Bevin's Blog I'm blogging the relentless pursuit of my joy

2016-09-23

REALITY Storytellers: Lili, My New Inspiration for Joy-Filled Femmeceeing

Welcome to a blog series about my experience with REALITY Storytellers traveling to Israel. For more about the trip and why I chose to go check out this post. I look forward to sharing with you what I learned and the personal, political and creative growth I experienced.

I am Femmecee identified. This term, coined by Rachael in Atlanta, is for me a way in which I use my gender as a mechanism for hosting. This often means on a mic, doing what a traditional emcee does, but sometimes it is just hostessing at a party, holding court and/or introducing people and keeping an eye on folks who aren’t participating and finding subtle ways to include them.

bevinfemmeceeingbyjenacumboMe Femmeceeing the first Dollypalooza. Los Angeles come out October 29th for Dollyween: An Epic Fan Tribute to Dolly Parton! Photo by Jena Cumbo for the Village Voice (check out more pics here!).

Gender doesn’t need to play a role in the way we host things, but for me it does. This feminine flamboyance is easiest to spot in my appearance, but there’s a steady streak of matriarchal and maternal energy that flows in me that I think comes out a lot when I am hosting. 

At our first meal in Israel, I encountered a woman who is now among my role models for effervescent, enthusiastic and graceful hostessing.

We had just finished shepherding and doing a group go around, we then piled back on the bus to drive about a half hour to Tel Aviv. We got to the restaurant a little after 10PM and I was already fantasizing about getting into bed. I had no idea what time my body knew it to be and only had middle seat airplane sleep in the previous 2 days. I felt like a washed out version of myself but was trying to rally for dinner.

We walked about five minutes through tiny streets and made it to Racha, a family-owned Georgian style restaurant. I was immediately dying over the plates and decor. The aesthetic of mismatched but it really all deeply coordinates on a stylistic level is my favorite, so are tiny roses on porcelain plates and ornate light colored frames of family photos and mismatched chairs. I had to strategically choose seating, long tables close together are difficult to navigate as a fat or tall person, especially when there’s a crowd. I ended up with a seat at the end of one of the long tables.

plates

The food and wine started coming out. I don’t drink but I do enjoy a sip (literally a sip) of wine now and then. It’s hard to communicate even without a language barrier that you only want a splash of wine in your glass, especially when the inclination of the servers is to keep the glass full. This was also the first of many Israeli restaurants that would not have unsweetened iced tea.

After the first course this beautiful woman walked into the room. I say beautiful to describe her essence not conventional good looks, though she is a total babe. I believe an expansive definition of beauty liberates us from what the media tells us is beautiful. Lili, our host for the evening, was robust in her generosity of spirit and it glowed from within her.

liliandoakA lot of Lili’s hostessing enthusiasm involved clapping. Photo by Fabien Levy.

I noticed her long before she took center stage between our tables, partially because I was right next to where she kept her glass of White Zin (the drink of choice for my family’s matriarchs) and the ipod from which Georgian music was flowing. I watched her curating the whole experience, checking the playlists, checking in with servers and managing the feast. I recognized her work because that is work I do.

She stood between the tables and introduced herself. I love a meal with a story and history (as my friend Erin O’Brien says about her performance art sausage company, taking storytelling to the plate). We heard about their family from the Racha region of Georgia and the history of the restaurant. They had recently moved the restaurant from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv for reasons I couldn’t hear from my seat.

maggieandbillMaggie and Bill.

We had the next round of food and Lili came by my seat and sweetly scolded me for not having anything on my plate. Mind you, I had already eaten plenty of appetizers and had a couple of bites of meat but it was a new group to me and I tend to hold back among new people. Even something as simple as “pass the whatever” can be a social challenge for me in a new situation. But her urging was really helpful, and along with verbal urging she kind of just leaned over and put stuff on my plate.

nicholasandrick

Nicholas and Rick Sorkin.

Now, it’s not the most body autonomous thing to insist on people eating, and I often encourage people to mind their own business about food. However, because of the roles women have been required to play in our societies for millennia, matriarchal expressions of love and connection often come through preparing food and feeding people. Herstorically, feasts are a creation of women.

I received her nudging to eat meat very appreciatively, in the celebratory inclusive way it was intended. I continued to wish I was dressed for celebration instead of still in my travel and now kind of sheep smelling clothes.

After the “meat course” Lili nominated a person to be the tamada, to lead a series of blessings over a horn of wine that they then drink in one gulp. She picked Oak and I would have, too. Oak is a hunk and I mean that in both the conventional Magic Mike sense and in the radiant, wonderful kind, deep, hilarious human sense that I would come to know.

Oak gave the most sincere and beautiful blessing (I wish I had it on video!) and we went around the room giving more blessings and then he drank it all. I was so glad to not have been chosen both because I don’t drink and because I don’t know how he didn’t get sick from drinking an entire horn of wine on a very full stomach.

Video by Fabien Levy.

Lili then began the dancing portion of the feast. Grabbing people from their chairs and inspiring them into a circle dance. I knew I could easily stay in the back and fade from the jumping and dancing I was too tired for, but I also was seized with inspiration from Lili’s joyful spirit and a dose of YOLO and dove in. I kind of didn’t care that I felt foolish and was just trying for the joy of it.

When we left the restaurant I took time to give Lili a sincere thank you and a thoughtful compliment about her hosting. Honestly, I will be sincerely working to replicate her level of thoughtful joy-filled hosting at all of my events for the rest of time. Among the many things I want to do in Israel when I return is hang with Lili and interview her about the mechanics of throwing a great party. And take a lot more photos in the restaurant of the homey decor, I loved it so much.

After a dreamy walk lit by yellow street lamps through tiny Tel Aviv streets to the waiting bus, we only had a few minutes until we arrived at our first hotel. I was delighted to note it was on the beach! I had no idea we were going to be beachside in Tel Aviv and it was so rad. Checking in 50 people is no joke but they had our room keys waiting for us in envelopes with our names on them and iced tea! I was so delighted I drank a whole glass without thinking to ask what kind it was (I was assuming a citrus mint). Turns out, it was green tea!!!! Green tea, for those who don’t know, has caffeine in it. And when you’re very sensitive to caffeine because you gave up coffee to address a chronic digestive disorder, and you drink green tea at 12:30AM, it doesn’t bode well for sleep.

greenteaMy Find Your Chill tea would have been the perfect iced tea to welcome folks to sleep. Chamomile, lavender, a little bit of cat nip (has a soothing effect on people) and citrus. Instead, I slept fitfully all night.

However, my roommate assignment boded well for a great experience! Megan is such a fun person and a heavy sleeper. That first night we were excited because we had already met, hung out (bonding over our middle seat angst for the flight over) and liked each other. I’m so grateful for the roommate experience of the trip because I think it enhanced everything for me to have someone to debrief with and to support and check up on each other. She was also vital to my success with some of the very confusing Israeli double shower head situations.

The Carlton in Tel Aviv is a beautiful hotel and we had a cute terrace with no time to linger on it because we were getting to bed at 1AM and having to be finished with breakfast and ready for our day at 8AM. I barely slept, thanks to the green tea and not thinking about taking a benadryl until it was way too late. By Day 3 of the trip, though, I was just popping benadryl whenever to preserve what sleep hours I could.

Next up on my trip diary, The Baller Breakfast Buffets of Israel.

14040164_10153587081925882_2258022564314620652_n-1Me and Megan above the valley where David met Goliath.

2016-09-06

My REALITY Storytellers Journey to Israel

Last summer when Dara said she was applying to go on a trip to Israel with two of her best friends, I was super dubious. I declared many times, “This is totally a Zionist trip, there’s no way that for $300 you’ll be doing anything but being brainwashed about Israel.” The trip was for social entrepreneurs and Dara was a great candidate for it, due to her experience dropping her day job and living off her savings to start a global peace project, A Big Project.

I was kind of nervous to have Dara walking around in the Middle East and especially Israel. I grew up hearing about suicide bombers in night clubs and genuinely thought that Dara was in danger heading to Israel. But my friends Kieran and Shelly had just spent a year living there and came back in one piece, my Grandmother and Aunt had both visited Israel multiple times and were fine (and loved it). So I did what I do to feel okay about her choices and was grateful every time I heard from her.

The whole time she was in Israel we talked a half dozen times and every communication was about how little sleep they were getting and that the food was great. I laughed because one of Dara’s greatest pet peeves is less than 8 hours of sleep. I was surprised to hear afterward that the trip was “extremely nuanced” and that they were given a lot of perspectives about the conflict between Israel and Palestine.* (See my footnote for a discussion of how “extremely nuanced” played out in my perspective, but that was the verbatim description Dara gave me when she got back from her trip.)

oakbevinmeganMe, Oak and Megan from my trip. I made some really deep amazing connections with incredible artists and innovators.

“The whole point of being an artist or making a statement is to learn about yourself.”—Robert Mapplethorpe

Dara has a complicated relationship with her Judaism yet came home wanting to have Shabbat dinners. She wrote for a grant to do our Epic Seder this past Spring from the foundation who runs the trips, the Schusterman Foundation. I knew there was a component of the curation that developed an intimacy with Jewish culture that was special enough that Dara, with all her complications, felt a connection to it.

I went to a couple of reunion events with Dara while we were still living in New York and really enjoyed the people I met there. Everyone she’s introduced me to from her REALITY Global trip is totally awesome and it intrigued me. They are curating a trip with really amazing people who can make connections with each other to enact social good. It was clear that there was more to this trip than just a tour of Israel, it’s a powerful network of change makers.

Along the lines of meeting great people, Dara hung out with a friend in Washington, DC from her REALITY Global trip. The friend happens to be Michelle Obama’s speechwriter and that Milania plagiarized speech was written by Sarah early in her work with the Obamas. (You HAVE to read this amazing Washington Post article about Sarah, but also know Sarah is a kind, smart and dynamic person apart from her extraordinary speechwriting.)

bevinandsarahHMe and Sarah at the final meal of the trip.

Anyway, Sarah told Dara that she was going to be a facilitator on the inaugural REALITY Storytellers trip and that I should apply.

I considered it. A funded trip might be the only chance I would get to visit Israel ever and my Grandfather is buried in the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. He is descended from the Tribe of Levi, he just barely escaped the German Holocaust and his brother Kurt ended up moving to Israel after Israel’s declaration of independence. It was super important to Kurt that Grandfather be buried in the Mount of Olives. (Check out my Lesbian Tea Basket episode with my Grandmother to hear about his escape and just a bit about his extraordinary life.)

I also have never previously left the country other than Canada. I do a lot of domestic travel but haven’t had the funds or family resources to travel internationally. It felt exciting to open up to a new opportunity and learn more about the world. I mean, I would LOVE to be a world traveler so here’s the chance to do something new and cool.

Knowing the trip had helped Dara get more in touch with her Judaism I was excited to get more exposure to it, since it was important to her father that I help continue that legacy in the Barlin family. 

I knew that I might be stepping into some shit in my community because radical queers tend to default to supporting the boycott of Israel. I don’t want to support a government that oppresses people and creates an apartheid state, which was all I had heard about the West Bank. I didn’t know the terms of the boycott but I remember my roommate’s then girlfriend having a lot of Feelings about violating the boycott by buying her a Soda Stream.

If a boycott is against a whole country, that’s something that is hard for me to get behind. I’m a person who doesn’t agree with the actions of my government. Here in the US the legacies of slavery and colonialism are alive and well. The mass-incarceration of people of color, the prison industrial complex, the execution of unarmed Black men by our police force, Guantanamo Bay. Literally all of US real estate is stolen from Native Americans. Would I want someone to make a judgement about me as a person based on my government? Especially when a Bush was in office? It felt hard for me to want to support a boycott of a people when it’s the government and not all of the people who are propagating the policies I don’t agree with.

I learned from Dara’s global peace building work that in the era of social media there have been a lot of cross-border political collaborations and art projects. I wanted to meet the folks who made up that Israel. Who are the radical queers in Israel and what are they up to? What do they believe is a viable peace solution in a volatile region?

moonriseoversyriaThis is the view of the moon rising from Mt. Bental overlooking the Golan Heights and into Syria. We could hear bombing. At the top of this mountain I lead us in a prayer for peace. I still pray that we can use our connections and what we learned as fertile ground for social change and peace building.

Since I understood the trip to was NOT a dogmatic zionist approach to Israel, I thought it would be a powerful way to learn more about the conflict and develop my own opinions rather than fall lock-step with what other people tell me to think about things. A friend of mine went on a different curated trip to Israel and the West Bank and came back full of political ammunition against the Israeli government. Remembering his writing after that trip I knew no matter what I learned about the conflict after the trip I would do a lot of learning and developing by choosing to go.

I applied for the trip. I wrote my essays focusing on my art and activism in the body positive and queer communities. I talked about my ties to and interest in Judaism. I managed to make an only 90 second (the limit) introductory video. And I got accepted.

The trip itself was a fifty-person tour group made up mostly of participants, who came from many walks of life. There were way more Christians with no ties to Judaism on the trip than I thought there would be. (I would be considered “strong ties to Judaism” because of my partner and my Grandfather.) It was roughly third Jewish folks, a third strong ties and a third no ties. The Storytellers were from all types of Storytelling, political speechwriters, broadway performers, actors, social media managers, TV and movie producers, journalists, novelists and more. And a queer body liberation blogger (that’s me).

In addition to the 40ish participants we had our facilitators who had been on previous trips, three to five staff members from the Foundation plus more that popped on and off the bus, our tour guide, our bodyguard, our bus driver and sometimes a photographer. Our schedule was packed early morning to late night with activities. Sometimes lectures at the hotel but more often out and about seeing things and hearing about them from our tour guide. We had a panel of journalists, tons of leadership development activities, tours of villages and went all over Israel from the Golan Heights to the Dead Sea, a big ol’ crater in the desert to Jerusalem, Jaffa and Tel Aviv.

I feel like I got a Master’s degree level immersive coursework about Israel, the conflict with the Palestinians, the war in Syria. Old and New Testament Bible stories come to life. Israel was nothing like I expected and the trip completely blew me away, creatively, emotionally, politically, and left me more curious than ever. I have way more questions than I came with.

smallintheenormityTo say I feel small against the enormity of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an understatement. A Democratic state that is trying to adhere to a specific religious and cultural identity in a modern world and all of the other difficulties bridging human diversity in the Middle East is mind boggling.

I’m always pretty obsessed with the moon from an astrological and energetic standpoint. The moon was full while we were there. It was an Aquarius Full Moon, flooding the collective with humanitarian energies. I thought that was auspicious for the work we as Storytellers could do to create bridges for peace.

I kept thinking that if this was a masters program and I did need to write a thesis, what would I talk about? I was listening to Antony and the Johnsons when I got home and in Future Feminism, an off the cuff stage banter piece from her album Cut the World, she starts out talking about the moon. I remembered about how we were collectively obsessed with the moon in Israel. In Future Feminisms she talks about shifting the world towards matrilineal systems of governance, religion and corporate leadership. I realized that if I were writing a masters thesis, I would apply the concept proposed in Future Feminism to Israel. What would a matrilineal system do to affect the peace process and protection of all humans in and around that region.

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”—Eleanor Roosevelt

I’m a woman with a lot of complexities, I at once feel small and powerless but take my role as a person who is a Storyteller seriously. It’s scary to talk about something that is controversial and I know will make some of my friends mad at me. But I also know I won’t do anything to work towards peace by staying quiet. I am pro human rights and pro solutions and I don’t think solutions come from shutting down conversation. I’m interested in learning more and having more interactions with folks who want to find peace. So in the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt, here goes a whole series of blog posts about my trip and what I learned.

When I bought my Type-H electric adaptors for the trip, I could only get a set of 4 and I was already thinking about reselling them when I got home. But now I’m going to hold onto them because I’m pretty sure I’m somehow going back.

dinnertableday8

I’m excited to write more about this trip, about what I learned and experienced about myself, the people, the conflict and the role of Storytellers as social change in subsequent blog posts.

“I’m someone who’s looking for a reason to hope, and for me hope looks like feminine systems of governance being instated in, like, the major religious institutions and throughout corporate and civil life. And it might sound far-fetched, but if you look at your own beliefs, just imagine how quickly you accepted the idea that the ocean is rising and the ecology of our world is collapsing. We can actually imagine that more readily than we can imagine a switch from patriarchal to matriarchal systems of governance — a subtle shift in the way our society works.”–Antony and the Johnsons

*I’ll say that the idea that it was “nuanced” was interesting to me and my experience of how the nuance played out was that the folks giving us presentations (most often our incredible tour guide Michael) would tell us a story and say, “I am going to contradict myself” and would tell us a another side of it. I learned immediately that, as in other conflict situations I’ve been in, it is reductive to say “sides” as thought there are only two. Often we would here two, three or four perspectives. I’m not sure if other trips to Israel give as much detail or have as much information and perspective as we were given access to. I also know there’s always more information than what we are given and that curiosity will bring more.

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