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Poem: "Seen and Respected" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
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ysabetwordsmith
Poem: "Seen and Respected"
This poem is spillover from the March 6, 2018 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from [personal profile] sporky_rat and [personal profile] bairnsidhe. It also fills the "communication" square in my 2-28-18 card for the Slice-of-Life Bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by [personal profile] ng_moonmoth. It belongs to the series Clay of Life.


"Seen and Respected"


Menachem and Yossele
went into a village of Gentiles.

It was not a bad place,
although it was very different
from the Jewish towns they knew.

The people there kept the Shabbat
on Sunday instead of Saturday, and they
did not understand why a golem would
need to sleep on the Shabbat at all.

"All creatures need to rest, and that
is why G-d has decreed the Shabbat.
It does not matter that Yossele is a golem,
only that he is a good person. Now you may
keep the Shabbat in your way, and we will
keep it in ours," Menachem said firmly.

Then he took the scroll of the shem
from Yossele's mouth so he could rest,
and went about the Shabbat in
the ways of his own people.

On Sunday the villagers went
to church, so there was little work
for the traveling blacksmiths to do.

Instead they tended their horse
and wagon, and fired up the forge
to make things that they could sell later --
candleholders and nails and pot hooks.

On Monday, the villagers came and
formed a line to have things mended,
and they bought much of what was made.

One poor family had no money to pay
for the new pot that they needed, so they
left their oldest daughter to work instead.

Lane was not pretty or graceful like
all of the other girls in the village.

No matter how she tried, her dress
always seemed to tangle around her legs,
and her short hair escaped its braids.

The other girls teased her for being
unfeminine. Lane lifted her chin
and refused to let them see her cry.

Yossele grunted in displeasure,
waving his big arms to shoo away
the other girls as if driving geese
away from a bag of grain.

"Thank you," Lane whispered.
"They don't like me very much."

Yossele beckoned with his hands.

"I suppose it's because I don't make
a very good girl," Lane said. "I try, but ..."
She shrugged. "My heart isn't in it."

"Then perhaps you are not a girl,"
Menachem said as he handed her
a brush to groom the horse. "I don't
know what your people teach, but
the Torah speaks of those who are
neither male nor female, or both."

Her eyes grew huge as she listened.
"Is that really true?" she asked.

“Twilight cannot be defined; it can
only be sanctified and appreciated,"
Menachem said. "People can’t always
be defined; they can only be seen and
respected, and their lives made holy."

"That sounds very wise," Lane said.

"I think it is," Menachem said.
"The Jewish approach allows for
genders beyond male and female.
It opens space in society and protects
those who live in the places in between."

"I wish I could do that," Lane sighed.
"I don't fit very well in this village,
any more than I fit in this dress. I
don't even like being called a girl,
and when people say 'she,' I want
to flinch as if they have hit me."

"Then perhaps you are not a girl
after all," said Menachem. "You may
be what we call bria bi’ fnei atzmah,
a created being of your own."

Lane's face took light at that,
like the sun at twilight. "Yes!
What kind of creature is that?"

"Well, there are several sorts, and
you should probably talk to a rabbi
to make certain," said Menachem.
"Perhaps you are a tumtum, one who
is indeterminate, neither girl nor boy."

"That sounds more like me than
anything else ever has," Lane said.
"I'd rather be 'they' than 'she' any day."

"Then that is what I will call you,"
Menachem promised. "I am happy that
I could help, at least to give you new words.
I would do more for you if I could."

Then the horse stepped on their dress
and Lane jerked away, swearing.

The village girls, some distance away,
pointed and giggled at their distress.

Yossele stomped over and yanked
the bench out from under them,
tumbling the girls into the dust.

They ran away, squealing,
as he walked back to the wagon.

"Perhaps a dress is not
the best thing for you to wear
while you're grooming a horse,"
Menachem said to Lane.

"I know, but it's all I have to wear,"
Lane said. "Some of the other girls
seem to do anything they want in
theirs, but I'm always tripping over
mine, and I hate doing that."

Yossele snorted, then guided Lane
to sit beside the fire. He gripped
the cloth above their knee and
looked at them for permission.

"If you have a better idea,
go ahead," Lane said.

So Yossele tore a big strip
off the dress, shortening it until
it hung just above their knees.
Then he tore that strip in half
and used it to wrap their legs,
protecting the soft pale skin.

When he was done, Lane wasn't
wearing anything that looked exactly
like girl clothes or like boy clothes.
It was something different.

"There now, that looks
much better," Menachem said.

Lane smiled as they finished
grooming the horse, and went on
to tend the fire as well as an apprentice.

That gave Menachem an idea.

"What would you think about
leaving this village?" he said.
"I know another blacksmith
called Nachman, who could
take you as an apprentice."

"I would love to go," Lane said.
"He won't mind that I'm different?"

"He doesn't mind that Yossele is
a golem, and has some trouble with
communication," said Menachem. "He
won't mind if you are tumtum, or whatever,
and need to use some different words.
You would be seen and respected,
the same as everyone else."

So when the poor family returned,
Menachem gave them the pot and said,
"Let me take your oldest child with me
when I go. I know a blacksmith who will
take Lane without the apprentice fee."

Lane's parents were all too happy
to agree to this arrangement.

So the next day, the three of them
left the little village behind, and with it
the erroneous idea that Lane was a girl.

* * *

Notes:

Menachem is a traveling blacksmith and a Jew.

Yossele is a golem who works with Menachem.

Lane is a nonbinary child whom Menachem describes as tumtum, and assists in leaving their home village.

Nachman is Menachem's old master.

* * *

Classical Judaism recognizes six sex/gender configurations. Of these, the androgynos has traits of both male and female, while the tumtum may have neither. Many different interpretations exist. Here is a comparison of the two.

Androgynos/אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס: A person who has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics. 149 references in Mishna and Talmud (1st-8th Centuries CE); 350 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes (2nd -16th Centuries CE).

Tumtum/ טֻומְטוּם A person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured. 181 references in Mishna and Talmud; 335 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.

-- "Six Genders"

We read in the Babylonian Talmud: “Our sages taught: As to twilight, it is
doubtful whether it is part day and part night, or whether all of it is day or all of it is night.…
Rabbi Yosi said: Twilight is like the twinkling of an eye as night enters and the day departs, and it is impossible to determine its length.” (Shabbat 34b)

-- "How I Met the Tumtum"

Reuben Zellman, a transgender activist and rabbinical student writes: “Twilight cannot be defined; it can only be sanctified and appreciated. People can’t always be defined; they can only be seen and respected, and their lives made holy. This Jewish approach allows for genders beyond male and female. It opens space in society. And it protects those who live in the places in between."

-- "How I Met the Tumtum"

At the end of Mishna Bikkurim, Rabbi Yosi makes the radical statement that the androgynos is actually: “bria bi’ fnei atzmah” (a created being of its own).
-- "How I Met the Tumtum"

The discussion of nonbinary gender in Judaism likewise cites both the androgynos and the tumtum.
-- "Nonbinary Gender in Jewish Texts"
 

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