You don’t have to wait for Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s movie to get advice with Galia Godel in the house.
Godel, a Philadelphia-based sexuality educator, has been teaching within and about the LGBTQ community for more than five years. She performs double duty as the LGBTQ Initiative program manager for Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia.
PGN: Tell me a little about yourself.
GG: I grew up in the Cheltenham/Elkins Park section of the city. My parents met when my mom moved to Israel after high school. She lived there for many years, and they met through mutual friends and then moved back to the U.S. before my older sister was born. So I was raised just north of the city and about halfway through undergrad I moved to West Philly, and I never left.
PGN: Were you a close family?
GG: Yes. My grandfather was a rabbi, and I grew up really, really involved with my synagogue. I was a member of reformed congregation Keneseth Israel, where I learned to love educating. As soon as I was old enough to be allowed, I was working as a wraparound with the younger students, and I ended up teaching Hebrew school. I got very involved with my community there. The whole family was involved. I have an older sister, a younger brother and a younger sister, and all of us were synagogue brats.
PGN: What were some of the best lessons you learned?
GG: I was part of a Jewish youth group called NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and through them I learned to love collaborating with other people. We would create services together; we would run activities together. It was great to be around other young people who were there doing the work because they wanted to be there. We were all so excited about being young and Jewish and wild — wait, not wild; we were praying in the middle of the day, so not exactly wild — but enthusiastic. It was also one of the first places that I found a queer community. We formed a little subgroup of all of the LGBTQ folks there. There were only about six of us, but we did everything together, and it was really loving and supportive.
PGN: What’s a favorite family tradition?
GG: Every year for Hanukkah, my dad would take his jar of coins and give them to us to play dreidel. He let us keep the money so if you were good or lucky, at the end of the night you could walk away with about $40, which was a fortune for a kid!
PGN: What was an early sign that you were gay?
GG: It was Julia Stiles in “10 Things I Hate About You.” [Laughing] I watched that movie over and over — that and “Princess Diaries” with Anne Hathaway. I could not stop myself from watching those two movies, and of course I had no idea why, but now that I rewatch them as an adult, I’m like, Oh, counter-culture high-school girls who don’t look the way that their peers do and make friends differently — that’s why it was so significant to me in sixth and seventh grade. It’s also when I first realized that I was not into guys. But then a few years later, I was once again watching “10 Things I Hate About You” and started thinking, Hmm, Heath Ledger is really cute … Maybe “lesbian” isn’t the right word for me. I guess that movie did a lot for me!
PGN: How do you identify on the spectrum, if you do?
GG: Mostly as bi and queer. I’ve also been spending time recently trying to decide if asexual is also a label that fits for me, but I don’t have an answer to that yet.
PGN: What were you like as a young person?
GG: I was really into singing. From the time I was very young through my senior year of high school, I really thought I was going to be an opera singer as a career. My grandparents really valued the arts and they very kindly paid for voice lessons for me. They knew how much I wanted to be a professional vocalist. Unfortunately, I did not get into the colleges that I auditioned for, so I went to Montgomery County Community College and made a vocational 180 and started focusing on sex education.
PGN: Was there adequate sex ed when you were growing up?
GG: I think so. Between my school, my mom and my synagogue, I got a very healthy view of sexuality. My school had a very comprehensive sex-education program. As someone who teaches it now, I can look back and see where it could have been improved, but it was pretty enlightened. They talked about pleasure; they talked about birth control; about the different kinds of sex that a person could have. They didn’t talk about queer sex explicitly, but they did talk about oral sex and anal sex, so for people not interested in intercourse, it at least had some information about other options. I remember taking a class in Hebrew school called “Sex in the Bible” and it was a fantastic class. At home, my mom was always extremely open about sex and our bodies, which I’m still grateful for. The first time I had sex with a partner, I told her because I liked keeping her updated on things. She told me that she was a little concerned because I was young and she wanted to make sure I was being safe. So I said, “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I didn’t enjoy myself.” And she responded, “That doesn’t make me feel better. Did you try using your fingers?” [Laughing] So, yeah, we were pretty open about talking about sex and sexuality.
PGN: And now you’re the educator …
GG: Yes, I have two main jobs and two side hustles, because I’m a millennial. My main job is that I work for Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia, where I am the program manager of the LGBTQ Initiative. In that role, I work with all of the departments to make sure they have cultural competency, diversity and inclusion and to make sure that we are directing services toward the LGBTQ community. Pretty much anything that comes to JFCS that has the word “queer” on it ends up on my desk. Through our organization, J.Proud, which is a consortium of a number of Jewish organizations, we also do a lot of fun events, book talks, concerts, art exhibitions, craft nights, a queer Torah study, a drag-queen story hour and a huge Passover seder, among other things. It’s really a lot of fun. I try to get to as many as I can. I also do sexuality trainings and workshops for various groups, both Jewish and not. I do a lot of teaching in polyamorous and queer communities with a focus on healthy and sustainable relationships, self-care while handling responsibilities, and problem-solving within nontypical relationship structures. And I work as a sexual-behavior specialist for adults with intellectual disabilities.
PGN: Do you find that, being openly gay, you are the person to whom everyone confesses their secrets?
GG: I’m the one that everyone comes to with sexual questions, and not just LGBTQ-specific ones. Everything from, “How do I spice up things with my partner?” to “I have this vaginal discharge … ”
PGN: Oh boy.
GG: I don’t mind, but what brings me the most joy is when non-queer people reach out to me to ask how they can best interact with the LGBTQ people in their lives so as to be respectful and a good ally.
PGN: Do you find, with different segments of the Jewish community, there are different levels of acceptance?
GG: It can be surprising, because there are some Orthodox communities that I love working with that are really supportive, and some reformed groups that are not as open to it, and some conservative groups that just aren’t sure. There’s not a set way of thinking for one group.
PGN: Awkward LGBTQ moment?
GG: I remember one day when my sister just barged into my room. I had all these posters of women on the walls — Maxim models in bras and underwear — and my sister pointed and asked why I had all these half-naked women on my walls. I wasn’t quite ready to come out to her, so I said, “Um, they’re all busty women like me and when I’m trying to decide what bra to wear in the morning, I can look at the pictures and decide which one looks good.” She said that it made sense, and I was proud of myself for my quick thinking.
PGN: Have you faced any discrimination?
GG: I’ve had almost no backlash with my personal identity, but on occasion I’ll get a little pushback with some in the more-traditional Jewish communities who have trouble reconciling the places where their beliefs disagree with mine.
PGN: Do you remember the first LGBTQ movie you saw?
GG: Unfortunately, I think it was “Imagine You and Me.” Remember that scene, “You’re a wanker, number nine!” It was great that we got to see women interact physically with each other, and I was so, “Oh my goodness!” But now, as an adult, I wish there were more lesbian movies back then that didn’t involve cheating on their heterosexual partner.
PGN: Something most people dislike that you enjoy?
GG: I’m the only one in my house who loves halvah, which is a Middle-Eastern dessert made of sugar and sesame paste. When I was in grad school, I could polish off a tub of that every semester, especially during finals. It’s so good!
PGN: If you were in a band, what would the name be?
GG: Oh gosh, probably “Explicit Verbal Communication.” I have an overwhelming obsession with using proper terminology!
PGN: What’s the farthest you’ve traveled?
GG: That would be Turkey. Two summers ago, my dad and I went to Istanbul together, and it was the most incredible trip of my life.
PGN: What was a highlight?
GG: One day my dad decided to do a trek through the city to find the best baklava and I went to the ancient walls of Constantinople. I climbed up onto the seaside side and walked across the top of the wall for several miles, which you’re probably not supposed to do, but I saw other people up there so I went for it. Some of it was not so safe and there was one point where I was hanging from the wall with a 12-foot drop trying to find a place to wedge my foot and thinking, This probably wasn’t the best plan, I should have thought this through. But, as you’ve probably surmised, I survived.
PGN: I did notice that. What was your favorite book as a kid?
GG: I’d say anything from the author Tamora Pierce. She wrote these incredibly diverse, well-rounded characters, most of them women, some of them queer and all of them strong in different ways. She put a lot of emphasis on friendships between the women, which meant a lot to me. I actually just got a tattoo from one of her books just a few months ago.
PGN: What was your best birthday?
GG: I had a grilled-cheese party where I bought a ton of cheese and asked people to bring different food to add. People brought caramelized onions and ham and mushrooms, and I hid out in the kitchen all day grilling. It was perfect!
PGN: When did you last cry?
GG: This morning in therapy. Oh! I’ll tell you my funny therapy story. I was going through a rough patch during the holidays and, instead of talking about it, I decided to go out. I was like, “I’m going dancing, no boys allowed, screw anyone who isn’t a queer lady person! I just want to forget about everything going on and have fun.” And I get to Toasted Walnut and my therapist was there. It was the gayest experience!
PGN: It can be a slightly small community at times. Any superstitions?
GG: No, but I talk to a lot of inanimate objects. I yell at my blender if it’s not chomping up my bananas the way I want it to; I speak sweetly to my car when he’s having trouble.
PGN: What celebrity would you want to do a love scene with?
GG: Tessa Thompson. She plays Valkyrie in the Marvel Universe movies and is starring in the new “Men in Black.” She was also dating Janelle Monáe, which sent the gay Twitterverse into spasms of joy.
PGN: Do you have a motto or words to live by?
GG: My dad gave me some advice years ago that has worked for me ever since. He said, “Don’t think of life as something that’s supposed to be fun. Think of life as a series of adventures.” That way, whenever anything goes wrong, if I’m lost or frustrated, I literally throw my hands up in the air and shout, “Adventure!” and it helps me get through it.