Last Friday Night

16
Dec
2012

Friday night I attended a rather odd and interesting function for gay Jews. The founder and group are attempting to integrate two very strong aspects in their lives, their Jewishness and their gayness. The form of this integration is the traditional Friday night shabbat dinner, but in a more fabulous, gay way. The events (this is the second one) raise money for good causes and this one in particular was to benefit the Ali Forney Center. Although the event is open to all, if I had to guess I would say it heavily leaned towards gay male Jews whose religious background was on the Orthodox to Conservative end of things. I was somewhat raised in this tradition (having been sent to a Hebrew school until 6th grade), and so the opening prayer (and melody) was very familiar to me from my childhood, and although I would not say it put me at ease, I still smiled a little at the connection to something so far in my past.

Anyone that knows me knows I have some complicated feelings about my Jewishness. As mentioned, I was sent to an orthodox Hebrew day school until 6th grade, had a bar mitzvah and then over the next few years slowly divorced myself from that group and sect. By the time I was 20, I was pretty done with religion of any sort.

I am Jewish, there is no removing it from me. It is a part of me and will always be. I would never try to erase it, it would be like trying to erase history. But what is my “Jewishness” composed of? Let’s start with the religion itself. Over the years, I came to realize that all the god stuff, put simply, left me cold. Despite the years of acculturation, I just never took to it. I have a theory (along with some others) that belief in a deity is partially genetic and innate, and you either feel it or you don’t. I (and most of my family to be honest) just never felt the existence of god, despite being awed by the universe and all of its natural wonders. To me, a belief in a deity is a belief in “intent” to the universe, a “plan” if you will. And because I lack this specific belief, I describe myself as atheist (others might use the term agnostic). And over the years I have come to refine that innate sense, to the point that religious ceremonies mostly seem silly to me, especially if they put an emphasis on pleasing a vengeful god.

Outside of that is the idea of  “community”, whatever that means. Growing up Jewish in Indianapolis mostly meant knowing every other Jew in the city, it is a bit of an insular community. And because my family moved away from the main part of town where almost all of them live, from high school onwards we were somewhat separated from them. I actually think this was one of the best things to happen to me growing up, and I attended a public high school with a much greater diversity than was found in the schools that community attended. This diversity was not just ethnic and racial, but just as importantly, socio-economic. This gave me a perspective that I value to this day.

Then there are the many cultural aspects of being Jewish, and I have to admit here to feeling a great connectedness to this part of my upbringing and heritage. This is what binds me to other Jews in the strongest ways. These are reflected in a huge variety of things such as foods, languages, humor, cares and thoughts about healing the world (tikkun olam), and deep questioning and debate around issues.

So putting it all together, I am both Jewish and non-Jewish at the same time. For better or worse, I am culturally that and always will be, even as I reject and refine other parts that hold no or negative meanings for me. I realize that my life has been a struggle to move towards the universal human values that bind and uplift us all. Values that transcend tribal instincts of any  group or sort whether they be religious, patriotic, ethnic or other.

île du feu

7
Sep
2009

For a gay man, there are a bunch of semi-legendary places that are known throughout the culture.  These places have some historical connection to the gay community. Cities like San Francisco. Neighborhoods like The Village in New York. Islands like Mykonos in Greece. In my head, I have lightly maintained a list of such places, with a vague curiosity about them and (perhaps) a desire to visit them one day. (Hell, you know me. I want to visit almost every place, gay or not in this world).

My cousin Josh and I were trying to plan a little get away over the past few days, and when I mentioned to Josh that I had never been to Fire Island, he was slightly aghast and determined to show me the wonder of the place. We hatched a plan to go for the day (and perhaps the night) and met at 6:40 Sunday morning to catch an early train from Penn Station. A train change, shuttle bus and ferry ride later (about an hour and a half) and we landed in the harbor (marina?) of the Pines area of Fire Island.

Architecturally, I find the Pines area of Fire Island to be rather fantastic. I really haven’t ever seen anything like it, especially the system of raised boardwalks that connects all of the houses and serves as the “street” system. There are no cars allowed on the island, and this is part of what gives the place its charm.  We first went to the beach, and although it was quite a windy day, managed to have a relaxing couple of hours there before exploring the island. After that, we walked along the many boardwalks of the Pines, and over to an area known as Cherry Grove before looping back to the Pines along the water and through a forest dune. The area in between the Pines and Cherry Grove is filled with sand and brush and is charmingly known by it’s nickname, the “meat rack”. (I leave you to divine the meaning in this epithet.)

I was going to say that a vacation atmosphere suffuses the place, but that would not be quite accurate. People have a far greater sense of belonging and ownership here than merely vacationing. There is a strong sense of community to the place, and wherever we went we ran into people that we knew, and were invited to various houses for parties or drinks or pool sitting or just hanging-out-and-getting-to-know-yous. Season after season, groups of (mostly) gay men rent houses for the summer, and come out as often as they can for the relaxation and community feel of the place. They develop “house rules” depending on their want and their kind. Some houses are tranquil places where friends all cook dinner together and relax all the time, some are houses with parties going full tilt. We visited one of each yesterday, and I gather there are many more types, but I was really amazed at the reception. We were able to leave our bags at one such house while we went to the main part of town for a couple of the famous “Tea Dances” with the throngs. By 8pm, we were well and truly beat after a very full day, and although we had offers of places to stay, we decided to come back to the city. Although we were only gone a single day, I have to admit that the character of the place and the fullness of our day made us feel as if we had had a week’s vacation.

One of my favorite parts of the day was actually our walk back to the house to pick up our bags. It was dark out, and the only light was that coming from the houses, and it was truly beautiful all along the boardwalk. I was surprised that everyone leaves their doors open, and sure enough the door to the house where we had left our stuff was unlocked with nobody home. We walked in, got our stuff and took the path back to the harbor, catching the ferry just as we arrived.

I also have to say that I was a little cynical about the place before going, having heard fawning tales about it that seemed a little over the top. I still had wanted to see it (after all, it was on the list), but didn’t expect to enjoy it so much. I definitely want to explore the community of the place further, and I will be going back sometime.

Pete and Kevin

26
Jul
2009

I was invited to one of the loveliest weddings I have ever been to this weekend. My friends Pete and Kevin, who have been together for over ten years had a ceremony to celebrate their wedding. (They actually got married last year while it was still legal, which turned out to be a wise move on their part since the right was soon taken away by the voters in their infinite lack of wisdom.) I have known Pete for close to 15 years, since the days when we were working together at Apple. We have been through a lot together and were roommates for a time when I came back to San Francisco from Paris in 1999. I was there the night Pete and Kevin met, in a SOMA club in San Francisco in July 1999. Over the years, I have watched their relationship go through many twists and turns, and have marveled at the warmth and love they have grown into with each other. We have shared many experiences, from the ridiculous to the scary to the loving to the peaceful to the mundane. Although I moved away from San Francisco many years ago, I come back often and spend time with them. They are the kind of people I will always want in my life, filled with generosity and warmth and humor. I was really thinking a lot this weekend about weddings and public commitment ceremonies, and what they mean and why they are important. As we form communities around our friends and families, we interweave all of our lives and life stories with one another. Each piece and part adds to the whole, and these connections are a big part of what gives meaning to our existence. When we celebrate a wedding or a public commitment, we are reinforcing these bonds, and recognizing their importance in our lives. I was honored to be present to witness Pete and Kevin declare their love and support for one another, and the ceremony and their words to each other in front of all of us made me all teary eyed. As I looked around the assembly, I remembered fondly so many people and so many stories that have made me, made all of us, what and who we are today. To be able to share these disparate threads, and to bring them together in a cloth that wraps around all of us and gives us warmth was a special gift. I may be a wanderer, but there are some places and contexts that will always have a hold over me, and that give me great strength. These people and this part of my life is such a context. I will always feel connected to it and to them, and no matter how far away from here, always feel at home somehow when I am in their company.

wedding