Orthodoxy: Exciting times, trying times…
Dropouts, gay rights, scandals; what say you?
Friday, May 18th, 2012
I don’t touch on many social issues usually. I have tried to keep this blog to learning “Torah lishma” – learning Torah for its own sake, and not politicizing things. But recently a lot of people have asked how I feel about certain happenings in the Jewish community. A lot of social turmoil has rocked the Jewish world, so my friends from NY (shouts out to all of you in Crown Heights!) put together some questions they would like for me to answer on the record for the first time. I know a bit about this stuff. I think its time, so I agreed. Unfortunately I can’t really expect most of these people to go on record as they are mostly heterosexuals who are orthodox, who just can’t afford the backlash. But I do owe people some answers for being so open towards me. So we will do it this way…
It’s an exciting time, lots of things going on in the news. The times, they’re a changin’. Any thoughts?
It really is an exciting time. The past week with Biden and them Obama coming out in support of gay marriage,which is a big deal. This has gotten a lot of people worked up in the Jewish community, for and against. But its all for good, people are talking about what matters to them and about tolerance. But this has just spiced up a certain atmosphere that seems to have been going on since the year started with Rosh haShanah.
How is that? Do you mean that its been a productive time for gay rights?
Well yes, but not just that. It’s interesting to see how certain things going on in the culture have brought out people from the hiding. Obama and Biden seem to have inspired Yitz Jordan (Y-Love). Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” inspired Chaim Levin with “Gotta Give ‘Em Hope.” The the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the orthodox world have propelled interest in the input of people like Deborah Feldman. But we gotta remember we started this year off with Matisyahu stepping out of the frum box people set him in too. See we have a lot going on, it’s not all about gays. But if we look at what all these people have in common, they all have had to bear deep pain and backlash for choosing to pursue personal autonomy. I can certainly sympathize, because I was there about 7 years ago. I don’t always agree with these people, but I try to have very few judgments because the experience they are having is really hard. Let alone in the spotlight and with so much criticism. A lot of orthodox people are upset because it can seem to put Jews in a bad light when they talk about their experience, but forget just how raw their sentiments are because of how personal it is. People often come out spastic and hysterical in their struggle because that was how their experience was. It’s not easy to communicate sometimes, let alone with the distraction of other people and their intentions for why they are giving you a voice.
You don’t often talk about the whole experience of being orthodox and gay. But you don’t mind people knowing your gay, and you talk all day about orthodox Judaism; but rarely the two cross. Why is that?
I’m glad your spelling that with a small “o.” I lived in an orthodox community for many years, I still associate with the orthodox world in that I study Torah with frum Jews. Almost all my work, from teaching Torah to working on siddurim (prayerbooks), it is primarily utilized by frum people. But I am not frum. I haven’t lived in that community for almost 7 years now. I don’t avoid the subject, but I’ve been openly gay in the context of orthodox Jews for almost 20 years. One thing has served me well is to not to make it all about me in the public sphere. One doesn’t talk about heterosexuals when it comes to their sex life; its not tznius – modest; it shouldn’t be any different for me. When other people don’t remember that, I remind them and it ends there. But it’s like being part of a family. You have the people everyone loves, and then there are the difficult people; us Jews aren’t any different. But I hold a deep love for orthodox Judaism. The Orthodox world has never harmed me, I will never do anything to harm them. Most of the time the feelings go both ways when the boot hits the ground in daily Jewish life.
Then where do you fit in? What is your connection to orthodoxy?
Unlike most people who have disastrous stories about being excommunicated after coming out, mine was exactly the opposite. I wasn’t raised religious, was from a mixed marriage, broken family; very disconnected from Judaism all together. I had interest, learned to read Hebrew and basic stuff early as a kid, but didn’t become religious until I was a teenager. I was forced to leave home at 15. Always associated with my Jewish friends more than anyone else, we did holidays at their different shuls together. One Yom Kippur the Conservative rabbi leading started bashing the Orthodox while preaching, chastising people for associating and given charity to them. Naturally as a rebellious and curious kid I wanted to know what threatened him so much, the next week I found myself in an orthodox synagogue. Seven months later I was living in a Chabad community. Didn’t have any intention on becoming that religious necessarily, but I couldn’t avoid it. Jewish people move to Jewish neighborhoods where you can pick a synagogue, close enough to walk to. My first time at the supermarket when I lived on my own, people were literally stumbling over each other to invite me and my partner to have Shabbos dinner by them. They came after me, and I kept coming back. And weeks turned into months, months turned into years, then a decade.
So people knew about your sexuality and were still welcoming to you, or was it just being civil?
Like I said, it was never talked about. But people knew. My partner and I were attached at the hip, like one entity most of the time. We used to go to shul together… correction, it was that way at first. Eventually we got to know people, and given that my partner wasn’t as rowdy as me and the guys around my age; I would go to shul with the men and he would help the women get ready for Shabbat or holidays, talking over Martha Stewart recipes. But as much as some people looked on curiously at first, I never heard anything about it. Actually so little about it that I wasn’t even aware for years that we were notorious throughout the LA area Orthodox communities as merely “the interesting ones.” You cannot spend years with people, in their homes, with their families, enjoying their lifecycle events and not get to see them for real. The leaders of the community, not just the peripheral people were more caring and giving to me than my own blood relatives; a fact anyone in my life will not deny. But I think a lot of people really were accepting, treating me like they did anyone else; I was doing the best I could with what I had to deal with, like a lot of other people and that was respected and encouraged. Judaism isn’t all or nothing. But certainly some people had to learn to be civil with me, because mistreating me wouldn’t be tolerated when there wasn’t anything substantial to disavow me for through my actions.
How did you know people were just being civil sometimes? What does that look like?
When Jews don’t like you, they just don’t talk to you. Really. Like if a person argues with you, its just because they are trying to make the conversation interesting; often times their opinion be damned, if they can provoke a discussion to get to know how you think about something. Silence is not golden, necessarily. But that is what I learned about Jewish civility, you keep you mouth shut and act like a mensch. But often times people in the community were used to having me at their side, it was just known that I was part of the extended family and we all found a way to make the different personalities work.
Were people ever outright accepting? If so, what did that look like?
Quick, but very telling example. One time I was at a wedding. A close friend of mine was getting married, the guy was a young rabbi, came from a family of tzaddikim – righteous people – that was like my adopted family. At one point during the meal someone had mentioned a person who was a former member of the community, who had dropped out of the community after he came out of the closet. I mentioned just in passing that I had met this person once before and someone overheard me mention this person’s name through the noise, not knowing the context I was railed before I got more than a name out and got a finger in my face, “Don’t you dare say a dirty word, you’re talking about a real mensch!” And that was one of many instances that made me realize there were a lot of people out there more than just tolerating, but truly accepting people.
Sometimes in the orthodox world the connection goes a little bit deeper, it’s not easy, it’s a bit isolating for some, for others overwhelming as you live in a fishbowl like existence all living so close as neighbors. But most of all your main priority is doing mitzvot – good deeds. Whereas I saw a lot of beautiful liberal synagogues out there, I always felt that in those circles title, station in life, status and ethnicity mattered more. I never really had much usefulness in those circles, because I was very unique and did not fit their roles well. But in a strong faith-based system I had a lot of opportunity to show what I could do, not just how much money I could give or what IPO I could recommend. But I can honestly say I was never excluded from appropriate community functions, in fact I was encouraged to be more involved and write more for the community than I already was doing. That’s how my work carried on to the siddur projects and now blogging Hardcore Mesorah.
What did you find most impressive about the orthodox communities?
The families. Really. Unless you come from outside of the traditional Jewish world you might not have a whole lot of appreciation for how intensely involved the traditional Jewish family experience is. We all joke about the Jewish mothers, and yentas. It’s not all weird and neurotic. Living in a community you have these big families with all these days of free time spent together. And yes families all have their issues, but I was so surprised by how intense the sense of love and connectivity there was in these families. By the time I got to college and they asked me to write a paper about my holiday, I wrote about spending it with a family in my community and chuckled when my professor said, “This is wonderful, but I said a true essay; I can’t believe people this nice really exist!” It’s had an effect on me. So leaving it was so bad. I think I dated an ex-Mormons for the first couple years after I became single again and left the community! They were the only ones that tolerated the way I still occasionally dressed and my need to constantly be preparing huge meals for huge families…. well, before I got over my guilt and started dating Jews again. Few families know what its like to have such deep interdependence and spend much time together these days.
So what made you leave the orthodox world?
Honestly, I dropped out at the kicking and screaming of people you would least expect to encourage the local faygeleh come back to shul more often. I wasn’t very good about relationships, I was all mixed up over my sexuality and quite frankly wasn’t a good partner. When the relationship ended I was very depressed, depression led to sickness, then I started drinking and it went downhill from there. But I like most people began tapering off my attendance, over guilt because I had stopped dressing chassidic, and wasn’t coming as often. Then the president of the shul, and a very influential man all around at that, cornered me in the shul one day as I was leaving and asked what was going on with me. I confessed I was embarrassed because I was so religious before and now I was just kind of a slacker and I didn’t want to make people talk. You know what? He got so upset with me and ranted that I never cared what anyone else thought before, but I came anyways, why did it matter now? If I backed off I let people win; even worse, I was letting myself lose what I needed and it hurt people to watch me hurt that way. I was there for myself and Hashem, everything else was irrelevant. He was right but in the end my guilt won out. I eventually moved to start anew, but found myself living too far outside of the frum communities to be an active part. I guess thats why online contributions are such a big deal to me, its something that started in a community and now actually provides some for me.
Oh so you do date, you mentioned dating earlier. Do you date only Jewish guys?
I haven’t dated in many years. It’s just not a priority in my life at this time. I’m not against it, but lets admit its, it can be very difficult and confusing. I’ve had very close but platonic relationships with non-Jewish guys, but I’ve showed reluctance to much more. It’s hard to ask someone to make so many one-sided compromises; kashrut, Shabbat. And to constantly explain oneself. One doesn’t always want to be a curator in their own life.
Now dating Jewish guys isn’t always easier, in fact it can actually be much harder. The trade-off is that often times Jews can be more turned off by Judaism than non-Jews. The experience of dissatisfaction or pain is so personal. And the more religious the person’s background, the harder it can be sometimes, again from internalizing it. Many of us who come out of a more religious life tend to come with a lot of hangups. We tend to demand a lot of our yiddishkiet, and often turn our noses up at more progressive Judaism. But at the same time our person-hood requires us to be more flexible with others if we expect them to be likewise. The problem is that we can feel like Frankenstein-like creatures; lots of pieces of the old world, held together by bits and pieces of modern tolerance, and a bunch of scars to show for how hard it is to put the two together. A lot more are just left permanently broken.
What’s the tension. Why not embrace liberal Judaism?
When the holidays come around it can be a lot depressing if you’re on your own and without a community. But going to a liberal synagogue on holidays can be odd. People joke even if they knew it was a holiday they probably couldn’t even spell it anyhow; people aren’t exactly being unfair in their estimation there. But I’ve tried. I love the local Reform congregation, the people are great but I can’t get beyond the organ. I get nervous because I’m not used to being in a synagogue and not know whats going on or whats happening next. I’m not the only one, I know literally thousands of people who feel the same. Sometimes Progressive Judaism, to those who are used to living in a frum world, seems very childish and condescending to the point of camp songs. You rather have farbreingin – a Chassidic party with the Crown Royal, not sitting around singing “mama’s little baby loves latkes.” I’m not sure that ever is gonna change for me, who knows.
But I am actually a member of the Reconstructionist movement officially. Some might see that as very liberal. However, after much consideration and consultation with rabbis of all the movements one person that stood out to me through their commentary was Rabbi Mordechi Kaplan. He was a person that was influential as a man who was ordained Orthodox, taught for the Conservative seminaries and even founded one of them, spawned things like Young Israel (Orthodox movement) and the Jewish Federation movement, he was all over the map in his life. A person often associated with great liberalism, but in his personal life still maintained an attitude and respect of tradition, while allowing innovation for others as they needed it. He didn’t mean to start a movement, his student just felt it was necessary in order to preserve his teachings. A wise rabbi, Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue in Irvine, who is one of the finest Reconstructionist leaders, gave me some good advice that I was able to live by: “live kosher, think treif.” It’s easier to join in with a progressive community that doesn’t freak out because I’m a bit more traditional in my practice. But daily, I still use only a Chabad siddur.
So do you ever see yourself going full on Baal Teshuvah? Do you see yourself going orthodox again?
You mean is there still life in the Borsalino? Sureeeee. I’ll tell the truth. Life has been difficult for me in recent years because I’ve been in the care of my family after being ill for so long. But I really only know one way of living. My first home on my own was a kosher and shomer shabbat home, that’s what I know and ideally that’s what I want in life. Its hard to impose so much all the time while with family, and I get a lot of leeway given I have physical disability; suffering a long time through HIV/AIDS has meant halachically I have a lot of space to work with; Jewish law is very receptive of personal limitation and needs. But as I get stronger and start rebuilding myself I, like all people with a second chance at life, want to stop living on the handicap and start doing things with all the normalcy and dignity one is accustomed. Modern medicine is making that much more possible now, but its taking time.
But I have always believed in ahavat yisrael and klal yisrael; love for and unity of the Jewish people. I’m a bit more pluralistic these days, but I dare say that anyone who allows me to learn and daven with them; I promised to be there on my best behavior. I’ve never been a person with any agenda. I just want to learn, do some good deeds and give a little charity. I’ll partner with any shul or community that has room for someone like that.
Ideally I would like is to make aliyah to Israel, to really tackle the deeper academics of the Hebrew language and learn in a more natural setting than suburban Los Angeles. Of course not having any family there and the complexity of trying to keep uninterrupted treatment while settling in will take tremendous work to overcome. But in Israel people often find it much easier to experiment with their range of Jewish expression without having to make too many theological leaps. People tend to do or do not, without coming up with a Jedi philosophy as to why not to try. The other benefit is being able to purchase affordable health care in Israel, which just isn’t possible yet in this country. Let’s see what happens.
You don’t ever like to give any type of interview without being able to share a davar torah – a message from the Torah. Do have anything to share today?
Sure. Absolutely, we are coming upon Shabbat quickly. Shabbat has already started in Israel. They are reading from Parshat Bamidbar, the start of the book of Numbers. The entire book is often summarized and nicknamed by the census that takes place at the beginning of it. Each man of full-grown age was to give a half-shekel donation. What we all ask ourselves is “what is a half-shekel?” Well the truth is the half-shekel was the common man’s coin. On their own maybe a donation of one wasn’t much, but when pooled together they were able to support the entire enterprise of sacrifice and communal needs. We are just a half, we need to partner with others to be useful sometimes.
It can be hard to do that, sure. Sometimes we just want to be the whole on our own. But we are Jews, we are about the covenant of G-d to Abraham. And that covenant was made between the halves. G-d and Abraham met and made a vow between the halves of their sacrifice. (Parshat Lech Lecha) Many of us are walking between those halves still, lingering. It’s okay, sometimes that’s where a promise and a blessing will be found. G-d is willing to meet us if we do our part and meet Him in return.