Family / Life / Spirituality & religion

Hugs from Hannaton

PHOTO CREDIT: IAN CHESIR-TERAN

Ian Chesir-Teran is a rabbinical student at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.  Ian is also a New York-licensed attorney who practices law from his Israeli office in the Jezreel Valley.  Ian, formerly of South Orange, New Jersey, is a member of Kibbutz Hannaton, where he lives with his husband and three children.

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For the sake of introduction and – to put some of my labels on the table from the get-go – allow me to begin by saying, “Hello.”  I am a 43-year old, left-handed, gay American Israeli Jew who, after practicing law for 15 years in New York, decided to embark on a second career in the rabbinate and who, after spending my third year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem, decided with my husband of 16 years to move with our three, adopted, African-American children to an egalitarian kibbutz in the Lower Galilee.

Phew!

Having said all of this, I would love to persuade you, and even myself, that I eschew labels. Labels are limiting. They can inhibit growth and evolution. Why order a la carte from the menu when you can feast from the buffet? But even if I might aspire to shed one or more of my labels – especially my middle name Leslie – I can’t. I have inherited from my ancestors a fanatical need to categorize. To give distinct names to experiences and characteristics. To find patterns or draw contrasts between groups of experiences and characteristics. To create dichotomies, even while simultaneously recognizing that most dichotomies are false.

Certain labels can certainly be convenient. They help me figure out what foods I can and cannot serve to my nephew with celiac. The label “Jewish” enabled my family to emigrate to Israel. Being “married” comes with lots of pre-packaged assumptions, rights and responsibilities, some of which are different than those that come from being “domestic partnered” or “civil unioned.”

Other labels can be harder to pin down. If was raised in a secular Jewish home on “Lawn Guyland,” educated in an Orthodox yeshivah, married by a Reconstructionist lesbian rabbi, and began my rabbinical training at a Conservative seminary but will hopefully complete my training and will be ordained next year as a Reform rabbi, exactly what kind of Jew am I? Am I an American Israeli or an Israeli American? Is there really a difference? Does it really matter?

It seems to me that much of the time, for better or for worse, it does matter, if only for the simple reason that other people label us even if we sometimes might choose not to label ourselves. When my family and I walk down the street, we turn heads. People stare at me not merely because I am some beautiful sight to behold, but because I’m wearing a skullcap, talking with an American accent, walking hand-in-hand with another man, and calling after my three black kids. It is fascinating sometimes to watch people’s expressions and double-takes as they mentally process the labels that are formed, reformed or reaffirmed within seconds by the mere sight of us.

My grandmother once told me that whatever my middle name might be in English, in Hebrew I am middle-named after my great-uncle: Label.  One of my ongoing missions is to honor my middle-namesake by questioning life’s many stereotypes and labels, embracing them when they apply and shattering them to bits when they don’t.

[FEATURED PHOTO CREDIT: IAN CHESIR-TERAN]

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5 Comments

  1. It’s fun and comforting to put everyone in a box. The challenge is to try and see every individual and soul as special and worthy of love and compassion. Thanks for fighting the good fight, Ian.

  2. I know you personally, Ian, so it’s difficult to comment as if I don’t, but I will say that knowing you has made me think twice about labels — about how I label others and how I label myself; both about the limits that labels set upon our thinking and the framework that labels offer us to think from.

    All good food for thought — thanks for sharing your perspective!

  3. People label because they want to have a sense of belonging in a society. For example in America I am Russian, in the former USSR I was a jew, now that I am from Tadjikistan a Republic of former USSR I am Tadjik. To people who speak Russian or from my home I am an American because I came to the States at 9 years old now I am 43.

    Happy that you are able to settle down in Israel with your family. Cute kids.

    Regards,

    Larisa

  4. Hi Ian, great piece.
    One of the ‘labeling’ moments I frequently encounter here in Israel is the ever-asked question, “Where are you from?”
    What does that mean? I reply. Are you asking where I was born? that is one label. Where did I grow up? another label. Where did I make aliyah from? another. Where are my parents originally from? another. What Judaism do I practice? another. Where do I live? yet another.

    We do that to ourselves all the time. I think labeling is human, we have need to categorize, like you said. The difficulty is overcoming the label as quickly as possible, getting over our differences and rejoicing in our sameness. That’s tough.

  5. Esther Wifler says:

    enjoying your posts Ian.

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