Jeff Leavell
On Becoming Jewish-ish, p.3

The Rabbi asked me to come with him to the Chabad to put on Tefillin. I had no idea what he meant but I was up for anything. I was mesmerized. I told him a little about my family situation and how my brother and I had not been raised Jewish and that even though my mother was Jewish she was raised more Christian than anything. He told me, "You can hold a Jew upside down and shake them, you can baptize them a hundred times, you can take them far away from their people, into slavery and foreign lands and deny them access to their religion, but they are always a Jew."

The light of God. In my soul. A tiny flame burning always. Never to be put out. That which separates us. God created us with a piece of him. So I was in. Access guaranteed.

But what about all the first-born Egyptian babies? I mean, if I'm reading the text right, every time the Pharaoh, who probably wasn't a good man, but still, every time he was about to acquiesce, God would "harden the Pharaoh's heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 7:3) Now I can see punishing the Pharaoh, even all the Egyptians who treated the Jews wrong, but what about the babies who were born? Why them? Just to make a point? My God, the one I talked to all those nights while fiending for dope, he wasn't like that. At all. And I don't think it was just because I had the spark of light, the Godly soul. I don't think it is because I am Jewish. Ish.

But then I haven't read the whole thing yet. Maybe later on I'll figure out why all those people died.

I went to see the Chabad Rabbi almost every day. I would put on Tefillin, and he introduced me to a young Yeshiva student who was to help me "learn". Mostly we read a little and talked about life. He liked to listen to my stories and I liked the way he smiled. I don't mean that in an overly sexual way, just that he smiled like all the things I was saying, my whole life, had never occurred to him. He once told me that I was the greatest miracle he had ever heard. And that this journey of mine, this "return" was beautiful. He was a good guy.

I had my Bar Mitzvah at the Chabad on Rosh Hashanah. I had no idea it was going to happen. I was actually taking a client from the juvenile facility out on a day pass because his parents were drunk. We were going to go to the beach but I told him that first I had to go to Shul to hear the shofar being blown. My client was not Jewish and he had no idea what I was talking about, but he was excited to "check it out". I was nervous. I didn't know if I could bring him with me or not. I later found out bringing him was not a problem, but my leather shoes were. Who knew?

So I am called to Torah, son of Abraham, son of Beverly; I guess no longer son of Perry Leavell. I go up and I read and then we all dance around the Torah and sing and they throw rice at me and then the Rabbi - or did he do this first? I can't remember - gave me my Hebrew name. Yosef. I wanted Yakov because that was my great great grandfather's name. At the time, I had no idea who Yosef was, but the Rabbi seemed to think it was the perfect name so I took it, promising to do the research later. I could always change names, right?

It would have been the perfect moment if the Rabbi hadn't of asked me if C - my client - was Jewish and if I hadn't lied and said yes. C was called to Torah and only then did he say he was Christian. Oops. When the Rabbi asked me why I had lied I told him that C was Jewish but was "just trying to be difficult". Who knows if he believed me or not. The Rabbi was always amazingly generous when it came to my "idiosyncrasies," such as lying.

By this time I have a new boy friend. Catholic. Mexican. Uncut. Very sexy. (We live together now). The Rabbi is very tolerant of this. He even told me to invite "my friend" to watch me put on Tefillin. I was going to have him wait in the car -- I guess I'm the intolerant one. Rene - the sexy, Catholic, Mexican, uncut boyfriend - came with me to dinner at the Rabbi's for Rash Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He thought all the Jewish boys were sexy and everyone was very nice. He even liked the food, once he got used to it. There were plenty of other gay men and everyone was very accepting in an urban, Hollywood, kind of hip way.

But I wasn't having it. I was reading my Torah. I had bought all five books in the "Midrash Says" series. I had a copy of the transliterated "Siddur" and a book called "My Prayer" that would help me to understand the importance of it all. The Rabbi had even given me my own Tefillin - which I still think I do wrong, when I do it. The problem is, there was the God with the dash in his name -- you know, G-d -- and then there was my God. The one who didn't care about dashes and Tefillin or any of it. Because it was just me and him. Me standing before him. Telling him everything. And loving him. The two never reconciled. They couldn't. I realized it one night, it was sometime last September. I was reading all these emails from some Chabad place in Brooklyn. One in particular was about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the importance of repenting. For my sins. The importance of standing before God, dash or no dash, and saying I am sorry. For letting him down.

Wow. Fuck. Letting him down? Had I let him down? Because I thought it was all about unconditional acceptance and love and forgiveness.

But then something happened. I was all alone in my apartment, sitting at my desk, reading this article online, and the tears came. Relentlessly. I knew what I had done. What I was doing. What I am still doing. I knew the way in which I had let God, no dash needed, down. By not loving myself. By not forgiving me. It was unbearable to me that maybe I had not been the friend to God that God had been to me. The weight of it was crushing. I stood up and I kept saying, through these almost choking sobs, that I am sorry. I am so sorry for what I have done to myself and the way I have behaved. We have been given this life. This beautiful and glorious thing. This hugeness, this place of wonder and magic. And I had pissed all over it. Sometimes, even now, I am pissing all over it.

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Image: Rev. Dennis McNally, Communion

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:

Bush the Exception
Samuel Hayim Brody

Passion and Violence
Jay Michaelson

God Had a Controlling Interest
Hal Sirowitz