Rabbi Lonnie Kleinman: Bridging generations through dance

In my heyday, my best friend Tibet and I used to burn up the clubs. Every weekend, we’d hit the dance floor at The Rainbow Club, Mamzelle’s or even Sneakers and be out there for hours at a time. It was also a chance for us to hang out with people of all ages and learn from some of the old heads who came before us about culture and community. These days, I’m the old head and I’d be more inclined to rock from my chair with a Captain and Coke and watch the folks with better knees party, but sadly there aren’t many places for a lesbian to get her groove on these days…until now.

A small group of women of different generations in Mt. Airy have banded together to host the fun pre-Valentine’s Day intergenerational Dyke Dance, and we have a chance to hit the floor once more. They invite you to come out and celebrate past, present and future dyke resilience and joy. My old friend DJ Sandi Stabler will be spinning house vibes and keeping the party going, with drag performances by Rasta Boi Punany and Rosey Hart. The organizers pledge that it will be an event celebrating “Queer positivity, with no room for racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, or transphobia. We’re here to dance together and to celebrate good music. Whatever the beat, we are about having a good time and looking out for each other.” One of the core organizers is this week’s Portrait, Rabbi Lonnie Kleinman, a self-described rabbi, death educator, queer Talmud nerd and ritual creation lover. We took a moment to find out just what that means.

I understand that you’re originally from out west, correct?
Yes. I’m originally from Arizona and lived there until I was 18. I moved from AZ to Philadelphia in 2017 to go to rabbinical school. 

What was life like in Arizona?
I was born and raised in Tucson, which is a mixture of urban and rural. You’ve got the city proper and then a sprawl. We had a couple of acres of desert in our backyard, which was great. It’s funny. Growing up there, I didn’t really know what seasons were and didn’t realize that not everyone had a desert in their backyards. It wasn’t until I started visiting other places that I realized how unique it was. It was a very sweet place to grow up. 

It sounds like it.
Yeah, Tucson is an interesting mix of folks. Of course, it’s in Arizona so it can be a bit conservative and the bubble that I grew up in was a really conservative community. 

My maternal grandmother was from New York, but retired to New Mexico and she used to tell us tales of sweeping rattlesnakes off the porch. Did you have similar experiences in the desert?
Sure. Every night before going to sleep, you’d have to look under the covers to make sure there weren’t scorpions there. 

Yikes!
And a couple of times I found scorpions in my shoes. 

As George Takei would say, “Oh my!” Tell me a little about the family.
I have an older brother. He lives in Portland and he’s an anesthesiologist. He’s also gay, which is lovely. My parents are divorced but they both still live in Tucson. 

What was the best and worst thing about having an older brother?
Oh my gosh. He’s nine years older than me and I guess the best thing is that because I was little, all his friends wanted to play with me, which I loved and he hated! They thought it was so much fun and he was just annoyed that I wanted to hang out with his friends but they all loved having me around. The worst? He would rip the heads off my Barbies and put them in planters around the house. He thought that was really funny. Me, not so much. 

I have an older brother too and as a kid, I had long wild hair so he would turn me upside down and try to use me as a broom!
[Laughing] Oh, that’s bad! Mine would tickle me until I peed.

[Laughing] Big brothers can be the worst! I had a runaway suitcase packed with a note already written because I knew if I ran away, it would be because of something he did. Fortunately, he grew up and now we’re close. But back to you. What did your parents do?
My mom was in advertising and my dad was in real estate.

And what did you want to be when you grew up?
That’s a good question. Hmmm. For a long time, I wanted to be a dancer. I took dance lessons and remember having dreams of becoming a professional dancer, or possibly something with dogs. I didn’t know what but I’ve always loved dogs and we always had them around when I was growing up. They were my buddies.                        

What style of dance did you do?
I studied all sorts of dance, [chuckling] before realizing that I wasn’t very good at it.

Ditto. I was sidelined by a mean teacher in second grade, who told me I didn’t bend! When did you start figuring out your religious calling?
I kind of had a moment of reckoning after I came out. I had developed a political analysis that was different from the one that I grew up with. I had a moment where I realized that I didn’t feel aligned with the Judaism that I grew up with, so I left for a while. But in college, I was a religious studies major and I started reading the works of a lot of a Jewish philosophers and theologians who talked about values that were more aligned with mine. I realized that it was possible to care about things like just social justice as part of your faith. Then I went to a reconstructionist synagogue and they had re-written one of the prayers so that instead of the usual passage, it talked about things like destruction of the planet and climate change and it was like, wow, this is unbelievable! I was blown away and at that moment, I thought about what it would feel like to be the type of clergy that I didn’t have growing up. Visibly gay and justice oriented, and a woman. I never saw any female rabbis when I was young. I wanted to be for others what I didn’t have. 

That’s great.
Yeah and from there, I fell in love with it. The tradition and chaplaincy work.

So I’m guessing that you grew up with a stricter version?
Yes, I was raised in the conservative movement so it was definitely more strict — very traditional, especially when it comes to gender. Even something as simple as prayer cloths: In our religion, anyone is supposed to be allowed to wear them, but in the tradition I grew up with, only men were allowed to wear them. It was just an unspoken rule. 

Did you face any antisemitism growing up?
Not really. I was in a little Jewish bubble there in Tucson, so I don’t recall ever facing any overt discrimination or hate. 

When you went to college, what was a favorite class?
When I was a freshman in college, I took a senior level dead sea scrolls seminar and I loved it! It was so cool! When it comes to historical stuff like that, it’s amazing to learn what we really don’t know. 

I read that you worked as a chaplain for a bit at the University of Penn hospital. What were your duties and what was the most moving thing that happened there?
I did my residency there and contrary to what you might think, we’re not just there for moments of crisis and death. A lot of it was just visiting people and sitting with them, checking in on folks. There were a lot of emotional moments, but the one that stands out was a patient that had cancer and was having a hard time and didn’t have family or friends nearby to visit and they said something like, “This must be punishment from God” and I said, “Do you believe in a God that would punish you that way?” and they thought about it and said, “No.” I said, “Me neither. Let’s talk about the God that you do believe in and how to make sense of this.” It was a nice moment.

Beautiful. Let’s talk about what you’re doing now. You have quite a resume: officiation and ritual creation, facilitation and teaching, and spiritual direction.
Yes. For my day job, I work full time for an organization called Keshet, which means rainbow in Hebrew. It’s an organization that works toward the inclusion of LGBTQ+ Jews in organizational life in the Jewish community. I do trainings and create resources. As part of my personal practice, I also offer a variety of services like life cycle officiations for things like weddings and baby namings, and funerals. I also do ritual creations, so say someone wants to create a ritual for something they’re going through and that could be anything from divorce to coming out, I help them think of ways to ritualize that. And I do spiritual direction, which is a practice where you meet once a month and journey together and are present for whatever is coming up. 

Speaking of coming up, we have the big Dyke Dance coming up. How did you get involved with that?
[Laughing] It came out of a trip to a garage sale! I went to a garage sale that was being held by Linda Slodki and Arleen Olshan. I started talking with them and we realized that we all had a mutual love of dancing, but found that there was nowhere in Mt. Airy to hang out and dance. We jokingly were like, “What if we hosted a dance?” Next thing I know, Linda was texting me saying, “Let’s do it!” And that’s how I came to be a part of it. There is a collective of five of us putting it together, and what’s cool is that it’s an intergenerational group of women. We all identify as dykes, though we all have different gender expressions and identities. We’ve been meeting once a week to plan the event, which is going to be on Friday, Feb. 9 from 7-10pm. Tickets are sliding-scale, $10-25. We prefer you buy your ticket in advance, but you’re welcome to pay at the door as well. 

The proceeds will go to help pay the performers, which we think is important and a percentage will also be donated to GALAEI, a queer and trans, Black, indigenous and people of color (QTBIPOC) radical social justice organization. 

Who are some of the performers?
There are going to be drag performances by Rasta Boi Punany and Rosey Hart and community favorite DJ Sandi Stabler will be spinning the music. We’ll also have light snacks and non-alcoholic drinks available.

What are you excited about?
I’m really excited about having a genderful dyke space in Mt. Airy for folks to come out and dance and have a good time — to have fun and celebrate one another. 

So let’s do some random questions. Have you ever been bitten by an animal?
Yes, one of those scorpions! It was not fun. And when I was scuba diving in Mexico, I swam into a big jelly fish and got stung. That was not fun either. 

Ouch. Do you play any instruments or if not, what’s something you’d like to learn?
I played piano growing up but I always dreamed of playing the bass guitar.

What’s something you enjoy doing that most people hate?
I love doing administrative tasks. I love getting them done and crossing them off my list.

Hey, any interest in volunteering for The Women’s Film Festival? All of our volunteers are creatives. I need some business-oriented people!
Someone who can do a spreadsheet! 

Exactly. Let me know. What genre of music do you listen to?
[Laughing] Right now, I’m really into pop princess music. 

So you’re a Swiftie?
I am kind of a Swiftie — just a little bit. 

My nephew was visiting last weekend and we decided to have cocktails and watch “Cats.” It was pretty bad. I meant to ask, who came out first, you or your brother?
My brother came out first. He definitely paved the way for me, which was nice. I remember telling my dad, “I’m dating a woman. Don’t you think it’s funny that you have two gay children?” and he said, “You’re not gay. You’ve just dated some bad men.” It’s like, “Sorry Dad, that’s not how it works.” It was not the easiest, but as you know, coming out is an ongoing process. I feel like I’m coming out every day, but in my case coming from such a repressive environment, it wasn’t even obvious to me at first. I just remember having a friend and being like, “Wow, I have this desire to be around her in a way that I’ve never experienced with anyone before,” and then something clicked and I was like, “Ohhh, I think I know what’s going on here…” I was 21 at the time, which feels old nowadays. 

I know. The kids are coming out younger and younger. [Laughing] but we paved the way!
Exactly, I didn’t have TikTok and Instagram and LGBTQ people talking about their lives on TV. I wonder how different my experience would have been if social media had been a thing. 

Ever have any paranormal experiences?
I think there’s a ghost that lives in my house! I talked to a shaman and he told me that the ghost died in my house and doesn’t know that he’s dead; that the spirit was a workaholic and was used to working all the time; that he wasn’t a malicious presence. He just didn’t stop working and if I wanted a good relationship with the ghost, I should leave out a cup of black coffee. I haven’t seen him in a while though. 

What era in time would you want to go back to?
Hmmm, that’s a tough one… Actually, I don’t think I would want to go back in time! I want to go forward into the future to a time when being gay or trans or whatever is not something that society is against any more. I feel like there hasn’t been a time when discrimination or intolerance of some kind hasn’t been a reality. Not that there isn’t joy and celebration and amazing community as well, but I want to experience a time when we are totally free and accepted! 

I’ll toast to that!

The Dyke Dance will be held 7-10 p.m. Feb. 9 at Summit Presbyterian Church (Westview Entrance), 6757 Greene St. For more information, visit valentinesdykedance.eventbrite.com.