(Click here) HELP! HOW TO READ THIS BLOG

CLICK HERE to LEARN HOW TO NAVIGATE THIS BLOG

Monday, 4 November 2013

THE GAY BAAL TESHUVA


 We are interviewing B, a distinguished therapist and a frum gay man. Though frum earlier in his life, he went through a period of estrangement from religion and is now making his way back.
Can you tell me your favourite memory from when you were a kid?
B: Oh my god, this could take a year to think of. Do you have any chocolate? Let me think. (Long silence)  I don’t know how old I was, seven or eight, my parents took me out to a fancy restaurant for my birthday with a band and the waiter wore a tuxedo and at one point, the waiter went by the table and mumbled something and my dad just nodded and the next thing I knew the band started playing happy birthday and the waiter brought a cake with a lit sparkler and set it down in front of me and I said “FOR MEEEEE???” I never thought that would happen for me. I was in a  restaurant with adults, no other kids there, and the band had played music…I didn’t think I was very important, I guess, and this was a disproof of that belief about myself.
You’ve told me about wanting to be in yeshivah, tell me about your yeshiva experience?
B: Everyone in my family used to think I wanted to become a rabbi because I attended yeshiva, but I never really wanted to be a rabbi in shul. It didn’t seem like fun.
The first night I was in yeshiva I sat on the floor of a coat room next to the Bais Medrash, and I was writing in my journal, I wrote “I think this is as close to living in a monastery as I’m ever going to get.” And then I got a lot of sh*t from the bochurim (young men) because I was sitting on the floor and that’s only something that an avel (mourner) should do. There were no chairs. I just wanted to sit on the floor. It was comfortable for me to sit there, by myself, which is why I sat there with my journal, until I was surrounded by people telling me I was doing the wrong thing.
One of the main features of my experience in Yeshiva was being told how I was doing things wrong.
I had long hair. I always wore jeans and a flannel shirt, never put on a black hat, refused to cut my hair. Those were the most obvious things. I don’t think anyone ever said anything to me about not davening from the chassidish siddur, but I didn’t. I used my own. Actually, it was a chassidish siddur, just not Chabad.
Oh, as I look back on it now, I realize that I get down on myself so much, the last thing I needed was to have other people in my environment telling me I am doing things all wrong. It’s kind of like, if you’ve already eaten a big meal and then someone insists that you eat something else, you wind up with a stomach ache.
Did you know you were gay in yeshivah?
B: I knew I was attracted to other guys. The word “gay” didn’t happen in my life for a long time. Thankfully, there was nobody in the yeshiva who I had a crush on. That would have made life even more painful and conflicted than it already was. But I often went on mivtzoim to Rutgers University, and I once stopped somebody there who was adorable and some weeks later, erev shabbos, there he was in Morristown!  He came to stay for shabbos. I was both astonished as well as overwhelmed with excitement. Obviously, other bochurim had continued "working on him" on subsequent Fridays after I made the initial connection, some weeks prior. I think that was near the end of my time in yeshiva and I didn’t have much time with him but I started teaching him to read Aleph Bais, and I was sharing with him how important it was to me that I was getting to teach him to read hebrew, because everything he would learn after that would be based on his ability to read Hebrew…it would be the ground of everything that he would learn for the rest of his life and I was honoured to be able to provide that for him. Actually, for me, I think it was like getting to spend the rest of our lives together, and actually, to some extenet, that is the case.
That shabbos, we took a walk together, and I so badly wanted to confess my strong feelings for him. But I didn’t. If I would have stayed in yeshiva and he was there too, I would have been much more tortured than I already was. I still have an inkling that he felt similarly towards me. We had a very special connection. But who knows?

Thursday nights were a wonderful time there.  Everyone used to stay up later than usual because every once in a while, the Rosh Yeshiva would come into the Beis Medresh, sit down in one of the classrooms which would immediately fill with bochrim.  He would teach a maamer, translating from the Yiddish.  And it was late, you know.  So people started getting sleepy and leaving one by one.  Once he was convinced that no one else was going to leave, he nodded to this one guy, sort of the shamesh, who left and then came back with a gallon of Shmirnoff Vodka!  The farbrengen was about to begin.  L’chayims were poured for each of us around the table.   The Rabbi lifted his cup and said “L’chayim!” and so did everyone else.  Then they tilted their shots back and drank. Everyone but me. I mean, there was no tonic, no 7-up; just straight vodka.  I couldn’t drink that stuff.  Then the Rosh Yeshiva looked directly at me and said: “Dov!  L’chayim!!”  I drank.

After the l’chayim, we sang a niggun.  Over and over we’d repeat the wordless tune.  Then the Rabbi spoke, but now, not from a book, but from his heart.  And after a while, we’d make another l’chayim and sing another niggun.  And the whole cycle would repeat, who knows how many times.  I definitely felt as if we were approaching the Throne of H-shem.  That was one of the most important experiences I had there.  I remember one night – we had some wild nights! - he lined all of us up and took ahold of each of us by the beard and kissed us each on the lips.  There was nothing sexual about this.  It was an act of brotherly love between Jews.  It was beautiful. 

The two most meaningful things I learned in Yeshiva were the niggunim and to make l’chayim. Which isn’t to say I didn’t appreciate the learning, ah, the other learning that is.  But those two skills, if you will, have given me so much, which I still appreciate to this day, almost 40 years later.  (Yikes!) 

I remember I must have been there a while, one Thursday night, I asked the Rosh Yeshiva for some time, and when I went into the office, I asked him, “What about masturbation?” and he asked me what I meant, and I said, “Is it okay to do it?” and he was like no, it’s an aveirah (sin). I think he told me, It’s like taking G-d’s head and putting it into the toilet bowl. I was shocked at the idea of not masturbating. I said to him, I feel like you are telling me to say goodbye to my best friend. But wanting to be a good Jew, and do what G-d wants, I decided to give up my best friend. And here’s what I learned: I learned that it gets easier the longer it goes. 


I also learned to appreciate the laws of tznius (modesty), which had seemed so outdated and so anachronistic, in our modern culture. This is what became clear to me, I remember being in Manhattan with my family one evening, walking down Fifth Avenue, and there was a huge Calvin Klein billboard, an underwear ad. Part of me wanted to fly up into the ad, I was so taken with the model's beauty. As a result of my quickly building excitement, I also realized that in order to contain myself, I had to avert my gaze. And then it became so clear to me, the laws of negiah and dressing modestly…if someone has committed to keeping their sexuality contained, rather than allowing it to explode outward, it becomes too difficult when you are surrounded with stimulating images. This didn’t have to do with homosexuality, per se, but with sexuality in general. It was more an appreciation for what is sometimes considered an “outdated” set of laws…It’s not so outdated, if you start thinking about it.
                                 I only dress with sleeves this short when I'm at home.
Keeping shabbos changes your whole week. You have to plan. Guarding your zera (seed) takes planning too. Everything changes with each obligation that you take on. Each thing is important. Each thing has value. All sorts of halochos, mishnayos, even a whole tractate of mishna goes right out of the window, if we say “That’s not relevant anymore.” I don't want to do that.
Tell me about your learning schedule:
B: I studied longer and harder in yeshiva than I did  in college and grad school put together. It eclipsed everything. When I went to the bathroom, I would take my human physiology text book so that I wouldn’t waste my time.
Nowadays, I study Tanya before I daven in the morning, I don’t do the portion you are supposed to do, but I read and understand whatever I can each day. At night, I study the daily portion of Chumash, but after going through it for some years, I found that i kept stumbling over the same words. So, a few years ago, I started making flash cards with the words that were difficult for me and the phrase in the posuk where the word was contained and identifying info, with a couple of different translations on the other side of the index card, before reading th day's parsha, I run through the flashcards first.  Only then do I go through the portion, which becomes much easier once i know what all the words mean.And then I try to understand the Rashi as well. My goal is to be able to look at any part of chumash and know what all the words mean. It’s just so basic. There’s so much to know, Tanach and Mishna and Gemarrah. At least before I die, I should know the words of Chumash! It’s just a tiny bit of all we have to learn as Jews., but shouldn’t I be able to be comfortable with any piece of Chumash? 
     All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy though...
I don’t think that my tehillim saying is part of my learning, but I recite them. When I was a young kid in Hebrew school, one of the teachers told a story about a blacksmith who, while he worked, he recited tehillim all day, and when he died, the melachim were all excited that this man was entering heaven, and that made an impression on me, because even though I didn’t start saying tehillim until relatively recently, I guess I want to be important in heaven. That sounds ridiculous. I’m going to change that. How self righteous can you get?!
Are there any mitzvahs that are extra important for you?
B: I wouldn’t buy a condo until I found one that had a spot for my sukkah. I was tired of sneaking into the sukkahs at shuls and relying on friends. I wanted to be able to eat all of my meals in a sukkah.
A long time ago, way before I went to yeshiva,  I found a booklet on mezuzah, which then became a very important mitzvah for me. I wanted kosher mezuzos on all the doorways. It meant that this is a Jewish household. Not a token Jewish household, not a mezuzah case without a parchement, but a kosher mezuzah on each doorway, infusing my entire home.

Kiddush levana. Giving maaser. Davening shacharis. I despise getting up in the morning. So to have enough time, especially as I add to my davening, I have to get up earlier. Now I say  an abbreviated psukei d’zimrah but maybe one day...
Keeping kosher has been hard for me, I stopped eating milk and meat in junior high even though I loved cheeseburgers, and stopped eating shrimp, which was my number one favourite food. When I moved into my condo, my first home, I decided this is MY place, it has to be 100% kosher. And it was hard to give up some of my family’s old utensils that had meaning for me, but they couldn’t be koshered and I had to let them go. Having separate sinks and counters and pots and pans and dishes, and having mezuzahs is a way for me to maintain that my home is a kosher Jewish home.
One Elul,  3 or 4 years ago, I decided, that for the duration of the month, I wouldn’t eat any treif meat (since at the time, I had been allowing myself a burger or steak every once in a while when I ate out) , and once Yom Kippur and Sukkos came and went, I was like, “So now do I start eating treif again?! So without  intending to do so, I gave up eating treif. It’s frustrating sometimes,  because going out to nice (unkosher) restaurants is one of my favourite things to do in life, I just have to remind myself that refraining from eating (mamash) treif is my way of being a Jew in the world. It’s not only about doing things; it’s about not doing things too.

That’s where I am holding now. I’m afraid if I do more, I will just scrap the whole thing. It’s like someone who asks for money, and then they ask for more, I say, no that’s all I have, that’s all for now. So too with this, that’s all for now: I don’t want to overburden myself so I'm going slowly.
Which parts of you make you feel like less of a Jew?
B: Being gay. Since pru urvu (To be fruitful and multiply) is a mitzvah, the first mitzvah, in Parshas Breishis, it feels like something very essential, almost primitive, that’s a mitzvah that I am not able to be mekayam at this point. I remember being in junior high and having fantasies of a home with a wife and children and a shabbos tish (Sabbath table). Part of me still hasn’t fully accepted that that isn’t the route that I took. I guess I am still deceiving myself, even though I am turning 60.
Being at Eshel events, has made it clear to me that the two groups of people I feel most uncomfortable around are frum Jews and gay men, especially attractive gay men. Oh my gorsh, what a statement! I want so badly to be part of both worlds and no matter what success I may meet with, I still experience myself to be on the outside.
Not having children makes me feel extremely disenfranchised from the Jewish nation. I’m not going to say, even though I’m almost 60. A day doesn’t go by without me thinking about the prospect of having children. For one reason, my grandfather, my dad’s dad, was a cohein, and he had a son and a daughter. My dad told me that I was a cohen and I asked him how he knew, and he said because  Grandpa told him he was.  And I asked, “but how did Grandpa know?” And he said “Cuz his father told him.”  And I went “Ohhhhh!” My parents had one girl and two boys, and although my sister’s son is a rabbi, he of course isn’t a cohen. My brother married a non-Jew, so that’s the end of that! So if I don’t have a son,  this line of the Cohuna which I am on, ends here. That kills me.
And aside from that,  part of the reason why children are important to me is because, unlike in Christianity or Buddhism, I think that being Jewish is really about being part of a people and there’s  this long line that goes back to Avrohom and Sarah. And the thought that it’s come all this way, maybe for thousands of generations, and it’s going to stop with me, tears me apart. I want to be part of the people, I want to be part of moving us forward into the future and it doesn’t feel right that I am childless.
Could you talk about attempts to make a family?
I’ve had the good fortune to be invited into the bosom of a very warm and delicious family which has completely changed my experience of life. I now have children in my life, who sometimes get excited when I come in, and even when they don’t, at least their dog gets excited! Always knowing I have a place for shabbos and yontiff is an amazing comfort. It’s a nechoma (comfort) for me.
I’ve never given up my fantasy of a four flat, with one floor for me and my partner, another floor for my wife and her partner, and a floor where we raise our children and then the first floor, which would be business offices where I would run my business, but I’ve done nothing to actualise this fantasy that I’ve had for over 20 years. My last therapist pointed out over and over how I repeatedly confuse tofel/iker (the main thing versus the unimportant), by getting so focused on details that I would totally miss the actual point of the whole thing. 
What I’m going to say is funny but actually tragic. Years ago, there were t-shirts of a woman aghast and the caption was “Oh My God! I forgot to have children!” I’ve been so busy, first coming out, which I did in my late 20's and 30's, and then establishing myself professionally, which also happened late as a result of not trusting my competence. So here I am now, realising that it’s pretty late in the game. 
When I left yeshiva, I remember dropping Jewish practices: my tzitzis, shabbos, kashrus, my kippah. I remember when my kippah came off, I stopped making brochos because my head wasn’t covered, But I knew I still wanted to make brochos, so I started again. This time even when my head was uncovered.  Realizing I didn’t have to stop making brochos before eating and drinking just cuz I wasn’t wearing a kippa was a welcome revelation.  Actually, to me it seems like a proper use of iker and tofel.  I’m not saying it’s not important to cover one’s head. But since I am not ready to wear a kippah in public, why deprive myself of the pleasure I get from acknowledging Hashem’s goodness in providing for my needs?  Surely that is more important than is a mere head-covering!

Later on, I missed so much of what I’d given up and started to add them back into my life. I had let enough things go that I didn’t feel like I was a worthy member of an Orthodox shul. At the same time, I had little interest in more modern shuls. They didn’t feel authentically Jewish to me, they feel chopped up and disjointed. Orthodox shuls feel more whole to me. Maybe  I am very wrong but I imagine there is more likelihood that some people in frum shuls are actually trying to communicate with Hakadosh Boruch Hu. I’m thinking of Rabbi W [the shliach tzibbur in a large local chassidic shul] right now. But I could be very wrong about that generalization.

I don’t always get the warmest feeling from people at the chassidic shul, and since I’ve told some of the people there that I am gay. I imagine that everyone knows now and isn’t thrilled with my presence. However I also know that I tend to make up stories that leave me feeling isolated and marginalised – which goes back to the two groups of people I am most uncomfortable with! So that outsider feeling I experience in that shule may be all in my head.  I have a long history of believing I am inadequate and feeling quite ashamed of myself.
What’s the hardest thing about being frum and gay?
B: The only kehillah that I am part of, where I feel loved and respected, is not Torah observant. When I find a place that is Torah observant and I feel drawn to it, I am aware of how alien I experience myself to be, as I imagine myself to be not loved or respected. So then I have to chose: Will I daven in a way that is meaningful to me, but where I don’t think there is a place for me, or with a group of people who care about me deeply, as well as caring about being Jews, but insist on doing the Jewishness in their own ways, not in the ways of halachah?
The hardest thing is having my feet in two different camps. Having my feet in two camps isn’t restricted only to being frum and gay…in the days when I was going to gay bars to meet men, I quickly learned when asked what I do, to stop saying I am a psychotherapist, because when I said that, the person I had been speaking with got the impression that I was trying to read their mind, and then I’d be suddenly be alone, so I started said I was a waiter. That worked better. Even in the world of therapy, I find myself divided, because the kind of therapy that I practise, Gestalt, is not au courant especially here where I live, so when I am talking to a group of therapists, my vocabulary and outlook are hard for the others to understand, and I get the impression that what I say doesn’t make sense to the professional audience I am speaking to.
I just want to connect!
On Rosh Hashana, you went to a chassidish shul and the aliyos were auctioned off, and the man sitting next to you gave you the first aliyah of the year. How can you consider yourself “alien, unloved and respected”?
I take responsibility for some of my paranoia, but this man who is so kind to me, to offer me this honour two years in a row, this year, he added, when I thanked him, “You deserve it”…I imagine he doesn’t feel like he fits into the shul so well either. This is a very quiet man, who seems to keep to himself.  While others might be conversing, his nose is in his siddur. The  only time that he raises his voice is during the shnudering. (auction of aliyos). When he told the gabbai (shul sexton) that he was giving me the aliyah he had purchased, I had the impression that the gabbai exhaled and rolled his eyes. But I could have been wrong about that.
A lot of my experience in that shul is good, which is why I go there as often as I do, which admittedly, isn’t often..  I always make it a point to be there on Rosh Hashanna, solely because of the way tikias hashofar are carried out.      way the khal (community) recites kapital M’Z (Psalm 47) out loud seven times before the tekios, everyone says it, everyone! And then the rov starts min hameitzar (Out of the Depths prayer before shofar blowing), every word, he’s saying it from so deep inside himself and he makes the brochos so slowly and carefully, even though during the actual blowing of the tekios, the rabbi seems a bit unskilled, so sometimes it’s frustrating, waiting three four five minutes until he squeaks out a tekiah, but really it doesn’t matter. The whole reason I go to this shul is to be there for tekios shofar. There is clearly so much kavana and attention being brought to this momentous moment; for me it exudes kedusha.  Speaking of which, saying kedusha in that shule is also a high point for me, as it’s screamed out, sung out, clapped to.  It would be danced to, if we were allowed to move our feet! 
 
Are you ever confronted by your fear of frum Jews? 
Constantly. I just had an insight. Every time I say “frum Jews”, I really mean confronting a fear of my own “inadequacy”.
How is the frum world changing?
My friend, now, finally gets invitations to chassunos that are addressed to her and her girlfriend, from the baal tefillah of the Chassidic shul. Five years ago, she would get the invitation, but not her girlfriend, which was very hirtful for them. It seems to me that that's a huge deal. A lesbian couple is receiving an invitation to a chassidic chasuna. Amazing!
I’ve met a man at Eshel who told me that he got smicha (rabbinical ordination) at 770 (Chabad) and when I said “You live in Crown Heights?” he said that there are a lot of gay men who live in Crown Heights. Some are out and some are not.
In one month I am offering a two day conference on working with shame for therapists. It’s kind of like a big coming out party for me. The reason why I have chosen to do a conference on shame is because I am aware of its profound influence on my life. I am aware that many of my answers all boil down to a sense of shame about myself.
The direction that shame takes us is deeper inside ourselves and away from the world which creates a sense of isolation and estrangement. Coming out is davka (exactly) the antidote to shame. Moving outward is the only way that we can ever connect with other people. It’s the only hope we have for finding the sense of connection and community which is what all people long for. 
As I say in the conference, at bottom we are all dogs! A dog wants nothing more than to be with others, a dog is happy just sitting at the feet of its master or friend. A dog alone is unhappy. That aloneness is what I feel both when I imagine I’m not welcome in a frum minyan, as well as when I’m davening with friends I love, but whose davening practices leave me a bit empty. I did notice this past Yom Kippur, in my own chavura, when I was the shliach tzibur for Kol Nidrei, that I put myself out more freely than I ever have in the past and I noticed the response was more lively, more enthusiastic than I’d ever experienced in the past.  I believe the more I put myself out there in an authentic way, the more I am  available to be met.
If you could ask the frum world for one thing?
Don’t be so afraid. I’m talking both to myself and to the frum world. To the frum world I'd like to say,When you roll your eyes and judge people with your opinions and your words, you make them “other”. It’s about fear. You are afraid of what will happen if you allow yourselves to be open to difference. The Jewish world is soooo frightened of difference. I think our brutal history makes it understandable, but it’s a harsh way to live and it creates a harsh environment for all of us. I would ask you, for my sake, as well as for your own, to try and be less scared. Or to put it in a positive direction, to open up, to love.