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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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Meet Our First Person FamilyJuly 11, 2018
This Trans High School Student Found Love and AcceptanceJuly 03, 2018
How Humor Helps This Therapist Relate to His ClientsJune 26, 2018
How this High School Dean Supports her Queer StudentsJune 20, 2018
What It's Like to be Queer and UndocumentedJune 14, 2018
OdeliaAugust 07, 2017