Some months ago I wrote about the conflicts present in being both gay and Jewish, especially for those who are Orthodox Jews. I wrote about a statement of principles adopted by a group of Orthodox rabbis that expressed understanding love, and acceptance - to a point - of gay people within the Jewish community. For those of you who haven’t read that post yet, it is from August 19. Since then, I have read a book and seen a movie on this subject which show different side of this issue, which aren’t quite so encouraging.
The movie was a documentary entitled “Trembling before G-d”. The reference to G-d is because the Orthodox adhere to the law that the name of god cannot be uttered. The Hebrew notation referring directly to God in the Torah is essentially unpronounceable, and when the passages are recited, substitute words are used. This concept, when transferred to English, leads to the use of “G-d”. The movie recounts the story of Gay Orthodox Jews trying to maintain their faith while still accepting themselves as Gay and living a normal life. Many of the religious authorities spoken to in the documentary, while they often expressed sympathy, would not accept that living as a gay person could be anything other than a sin and a violation of Jewish Law (Halakha). One rabbi, who cared and wanted the best for one of his congregants, still advocated change therapies. He had suggested this many years ago and now, when the congregant talked to the rabbi years later after no result from these “therapies” the rabbi could only suggest trying again, or celibacy. Apparently accepting his orientation as a part of who he is was not an option. This is a very different attitude from the statement of principles, but then the movie was made a few years ago, and the statement of principles was put out in 2010. This movie did win some awards when it was originally released and got a lot of attention, and may have even spurred the religious community to get together and begin working on a more acceptable state of affairs, which led to the statement of principles.
I wrote a brief note in my blog when I began reading the book but was waiting to finish the book before I share my thoughts about it. Now I am ready to give my review of this incredible work.
Mourning and Celebration: Jewish, Orthodox and Gay Past & Present by K. David Brody tells the story of Yankl Bradawka, a character conjured by the narrator/author, a gay Jewish man living in Montreal in present day. Yankl lives in 19th Century Poland in a shtetl, a small village generally occupied by the Jewish community. Yankl is a Hasidic Jew, a member of the orthodox community, as is everyone else in his village. The difference is that Yankl is gay. He desires men and has no attraction to women. The book chronicles his search for a way to fulfill his needs while trying to avoid discovery of his inclinations, which no one in his era can acknowledge as anything but unimaginably sinful and abhorrent.
It is difficult to write about the book without having the review turn into a spoiler, as the twists and turns begin early and drive the plot turns later in the book. One thing this book does very well is that it highlights the conflict that still exists today between biblical and religious rules and being who you are. Yankl is a religious scholar and thus is well aware that his religion condemns what he desires. He sees his condition as a curse and prays to God to be able to love women and live like everyone else. But he has also come to realize that when he is with a man, he feels complete and in love and questions how that can be sinful. Of course living in his era and community, it is next to impossible for him to fulfill his needs and he seems destined to a sad and lonely life. He also faces an arranged marriage, something he dreads, and more so when he realizes that he likes his intended bride as a friend but is revolted at the prospect of a romantic engagement.
I don’t recall having as emotional a reaction to any other book I have read than I had to this book. There were a few times when I cried reading this, and many more times when I almost broke down. The first half of the novel was particularly powerful for me, as in those sections I recognized many of the feelings that Yankl was experiencing and have felt those feelings of different and abnormal. Just as the author invented Yankl to place himself in his own family a century ago, I could imagine myself there as well, as some of my grandparents were born in the shtetl maybe a generation or two after the time period of the novel. My coming out experience was very positive because the people I care most about are accepting and understanding. Now I realize how difficult it might have been if I was born in another time. I was also drawn to the character of Yankl’s mother. Here we see a woman who in modern times, would almost certainly have been accepting and supportive. She truly loves her son, and has suspected for some time that something is “wrong”. The times and her worldview simply cannot allow her to conceive that two men could possibly have love for each other and that there are other valid relationships apart from heterosexual ones. But even though she does not understand, her love for her son remains. The author is very skilful in remaining true to the attitudes people would have had at the time but, through several characters, plants the seed of our modern sensibility. The facts they are presented with seem to contradict the established wisdom and at times some of the characters begin to wonder if they might be wrong. They are only passing thoughts, but we can see how we started to get where we are today. Another creative aspect is that, through the people Yankl meets, we are introduced to many faces of modern gay life. We see bisexuality, exploitation, true love, casual physical relationships, despair and suicide and even, very rare at the time, a straight man who is a true friend and not judgmental.
I would highly recommend this book even for those who are not Jewish or gay. Many Yiddish terms are used, as that was the language of the shtetl and a few Yiddish terms are still a part of modern Jewish parlance. However when he uses Yiddish terms or talks about Jewish rituals and practices, he explains them in such a way that there should be no difficulty for a non-Jew to understand. There is also a glossary of terms and the end of the book if something is still not clear. Even though some of the situations described apply more to Jews, most of the experiences would be the same for Christians or anyone else living at that time.
For more information, reviews or to buy the book, visit the author’s website at http://www.MourningAndCelebration.com
I suppose the true lesson of the book is that, while it has only recently been possible to be openly gay, we need to understand that homosexuality did not begin in the 20th century. There have always been gay people, who had to find some way to live their lives as best they could. One way Jews may have had a more difficult time is that, especially in medieval times, Christians had an option that Jews did not: the convent or monastery. While celibacy is certainly not ideal, becoming a priest, monk or nun was at least a way where they could live without being pressured into marrying someone they could not satisfy. It was also considered a noble calling. Jews did not have a similar option. Religious leaders, such as rabbis were expected to marry and have a large family. Celibacy has never had a place in Jewish society, which means there was no escape for anyone with no sexual desire for women.
Despite the history of intolerance, and the reluctance even in modern times of the orthodox Jewish community to be supportive of homosexuality, times are changing and tolerance is building. The author of the book is an Orthodox Jew and is active in his Orthodox congregation. His rabbi supports him fully. He wrote an endorsement that appears at the beginning of the book and the book is sold at the synagogue. And as I have mentioned at other times, other branches of Judaism tend to be more tolerant and gay-friendly.