Gay and Orthodox: The Mother Road to Acceptance
It’s Friday afternoon and I am driving from Chicago down to my friend Aviva’s house in Saint Louis with two of my eight children. The last time we drove this way, we were exploring Route 66, and I told the kids how, during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes and travel on the “mother road” out to California in hope of a better life. This time, we talk about the thousands of Jews who are both Orthodox and LGBT, people who are faced with either being forced out of their communities or keeping their identities secret. My children understand this issue. I’m a gay Orthodox Jew living in a Chassidic community and the reason we are traveling to Saint Louis is to take part in a public event talking about gay inclusion in Orthodox life.
As the old telephone poles marking Route 66 swing by, I try to quell my anxiety. The Orthodox world is, in general, slow to make even positive changes. There is a possibility of serious opposition from the community. There will be police stationed outside the shul. Twenty years ago, I tried to publish a story about LGBT people in an Orthodox magazine, but my editor told me that there was no such thing as an Orthodox gay person. When I asked her to go and talk to her husband, she did, but then she replied, “Alright. Okay. So there might be a few people who are both gay and Orthodox but we don’t talk about them.”
Traditionally, Jews don’t talk about sexuality in public venues, and certainly not sexuality that is problematic or in conflict with ages-old Torah values. I’ve been told that I can remain in my community so long as I don’t fling my orientation in people’s faces, so long as I don’t come to my synagogue with a girlfriend, so long as I’m tsnius(modest) about my private life. As a result, I’m far more used to being hidden than I am to discussing my life in front of a crowd. Sometimes, I feel like a modern-day Marano, except instead of not revealing my Judaism, it’s my orientation that puts me at risk.
Until recently, the risks were great for those who came out in the Orthodox community; loss of home and family, loss of tradition, loss of faith, loss of community and connection. In 2001, however, Sandi Dubowski created “Trembling Before G-d”, a film that documented the challenge of Orthodox Jews who are also LGBT. Thousands of Jews who were secretly gay were electrified to discover that they weren’t “the only one.” In June of 2010, a group called Eshel was formed to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities. Since then, Eshel has had three national shabbatons. I’ve gone to all three and they were powerful sources of community, love and acceptance. Each time, however, I was pained by the awareness that there were many more Jews who were too afraid to attend, and couldn’t benefit from the support.
This is part of the reason why I’m driving to Saint Louis. While many rabbis will privately voice support for individuals, very few Orthodox synagogues are willing to host an Eshel event. Rabbi [Hyim] Shafner at Bais Avraham is an exception. I have to tip my hat to him. He’s opened his doors to a panel and discussion about inclusion, and to a Saturday night screening of a new film, “DevOut.” My friend Aviva and her wife, Margaux, are congregants at Bais Abe, and they’ve been doing a lot of the organization for the events. When we arrive, Aviva is leaning on a pillow, exhausted. Speakers have been flying in from New York, New Jersey, Tennessee and Canada, and she’s been up since 5 a.m. I give her a box of Dunkin Donuts, kosher in Chicago but not in Saint Louis and she grins because I’ve bought her favorite kinds. Little does she know, her dogs will snarf the lot when we go out to the prayer service.
As we walk to synagogue in the morning (post dog binge), I imagine the Westboro Baptist Church staking out Bais Abe, or even more scary: Chassidim. My kids tell me I have a big imagination and that I should take a chill pill. They live in a world where their Jewish holidays are filled with gay aunties and uncles and cousins, and where being gay and Orthodox is just one of many healthy ways to live a joyous Jewish life. I’ve created this world for them but they aren’t completely immune to homophobia. In Chicago, my daughter isn’t invited to other homes to play and invitations to our house are ignored. She loves coming to Saint Louis because at Bais Abe, she’s just one of the kids running around the gardens or making puppet shows on the stage.
Most Orthodox Jews have never knowingly met a gay Jew. Those unknown bogeymen are far scarier than people like Aviva and Margaux, who are warm and loving with everyone, not just with their two children. They’ve made many friends at Bais Abe, luring people home with delicious vegetarian tacos for Shabbos lunch and Shabbos games afterwards. Before Shabbos, Aviva cuts the toilet paper with a power saw. On Friday night, Margaux sings Kiddush and gives intellectual and thought-provoking divrei Torah. Being gay is just a small part of who they are. It would be impossible for the people at Bais Abe to reject Aviva and Margaux because they already know them as individuals and as a couple. It’s far easier, in other communities, to reject the unknown and mysterious “gays.” With an estimate of 1.8 million Orthodox Jews worldwide, it’s likely that there are approximately 126,000 LGBT people hidden in those numbers, the vast majority of whom are “the unknown” in their communities, due to fear of reprisal.
While Eshel can’t guarantee that gay Jews won’t lose their own community if and when they come out, they canguarantee that there is a vibrant and growing community of orthodox LGBT Jews nationally and internationally, people who see each other as family. At lunch, the speakers applaud for each other and whisper words of encouragement. It’s not easy to tell private, often painful stories in public. But each time we are able to do so, people come up afterwards and tell their own stories, many admitting for the first time publically that they are gay. Others take our telephone numbers and email addresses and contact us days or even weeks later. This event is no different. Contacts are made. People cry and laugh and wonder at the normalcy of the speakers, a professor, a personal coach and a businessman, men and women with children and families and everyday human concerns. When Chanie Getter, an elegant mother of three says that she is concerned about finding good schools and friends for her children, heads nod around the room. When Reuven talks about being uber-Abba (father), uber- husband and even uber-dishwasher, people laugh. And when scholarly Ben Baader talks about playing with the Rabbi’s children and learning Torah everyone’s shoulders relax. The speakers aren’t scary. I can literally see members of the audience shaking off their fear as they discover they aren’t as different from the speakers as they thought they were. Between the two groups, there are vast areas of shared humanity. We all want family and connection, tradition and joy, community and love.
Talk of love is apparently not what some members of the congregation want to hear, though. “What about Jewish law?” one man asks during the question and answer section. Rabbi Shafner demures. “We’re not going to talk about the halacha here,” he says. “This is about building community.” He offers to speak to people privately, at the end of the event, but the mood in the audience changes slightly. Though the majority of the congregation are supportive of LGBT acceptance, there are those who are not, and they want their voices heard. The Q and A continues but I am preoccupied. I keep on looking over at the man who asked about Jewish law. He’s squirming in his seat, whispering to people near him. He’s obviously unhappy with Rabbi Shafner’s answer, and though I know the Rabbi was making the same point about connection and acceptance coming before rigid interpretation of the law, I still want to respond to the questioner. Eventually, I get my chance and I tell a story about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement in the 1700s. He once came to a small town in Russia, and when he arrived, a Jew ran up to him complaining about his neighbour. “Rebbe,” the man said, “My neighbour has been digging his garden on the Sabbath and smoking his pipe and lighting the match. All forbidden on the Sabbath! What should we do to him? Stone him? Beat him? Shun him? Excommunicate him?” The Baal Shem Tov smiled. “No, no, my dear son,” he said. “We should love him even more.” The Chassidic movement is not well known for its tolerance of non-conformative behaviour, and yet here, its founder talks about putting love of ones fellow man before halachic considerations. “Rabbi Akiva says that love for your fellow man is the entire Torah,” I say. “All the rest is commentary.” I look for the man who asked the question about Jewish law but can no longer see him in the audience.
After the Q and A, people linger, talking to the speakers. My children are antsy and want to leave, so Margaux and I start back through the peaceful streets with them. Chicago is still leafless and cold, but it’s 70 degrees in Saint Louis, and there are flowers blooming everywhere. The air is soft. We pass a man mowing his lawn and he waves to the kids. As we walk, we play a game naming animals that begin with each letter of the ABCs and when we come to C, my daughter says “cantaloupe” instead of antelope. We talk about how Bais Abe has been so welcoming, and how, truthfully, Bais Abe is not the synagogue that needs to hear our message of inclusion. We talk of our wish to be able to help more LGBT Jews in Orthodox communities to live more fully authentic and integrated lives, and our desire to speak in more right-wing synagogues, where gay Jews are more likely to be hidden and afraid, rather than out. “Galapagos Penguin,” says my son. “Hippopotamus,” says my daughter.
On Saturday night, there’s a large crowd for “DevOut,” a film that shows Chani Getter and another woman who was meant to speak, but whose flight was canceled. I scoot in at the last minute, when the lights are already dim, and I overhear someone in front of me say, “She makes me uncomfortable.” I don’t know if these words apply to someone in our group or to some other person. I am instantly on the defensive. I want the people at Bais Abe to love us. In Chicago, I’m used to being sort of liked and sort of not, but the Jews of Bais Abe have, until now, expressed that rarest and most lovely of things: acceptance. I don’t want it to end.
Those migrants in the 1930s heading down Route 66 to escape the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl came to be known as “Okies” — a pejorative term for those fleeing disaster whether they came from Oklahoma or not. The majority of the farmers did not want to leave their land, their history or their families. They were forced to go by the dire conditions in which they found themselves. Route 66 is a narrow little road made of concrete, lined with wooden telegraph poles and quirky roadside shops. It’s not always continuous, and there are lots of dead ends. The concrete isn’t always in good condition and snakes sun themselves on the edges and there aren’t many signposts, but it’s a road. It’s a way out. It runs in a straight line from Chicago down to Saint Louis and then across to Los Angeles. When I look at the photos of the migrants taken by Dorothea Lange, many of the women are weary and the men are beaten down and the children are starving. They are powerful portraits of what it looks like to be without community. But Lange took other photos too, where the women and the men and the children are working together, smiling or laughing or merely sharing the load.
On Sunday, driving home from Saint Louis, I am, again, aware of Route 66 running parallel to I-55. The highway is faster, to be sure, but I still like to drive on Route 66. I’m not the only person on the mother road. There are a few cars. I wave to all the other drivers and they wave back at me. I am thinking about Bais Abe, about what it is like to stand up in synagogue and say my truth and to be acknowledged. I picture the Baal Shem Tov in long white garments, saying “Love them even more” and I also think of the Dust Bowl migrants, banding together in community, rejecting rejection. I am proud of Eshel, of what we have been able to accomplish in three short years. My children are playing the ABC game again. “Quail,” says my daughter. “Robin,” says my son. “The first sign of spring,” I say, and we unwind the windows to let in the fresh cool air.
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