Shelby Handler discusses her latest project, “HomeWord”, a multi-arts showcase that brought together seven queer Jewish artists from around the Seattle area to discuss ancient and contemporary texts, including Talmudic passages, that dealt with themes of home and diaspora. Co-created with Maia Brown and Isaac Cowhey, this event took place on July 6 at the dance studio space, Salsa N Seattle and was proudly supported through Asylum’s Small Grants Program.
I enter a warm house in the middle of a very dark night. I feel my way through each empty room, running my fingers along doorknobs, wooden spoons, a half-finished puzzle, a loaf of bread. The stuff of life filling my hands. I find a matchbook with only two matches left. They last me until the stairs and I step up slowly, eyes adjusting again to the shapes of the abandoned home.
This is how studying Talmud feels in my body: moving through an empty home and realizing it still belongs to my ancestors. When I search through the Talmudic dictionary, I am stumbling my way through the lives of those who came before me. Through their mundane, sacred and strange cycles.
Our relation isn’t proven through blood, observance, parentage, gender, age or any other test of authenticity or merit. I am related to the early rabbis through the act of translation itself, through the struggle of language. Guiding my finger across the tiny font of Jastrow’s definitions generates a sense of belonging to lineage that I haven’t found anywhere else.
Photo Credit: Musician Simone Ilana Adler reads loving messages to ancestors, davened prayers and played their tunes on clarinet, alongside a self-created Ark where they placed the sacred letters to their lineage.
My sense of home in the text is forged through correct and failed translations, through understanding and disagreement, through delight and bafflement:
“Night-lodging in open air.”
“To store up thoughts, arguments.”
In searching for the correct root word or noun, I am continually bewildered by my mistakes, or what weird-sounding definitions my chevruta and I find along the way to the right one:
“Dwelling places of wild beasts.”
“Pot in the bath-tub to which a waste-pipe is attached.”
“The colored sand strewn over the writing.”
The meditative practice of creating home through translation is what initially sparked my interest in examining the Babylonian Talmud as a record of home-making in diaspora, or in the words of Daniel Boyarin, as “Diasporist Manifesto Number 1” (A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora).
Inspired by the work of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, the burgeoning queer Talmud study community in Seattle/Duwamish territory was eager to ask: What does reading Talmud in the context of diaspora offer us? What does the Talmud offer us to imagine resistance to modern systems of white supremacy and settler colonialism?
In the Talmud, rabbis are in conversation with each other across time and space. Myself and collaborator Maia Brown asked artists and students in our community to join this lineage of time travel: to look backwards and forwards in time to queer concepts of home, land and exile.
We curated “HomeWord”, a multi-arts show where seven artists responded to Talmudic and contemporary texts that dealt with themes of belonging and diaspora. In music, poetry, creative non-fiction, video and ritual, a chorus of voices joined a very long Jewish conversation about what creating, dissecting or yearning for homeland means.
The following day, we held a full day of Talmud study led by Isaac Cowhey. Participants translated a section of Berachot 24b from the original Hebrew and Aramaic. We argued alongside the early rabbis about what it meant to call Eretz Yisrael or Babylonia home in their time.
“HomeWord” generated vital space for queer Jewish community to be astonished by our lineages. We were in awe of the technologies that the early rabbis left for us to devise diasporic homeland through language. In all of its mundane, sacred strangeness:
“A dish of flour, honey and oil.”
“A woolly substance growing on stones at the Dead Sea, looking like gold, and being very soft.”
“To be bent.”