Friday, 29 November 2013

THE GOOD RAV: A Chassidic Talmud Chacham and Rabbi speaks:

                                                   Generic photo of a rabbi. NOT the speaker
This is a transcription from a speech given by a chassidic rabbi, a paskening rov, who does not identify as gay but who has been very supportive of LGBT people. This was not a private answer, but something that was said in front of an extremely large audience. Any mistakes are mine and not the rabbi's. 

I’d like to start with my personal journey regarding Judaism and homosexuality. It goes back over twelve years. It was late Thursday night. I came back after a long meeting and my wife said to me “Why are you crying?” I told her I’m sad for a young Jewish man, an Orthodox young man in his mid-thirties, who’d been to yeshiva for a number of years. He had come around after making an appointment and cancelling it, and then making another appointment and cancelling that one too, and then again, until he actually took courage to come around. 

He presented me with three questions:

1) I have never been attracted to women. I have always been attracted to men. I know there is a commandment in the Torah to be fruitful and multiply. Pru urvu. I have to have children. Is it indeed incumbent on me to get married and have children?

2) To the extent that I am a homosexual in orientation, meaning that I am only attracted to men and not to women, how would you behave towards me if I came to your shul? Would you allow me to daven before the amud? Would you allow me to get an aliyah? Would you allow me to be part of the community? What would happen if you knew I wasn’t just a homosexual in orientation but I was actually active, and engaged in a relationship with another man? Would that make a difference to you?

3) If it’s true that the Torah in the Book of Leviticus makes it clear, unequivocal, that it’s forbidden to engage in male homosexual liaison, I have to ask the question; G-d made me this way or He allowed me to develop like this, nature, nurture, but at the end of the day, I never chose it. From a very young age, this is what I recall. This is who I am. But G-d says, “Don’t engage in male-to-male intercourse”, so that means that I am obliged and presumed to remain celibate for my whole life. I won’t ask you why would G-d should do such a thing, to allow a [gay] person to develop through nature, nurture, providence, biology - and at the same time, constrain him in such a way as to give him a commandment that means that he has to remain lonely, to live a loveless life, craving for closeness, intimacy, physical intimacy included in sexuality, nevertheless deprived, frustrated, living a life of misery.

[The young man] posed those three questions that night and I hope to answer those three questions here now…

With regard to marriage, I said to him what I thought then was the obvious answer. I still think it is and I am surprised that there are others who disagree. If anyone, man or woman, draws another person into a marital relationship knowing that the other person is heterosexual, if a gay person draws another person into a relationship knowing that the other person craves a normal marriage and they are gay and they don’t inform their spouse of their orientation, this is an ethical crime of the highest order. 

Even if they do achieve what might be called informed consent, such a marriage is, “generally speaking” (there are always exceptions to every rule) an unconceived marriage for a number of obvious reasons. Even though, halachically, a man is obliged to get married and have children, there are circumstances when a person is not emotionally or physically equipped to have children. If a person is not attracted to women, then this would mean he would be exempt from fulfilling the positive commandment “Be fruitful and multiply.”  Halachically, I explained that there is a category *, there is only a certain extent that a person must push themselves or expend his resources in order to fulfill any given commandment, including this primary commandment of getting married. If a person’s psychological infrastructure was such that it didn’t attract him to women, he is not obliged to steel himself and live in a marital relationship in order to have children.

Subsequently, even recently, I have realized how important it is that this message gets across. Firstly, because I myself have seen many cases where people have been encouraged by spiritual leaders, psychological counselors, lay leaders, to get married and very often these [gay] people have gotten married with the best intentions and subsequently, they’ve suffered the consequences. They, their spouses, their children. In the aftermath of an acrimonious divorce, things become extremely messy, extremely painful for them.

The other reason is, because only recently in a kiruv journal that’s published in Flatbush, it was suggested that people who go through therapy, even though they are going to have relapses, even though it’s almost inevitable that there will be relapses into homosexual conduct, should get married. I find this to be mind-boggling! I feel it is important that people should be aware that getting married is not just a privilege, it’s a responsibility and a duty, and if a [gay] person doesn’t have the ability to remain committed and is unlikely to be able to suppress his inclination in all ways and at all times, then it’s better that he doesn’t get married. On the contrary, to give up the dream of marriage and having children and bringing grandchildren to ones own parents is an extremely difficult thing, and those people who do that, knowing that they are not able to honour the marital vows, are in actuality doing an act of altruism, in depriving themselves of blessings that they themselves may crave, the blessings of family life and children.

With regard to the second question, I said to him, paraphrasing what my friend Rabbi M said, the Torah prohibition is not about orientation, it’s about actions. Clearly, whatever a person is, no matter what his orientation is, he should be welcome in shul. He should be a full-fledged member of the synagogue, and there should not be ostracizing and then, he’d never be disenfranchised. We should accept any member, man or woman, regardless of their orientation. 

There are, however, two types of communities. There are those communities that only allow people who observe the entire Torah to be part of their community. If you do even one sin, then you are out. Clearly, such a community would not allow an active homosexual Jew to be a part of their community. But the vast majority of Jewish communities today do allow all sorts of people, many of whom don’t keep a whole host of laws, to be part of the shul membership. And it must be added, people who are dishonest in business are allowed to be members of those shuls. Dishonesty in business is an infringement of a law against ones fellow man, an interpersonal crime, whereas homosexual relations are actually only a crime between man and G-d. There is no human victim here. It’s not in an exploitative context. 

Rambam, Maimonides, writes in a number of places, in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, that forbidden sexual relationships come under the category of Bein Adam Lemakom, between man and  G-d. Therefore, in a community that makes room for people who don’t fully observe the shabbos or the rules of niddah, Taharas Hamishpacha, family purity and so on, there is no reason they should not  allow even practicing homosexuals to be part of their community, provided they [the homosexuals] are respectful to the ethos of the synagogue. But that’s true with regard to ALL people. We allow heterosexuals to be part of our community, sometimes we have shabbatonim for young boys and girls on Friday night, we don’t check up on them when they go home, and provided they are respectful to the shul,  they behave in accordance with the ethos of the shul, then of course they can be fully participant in the shul.

I believe that most people are not compelled to do things all of the time. There may be exceptions to the rule. In terms of assessing the severity or the lack of severity of a particular crime, you have to take into consideration the context. Today, even if people know something is forbidden, and they know that’s what the Torah says and that’s what the rabbi preaches from the pulpit. Even if they know that’s what they are supposed to do, they were raised in a society that disregarded these prohibitions. Generally speaking, they are classified in halachic literature as a tinok shenisba, a child taken into captivity. 

As condescending as the term may sound, Maimonides, in his Laws of Rebels, Hilchot Mamrim, chapter 3, section 3, used this term to describe second generation Karaites, who although they knew all their Jewish obligations and were quite familiar with the rabbinical tradition, and knew what they were supposed to do, nevertheless, since they were brought up in a society that disregards these rules and did not consider them to be binding , they weren’t held responsible to the same degree type as someone who had received an education right from a young age in keeping the laws of the oral rabbinic tradition. The same thing applies here. In western society where many people are brought up under the influence of the  Zeitgeist, according to which the sexual morality of the day doesn’t necessarily honour the Torah’s view, such people, where the cap fits, can also be deserving of the title tinok shenisba.

If I say nothing else but this, dayeinu. When G-d judges people, he does not judge them according to the objective category of the crime. He judges them according to their subjective circumstances.  Now, any heterosexual, myself included, who thinks about their own challenges, knows that he often slips and falls, even when he could have done better. Think about the plight of homosexuals, such as the young man I was speaking to on that night, who was constrained in a homosexual orientation such that he was not able to have any other outlet. How many of us would actually be ready to commit ourselves to a life of celibacy and avoid all transgressions at all times? I think if we look at ourselves honestly in the mirror and if we put our hands on our hearts, we will acknowledge that this would be a very difficult achievement. 

Therefore, understanding the circumstances and the context in which a homosexual finds himself is most important. If G-d judges people according to their circumstances, we too, should do so as well. While that does not mean in any way shape or form that we want to rewrite the halacha, the law, the Torah states explicitly that which it states, nevertheless, it does make a huge difference in the way we approach an individual who is confronted with a special set of challenges, circumstances which are most difficult.

I finally come to the last question I was confronted with that night:

Lamah asah H-shem kacha? Why did G-d make me this way? This question has been so powerful that some rabbis have felt compelled to assume that there must be some magical cure, or way of transforming homosexuals, making them into heterosexuals. Recently, some rabbis issued a Torah Declaration that said that reorientation must be possible for all people because G-d, who is merciful, would not create people to have them locked in an unfulfilling life, lonely and loveless, and that the only way they could get out of this [isolation] would be through a prohibition.

This argument, in my opinion, is theologically flawed, because we find that G-d actually has put lots of people in these circumstances.  We can find many people who, whether by providence or from biology, are in circumstances where the only way to escape misery would be through violating halacha. There are people who, because of physiological, biological, emotional or even halachic conditions, can’t get married, and such people have to live a celibate life. And the only way they are able to find intimacy and physical love would be if they were to violate the halacha.

There have been, in the past, many people who were constrained and unable to have children because of premature ovulation, and the laws of niddah affected their ability to have the blessing of children. That’s an example of people committed to keep the halacha who have even suffering childlessness their whole lives, in order not to transgress the halacha. There are people in around the world who have to give up a lot, to live in destitution, even die of poverty, in order not to break shabbos. The idea that despite the nisyonos that G-d gives people, we can somehow straightjacket G-d and insist, and say G-d would never do that, is not correct and not reflective of reality. Therefore I don’t think that is a statement that can be supported. I don’t accept that as the answer to the theological question [of why did G-d make me like thus].

How then do I deal with the theological question? The answer is very simple. I don’t. I don’t have an answer. The question is an important question but it doesn’t have anything to do with homosexuality or heterosexuality or anything to do with sexuality. It has to do with all of these and many more. It has to do with the general question in theology of why do great people suffer from infertility? Why can’t great people find love and spouses? Why do great people suffer from many tragedies, and great, small, or medium-sized difficulties in their lives? We have no ability to answer that.  Therefore, it’s important to place this question in the right context. It’s not unique to the sexual portion of Leviticus. It is something about the human condition and the way G-d created us.

In my own meetings with homosexuals, I have four goals that I do believe can be achieved, I strive to achieve them and to a large extent, I have achieved them:

1.     Someone who is homosexual should not lose his life from depression, from feelings of impotence, through drugs, through ephemeral relationships and promiscuity.

2.     Someone who is homosexual should not lose their family, through them alienating their parents and siblings, or through their parents or siblings alienating them.

3.      Homosexuals should not lose their rabbis, their communities, their place in their shul, either through their shul alienating them or them alienating their shul, or through identifying themselves completely by their orientation and going off somewhere else.

4.     Homosexuals should not lose their G-d, They shouldn’t feel that just because they have such a tremendous challenge and just because they haven’t always been able to meet the requirements of this challenge according to the Torah, therefore, it’s all or nothing. Strangely, no heterosexuals seem to feel that their failings make them that way [excluded from the frum community]. For some reason, this is a mistake that’s happened; that people feel it’s either all or nothing. We have to somehow make sure that people should recognize that G-d loves all Jewish people, and the Jewish community should make room in their home for every Jew. 

      As I said before, we should do everything in our power so that homosexual Jews should not lose their lives, not lose their families, not lose their communities and not lose their G-d.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

FRUM GAY MAN: Struggling to integrate two worlds

I’m 21 yrs old. I live in New York. I grew up in an Orthodox community in the midwest and consider myself Orthodox, though I struggle religiously. I work as a makeup artist and I am openly gay.
 Growing up, gay wasn’t a thing, but I went through a lot of bullying in middle school. There was one kid who targeted me and later on, when I made a blog, I wrote about him but didn’t mention his name. He was a bad seed. None of the teachers liked him. He would torture me. He got into my head, psychologically, and he also hurt me physically, and he’d get other kids to hurt me too, or he’d hurt them. The school didn’t do much about it. And then, in 7th grade, his father became my principal.  That kid used to call me a girl, gay, faggot. He said those things, and I would go home crying every single night. I was worried that he had somehow embedded the idea of being gay in my mind, just through the constant name-calling. That was my first experience with “gay”. I thought being gay wasn’t a real thing. Just a product of the bullying.
 That cruelty made it harder growing up in orthodox community. And I was always told you marry a woman and have kids, and that’s the way it is. When we went through the posukim having to do with gay people in school, it was very casual. They didn’t stop to discuss it. It was black and white, a condemnation. And if it was in the Torah as wrong, surely there couldn’t be real people who were gay. I thought something was psychologically wrong with me. I didn’t know any other gay people either, just Jack and Will from Will and Grace. My first experience seeing two men kissing was weird for me. I’d never seen anything like that in my life and it was strange. I saw a whole different side in Tel Aviv. I got over that weirdness.
In high school, the bullying got worse. I went out of town for yeshiva in 9th and 10th grade, but the principal and mashpia guessed I was gay and they decided to make me their project. They caused a lot of emotional damage that still affects me. High school was terrible. It made me feel worse about myself, depressed, self-conscious. For 11th and 12th grade, I wanted to go back home, and I ended up in a local yeshiva. I never discussed being gay, but it was something I struggled with. I began to do research online, and found JONAH, and I thought that would be my way out, a fixing, a magic way out. I got in touch with them and I started therapy with them. It was a horrible experience, and the only good thing that came out of it, was that I was able to come out as gay. The only reason I even told my mother I was gay was because I thought they would be able to cure me. I told her, thinking it was all over and I would be straight. They made me believe I could change.
I came out to mother through email. I was so afraid of telling her that I couldn’t even talk to her. She texted me she loves me unconditionally, no matter what. That night, she said she knew it as a fact since I was in kindergarten, that I am gay. I was always different from the time I was little. I came out when I was seventeen and by then, my parents had had time to prepare themselves. They were shocked but still supportive. My mother supported me in going to JONAH. They never forced me to do it, though. And when I realized it was unhealthy and I stopped, they were okay also. They just wanted me to be happy.
I left the yeshiva before my final year, and I was homeschooled. I was able to sort out my life and move on. The yeshiva didn’t kick me out. I just didn’t want to put anyone in an uncomfortable position.
I have two older sisters and one younger brother. My sisters knew I was gay, but maybe my brother didn’t. It wasn’t a surprise to them. I was just confirming it to them. It was a shock but they all handled it really well. When people asked my sister about it, she said, “It would be selfish for me to say that it’s hard for me, since it’s S who is going through this thing.” I have a better relationship with my family than I ever did.

My mother and my siblings thought I was gay because I have stereotypical qualities. I was different. My mother had a good intuition because I was very flamboyant. It made it easier for me later on. If I wasn’t so flamboyant, it would have been harder to come out, harder to get accepted.
I’m not uncomfortable with who I am. It’s who I am. It’s not me shoving it in their face…I am just being me, the way I have always been. I don’t carry a sign, but this is just how I am. It’s nice that I have so much support these days and from my family. I feel lucky to be born in this generation.

My dad and I had an interesting relationship. We are very different. We didn’t connect so much, but ever since I came out, he’s tried really hard to be there for me as a parent. He struggled with not understanding it, but he never had a problem with me actually being gay.
I was always a good kid. So that made it easy. I was good at home and good in school. One good thing is that my parents don’t care about other people’s opinions. All Jews are Jews. They don’t like those labels. They accept all Jews. In my father’s mind, me being gay was our family’s thing, and everyone else’s opinions are irrelevant. He is a big baal tzedoka and he gives to many places, but he stopped giving money to the organizations and rabbis who signed the [homophobic] Torah Declaration. Family first! He has my back, and that improved our relationship.

It’s surprising, but I didn’t have any issues from the community, because everyone kind of guessed already. I left to Israel after 12th grade, and that also gave everyone in the community time to absorb it. It was shocking because I was so young and my family was so prominent. Everyone offered opinions, but we were already at a very strong point by the time that was happening.

In Israel, I went to Bar Ilan’s American program. The dean knew I was gay, and he seemed cool with it, but he told me to keep it on the down-low. I thought he was just being cool, but actually, he didn’t want anyone to know. Then, when everyone did know, the dean started to have an issue with it. I hadn’t realized that not being out [being on the down-low] was my condition for being in the program. One of the teachers told me that the program was considering kicking me out. I went to the dean and said, “My family and I will be pressing charges of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation if you continue with your plan to kick me out.  We’ve already spoken to a lawyer.“ I managed to finish out that year there.
There were a few boys in the program who wrote mean things on my door, I spoke with someone in the administration every single day for six months until it was finally taken down. The program wasn’t good about me being gay. At the end of the program I spoke with the dean in front of my father. I said the only reason I am talking about this now is because there will be other boys who come after me who are gay, and may be not as strong as me, and you could cause them to have a serious issue [suicide]. You could have a major problem on your hands if you treat them the way you treated me.
When I returned to my hometown, people weren’t so surprised about me being gay anymore. It was what it was. No one talked about it. Some people were overly friendly towards me who had never spoken to me before. “Oh my gosh! How are you?” They talked to me like I was some kind of cancer patient. I preferred the people who were talking about me behind my back!

One person who helped a lot was Rabbi Litwack, my rabbi in 7th and 8th grade. He’s the one who said it’s not so black and white. He doesn’t believe it’s something I can change, and he told me that though I can’t do every single mitzvah, I can still be a good Jew. He told me, if you are in an accident, how can you put on tefillin? A kid who is autistic can’t do a lot of the mitzvos. He told me a lot of supportive things. I go out to dinner with him or out for shalosh seudos. He’s a really big influence and role model for me. He is part of the reason I am still connected.

Certain situations make you realize who your real friends are. The people who really care about me, have stayed my friends. The only person I had a really negative reaction from is also someone I think might be in the closet.

It’s difficult to be out and Jewish. I’m not going to say it’s not. When you are finally out, you make a lot of friends who have been through similar experiences. My mother and father can’t completely relate to my situation. But finding people who can relate is amazing. But still, I am tied to a community that rejects me. That is the experience of many of my friends, too. Your belief system is in a different community, the Jewish community, and that poses a big challenge as a person. I am confident and comfortable as a gay man who is Jewish, but as an orthodox Jew, every day is a struggle. I always told my parents, I want to keep Shabbat because I feel a connection rather than out of habit. Now, it’s on and off for me, because I struggle to reconcile these two worlds. That’s the hardest thing for me. It’s a purgatory. You don’t know where to go because you are in-between two communities and you’d like them to be intertwined, but for me, I just can’t make it happen.
I have friends who claim they are successfully both gay and Jewish, but to me it doesn’t feel fully possible. It’s a big struggle and it’s difficult. There are no official answers, just vague opinions from Rabbis. I don’t believe it’s fully possible to be completely comfortable with both, completely content. I think you can, but the connection is challenging, like water and oil.
It’s interesting, because I took AP psychology, and they say that when you go through something traumatic, it’s hard to remember. It goes in your subconscious. The majority of my life, I was in the closet, and I barely remember a thing about it. Now, I am just out and about. Now, my earlier life feels like I am telling an old story. It feels so far away and sad. It feels like I am a different person now. I used to be miserable and alone and sad and depressed, and I had to pretend I was happy. It makes me sad.

Now, though I struggle with being religious, I am completely happy and feel so good and so deserving to live my life without having to adjust myself to please others. I lived like that for a long time. Im ein ani li, mi li?…”If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”.
I have goals but I don’t plan. Man plans and G-d laughs. I’m so young. I want a relationship because I feel like I am at that point now. Because of my circumstances, I had to grow up real fast. Most people my age are still in the closet.  But I am past that. I want to find someone to be in a relationship with. I want to continue growing my business too. In the beginning it was hard, but now I am busy.
 I don’t know about having kids. I always thought that I wanted kids, and now I am an uncle and I love that. Eventually, I’d like to start a family with someone. I’d like to find someone Jewish, someone who I could relate to and be able to open up to. I’m a very guarded person. I build up walls because of everything I’ve been through. In a relationship, I’d like to be myself and be comfortable and to feel like I don’t have to be defensive.

I want to go to the Eshel shabbaton this year, and I want my friends to go with me. All my friends aren’t sure what they are going to do, but I really love going.
Everybody has their struggles and obstacles in life, even though we can’t see everyone else’s struggles. Something I think is crucial is respect. Just because you might not agree with the way I am, it’s not your business. You don’t need to have an opinion on it. Have respect for me even if you don’t agree with me. I am tznius, and you don’t even know what, if anything I am doing behind closed doors. I am not going to damage your children. I am not recruiting. Please accept me for who I am, not reject me, based on a small part of who I am.

The first few years after she was married, my sister had a hard time having children. Imagine if everyone in shul looked at you, and gave you dirty looks and talked about you because you couldn’t have children. Imagine if that happened to you. That’s what it’s like for me, walking into shul, an immediate bad feeling, based on something I have no control over. Please just find it inside yourselves to be respectful.

Friday, 22 November 2013


This article originally appeared in the Jewish Week (10/11/2013), and is reposted here. Frum Gay Girl did not do this interview, but believes it will be of interest to the readers of the blog. You may read the original together with the comments generated at this link: http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/opinion/my-secret-father-lgbtq-child-not-what-you-think
I am a Modern Orthodox Jew, the product of a Torah u’Madda (Torah and secular) education. I am not sure what I expected to discover at this first-ever weekend “Shabbaton,” hosted by Eshel, for Orthodox Jewish parents of LGBTQ children last April. 
Our youngest daughter “came out” to us as bisexual more than seven years ago and we have guarded the secret between us, our two other daughters, and our son-in-law. We immediately embraced her and told her that we could never love her any less than we do -- which is the most you can love anybody. Many years have passed and we have long accepted our daughter for who she is.  We worry less about our daughter’s future as the rest of the world outside the Orthodox Jewish community accelerates to accept same sex-relationships. But we still worry how our extended family, community and Jewish world will react when we are “all out.”
Here’s the problem:  Our Torah -- God-given and True -- explicitly forbids male same-sex sexual relationships of a particular sort and although the Torah makes no direct mention of lesbian relationships, the Rabbis have forbidden those as well. So as long as my community and my friends don’t know, I have not had to deal with my “dirty little secret”-- the one I know but didn’t articulate before the Eshel retreat.
My secret isn’t my daughter’s sexual orientation. I could not be prouder of my daughter and have no need or desire to keep that a secret from anyone. My secret is that I do not accept the rigid Orthodox view of same sex relationships and I have been embarrassed to share that out loud in my relatively “conservative” Orthodox shul.
I know that humans don’t choose their sexual orientation much in the same way I know that the world is not flat and was not created in six physical days 5773 years ago. I am a doctor by profession. I have lived through the period where doctors thought autism was caused by “refrigerator mothers” who could not attach properly. Despite its patent absurdity, that now- debunked psychiatric hypothesis survived well into the 1970s. We know better nowadays.  Various psychiatric narratives also blamed mothers and fathers  for “producing” gay children.
Therapy to “cure” same sex attraction has been a disaster in so many ways. Science has progressed, thank God! I try to remember to thank God for revealing to us the amazingly complex laws of His world.
We now know that gender identification and sexuality are primarily biologically determined, likely during a critical period of fetal development. Anyone who still thinks children “choose” to have same sex attraction is ignoring science. Our tradition bends to accommodate new knowledge. The Rambam dealt with this issue in the 12th century when he asserted that we must reconcile scientific knowledge with conflicting Torah passages by reinterpreting scripture as long as the scientific “knowledge” does not contradict basic tenets of the faith.
So many LGBTQ children describe how hard they fought to try to be “normal”.  One estimate is that gay children are 8 times more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to attempt suicide. In Israel, nearly 25 percent of teenage suicides occur in LGBTQ children – can any sentient being think that young people deliberately put themselves in this psychologically painful and dangerous position volitionally? Really? 
My God and the God of our fathers and mothers, who watches over every human being, created my youngest daughter and one of my nephews with the capacity for same sex attraction.  And we are supposed to ignore them or reject them? What are their options? Celibacy? Torah Judaism embraces the inherent value of sexual intimacy in a marriage (even for infertile couples).
My problem, then, is with broadening the interpretation of the pesukim, or verses, that prohibit and label as abominable male–male intercourse of a particular sort – and using those verses to exclude same-sex couples from Orthodox Jewish life.
My Orthodox Jewish roots are deep.  If my daughter chooses to leave my faith, that would break my heart. If she chooses to spend it with the Jewish female love of her life in a community that allows her to continue to participate in its shul and celebrate her life milestones within an accepting Orthodox community, my life would be complete. If we teach our LGBTQ children that they must deny their sexuality in order to stay within Orthodoxy, we are literally driving them away. They have no choice in that particular dialectic.
Neither do it. Baruch Hashem, I am God-fearing and the continuity of my father’s faith, a Holocaust survivor, is a core value for me and my family. But if forced to choose between an Orthodoxy that rejects and pushes away my daughter or my father’s faith, I choose this: to bend my father’s faith to embrace his granddaughter. He probably wouldn’t have understood her situation very well. But I am sure that is what he and God actually want; they want all their children to stay in their “tent.”
These and many other thoughts surfaced during the intensely beautiful Eshel weekend I spent with other parents of LGBTQ children, all of whom were struggling within their various flavors of Orthodoxy (haredi to modern). Through a weekend of openness and sharing with parents who love their children no less than I, and hearing their stories of pain and joy, we created a Shabbos of healing. This was a traditional Shabbos with a traditional minyan. We had Torah learning and amazing sessions where we could feel each other’s struggles and hear from some who have dealt with this issue for more than a decade and who shared the joy of the continued Jewish engagement of their LGBTQ children.
I learned with Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi and later had the incredible opportunity to speak with him personally. I davened with a new “wholeness” in my heart.  Our love for our children fueled our groping for a way to bend our tradition to embrace what we know is true in our hearts. We cried, laughed, and sang together. By the end of our wonderful Shabbos together, we were wishing out loud that all the attendees lived together in the same physical community.
Our precious children were made the way they are by our God and the God of our fathers and mothers. Our Orthodox Jewish God loves his LGBTQ progeny no less than His other children. I am sure of this. This very same God wants us to find a way to reinterpret our pesukim, our rabbinic literature and our tradition today, with our current knowledge of LGBTQ issues. The roots of our tradition extend thousands of years nourishing the eitz chaim, or tree of life, whose living branches grow and extend with each passing day, just as our faith is renewed in our hearts daily.  At the Eshel Shabbaton, we parents were joined in a vision of creating the welcoming space in our precious Orthodox tradition in which our beloved LGBTQ children can breathe, thrive and lead Orthodox Jewish lives.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

THE MORAH: Lesbian Chassidic Girls' School Teacher

I am in my late 40's. I am no longer a part of the chassidish community I grew up in, though I was a respected morah in the girls' high school until fairly recently. I am still chassidish, just a different kind of chassidish. I lost my job when I came out as a lesbian. Actually, that's not quite true. What happened was not that I lost my job. I wasn't rehired for the position I'd held for more than twenty years. No one said anything to me. But when it was time to hear about the new school year, there was a big fat silence.
I waited and waited, even past the beginning of the school year, because that was my income and I couldn't believe they wouldn't rehire me without at least saying something. When I didn't hear anything by the beginning of Tishrei [first month after school starts], I went in to see the principal, but she tried to avoid talking with me. Then, when she saw that I wasn't going to leave, she slipped out a side door and wouldn't talk with me later on the phone.
This was someone who had been my very good friend. I looked up to her like I looked up to no other Rebbetzin. I decided to try to speak with her again on a different day, so I came in unannounced and surprised her. 
She was not pleased. She folded her arms and pulled away from me. "I love you," she said. "We have been friends for many years. But I can't lie. I hate what you are doing to yourself. You can't deny that the Oibershter (G-d) would be very disappointed in you. Your soul is higher than this! The Rebbe would be very disappointed in you too. How can you allow yourself to behave in this way? You, who were a role model for the entire school in tznius and aidelkeit [modesty and refinement]!"
I felt tears coming into my eyes. I didn't want to cry in front of her. I wanted to be strong. I had been strong in the face of the many friends, family members and neighbours who had said hurtful things to me or even refused to have any contact with me after I came out, but in front of this one person, someone who had helped me through every crisis with my ex-husband, I couldn't be strong. I began to sob.

"I'm not going to deny it," I said. "I'm a frimmer yid (religious Jew) and I know that what I am doing isn't what G-d wants from me. But I also know that I am never going to get married to a man again. I also know I need companionship, friendship, help in my house with my kids, support and love. Will you condemn me to living my whole life alone?"
"You could have a girlfriend," said my principal. "But you could only be friends. Even if you lived in the same house. You couldn't ever be physical with her. That would be okay in the eyes of the Oibershter, even if other people in the community would look at you strangely and not allow their children to come to your house. And, even with that compromise, I could never have you teach in my school." I believe she thought she was making room for me, being accepting in her own way, but instead, it drove a stake through me. 
"Could you live like that?" I asked her, and she admitted that such a life would be a terrible nisoyon for her. "But my issues are not your issues," she said. "You have to battle this nisoyon [spiritual test of being gay] day and night, wth tooth and claw. Who knows - maybe this is why your soul is here on this earth? To have such a harsh nisoyon must mean that you have a very lofty soul."
I stared at her. I didn't know what to say. I felt completely crushed. To her, my life was not human and painful and challenging, but just some object lesson out of a story book, cut and dried, an easy thing to dissect, completely lacking real emotions and real human connections. "It's not a nisoyon for me," I replied. "My life is much better since I admitted that I am a lesbian. And I don't believe that H-shem created me the way I am and then cursed me to live alone. I don't understand what it all means. I do not deny the Torah, but neither do I know what everything means. I don't know why bad things happen to good people. I don't know why H-shem made me gay and also said that acting on my gay impulses is bad. I dont understand ANY of this."

"You made a choice. A choice which goes against all that Torah wants from us," she said. "Now you are stuck with it. You'll see. In time you'll have to come back, begging, because being gay isn't the life for you. You'll be empty. A shell." She turned away from me and didn't turn back. I got up slowly. I felt as if I had been run over with a steam roller.
"I did not make a choice," I said. "This life, this self, was given to me."

I cried the whole way home. Tears were streaming down my face. I was afraid that all the people walking past would see, so I pulled up the (never before worn) hood of my coat, to cover my face. It was hard for me to get a breath, and then, it started raining. I've always thought that H-shem was crying with me, that even if the principal couldn't feel how painful this all was for me, He could.

When I came home, my children asked me what was wrong. I didn't know what to tell them. We needed the money I make from teaching, since my ex-husband does not support us at all. Inside, I was frantic, while outside, I had to stay calm, not to upset the kinderlach (children). "Something upsetting happened, but we will be alright," I said. "Der Oiberhster vet unz helfn" [G-d will help us]. My children gathered around me and hugged me and patted my face. "We love you, Mommy," they said. We lit the fire and sat down with hot cocoa and snuggled, reading books. My oldest daughter made cookies and served them to all of us. "Here Mommy," she said, serving me first. "Life is still sweet, no matter what happened."
Later, my girlfriend came over to see how I was, and she also comforted me. And later still, several friends from the small circle of frum gay people I knew came over and reminded me, again, that I had support, and that many people loved me and that even if my home community denied me, I still had another community to fall back on and that they would be there for me, however many times I needed them.

Monday, 18 November 2013


Orthodox LGBT FAQs (courtesy of JQY)

Common Orthodox questions, criticisms, and concerns vs. Supportive Orthodox Rabbinic Responses
Over the years, JQY has spoken at various panels and has had many private conversations with Orthodox Rabbis. We have compiled this fact sheet as a resource to describe the common questions, criticisms, and concerns that our members have heard from friends, family and community members, and that they have struggled with internally. We have paired each question with responses we have received from supportive Orthodox rabbis.
If you have any questions about any items on this fact sheet, or if you would like request a JQY panel where we can discuss these questions in greater depth, pleasecontact us.

Common Questions, Criticisms, and ConcernsSupportive Rabbinic Responses
Hashem does not give us anything we can not overcome. Doesn't this mean that homosexuality can be overcome?Many challenges in life are not changeable. We do not tell deaf people that they can “overcome” their deafness and hear. We learn to live our best lives with life's realities.
Everyone has their nisayon (test) in life, some of which are very difficult, isn't being gay or lesbian just a nisayon for a person to overcome?A person's nisayon (test) is to make the most of their lives and be the best Jew they can be. We don't say the nisayon of a deaf person is to hear the shofar, it is to find his unique relationship to the commandment. A nisayon is intended to bring a person closer to G-d, it is not intended to make a person live in misery.
Since homosexuality is called a toevah (abomination), doesn't it mean that it is an ethical evil that goes against Jewish hashkofa (thought) and must never seem normal?We do not know taamei hamitzvot (the reasons for commandments), eating shrimp and wearing shatnez (cloth containing wool and linen) are also called a toevah (abomination), if a person struggles with a sin between him/her and G-d that does not make him/her an evil person.
Isn't being “out” worse than merely sinning because the person is advertises the sin publicly, which is itself yehareg va'alyaver (death is preferable to the transgression)?Being “out” actually says nothing about whether one sins, or is public about sinning. Out LGBT Orthodox Jews can still be tzniut (modest), and not discuss specific sexual behaviors publicly. One should not make assumptions about someone else's private life or their sexual behaviors just because the person is 'out'.
Straight people don't go around telling people that they are straight, why do gay people feel the need to do so?Just as straight people would correct you if you assumed he or she were gay, gay people do not need to lie or pretend to be heterosexual when they are not. Every wedding, anniversary, and shidduch (arranged marriage) is a proclamation of one's heterosexuality. We do not ask an agunah (a woman who can not remarry due to not receiving a 'get') to say that she is no longer attracted to men, even though acting on this attraction would be a sin.
Doesn't pride or celebration of one's sexuality go against the Jewish tradition of tzniut (modesty)?It is important to combat the internalized shame that many LGBT people experience with self-esteem i.e. pride. Furthermore, the strength and bravery it takes to come out, overcome obstacles, and persevere is what is celebrated, not any specific sexual behavior.
We actually do not know whether homosexuality is genetic or environmental. Doesn't this mean that a person can and should change?Whether someone is 'born gay' or becomes gay due to environmental factors does not imply that being gay is somehow a choice or changeable. Many things that are caused by the environment are in fact unchangeable.
If we are openly affirming or accepting of gays, won't this be encouraging homosexuality and lead those who are on the fence to become gay?Speaking out against homosexuality does not prevent anyone from being gay; it just increases the shame and internal suffering that LGBT people experience in the Orthodox community. Sensitivity and being welcoming is the torah way, and can be life-saving for individuals suffering in silence.
We can love the sinner, but we are supposed to hate the sin, so how can we be supportive of gay Jewish organizations and homosexuality?Identifying as gay does not imply anything about whether or not a person is “sinning” by engaging in specific prohibited behaviors. Hating the sin should not mean denying a person the resources that they desperately need.
Sexuality may be fluid for some, so shouldn't everyone at least make an attempt in 'reparative therapy' if it helps some individuals?Helping some does not justify hurting others. Many individuals have reported being harmed by these types of therapies, which are often conducted by unlicensed individuals who face no repercussions for irresponsible and potentially damaging interventions.
How can we say “it gets better” to a life that halachicaly (from a Jewish legal standpoint) can have no sexual outlet?We don't say to agunot (women who can not remarry due to not receiving a 'get') that “it can never get better”, or that there is no value or place for them in Jewish life just because we can not legitimize any of their romantic behavior.
Why should LGBT Orthodox Jews be treated any different from those who desire other sexual sins like adultery?If we are to use adultery as an analogy, it would be similar to the case of an agunah (a woman who can not remarry due to not receiving a 'get'), who through no fault of her own may not have any halachicaly (from a Jewish legal standpoint) permitted sexual behavior or marriage.
Isn't homosexuality yehareg v'al yaavor (death is preferable to transgression), putting it in a different category than other sins, similar to murder?If we are to use murder as an analogy, it would be similar to the case of brain death and organ donation, where, although it is technically yehareg v'al yaavor (death is preferable to transgression), where sensitivity, ambiguity, and compassion are all imparted on those making decisions, even when they may be against rabbinic advice.
While desire may not be a choice, behavior is always a choice. Shouldn't we therefore judge those who we know engage in sexual behavior as sinners?In cases of Jewish suicide, halachic burial (burial according to Jewish law) is almost never observed because we assume that the behavior is engaged in when a person is in an altered mental state. Individuals who have Aspergers, ADD, or other different issues are often exempt from general orthodox expectations. We can not truly judge a person until we are in their shoes.
Shouldn't we avoid legitimizing or celebrating relationships that involve sin?Rabbis often counsel and celebrate couples who may not be following taharat hamishpocha (family purity laws) they still celebrate their relationships, and expect that the community not make any assumptions about possible sinful activity.
Kedushin (Jewish marriage) can only be between a man and a woman. How can we ever legitimize marriage between two people of the same sex as halachic marriage (Jewish legal marriage)?Refusing to go to attend a loved one's life events or not permitting someone's partner to attend a simcha (celebratory event) can damage relationships and create alienation and negative feelings toward Judaism. Attendance is a sign of love and support, and can help a person maintain their connection with Orthodoxy. It is not the same as legitimizing. A parent can celebrate a loved one being happy and not being alone without legitimizing the halachic nature (Jewish legal status) of his or her relationship.

Saturday, 16 November 2013


I was a hassidic mother, and it was that crazed hour when the kitchen becomes the hub, sparring grazing kids and neighbor kids all swirling around my efforts to make dinner. Truth is, as a carefully-suppressed lesbian, I welcomed the way that cacophony out-shouted the loneliness. Then the phone rang. That was my mothering line for three boys in yeshivas and the connection felt tenuous, so I always dove for it. It was my third, then sixteen. After talk about learning and friends, he threw in the latest gossip: a boy in the Chabad yeshiva in Manchester England had jumped off the roof of his dorm. The official word was neutral, but my son said the boy did it because he was gay. "Everyone knows," he said, as if the story was electricity shot through yeshiva world. The boy killed himself because he was gay.

The news bent me double.
"Berkeh's Story" was a place to put my empathy.

Berkeh’s Story
 (originally published in Moment Magazine and reprinted here with permission)
by Leah Lax
The young men huddle together shivering on the front stoop of their yeshiva, towels under their arms, waiting for the school bus that picks them up outside their dormitory, two blocks from the Rebbe’s synagogue on Seligson Avenue, every morning at six-fifteen. Their shirttails hang out over black, straight pants, ritual fringes dangling at their sides like a tailor’s forgotten threads. Several wear fedoras that hang off the backs of their heads. Faces are expressionless, shoulders and arms curved forward against the damp morning breeze. Two stand with backs turned to the wind and hands cupped over a cigarette, squinting smoke-stung eyes.
Berkeh is among them. He wishes he could do this alone. He dreams of a private pool where he could immerse without eyes around him. Like a fish in the ocean of Torah.
When the school bus arrives, the boys climb in with slumping postures and tired steps. Some set their feet apart and stand in the aisles to begin their morning prayer routine, trying to co-ordinate their swaying to the motion of the bus, unconsciously stroking their new soft beards as they pray. They clutch open pocket-sized prayerbooks that are so careworn they won’t quite close, pages fingered daily for months, years, the corners darkened and shining. Some sit, brows knit and lips moving silently. Others stretch growing legs into the aisle, heads back on the seat and eyes closed, trying to snatch a few more minutes of sleep. Shoulders touch. Limbs sprawl over one another. The bus bumps and snorts and sighs.
At the mikvah, the boys come alive. All but Berkeh enter the pool area and strip off clothes, chatting, then descend the steps to the small tiled pool where they jump into the warm water for this routine morning requirement, this ritual purification for prayer. The younger one’s splash one another, all elbows and jokes. They duck their own heads and each other’s under the water, laughing and spluttering, then run for the few showers.
“Kazen gets number one!”
“Lenowitz second!”
The boys are equal here, all locker-room naked, long ago past the bathing suit phase when they once hid their budding selves, when each was sure his was a singular, private thing. All but Berkeh.
There have been times, when he was younger, when Berkeh managed to immerse himself before the others came in, which he did with an urgency that left him stiff-jointed. He would step down into the pool, glance around and duck one swift time beneath the water, hoping to seize for that brief moment a feeling of free-floating submersion, to be a drop nulled in the greater pool. But if someone stepped in to join him he looked away from them and left with his head down, as if he could be anonymous by avoiding their eyes.
Now, at twenty, Berkeh’s days begin like this one. He showers as soon as they enter the building while the others are still in the pool, then waits on the bench in the inner area, dry and clothed, disappointed in himself for not joining them. He is afraid he will stare at their bodies and terrified of what they would say if he did, and yet he is unable to call attention to himself by refusing to come along. Berkeh wishes he could dull himself enough to participate. He trains his eyes on the white tiles hoping they will leave a blank white picture in his mind’s eye.
The others come out of the water, luminescent drops clinging to the wet flattened rows of hair on young limbs and shimmering in thin new beards. It seems to Berkeh as if the clothing the boys pull over themselves is a transparent, ephemeral shell obscuring nothing, but simply placing their bright flesh in an inaccessible place. He wants to crumble the shell in his fingers. Then he shakes himself to shake the wish away. He has to look at them until he no longer imagines he can see lean muscles and sinewed firmness beneath the clothing, until he stops rubbing his fingers on his palm in an unconscious caress. If he works at it, he thinks, hopes, his vision will grow clouded and his eyes might stop drawing down in a reflexive sweep below their chins.
Shivering again in the January chill beneath a gray low sky that muffles sound, the students climb aboard the ancient bus, which beeps its way into traffic and back to the study hall. Berkeh leans the back of his neck on the rusted chrome railing and is soon asleep. Shlomo is waiting when they arrive.
It is Shlomo shaking him, pulling his arm. “Come on Berkeh.  Let’s go.” The hot coffee smell of Shlomo’s breath is on his face. Berkeh’s lazy smile is a flash of pleasure aimed at Shlomo’s sandy wiry hair and quick toothy smile. “Already?”
To Berkeh it is a wonder Shlomo doesn’t go to the mikvah in the mornings.  Shlomo insists he doesn’t feel the need to go through empty motions and doesn’t fear questions. For him it is a simple matter, but how, thinks Berkeh, could it be simple?  I am here, in this yeshiva, and this is what we are supposed to do. The one time Shlomo has questioned Berkeh, it seemed as if the two spoke different languages. “Why must you go to the mikvah,” Shlomo insisted. “Can you put on a different skin?” I want to, Berkeh wanted to say. Yes. Like a chameleon. “I want a match like the others, and a wedding,” he told Shlomo. “I want this community to celebrate me when I take my place among them.” Shlomo nodded, sighed.
The two enter the yeshiva building, Berkeh’s cocoon. In the lobby, Berkeh looks up at the vaulted ceiling and then behind at the closed door. Outside, the brightness of things, the world and its contentions, dim when doors close behind them. Their world is an interior, of rabbis and the cacophony of male voices in the study hall.
The two boys meet again after the first class. They linger in a side hallway before morning prayers. For those few minutes Berkeh forgets where he is expected to be, their amity peppered with nudges, finger pokes to the chest, hands on arms, and closed-lip smiles with foreheads tipped forward almost touching.
Late last night in bed, Berkeh had to wonder if there were two Berkehs, two separate beings that flip and tug one another. When he joins the boys in class and locks his mind with theirs in Talmudic intricacies and mystical worlds, that is his reality. But when he’s with Shlomo…   
Berkeh’s eyes stay on his friend as they enter the synagogue and separate to go to their customary places. How could Shlomo be so sure, so calm?  He is like a river with a steady current as Berkeh struggles to swim against it.
At the front of the room is Rabbi Raichik, a local rabbi-turned-businessman who joins them most mornings and leads the prayers. Berkeh positions the black leather boxes of his tefilin on his head and forearm as a mass of voices surround him, wrapping them all up together like a human prayer shawl. His own lone voice rises up among them and then still farther, searching release. He closes his eyes, sways, and both hears and does not hear the words, until the last. “It is incumbent upon us to praise the Master of All, to ascribe greatness to the Creator of “In the Beginning…
Several of the boys approach as Berkeh is putting his tfilin away in its velvet bag.  They slap his shoulders, touch his arms. 
“Hey, Berk. You ready for Goldenberg’s faher? That test’ll be tough!”
“Berkeh never gets ruffled. He’s probably got it cold!”
Shlomo approaches and Berkeh is suddenly conscious of his chest rising and falling. He holds up one hand in an affable manner to fend off the boys. Rabbi Raichik is watching from across the room. Shlomo puts his hand on Berkeh’s shoulder and speaks quiet words warm in his ear. “Let’s get a head start on that test—I haven’t done a thing.”
“Elbow grease does it, guys,” Berkeh says to the others. “Turning pages.”

Berkeh and Shlomo face one another across a narrow wooden table in the crowded study hall, the table strewn with books of many sizes in Hebrew or Yiddish. There are several dog-eared dictionaries. Some of the other students have already settled in, some still arriving. A hum and tangle of voices begins to rise as partners square off to spar over Talmudic texts. Their days are spent like this, in pairs parsing out the tangle of Law—revealing God’s Will. Berkeh relaxes. He’s ready to learn.
Whenever he digs into the oblique commentaries, he aims for each line of text to turn itself inside out and divulge the secret that nothing is as it seems. Physical light is really darkness. Simple things are complex and the complex can be distilled down to a simple vivid point of God’s essence that shimmers its way down through multiple worlds. 
Berkeh and Shlomo have been study partners since they first met at summer camp as boys. Other pairs of study partners have always surrounded them as they do now, all facing another across a table. This is just what Berkeh wants for him and Shlomo; a bond of Torah, two heads joined, separated from bodies. But Berkeh looks across the table and sees a young man with a body. He is still troubled about their conversation the day before, when Shlomo related his conversation with his father. Berkeh was horrified.
            When Shlomo was last home to visit, he went to the local beis medrash to study in the evenings. He came home one night to find his father waiting up for him. They sat together in the kitchen, his mother already sleeping. His father’s manner was gentle, but his too-steady gaze made Shlomo feel transparent, and small. It seemed, Shlomo told Berkeh later, as if a mass of elements had come together and it was time to talk. So he told his father. Everything. How he felt. What he felt. The slow, solid conclusion about who he is. And about Berkeh, although he wouldn’t say his name. 
Shlomo’s father was shouting. “You can’t do this!” he said.
 “Do this?”
“You think you can’t help it, but you can’t love a… a man.”
To’eivah! I thought you were my son!”
“You want to flip a switch in me?”
“Yes!” his father said. 
“I can’t be anyone else,” Shlomo shot back. There was desperation and a sliver of leftover hope in his voice. Shlomo was on a roller coaster, as if he could see his father’s toy-sized figure below watching him leave when he had wanted his father in the seat next to him. He wanted to span the impossible distance, reach down and bring his father back.
His father raked his steel grey hair with an agitated hand. Somehow the community and Shlomo’s life in the yeshiva were all rolled into that view.
“Your mother has found a girl for you, son, you’ve got to try…” His father said.
“Is that why you were waiting up for me?” Shlomo said, and looked away, knowing the burden he was putting on his father to tell his mother. It was the way that, with her, he was at best awkward and newly arrived at manhood.
“Stay in yeshiva.  Stay…stay,” his father begged, when eyes were half shut for both of them, against what both wanted not to see, but also from fatigue.  But Shlomo stood on now-heavy limbs to go up the carpeted stairs to his childhood room, kept intact for him like a shrine. He would not sleep, enshrouded like that in his parent’s hopes. “I’ll stay,” he said, and, “Don’t worry,” irony in his tone. Until I leave.
To Berkeh, it was as if Shlomo was speaking his foreign language again. Leave the yeshiva? And go where? They didn’t know the ways of the world. And to even imagine that Berkeh’s father might listen to him talking about forbidden desires, or be able to face him, requires thinking in Shlomo’s strange language. No, Berkeh’s father’s language is one of Law and Torah and community, in their world of husbands with wives and children. Their world is created by words—if God withdraws His Word for a single moment, the world will cease to exist. But there is no word for Berkeh, for what he is, as if he is invisible, not made by God. There is only a name for an act that Berkeh desires and doesn’t want to desire. Shlomo’s father had said it: To’eivah. Abomination. 

In the study hall, Shlomo slouches down in his seat. Under the table, his right knee brushes Berkeh’s thigh. Berkeh jumps at the touch and pulls away, then almost as instinctively leans his thigh into Shlomo’s leg and relaxes it there, and Shlomo’s leg presses back. Berkeh frowns in concentration and digs more into the text, but his pulse quickens, and he hears his own breathing, guarded and fast. He looks down at his book to find Shlomo’s blue green eyes dancing between the lines. He tries to discuss what they are learning, forces his voice forward in a halting stubborn singsong: “Two grasp onto a single prayer shawl. One says, “It is mine,” and the other says, “It is mine.”
As they proceed, Shlomo’s hand strokes the side of his other knee in time with their singsong and Berkeh picks up that rhythmic motion. He closes his eyes only to envision Shlomo’s leg and the hand stroking it. His nostrils flare. Beads of sweat arise on Berkeh’s brow and upper lip. He tries to keep his mind from forming any image other than the blurred letters.
He feels Shlomo’s hand moving up his thigh and the tightening in his groin—an involuntary reach toward that hand—and Berkeh can’t think. The study hall fades away, but the clamor of voices still goads him, chides him. He becomes weak, his head light, tongue frozen. Nothing is real but Shlomo’s hand. Berkeh is in a vortex eddying and swirling downward to that one point, his existence one thing only: Want. He wants. 
A book slams shut. Berkeh sits up shaken, numb. His gaze darts across the sea of students. Mortification leaves him queasy, the hairs on his arms standing up, goose bumps on his skin. He tries to swallow. He thinks in panicked relief of the suit jacket on the back of his chair that he can use to cover evidence of his erection. Shaking, he puts his forehead into the palm of his right hand. 
 “That’s it,” Shlomo says.  I can’t.”
“Hey, ” Berkeh says. “We have a test.”
“I can’t be here. That’s it.”
“Is it, is it me?”
“Not you. It’s here. The yeshiva. I can’t be here. And neither can you.”
Berkeh swallows, tongue-tied. Shlomo’s words shrink him. Draw him. “How could you leave?”
“I’m forced out,” Shlomo whispers.
“Where will you go?”
“I’ll find a place. Where I can learn Torah without pretending. I don’t know. Maybe my parents’ living room. Don’t you know it can’t be here?”
“No,” Berkeh said. “No!”
Shlomo takes his hand. His whisper is fierce, pleading. “Come with me, Berkeh!”

Days later, Berkeh is in the study hall when he hears his name over the intercom. There is a telephone call for him. He closes the book and makes his way around the narrow tables and out to the lobby. There is a group of boys near the phone. Berkeh sighs. Cell phones, internet, all forbidden, and one very public telephone for all of their communication.
“Hey, Berkeh. Where ya’ been? Get this already—I gotta make a call!”
“Sorry, Itz.” He lifts the receiver, still warm from the last person, and leans forward, his back to the others. “Hello?”
“Shalom Ber?” 
It is his father. Berkeh smiles, pleased, but wary. “Tatteh, is everything all right?”
“Sure.” There is a pause. “Rabbi Raichik called us.”
“Rabbi Raichik?”
“I don’t—we don’t know that much about him.”
“He’s a businessman, Ta, but he gives a lot of money and he’s a scholar. And…” Something was taking shape in Berkeh’s mind. “He’s found a lot of brides for the boys.”
“He’s most impressed with you.”
“Me?” But there is thrill in being recognized like that.
“He’s offering for you to go out with his daughter.”
There is a little explosion in Berkeh. “Me?!” His face flushes. Berkeh is grinning. Yes, he thinks. The whole yeshiva will put a crown on his head. This will be his proof, his arrival. He sees the students lifting him up on a chair as they dance at his wedding.
But Berkeh can’t seem to find his next breath. Shlomo. He can’t imagine being without Shlomo. “Ta, I don’t know what to say.” 
“What do you think?”
“What do I think. What do I think?”  He tries to envision himself married. But Shlomo. He looks around. “Ta, there are a lot of people here.”
“Just go out with her, okay? No commitment. You have to see if she’s the right one.”
There is a pain beginning in his stomach. He squeezes his eyes shut.
“Berkeh, are you ready for this?”                       
“Were you?”
His father laughs. “Of course not. You know,” he said. “You’ll learn.” 
Berkeh thinks, I can learn to love her. He says, “I can learn.”
“Shalom Ber, we’re proud of you. Mom and I.”
Berkeh’s chest goes tight with love for his father. His voice goes soft. “Okay, Ta.  Yes. I’ll call her.”
Silence. His father doesn’t say it. He doesn’t say he loves him. I love you, Ta. The words hang there. There’s a click.
He turns to find the impatient group of boys have grown quiet. A line of eyes. One shoots him a sly smile and points a thumb upward, a vote of belonging. Late at night there will be furtive boasting in the dormitory, exchanging notes about girls, tips, teases. Berkeh is a comrade. He has a girl.
But he sees Shlomo at a distance listening to one of the younger boys, a known gossip with red ears. Then Shlomo is searching Berkeh out. Berkeh feigns a confident smile to the boys and raises his thumb in return, then strides off past Shlomo’s pain. He stops for a moment at the front window. Outside, a young man in low-slung jeans leans against the bus stop to light a cigarette. A woman passes in vigorous stride, her dog straining ahead on a taut leash. Cars rush past. The rolling bluish clouds seep downward.
Berkeh borrows a car, an Oldsmobile that smells of cigarettes, blue paint dulled and vinyl roof laced with cracks, a cassette of Yiddish Gems stuck in the tape deck. Since his father’s call Berkeh has avoided conversation with Shlomo. When they studied, he kept his focus on the text. Only once Shlomo had closed his book and tried.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But, Berk!”
Berkeh felt he was being pulled down a dark corridor to an unknown frightening place. “Look,” he said past the constriction in his throat, even as the light glinted on Shlomo’s hair and he saw pleading desire in his eyes. “If Raichik’s daughter is good enough, I’ll marry her. Can’t you understand?” 
Berkeh stops at the curb in front of the Raichik’s home. He wants to be swept along with a tide of his peers down its old deep-set path. It should be easy. Someone mentions a girl. The parents talk. You go out with her, and then life takes its course: Engagement, wedding, buying furniture, plans for the first year—all a standard form, all his friends the same. That was the pride in it, being the same. It meant you had arrived, joined a fine exclusive club. You measured up, blended in indistinguishable, breathless at the calculated acceptance.
In the car, he hesitates. Should he go to the door? What will he say if her mother answers? His lips purse in indecision. In the end, he honks, twice. It is a quiet time in the neighborhood. Old magnolias and live oaks rustle above their shadows. 
When she emerges, she lets the screen door bang and skips down the concrete stairs, opens the car door and gets in with a flounce, smoothes her skirt, looks modestly downward and then straight into his eyes to offer the first hello. A scarf around her shoulders sets off her face above a long neck, like a long-stemmed rose.
Berkeh’s first thought is that she must have gone out with others before him. He tries to relax, tries not to think that he will say the wrong things, or that she might see that a barely visible Shlomo clinging to his shoulders. “So you’re Shayna Raichik,” he says.
“Did you expect someone else?” She is smiling.
“Just checking.”
Berkeh puts the car in gear and pulls out onto the narrow lane. They drive in silence, as Berkeh doesn’t know what to say.
“Where are we going?”
He doesn’t look up. “The Ambassador?”
It is common for the boys to take their dates downtown to the grand old lobby of that aging luxury hotel, as protocol requires they go to a public place where passers-by formed a kind of chaperone. The hotel’s location downtown and at a distance from their neighborhood is good, as the only couples allowed to be seen in public together inside their community are engaged or already married.
“Oh, no,” Shayna says, sounding playful and appalled. “That old place?” she says. “It’s stifling.”
His foot jerks on the pedal.  Berkeh is completely confused. He grips the wheel. “Then where?” he says.
“The Arboretum?”
“The Arboretum?” Berkeh says. “But no one will be there.”
“Well, not hundreds, like at the Ambassador, but oh, I don’t care—there’ll be someone there, we won’t be alone, and anyway, I can breathe there.” She pauses.
Berkeh is driving on with no destination.
“You want to know if I can be your wife, right?” she says. “How can you find anything out about me when we’re sitting on some hotel couch and chatting about, I don’t know, how many siblings we have?”
“How many do you have?”
“Eight, and you?”
“Small family.”
“We take what we get.”
“Mom’s going to have another in May.”
“How old are you?”
“Eighteen for two more months. You?”
Berkeh makes a turn and merges onto the highway. He takes a deep breath. “Park Lane is off 59,” he says. “I think I can get into the middle of the park from there. I wonder if the tennis house is open.”  Soon, he turns off the roadway onto a gravel path, pulls to a stop in a lot outside the gated entrance.
“Uh oh,” she said.
“What is it?”
“Wrong shoes.”
“You still want to go in?”
“I can handle it if we walk slow.”
There is a lush garden just inside the entrance, followed by a path that is wide and well trampled through a cultivated forest deep and dense. Along the way, trees are labeled as if transplanted here for preservation. They walk slowly, looking, smelling.
Many of the trees are old and blackened, knotted branches heavy with rough bark. Olive green leaves are interspersed with spots of sunlight and the delicate yellow-green of new growth. Shayna stops at a turn in the path and leans her head back to breathe it in.
To Berkeh, the park is too self-contained and controlled. A garden of Torah. Rows of flowers stand at attention along the path, their beauty contrived, transcending the wild cruelty of the natural world. His father’s garden. But then, as they walk, he notices rot, and twisted roots, and new cuttings struggling to take hold. They pause at a tree, sprouting fresh greenery, that lies on its side, its roots torn and in the air, helpless.
“I wonder what could bring down a young tree like that?” Shayna says.
 “Maybe the soil isn’t right,” he says. “Maybe the earth here can’t hold it.”
Varieties of mushrooms are scattered around the trees. Their small, tilted caps teeter on firm upright stalks glistening from an earlier rain, seeking to spread their fecund spores. How would it feel, he wonders, to walk openly here with Shlomo, relaxed, unpressured, unjudged, unseen, the breeze touching our faces?
They drink in sun and green, tinged with car exhaust. Just off the path they find a hollowed tree, very old and large, its hole a cave. “Don’t you wish,” he says, “that you could climb in?” He imagines curling up in there away from everything, the smell of moss and greenness in that womblike peace.
“It would be delicious for about five minutes,” Shayna says, and looks at him, puzzled. Then her face softens, and there is a look of delicate interest, almost wonder, and a hint of a smile, as if she sees something rare and specialized. She looks down to his feet and then up again to his face, like a whispered touch. 
Berkeh doesn’t respond, discomfited with being examined.
After a turn in the path they find a bench with clusters of wildflowers around its feet set against a tree. They are in a clearing behind the old tennis house. Shayna sighs and sits down, kicks off her shoes, and leans over to rub the top of her foot. Berkeh joins her on the bench, leaving a proper modest space between them. 
“You’re not a big talker,” she says.
“I’m sure you already know plenty.”
“Why do you say that?”
“How many questions did you ask before you accepted the offer to go out with me?”
She laughs. “About a hundred.”
“I guess I passed,” he says.
“The preliminaries.”
“And why did I pass?”
She pauses. “Well, you have all the standard criteria.”
“Like what?”  he says, but he knows.
“A good, religious boy. Careful with prayers. Good family. Dedicated to learning. Good reputation in yeshiva.”
“You just described dozens of guys.”
“My father likes you.”
Berkeh raises his eyebrows. “That’s important.”
“Of course it is.”
“To him,” he says. “And to me. I mean, he’ll probably look for someone he can take into his business.” For a light-headed moment Berkeh pictures himself behind a desk managing real estate. 
“How many questions did you ask about me?” she says.
He blushes. “Uh, zero.”
You’re Rabbi Raichik’s daughter.”
“Rabbi Raichik’s daughter,” she says. “So I could have three hands and one eye sticking out of the top of my head and you’ll still go out with me because I’m Rabbi Raichik’s daughter?”
“Well, once.”
“Once.” But she smiles. “And Shayna? Shayna without a last name, thank you. How many times will you go out with her?”
“At the present moment, he says, “the calculation is approximately four hundred and twenty three. But don’t worry. Those are just the points you got in the first hour.”
She laughs, leans back. The bright sunlight through the leaves above them make a pattern across her face. Her smile is more gentle than Shlomo’s, but it seems too soft. Everything about her seems too soft. Not unpleasant, he tells himself, resolute.
“I don’t want to go home,” she says. “I could just stay here.” She turns to him.  “You’re, I don’t know, nice to be with. I feel safe with you.”
                  He has already begun to tell himself that this could become a pleasant friendship. Then she reaches her hand toward his face and holds it there, palm close enough for him to feel its warmth, a whisper away from the forbidden touch. She is trembling, her mouth slightly open. He is frozen in place. “I wish,” she whispers. 
Berkeh reddens, shifts, looks down at his feet. “I don’t think,” he says. 
Shayna flushes and withdraws her hand. She bends over and puts on her shoes.  When she stands, their eyes meet, and then both look quickly away, embarrassed. They walk back slowly and do not speak of her almost-touch. He hopes they are walking away from that moment, for the awkwardness to pass. He wants to see them sharing space in a separate undemanding way, easier in a way, without the electrifying confusing feelings he has when he is with Shlomo.
It is growing dark, their shadows overlapping on the path. On the drive home, they speak on and off. The empty moments are easy between them, in spite of Shlomo’s stubborn image on the periphery. “Don’t forget me,” she says as she gets out of the car. 
He calls her as she walks up the steps to her home.
“Yes?” she says. She turns but doesn’t come back.
He leans across the seat so she can see his face through the passenger side window. “Next time,” he says, “wear tennis shoes!”
She laughs that laugh of hers. “You bet!”

On Sunday evening a group of boys from the yeshiva enter the cavernous lobby of the Ambassador Hotel. One of their recent graduates is getting married and the mood is high. The group is heading to the main hall for the celebration. From the wedding hall, they can hear the sounds of happy conversation, clink of catering dishes, the first soundings of wedding music. The boys are eager, already affected by the fresh joy radiating from the milling celebrating crowd. Berkeh is among them, indistinguishable from the others in appearance, camaraderie, pleasure that yet another friend has reached, in marriage, fulfillment. 
The group comes upon Shlomo in the lobby and sweeps past him with waves and greetings. But Berkeh catches Shlomo’s nod toward nearby chairs and, helpless to that, he sends the other boys on. The two then sit together in the old chairs of heavy brocade over dark wood where Berkeh had intended to sit with Shayna on their first date. The floor is covered with worn red velvet carpeting, the high ceiling studded with glistening yellowed chandeliers. 
Shlomo looks as if he hasn’t slept. Berkeh reads the familiar face, each shadow and line, as he has read it since they were boys. Berkeh sighs, then pulls his shoulders back and tells himself that he must be the ner Hashem, the candle of God, wavering, small and weak, yes, but constant in its reach to the above. Loyalty. Yes. But he is riveted to the presence before him.
This, thinks Berkeh, is what desire is. Aching helplessness. 
For a few minutes the two sit watching the wedding traffic in the lobby. An onlooker might think them bored and waiting for someone. Then Shlomo leans forward as if it is necessary to whisper beneath the vaulted ceiling that steals sound and says,
“I’m leaving tomorrow.” The words stand between them unembellished, alone because Shlomo is alone. “I’ll miss you,” Shlomo says. “I can hardly think of going without you.”
And loss washes over Berkeh. He needs to fall to the floor. Now that the loss is real, he is surprised at the size of it. He has pelted himself forward down a different corridor, but how can he cut away the part of himself that is Shlomo? Berkeh wants to grab Shlomo and beg him not to leave. If he feels that touch just once more, it will open something Berkeh can no longer stop. He will forget Shayna, forget the yeshiva. Forget his father. He wants to say something that will make Shlomo open that door. “Shlomo, I,”
Shlomo will not knock at a door he knows to be locked. He stands to go.
Berkeh swallows. Then he stands, too. Then, in the same way that Shayna had reached out to him, Berkeh reaches out to Shlomo’s face. The pads of his tremulous fingers trace the side of the familiar nose, the lips, travel across Shlomo’s cheek, fingers now curved in a caress, and rest there on the line of curled hair in the thin, blond beard.
Shlomo puts a hand on Berkeh’s shoulder and steps closer to him.
Two fellow students pass, headed back into the wedding hall. One, turns and looks back at Shlomo and Berkeh, curious, just in the moment that Shlomo raises his second hand to Berkeh’s other shoulder and leans forward. The young man’s shoes are polished, and his eyes are bright with excitement and vodka. “Hey, you guys coming?” he says. The second friend hovers, impatient. Then Berkeh sees a too-long interchange between those two sets of eyes, two knowing grins.
Berkeh steps back from Shlomo as if he’s been burned. He is nauseated, full of raw fear. “Sure,” he calls out. I’ll be right there!” The two boys look at each other and laugh, and then they are gone with a dismissive wave. 
The heat of Berkeh’s humiliation turns to rage. One look at Shlomo feed the fire in him. He spits out his words. “You go ahead and leave,” he says. “Maybe you don’t belong here.”
Shlomo’s look is narrow and cutting. He laughs. “We’ll see,” he says.
Berkeh turns to the wedding party in a fury, ready now. 
The hall for the wedding celebration is divided down the middle by a lattice partition elaborately woven with decorative ivy and flowers. The area on one side is for the women, all of them elegantly coifed and in formal gowns. The other side is a sea of black suits and black hats. At one end of the partition there is a long table heavily draped in pink satin and laden with fruits, pastries, and every imaginable type of dainty, and dotted with flowers, ribbon, and ivy, a place where both men and women hover, nibbling from flowered plates. A five-course meal will be served later.
A band is playing on the stage. The lyrics are Hebrew, often lines from Biblical texts, but the music is a wild mixture of liturgical, klezmer, rock, folk, classical music and Israeli tunes, all of it at the same fast pace, the same earsplitting volume. Berkeh enters the men’s side, Shlomo at a distance behind him, just as the band comes to a dramatic stop and the lead player shouts into the microphone in an Israeli accent, “Ladies and gentlemen: Mr. And Mrs. Yossi Bendell!” The bride and groom appear at the doorway and the band goes into a frenzy. The couple split there and are swept into wild dancing on their respective sides.
The men whirl in circles around the groom, arm over arm. They step, they jump, they sing. Hats come off. Jackets and ties and collars are opened, shirts unbuttoned. Berkeh pictures himself as the groom, makes himself want again the warm satisfaction of such honor, like an arrival. He jumps into the current. Red faces with open-mouthed smiles flew past, and his feet carry him as if on air. Berkeh dances arm in arm in one of the concentric circles around the groom, ready now to meld indistinguishable. The groom dances in the center with first his father, then his father-in-law, his new brothers-in-law and others he wishes to honor. Around and around. With each circuit Berkeh catches a fleeting image of Shlomo on the periphery, separate, different. With each sighting Berkeh steps higher and grips the shoulders of the dancers on either side of him with more surety.
Bottles of vodka are passed. Unknown hands appear at Berkeh’s face to tilt tiny plastic cups of vodka into his mouth. A flush rises into his ears.
All clasp arms, whirling, whirling. More vodka is passed, this time in a silver goblet, and Berkeh tips the cup himself now. He feels warmth in his face and head, blurring in his feet and tongue. He dances, furious, enthused, determined.
An hour passes, and part of another. Berkeh spins out of the circle to catch his breath and finds Shayna standing at the Viennese table. She flushes when she sees him. The band pauses between pieces. As he reaches for a petit four, she says to him, “You’re different from the others. I like that.”
“I doubt that,” he says, noticing the foreign slur in his voice. He grins.
“Oh yes?” she says, teasing him. The band starts up again. Dancers are wiping brows, stripping off jackets and jumping back in.
 Berkeh waves his arm with the pastry in his hand at the circles dancing again around bride and groom, the motion of his arm large and liquid. “You know,” he shouts above the music. “That could be us.” 
Shayna’s eyes widen, glistening at what she takes to be an invitation. “I would like that,” she mouths.
“Yes?” His face is bright. “Hah!” he says. He puts down the pastry and with fists raised and new, fierce joy jumps back into the whirling circle, full of the image of himself as head of a household, father, scholar and community leader, a mentch. Best of all, his father will dance at his wedding. 
A few men rush in and without ceremony strip a table of its pink settings. They put a chair on the table, lift the groom to sit on it, and lift up the table with the groom on it until he can see his bride on the other side of the partition and salute her. Berkeh dances with the others around the groom and everyone claps and shouts and sings.
It is all becoming a pantomime, Berkeh’s ears growing deaf from the music. One of the rabbis digs beanbags out of his pocket and begins to juggle. Three others appear balanced three up on each other’s shoulders like a drunken tower and waver up to the groom. Another jumps in wearing a clown face over his beard. More vodka is passed.
The men lower the table and the groom jumps off. The whirling circle breaks into several smaller ones, one inside the other, each in the opposite direction. Spinning couples of men fly in and around it. 
Berkeh moves to the innermost circle, to a place where he can’t see Shlomo past the dancing men. His head spins with the music. He, too, strips off his hat and jacket and tosses them aside and turns and turns, red-faced and grinning. His limbs are light and unconnected. He has become an inner part of a huge and noisy machine, a place where he doesn’t have to think, doesn’t have to know anything but the stream of motion all in the same direction. Just move, go, and the pleasure of fitting into the larger flow and of forward motion will fill him. His feet carry him along with the others, and then he is shoved forward to dance with the groom. Just as they begin, someone hands Berkeh a larger cup of vodka and shouts “Mazel tov!” and Berkeh drinks it all. Then Berkeh grasps arms with the groom and jumps into a faster dance, and the groom’s feet trip through an elaborate series of hazy steps while the music pulsates and fills Berkeh’s whole brain with its beat and laughter spills out of him. 
The groom lets go too quickly for the next one, Berkeh’s feet are not ready, and he flies away and into Shlomo, who seems to be there waiting. Shlomo grasps first one of Berkeh’s arms and then both to steady him while the inner circle of dancers widen to encompass them, and the groom and his brother melt away, as if the spinning circles are focused now on them, including the passing faces of the two boys that saw them in the lobby who are laughing now and pointing and Berkeh laughs with them.
Now Berkeh and Shlomo are the pulse that drives the machine. For the smallest moment that seems to be between the beats of the music, Shlomo’s beard is against Berkeh’s cheek and Berkeh feels one of Shlomo’s hands at his back, feels Shlomo’s warm breath on his face. Berkeh thinks he hears Shlomo’s rhythmic words in the pulse of the music. Same. We’re same.
The music’s speed increases and the two are holding one another as a single spinning teetering top, each hand gripping a forearm against the centrifugal force that can rip them apart. For a full minute they are blurred together as the fleeting image of the laughing faces burn into Berkeh’s brain and Berkeh holds on, face contorting, shoulders rising, a wave going through him, and they are fused into a single spinning top, balanced in twirling motion. The music drives their feet and Shlomo’s pulsing arms fill Berkeh’s hands. Then Shlomo’s blue green eyes are in front of his and Berkeh feels the bear hug of Shlomo’s chest pounding against his and the cold air on the tears spilling down his cheek.