Shalom aleikhem. [Aleikhem shalom from audience.] We have a tradition of dedicating our learning to people who have inspired us. And on Friday, a good friend and teacher of mine passed from this world to the next. And so, tonight, I am dedicating my learning with you to Gene, zikhrono livrakha, may his memory forever be a blessing.
My name is Koach Frazier, and I live at the intersection of hate and oppression here in America. I am Black. I am trans. I am Jewish. And I am absolutely determined to thrive. I am an activist, a musician, a healer, a spiritual leader and for almost 15 years, I helped people engage more fully in their lives through the power of better hearing, as an audiologist. I’ve marched on the streets with my drum alongside fellow freedom fighters on the streets of Ferguson. I sat down in the Capitol with fellow Jews, in solidarity with Dreamers. I have trained Jews and non-Jews about the intersection of anti-Blackness and antisemitism.
And now, I’m in rabbinical school. [snaps from audience] And I can tell you that one of the things I’ve learned as an audiologist, and particularly, as a musician, is that listening is so important — and not just hearing what people are saying, but listening, really listening. And it’s made me listen better. Listen for those soft voices yearning to be heard all around me, listening to the truth, even when it hurts. And listening to the pain and sorrow of my own soul. Because, you see, living here in America, with antisemitism and anti-Blackness and transphobia, I wake up every day with the news that someone with one or more of my identities, one of my siblings, is dead. And just as I’ve leaned into the grief, there’s word that another sibling has been killed. It seems as if there is no time to mourn. But a beautiful part of our tradition is that when we mourn, we stop time. We don’t go to work. We don’t go to school. We sit on the floor. We tear our clothes. And our community comes and gathers so that we have space and time to grieve. We cannot have business as usual when tragedy strikes, because how can the healing process begin if we have never stopped to acknowledge that healing is actually necessary?
So back in June of 2016, right after the massacre at the Pulse nightclub, my friends and I — we were at that moment when we knew it was time to grieve. Forty-nine of our trans and queer siblings of color were murdered, simply for existing, and we were in mourning. So, this group of friends called Justice Beats, a rag-tag group of queer and trans people of color in St. Louis, decided to pick a public space on the queer side of town, and we would, for 49 days, drum, say their names, and we would mourn. Sometimes, three or four people joined us, and sometimes 20 joined us. There was even a sister gathering here in New York City organized by my friend Shoshana. But no matter how many people came, overwhelmingly, people said: “I am grateful to have a space where I can show up authentically without having to hide my sorrow.” They realized that their grief was welcome there.
Just like it is in the Hebrew Bible. Lament is found throughout the entire book. Most famously, in Eikha, in the book of Lamentations, where the first line says: “How, how is it that this lonely city sits here, when it used to be filled with so many people?” Talking about the destruction of Jerusalem. And then in the Psalms, from Psalms 130, it says: “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O God! Hear my cry! Attend your ears to my pleas for mercy.” These verses sounded just like the people that I was marching on the streets with. But after you have experienced tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, it becomes difficult to stop and mourn. But you see, lament, it has a formula, as I have learned it. And formulas can be useful in times of crisis and uncertainty. This is the gift of our ancestors, giving us the spiritual technology to help us stay on this road of resilience and healing. And so I’d love to share this formula with you tonight.
The first element of this formula of lament is address: Dear Universe, the Source of all Life, Whoever is out there, Whatever is out there!
The second is expressing your distress. Why in the world are my siblings, my trans women of color, continuing to be killed? Why?
The third: This is where you stop, and you remember that there was a point in time before now, where there was destruction or death, or there was tragedy and it was in front of you. And somehow, some way, you made it through, and now it’s behind you and you’re still here. Part of lament is remembering you’re still here — that you can make it through.
The fourth element is the plea. This is what’s going to make it so I can start healing. This is what I need to repair the harm that was done to me. This is what I need.
The fifth element is gratitude. Maybe it’s gratitude knowing that one day, you’ll be on the other side of this one, too. Maybe it’s gratitude knowing that you used to be on the front end of something and now you’re on the back end. It may be gratitude for allowing yourself, giving yourself the gift of being in your grief, and allowing your body and your soul and your mind to experience it, so you can get on the other side of it.
So, no matter where you are in that process and no matter where you are today, I want to invite you to take a moment and think about that thing that gives you grief, think about that thing that makes you lament. I’m going to give you a few seconds to think it, to think about it. I’ll invite you to take a deep breath with me. [Deep breath] And just like in St. Louis, on the streets on the queer side of town, I’m going to invite you all, together, to shout out your truth to the universe. So get that thing. I’m going to count to three, and let’s see if we can give the universe our truth. One … two … three. Shout it out! [Muted? Koach nodding] Let’s take a breath together again. [Deep breath] Sometimes, we’re the people shouting out our grief in our mourning, and sometimes, we’re the folks who gather on the street corner and hold space for the other ones’ grief.
Now it wouldn’t be fair if I came here and asked you to share your lament with me, and I didn’t share mine with you. So tonight, I’m going to share a song that came through me. It was during the Ferguson uprising that I realized that the only way I was going to make it was if I found some way to deepen my prayer, and my prayer was lament. And I reached back to my formerly enslaved ancestors and said: They had the formula. It was through the spirituals that a lot of their lament and grief came through. And it was healing. And so, I used their formula and I rewrote the words to speak to my own pain and grief that I have experienced over these last several years.
The song is called “Be With Me,” and as I sing, I invite you, if it feels right, to join me.
[step, clap, singing]
Be with me, Yah, be with me. Be with me, Yah, be with me. While I’m on this freedom journey, be with me, Yah, be with me.
[speaking] In St. Louis, we said:
[singing] I got my hands up, be with me. I’ve got my hands up, be with me. While I’m on this freedom journey, I’ve got my hands up, oh, be with me.
[speaking] I heard one of my siblings say:
[singing] When I can’t breathe, Yah, be with me. When I can’t breathe, Yah, be with me. While I’m on this freedom journey, when I can’t breathe, Yah, be with me.
I’m saying her name, Yah, be with me. I’m saying her name, Yah, be with me. While I’m on this freedom journey, I’m saying her name, Yah, oh, be with me.
Be with me, Yah, be with me. Be with me, Yah, be with me, be with me. While I’m on this freedom journey, got my hands up, when I can’t breathe, Yah, I’m saying her name, Yah, be with me.
I hope, my prayer, is that you feel the universe, feel your community, and most importantly, you feel yourself, with you, through your grief and your sorrow. And one day, when you’re on the other side of it, you’ll know this healing and resilience that comes through lament. Thank you!
From “Avodah Presents: Speak Torah to Power”