Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Firebrand

A story- because I love him.
I walk this empty street
On the boulevard of broken dreams
Where the city sleeps
And I'm the only one and I walk alone

She smirked at him across the kitchen table. Little flecks of chocolate dotted her lips; she slipped her tongue between them, cleaning them off. Jason smiled. Lisa’s mother continued her remarks from the kitchen sink, turning anxiously.

“Isn’t there anything else you would like, Jason?” Mrs. Sapir was a petite woman, a beret placed loosely upon her pixie hair cut. Her features were finely cut, as though she were a diamond that had been chiseled just so. Her daughter shared her beauty, although Lisa was golden, with tresses that reached her shoulders and blue eyes that sparkled mischievously.

“I’m really fine, Mrs. Sapir,” Jason answered politely, patting his stomach. “Every time I come over to the Sapirs, I know that I’m going to be set for life! You always make enough food to feed an army.” He smiled. “It’s really a treat. I totally appreciate it. Honestly, living on college cafeteria food can assuage your hunger only so much.”

Lisa darted up from the table. “I know what he likes,” she informed her mother, briskly moving toward the tea kettle and expertly opening a drawer. “Nana tea!” she turned about brightly, holding the packet up before him.

Jason smiled. “Okay, caught me out,” he conceded, his brown eyes, so dark as to be almost black, guileless. He had long eyelashes that fringed them and an angular face; his cheekbones high and hollow. His lips formed a perfect bow and were very red. He wore his sensuality casually, carried it with him comfortably. Not for the first time Lisa thought of her various friends and how they wanted to date him. She shook her head.

“Ah, Jason,” she sighed. “What am I going to do with you?” She brought the cup to the table, setting it beside him. He inclined his head politely, a deep nod that expressed his thanks. He sighed and she smiled, noting the small black leather kipa on his head.

“No clips today?” she teased. “You’ve returned to bobby-pins?”

“So many of my girlfriends were asking for pins to put up their hair,” he joked, “that I figured it was the best way to help them out.”

“Oh, you wretch!” she cried, color dancing in her cheeks. Her mother smiled.

“What are your plans for today?” Mrs. Sapir inquired.

“Well, I wanted to show Jason a bit of New York,” Lisa began. “I figured I’d take him to Central Park and we’d go wandering about a bit; it’s so lovely there, you know.”

“Okay, that sounds like an excellent idea,” her mother affirmed, untying her red apron and folding it over the handle of the stove. “You’ll take the subway?”

“Course,” Lisa affirmed. “There’d be no point otherwise, now would there?” Her mother smiled.
“Jason,” Mrs. Sapir informed him, “I believe Lisa is about to conduct another of her tireless adventures.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Jason laughed. “I’m well aware.”

“We have to take lunches!” Lisa stated, wandering about the kitchen. She assembled brown paper bags, whole wheat bread, peanut butter and jelly on a counter. Then, as though on second thought, she reached for some miniature Crunch bars. “As I recall, you’re not allergic, right?” she questioned him.

“Nah,” said Jason. “Although when I was little I was supposedly allergic to strawberries.”

“Really?” Lisa inquired with interest while spreading peanut butter across a slice of bread.

“Yup. So of course, when I got older, I decided to only eat strawberries.” He grinned lazily.

“You must have gotten incredibly sick,” Lisa stated.

“Nope, not at all,” he informed her. “Strawberries are still my favorite fruit.”

“You’re incorrigible,” she informed him, affecting a state of high dudgeon.

“As are you, Lisa,” he stated. “But don’t worry, that’s why I love you.”

She grinned. They’d been friends for two years, since she had met him while working on the Lev Tahor journal. Interested in the same texts, fascinated by the same rabbinical figures, they had continued working toward their various goals. This year she was to begin grad school while he was off to start semikha. She joked with him often that he was the most eligible guy she knew and she’d be happy to set him up with any number of her friends. He always cited the line from ‘Ella Enchanted’ to her; he was too young to get married, too old, too ugly or otherwise silly. But he’d gone on dates with her friends, although not yet having achieved success. The girls inevitably liked him, though. “Aw, Lisa,” they’d say. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out. We’re just hashkafically different, you know?”

She supposed she saw that. He wasn’t the typical semikha student. After all, he wore jeans, hung out with girls, and spent his time having fun in addition to studying. Many of her friends were more focused upon marrying the sort of guy who would never speak to them until he was permitted to, that is, when he was set up with them.

Throwing two lunches into her bag, she pulled out a MetroCard and waved it underneath his nose. “Make sure you have yours!” she cheerfully stated.

He pulled it out of the pocket of his jeans. “Ready when you are, lovely Lisa,” he teased. “Lead the way.”

*


They took the Q train to 42nd street, figuring they’d walk the rest of the way. It was a pleasant day and she figured they could wander about till they reached Central Park.

“Besides,” she told him, “you need the exercise.” He didn’t, of course; he was perfectly fit and trim. In fact, he ran every day, usually at night-time. He didn’t seem to mind running through Harlem even though she usually worried about his safety.

“Course I do,” he answered solemnly. “The same way that you desperately need to diet.”

She laughed. “And you know I have an ulterior motive.”

“Yes?” he questioned.

“FAO Schwartz!” she stated gleefully.

“So we’re walking down to 5th Avenue; is that it?”

“Yup,” she stated as they slipped through the bustle of people. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Australian, British, African-American, Hispanic and so forth, she loved the blazing medley of colors and tongues as various people milled about 42nd Street. Also, Mayor Bloomberg had recently decided that little parks ought to be formed in the midst of Times Square, so she was tickled to see little green chairs and tables set up and people playing ball games in the middle of the turf.

“Hold up,” he said, joining her and walking comfortably beside her. He thrust his hands into his jeans and whistled a little. She wanted to shove him, playfully, of course. However, she couldn’t; there was shomer negiah to think of, after all. Instead, she rolled her eyes.

“You’re acting out a movie,” she accused him.

“If I am, that makes you the beautiful leading lady,” he flirted innocently.

She rolled her eyes once more. “Compliments won’t get you everywhere, you know.”

He leaned close to her but not so close that they were touching. “Won’t they?” he whispered, his voice suggestive.

“Oh, you,” she stated and waved her head dismissively. They trekked down the avenues and over toward 5th where they walked up, staring at neon lights and various plazas, until they reached FAO Schwartz.

“Oh, look, it’s like the guards at Buckingham Palace!” she exclaimed, nodding toward the man in costume who guarded the door.

“I think we should take a picture with him,” Jason ventured. He walked over to the guard. “Any chance we could get a picture with you?” he asked.

“Why, certainly,” the guard amiably nodded.

“I’ll take one of you guys,” Lisa hastily interceded. She didn’t want to bother any passerby or bystanders to take one of both of them.

“Nope,” Jason stated, taking her digital camera from her hand. He stopped a man with silvering hair who wore khaki shorts and a polo shirt. “Sir, could you please take a picture of us?” He nodded toward himself and Lisa. Lisa blushed crimson.

“Course,” the man answered amiably, and taking the camera, motioned for Lisa and Jason to get into position. They did so, smiling next to the Buckingham Palace guard.

The man shot the picture and the two of them thanked him. “There was no need for that,” Lisa sighed. “I would have been perfectly happy not being in the picture.”

“I know,” Jason stated. “But I wouldn’t have been happy with that arrangement.” He held the door open for her. “Come on in.”

They entered the store, one of Lisa’s favorites. “All the animals here are so soft,” she exclaimed. “Plush and beautiful. I would like to hug each and every one.” Jason smiled at her.

“Oh, look!” she exclaimed, motioning towards a group of large brown teddy-bears. She threw herself across them, laughing. Jason looked down at her and smiled. He took the camera and snapped some pictures.

“You’re great,” he informed her as she shot up, excited to see the photos.

“Do you want me to take any pictures of you?” she inquired. They wandered up the stairs and into the baby section. She had a brilliant idea.

“Find the letter ‘J,’ like they have to decorate baby’s cribs, and I’ll take a picture of you with it,” she stated. She knew she was being silly, but that was the thing she liked about Jason; he didn’t mind being silly alongside her.

Obediently, he went off in search of the letter ‘J.’ He draped it over his neck as though it were some sort of talisman and struck a dashing pose.

“Perfect,” she informed him. “Ready to go?” He nodded. They swept out of the store and wandered onward to Central Park.

“See how lovely it is?” she told him with a sweeping gesture. Her motion included the vast vistas of green, rolling plains, the trees sprouting upward beautifully. She focused on the people passing by and laughed. “There’s all sorts of parts to the park. There’s a lake, you know,” she stated helpfully. “I was once here and saw two people tip out of their boat.”

“Oh really?” he questioned.

“Yup! And it was ridiculous like you would not believe.” She rolled her eyes. “So they tip out of the boat and you hear the woman scream, ‘There goes my f—ing passport!’ And you watch her stuff just float down the river. And then she shouts, ‘Call for help!’ Except, of course, none of us have any idea who to call! So this awesome Spanish guy named Louis- he was really hot-“

“Thanks for the commentary,” Jason added dryly.

“With really white teeth against his dark skin- I love that look, you know,” she continued, not minding him, “calls 911. And within ten minutes you’ve got NYPD boats, cars, fire trucks and even a flipping airplane out there searching for bodies. On our way out, we told them that there was nothing to be worried about; those folks had been rescued long ago. But they still had to figure it out, you know…what was so funny is what people started saying. Everyone started surmising different things. You know, maybe there was a fire in a boat, or maybe someone had died…because why else would you have an NYPD boat flitting all about?”

“Flitting?” he questioned, raising his eyebrows.

“Course. What else do helicopters do but flit?” she questioned.

“Well, last I heard they fly,” he corrected her.

“Do you want to eat lunch?” she inquired. “There are public restrooms somewhere here but I also brought water bottles; we can just wash with those.”

“Yeah, up on one of those grassy knolls,” he pointed. “Let’s climb up there.”

“’Kay,” she acceded, gracefully following him, her skirt whipping in the wind. She opened her backpack and pulled out the waterbottles, lunchbags and a beach towel.

“What’s the towel for?” he questioned.

“Well, I didn’t have a checkered tablecloth, so I figured a towel would have to do.” She flashed him a dazzling smile.

He shook his head and reached for the waterbottle, spilling water over each fist. Then, closing his eyes, he made the blessing, thanking God for providing him with the bread of the ground. He took a bite.

“Mmm,” he stated. “Premiere peanut-butter sandwiches.”

She looked at him suspiciously. “You kidding around?” she questioned.

“Not at all,” he stated. “Totally serious.”

She laughed and the two of them munched away on their sandwiches. She rifled around in the sandwich bags and found an apple, biting into it with a loud crunch.

“I love Grannysmith,” she mentioned. “There’s something about the taste- sweet, tart-“

She was interrupted by a black man. “I’m a poet,” he informed them. “I’d like to read you my poetry.”

Jason smiled at the heavens. “Go ahead,” he said. Lisa didn’t really want to be disturbed but figured she’d hear the guy out and give him a dollar. He read the poem to her- she wasn’t really concentrating on it- and she fished out the bill.

He looked hurt. “I really just wanted your opinion on it,” he stated.

“It was really good,” she lied easily, not wanting to admit she hadn’t heard a word. “Seriously. It was great.”

“Especially the part about the monk and the shark,” Jason interrupted.

She flashed him a look. Please, she begged God, just make him go away. “Yeah, that was really a flash of inspiration,” she nodded, and the man, consoled, blessed her and Jason, then went on his way.

“Ah, New York,” Jason stated, leaning back lazily underneath the shady tree.

“It’s all part of the colorful nature of the city,” she added.

“I have something to tell you,” he stated. She smiled.

“Learn something interesting lately?” she questioned.

“Not exactly,” he stated. He sat up, as though what he was about to say was extremely serious.

“What’s the matter?” she questioned, suddenly alarmed.

“Did I ever tell you about my year in Israel?” he asked her.

“I mean…I knew you went; I don’t think you told me more than that,” she stated tentatively.

“During my year in Israel, I hated myself.”

The words hung in the air, sharp as knives. She saw them before her, printed black on white, strung together on a silver shred of barbed wire. “Why?” she questioned softly, tentatively, tucking her legs up underneath her.

“Because I’m gay.”

The words shocked her. They ripped through her body, confusing her; it was almost as though she had not heard correctly. It was totally impossible. He was involved in so many committees, had so many friends; he had dated her friends, for God’s sake! And he wanted to become a Rabbi! How could he be gay? And how could she, Lisa, know someone who was gay? “Oh, Jason,” she mustered, her eyes clouding over in confusion and pain.

“And I hated myself for it. I hated myself like you wouldn’t believe, Lisa. I literally wanted to rip it out of me, kill it. See, there’s a certain eroticism you feel at any naked body, but when I look at a woman, it’s just- I don’t want that. That’s not what I want. But a man- a man gets me excited. I want men.” His voice was thick with hatred and disgust. “And I didn’t want to want them. But you have no idea the images that swam through my mind, the things I thought, and here I was, in high school- because yes, it started before Israel, but it was when I was finally away from home that I could really think it through-and there were guys that I had crushes on. I mean, I tried to wipe that off as no big deal and no big thing; I had one friend and I finally told him and he broke my heart.”

The words were said in a rush, as though he was struggling to get them off his chest. “I just told him I was gay and he was my roommate and he was completely freaked out. I had thought we were best friends; our friendship would withstand anything. I was wrong.”

“But Jason,” Lisa whispered, her voice very low, “are you absolutely…sure?”

“Sure?” He laughed. “You have no idea. I went to JONAH and those therapists who are supposed to turn you straight. I wanted to be straight, Lisa; I wanted to be! And I would do all those things, even put rubber bands on my wrists that I would flick every time I thought of a guy that way, to try to remind myself. I wanted to control my mind. And I even watched porn, of girls, to try to get myself excited. And obviously I dated girls and I just- I just don’t like them like that. I can’t get aroused for them, because of them. And can you imagine what that would be like, marrying a woman and wanting to love her and just not being able to get it up for her? Only able to do it if I think about men?” He shook his head; his expression was filled with self-loathing.

“What are you going to do?” she asked. Confusion whipped through her, feelings that she was unsure of; she didn’t know what to say or what to do, how to help. What could she do? The law existed apart from them both and the law was greater than them both. The law took precedence over them and their lives; God had stated that a man could not lie with a man as he did with a woman. And yet, and yet- this was Jason she was speaking to, her Jason, the man she loved like a brother.

“Well, I had determined that I was going to get married. I was going to beat this thing, you know? And I really thought that I could just deny this part of me and get married to some girl but I’ve dated girls, Lisa, you know I have and I can’t…I just…can’t…”

“Then…could you just…” she tried to think of an easy way to say it. She brushed her hair out of her eyes, wanting to phrase it the right way. “Not?”

“Not do anything, you mean?” He laughed at the suggestion, but the laugh sounded dark, angry, as though he were laughing at himself and the weakness of his will. “Lisa, I am not cut out to live alone. I cannot envision spending every day of my life, eighty or ninety years of my life completely alone. I need to have someone, someone to care for and nurture and to be in love with, only it needs to be…a man.”

Pain wracked her; it covered her completely and wholly. She wanted to find the right words. “Listen, Jason,” she said, “I love you. I always have, like a brother, and I always will and I am so sorry that you have to deal with this and I wish…I wish there were a way…”

“And then there’s the matter of my kids,” he started, and she gave an involuntary shudder.

“Kids?” she said, her voice disapproving.

“I want to have kids, Lisa; you have no idea how badly I want them. But I can’t go through with it with a woman, can’t have her coming second fiddle to my imagination and the men I dream of. I can’t just use a woman to have kids and then divorce her…but I’d get kids somehow, whether I would adopt them with my partner or what…and I’d love them and be an amazing father to them.”

“But Jason,” she said, quietly, not wanting him to take it the wrong way, “if you do that, you’re damning those kids’ futures. Maybe it’s wrong but in our community, if kids are raised by two parents of the same sex, there are going to be people who won’t play with them, who won’t invite them over…that’s aside from the question of your kids getting married. And how can you hope to bring them up to be Orthodox if the very fact that their parents are together in this way goes against the Torah?” She was the only one who could have asked these questions of him. As it was, she saw him pull himself together, keep himself in check. “Or- are you still Orthodox?” she questioned, a little afraid.

“I am,” he said. “Damn it to hell. I believe in God, you see. I’ve examined it and I’ve thought about it and I really do believe in God and I even believe that these are the laws that He’s given us but I can’t pass this test, you see? I can’t, Lisa. I’m Orthodox and I always will be in every way but this one- I’ll keep a kosher kitchen and raise my kids to believe in Hashem and everything. I just can’t, I can’t…” His voice shuddered and then to her horror he raised his hands and cupped his face within them. He was crying. She felt like a monster.

“Please, Jason,” she said softly, her voice shaking. “Please don’t cry.” She felt like she had killed him.

“You can’t imagine,” he said, his shoulders shaking. “You have no idea. I tried everything, everything. I wanted to kill myself.” He said that very low, as though to try no to underscore it. He didn’t want her pity or her sympathy just because of that; he stated it as a fact, not a ploy for attention.

“You’ve been given a challenge by God,” she said, her voice sympathetic and her tone soft. “A challenge the likes of which I cannot even imagine. But God himself stated that a man cannot sleep with another man…so I must regard it as a sin…you see how it must? But I want you to be happy, I really do….” her voice trailed off and the full horror of it came upon her. And then the tears came, her tears mingling with his. “Oh my God, Jason,” she choked out, sobbing. “I can’t…I can’t…”

He knew what she was trying to say. The two of them remained there, he with his face cupped in his hands, wracked by shuddering breaths, she with tears trickling down her cheeks.

“I would give anything,” she swore to him, “for you not to be in this situation.”

“I used to think I could be so strong,” he told her. “I really wanted to- I always envisioned getting married but you see, especially now that all my friends are getting married, I watch them and dance at their weddings and just think, I can never have that. I never will. Aside from the fact that I just can’t- I’m not attracted to women that way- how could I possibly do that to someone else? Who would ever marry me if they knew what I was?”

“Don’t say that!” Lisa stated, as though by the passion in her voice she could protect him. “I’m sure there are people who would marry you; I’m sure there are! You are kind and good and I…” I love you, she wanted to say. I love you like my brother and I can’t imagine your pain. I want to wrap my arms around you and soothe you and tell you that it will all be better but I can’t promise that, I can’t, because I don’t know if it will be.

He had regained control of himself. “Lisa,” he said gravely, “thank you. I appreciate the fact that you don’t think worse of me.”

“How could I?” she breathed. It was an impossibility.

He looked into her eyes; a sad smile lined his lips. “Shall we walk a little?” he asked, and springing to her feet, the two raced down the hill and reached the path.

*


They were thick in the underbrush, keeping their voices low so that no one should hear them. “What happened in Israel?” Lisa inquired, her blue eyes shining up at him.

“Well, that was when it came to a head. I had to do something. I was going crazy. I had all these feelings in me but also all the hatred- you can’t imagine how much. So I spoke to my Rabbi and thank God, he was a good one; he listened to me, he heard me out. He has never judged me. And so together we arranged that I would do these things- JONAH, therapy, and whatnot. But it didn’t work.”

“Those things can’t work,” Lisa said scornfully.

“Well, that’s not necessarily true,” Jason stated. “Have you ever heard of the Kinsey scale?”

Lisa looked up at him quizzically.

“Well, it’s a scale from 0-6 which basically says how sexual you are. 0 is totally heterosexual and 6 is totally homosexual. I think there are probably people who are lower on the scale who are kind of experimenting with homosexuality or are bi, maybe, and those are the kinds of people who can go to JONAH or therapy and get turned straight. That’s why it works for some people.” His voice was calm, measured. He presented his ideas clearly. “See, but I think that I’m probably a 5 or 6- totally homosexual. That’s why there’s no hope for me. For me, it’s not about a choice; it’s biological. I did not choose my sexual orientation. There’s nothing here that smacks of a choice. This is what I am, who I am. There is honestly nothing I feel I can do about it.”

Questions whirled in Lisa’s mind. If what Jason was saying was true, how could God have expected that people fight such a powerful desire, the urge to be with someone and to not be alone? Was that a reasonable expectation? Was it fair? She knew that she herself could not willfully choose to lead her life alone, watching her friends get married and build families while dying a little every day.

A story from Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff came to mind, however. “There once was a man,” he had stated, “who was a mamzer.” Were this man to have children, by default those children would be mamzerim and therefore this individual chose to do the superhuman thing and to refrain from marrying anyone, much as he might have desired sex or a loving relationship with another person. Surely if that man could do it, Jason could do it, too?

But how would I know what Jason can or cannot do? she reasoned. Even if it is supposedly within his power on some superhuman scale, with some impossible effort, who can demand it of him? The only one who can demand that is God and I am not God, she thought. Besides, this is the essence of Jason; this is who he truly is as a person. How can God desire us to renounce what we truly are, the essence of ourselves?

Or is it that we are more than our sexuality, she thought, trying to make sense of it in a way that made sense to her. She could not find the words.

“It would be easier for you if you were not Orthodox,” she stated.

“It would be,” he nodded in agreement. “But that’s not what I believe. I believe in Orthodox Judaism and in God; I just can’t do it. I can’t do what God wants of me. In this way, I have failed.”

Tears touched her eyes.

“Does anyone else know?” she questioned.

“A couple of people,” he stated. “When my mother found out, she did not speak to me for 8 months. Imagine that, Lisa. Eight months during which your mother doesn’t speak to you, won’t look at you, sees you as an embarrassment, something to be ashamed of. She was totally disgusted by me. This is, after all, called an abomination in the Torah.”

Lisa lowered her eyes. “I know,” she said. “Although that’s not quite what it means- and people make much of it- the word to’evah shows up in different places, too and everyone fails to account for that.”

“Right,” he said, her eyes still not meeting hers.

“Can I ask you some personal questions? I mean, just because I want to know- but if they are too personal, then please don’t answer them.”

“Sure,” he said. “I trust you, Lisa. I trust you with my life.”

This was literally true. If she told anyone about this she could easily get him fired once he achieved semikha. Who would want to hire a homosexual rabbi? Who would want anything to do with him? His path was difficult and she felt the pain knock her over, ratcheting through her body until she felt that she might become physically ill.

“What do you do about mikvah?” she questioned.

“I don’t go. I can’t go. If people ask me to, I just say that I’ve already dipped.” He shrugged his shoulders.

“Wow,” she said softly, not knowing what else to say.

“I walk a lonely road,” he stated wryly, citing ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams.’

“I wish, with all my heart, that there was something I could do for you.” She felt an overwhelming urge to help him, save him, somehow fix things for him so that he could be who he truly was without forfeiting the love of those who would judge him and earn the judgment of God.

“I know, Lisa, and just knowing that helps me,” he told her.

“What can I do?” she questioned him.

“You can just be there,” he told her. “Be there and listen.”

“Okay,” she said, and the word was a promise written in her heart.

*

Jason had returned to yeshiva; he had to commence studying. Lisa returned to her home, her thoughts roiling. She didn’t know what to think, what to say. She felt honored that Jason had trusted her but a darkness flooded her. This was yet another confrontation that she was meant to have with the Almighty. She was close to Him; God was a part of her life in a tangible way. She spoke to Him, loved Him and shouted at Him. God was her father and she was his child. After eating dinner with her family and giving a falsely cheerful account of her day, she slipped beneath the covers of her bed.

“Dear God,” she began praying aloud.

“This is your daughter, Lisa Sapir. I wanted to talk to you about my friend Jason. My friend Jason who is homosexual. My friend who has suffered from diagnosed depression, who was suicidal, who did everything in the world in order to change for you. The one who wants to marry a girl and make her happy and be happy himself. That Jason. The Jason who is homosexual and fights himself in order not to act on that.

“But why should he have to fight himself? Why did you make this law?” She was crying by then, the tears streaking her face. “I don’t understand, God. I went to look it up. Leviticus 18:22. It’s there in black and white. And then, ‘for whosoever shall do any of these abominations, even the souls that do them shall be cut off from among their people.’ That’s kareis, God! That’s the worst punishment in the entire Torah, where either you die young or your children die young or your soul is cut off forever, unable to enter before Your divine light. And is that how you would punish him? Is that what you would do? But why? He’s a good person, God. He’s the best person! I’ve watched him on various committees; I’ve seen him. He’s helped me- he’s been kind to me- he’s been my best friend.” She could hardly speak; her throat was so clogged with tears. “What do you want him to do? Can you really condemn him to a life alone? Is that really what he must do in order to earn your love?”

She paused for a moment, running her fingers through her hair. She stroked her own cheek, wanting to touch skin that was warm for her fingers were cold; her whole body had seized up. “But that is cruel, God, cruel! I know that we must surrender to you. I know that we exist in order to do Your will. And I wish that my will were in accordance to yours, but it can’t be- it can’t be! How am I supposed to look at him and understand? What do you want me to do, God? What should I pray for? I just want him to be happy…and I don’t want him to lose his soul. I don’t want him to be cut off from You.”

She had a strong desire to protect those she loved, whether it was from physical or divine punishment. She loved Jason; he was her friend and confidante and more. He had helped so many and would doubtless help so many more. “What am I to do?” she whispered, pleading before God. “Tell me what to say.”

She tossed and turned in the bed, unable to think. She wanted to find the words, to undo God’s law. Her heart was raw and bleeding. She believed in God’s will but it hurt her to believe. Once more, she laughed in her heart at the idea that religion was a panacea. Religion was the absolute hardest thing she had ever done; it was difficult, at times insurmountable. Her strongest desire was to push aside the law in favor of human emotion. When it came to the children of God and God Himself, it was his children whom she desired to help and to comfort. It was Jason that she loved…but she believed in God’s word.

*


“What?” she stated aloud, poring over the text in the Beit Midrash. It was Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, Part 4, Responsa 115. R’ Moshe Feinstein had written about homosexuality and stated that there was no purpose for the homosexual drive- after all, the act does not create children- therefore, it is not a true drive. This means that the true reason for fulfilling one’s desires as a homosexual is to rebel against God. One wishes to taste of the forbidden.

But I know Jason, Lisa thought, and the words did not fit her image of him. He was a good person, kind to others, reaching out to them. Could such a person be one who willfully desired to rebel against God? If he lacked the strength to refrain from sinning with another man, did that of necessity mean that he had truly rebelled?

All I know is that I could never hurt him, Lisa thought. Homosexuality was categorized under arayos, sins punishable by the death penalty. I could never have any part of a court that would sentence him to death for this, Lisa thought to herself, her head shaking. But she knew that this was because of her exposure to Western morality and Western morals. Her morals no longer came from the Torah; they were not pure in the same way that some of the more fundamentalist Haredi models could be seen as being pure. Her morals were murky and entertwined with the values she had been taught due to her society. Loving people and tolerating them was something that she valued; she found it extremely difficult to accept the Torah’s rendering of these laws. How could R’ Feinstein possibly think that someone like her Jason simply desired to rebel?

“It’s not that simple,” she said under her breath. “It just can’t be. There has to be a way- there has to be!” She was angry, searching; she wanted to find a way to legitimize her point of view within her religion. But there was no way. And what was worse, people would not see Jason as simply a man committing a sin but as an entity- a man who lived a life of sin. He would be condemned to separation from the community, to a kind of ostracism that killed her to envision.

“I wish that I could grant him strength,” she thought. “I wish that I could make it so that he didn’t do this, that he could live alone. I believe it is a sin and therefore I cannot wish for him to sin. But at the same time, I want him to be happy. What comes first? His happiness or God’s word?”

She had puzzled over this question for quite some time, trying to find an answer, a resolution that would solve the problem totally.

“I cannot, I cannot!” she felt like shouting out to the world at large. It is unfair, God, she thought to herself. You cannot make me. It kills me to allow your word supremacy and yet I believe it to be true. But I want, I so want for him to be happy. What should I do? What should I pray for? What should I ask for? I want him to be happy…can’t there be a way?

*


He was glowing with pleasure. “There’s this guy,” he began, turning to her a little awkwardly.

“Oh!” she said with a sharp intake of breath.

“Yeah. So I’m going to go out with him. I’m actually totally thrilled about how this worked out. As you know, I’m going to be interning with a community as an assistant rabbi during the course of completing my semikha. Happens to be that this guy actually lives in the community. So it’s perfect.”

“I’m so happy for you,” she said before she could recall the words. But was she really? On the one hand, she was happy for him- she couldn’t possibly be happier. On the other hand, what if he were to break God’s law? What then?

“You know,” he told her, “I personally plan to keep to the exact letter of the law. I think then maybe I can make it kind of okay before God.”

“How do you mean?” she questioned.

“It’s anal sex that the Torah forbids,” he said. “Not making out or touching or mutual masturbation or oral sex or anything like that.”

Well, masturbation would be forbidden under a different law, she thought, but said nothing.

“So I figure I’ll keep to the letter of the law and just not have anal sex.” He looked up at her, his eyes a mixture of bravado and desperation.

“I’m sure God will appreciate everything you do to serve Him,” she stated.

“Yeah,” he said, walking along. He had been so exuberant, but thoughts flooded her mind. What if, at some point, he got married to another man? Could she attend that wedding? She would want to- there was no question of that- but could she actually do so? For one thing, her parents would not be happy with that. And that was aside from whether she could truly celebrate a wedding between two men before God.

But God, don’t you see?, she pleaded silently. Look at him! He was depressed, miserable, suicidal; he did everything he could for you. You can’t say he didn’t try! And now he wants to find happiness however he can with this man…can’t you forgive that? Can you please try? She spoke to God as though she were Jason’s defense attorney, trying to find reasons to make him not guilty in the Creator’s eyes.

“I’m really happy for you,” she told Jason, and she was, whether it was wrong or right to be so. But she also worried for him, because what if that community found out? What if he became a rabbi but couldn’t get a position anywhere, was shunned by the Orthodox? Homosexuality is a public lifestyle and a public sin; it cannot really be kept quiet. If two men live together past a certain age…can they really claim just to be roommates?

Anxiety and worry danced together in her eyes. “I love you,” she said, as though to make it true. She hoped she would never have to choose between him and God.

*

“Fucking liar!”

“He was in our dorm. A fag in our dorm!”

“Fairy.”

The words were stated with disgust. Rather than being compassionate or kind, the students were immature, currently following Jason as he walked slowly out of his dorm room, a backpack slung over his shoulders.

“Can you imagine? A gay guy in our dorm?”

Lisa ran up to him, her eyes roving over his body to assess for bruises. “You’re bleeding,” she said, pointing to a cut on his cheek.

His eyes were bitter; he said nothing.

“You’re friends with the fag?” one of the men casually asked her.

She turned to him, her eyes blazing. “You know what faggot means?” she said, her eyes blazing. “Oh, I know you know the definition and connotation it has nowadays,” she spat, “but it used to mean something else. A piece of wood. A piece of wood on an altar, placed there as a sacrifice for God.

“You call him a faggot because he’s gay. I don’t know how you found out. I don’t really care. But if you’re going to refer to him as that, you should give it the true meaning of the word. You know who he is and what he has done? Do you know how many years he’s held off on pursuing his desires- he still hasn’t done anything; he is still pure, now, as we speak! The Rav talks about that. In ‘Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah. You know what he writes?”

She was angry and her anger burned in her eyes, her face; her whole complexion was lit up with the heat of it.

“Yet there is another aspect to prayer: prayer is an act of giving away. Prayer means sacrifice, unrestricted offering of the whole self, the returning to God of body and soul, everything one possesses and cherishes. There is an altar in heaven upon which the archangel Michael offers the souls of the righteous. Thrice daily we petition God to accept our prayers, as well as the fires- the self-sacrifices of Israel- on that altar (v’eishei yisrael u’tefilasam b’ahavah tikabel b’ratzon.) Prayer is rooted in the idea that man belongs, not to himself, but that God claims man, and that His claim to man is not partial but total. God, the Almighty, sometimes wills man to place himself, like Isaac of old, on the altar, to light the fire and to be consumed as a burn offering. Does not the story of the Akeidah tell us about the great, awesome drama of man giving himself away to God. Of course Judaism is vehemently opposed to human sacrifice. The Bible speaks with indignation and disdain of child sacrifice; physical human sacrifice was declared abominable. Yet the idea that man belongs to God, without qualification, and that God, from time to time, makes a demand upon man to return what is God’s to God is an important principle in Judaism. God claimed Moses’ life: He demanded the return of body and soul without permitting him to cross the Jordan. Moses complied, and willingly died the “Death by Kiss.” God claimed Isaac and Abraham gave Isaac away. What does prayer mean in the light of all this? The restoration of God’s ownership rights, which are absolute, over everything He owns. The call:

“Take thy son, thy only son, whom you love so much..and bring him as a burnt offering” is addressed to all men. In response to this call, man engages in prayer, as sacrifical performance.

“A new equation emerges: prayer equals sacrifice. Initially, prayer helps man discover himself, through understanding and affirmation of his need-awareness. Once the task of self-discovery is fulfilled, man is summoned to ascend the altar and return everything he has just acquired to God. Man who was told to create himself, objectify himself, and gain independence and freedom for himself, must return everything he considers his own to God.”

“You call him a faggot because of what he is. But you should think of what that means in the traditional sense of the term. He is a firebrand, wood placed upon the altar. He was created to sacrifice. To give up everything that he is and that he has wanted. And he has given it, these past years. He has given up everything! He tried to change himself, tried to accept God’s authority over himself, showed the utmost restraint. He’s dated girls- he’s done everything. You have no idea what he has suffered, who he is as a person. Most of you are nothing in comparison to him.

“Do you feel strong, belittling him? Where is your compassion, your kindness, your understanding? Do you have any? Have you squandered it all on your own transgressions, so that you have none left over for anyone else?”

She placed her hands on her hips, her blonde curls blowing in the wind.

“Yes, he’s a faggot, but he’s a faggot of wood on God’s altar. He’s been offered up, burned alive on that altar. And so far he has done nothing. And maybe he will be able to remain that way, to do nothing, to offer up his whole life to God. Unfortunately, that’s what I have to pray for. But maybe he won’t. And if he doesn’t, I have no right to judge him. Nor do you. Because I have no idea what it is like for him. I have no idea what hell he goes through every day. I can’t fathom the amount of self-restraint he exercises and I don’t have the words for the pain that he has suffered.”

They stood before her, unmoved. Perhaps they were ashamed, but if so, they didn’t show it. She was disgusted by them.

“Come on, Jason,” she said. “Let’s go.”

He shot them a glance, then walked with her slowly. Tears crept to the corner of his eyes. Her heart beat erratically within her.

“It’s not fair, God,” she cried out, an angry girl shouting at a Being so much more powerful than she. Her blonde curls dancing in the wind, framed by surroundings of brick and stone, the Batei Midrash and the streets outside the yeshiva, she defied Him. “Job said that he was sorry for frail man, for afer v’efer, and so am I, God! So am I!”

And then she sunk to her knees and wept. For no matter how much she defied Him, He still ruled over her and everything she held dear. Jason knelt beside her.

“It is enough, Lisa,” he said, and there was kindness in his eyes. He had not meant to make her choose. He had not meant to hurt her. “He is my God, too.”

21 comments:

Gavi said...

Great story - unfortunately rings very true to me. People I know been in that place...

Dana said...

wow... Chana-this is quite the story. i think you managed to address every real frustration and practical modern conflict that arises from such sadness... my heart goes out to everyone who suffers like this on a daily basis.

DYS said...

Ari,

Best to just ignore people like that, and hopefully Chana will delete the comment.

Chana,

Amazing story. It feels like you reached inside for some very personal feelings on this topic and that what makes the story so poignant and real.

the only way i know said...

Thank you Chana
Wonderfully expressed and argued. Extremely emotive

Jewish Atheist said...

My heart goes out to people like Jason. And I feel anger for those who support the religion that does this to them. I mean, I understand. I know they mean no harm. (At least some of them don't, anyway. I mean "Jason" himself believes.)

But it's so unnecessary. There's nothing wrong with being gay. You know that intuitively, Chana. Jason knows it too, I hope.

Thousands of gay people form happy gay relationships and families and it's just not that big a deal.

I've known a few Jewish-but-not-Orthodox gay men who simply realize that they're gay sometime in their childhood or teens and then it's just not that big a deal. Their families support them unconditionally, they are completely open about their orientation, and they find nice guys to settle down with.

No drama, no tears, no anguished struggle, no hating friends, no rabbis who try to "help" with ridiculous "cures," no shunning from parents or community. Just normal. Just like you and me when we find somebody we like. People are just happy.

That's how it can be. That's how it should be. God didn't write the Torah, people did. You gasp, that's kefirah, but it's the clear and obvious truth to anybody who didn't grow up Orthodox or otherwise fundamentalist.

"18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination... For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people."

Those are not the words of the creator of the universe. Those are the words of some guy living in ancient Israel, or perhaps they are borrowed from someone living earlier than that. They weren't written by God, and everybody outside the Orthodox (and other fundamentalist) circles knows it. The non-fundamentalist scholars know it and the laypeople know it.

All you Orthodox people who think you don't have to read about the Documentary Hypothesis or even seriously think about whether what you believe is actually true because you're happy with your religion -- you share some blame for these tragedies that go on every day in America and throughout the world.

If you've honestly investigated the truth and continue to believe that Orthodox Judaism is correct, okay, you've got to stand up for what you believe in. I get that. But if you're one of the majority who just loves being Orthodox or is too scared to look, you bear responsibility.

Don't just shake your heads at the tough position people like Jason are in. You're part of the problem. Do your research, honestly, and if you find out what the rest of the intellectual world already knows, have the courage to say so.

Jewish Atheist said...

Turned this into a post.

Ari said...

Chana,this is one of your best stories. I have a friend who is struggling with this issue and I follow the following statement:

"Compassion, sympathy, empathy, understanding - these are essential elements of Judaism. They are what homosexual Jews who care about Judaism need from us today." Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (United Kingdom)

Stubborn and Strong said...

It is so funny, I just discussed with my best friend. My best friend and I are very different and look at the world very differently. (Remember I know the feeling of minority in the minority which is deaf and blind Jew and gay is minority and it is similar feeling which is very lonely except one thing that makes them very different from me is against the Torah of course) We discussed that would I let my children to play with children of gay people, my answer is yes. (of course my best friend says no) Because eventhough I am Jewish and I am not afraid that my children would exposed to gay world because it is really depend on my foundation of my jewish home and let my children to decide what's right or wrong. Also I don't see the gay thing affect anybody only themselves. If my children is straight they really are not going to be gay, if my children are born gay, they will know my house will always be open for them not be ashamed about it, it is the question how they will fight. Everybody have weakness that makes them stronger. The gay is one of them. I can't imagine how they could do it and I don't blame them to fall down, it is one of strongest test that Hashem gave to human. I believed Hashem have purpose of everything and we all know life is not fair but the question how we make life out of our lives and how do we deal with it. That is my most important lesson that I want to teach my children. I could guide them but I can't make choice for them. They should always love everybody equal no matter who they are, ie. gay or not.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

if this is based on a true story, please pass this advice on to the person 'jason' is based on:

i obviously don't have any real solutions for his situation, but i just wanted to point this out —

1. if he wants to go to the mikveh, there are mikvehs out there that have privacy where he won't have to see or be seen by anyone else

2. it's never a good idea for a rabbi or rabbinic intern to date in the community which they are rabbinating for (regardless of orientation)

Anonymous said...

didnt read till end important and ENLIGHTENING a bit shallow

nmf #7 said...

Great story- you captured the ideas and feelings so well!

By the way, I tagged you :
http://israelchronicles.blogspot.com/2009/08/seven-things-i-love.html

Anonymous said...

Ive been reading this blog for some time, and while i like your writing you definitely do need to switch up your characters a little. They all speak with the same voice, act the same way and are the same kind of “good natured”, “supportive” or “silly”

Aaron said...

Chana,I appreciate the important message in this story. ell done!

DYS said...

JA, isn't it better that Chana struggle with this disconnect rather than just blanketly condemn homosexuals as most in the OJ community do? She should be praised for that, not criticized for not jettisoning her faith entirely.

Anonymous said...

Chana,
The story's issue is fabulous. Well done. As I got to the part where 'Jason' makes his confession, my phone buzzed with a text...from one of my closest friends, a Jew who believes deeply in Judaism and is becoming more religious, and yet he is homosexual. I know he's quickly coming to this standoff, and I don't know how to help him.

So kudos on your subject matter. However, just some constructive criticism: the dialogue in this story was not as natural as your other stories, and while Lisa's final soliloquy, as it were, was beautiful, it read more as an essay as opposed to speech. Again, though, you did well with such an emotionally complex issue.

-Meg

Jewish Atheist said...

DYS:

JA, isn't it better that Chana struggle with this disconnect rather than just blanketly condemn homosexuals as most in the OJ community do?

Yes, of course it's better!

She should be praised for that, not criticized for not jettisoning her faith entirely.

I think I just have/had very high expectations for Chana. She's unusually intelligent, sensitive, inquisitive, and independent-minded. And I'm not asking her to jettison her faith "entirely," just to jettison the parts that are obviously false and harmful. Plenty of Orthoprax/Reconstructionist/Observant Conservative Jews believe in Torah and Judaism but not that homosexuality is a sin or that the chumash is the word of God or that every single verse is divinely inspired.

Janet Reno said...

Literary Criticism: Significance of the name Lisa - Lisa is an Orthodox Lesbian who runs a website called OrthoDykes.org. So this name is associated with Orthodox homosexuals in the j-blogosphere.

Did Rabbi Rakeffet give permission for his character to be used in this story? Also, the Rav would be turning over in his grave for his words to be used like they are in this story.

Anonymous said...

i dont see the prob: jason does not have a stronger desire for men than his friends have for women-- they dont act on it

they dont marry to fulfill desires. they can marry without an overpowering desire

this makes more sense when picturing an ultra-orthodox society

get over your desires-- learn to live above them.

yes if you are mired in them words in a book cannot fix your life. mixing men and women may cause issues?

so ya

dman said...

To Jewish Atheist:
You wrote "just to jettison the parts that are obviously false and harmful."
What is obvious to you may not be obvious to everyone.


To Janet Reno:
You wrote: "Did Rabbi Rakeffet give permission for his character to be used in this story?"
Did you every hear of fair use?

dman said...

I'm not sure whose contention this will support:

INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE THAT SEXUAL ORIENTATION CHANGE EFFORTS WORK, SAYS APA

http://www.apa.org/releases/therapeutic.html

Copy of study "Appropriate Theraputic Responses to Sexual Orientation":
http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbc/publications/therapeutic-response.pdf

Anonymous said...

moshe says
Why must such a person become a rabbi?