Writing a Jewish Life: Memoirs – Lev Raphael

wajl(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

To misquote Lady Bracknell: To belong to one minority group may be regarded as a misfortune; to belong to two looks like carelessness. The author explains it thus: ‘I was afraid of outrage and retribution both from non-Jews for being Jewish and from Jews for being either bisexual or gay.’

Worse than belonging merely to two minority groups is to belong to two minority groups who seem to be at war with another, despite both having been victims of the Nazis. He describes an ugly scene at Yad Vashem. This is a shrine to those murdered in the holocaust and it struck me, on each occasion I have been there, as a very holy place where hushed voices or silence is the only befitting response to is awesomeness. He writes thus: The short ceremony (a wreath laid by LGBTs) started with singing of the Song of the Vilno Ghetto Partisans and chanting of prayers, but it was almost immediately interrupted by a hysterical demonstrator who …….shrieked, tore his hair, and rolled on the ground, calling us “evil,” saying we were “full of shit” and worse, accusing us of blasphemy, of desecrating the site….. many of the gays and lesbians I spoke to felt inspired by facing their critics, which is somewhat new, because gays in Israel are very closeted.’

This ugly scene turns out to be a Stonewall movement in Israel: ‘Most inspiring was the reaction of fiery Knesset member Yael Dayan, who made it very clear that this attack on gays was linked to other hatreds: of Arabs, of secular Jews, of women. Dayan wrote in the Jerusalem Post that “anyone who believed in [Israel’s] future as an egalitarian, democratic, humane society, one which accepts those who are different and supports their rights as a minority, ought to wear a pink triangle, next to the yellow star and blue-and‑white.”

I have frequently organised Holocaust memorial events but I have never encountered hostility from Jews like this: ‘In one city, I learned that organizers of a Holocaust memorial commemoration absolutely refused to allow a non-Jewish gay man to light one of the six memorial candles. The reasons were many but overlapping: it was not his place to be there, it was not appro­priate, how could you say what happened to Jews and gays was the same? But the rage underneath these assertions was telling. How dare he put himself forward, how dare any homosexual claim the right to participate in this ceremony! I have attended Holocaust memorial ceremonies where a number of groups are listed along with Jews, but never homosexuals….. One rabbi said that homosexuals “define themselves by their sexuality.” Another said that same-sex Jewish commitment cere­monies would promote “a lifestyle of instinctual gratification which is not channelled or sublimated toward a greater objective.” In other, cruder words: all that gay people think about or want is sex; they have no life outside of sex.

‘This charge is exactly the same kind of vicious calumny that anti-Semites have historically directed at Jews: they say we’re only interested in money. Both claims are absurd, disgusting, and dangerous, because they lead from stereotyping to violence of attitude and action. Furthermore, calling gayness a “lifestyle” trivializes something very complex (sexual identity), reducing it to faddishness.’

His family was dysfunctional, which is not surprising since his parents were holocaust survivors. For them, ‘it’s all about the war’, a war before he was born. So he gets criticised for pouring too much milk on to his breakfast cereal. My father was bipolar and I used to get punished severely for the slightest thing, long after I’d forgotten what it was. His relationship with his father seems similar to mine. We both made ‘too much noise’ as healthy children. Whenever he created something: a work of art, some writing, it was a time of ‘unpredictability and shame.’ Something he reads strikes him as a good description of his family: ‘”The house of dumbness, the house of deafness, the house of suffocation.”’ It is not until he receives acclaim from his writing teacher that he can say: ‘I was terrified—I was alive.’ (This insecurity mirrors mine – we both wrote reviews for ‘learned journals’ which took over a year top be published and we both wondered what we’d done wrong, not realising that the world doesn’t revolve around us.)

Typical of some in minority groups, his parents looked down on others from the same background: ’ Even though my father kept his store open on Saturday, he and my mother made fun of the Reform rabbi who drove to the shul down the block and mocked the ungemacht (overdone) hats of the women going to services. “It’s an Easter parade!” … When my consciousness of Israel started to develop, I asked .why they hadn’t gone there after the war, and the answer was unswervingly angry from my mother: “Live with all those Jews! I had enough of them in the ghetto and the camps!” So—being with Jews, being Jewish itself did not seem something to be proud of.’

Like many authors, as a teenager, he read everything as favourite author had ever written.

I enjoyed his Dancing on Tisha B’av (short stories about growing up gay and Jewish in America.) some years back

He describes a previous professor who pronounced his work as being worthless. The story about this incident won a prestigious writing prize ‘and was published in Redbook, which had four and a half million ‘readers. I made a lot of money and I received fan mail, realizing for the first time the power of being able to touch someone with what you write.’ He sees the role of his writing ‘as serving a larger social purpose, as opposed to being my individual path to success….. For me, writing has proven to be a catalyst, a laboratory. It has led to a deepened Jewish consciousness, profound connections with my people, building bridges between Jew and non-Jew, gay and straight. It has healed my own inner world and it has been tikkun olam.’ (tikkun olam = healing the world’s brokenness/putting broken pieces back together again) He also won the “Best Gay Male Debut” prize in the Lambda Literary Awards 1991.

As someone coming from a liturgical (Christian) background for whom traditional worship often goes stale, I agreed with his comment about a modern liturgy put together by his stepson:’ I felt the transcendence that I hope to feel at services, but seldom experience except at nontraditional Jewish groups like Simcha, the Detroit-area organization for Jewish gays and lesbians Gersh and I belong to. Even more, the story of the shepherd, for me, included all those Jews who either don’t have the Jewish edu­cation to feel fully comfortable at a service, and those who feel, as I did that morning, the futility of words.’

His credo for a reformed Judaism echoes mine for a reformed Christianity: ‘Our attitude towards gays and lesbians is a true test of the depth of our commitment to the Torah’s human values. Judaism’s moral strength is tested not by how narrowly we may define its parameters, but rather how broadly we can draw its circle….Rabbi Michael Sternfield of Con­gregation Beth Israel in San Diego has dealt beautifully and clearly with outrageous and destructive Jewish claims about homosexuality. In an Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon, he urged his congregation: ‘We need a Judaism which includes; a Judaism which is expan­sive and outreaching; a Judaism which recognizes the inherent dignity and worth in life of each person. This means that as a community, we must do our very best to include not only gays and lesbians, but also single Jews, poor Jews, divorced Jews, Jews with physical and mental disabilities, Jews who are intermarried—in other words, all of those of our people who seem not to conform to the theoretical model…. Jews, better than most, should understand the bitterness of ostracism, sus­picion and phobias for we have been strangers in many lands. Our attitude towards gays and lesbians is a true test of the depth of our commitment to the Torah’s human values. Judaism’s moral strength is tested not by how narrowly we may define its parameters, but rather how broadly we can draw its circle.’

The author was once mistaken for fellow Jewish and gay author David Leavitt, whose work our group has enjoyed. “I’m Lev Raphael.” Plunging ahead, the woman said, “Oh, but both of you are gay and Jewish, right?” Someone else at the table piped up, “Well, that’s true, but in Lev’s fiction, you can tell.”

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