Jack Kelly Conducts Tell-All Interview with Lisa and Tracy

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This interview was conducted live at the BCC Vision Awards brunch on Sunday, June 2 at the Skirball Cultural Center. Adam Kulbersh and Mark Farber were its producers and directors. The transcript has been edited for this newsletter.

 

JACK: I’ve been coming to BCC for a little over two years now and since then I’ve made many new friends and officially became a Jew. You know, one thing I’ve learned over the last two years at BCC is that, as Jews, our traditions have been passed down since before the written word. We’ve given each new generation our knowledge and wisdom so that they may make a better world. Tikkun olam and all that, right?

That’s why I’m up here. I’m a representative of the next generation — under 30 and trans — to interview Lisa and Tracy. … Two fascinating women who have lived long and interesting lives. Unfortunately, we can’t cover it all today but over a series of interviews we’ve had with them – plus some of the questions you all submitted — we’ve picked out some of the highlights that we think will help to further illuminate who they are, how they became who they are today, and what they believe the future holds for us at BCC.

Now, I do want to acknowledge that giving a drash or teaching in a classroom is very different from talking about your personal lives, at length, in front of 300 people. So, it’s okay if you’re nervous, but I know this is a very supportive crowd.

Rabbi Lisa, you were born in Chicago – my hometown – in the early fifties, to a mom, a dad, and an older brother, Larry, who also became a rabbi. Your parents must’ve been super-observant?

LISA: My parents, both born in this country, grew up in synagogue-going Jewish families, but as a young couple, they had little attachment to their Jewishness. Best example: My father was grateful to have a good job during the Depression. One day his Jewish boss poked his head into my father’s office, and said, “Herman, I think there are too many Jewish names on our letterhead. Why don’t you change yours?” My father went home, talked to my mother, and the next day he changed his name from Herman Edward Cohn to Herman C. Edwards.

JACK: So was there a time when they became more interested in Judaism?

LISA: Definitely! Family lore: my mother overheard my brother — age 6 – arguing with his friend Debby who was telling Larry that Hanukah starts next Wednesday.

“No it doesn’t,” says my brother.

“Yes it does!”

“Larry, I’m not even Jewish and I know Hanukah starts Wednesday.”

“Well I’m not Jewish either, and I know it doesn’t.”

My mother was mortified and that night when my father got home from work, my mother says, “YOUR son doesn’t know he’s Jewish, what are we going to do about that?”

And they ended up gathering some other couples and starting a synagogue that would be “different” from the ones they left behind. And because of that my brother and I got to grow up with Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf and Rabbi Robert Marx as our rabbis. What a gift!

JACK: Tracy, you were born in Charlotte, North Carolina in the mid-forties to a mom, a dad, and later joined by a younger sister Wendy, who is here with us today. Like many families in that era, your father went off to war, and you and your mother moved in with your grandparents in Cleveland.

TRACY: My dad’s parents had three sons at war, but still had their 16-year-old daughter Judy at home, my playmate. For a school essay assignment about the effect of the war on home life, she wrote “Miss Tracy Invades Our World.”

LISA: We recently dug out that essay and you all would totally recognize the Miss Tracy described in it!

JACK: Tracy, I gather you were raised in a typical WASP middle-class American family — celebrating Christmas, decorating a tree, lots of presents, carols and Santa Claus.

LISA: Are you talking to Tracy or to me? Because…Christmas tree, presents, a Santa on the front lawn – that was my family until my father became first president of our new synagogue, and my parents sat me down to say: now we have Hanukah and no more Christmas. “So what would you like for Hanukah?” “A Christmas tree!” We negotiated an “INTERIM” year with a Hanukah menorah downstairs and Christmas tree upstairs and out of sight.

JACK: Okay, holidays aside, let’s talk more about growing up. Lisa, were you more of a girly girl or a tomboy?

LISA: Well you saw that photo of me in my cowboy outfit. That was me. My mother let me have short hair (a boy cut) in a time when girls did not. And she asked the principal when I started kindergarten to let me wear jeans to school. The compromise they came up with was that I could wear jeans under my skirt TO school, take off the jeans inside the building as soon as the bell rang, and put them back on, while still inside the building, still under my skirt.

JACK: What did your mother’s friends have to say about your fashion choices?

LISA: I overheard one of her friends say, “Claire, why do you let Lisa dress like a boy?” My mother replied, “She doesn’t dress like a boy, she dresses like Lisa.”

JACK: Tracy, what were you like growing up? Were you also a tomboy?

TRACY: No, no, I was a little girl – crinolines under my skirt, long blonde hair (which I cut off when I came out many years later).

JACK: And you had a boyfriend?

TRACY: Gary! Typical 1950s teens – going steady, making love in his 1957 orange Chevy.

JACK: Did either of you know any lesbians growing up?

LISA: Well I had the requisite number of lesbian PE teachers and camp counselors, but Tracy has “the” story.

TRACY: Some of you had Harriet Perl, but I had Elsa Jane Carroll, my beloved High School English teacher, who lived with the woman who worked in the office. She inspired me to become an English teacher! Decades later I wrote to her, describing my life as a lesbian, and when she finally responded, I flew to visit her, which I often did till she died. She had been widowed after 65 years with the woman in the office, and in our conversations she let me know she was saying the word lesbian out loud for the first time ever.

JACK: Let’s jump some decades. Like me, you both went to the University of Iowa, although you weren’t in school at the same time. But, Lisa, you did have a fleeting glimpse of Tracy, right?

LISA: I did! Even though I was married to a very nice man, I went to Iowa City’s first gay pride rally in order to be supportive of my lesbian friends. I literally hid behind a rock while listening to the speakers, and up comes one Tracy Moore to talk about the Lesbian Herstory Archives in NYC, and how important it is for all of us to be saving the evidence of our lives – photos, love letters, documents – and send them to archives so that people will know what our lives were like.

JACK: Tracy, when did you two actually meet each other?

TRACY: We were hired for matching jobs at American College Testing (you know – the ACT exams). I was in my basement office when I saw Lisa descending the staircase right outside my door. I’ll never forget. She was a wearing a long skirt and high boots.

JACK: Did you know she was a lesbian?

TRACY: No! I was happy to finally have a straight friend.

LISA: Because, you know, I was still married to that very nice man.

JACK: So you were attracted to each other. But when did it go from friends to something more?

LISA: One day we were driving to a work related conference – remember it’s Iowa, so were driving along country roads. The conversation turned a little intense, so we pulled over by a cow pasture, rolled down the windows, leaned against the two doors to have the “what’s going on here” talk.

TRACY: Suddenly the car was filled with flies from the nearby cows – we couldn’t get out of there fast enough!

JACK: That’s SO romantic! The beginning of a lifelong love affair. Before my next question, there are some other folks who have a question for you: “Tell us your coming out stories.”

TRACY, Ok, like Lisa, I was also married to a man. I was teaching junior high, and the guy who taught sex ed left me a note—a couple of “girls from Women’s Lib” are coming to speak in my class, come visit! Well, I sat down in that small circle and looked across at two obvious Iowa dykes. They invited me to their living collective—and suddenly I was in the center of lesbian life in Iowa City!

JACK: And Lisa, spill the beans…

LISA: I decided to tell my brother first that I was falling in love with Tracy. Hmm, he said, “I understand that – I prefer women too.” Then he said, “How will we tell Mom and Dad?” “I don’t know,” I said, “but I’m sure glad you said ‘we’”!

JACK: OK, so you’re both out, you’re living together in Iowa… While you were still in Iowa you decided to apply to the Reform rabbinical college, right? But didn’t I hear you were rejected from your dream college?

LISA: Oh, I know what you heard — in my youth I was rejected from Ringling Brothers Clown College…twice. But Ringling Brothers wasn’t my only college rejection – the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College said no to me too. I applied to it first because at the time it was the only seminary to admit openly gay or lesbian students. Unfortunately, they rejected me because Tracy wasn’t Jewish!

JACK: So then you apply to Hebrew Union College, the seminary of the Reform Movement — by then they were OK with lesbians?

LISA: Not entirely — they didn’t have a policy yet. Les Zendle (a BCC member, and an old friend of mine) put me in touch with BCC’s Rabbi Janet Marder, who offered to have some “closeted” HUC students get in touch with me. “I can’t give you their phone numbers, but I’ll give them your number.” (No e-mail or Internet then).

TRACY: So the next day, I’m home alone and the phone rings: “Hi, I’m calling from HUC for Lisa Edwards.” “Oh! Wonderful! We were hoping you’d call. She’s not home now but I can take the message—I’m her lover!” —pause— “Thank you, here’s my number at the HUC admissions office. Please have her call me.” Oh no, now I got her rejected again! And I burst into tears!

LISA: But in spite of Tracy’s fears, they accepted me!

JACK: So you’re both off to study in Israel. Were you nervous to be out lesbians in Israel?

LISA: Yes.

TRACY: No! I subscribed to the newsletter Lesbian Connection with its list of lesbians around the world to contact while traveling. I’d written to Israel’s four contact dykes and got a letter with a phone number. I called from the payphone at the Jerusalem YMCA, and within three days we had an apartment to rent, and invitations to a protest…and a potluck!

JACK: Lisa, what was it like being an out lesbian in the seminary at that time?

LISA: HUC was still arguing about open admissions for gays and lesbians, a heated debate actually. Some classmates opposed an open admissions policy until they got to know us, and then became some of our most ardent supporters. Like one time we went on a school trip and even the unmarried couples got a room of their own, except the two of us. Some of the straight couples marched into the Dean’s office and demanded we get our own room too. When the Dean sputtered about costs, one couple said, “We’ll give them our room.” Upshot was all the couples got rooms – including us.

JACK: Tracy, while Lisa was studying, what were you doing in Jerusalem?

TRACY:I applied to Hebrew University and got a scholarship, studied Israeli history and archaeology, but right away what grabbed me were the stories of the lesbians we met. I ended up taping oral histories of lesbians all over the country, which eventually was published as Lesbiot: Israeli Lesbians Talk about Sexuality, Feminism, Judaism and their Lives.

LISA: It was groundbreaking! The first book about queer people in Israel.

JACK: So, after studying in Israel, you come to LA. Tracy, following your experience in Israel, you had a spiritual awakening and decided to convert?

TRACY: Nope. The decision was actually a very strong suggestion by a third party.

LISA: I got called into the principal’s office at LA’s campus of HUC – he told me it will probably soon be okay that my partner is a woman, it’s not okay that Tracy is not Jewish. OY! Again!?

TRACY: When I heard that, I’m like, Lisa was born to be a rabbi, so just make me a Jew! Turns out it’s not that simple—but as I was going to USC, I sought out the Hillel rabbi, Laura Geller (who’s sitting right there!) She said she’d teach me to be a Jew if I would teach her not to be homophobic, and after a wonderful 14 months of teaching each other and studying together, I went before a beit din, submerged in the mikva, and was a Jew. But I’m not sure I could have if it wasn’t for feminist Judaism.

JACK: Let’s shift our focus to BCC. You were a student rabbi at BCC for a year then went away to New York to finish your studies. But you returned as the rabbi at BCC in 1994. The Northridge Earthquake devastates Los Angeles and AIDS is devastating the gay community. Lisa, can you tell us about that time?

LISA: You mean without crying? No. In my first week two former BCC presidents,

Benn Howard and Fred Shuldiner, died from AIDS. The congregation was reeling. Funerals were so frequent – that’s where everybody saw each other, and the kaddish and healing lists were so long. There was such angst. Like legal battles between lovers and family members. Some hospitals still didn’t allow access to “non-family” members. I sometimes carried messages back and forth between a patient and his lover in the hospital. And of course there was as yet no cure, no end in sight.

JACK: How did you cope with all of this?

LISA: There was so much sadness. And the sadness did in part hold us together. But it couldn’t only be shared grief to hold us up. Actually, since Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum’s visit to BCC this past February, we’ve put her term on our natural inclination in those days, “joy as an act of resistance.”

TRACY: Let’s be together in joy, and not just at funerals. On Christmas Day at a Chinese Restaurant, we had dinner for 60 called Chop Shtick, with queer Jewish comedians; and a talent show called BCC Over Broadway. We started ballroom dancing classes and tap dancing classes. We started to pull out of the nosedive.

LISA: You know, there was another life force thing happening. When we arrived back at BCC our Cantorial Soloist Fran Chalin and her partner Rob had a brand new baby, Eli. People were gaga over Eli, over a baby, over new life.

JACK: And you also decided to get married in 1995. Was that something you both always wanted?

TRACY: No, been there, done that. We bought into the phrase “marriage is just straight people registering with the state.”

LISA: But people were starting to come to me about weddings. And it started us talking about our relationship. We decided to take the leap, model it for the congregation. But the best for us was that my brother and Rabbi Geller officiated. So much for Rabbi Geller’s homophobia!!!

LISA: I think we were both surprised at how getting married deepened and solidified our relationship in ways we didn’t expect. And I wanted that for other people too – so I didn’t hesitate to officiate even when marriages weren’t legal yet.

JACK: Ultimately, as we all know, gay marriage became legal, civilly and religiously. Did this change things at BCC?

LISA: Well, there was a lot of pent up demand — on that first day of legal weddings Fran and I married a couple who had been together 50 years.

TRACY: Lots of people in this room today got married in that brief window of legal marriage in California in 2008.

LISA: My tenure at BCC began with funeral after funeral, but suddenly it was wedding after wedding. I officiated at 43 weddings in that 4 and a half months.

JACK: And you two got married again! Can I assume there are a lot more kids now?

LISA: Yes you can! Actually there’ve always been children at BCC – some who grew up there are here today!

JACK: Do you think today’s kids are very different from the young Tracy and Lisa that we saw at the beginning of this interview?

TRACY: Absolutely! A lot more savvy and knowledgeable of the world and the queer families they’re a part of – and most of them have no idea the impact they make.

LISA: I still love the story from years ago when I was telling the Passover story to BCC kids, and I asked, what’s a midwife?

“If you get married three times, the second one is your midwife?”

“It’s when you’re halfway through your marriage?”

I tell them, “A midwife is someone who helps a woman have a baby.”

A kid says, “I thought that was a donator?”

Another shouts, “That’s donor, not donator!”

JACK: Only at a queer shul! What a great story. … Of course, the question that remains on the minds of many in this the room is “what does the future hold for Lisa and Tracy?” “Are you planning a trip to the Holy Land, will you be taking up golf or skydiving? Most importantly, how connected will you be with BCC?”

TRACY: I’m passionate about preserving the stories of LGBTQ people so every queer generation can understand the struggles and triumphs of those who came before, and carry them into the future—that’s why I’ve been on the ONE Archives board so long. When I became a Jew I became a queer lesbian Jew with a home—BCC—a place to explore the hundreds of ways there are to be all of myself. I brought my talents but learned much more, making some of the best friends I have ever had, and living in an environment where my love affair with Lisa is universally supported. What could ever have been so fulfilling?

LISA: And if you think we’re going to walk away from all that…think again. Next year will be a kind of sabbatical year for us. I’ll be available to Cantor Juval and Rabbi Alyson at their discretion, and I promise not to lurk in the hallway or send out spies. You all HAVE this! So, though I love your faces, I look forward to seeing the backs of your heads for awhile – both from the Livestream camera next year, and from the last row in the sanctuary after that, because we’re not moving away from LA or from BCC – our home for over a quarter century.   Partly, I look forward to that view from the back, because I’m confident about who and what will be going on in front of the crowd. I’ll be around to emerit, whatever that comes to mean – a little teaching perhaps, an occasional drash, maybe we’ll find a project for me to lead or coordinate. If my plate won’t be quite as full, know that my heart is…and know that this House of New Life will always be our home.

 

This article was taken from G’vanim Issue 47 vol 6, July/August 2019 Check out the full issue

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