Family Portrait: Linda Holtzman

Shalom! As many are celebrating Passover this week, I took a moment to speak to a new friend, Rabbi Linda Holtzman.

PGN: Tell me about yourself. LH: I grew up in Philadelphia in East Mount Airy. I’m now 56 years old and I live in West Mount Airy! Actually, I’ve moved around a bit between the two. I went to Girls’ High. I was very active in the Jewish community. I went to Temple University and Gratz College simultaneously; Gratz is a Hebrew college. Then I went to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College for grad school.

PGN: What did your parents do? LH: My mother was a housewife. That’s what you did in those days, but later she did data entry. She was a keypunch operator for the Federal Reserve Bank in the pre-computer age. My father’s 90 now and obviously retired, but he was a butcher back in the days when butcher shops had to break down enormous sides of beef. As a kid, I was always proud of this big, strong guy who could swing sides of beef. [Laughs.] I no longer eat red meat, but that’s a different story.

PGN: What did you do in the summers? LH: When I was very young, we’d go down to the shore, but when I was older I went to overnight camp and I loved it.

PGN: What’s a favorite memory from camp? LH: You’re asking me entirely different questions than I’ve ever been asked before. It’s great! I loved horseback riding. If you wanted to ride at camp, you had to get up really, really early in the morning and help clean the stable. I remember getting up at 5 a.m. to shovel horse poop. We’d ride along the side of a farm and try to keep the horses from trampling the crops. It was just beautiful. I also remember trying to avoid anything involving sports! I was not a jock.

PGN: Do you collect anything? LH: Pigs; I’m really fond of pigs. I have pig mugs and pig statues and dolls, all sorts of things. [Laughs.] Even though they’re not kosher! But they’re very smart and interesting animals. I’m a big animal person. I have a Bernese Mountain dog named Toby who is very sweet. He’s as big as I am but very lovable.

PGN: How was coming out? LH: I was a really good girl growing up and pretty much did what good girls are expected to do. Because nice Jewish girls grow up and marry doctors, I graduated from college and married a medical student. But when I was in rabbinical school, I started to realize that I wasn’t satisfied in my marriage. It wasn’t him personally — he was a lovely man — but there was something missing. I went away for a year to Israel and met a woman who was a lesbian and we became friends. Then I had my first experience and realized what was missing. It woke me up to the fact that there was a whole possibility I hadn’t even considered in my life. I got a divorce and met Betsy, who has been my partner now for 27 years. PGN: How did you meet? LH: She was housing a woman who was in Philadelphia doing fundraising for a battered women’s shelter in Israel. I was asked to help take the woman around for the day. When I picked her up at Betsy’s house, I started playing with her dog. She had a rescue beagle who had a number of challenges that kind of turned most people off. Her name was Puddles, which should give you a hint. I really took to the dog and I guess she thought, “If she can connect to my dog this well, I want to know her better.”

PGN: How is the situation for LGBT people in Israel? I know we can serve openly in the military there. LH: Israel is progressive that way and in many other areas as well, but it can also be frustrating. As much as I love it, I would never make my life there. I’m often angry with Israel. In many ways, it’s more open than the United States in terms of adoption and the army and working with LGBT people, but then you have things like World Pride, which was supposed to be in Israel a few years ago but the right-wing conservative segment put the kibosh on most of the events.

PGN: How did your family handle it? LH: My mother was very harsh: She found it hard to accept and I think she was angry about it for the rest of her life. They were not necessarily progressive to start with and gay issues were completely foreign to them. She never accepted or understood my happiness and my commitment to my partner. I never even told them about my wedding. I was very openly gay and anything I did that was public infuriated her. I figured the wedding might do them in! I remember she once said, “I feel as if you are laying on a train track and a train is coming and you’re not tied down, you’re perfectly free to get up and move and you’re not doing it.” I tried to explain that I had a great job and a loving partner and I was happy, but she found it hard to fathom. Looking back, I think it was a mistake not to have them at our wedding. I’ve worked with a lot of couples since then who have had difficult families. What I’ve learned is that in many cases, people can handle more than you might think, and I try to encourage them to push the issue a bit more.

PGN: What gave you the courage to be open? LH: There were three things. First was the fact that I believed that being open really made a difference in the world and I was in a position to do it. I was teaching at the rabbinical college and they were very open. I figured if someone like me doesn’t do it, who’s going to? Secondly, my partner was out, so it would have been ridiculous for me not to be out. And lastly, we were planning on having children, and I couldn’t imagine not being honest with my own children. I didn’t want a child raised with the message that there was something wrong with their parents. We were proud of who we were and our love for each other. Our boys are now 20 and 23 years old. It was the one thing that turned my parents around a little bit. One of the things they were upset about was the fact that I was an only child, so they thought that they would never get to be grandparents, but Betsy had our first child and I had the second baby and they reveled in having two beautiful grandsons.

PGN: Was their objection based in religion? LH: No, they weren’t particularly observant, although they knew that I was very involved in the community and they couldn’t imagine that I would ever be accepted, which hurt them.

PGN: How did you become a rabbi? LH: After I graduated from rabbinical school in 1979, I worked for six years in a conservative synagogue in Coatesville, where I was not out. Coatesville was not exactly the hotbed of radical feminism. It was a very warm, very friendly place and I enjoyed it tremendously, but I was in the process of sorting out who I was at the time. I lived two lives and they were both good. I had my work life in Coatesville and my personal life in Philadelphia. But after a while, it was one too many lives to juggle. I was with Betsy and we’d had our commitment ceremony and were starting a family, so I needed to focus on that. I’m not an academic, and the kind of work I wanted to do was more humanitarian rather than text-based. I wanted to be a reconstructionist rabbi so I could lead with inspiring services and help implement lifecycle events that had meaning for people. The rabbinical college wanted to expand a department called the Department of Practical Rabbinics and I was able to join them. I had a great time teaching, counseling and learning how to take on challenging political and social issues. While I was there, I made a lot of connections with people at Mishkan Shalom in Roxborough. Our family became members and I ran the religious school for a while. When their first rabbi left, I was the interim rabbi until they hired someone else. I loved it and, when he left, I applied to take his place. One of the things I like about this synagogue is that the basis for it is social justice. The idea is that the Jewish ritual has no point unless it leads to a more just world. What it has led to is a strong feminist community here that is open to LGBT people and our issues and concerns, as well as a number of difficult challenges that we’ve decided to tackle, from immigration to environmental sustainability and public education.

PGN: Did you face much discrimination as a Jewish person growing up? LH: Not really, because I was raised in an area that was overwhelmingly Jewish. I was very lucky in that I didn’t really experience any anti-Semitism as a kid. When I was older, I remember sitting on the steps after a Jewish youth dance and a bunch of kids went by and yelled some words that I had only heard about. It was scary more than anything, but that was about it. I think my biggest racial challenges were around members of the Jewish community and how they dealt with African Americans. At 11 years old, I learned that Jews were both at the forefront of the civil-rights movement and also part of the problem. When I got to Girls’ High, it was the first time I got to mingle with people of different cultures, which to me was eye-opening and great fun.

PGN: I seem to remember a lesbian rabbi receiving some objections to leading the congregation. Was that here? LH: No, never. I’ve never had a problem with that. Now I have had some controversies, but more because of our stance on Israel. One of the bases of this synagogue is that we talk very openly about our feelings about the state of Israel. There are some who are strong Zionists and are not critical of what’s going on at all, and we have some who are deeply critical and don’t even know if there should be a state, and some who love it but think that it’s done some pretty horrible things, especially when it comes to the Palestinians.

PGN: On to some lighter things … Singer you’re embarrassed to admit you like? LH: Frank Sinatra … love Frank!

PGN: Something wonderful your partner’s done for you? LH: Last year, when I officially became the senior rabbi of the congregation, we had a celebration and ceremony. I wanted it to be fun, not just speeches, so we had a cabaret. Betsy has the worst voice in the world, bar none. But she and a few male friends all dressed as nuns and did the Whoopie Goldberg song from “Sister Act” in front of the entire congregation. She sang lead and it was hysterical.

PGN: Ever have any paranormal experiences? LH: I’m a skeptic. But I’ll tell you, one of the things I’ve done is work with a group that prepares bodies for funerals. There’s a traditional Jewish way to do it where you wash the body and dress the body and do a ritual. And I never quite believed that we have a spirit that leaves the body and goes to wherever, but I have had the experience more than once now of feeling an energy in the body that dissipates while we are preparing the body and then is gone. So now I do believe that there is something there — an energy, a life force — something that goes into the universe.

PGN: Favorite Halloween costume? LH: I like being anything large and fuzzy. I especially like dressing up for Purim, which is a Jewish holiday. It celebrates the story of Esther, so this year I was the “Esther Bunny” and gave out eggs. When the kids were little, I’d dress up and go with them for Halloween. My son always wanted to be something horrible and scary, like death walking, so we’d be mother-and-son death out trick-or-treating.

PGN: Something you learned from your parents? LH: My mother taught me that details matter. I’m more of a big-picture person, but I’ve learned that it’s not just that the devil is in the details, but that God is in the details too. My father taught me to be friendly to people.

PGN: What are your hopes for the future? LH: We want to build a world that is more just and universal with the sense that all people are created in the image of God. I believe we can get there. Paradigms do shift. If you look at how far we’ve come as gay people, it’s amazing. When I started out in 1979, there were no places where I could have been out, none. And now, 30 years later, I’m the senior rabbi of a congregation!

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].