Phil S. Stein
Two weeks prior to my departure, I spoke with the rabbi overseeing admissions to a well-known yeshiva in Jerusalem. The yeshiva was part of the same organization through which my sister had made tshuvah, and this was my entrance interview. I felt my conscience required me to inform him that I was gay. I knew that the Orthodox still consider homosexuality a sin, and that this would be a problem of some sort for this rabbi, but surely I wasn’t the only gay man who'd ever contemplated entering the yeshiva world. Anyway, I felt that they’d become aware of it sooner or later, and that it was better for me to be up front about it, rather than it seeming as if I were hiding or being duplicitous. Little did I know that the Orthodox way of handling sexuality was that one was presumed straight (even if one were unmarried, say, and forty) until there was absolutely no other choice. The rabbi was a bit taken aback. He asked me if I was "obvious," and whether I would have to tell everyone. I replied that I understood, at least on a surface level, Orthodox Judaism’s prohibition against homosexuality, but that, while I was not effeminate, or overtly gay, over time people who were attuned to these things and became well acquainted with me would figure it out, and that in any event, I wouldn’t lie to close friends. But, I said, I wanted to "approach Judaism with an open heart and mind, and see what happens and where it leads." (As I learned to say it later,"to be mekubal to HaShem, his Shechina and Torah.")
The Rav decided the yeshiva could provide me with free tuition, but, unlike the deal given to the rest of their students, no housing. While I was in, I now had to figure out how to find a place to live and pay for it, and how to negotiate my way as a gay man of 40 through an Orthodox yeshiva for guys typically 18-35.
What I thought of being mekubal (receptive) and what they understood... well, it would be an area of further exploration and clarification. I certainly had no desire or expectation to give up my homosexuality, as if that were possible. Not that it had ever really made me particularly ‘gay,’ in the old fashioned sense of the word; often I find myself feeling lonely, lovelorn, a bit neurotic and unhappy. On the other hand, I have a strong sense of self, however conflicted, a vastly deep, rich, and complex identity and set of perspectives, which, however eager for new ideas, experiences, and perspectives, is not prone to complete self re-invention overnight. I was hoping for new wisdom, a refreshed vista on life, the world, even myself, perhaps, you never know, even on my prospects for relationships.
In many ways, my fantasy was a common one: to learn enough about Judaism to be able to function in any Jewish setting with a feeling of confidence. To have a better appreciation for Jewish laws and traditions. And, finally, hopefully, while doing all this, and like most other people who come to Jerusalem to learn and reconnect, to find my bashert – my brilliant, sensitive, uniquely aware, creative, giving, loving, just, faithful, hot, sexy, wild, kinky, nice Jewish boy/man. Come on! Surely there should be a higher concentration of suitable candidates here than anywhere! I just had to be receptive (and of course active, as well).
I was also going with an open heart and mind, and... who knew. The Torah makes wise the simple, good the evil, happy the sad. Who was I to say it could not, with God’s mysterious help, make straight the gay. While it seemed less likely than pigs flying, certainly there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of even in my philosophies. This was going to be an adventure .
Inquiries of whether I was available for shidduchin (matches) started early, and, once people learned that I was 40 (?!), it became top priority. Everyone is known to be in Jerusalem for a match, and an unmarried, handsome man, with an Ivy League, Fortune 500 background – of 40 no less! – in the Orthodox world, especially in Jerusalem, is a hot commodity. Didn’t matter that I had just arrived. Didn’t matter that I didn’t know my halacha from haskala. Like Rabbi Akiva, 2000 years ago, I’d emerged from the sheker (lie, shadow) of ignorance, clearly destined to take a wife and go to yeshiva at age 40, to go onto become one of Jewish history’s most inspiring teachers. And, I had a baalat tshuvah sister; such a brother of such a tzadekis would make a perfect match for literally hundreds of sisters, cousins, friends, daughters, nieces, granddaughters.
The eligible female to male ratio in Jerusalem is terribly out of balance, something on the order of 3:2, leaving a large, ravenous, female population out there in increasingly desperate search of a man. I thought the fact that I couldn’t speak Hebrew, function in Israeli society, or have any means of making a living here were compelling obstacles. But not in this world. Whether you spoke Hebrew or not was really a minor matter, as long as you understood enough to say your prayers and learn in yeshiva. You’ll have a wife, study in kollel, receive a meager subsistence stipend, sire several children over several years, be heavily subsidized by family back in the States, and finally, when you’re totally in it, and financially, socially, emotionally totally dependant on this new support group and culture, with your back up against the financial wall, then you’ll see about a job. Frequently, thereafter you’ll live in semi-poverty, unless you happen to be particularly lucky, well connected, come from money, rarely will anyone have anything like the material comfort they’d known before. HaShem will provide as we toil in the fields of the Toirah, and we will be satisfied.
I was told: "What, you still think you’re in America, land of the slave to the dollar and material decadence?! It’s a mitzvah and a bracha to be happy with what you’ve got." Meanwhile, the yeshiva soft-sold Hebrew skills so that guys couldn’t function in general Israeli society (deemed irreligious and corrupt), so that they would be dependant on the Yeshiva and the English speaking baal tshuva heredi world in which they now found themselves marooned, and so that they would be cajoled, coaxed, co-opted, and compelled to learn Toirah and conform to their new environment and culture. I was hot, new kosher meat for the yeshiva-shidduchin grinder, and I was in constant danger of getting sucked in. Who knows, were I not an “incurable” homosexual, maybe I might've been. Certainly many others seemed envious of my easy access and perceived readiness to matches, which they still yearned for.
I quickly devised defensive strategies. “Well, you know, I really just arrived and have just begun to learn.... I’m really not ready yet... I can’t even halachically manage my own davening, no less a wife and household... Give me about a year... You’ll be the first to know.” This worked for most.
But not the rabbis.
The first to make his move on me was the Surfer Dude Hasid. Former California surfer-rocker-beach-bum, who came from an irreligious family of academics, and had himself clearly learned much in psychology and sociology studies prior to his tshuva, he had a huge talent to connect emotionally. Now he was the yeshiva’s reigning cool dude spiritualist. The one newbies could most often and most strongly relate to, especially when he laced his teaching with reminiscences of stoned Dead concerts, tripping, racing on the LA Freeway, and other intimate, juicy minutiae of pop youth culture. Actually, I had approached him first, with my need for a confidant and advisor, but it quickly became apparent to me that his superstar Rav and best-buddy-to-the-world status meant that he was in constant demand. He immediately assumed too much about me and my marriage prospects in our first conversation. He was flying on Auto-Connect.
But he who sought me out a few weeks later, for a private counseling session. The atmosphere was light, friendly, curious, but Rav Simcha clearly had an agenda for me and he was working his way through it. “Now, Phil," he said, "I’m wont to discuss things that are a bit, uhhh, personal, and if I’m off the mark, please forgive me. But a few ideas came to mind that I feel are worth exploring. They might be totally out of left field, and wrong, and if so, please forgive me. But, I have a hunch… that you may have had some experience with sexuality other than hetero.”
Now, by this time, a couple of months into the Jerusalem haredi Baal Tshuvah yeshivish world, several things had become clear to me. The place was crawling with beautiful, glorious, fascinating, cute, hot, gorgeous, blessed neshamas (souls), dwelling (however fleetingly) in not-too-shabby man flesh. Oh, what flesh. And oh, what confusion! The place was full of guys from all walks of life, from all over the world, who were exploring ancient new worlds and realities. Frequently escaping from messed up, disastrous, miserable, or simply unfulfilling lives, these guys were intriguingly open to new ideas, perspectives and experiences. They were exploring new possibilities and new identities: a mekubal state which made their souls shine all the more beautifully in both God’s and my eyes. In the BT yeshiva environment you could leave your past behind. Questions were rarely asked, and any problem could be erased by the mists of time and communal willingness to forgive and forget, especially for boys who were for the most part from good families, had been eligible to attend good universities, and were now willing to embrace HaShem, His Law, the authority of the rabbis, and the community’s desperate daughters in holy matrimony.
There were clearly a number of guys here for whom same sex attractions seemed to be an issue -- among students, staff, and rabbis as well. There are people who in New York would easily be classified as queens -- but here they were studious buchers eagerly awaiting a shidduch, or particularly spiritual, devout, and loving rabbeim with a special affection for their fellows, not infrequently expressed in arm squeezes, back rubs, and warm embraces.
In short, here were what appeared to be many excellent candidates for my bashert! There was the astonishingly beautiful Aaron, the Yemenite boy who looked like he was the model for the young Moses in Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt, and who had the sweetest distracted scholar air about him, except when praying with quiet, inward intensity. I still remember his long, smooth, warm fingers on the base of my neck, straightening my tefillin strap early one chilly winter morning at prayers. Or Max, the muscular, hunky, action figure Jew, built with big muscles and a square Hollywood leading man face with thick beard and deep voice. Or Guillaume, the dark, slender Morrocan from Montreal, with the smoldering, Latin beauty of North Africa, who was exploring kabbalah and who also happened to do marketing graphics and web design on the side, and was eager to ‘see my stuff.’ Ai, que bueno would it be for men to live together in friendship, if those men were me and David, my Motorcycle Diaries Argentinean documentary journalist, with the wild macho abandon of a Gaucho in his pursuit of emmes, and que rico, que suave, que sabroso his fiery passion for his fellow Jews.
There were many others -- Stewart, who looked as if he just stepped out of Brideshead Revisited, with a lithe body and blond hair, Oxford accent, and a smile even Prince William could kiss; Manny, the former fashion biz bad boy, dark curly mop of hair, rangey, tightly muscled, walking with a bit of a ghetto swagger (useful for cruising after-hour clubs), a London East End accent, and the marks of several ear piercings still visible in both ears; and Jonathan, for all intents and purposes, an LA clone, whom you, and I, and others frequently, assume is gay because he’s the spitting image: worked out gym bod, tan, fashionable but macho boy wear. I thought certainly here was my boyfriend, lover, husband! Ahh, HaShem would have it otherwise.
So I thought, when Rav Simcha broached the "personal" subject, of all the amazing shidduchim I was imagining with these absolute gems of men (a value beyond rubies, priceless), the beautiful Jewish lives, homes, families we could invent and build. But instead, I am urged to immediately enter into counseling with him to help me overcome this highly curable yetzer hara -- my evil inclination.
Rav Simcha tells me he has counseled many, many men suffering from same-sex attractions and has a 100% success rate. "What?!" I say, thinking: this I have to explore. "You mean to tell me EVERYONE you counsel on their homosexuality ends up happily heterosexually married?!"
"Well..." he replies, everyone who stayed in therapy with him to the end. The end? Yes, until they graduated yeshiva and became frum Jews and got married. Aha! And how many is that? Hmmm, he hasn’t really got any numbers. And what percentage does that represent of guys who started counseling with him but didn’t finish? No answer. And does he do any kind of in-depth follow up over time after they get married? No. And has anyone done any third party evaluations of his techniques, their efficacy, or results? No. And what are his techniques, by the way? Masculinity reparative therapy, hypnosis, and past incarnation/life regression. What?!
I have had various types of therapy over the years -- psychotherapy, psycho-analysis, group therapy, massage therapy, family therapy. I’ve known therapists socially, and even have a few as relatives. So when it comes to various forms of therapy, psychological theories and practices, I’m a very well-informed, and wide-ranging, consumer. But the bizarre and toxic cocktail of therapies that Rav Simcha was now suggesting were just the types I had been investigating online while researching the various completely-discredited ‘treatments’ for homosexuality. They were common among the ‘homosexual cure’ crowd, and decried by everyone else for leaving the majority of their victims psychologically mutilated, and no more straight, even after years of difficult, painful therapies, celibacy, straight marriages, and divorces. Yet this is what he was proposing.
I told him I'd have to think about it -- but decided while I try to be mekubal, there were limits, and I was already crazy enough as it is. As far as the religious community is concerned, every soul that they save from the “horrors” and sin of homosexuality is as if they saved the entire world, and well worth the many others whose lives were left even more dysfunctional than when they began. This is part of the reason why they don’t keep any data – if they did, no one who saw it would agree to these odds, and the downside and costs.
So I essentially told Rav Simcha: prove it. I said that I had doubts about these forms of therapy, that they had high failure rates, and that what I really wanted to do was start by meeting some of these now happily married and well adjusted former homosexuals. Show me!. Give me proof. Let me see and decide for myself how happy and sane they seemed.
This, he said, might be difficult.
The Jerusalem Same-Sex Attraction Group
Phil S. Stein
The Second Coming of Yeshayahu Leibowitz
An Account of the Saltscape
Fresh Baked Bread
Out of the Depths
Lorna Knowles Blake
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