Who The Folk?! Emily Saltzman

Emily Saltzman says her outgoing personality is made for transitions. Coming back to the Twin Cities after eight years away, now as the first community services director at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis, has been a series of transitions. From being an adult in the Twin Cities to discovering her Jewish identity, Saltzman is digging in on her return home. Learn more about her in this week’s Who The Folk!?

What’s the Hebrew tattoo on your left bicep?

It’s my middle name, Asher. Both my sister and I have masculine middle names. Some people say “Oh, is it in case you might be trans when you got older so you could have a different name?” No, my parents weren’t that progressive. But they were actors, and they wanted us to have an option in case we went into show-business so I could be Emily Asher instead of Emily Saltzman. Maybe it would be punchier or glittery.

You’ve been here for two months; What’s it like to be back after being gone for 8 years?

Well, it’s a lot. There’s a lot of transition. I always knew I’d be back here; I just didn’t know when. It’s being an adult here that has been the biggest transition. I grew up in the suburbs and live in Minneapolis now, and shifting into a mindset of, “this is what my peers are doing,” versus, “what is my family is doing,” because that has always been my reference point every time I’ve come to visit.

Also just being connected Jewishly is different. I wasn’t super-connected as a young person, and I didn’t find my Jewish home until I moved to New York with folks that were my peers, that were doing social justice work and who were living their Judaism in a way that felt both connected to remaking traditions to be relevant to us and doing the social justice service work that felt really urgent and awesome. So now, coming back, just trying to get integrated into those spaces where I can do those things here has been challenging.

Have you found those space here?

I think I’m working on it. I’m an extrovert and I get a lot of energy from people, so my personality is made for transitions like this. I’ve been kind of sampling, and this job allows me to do that in a professional capacity. Most of the programs I supervise are Jewish programs, so connecting with folks doing work in the Jewish community, and specifically with J-Pride, has allowed me to figure out who are the key players in the LGBTQ movement and social services here in the Twin Cities.

So what is your job?

I manage all our front-facing community services that are the non-clinical services. It’s a range of programs that serve Jews or are connected to Jews. I still haven’t figured out the way to really summarize it all. (Editor’s note: She spent more than two minutes telling me everything her job encompasses). The program which feels closest to my heart is J-Pride, which is molding and being changed as I meet these awesome people.

What do you know about J-Pride and where do you think it can go?

What I’ve found really interesting about the history of JFCS is that we’ve been engaged with the LGBTQ community even before J-Pride existed. In the early 90s and maybe before, we started a very successful LGBTQ support for people in the community and their family and friends that were Jewish. People developed a community here. It was one of the only places where folks could be Jewish and LGBT at the same time.

I feel like there’s already so much going on that we don’t need to recreate the wheel. I want to honor the work that’s already been done. I think there’s a lot of energy around young people, either high school or college age, and bringing young, queer Jews together in addition to being in a place to support any political issues that are coming up. There’s all kinds of anti-trans bills coming up and it’s really scary. How do we live those values at the agency and as a Jewish community, being against these things that prevent people from being their full selves?

Not that your predecessors didn’t want this, but how can J-Pride be more than a tent in Loring Park?

We are known for that, and that’s awesome. Pride Festival is a huge deal and brings a lot of warm hearts and exciting conversations and it’s important that there’s a Jewish presence there. It would be great for us to be larger and present at more things throughout the year and collaborate with other LGBTQ organizations. There is a presence for faith-based LGBTQ work, but there isn’t really a Jewish voice that is not affiliated with a congregation. We’d like to be seen as a player in that game. But this can all change if that’s not what the community needs.

Favorite Jewish Holiday?

Passover. Done deal. Symbolic food, talking about oppression and rising against the man. How can it not be my favorite holiday? I’ve hosted queer radical Seders for the past five years. This year was my first time not hosting.

What is a queer radical Seder?

It’s reinterpreting the story. I think queering any holiday is bringing in things that might not have been shared in the original interpretation. Like the Seder plate: there’s all kinds of extra things on the Seder plate to add to talking about oppression. That’s what Passover is all about. There were folks in need, being oppressed by another group, and rising above it. It’s an easy parallel to draw. There’s so many ways to interpret the story.

Favorite Jewish food?

I love anything pickled. That’s the first question on a date: How do you feel about pickles? If they’re not into it, it’s not going to work, I think. That’s a serious deal-breaker. I don’t know if it’s explicitly Jewish, but I feel like we popularized it.

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