I am writing this column during Pride Week in Ottawa and I am thinking about family and families.
Queer circles speak about the importance of “chosen family” because LGBTQ people often need to reach beyond their birth or adopted families for support and belonging. And certainly non-queer people with troubled families or estranged filial relationships also depend on friends and community for support.
During the Rio Olympics, American gymnastics phenom Simone Biles had to defend her parents when they were “outed” as her biological grandparents and therefore, according to some, not her “real parents,” even though they raised her. Why the frenzy? Adoptive parents, step-parents, half-siblings, blended families – all are legitimate. And, so, too, can our friendships be as valuable as our familial ties.
Family is an important Jewish value. Indeed, marriage, parenting and creating a nurturing Jewish home are core mitzvot in our world. “Be fruitful and multiply” is the first mitzvah articulated in the Torah. In traditional circles, “families” usually include a Jewish man and a Jewish woman who raise children in a Jewish home.
But, how do you negotiate these values if you are gay, or queer, or trans; if you don’t want to be or cannot be married; if you choose not to have or cannot have children; or if you are in love with a non-Jewish person? Can you still create a Jewish family when it looks different than the one described above? These questions are complex, but it seems urgent to make a case for alternative Jewish family structures, and to show my support for the concept of chosen family, a concept that can strengthen and support Jewish continuity.
The traditional view contends that making a Jewish family and a Jewish home is one small action against anti-Semitism and bigotry in our time, and some Jewish communities encourage parents to have large families in order to bolster the Jewish population decimated in the Holocaust. It seems to me, then, that all Jewish families, no matter their configuration, should be valued as part of that initiative, as part of strengthening Jewish legacy.
While I am not qualified to comment on Halachah or the family practices of traditional Jews, I do feel qualified to argue in favour of love and community, as, indeed, each of us is. In a previous column I wrote about “radical love,” and here I want to extend the idea to a more focused question of family, rather than partnership.
What do I mean by “chosen family”?
A “chosen family” is an extended network that involves bonds deeper than a normal network of acquaintances or colleagues. Members of your chosen family can come from any aspect of your life, including from work, although a meaningful bond is then forged. Members of your chosen family can include family friends, neighbours, best friends, children and spouses of your best friends, kindred spirits, artistic collaborators, housemates, professional colleagues, synagogue members, etc.
Members of your chosen family nurture you and support you when you are blue, know something about your core and essence, and make you feel you have come home when you are in their presence. These are the people in your life who you love and who love you, no matter the lack of filial connection, and no matter geographical distance or time between visits. These are relationships that matter. This is community.
My blood relatives live, and have always lived, abroad. I adore them, but we rarely see each other. So I am grateful to have a vibrant, robust and supportive chosen family in North America, one that I work hard to nurture and support reciprocally. I want to “be there” for my chosen family just as I know they will “be there” for me. If I were to have a child, these people would be the aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings my child would know best. And that would be fine with me, because each member of this wild and unwieldy Jewish and non-Jewish motley crew exemplifies the Jewish family values our tradition holds dear: loving kindness, generosity, social justice, moral ethics, community and family.
In honour of Ottawa Pride, and in honour of the loving chosen families who hold us up, I dedicate this column to my friends in Congregation Or Haneshamah who opened their hearts to me and continue to teach me about love.