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Young, Jewish, Orthodox, Gay
"The queers among us, openly or secretly, proudly or struggling, are occupying themselves with the remaining 612 mitzvot as best as they can."
Dating as a gay Jewish person is a hallucinatory experience that I would recommend to anybody who loves being disappointed. On one date, I listened to a man explain to me that “the blue stripes in the Israeli flag represent the Nile and the Euphrates,” and that the Zionists wanted to expand their territory far beyond what they had.
“I think it’s supposed to be like a prayer shawl,” I said.
“That’s just what they tell you.”
I thought of the Chabad rabbi at school who taught me how to read Hebrew, that the aleph bet contained divine secrets on which the entire universe is constructed. I was not interested in becoming the Defender of Israel at that particular moment at the Atwater Cocktail Club, which often happened when I told dates I was Jewish.
I don’t really care what other people do, but I prefer not to be in an interfaith relationship. I’ve dated horrible Jewish men, and I’ve been the horrible Jewish man others have dated. It’s all part of the ecosystem, but I wanted to opt out completely.
If you are gay and open up J Swipe, there will be five people within a 500-mile radius. Two of them will be your friends, one of them will be a closeted frum married man, one of them will be a woman with the wrong settings, and the last will be an advertisement for Birthright. I literally moved to another country for my current boyfriend after years of miserably dating at home.
A few years ago, the local Federation launched an initiative to create programs for LGBTQ people, which at the time meant gay men. Everyone in the cohort was very tall with beautiful teeth, and I felt like Rumplestiltskin. Many of them had dated each other, or would in the future. The chairman offered to host a bagels and lox brunch on Saturday morning to discuss a pilot project to combat homophobia in day schools. This was a great idea because gay men famously love brunch. Except I didn’t go because I was randomly shomer shabbos.
If dating as a gay Jew is a trip, being gay and religious is like microdosing shrooms and going to Zara. The world has a slight, mysterious tilt. There is wonder and beauty in the feeling that time and actions are sacred, in the belief in purpose and place, and there is also a loneliness that comes with navigating a world that will never feel fully yours. And while many frum queer people tirelessly work towards a better, more inclusive future, I often feel too scared to push boundaries for fear of being left out or excluded.
I was surprised when I read that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of Kosher Sex, criticized the homophobic detractors of Israeli politician Amir Ohana by offering the weirdly comforting perspective that homosexuality is not actually any more of an abomination than other sins, like eating non-kosher food or engaging in gossip. That feels progressive for the Orthodox world, where rabbis with a more inclusive outlook often find themselves isolated and criticized deeply by their peers.
When I look around me at the Saturday morning minyan, I count nine gay men. We’re one short of forming our own minyan until my boyfriend joins at the end of Mussaf. On the other side of the mechitza, there are queer women, mumbling their own prayers, asking their own questions. But we are all here intentionally, gravitating to this community where being gay and frum is more fact than question.
To be a religious Jew is to need other people – and be needed. But for anybody on the periphery of this very structured and rule-oriented world, it can be hard to build community. And while the question of how one makes friends as an adult is universal, young Jewish adults are very preoccupied with this problem.
“I needed to make friends after college, so I joined a synagogue,” writes Rachel Bernstein, reflecting on how seeing people at weekly Shabbat services made her feel less alone in a time of transition and upheaval. In a piece for the Canadian Jewish News, writer Ilana Zackon discussed navigating Montreal’s young Jewish professional scene, attending the same minyanim and dinners and cocktail hours that I once did before I moved away.
The hottest minyan in the city is run by a charismatic rabbi who believes in open bars, all-you-can-eat sushi, and meat boards. I loved going because it was refreshing to spend shabbos with dozens of people my age instead of two or three at my own shul, but small anxiety lingered in me every time I went.
Queer people in religious spaces have to come again and again. I knew I would eventually need to come out to the meat board rabbi, but had no way of anticipating how he would react. Of course, I could anticipate how he might feel inwardly – probably a little uncomfortable. Maybe disappointed. Maybe he felt sorry. Would he show it on his face?
I did tell him, and he didn’t treat me differently. He gave me an aliyah. It was fine.
You, the reader, have probably attended your fair share of “young professional” events. Young is somewhere post-college and either up until the moment you get engaged or turn 40. Whatever happens first. Professional in the sense that everyone is in law, real estate, medicine, or maybe tech if they’re quirky. Nobody talks about art.
The big Modern Orthodox shul close to my house has a strong young professional contingent. My boyfriend and I sign up for a Friday night dinner with the promise of an open bar, sushi, and “poppers”. We know that poppers are popcorn chicken but isn’t it funny? The meal, as it turns out, is explicitly directed at singles. We find out our married friends with a baby were turned away from signing up and encouraged to attend the young family lunch instead, which they said was boring.
Hey, how are you? What do you do? Where are you from? Who do you know here? It’s profile matching. It’s the same efficient way men talk to each other on Grindr. Top or bottom? You move on quickly and that’s just how it is. They have no time to lose. The urgency to meet someone and get engaged is palpable in the room, even though the people at this singles young professional dinner are the same people I will see at the young professional volunteering event in the soup kitchen.
A very beautiful woman across from me asks, “What brings you to LA?”
“My boyfriend is from here,” I say, and I watch her deflate, politely, with two hands in a bowl of ground beef. I zip back to the bar for a warm glass of Baron Herzog pinot grigio, and I wonder if they feel like I’m ruining their game. I stick to chatting with the people I already know.
I attend a Friday night dinner for gay men at somebody’s apartment. The room immediately splits into two factions: Religious and normal. The normal people put a Spotify playlist on the TV because the ambient silence is apparently unbearable while we bench after eating. I try engaging in small talk with one of the guests, who I recognize.
“I think I used to follow you on Twitter,” I tell him. I realize by the look on his face that he interprets this as a dig. Later, after most of the religious guys have left, the same guy openly discusses which of the guests he thought were hot, ugly, or weird. I leave the dinner knowing he probably had a lot to say about me too, and the thought of my comment makes me cringe. Clearly being gay and Jewish does not immediately make a friendship.
Outside the apartment, people mull about on their way out to bars and parties, others on their way home from other Shabbat dinners. Around the world, Jews are taking a pause from the needs of the secular world, singing ancient songs around full tables and putting their children to sleep. And the queers among them, openly or secretly, proudly or struggling, occupying themselves with the remaining 612 mitzvot as best as they can.