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Parashat Vayislach

Everyone has a name.  As part of our ritual tonight, CBST remembers names of men in our community who died of AIDS.  We have taken a moment in fact to give kavod to men whose names might never have been well known in our community otherwise.

We do what was promised by the prophet Isaiah, Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name (yad vashem) better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off" (Isaiah 56:5). This is of course the text from which the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem is named.

Everyone has a name.

We all in fact have many.

Naming is so often important for the people who give us our names. For many of us we accept the names we have been given and we live with them. We wear them like a garment that we don’t even remember to put on in the morning. It’s just there. A name given by our parents

Many of us have chosen names for ourselves, names that express our true gender, our true Jewishness, a rejection of our family of origin, our embrace of our family of choice or creation. A name given by our longings.

My refugee father’s German family, the Bauers, all had their names Judaicized by the Nazis. Ernst Stefan Bauer became Ernst Stefan Israel Bauer. Antoinette Hirsch Bauer became Antoinette Sara Hirsch Bauer. A name given by our enemies. A name given by our neighbors. A name given by our enemies who were our neighbors.

Among my recent immigrant ancestors were those who shed Jewish or non-Anglo names to assimilate. The Piatigorski branch of my family became Jacobs, because the civil servant at Ellis Island couldn’t spell Piatigorski. Shem she natnu lo mazalot. A name given by our stars. By our dumb luck.

I’m David Dunn Bauer. The Dunn was to honor my mother’s mentor at Smith College, the Shakespeare Scholar, Esther Cloudman Dunn. When I worked at the Santa Fe Opera in the early 1980s, I was called Trixie. A name given by my work.

When I embraced my Jewish identity as an adult, when I was already a rabbinical student, I took on the name Yosef, for Joseph, my gay patriarch. I formally accepted the name and did chatafat dam brit in a ritual on the floor of a Body Electric clergy retreat in California, where I was the only Jew in a room of 20 gay naked clergy.  A name given by what we wear...or what we don’t.

Rabbinical school changes your name. When I sign my name HaRav David Yosef ben Nancy Chanah v’Steven, the haRav, the “Rabbi” isn’t a separate title, it’s an inextricable part of my name now, my identity. A name given by our celebrations.

In Parshat Vayyishlach, our patriarch Jacob (was he called Jacob because Rebekkah and Isaac couldn’t spell Piatigorski?) becomes Yisrael in the last moments of a midnight wrestling match by the Jabbok River.

"That same night he [Jacob] arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven sons, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. Ya’akov Levado. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip."

First of all, how funny that the first thing Jacob does after getting newly named is newly to name the place where it happened, a place that the Torah renames immediately afterwards. Jacob says Peniel. The Torah narrator in the next verse says Penuel. You wrestle with beings Divine and human, you prevail, and still, you don’t have the definitive power to name something. You want to control things, pin a name to a place but you can’t. Perhaps some Torah scribe was bleary-eyed a few thousand years ago and wrote it wrong, and one of those words is just a name given literally by blindness.

Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first Orthodox rabbi to come out as gay, took the name Ya’akov Levado, when he wrote from within the closet before he came out. Aloneness itself becomes a name. A name given by our walls.

Back in the 1980s men with HIV eventually – inevitably? – got a name: "PWA." "Person with AIDS." For a while PWA was the name given by impending death. Over time and with advances in medical treatment options, the term morphed to "Person Living With AIDS." Eventually the name fell away. Although, AIDS exists, and there are people with an AIDS diagnosis who are, thank God, thriving, mostly we now talk about being "poz." We talk about the virus not the syndrome. Names change with historical eras. Given and taken by tekufot Hashanah, the changing seasons of the year.

Jacob leaves the wrestling match with a new name, a bad limp, and an ambiguous blessing. He goes off filled with fear and shame to meet his brother Esau, of whom he is afraid and whom he knows he has grievously wronged. Fear and Shame. Torah goes directly into the narrative of their encounter, and we never hear how Jacob told his wives and children about his name, his struggle, his injury, or his blessing. Maybe he doesn’t tell them, because he doesn’t yet know what they mean. Maybe he his ashamed. Maybe all he is sure of is the struggle and the injury. It takes a while to get used to a new name. Maybe Jacob can’t yet discern his blessing. Blessing? What blessing?

The day I got my positive test result in San Francisco in 2012, my name changed. I walked in to “Magnet” testing site looking for an easy blessing. I walked out with a limp. And a new name. Poz.

Turning HIV positive changed my name, my identity, as randomly as did that clerk at Ellis Island, as destructively as the Nazis did the names of my father, uncle, and grandparents. I walked down 18th Street and turned the corner onto Castro, and thought, “I’m an alien. I’m not me anymore. I’ve suddenly become someone else.”

Poz. I went through my memory of lovers and hook-ups, looking fruitlessly for a name to pin it on. Who? When? Who? And trying to understand Poz. David Poz Bauer.

I did the whole number on myself. A name given by my sins? A name given by my longing? By my love? I needed to find a name to pin it on, because even with all the good drugs in the world – and I’m doing fine, by the way – Poz is not a neutral name. I support the campaign HIV Equal - equal rights for everyone living with HIV or AIDS --  but from my experience I know, Poz is not a neutral name. It connects to sex, to love, passion, to sweat, to bodies, to homophobia, to shame.

Shame.

One of my thoughts was, “I failed. There was a test, and I flunked it,” which was really interesting, because then I realized that’s how I had been viewing all the poz guys I knew – the ones I worked with, the ones I was friends with, the ones I slept with – I had been silently condescending to them for decades, for having failed the test I passed. I didn’t know how much stigma attached to the name Poz until I took it on. The stigma comes from without and it comes from within.

Here is another truth about me: I have never really liked Jacob much, which, as a rabbi, constitutes a chronic disability all its own. I think he’s selfish, a poor parent, a poor protector of his vulnerable daughter Dinah and son Joseph. He racks up wealth and wives and never manages to be happy with his life. He’s a kvetch.

As always when I write about Jacob, I like him better today. I like him better because I am willing to see myself in him. The strange new name, the sense of injury, and the challenge of finding the blessing.

And I feel badly for him, because he has lost his brother and, despite his women, I think he’s still all alone. Ya’akov Levado. He is probably ashamed of his limp, and although no one else in Torah mentions it to him, people probably -- his older sons certainly -- condescend to him the way we all do to people with illness or disabilities or who are poz. We passed. He failed.

I’m lucky. You’re lucky. We’re all lucky. We are luckier than than our great patriarch Jacob. We have community. We have New York City, we have CBST. CBST is a community that has lived with HIV for 33 years already from 1981 to 2014. We all live with HIV here. We have a commitment to the concept of HIV equality, to the goal of HIV eradication, and we have the sekel to know that poz does not mean neutral, and we teach and promote safer sex here so that no one else gets their name changed on them in a struggle they didn’t mean to take on.

With my buddy Bruce Pachter, with the support of Rabbis Kleinbaum and Weiss and the Board, we’ve started the CBST Red Ribbon Committee. Our provisional mission statement, authored by Bruce, reads, "Red Ribbon Committee works toward a future without HIV/AIDS.  To make sure that people living with HIV/AIDS are not discriminated against and have equal rights under the law.  Breaking the silence that gathers around the topics of sex and HIV, we produce events that will inspire, educate, and commemorate, and foster fearless communication within our diverse community." If you are interested, our email address is redribbon@cbst.org.

Shmi harav david Yosef ben nancy chanah v’steven. My name is Rabbi David Dunn Bauer. Also known as Trixie. I am HIV positive, and my blessing is that I belong to CBST in the year 2014, and that I can stand here and tell you who I am.