

I'm their only child, so it's a little bit strange

and I never, I guess, I think I showed a lot of signs

but whatever, I was like the gayest child.

But, apparently not, my extended family,

one side of my family, I actually just came out

like two weeks ago. - Oh wow.

- Like, my mom side of the family,

they were all older than I am,

they're all very supportive and very like,

"that's great for you, we're all very happy."

the other side of my family is very religious

and I have not come out to them

and they will hopefully never see this.

- Oh okay.

Yeah, you strike me as someone who's really bold to...

- Thank you.

- Yeah, who despite, I mean, it's interesting.

Maybe you can talk a little bit more about it,

but, you write about, you've talked about feeling

bad or wrong and yet, you're not hiding at all.

- Yeah.

- How do you get around that?

- I just don't think it's worth it?

I think there are so many queer kids in Yeshiva,

in the Jewish world, that just aren't out

and don't feel like, they can be out

and I'm like, if I can be out and show people

that it's okay and like, I mean

there are kids who have been kicked out of their schools

and their homes and their entire communities

and obviously, being out is not okay for everybody

and it is not an option for everybody, like,

I'm very much aware of that, especially,

the more far right you go with politically and religiously.

But, in my community, being out is,

mostly an okay thing to do, and if I can show

kids in my community that that is an okay,

acceptable option, then I'm totally going to do that.

- Wow, so do you feel like you have sort of a

responsibility or maybe a special opportunity?

- Yeah, I think it's a good opportunity

if I can, I don't know about responsibility,

I don't feel very responsible for other people

but I think I just definitely like it's,

we say, like a Berakah, a blessing

and it's definitely a blessing to be able to be out

and proud about it and to show other kids that like,

it's going to be okay.

- Thank you so much for joining us

for another episode of First Person.

If you have questions about anything,

about Odelia or poetry, you can comment below

or follow First Person PBS on social media

and you can find out more about urban word

by going to...


- One more time.


- Awesome.

- It's an amazing website and an amazing organization.

- That's great and subscribe to the

YouTube channel right now, do it now.


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