There was this moment when the director of education and youth programming at my synagogue and I looked at each other, and we came to an interesting conclusion.
A very large percentage of our synagogue teens are LGBTQ.
Thus was born Temple Israel of West Palm Beach’s outreach program for LGBTQ Jewish children, generously supported by the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County. Our goal: to create a safe space for Jewish LGBTQ children and their allies, and to see this issue through a Jewish lens.
I’m proud to say kids sign up – affiliate and unaffiliate.
But, where did this idea really start – at least, for me?
Let me tell you about my worst childhood days. It was the time, in middle school and high school, when the other kids tormented me – with three insults.
– a pejorative term for a male homosexual that begins with the latter f and ends with the letter t.
That’s what my teenage tormentors used to say.
- You are a hippie. We have crew cuts, or slicked back, greased back hair; your hair goes down to the shoulders.
- Vous êtes juif. We go to the local church and you go to the local synagogue. As many of my tormentors have told me. You are personally responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, Pope John XXIII had exonerated the Jews from the charge of deicide, but it took years for the news to reach our corner of Nassau County.
- You are the F-word. We love football and dream of fast cars. You like music, theater and poetry.
They followed the playbook that the late German historian, George Mosse, had described. Mosse taught that each culture defines his own sense of what a man means, then uses this definition to portray those who are different as foreign, like the other.
These experiences have shaped me, more than I could have ever imagined. They pushed me in a long journey through the sense of masculinity, leading to two books: Searching for my Brothers: Jewish Men in A Gentile World and The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary.
But, more than that, these experiences have instilled a social awareness of LGBTQ life.
Three films from my youth were an essential part of this program.
(1962) Based on the novel by Alfred Drury, it tells the story of Robert Leffingwell, played by Henry Fonda, who has been appointed Secretary of State, and the various forces that come together to support or defeat him.
Brig Anderson, a Utah lawmaker, is on the fence about Leffingwell. He becomes a victim of blackmail. If he did not support Leffingwell, he would be exposed to a same-sex affair he had during his military service. Ultimately, and tragically, Brig Anderson commits suicide.
(1961), starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, from a play by Lillian Hellman. It is the story of a couple of women who run a school for girls. One of the women becomes the victim of a vindictive student, who spreads the rumor that she is a lesbian. Finally, she also commits suicide.
(1970) I recently watched the remake – this time with a cast of gay actors. It is the story of a dinner party attended by gay men – in which there is the underlying theme of stealth, secrecy and self-loathing.
(For more on LGBTQ cinematic expression, I highly recommend celluloid closeta documentary on how movies have dealt with this subject.)
These films shaped my view of homosexuality, long before I knew anyone who was gay.
In fact, that’s not really true.
For forty-five years Aunt Trudy had belonged to my great-aunt Charlotte – what was the word? – “Roommate?” ” Roommate ?
That’s what they were, technically.
I was fifteen when Aunt Trudy died. It was the first funeral I attended. At the start of the funeral, the director of funeral escorted Charlotte to the chapel – as, for decades, I saw funeral directors have escaped mourning spouses, again and again. I can still hear Aunt Charlotte’s cry of pain.
Aunt Trudy had passed away and Aunt Charlotte was the grieving wife.
But, there had to be a more bitter lesson, and it’s a lesson I hadn’t thought about in decades.
We are in 1978. I was living in New York and it was winter. A friend and I were walking through Central Park. A group of teenagers approached us. “Hi guys!” they said, in an exaggerated and effeminate way. They bombarded us with snowballs, then stones.
A few hours later, we reflected on this incident.
“Do you think they attacked us because they thought we were gay?”
We, two heterosexuals, had been victims of gay bashing?
What do I want our LGBTQ teens and their allies to understand?
There are parallels between the historical experience of Jews and that of LGBTQ people in this world (knowing, of course, that there are many who find themselves in the two categories).
- In Europe, at certain times and in certain places, publicly engaging in Jewish acts was tantamount to a death sentence. The same goes for LGBTQ people.
- In America, to find a job, or to live in certain areas, or to attend certain universities, or to join certain clubs, Jews had to pass. “Don’t be too Jewish!” LGBTQ people too.
- The Jews had to change their name; LGBTQ people had to hide who they were.
- The word “Jew” has entered our vocabulary freely – as a word for haggling, bargaining and cheapness. The word gay has entered our vocabulary freely – as a word for anything you didn’t like. “C’est tellement gay.”
- Jews were often the victims of fierce, internalized, often suicidal self-hatred; LGBTQ people too.
The intersectionality of Jews and gay people had a particular power and intensity. In Leslea Newman’s short story “A Letter to Harvey Milk”, an elderly Jewish man, a Holocaust survivor, recalls the temporary same-sex relationship he had at Auschwitz, and how his companion was put to death because he was gay, and how that death haunted him for the rest of his life.
There is a reason why we Jews wear tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our tallithot. It’s probably because we know what it’s like to be on the margins of society.
We embrace LGBTQ people, because they are not “them”. Ils sont “nous”. To look at “them” is to look at “us”. They are our children, our brothers and sisters, our parents, our cousins, our colleagues, our teachers, our neighbors, our….
They were my classmates in middle school, who single-handedly raised my consciousness when needed.
They are my colleagues – rabbis, cantors, educators, etc. – who have taught me a Torah of life over the past four decades. This Torah prompted me, among other things, to adopt Jewish ceremonies for same-sex couples.
Michael Walzer teaches at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. At the age of 87, he is still productive and intellectually adventurous.
His small but heavy book, was one of the most important books I have ever read.
Egyptian enslavement – and later, the Exodus – shaped the Jews as a people. But, more than that, it has shaped and informed our worldview. It has instilled in us the moral passion that we can bring to the fate of the spitting society. She instilled in us a moral and passionate awareness of the role of the Other, of the foreigner in society.
So you’ll ask again: why are we reaching out to our LGBTQ youth, and those who would be their allies?
Blame it on the book of Exodus. Blame the kids who tormented me in high school. Blame it on the movies I loved when I was a kid. Blame it on Charlotte and Trudy.
And yes, you can blame the kids who threw snowballs at me and my friend in Central Park.