Fringes Episode 3: Emma June Youcha
Oh how the tables have turned! In an attempt to make sure you get a taste of who I am and why I'm doing this project, I decided to have my friend Liel interview me. Liel has their own episode forthcoming, but this one is about me, Emma June (EJ). At this point, the interview was done about 6 months ago. It's amazing how much can change in 6 months, even just about how I feel in relation to tallitot. It's obviously more than that: coronavirus and quarantine, brutal and systemic racism, social uprising, impending economic disaster, the continued rise of fascism.... But listening back to what I thought before all this is odd! I feel really connected to some of what I said, but changed from other things. I can't imagine getting to perform for an audience again, can't imagine going to services inside. My relationship to my body has changed these 6 months. My relationship to being Jewish has changed. I am always and forever changing, though! I couldn't be where I am now without the thoughts of the past. And I guess I have to believe that those thoughts still matter, still are part of my story, and might matter to someone else.
Also follow me (in drag, ch'ai treason) and my Jewish drag troupe Turmohel on Instagram
Reach out to me with any questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
Daven(ing): to pray
Fringes Podcast Transcript Episode 3
Transcription by Tim Hipp at www.transcribeyourpod.com
Emma June: Hello. I’m Emma June, and welcome to Fringes, a no frills kind of podcast where I talk to trans and gender non-conforming Jews about our experiences with tallitot and tzitzit. Tallitot are, put simply, Jewish prayer shawls, and tzitzit are the knotted fringe on the end of them. For deeper definitions, check out the first episode. Today, the tables are turning a bit. This is an interview of me, done by my friend, Liel Green, who will be featured in a later episode sharing their own thoughts and experiences. But for now, I hope this little slice of my personal thoughts and questions provides a little insight into who I am and why I’ve undertaken this project.
Without further ado, the interview.
Emma June: Hello!
Liel Green: Hey. So fun to be here with you, EJ. Yeah, so I guess just to intro this, I have the immense, immense kavod, honor, of being here with the creative mind, energy, and heart behind this podcast, Emma June Youcha! Woo! Yeah, I think I was wondering if you could… Do you want to give a little intro for yourself? I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to really do that, because you’ve usually been in the other role.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, okay, my name is Emma June Youcha. I sometimes am referred to as Emma, sometimes as Emma June, sometimes as EJ. I like all of those names and that’s just a facet of my life. I use they/them pronouns. I work at ADVAH Designs as well as at a bagel store in the Boston area, where I live. I am a part of a Jewish drag troupe called Turmohel. I live in a Jewish income sharing coop called the Riot Bayit and yeah, I’m just trying to figure my life out, you know?
Liel Green: You’re doing it.
Emma June: And make the world a little bit better and more interesting.
Liel Green: For sure. For sure. Yeah, so I guess the first thing that, to kind of go down what this podcast is about, so I was wondering if you can talk about one, like what… So, I’m sure people who are listening to this very niche podcast have some sort of idea of what it’s about, but I wanted to hear from your words what this podcast is about. Why you’re doing it, how it got started, et cetera.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I guess… So, I tie the tzitzit, the fringes on all of the tallitot that get made through ADVAH Designs, and that just means I spend a lot of time sitting and tying these fringes, and at a certain point in doing this, I started reflecting on like who’s wearing these, and what does it feel like to wear this object? And how do people connect to it? And noticing in myself a lack of understanding of how I connected to them, even though I spend so much time with them, and even though I spend so much time in Jewish space, I’m trying to understand my… what my Jewish practice and life looks like, that this is a piece that I don’t actually understand that well for myself. Especially I think because I’m genderqueer and because the tallis that I have, I was lucky enough to get a very well made and very beautiful one for my bat mitzvah, but it’s just not an object I feel very connected to. I wear it on High Holy Days and at services, but I basically just had all of these questions and really just wanted to talk to other trans people about how they engaged with this object.
And the more I learned about how tallitot work, the more I felt like there’s opportunity for such creation here. And I also feel like sometimes there’s a trend to take things that are very binary, like the tallis has been presented in my mind as something that’s originally for men, and now there are also women’s tallitot, and that when something is explicitly gendered, I know a lot of people and sometimes myself will just shy away from it and say like, “That’s not for me. I don’t get to wear it. There’s no way that I get to engage with whatever that thing might be.” And that I just really want to… I think I wrote in my email to at least somebody asking them to be on the podcast, I just want to make kind of a gender-full existence. Not a genderless existence. I want more access to more things, and opened doors because of gender expansiveness, and I felt myself like not feeling that way about a tallis, and wanting to hear from people who have felt that way. Or if they haven’t, why they haven’t.
And I did a lot of research going into it, wherein I found very, very few people talking about or engaging with trans people and this particular ritual object. And that, to me, also… It felt like a niche that I actually didn’t see a lot of content or thought in currently. And so, that also is part of why I decided to make something about it instead of just believing that I was sitting alone in the corner, being the only one wondering.
Liel Green: Wow. Yeah. It’s such a gift, what you’re doing. And thank you so much for sharing it. I really connected and I’m very intrigued by what you just mentioned about gender-full versus genderless. And so, I want to try to incorporate that into the next question that I was planning on asking you, which you touched on a little bit, but I’m wondering if you can kind of… I don’t know if this is a challenge or not and you totally don’t have to, but incorporate the lens of gender-full versus genderless in talking about your own personal connections to and experiences with tallitot, past and present. So, in thinking about what your current and past, and you can even dive into the future-
Emma June: The future!
Liel Green: … connection, yeah, and experiences with wearing a tallis. What felt gender-full and what felt genderless, and ways that come… It’s very striking, the idea of gender-full as something that can be so liberatory, freeing. And also, so deeply hurtful when something is full of the gender you don’t want.
Emma June: Right.
Liel Green: And so, oftentimes you kind of think like, “Oh, the way to get away from this, the hurtfulness of gender, of something being full of gender, is by making it genderless.” But that also kind of… It empties in some capacity is what I’m kind of hearing. Empties the expansiveness that is possible. Yeah, so I was wondering if you can talk about all that a little bit pertaining to your own personal experiences?
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I guess, so I grew up in a reform synagogue in D.C., and I don’t always know how to reflect on it. I think that many people did wear tallitot. Certainly not everybody, and I remember my b’nei mitzvah class, like many people got one, although I don’t think everybody. It wasn’t something I was surrounded by. Neither of my parents wear one. But when my bat mitzvah came around, it was very important, I think, also to my grandparents, particularly my grandmother that I had one, which is like a curious thing to look back on now to me. And I know when my brother had his bar mitzvah, he got one also.
But we are maybe the only people in our families on either side with a tallis. And certainly, the only people who wear them at any family events now. And I think that I’m feeling somewhat inarticulate about it, but I don’t know. Mine is like it has this rainbow woven into it.
Liel Green: Nice.
Emma June: And this was also at the period of time in my life where I was a straight ally.
Liel Green: Foreshadowing.
Emma June: Some foreshadowing. I couldn’t have predicted. There was no way to tell that I was queer.
Liel Green: None.
Emma June: Even to myself. And I think when I look at it now, it just feels like, “What was I trying to do, or say, or what was I picking?”
Liel Green: Did you choose it?
Emma June: I did. Out of like a very limited array. I think something I’ve heard from a lot of people I’ve talked to is that they have pushed themselves to wear a tallis or to wear a tallit katan, the undershirt, and that it sometimes, in Judaism, we don’t feel connected every time we do something. And that’s okay, and it’s also about the practice of continuing for the moments where you do feel connected, and that I am really hard on myself that I don’t feel very connected to the tallis that I chose for myself. And I think in terms of the gender-full genderless aspect, I think I also feel like shouldn’t I like this? It has a rainbow on it. And then I’m like, “Ugh, but I’m anti-corporate gay,” and then I kind of get… I just overthink everything.
And I think that I move myself away from the experience of feeling like wrapped and held by a tallis, or trying to know what… I don’t know if I believe in G-d or not, and I think that’s another piece of wearing a tallis, is that it is a reminder of G-d, and G-d’s existence, and… But I’m trying to understand what I’m trying to feel connected to, as well. Like it all poses pretty big questions, I think. It all meaning the tallis. A tallis poses really big questions in my mind, and I think gender is a really easy way for me to run away from a lot of those big questions, because I can just say like, “This is… It’s really gendered. I just don’t feel comfortable.” And I think that’s partially true, but I also believe that… I don’t know. I think I’ve spent a lot of time rejecting a lot of things because they were gendered, and that has just led to me approaching my life in a negative, like, “Oh, I can’t or won’t do that because it is these things.” Instead of saying like, “What do I actually relate to? What do I feel confident in? What do I feel connected to? What does create moments of joy?”
And that I want to find that in Judaism, and I believe that I find that really deeply in clothing, and appearance, and expression in a lot of other facets of my life, and a tallis is such a beautiful piece of Jewish expression. But I want to figure out how to own and make my own, especially because I spend so much time making that possible for other people and seeing that happen for other people in my work life. And believing in it, but just not believing in it for myself.
Liel Green: Yeah. I think it sounds from what you’re saying like the… As opposed to the tallis as a ritual item, as a ritual piece being kind of an answer or a stagnant thing that will automatically, or that has automatically connected you to the divine, it’s instead kind of a vehicle towards this connection, or like can it be a vehicle for this connection is kind of the question, like the tallis as a process versus the end goal, almost. Or the tallis being able to facilitate this process of connection, and of emerging, of becoming. That also seems kind of, from what you were saying, and also from knowing you a little bit, just also related to the ways I’ve heard you kind of talk about gender and queerness is as an emergence, or a becoming, or like as this process… Yeah, which feels kind of essential to gender queer existence, is this fluidity as opposed to a rigidness that kind of knows… It’s a false rigidness. Nothing is ever as rigid as possible, or as rigid as we think it is.
Another thing that I’m interested in hearing more about, so you mentioned that you’re in Turmohel, a Jewish drag troupe based in the Boston Area, big fans. And you were talking about how in other facets of your life, you really are able to kind of connect to this kind of adornment, or fashion, or just like connects through external means. And I was wondering, one, does that come up in your exploration of drag and Jewish gender as art, and also… Yeah, just how does… Do you feel like those two things relate or bridge your interests and your questions around your own personal connection to wearing a tallis and the ways you engage with Jewish gender and queerness through your art?
Emma June: Yeah. That’s a big question. I guess when I think about being on stage and performing something just very Jewish, it feels like my mind is like automatically often making connections between songs, and things I hear, and stories that I’m told, and movies that I watch, and that because enough of my life’s content has been Jewish that I’m constantly making personal references to my Jewish life, and that Turmohel is creating a chance to explore those artistically and publicly, and to explore political ideas, and weird ideas, and random YouTube videos I really love, and kind of make them more of a statement and a chance to understand what it means to perform something that is both Jewish and gender queer to me at the same time in front of somebody else, in fact, in front of like 100 people, and there is something to me that feels like being able to perform is a chance to feel… I feel both really very connected and really very disconnected from my body when I’m performing. And really connected to the audience and really disconnected from the audience.
And I think sometimes performing feels like one of the moments that feels the most like out of the world that I’m used to, and there’s something that feels kind of holy about that. And that feels kind of like a version of prayer or honoring somebody, which sounds funny, because when I think about my numbers I’m like, “I did a number as Gimli the dwarf from Lord of the Rings talking about anti-Semitism and eating a cabbage.” So, it’s not exactly like obvious, or even appropriate, or what we would normally think of when we think of talking to some version of G-d, but I think as I’m figuring out what I do believe in or what I do think is holy, I think performance and the stage holds a real part of that for me. And is such a piece of where I get to be exulting something, even if that thing is like my friend, and myself, and my culture, and my people, and my confusion, and my questions.
And I do think getting to love questions feels like a piece of drag and a piece of wearing a tallis, and just a huge piece of being Jewish in my mind. So, that’s one tie in. And I think I also feel like curious about wearing a tallis on stage and about doing some kind of performance or number that is about this particular ritual object, given how much time I’ve spent thinking about them. But I haven’t done one up to now. I think I would like to, and I think a conversation that I hear a lot from people in my community, and in Turmohel, is that we sometimes wonder what we are allowed to wear, particularly if we are not convinced of our faith in G-d, or Orthodox, or even regularly practicing, that I hear a lot of people doubt whether or not… Like can I wear a kippah to this protest? Or can I wear a kippah when I perform? Or can I have a tallit katan on? And to me, I think this is mine to play with. And I feel really excited about getting to do that and about having a stage and a platform and an audience to do that with, hopefully in a way that also encourages that audience to want to play and explore more, also.
Liel Green: Does it, so my question is does it feel like a performance to wear a tallis? You know, just when you’re davening, when you’re praying? Does it feel like a performance to you? Because I think the way that you spoke about performance was so beautiful in terms of the opportunity it kind of… how it allows you to transcend or to connect to something beyond the present moment, or how it’s actually creating something else as it’s happening. So, I’m curious if it feels like the performance may be a different kind of performance, but a performance nonetheless to wear a tallis. And if so, what do you feel like you are or would be performing through wearing it? Whether on stage, or again, during davening?
Emma June: I mean, I do think it’s a performance. I don’t always feel like I know why I wear it, but I feel like I’m being told to by somebody, even if it’s just myself, and that I make a choice to put it on, and I sit in it, and a pray in it, and I kiss the Torah with it, and I go through all of these motions. It doesn’t feel like natural or obvious to me all of the time, so it definitely feels like a performance. Although sometimes I think performance can feel natural, but anyway, that’s tangential of that.
Yeah. I think… Wait. Sorry, what was the second part of your question?
Liel Green: That’s okay. The second part was what are you performing through wearing the tallis? And I think specifically… Yeah, I was thinking about how performance, whether it’s on the stage or the kind of, sort of quotidian everyday performances, like you’re… They’re connected, so there’s this idea of a citational chain, so your current performances are connected to your past performances, but also they’re creating something. They have the potential to create something completely new. And I’m really interested in that in terms of the idea of drag, and also just the things that we choose to wear on our bodies, or the motions that we choose to do. And especially if something like wearing a tallis isn’t necessarily something you grew up with.
So, I agree with you that performances can and usually are… feel natural, and that’s kind of the thing about them that you don’t really notice about what we are performing, but these kind of alternate performances that come about and are facilitated through queer ritual innovation, or through just ritual objects and items, have the opportunity to kind of interrupt and also recreate. And I was just wondering… I don’t know. I don’t really have a full question, but just what you were talking about with being on a stage and performing in that capacity, and that being really connected to dress, and makeup, and what you wear, versus also wearing a tallis.
Emma June: Yeah. Well, I don’t think I have a very clear answer, because I think that I’m still confused about what I am wearing a tallis for, that I don’t always… I don’t really know exactly what the performance is for, and I think that’s part of why I’ve felt like I have so many questions for other people. Or why I want to hear other people’s stories, or that’s at least part of it.
And what it makes me think of is just how as a queer person, as a drag performer, I have all these memories of seeing people out in the world, both regular people and also drag performers, who I look at and kind of just so deeply admire in passing, or in the more long-term way, the people who just through look the way they do, through the work that they have put into how I get to see them, I feel like something else is possible, or like I’m possible, or like what I want is possible. And I’m trying to think. I feel like there are people who I see in tallitot that have made me feel that way, where like seeing… I don’t know. There just is like a few people that stick in my mind where I can just imagine them wrapped in their huge tallit gadol, and I think, “Oh my goodness. Can I imagine feeling that way in that object?” I can see how raw, and open, and also closed and held this person is in front of me, and I want to feel that way. Or seeing somebody who is like gender queer and wearing tzitzit, and just like walking somewhere. And just feeling so moved, and knowing I guess that like… Wearing a tallis is an unapologetic act of wearing your Jewishness. And yeah, you like want… I want that for myself, and I feel really moved seeing other people really embrace it. And moved by other people who’ve… Yeah, made their tallitot, or who come and just always wear one, and always… I don’t know. It’s just how I see that person.
Yeah. I think that they’re moving objects.
Liel Green: Wow. That gave me goosebumps. Yeah, I think for the profound gender-full pleasure, and the love, and joy that comes from the… It seems very, like there’s an intensely communal aspect. I mean, and I feel like in that sense, it’s kind of a performance where there’s like… It’s an internal sort of thing, and that it’s also like you’re watching other people doing this thing that you so, so want. And I’m sure that they’re struggling with it, too. You know, it always looks kind of seamless from the outside. But this idea of feeling possible.
You were talking about how you kind of… You facilitate to the experience of… So, you facilitating this experience for other people, so you physically tying tzitzits for other people, and you creating, and recording, and conducting these interviews for this podcast. How queer ritual items kind of make it possible, make us possible, make you possible, and I’m wondering if that, like through these interviews and through the actual tying the tzitzits and through your own experiences, how have you felt possible? Or like what feels… I think you kind of touched upon how you feel possible, but like what feels possible? Through queer ritual items, and innovation, and engagement with tradition.
Emma June: Yeah. Great question. I think my biggest… I feel like I want to make my own tallis.
Liel Green: Yes!
Emma June: Which I really hadn’t considered before. Even though I feel like I should have. And I also think… Yeah, just it feels more possible to talk about ritual and think about ritual in my own life because of this podcast, and to know that I don’t have to have answers to try things is something that really has come out of talking to people for me. And that… Yeah, also that no one other person does have an answer for me, but only their own questions, and maybe their own answers, but that I’m I think gonna try to make my own tallis.
Liel Green: Yes! Oh, so that actually leads me to one of… Yeah, that actually leads me to one of my final questions, which is what is your ideal tallis?
Emma June: Great question. I think… Oh, I wish I could weave.
Liel Green: I bet you can.
Emma June: Maybe I’ll learn just for this. It would be very colorful. I think probably like base yellow, but maybe also every other color. And I don’t know, I also… Well, I’ve just seen so many beautiful ones now, but I think it would probably just have a lot going on on it. Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to be surrounded by a lot of patterns and colors, and… Yeah. Gravitate towards that all the time. Yeah, I think I would want one that makes that… It actually makes me think about my room, which is yeah, just very, very bright, and covered in things, and something that I’ve thought a lot about a room, and my room in particular for myself, is that I cover it with all these things that remind me of all of these different people, all these different places, all these different experiences, colors that make me feel at home, and that makes me feel like I am in my home and I am surrounded by… like it brings me closer to everything I’m surrounded by, and it makes it okay for me to be alone in my room, and it makes it an exciting place to share with other people. And yeah, I guess my ideal tallis would make me feel those things, that I am at home in my body when I’m wrapped in it, and that I am also with G-d, or with my questions, or with my questions about G-d, or with my community, and my people, and my loved ones, and so I guess I’m trying to create a room out of a tallis-
Liel Green: Yes!
Emma June: … is my ideal tallis!
Liel Green: I feel like that’s the point of it, like it’s for you to feel at home, and I think as queer and trans people, it’s really hard to feel at home in our bodies. And again, that’s a generalization, but I think… I’ll speak for me.
Emma June: I feel that way.
Liel Green: Yeah. Yes. For us, for the two of us, and I’m sure many others, it’s so hard to feel at home in our bodies, and it’s such a profound gift that Judaism offers us to have kind of like accessories, and help, and feeling at home in our bodies, especially during such an intimate thing and such an embodied action and experience as prayer. So, I love that you said that. Yeah. Emma June, you are a dear, dear friend, who I feel in complete divine collaboration and coalition with. And I’m so, so grateful to have had the opportunity to interview you.
Emma June: Dude, thank you. This is awesome. It’s fun to be on the other side.
Liel Green: Yes. Yes.
Emma June: And I really appreciate it. All right. I’m gonna press stop recording.
Liel Green: Yes.
Emma June: Thanks for listening to Fringes, my passion project supported by ADVAH Designs. For more definitions, as well as a transcription of today’s episode, check out the show notes on our website, ADVAHDesigns.com/FringesEpisode3. That’s A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S dot com/F-R-I-N-G-E-S-E-P-I-S-O-D-E-3. As always, the interviews I do and the stories I get to share through this podcast cannot possibly capture the breadth of experiences in this world. I’m inevitably leaving people out. That said, this project is growing. If your story feels left out and you want to share it, please reach out to me at email@example.com. That’s E-M-M-A at A-D-V-A-H-D-E-S-I-G-N-S.com. This podcast is coming out on a biweekly basis. A huge, huge thank you to Liel Green for interviewing me and asking such thoughtful questions. Please stay tuned for their episode upcoming. Thanks also to Sarah Resnick, my producer, and musical wonder Home Despot, for the music. And thank you for listening. See you in two weeks wherever podcasts can be found.