Growing up gay, it's easy to be mired in shame. We are programmed by society to feel inferior, like biological aberrations, perverts, disappointments and failures. For those of us who don't slit our wrists or live life in a closet, there are periods of enormous reconciliation with our true selves, where we must constantly remind and reaffirm ourselves that we're okay, that our love is real love. It's hard enough for straight people to deal with a new relationship. Tack on the challenges of society's disavowal of gay relationships, and pile on an interfaith existence, and you have the recipe for a great challenge.
When I fell in love with my partner, I fell into a reckless abandon I had been waiting for my whole life. I fell in love with another man--the two of us little boys, really--and together we began a journey of comfort and discovery and passion. There were moments of pain and fears of impending abandonment. There was sexuality, acquaintanceship, Nutella and sloppy kisses. Indeed, there was love as boundless as we'd allow at that given moment in time.
It came up one evening after seeing the Sissy Spacek movie In the Bedroom, a film about vigilante justice. We had been dating for three weeks, and clearly we were falling hard for each other. The movie touched a raw nerve. Our discussion about Law led to Values, led to Right vs. Wrong, led to God, led to Religion. Suddenly, a terrible truth: he did not plan on raising his children with any religion, and I, with absolute certainty, wanted to raise my children Jewish. Our convictions were so strong that we cried ourselves to sleep that night in each other's arms, sure that that night would be our last together.
The next day I demanded a pause. "We don't know where we're going," I told him. "It's only been three weeks. We don't know how we really feel about each other or how our minds might change if we stay together." I didn't want to give up the greatest present life had bestowed upon me in a long while. I was greedy for love.
This all was happening within the context of September 11th. Suddenly, Israel was again a target of unbridled, unparalleled world criticism. Global anti-Semitism reached heights I never imagined I'd see in my lifetime. My mother's persecution complex didn't seem so irrational anymore. The moment the towers crumbled--I felt it literally then--I was more Jewish than I had ever been before.
We didn't revisit the religion topic for a while--with words. Meanwhile, I brought him to a film about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews and he joined me for services at the local LGBT-affirming shul. He lit the Hanukkah candles with the shamash (middle candle that lights all others). He spent Rosh Hashanah with my parents, siblings, and 97-year-old grandmother, and he endured a moderately torturous service at my parents' synagogue. A few months later we celebrated Christmas with his parents, 80-year-old grandmother, sister, and her boyfriend. In between it all, he and I spent evenings walking and loving my dog, mornings with the crossword puzzle and brunch. We slipped into a comfortable and affirming love--spooning, soothing, sharing our fears about the world and ourselves while underneath the stars in my mesh tent.
Meanwhile, I was struggling.
My relationship with Judaism is complex and ever-evolving, as it should be. Just as I had survived two decades of life in the closet, afraid of myself, so did I survive nearly casting Judaism out of my life after coming out. Standing on the bimah (podium) and chanting the infamous Leviticus passage ("You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination") on Yom Kippur as a teenager had done little to endear my parents' faith to me. I would have to reclaim Judaism for myself and rediscover myself within Judaism. Thankfully, and perhaps divinely, a few years after college I rediscovered both the beauty of Judaism and my Jewish self.
So here I was, in love with a non-Jew, just a few years after rediscovering how much I loved being a Jew. I was scared. Deeply scared. Was I betraying my parents, my ancestors--God? Would I be able to know my identity completely with a non-Jewish partner? Would we truly be able to speak the same language, deep down, when I felt I had a yellow star emblazoned to my chest?
This was to say nothing of his feelings. While I dealt with my own internal waves, he, too, was on a journey no less important. With no religious grounding, his experience could not have been more divergent from mine had he been raised accepting sacrament. Christmas and Easter were high on his family's agenda, but those holidays consisted of ornaments, food, presents, and painted eggs. There was no church or prayer, no baptism, no Jesus, and no clear spirituality. While I was learning Hebrew, studying for my bar mitzvah, wrapping tefillin (leather phylacteries with a parchment), in summer camp, and reading Torah, he was hanging candy canes on a Christmas tree, going on Easter egg hunts, and wondering what his Catholic and Jewish 8th grade classmates thought of him, as they all got ready for their Confirmations and Bar Mitzvahs.
Not only was Judaism a foreign religion to him, but religion itself was a fairly foreign concept. In his eyes, would I ever be able to accept him as he was? Would raising children steeped in a Jewish environment create a natural distance between a non-Jewish father and his offspring?
Always, I was worth it to him, and he was worth it to me. With time, he reassured me that his feelings about having a partner with a strong religious affiliation were changing by being with and getting to know me. He was no longer threatened by it. And I became less threatened by the concept of not having a Jewish partner. I told him I accepted him for who he is.
In a conversation that left me shaking and in tears, he told me we could raise our children as Jews. He could not give up the two holidays that had imbued such a strong sense of family within him. We would still celebrate Christmas and Easter as non-religious holidays--a concept that makes perfect sense to him since that is his only experience. He told me he expected to have a say in where the kids go to synagogue or Hebrew school or summer camp. Nu--should I expect any less?
I had made the decision that he was It and, gloriously, I was It for him too.
Now, we are building a home for us. We are at the beginning of what we hope is a long and wonderful journey. Seders and matzah balls and shul (synagogue) tryouts lie ahead--so do egg hunts and tinsel and Yiddish explanations and a host of other experiences we will share together. As we answer some questions, new ones will arise. While we continue to discover ourselves, we will continue to discover each other. While my relationship with Judaism evolves, we can learn together how it shapes our family.