(JTA) — “How would I describe myself?” Ezra Furman said wryly, ripping a corner off his slice of pizza at a store in Somerville, Mass. “I try to avoid it.”
There is certainly a lot to cover. The 34-year-old musician is an acclaimed indie rocker, observant Jew, transgender woman, mother and — since this fall — a rabbinical student.
“I would say I am a transfeminine psalmist,” she says after a pause. She’s deceptively dainty in person despite her rowdy stage presence, wearing a pale pink shirt and mask that reads “VOTE!” “I think it’s true that I’m a trans woman. I think non-binary is also accurate. And I don’t know how these immeasurable things can be together, but they all seem to be accurate.
It’s an identity Furman has explored in music and lyrics throughout his career, one that has also defied categorization. His discography mixes glam rock with grunge and doo-wop, upbeat indie pop with smooth ballads and screaming punk songs about poverty and climate change. She appeared on stage wearing tzitzit under a dress and produced an album on queer love that doubles as a midrash on Exodus. Perhaps most important in her career as a touring musician, she does not travel or perform on Shabbat.
“I give up professional opportunities all the time,” she said. “I guess it takes some confidence that everything will be fine. I’ve developed a willingness to ask for all the things I need, even though I’ve been told they can’t go together.
For many of his fans, especially those who are queer and wondering, Furman provides a rare public example that it is possible to be religious and queer, to be transgender and a parent. After her revelation as a transfeminine mother in April, there was an outpouring of joy on social media.
“You have always been in a light in the dark and sharing this with all of us has the exact effect you wanted: proof that life can be beautiful and fulfilling AND you can be yourself,” wrote an Instagram commenter. Another said: ‘so happy for you, your family, and thank you for sharing this – so precious to be seen, appreciated and to be an inspiration to others.’
But it wasn’t all positive – her manager received a stash of hate mail that he hid from her.
“He was like, ‘I’m just going to tell you if there’s something important,'” Furman said with a sigh.
“My goal was to show a little bit of my life to people who might find it useful to have a trans parenting model in real life,” she said, a little sadly, “and then I found that transphobic people were charging you a price for it. But I think it was worth it. I can take a degree if it’s worth it.
She and her partner, whom she doesn’t speak about publicly for privacy reasons, are used to “queerphobia,” as she puts it, “in an overt and structural way.” But she remains hopeful, perhaps more than she was in her last conversation with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2016, when she spoke of his difficulty finding a Jewish space to pray comfortably.
“I see glimmers of a future where it’s just not a problem for anyone you meet and you never have to explain yourself. I don’t want anyone to have to explain their gender, sexuality or family structure,” she said.
The past few years have been busy for Furman, who had worked for years in relative folk rock obscurity with the band Ezra Furman and the Harpoons before making a splash as a solo artist with a series of five albums, the first in 2012. Records such as 2015’s “Perpetual Motion People” and 2018’s “Transangelic Exodus” have been widely acclaimed, and she composed the music for Netflix’s hit show “Sex Education” in 2019.
In addition to being a new mom and a professional musician, Furman is starting this fall at Hebrew College in Newton. She is also launching a podcast on Jewish holidays called “2 Queers 4 Questions”. She is only doing one semester at rabbinical school for now, and then will be withdrawing all of 2022 from school.
“Which might suggest I’m doing some musical activity then,” she said.
For Furman, rabbinical school is the culmination of a lifetime of thinking about God — but making music, which she calls spiritual, has also helped her get there.
“Someone I know asked me if I think learning the Torah trope for my bar mitzvah influenced me to become a musician, [and] it completely did it,” she said. “I think [singing] is a part of the brain that remembers in a different way, but also thinks and feels in a different way. And that’s the part of the brain that prays, that’s the part of the brain that I think talks to God, thinks of God. I think it’s a spiritual act to make music.
Has raising a child made her even closer to her Jewish identity?
“That’s a good question,” she said, tilting her head to the side in contemplation. “I did not think about it.”
Either way, her two-year-old, for whom she uses they/them pronouns out of respect for their privacy, is surrounded by Jewish rituals at home.
“I sing ‘Sh’ma Yisrael’ before I put them to bed every night. So they know the word “sh’ma,” they kiss the mezuzah as we walk through their bedroom door, and in all things parenting, you’re creating the world for that person. And the choices you make are their environment,” Furman said.
She explained that she’s been thinking about her own childhood lately — her experiences at a Jewish day school from elementary through middle school, and then as a teenager entering the largely irreligious music scene.
“I grew up in places where wherever I could be queer, I couldn’t be Jewish the way I wanted,” she said, “and wherever I could be Jewish, I couldn’t be queer. as I wanted. to be. One of them had to be underwater for the other to breathe. I didn’t have many people showing me that it was possible to ask for both and do both.
“For me, becoming an adult means I can have the life I want, and other people’s idea that these things are out of proportion to each other doesn’t stop me from doing anything. I mean it might give me stigma and hate, harassment, whatever. But I can still have transit, Judaism, parenthood and artistic life, musical life.
She takes a long pause. “I have a lot of flaws,” she said. “But I’m also happy with who I am.”
Eventually she walked through Davis Square in Somerville to where she left her bike and helmet; evening was approaching and she was on her way to pick up her child before the Boston traffic reached its climax. This will be the second time in her life that the Tufts graduate has lived in Somerville as a student and she is excited to get started.
“I don’t know if I’m going to finish, and maybe I’m a rabbinical dropout – which sounds cool,” she laughed. “It’s a weird thing to do and it’s going to be awkward for both my music life and my school life… I was just like, well, these two companies don’t go together. But I need both , so I’ll do them both.
The post office Ezra Furman sang about God in his indie rock. Now she goes to rabbinical school. appeared first on Jewish Telegraph Agency.
Ezra Furman sang about God in his indie rock. Now she goes to rabbinical school.