On Becoming Jewish-ish
Jeff Leavell

I spent most of my childhood trying to pretend I was from somewhere else. I was raised in Madison, N.J., a small, upper-middle class town just outside of New York City, but the only place I liked was the library, where I read books and put on "shows" for the patrons. A favorite show of mine was the "To be or not to be" speech from Hamlet. Another favorite was reciting Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee." I would dress in all black, and this long black cloak I found at a thrift store, and I would go into the children's reading room and perform my "shows." Mostly, though, my childhood is sad to me. I was lonely, I was different and I felt lost.

So I left Madison and moved to New York City where I spent my twenties. I now live in Los Angeles. Here are a few basic facts about me:

1. I am gay.
2. I was a heroin addict. I now have 7 1/2 years sober.
3. I have been a prostitute.
4. I have had sex with easily over five hundred men.
5. I have stolen, lied, and willingly and openly caused pain to others.
6. I have always felt unbearably alone while at the same time I have always known that God was with me.
7. I have always believed that I was capable of being more than who I was.
8. No matter what, I always prayed. My whole life has been a non-stop dialogue with God.
9. And the most important thing of all: I have always believed that I, like everyone else, no matter what I have done or who I am or have been, am redeemable and that God's love is completely unconditional.

I was raised without a religion, but with an acknowledgement of the religion of my father's parents. Baptists. It wasn't until my brother married a Jewish girl that it was brought to our attention that actually, by default, by some bizarre Jewish rule, my brother and I were Jews. Through lineage. Through my mother's mother's mother. Through Jacob Grossman and Jenni Nodelman. Through Sadie Whatley and Sadie Barber. Through Beverly Leavell.

My brother had an Orthodox wedding and I was the best man. It was the second time in my life I'd ever worn a yarmulke. The first time was when I went to a funeral - I went with a friend of mine from high school. I had the biggest crush on him. Now he's dead himself -- OD'd. So, I was the best man at my brother's wedding and I was wearing my yarmulke and my boyfriend at the time was Jewish and I had recently found out that I too was Jewish. Ish.. Sort of. Maybe.

The wedding was steeped in some kind of magical realism that I couldn't explain to anyone at the time. I watched those boys - I fetishized all those Chabadniks with their peyos and tzitzis - and I felt a kind of connection. I know that might sound crazy, maybe even delusional, but I did. I saw them and I wanted something from them. I didn't know what it was. I sexualized them, loved dancing with them. My boyfriend and I were asked to join with them in a minyan; they took the time to explain the prayers we would be saying, and what they meant in English, and then how to pronounce them in Hebrew. I was amazed at how open and willing they were to include us even though we were gay. I even went so far as to tell the rabbi I was gay and that before I prayed with them I wanted to know if that was going to be a problem. He told me that as long as I was Jewish he had no problems. I now know it isn't really as simple as that, but I also know that it isn't much more complicated than that either.

I didn't pursue my Jewish identity, but I liked saying I was Jewish. I felt Jewish, by which I mean that in me was a desire to be with God always. I don't know if that's how others would describe being Jewish, but it is my definition. I believe that my whole life has been a journey towards God. Toward finding a way to connect with that thing, that identity that is God in a way that is straightforward, honest and pure. So much of my life has been about pain, hurt and wanting. I wanted so many things that, for a while, I never saw what was right in front of me. I never saw the way shadows and light fell across my ceiling or the way the lights of the far-off Verrazano Narrows Bridge looked like dancers against the night sky. I never saw any of it because I was so busy asking God for help.

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Top Image: Rev. Dennis McNally, Jacob & the Angel
Lower Image: Rev. Dennis McNally, Verrazano Bridge

June 2004

Jeff Leavell

How I Finally Learned to Accept Christ in my Heart
Jay Michaelson

Playing Eve
Hila Ratzabi

Hyatt Regency Dead Sea Resort
Rowena Silver

Josh Breaks his Finger
Josh Ring

Mean to Girls
Dan Friedman

Our 450 Back Pages

David Stromberg

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From previous issues:

Carrying Light into Dark Times
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Run Like the Wind
Jay Michaelson and Dan Friedman

Temima Fruchter