7 Questions for May Ye
JWA sat down with Chinese-American activist and rabbi, May Ye. May is the inaugural rabbi for Mending Minyan and was previously involved with Tzedek Chicago, Ammud: The Jews of Color Torah Academy, and Jewish Voice for Peace, among many others.
JWA: What drew you to becoming a Rabbi?
May Ye: When I was eighteen and taking a gap year post-high school, I started to wrestle with my identity, asking myself questions like “Who am I?” Naming that I was half-Chinese felt familiar to me, but it was new to identify that the other half of me was Jewish. Naming that I was Jewish, for me, meant recognizing in the same breath that there was blood on my hands. As I attempted to get involved in Jewish spaces and Jewish life I began to realize that I was knocking on door after door and none of them would open for me. I didn’t look the “right way” as an Asian-American Jew, and/or I didn’t have the “right politics” as an anti-Zionist Jew. I became a rabbi for those like me who are fully Jewish, but for whom Jewish doors never opened, and for those who have been disenfranchised and marginalized by Judaism and Jewish spaces. And I became a rabbi to be a Jewish voice for Palestinian liberation.
JWA: You have an incredible and extensive history working in Jewish social justice spaces.Could you share what justice-informed Jewish practice means to you?
MY: Judaism and social justice have always been intertwined for me. I came to Judaism as an adult both spiritually and politically. Because I am a Jew and because my people have been oppressed, I am obligated to take action.
At Mending Minyan, we bring a lot of social justice into our ritual space, being careful to create a balance between the spiritual and the political, and to recognize when solidarity work should happen outside of ritual space. I do a lot of ritual and liturgy creation in my work. For me, the only place that work can start is by knowing the history and studying our texts in their original form. Once that work is complete, we can truly wrestle with our tradition, reconstruct it, and make it relevant to our lived experiences and for the time that we live in.
JWA: As the inaugural rabbi for Mending Minyan, can you tell us a bit about the organization and how you got involved?
MY: I first got connected to Mending Minyan in 2018, when I happened to sit next to Mending Minyan’s founder, Mikveh, at the inaugural Shabbaton for Jewish Voice for Peace’s Havurah Network. She shared her vision for Mending Minyan. It was only a dream at the time, with plans to launch by having Rosh Hashanah services at the Palestine Museum in Woodbridge, CT, and Mikveh asked me if I could join them to lead their services. While I wasn’t able to join that year, a seed was planted in my head and I continued to think about the anti-Zionist Jewish community of New Haven and began conversations with the community about bringing a rabbinical intern on board in 2020.
Mending Minyan is “a group of Jews and friends of Jews in/around New Haven who are practicing joy-based Jewish ritual decoupled from Zionism and in service to building radical Jewish practices in support of struggles against white supremacy, capitalism, and colonization.”
JWA: For some Jews, the line between Zionism and Judaism is very much intertwined with Jewish identity, though your work centers on decoupling those two ideas. What does that process look like in practice?
MY: Zionism and Judaism have not always been intertwined with Jewish identity, and since the introduction of Zionism, there have always been Jews who were opposed to it. As I accompany folx in unlearning Zionism and decoupling Judaism from Zionism, I begin by focusing on two areas: history learning and trauma healing. For me this work, in practice, also means intentionally bringing the Jewish diaspora to the foreground and celebrating it.
JWA: Your piece, “Hair as a Jewish Art Form: A Parasha Haircut Project” in Lilith so beautifully linked Torah to art and the body. What was the process of developing this project like, and is it still ongoing?
MY: The project developed organically when I looked at my haircut and saw the week's Torah portion clearly represented in it. That week happened to be Parashat Breishit, the first parasha of the Torah. The timing seemed so fitting for a project to be born, and I was lucky to live near such a talented barber who was able to translate all of my drashot, interpretations, on the parshiot into art upon my head. Unfortunately the project is on pause as I moved far away from my barber.
JWA: In a separate Lilith article, you discuss what it means to weave multiple identities together as a Chinese-American Jew. Has your approach to this ongoing work changed at all since this article was published?
MY: This work is always in process for me. I was ordained as a rabbi in May, and for the first time, I really feel like I am coming up for air. All the varied parts of me are able to integrate organically with each other without the judgemental eye of people and institutions who seek to stick labels all over me as if my body were a velcro board. I have also been engaging with these same questions of weaving multiple identities together from my article with my students—Jews of Color who are learning to write and create liturgy and ritual that speaks to their own lived experiences. I learn so much from them, their sharing, their wisdom, and their processes. Sometimes I have to pause and make sure that I am listening to and heeding what I teach my students.
JWA: Is there a particular piece of Torah that is resonating with you right now?
MY: Yes! Understanding Torah as teaching, I would like to lift up the Torah of a 7-year- old child in my congregation. They recently asked: “Mom, what if there were no trans people? Like, what if there were only [cis] men and women?” When asked what they thought, the child responded “Well, we wouldn’t have Shabbat.” For Mending Minyan, the community this child has been raised in, their statement is true; Mending Minyan was founded by a trans woman.
This reminds me of the Torah in Psalm 188:22, which states, “the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This is what we are doing at Mending Minyan— creating Jewish community for all those who have been rejected or pushed out in any way, for those who have never been allowed to be at the center or take up space.