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Natalie Wendt
Natalie Wendt
Natalie Wendt is a freelance writer, a former editoral intern at Tikkun, and a seriously geeky Buddhist.



Religion Can Help Queer Youth (and How Buddhism Helped Me)

Oct21

by: on October 21st, 2010 | 4 Comments »

buddhism rainbow archYesterday an estimated 1 million people wore purple to raise awareness about bullying of LGBTQ youth. In light of the highly publicized series of suicides related to homophobic bullying, many of us are wondering how we can help LGBTQ youth. To answer this question, I’ve been reflecting on what helped me as a queer teenager in an aggressively homophobic community. By the time I was 15, nearly every one of my LGBTQ-identified friends had tried to kill themselves. I was alone in not attempting suicide. There are many factors of course, but I keep thinking of Noach Dzmura’s comment in the current issue of Tikkun,”Liberal religions save queer lives daily.” Having a loving, inclusive religious community was the biggest sources of inspiration and support that I had, one that my queer friends and peers lacked.

I grew up in a fairly rural small town in an extremely conservative state. Bullying because of queerness, perceived queerness or gender difference was common and ranged from verbal harassment, threats, and having our lockers defaced to being kicked, pushed, beaten, and pelted with rocks. In high school, one of my out gay male friends received death treats at school, and as far as I knew, nothing was ever done about it. Though the peer bullying was terrible, it was adult acceptance of our harassment that wore us down.

I had a handful of wonderful teachers who I knew cared about us and would fight for us, but many others who ignored or even encouraged homophobia. There was no gay-straight alliance at our school and starting one, even less than a decade ago, felt impossible and unsafe. More than one teacher told their class that homosexuality was wrong or that gender nonconforming people were “mixed up” and needed fixing. Most teachers and administrators simply said nothing, especially when they needed to speak up. This wasn’t limited to homophobia. They were just as silent when boys groped objecting girls in class or when racial slurs were casually used by white students, even when students asked them to intervene. My town was just a few hours away from the then-headquarters of the Aryan Nations, and I remember very few teachers ever speaking a word against the violent hate group. (As I left for college, the Aryan Nations was sued into bankruptcy for shooting at two Native Americans who’d pulled over near the group’s compound).

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The Meaning of Bodhicitta, and Other Reflections from Femme Conference

Aug25

by: on August 25th, 2010 | 4 Comments »

Kate Bornstein

There are Buddhist prayers that say, “May I become a bodhisattva who is willing to stay in a hell realm for eons if it will help even one being.” Though Buddhism isn’t usually associated with the belief in hell, most Buddhist traditions in Asia speak of various heavenly and hellish realms of possible rebirth. An enlightened person who gave up the rewards of Nirvana to help people not just on earth but in hell would be an unselfish person of the highest order – a bodhisattva. Most of spiritual progressives, and a number of modern Buddhists, only ever use hell as a metaphor. This weekend at the third national Femme Conference in Oakland, a secular activist whom I greatly admire, Kate Bornstein, used the metaphor of hell in a way unexpectedly evoked for me the image of secular bodhisattva. In her keynote address she told us, “Do whatever you need to do to make life more worth living. The only rule is don’t be mean. And if you do this and get sent to hell for it, I will do your time for you.”

She paused and wondered out loud if this was a self-hating thing to wish. Was she really willing to burn in hell for everyone else? Wasn’t promising that devaluing herself? Then she said brightly, “Well, I’m a masochist. If I do go to hell, I’ll have a wonderful time.”

Though she didn’t use Buddhist language, I think Kate’s musings touch on some fundamental questions about bodhisattvas, those who work for the enlightenment of all instead of focusing on personal Nirvana. Does putting others first mean devaluing yourself? Is compassion being a doormat or a masochist? How does all this relate to patriarchal definitions of femininity that equate female with self-negating, always putting others ahead of self because she matters less?

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Art and Remembrance: The Fabric Art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz

Aug5

by: on August 5th, 2010 | Comments Off

WE WILL ALL PERISH, No. 18. (From the picture): "October 15, 1942. We left our house for good and walked down to the road. Mottel sat in the front wagon holding the Torah. My parents went to join him while my brother helped my little sisters settle into the rear wagon with my aunt Trushel, her sister Golda, my uncle Ruven, and my five little cousins. Suddenly Mottel's daughter-in-law stood up and cried to my mother, 'Rachel, we will never come back! We will all perish!' Everyone began to cry. Mania and I followed quickly behind the woman who was to take us to Dombrowa and the house of Stefan, my father's friend. The wagons left for the Krasnik station, and we never saw our family again." Embroidery and fabric collage, 1998. To see more "Through the Eye of the Needle: Fabric of Survival," visit Tikkun's gallery.

In the 1970s a Holocaust survivor with no formal art training tried to show her daughters what her lost childhood home and family looked like. Trained as a dressmaker, Esther Nisenthal Krinitz used embroidery, fabric collage, and fabric wash to recreate images of 1930s Poland, and her parents, siblings, neighbors, community, and friends who died under the Nazis. Over the next two decades, the project transformed into a visual narrative of her story, entitled “Through the Eye of the Needle: Fabric of Survival.” Her work takes the viewer from her happy childhood, through Nazi occupation, to the loss of her loved ones and the resourceful daring that kept her alive, and finally to a new life in the U.S. Most pieces include brief hand- stitched captions, but the images alone tell a moving and remarkable tale. You can view the whole series sequentially, as it’s intended, in our gallery or on Art and Remembrance’s website. Art and Remembrance’s online gallery also includes expanded audio narration of the work.

Krinitz’s art tells of how, at 15, she resisted the Nazi command that all the town’s Jews board trains for “relocation.” Instead, she and her younger sister turned to non-Jewish friends and neighbors to hide them in exchange for work. Soon this became dangerous, however, and briefly taking refuge in the woods, she and her sister disguised themselves as Catholic farm girls. With their new identities, they found work in a new town and hid in plain sight for the rest of World War II. Neither ever saw the any of their other family again.

What began as a personal memorial became a mission to educate about injustice, war, and genocide. Krinitz passed away in 2001, but her work lives on through Art and Remembrance, a nonprofit founded by her daughters. Art and Remembrance oversees exhibitions of Krinitz’s complete work, as well as educational programs. In particular, the organization focuses on educating children. Krinitz’s vivid images and accessible storytelling allow even young children to learn about the Holocaust. “Through the Eye of the Needle” has also been made in a children’s picture book called “Memories of Survival.”

Visit Tikkun Daily’s Art Gallery to see more of Esther Krinitz’s fabric art.

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Nuns, Invisibility, and the Question of Buddhist Activism

Jul23

by: on July 23rd, 2010 | 4 Comments »

Though they live as monastics, these Buddhist women in Burma cannot ordain

There is a huge movement going on in Buddhism today, one that could make Buddhism the only major world religion with gender equal access to ordination in nearly all denominations. All over the Buddhist world, women are battling for full ordination of nuns, something that is now only consistently available in one tradition and is hotly debated in the others. It’s also shockingly overlooked outside of these debates.

Consider an audience member’s question during a wonderful presentation by David Loy and Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi at the recent NSP conference. A long-time activist who’d been involved in Buddhism for a decade and a half wondered why most Buddhists aren’t also activists. The man noted that there were some exceptions, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, and “monks in Burma who were slaughtered, Tibetan monks who were slaughtered,” but that was about it. The way he phrased his question – and the way it was answered – is problem that must be addressed before we can consider other aspects of Buddhist activism.

Did you notice who was missing in those examples? David Loy didn’t catch it, and he’d just been talking about how a fear of death and nature relates to denigration of women. Neither did Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, who is a fantastic supporter of women’s rights. Oh, but maybe the term “monk” was meant include “nun” too, so Tibetan nuns passionately engaged in nonviolent resistance weren’t being ignored. (We’ll get to the question of nuns in Burma in a minute). The term “monks” implies the subset of “nuns,” just like “man” includes the subset of women, right?

Except we know it doesn’t.

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