7 Questions For Gila Axelrod

New Voices editor-in-chief, writer, and educator Gila Axelrod. Photo courtesy of Gila Axelrod. 

JWA talks to Gila Axelrod, writer, educator, and editor-in-chief of New Voices.

JWA: You’re a writer and educator who also wears many other creative hats. Tell us about some of the projects you’re currently working on!

Gila Axelrod: Lately I’ve been trying to reconnect with my childhood self, with a version of myself that created things just because it was fun and because it was a way to release my feelings.

Since I was in first grade and saw Sharpay singing in a commercial for High School Musical and ran up to my closet to write my own version of her song, writing lyrics has been my way of processing life. It’s mostly been a private, secretive thing. But my best friends have encouraged me to start sharing my music, and I’ve recently started performing at open mics. I just began recording my songs on GarageBand and am hoping to put them into the world soon! It’s scary to think of sharing something that feels so vulnerable, but I’m also very excited about it.

During Covid, I ended a long-term relationship and posted on Instagram about the messy and painful process of healing and coping with the breakup. The response was shocking—so many people were going through the same thing, but none of us had a roadmap to handle the immense emotions we were experiencing. With my bestie, I’ve been writing a zine that is an interactive guide to healing from breakups. It includes wisdom from friends and family, activities, journaling prompts, and illustrations. It should be ready by the end of the summer, and we can’t wait to share it!

Last year, my brother and I hosted some queer-centered open mics especially geared toward first-timers. We had some comedians, experimental musicians, free-stylers, and poets take the stage for the first time! Everyone was SO supportive and sweet, and we ended up jamming on a rooftop for hours. As the weather gets warmer, I’m gearing up to host some more of these events in Brooklyn this summer.

JWA: Through your work as a Rosh Hodesh leader [a community program connecting young women+ through Jewish learning], you’ve been a mentor for young Jewish women as they navigate the world. Looking back on your teenage years, what’s a piece of advice you would give your former self?

GA: God, I wish I could go back and just give my teenage self a huge hug. I wish we could go for a walk together in the woods and talk through everything.

I would tell her: You are allowed to have your own needs and desires. You don’t have to be a mirrorball that is constantly trying to make everyone else happy. There is a strong voice within you—if you take a step back from the chorus of “What do they want?” you’ll be able to hear it. Not everyone needs to like you. It’s really okay (and normal!) if not everyone likes you. Also, you’re not straight— that should clear some things up!

OK, that was more than one piece of advice… But I definitely needed to hear all of those things.

JWA: What space or spaces make you proud to be Jewish?

GA: Shabbat meals. There is something so sacred about gathering together each week, without technology or distractions, with nowhere else to be. The conversation can twist and meander for hours. When I’m sitting around the table with family, friends, or (often) strangers, it feels like time doesn’t exist. I love hosting people who are either not Jewish or haven’t been to Shabbat meals before, and showing them the rituals and songs in a non-judgmental space. There is something truly magical that emerges in these spaces.

Also, all of the amazing Jewish organizations that are fighting for justice and human rights in this world. When I see their work, I’m just like, “YES!!! That’s us!”

JWA: You’ve written about how many Jewish holidays are centered around food, whether it be a meal-based ritual or a day of fasting, and how challenging that can be for folks with a history of eating disorders and/or restrictive eating. How would you suggest reframing our definition of “participating” during these holidays to accommodate these challenges?

GA: The biggest mindset shift for me was that, contrary to what we’re often told, fasting is not the point, or even the central focus of any holiday. Fasting is just one method we can employ to connect with the deeper themes and meanings of the chag. You can fully participate in the holiday without fasting, and no one should make you feel otherwise!

Fasting does not have a moral valence—you are not better or worse because you have or have not fasted, and in fact, if fasting compromises your wellbeing, it is imperative that you do not fast, according to Jewish law. Your mental and physical health come first.

There are so many ways you can deeply and spiritually connect to the meaning behind a holiday such as Yom Kippur or Taanit Esther. I like to think about what other methods I can employ to feel close to the spirit of the holiday: Can I focus more deeply on my kavana (intentionality) during prayer? Can I read the story of the holiday with friends and family, and reflect on its themes? Can I engage with other ritual practices that are part of the holiday?

This is something I’ve thought about a lot, and I’ve written a few articles about other ways to engage with food rituals/fasting, and take fasting off the pedestal.

JWA: You’ve also written an advice column for caregivers supporting an LGBTQ+ child. What moments of support were most uplifting for you during your own queer journey?

GA: Shortly after I came out publicly, my dad sent me a link to an Oreo commercial—you know, the one with the gay couple whose dad painted the fence rainbow [colors]. “You know I don’t cry often, but I did from this,” he wrote. My mom often sends me podcasts, videos, and books she’s read to learn more about queerness, gender, and sexuality. It’s through gestures like these that my parents, since day one, have shown their support and solidarity. They make it clear that they’re on my side, and that no matter what others say, I can always count on them to be a sounding board and provide unconditional love. I feel incredibly lucky.

When I think about my queer journey, I’m reminded of the words of the author Glennon Doyle: “A child can disregard the whole world telling her she’s not okay, as long as in her parents’ eyes she sees that she is.”

At the same time, I would not be my proud queer self without my best friends. They have been by my side (literally and figuratively) for every moment. They have shown me what queer joy means. They have modeled how to be the truest and most whole version of myself. They have taught me that queerness is not a curse— it is a gift. It is holy.

JWA: What makes you feel like your most confident self?

GA: Dancing wildly in a crowd (or alone). Dyeing my hair bright and fun colors! Strutting down the street blasting MUNA in my headphones!

JWA: Warm weather is finally here! What are you looking forward to?

GA: Oh my goodness, the fact that the weather is now beautiful has changed everything. I can’t wait to read in the park and pet all the cute dogs, go for bike rides, smell the flowers, have picnics.

And most of all, I can’t wait to finally get my tonsils out! I’m accepting all movie recommendations.

 

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How to cite this page

Groustra, Sarah. "7 Questions For Gila Axelrod." 6 June 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 19, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/7-questions-gila-axelrod>.