Monthly Archives: May 2014
“Once upon a time, there were two brave princesses…”
When we were little, right before bedtime, my dad would sit my sister and me in her room overlooking that suburban block in Northern California and begin these tall tales. Those nights I would gaze wide-eyed at this giant of a man as he told stories about these princesses and their loved ones being trapped, followed by them journeying over deserts and seas to save the day.
He stood high at 6’2, although he’s slightly shorter now due to age; when I stand next to him today at 5’11, he’ll try to stand up straighter to prove a point. He has walked with a cane my whole life, struggling with chronic pain yet adding to a persona of wisdom. His once stark black hair is now wispy white and thinning, both he attributes to raising children, particularly those who tease about his bald spot (that would be me). His moustache is so distinctive that, when he shaved it off on his 50th birthday, as a 10-year-old I began to cry and scream, “You’re not my daddy!”
He loves Shakespeare and the theater, a former flower child who used his talents for activism in the 1960s. He’s thoughtful and intellectual but can be a goofball, particularly when he’s shuffling around with a deck of cards. He’s not religious, but is passionate about Jewish life and dreams of visiting Israel; this is despite the fact he has traveled the world for work. And he always loves a good story. Having worked in the entertainment industry most of his life, he can you tell tales of hanging out with Alice Cooper and being buddies with Sidney Lumet to a two-hour conversation he had with George C. Scott. Alan Alda once made him a spaghetti dinner and Stanley Kubrick and him worked on editing pieces for Full Metal Jacket.
The greatest pride my father has is having two daughters (he would tell you, “There is only one letter difference between ‘daughter’ and ‘laughter’”). All throughout my life, whether it was trying to shoot a basketball into a hoop or doing my Spanish homework, he would always say to me, “You can do it.” He would watch me sit at the computer for hours writing, and told me that if I was smart and worked hard enough, I could do anything.
Until I was 12, he traveled almost nonstop, to the point where I was convinced from a young age dad lived at the airport. He was untouchable — but not always in a good way. He missed hospital visits, speech therapy, choir concerts and other events while he was supporting us. In many ways my mother was a single mom looking out for us due to this nomadic nature. For years I would hear him say how painful that was for him and what a cause of strife that was not only for him, but also for his relationship with my mom.
His passion for work made him an amazing teacher, his actions and words talking loudly. He once said to me, “Reina, if I were willing to take advantage of people and screw people over, I could have made so much more money. But I would have gotten a lot less sleep.” His sharp laugh and wit endeared him to janitors and CEOs alike. I helped proofread projects he dreamed would be big; a few were, many weren’t. But he moved on when it didn’t work, embracing creativity and believing in impossibly large yet beautiful things. My father’s nickname, Pragmatic Sage, seems only right yet doesn’t fit. This quiet but loud, strong yet weak man was someone I always sensed was an anomaly. But he’s dad.
I thought every dad with girls was like mine, but as I grew up I found my friends’ fathers were rather stark contrasts. Some were domineering, seeking his daughters to fill certain cultural roles. Others were more interested in other things or absent and left their daughters behind. And some were just plain mean. I would never forget the night one of my friends disowned her father due to his negligent behavior, and then turned to mine and said, “You’re my dad now.”
I am no longer a child. Dad is different and so am I. He is no longer that entertainment industry guy rushing off to his industry networking events or various lunches and dinners with associates. Instead he is a caretaker to my ailing mother who struggles with cancer, repairing old wounds and doing what he needs to do to make things right. He was invited to work, but refused to leave her side. In these times of strife I’m left dreaming that I’m one of those strong princesses in my dad’s stories: His tales where women can save the day just as well as anyone, where we are tough and competent.
I recently journeyed to Israel without him and walked through the Old City of Jerusalem. One night I saw a small stone right in the middle of my path; an unusual sight if you know the city. But my father’s face floated to my mind and I knew it was meant for him. I picked it up from the ground and hid it in my bag, carrying it from there all the way back to Los Angeles. Sitting in dad’s car after I got off the plane, I now told him a story. It was a parable I once heard:
Once upon a time, two men arrived in Israel to spend two weeks each. One was in a rush to see the entire country, journeying everywhere and buying little trinkets and souvenirs along the way. The other, so in awe, journeyed to Jerusalem and stayed there, exploring the city and understanding spirituality. But as he left, he realized he forgot gifts for his family. He stuffed his pockets with dirt, and when he got home, he emptied them. He told them that he brought back Israel itself for them.
“Until you get there, dad,” I said, slipping the stone in into his fingers, “I brought Jerusalem to you.”
His arthritic hands moved around its edges as the tears streamed from his cheeks as divine prayer and in utter gratitude as he turned out from LAX. My heart swelled in joy for him; his princess traveled the world, and somehow, she had found a way to save the king.
Dragging a 60-pound pink suitcase around Israel is no laughing matter, even when you’re wearing a fez and bowtie for Purim. Although there were certain things that I was positive about in my return to Tel Aviv, transit wasn’t one of them. My lay of the land was shifty at best, and all I really had was the address of where I was going: Hotel Maxim, 88 HaYarkon St.
With no wifi and barely anyone to call, I arrived in this cosmopolitan city clueless. HaYarkon was a street that I had no clue about. As I got off the train, I decided it would be best to take a cab.
The taxi drivers were amazed by my fez, and even danced with it on, laughing to themselves.
“Could you get me to the Hotel Maxim on HaYarkon?” I asked.
“Of course,” said one of them. “That will be 100 shekel.”
“Are you kidding? I was told it wouldn’t be more than 50.”
“For you, 80 shekel.”
“No way!” If I learned anything from being in Israel for a week, it’s that certain costs were downright ridiculous. This was one of them. I began walking towards the bus stop area.
“No, wait, wait,” the driver said. “We’ll have someone for you.” Of course, at the rate they were going it was never going to happen, so I snuck away as well as a girl with a 60-pound pink suitcase wearing a fez could. As I approached the bus station, I wondered how I was going to get around. I didn’t even speak enough English to order a coffee. How was I supposed to know where to go?
I stepped onto the platform and started asking around how to get to 88 HaYarkon, or the address of the hotel that I would be staying at for the next week. I couldn’t wait to get there and rid myself of my baggage, as I was feeling the strain of a week’s worth of lugging around.
I asked the woman at one of the stops, and she explained to me. “This bus will take you to Ben Yehuda Street,” she said to me, her English perfect. “You’ll be able to get off and then walk towards the beach to your hotel.”
It was a blind lead, but I didn’t have a choice. As I looked over the greenery of this scene and waited for the bus, I felt alone. All the people I had stayed with over the past week were far away and couldn’t get me now. It was just me and my giant pink suitcase with nowhere to go but some random address. I didn’t have enough shekels for a cab and this way only cost 6.90 shekels.
The door opened and everyone else filed on, knowing not only their destination but the language.
“Will this take me to 88 HaYarkon?” I asked.
“We go down Ben Yehuda,” he said. “About a block from there.”
The other passengers nodded, and I realized I didn’t really have a choice. This was a jump and I had to pray that the locals and this driver would catch me. I pulled the giant pink suitcase and watched as the bus rolled out of the station — and my suitcase tried to roll along with it.
It was moments like these where I wished that my iPhone was more than an overglorified music player in this country. I had questions that it could answer and everyone else was playing with their smartphones on the bus. My music blared in my ears as I stood closer to the front, trying to wrangle my inobedient suitcase from deciding that it wanted to take flight.
The bus driver then called out to me as we made the turn. “Three more stops,” he said. I watched as another overprotective man would indicate to me how many stops that I had left. Suddenly, just as it seemed he announced it, he called me forward.
“Your stop,” he said. “It’s about a block. Good luck.”
As I tore my suitcase from the bus and watched the patient driver pull away, I walked towards the corner, the gray day weighing on me. Then, as I looked both directions, I forgot an important detail: Left or right? Crap. I pounded my fez on my head and turned left.
Suddenly, as I was walking with my fez, a man sitting at a café with his friend and an Orthodox rabbi tried to pull me aside.
“Your fez is offensive,” he said. At least that’s what I thought he said. His accent was very thick.
“What?” I asked.
“Your fez,” he said, followed by eyeing my giant pink suitcase. “Where are you from?”
“Hey!” he exclaimed, as did his friend. The rabbi then proceeded, with a large grin, to go to the counter and pull out a bottle of vodka and a plastic cup. He poured me a shot, handed it to me and then grabbed a small bad full of candy. It was mishlot manot — or food bags for neighbors and friends.
“Hey, can you get me to 88 HaYarkon?” I asked.
“Of course!” he said, as he pulled his rabbi friend and they gave me detailed directions. As I thanked them and continued on my way, the shot of vodka going to my head, I didn’t know what to think. But as I got to the hotel, I ran out of questions. I dropped off my large pink companion and headed out to the beach, looking at this new body of water and wondering how I survived this entire journey from Tzfat to this last leg. I had less than a week left here in Israel, and as I looked over the water I felt this wash of sadness along with the rush of the waves.
Although I hoped to make it to Jerusalem for Shushan Purim, the ladies of Na’amat that I was joining arrived too late to make that a reality and I had to settle for a dinner on Ben Yehuda as the rest of them. I walked down the street awkward at their presence; I had become so used to traveling by myself. I ate by myself, plugged into my music and walked as fast as I wanted. Now all of sudden here were people I had to pull along with me.
We settled at the local café after the rest deliberated. It was a place with local dishes, and I ordered almost as an expert, getting served chicken maqluba (an Iraqi chicken stew) and hot water with nana (mint). I felt out of place from the rest of the women as they all engaged each other in the continued conversations they had from the plane ride in.
That’s when I saw them: Four women sitting across from us, drinking little pink shots and sitting attentively while listening to each other. I though of my friends back home — Julie, Brie and Melissa. We would be doing this here if we were all together. I recognized those body positions to be ours, leaning over tables and giggling, listening to one another talk.
As we finished up, I stopped one of the women and told her about my girls, and how I saw them in all their faces. Her face broke out into a giant grin.
“These women… we have been friends for 20 years,” she said in broken English. As we hugged each other, even though we just met, I felt like no matter where I was some things didn’t change depending on the culture. There were still friends all over the world meeting for drinks, people sitting in cafes drinking coffees, all living normal lives. I felt homesick and at home all at once.
As I settled into bed that night, my pink suitcase finally finding a home in the corner, I realized in a week I would be returning home to Los Angeles. I didn’t know where this next week would take me, as Israel seemed unpredictable and comforting at the same time. But I was keen to find out.
He kept calling me bro.
Hanging with a group of friends that night, he did handshakes with me like I was just the guy at the bar instead of the enveloping hugs that I used to get from him, the ones I love from my friends. This boy with black hair and the smattering of chest hair over his casually buttoned shirt was looking at me with wide eyes from across the table and buying me beer. I was wearing a long black maxi dress with red lipstick across my mouth. I thought I looked pretty. Yet I was a bro.
I had a crush on him for as long as I had known him. I had talked to him at parties and made casual conversation. The pheromones I was giving off must have been vibrant, because two girls came up to us a month ago and asked us how long we had been together. I stammered, because I didn’t want to say we were just friends, because I was trying not to close the door on the chance we could be more. Later when he asked me what my type was, I was very tempted to say, “You. Half-naked, in my bed. That’s my type. Bro.”
As the night ended and he drove me to my car, he grabbed my hand first before the hug and sped away as soon as I shut the door. As I drove home, my dejected face was at the same time accepting. I was used to being cast in this role of bro. My height, unfiltered mouth, devil-may-care attitude and ability to go beyond the superficial has made me an unusual creature in Los Angeles. I love makeup, wearing dresses and being flirty, but I also love drinking beer and showing off my brain. And as a result, I’m often cast as the bro: The chick who’s cool enough to talk about anything and not care, but you would never date because… well, G-d forbid.
Turning down Venice Boulevard on my way home, it reminded me of several weeks before as I watched as a so-called guy friend of mine seemed to hang out with me to try to get his paws on my friends. Girls who were shorter. Thinner. Prettier. Less flighty. Less loud. Less open. And certainly not insufferable know-it-alls like me. Needless to say, his friendship with me as a woman to get a woman didn’t do any favors for my ego, and as soon as I set him up and it didn’t work, he was gone.
Grumpy as I settled into bed that night, I messaged one of my guy friends about it who was online, asking if I had the “bro” look. He said no and then complained about dating too — an ironic statement, since he had been dating one of my friends up until recently. He then asked me to come over and “hang out” sometime, which in his language meant come over and do stuff to him. Angrily, I snapped at him and shut off my electronics for the evening.
I woke up in the morning, the heat of the day already killing me. I passed by the mirror, naked. My brown hair was disheveled and my body seemingly drooping into a strange fat vortex. I have lost plenty of weight in recent years, at my smallest probably since college, but it doesn’t stop the onset of those days where you feel like you can take over the world with your size. I frowned and jumped in the shower, soaping up my body and feeling less for the wear. Wrapping my fluffy purple towel, I looked in the mirror and asked myself why such a gorgeous boy would want a slob like this girl. It wasn’t like boys were actually asking me out (although my friends argue that’s an overall thing). But I was cool, so guys wanted to still hang out with me. Just as a bro. Or because they wanted something from me, like sex or to date my friends.
It made me question everything about my life as it currently stood, from relationships to career and my family. Am I simply too ugly for someone to love me? Where is my life going? Should I change something, maybe go back to school or find a new path? Did I really want to stay in Los Angeles, where I could never compete with the insane amount of superficiality and shallowness that travels this town faster than coke addict hearing a rumor of snorting in the bathroom?
I thought about that bro boy as I went on my Facebook and watched a TED talk with a makeup artist. Her voice seemed to soothe me as she mused on beauty and how none of us as women think that we are. That is, except if we were ill or dying and really just couldn’t afford to care about things like that anymore.
Illness. My mother came straight to the surface of my mind. My mother, who now has no hair and doesn’t wear makeup anymore. I remember watching her prepare herself at her vanity while I was growing up, brushing on her gray eye shadow and combing those fine wisps of silver hair. At one point, I was sitting at her kitchen table and she somehow found a gray hair in my brown mane. She wistfully grinned. “You’re graying like me. I started getting gray hairs around your age,” she cooed. “And in the same places too. Except your hair’s wavy. Like Nony’s.”
When I think of my Nony, my grandmother, I think of her as an incredibly beautiful woman. She wasn’t traditionally pretty by any means, and if you ever asked her, she always wanted to be a blonde and skinnier than a size 14. But her joy was infectious, her smile bringing brightness into every room she ever occupied. It took over her entire face and crinkled her eyes, making them twinkle and her very skin glow. Just like mine does whenever I grin from ear to ear. Nony was not a standard beauty, but to her husband and everyone around her, she was breathtaking.
That boy I was crushing on may see a bro, but under all these layers, I now see my beauty. It’s different from physical perfection; it’s recognition, understanding and a sense of peace. If he couldn’t see me as beautiful, he also couldn’t see all the people I love who I think are beautiful too, and that’s really his loss and not mine. Somewhere under all this muck that is dating and the insanity therein is someone who wouldn’t see me as the “bro,” but see the light within that draws people in. It took me years to love this light, and sometimes I stumble when I’m feeling hurt and rejected. But then I remember to put on a giant Nony smile, and tell myself that for every one boy who doesn’t want me romantically, I get ten times more joy from the world around me. In turn, I start feeling blessed again and continue marching on to my own drum.
Too bad he can’t see all that beauty behind the bro.
I saw a shift in the day as Shabbat ended in Tzfat: The Hasidic men abandoned their black in favor of colorful décor, huge sunglasses and beanies brightening their traditionally somber appearances. The women all began putting on bright lipsticks and funny hats, and the mood immediately went from sleepy Shabbat to mischievous Purim, the happiest of all Jewish holidays.
According to Eli at the hostel, Purim is the only holiday that will be celebrated after the coming of the messiah, and it is with great reason: It’s probably the happiest Jewish holiday I can think of, with no taint of want or desire for something more. It’s all laughter and color, festive with dancing and food, not to mention the drinking. Oh, the drinking.
When I was hanging out with Lauren and Avi, I bought myself a fez and a bowtie I saw in a mall shop, wanting desperately to be Doctor Who, the famous traveling BBC Timelord. Of course, since I was in a different country, no one knew who the hell I was supposed to be. It didn’t seem to matter though: This wasn’t like Halloween in Los Angeles where you needed to dress to impress. Everyone was in such an assortment of costume gear that just as long as you were wearing something weird you fit right in.
As Shabbat ended, the people crowded into the synagogue up above to hear the reading of the story of Esther. I slipped my Wonder Woman t-shirt over my long-sleeved back shirt and paired it with my long black skirt. I walked up to the room with Julianna, who was wary of the holiday as this was her very first Purim. I tried to explain to her how to boo when the villain was mentioned, and what the story was about, and trying to instill in her how much fun this was.
I watched as the women sat there reading studiously as the rabbi said every word. Yet when Haman the villain was mentioned, it was like a burst of noise. The pastel pink and shocking purple wigs on the women seemed to shake. The noisemakers were out in full force and the curtain between the men and the women seemed to shake. The Orthodox girls’ skirts seemed to sway in the quiet, and then jolt awake as the melodrama played out.
As the portion ended, the room seemed to burst with song. The girls around me seemed to envelop me and we danced in a way that I never dreamed imaginable, our voices loud and strong. The fervor of joy was unexpected; in most Orthodox circles, the women become quiet and reserved, thinking the silence somehow shows strength and joy is the ultimate in weakness. As I filmed the joyous dancing, we were instructed to head to the nearby hotel for more celebrations: Liquor-laced drinks in thin plastic cups, bottles of wine carried around like we were in New Orleans as opposed to Israel, and costumes upon costumes.
Eli wore a Rastafarian wig and had stripped out of his black coat, his beard still prominent as ever. He mixed the drinks between the barrier of dancing between the men and the women, although he wasn’t supposed to look at the women dancing. We swayed in circles as the girls greeted me with hugs and asking me why I had to leave the next morning to Tel Aviv. My body sweat through the trappings of the long sleeves under my Wonder Woman shirt.
I paused in my dancing to ask Eli for one of his mixed drinks.
“Will I live after this?” I asked of the drink that was being poured for me.
“You will live, and your mother will live!” he said to me emphatically. I wondered how much of him had already been lost to alcohol and was slightly concerned. I wandered through the town, the people laughing and linking arms with song on their lips. Eventually, I found my way back to the hotel where Eli was standing with a group. He came up to me.
“Reina, you must meet my Rabbi,” he said. “He can help with your mother. He can help you.”
He called over a portly older man. Unlike the other Hasidic men, he wore no costume, his seriousness seeming to bring a dour to the rest of the lobby’s true expression of joy, masks and brightly-colored pieces. I felt slightly awkward that Eli was so insistent on introducing me to his rabbi. I may be secular, but I know in religious communities it’s the equivalent of being introduced to a guy’s parents.
The rabbi asked me what was going on with my mother, and I told him that I needed to bless her, find a way to help her in that town. He seemed strangely concerned for a girl who had wandered out of nowhere.
“Is there anything else you want?” he asked. I told him honestly that I wanted so many things, including a match. When he asked me how religious, I admitted the truth about my coverings: I wasn’t religious. He urged me to go back to my community and find a husband there. There are certain things that even Purim costumes can’t shield you from.
The next morning, I seemed to strip away the things that made me hide in this community: My longer sleeves, my ankle-skimming skirts and even my nice shoes. I switched to my black converse and jeans and slipped on my black leather jacket. As beautiful as my time was Tzfat, I realized the truth as I slipped on the Egged bus to the train with very few goodbyes: My place was not in religion. I could be Jewish without it, and I had a place in the secular world that was more important to occupy. I took my fez and bowtie and settled into the wifi and traveling life.
And yet, somehow I was heartened as I traveled down the country, playing music in my ears and seeing little girls with bright butterfly wings, women wearing halos and different colored wigs and the men even donning jester hats. The soldiers carrying their guns along the trains seemed to even smile along with the mayhem.
Just because I wasn’t religious and never would be again didn’t mean I couldn’t lose myself to the whimsy. After all, wasn’t it my vision of the rebbe that sent me away to be a part of this world, to go be myself? In the meantime, just drink it all in and savor this beautiful new view of the world. I was going to enjoy all of this now. Particularly when I exited the train station in Tel Aviv and there was a guy who stood outside, pointed at me and said the famous Doctor Who phrase with a giant smile: “Fezes are cool!”
I never felt more like myself when I returned the sentiment with, “Why yes, they are!”
“How did you come out as an ally?”
We were sitting around a Shabbat dinner table with funny little colored squares around the white butcher paper like a game board. Two little stuffed mice were our “pieces,” one black and one white, and we were playing a game to open us up and teach us how to be advocates for the LGBTQ community. It was a personal question for me in a room of strangers; until tonight, except for one or two people at the table, I had never met any of them.
It was a dinner sponsored by JQ International, a Jewish organization for the LGBTQ community and their straight allies. Up until a few days previous to this, I didn’t know this organization existed. In fact, before this point I was concerned as I watched some of my dearest friends come out over the years, worrying about protecting them from judgmental people.
I was as scared for them as I was for my Uncle B. He was the reason I was sitting at this table as an ally. He would be the reason why I would always sit at this table.
In my big-mouthed nature, I began telling the story of my favorite uncle. My recent days of hanging out in West Hollywood reminded me of him: The apartment on Cynthia Street with mirrored living room and the four-poster bed that my sister and I were allowed to jump on to our hearts’ content as children. There was his Mickey Mouse collection, which we oohed and aahed over that made him the best grown-up little kid in the world. He bought us frilly dresses and cuddly teddy bears, spoiled us rotten because we were his only nieces.
Words can’t capture his playful grin with pearly white teeth, his light jester-style vocal tone or the smell of patchouli oil and cigarette smoke that let me know he was close for a big hug. To this day, those smells still comfort me. But then came the question at seven years old to my mother: “Mom, Uncle B is so great. Why isn’t he married?”
At seven, Uncle B’s sexuality couldn’t be explained. But I got the point later, during a phone conversation between my father and his middle brother after my sister got her first boyfriend.
“We’re going to plan a big, big wedding,” Uncle B said.
“Now now,” my father said, “Shoshana has a lot more boys’ hearts to break.”
“Well so do I!”
My dad yelled back at him incredulously, but I knew what gay was well enough; I was 14 at the time. I didn’t care, because Uncle B was family and he loved us.
It was this same age that I was in high school that guys were trying to prove their machismo. There were the football players who marched down the halls in their blue jerseys, who scolded guys by calling them “queer,” “homo” or by saying “that’s so gay.” People regularly used the f-word (the other one) to dismiss others. Growing up in a conservative Christian town in Southern California, everyone seemed to look the other way. I couldn’t. When everyone said, “That’s just an expression,” I knew it was wrong. Not when there were boys like Matthew Shepard hanging dead from fences.
Around 16, one of my dear high school friends came out. He didn’t have a lot of friends who would listen, so we would talk on the phone for hours until my ear would sweat against the plastic headset. There was no one else patient enough to talk to him about what he was feeling at that moment. After all, coming out in our high school was risky, and this is speaking as someone who was in the choir program. I remember how huge the prayer circles were around the green grass of the flagpoles before school in the morning, not to mention the constant church culture that made this Jew feel like an ethnic minority.
In the late ‘90s, being gay was like a disease in our town. Guys who were even rumored to be gay were whispered about in the back of classrooms and stigmatized. Most kids had to wait until high school was over and they finally got out of their parents’ houses to be who they were. It was a cookie-cutter life and one I hated on account that people were just… backwards. How could people treat one another this way?
As I grew up, I also began to see my Uncle B for everything that a child couldn’t even think to look for: the depression, excessive spending and the never-ending disease that is addiction. In youth, you couldn’t care less; as long as they were fun and good to you, it was worth it. But as you face the real world, you see the problems always living in your midst, sometimes in stark colors.
My Uncle B’s health deteriorated from years of this bodily and mental abuse, his teeth falling out and his hair graying quickly. He shifted living from place to place, only getting back on his feet in recent years, although still not as well off he was when we were young. Despite it all, I wanted to still see my uncle as that awesome playmate, the one who was fun and gave us the liberty to be kids because he was a great big one himself. Despite every flaw, I would never abandon him.
At one point, I sat down my father and asked why my Uncle B was the way he was. He sighed and crossed his arms the way he does when he’s thinking, his brow furrowed.
“I think my parents made so many mistakes when it came to him and his sexuality,” he said. “Your grandfather, G-d bless his soul, couldn’t understand the concept of being gay, living life differently. I loved your grandfather, but he was of a different time. Your grandmother ignored it, called it a phase. I don’t think either of them really accepted him for who he is, and that is as a gay man.”
My father, so pragmatic as always, made me look at my uncle differently. He was a broken man for so many reasons, but part of it was because he couldn’t be who he needed to be openly. Uncle B lived in a time where gay men like him were hidden in the shadows throughout the city of Los Angeles, whether it was masculine facades like Rock Hudson or as houseboys and secret lovers, never able to reveal the truth about their lives and identities and tossed aside as age took over. It wasn’t until the 1970s where the tides slowly began to turn. Yet it was probably too late for Uncle B by that point. The damage of not having people understand who you are became part of his undoing. And he is still paying the price.
In my lifetime, I have been fortunate enough to watch the chastising almost disappear from my daily sight, transforming into gay couples openly holding hands as they’re walking on the sidewalk, smiling at each other lovingly in a bookstore and publicly proposing marriage to each other. When I see them, I feel blessed at the amount of love and at the same time wonder in amazement how this could happen so quickly in my lifetime.
Yet it’s not over. There are still battles to be fought, especially when states are still passing anti-gay legislation. We need to wage war, right down religious communities where people can’t come out on account that they would be ostracized from their families and communities that are supposed to protect them (including in the Jewish community — we are not innocent). As much as I love all my gay and transgendered friends, I recognize there is the potential for more Uncle Bs out there in the world that deal with non-acceptance by letting it take a toll on their bodies and minds.
I never officially came out as an ally. I was just born this way, fostering love and then letting the love my Uncle gave me grow so I could give it back to the world. And I sat at that Shabbat table, looking at these faces who were drawn into this random straight girl who ended up there, wondering why she was anywhere with the LGBTQ community.
And I thought of my uncle, his cigarette-smelling clothes and patchouli oil, his great big smile, his jokes and his laughter. I thought of how, now that I was older, we had an adult friendship where were could gossip about boys and dating — something just as comforting to a single young woman as his Mickey Mouse collection was to a little girl. He may be hurting still, and I can’t do much to make that go away. But I am going to take every bit of sweetness he gave me and create a shield for others, making sure that if I could prevent the pain of not being able to live as you want, I would.
“I am an ally because I love my Uncle B,” I said quietly, the room silent and my eyes began to tear up. “To not be an ally is to not love him. And I love him with all my heart.”
The Rebbe is an elusive character. Since I have spent time around the Chabad movement (although not affiliated), I have seen many pictures of him over time, a kind-eyed man with a long white beard. I have heard stories about him over the years, both from people who love the Rebbe dearly and visit his gravesite to those who feel that some of the people who follow him too closely are like early Christians, thinking that he is actually the messiah.
I spoke with a friend of mine about it at a Torah study before I left for Israel. He was at one point trying to go Orthodox, but this became problematic as he was coming out as gay.
“There have been centuries and centuries of rebbes in different communities that have served as masters or teachers,” he explained to me. “Each one typically appoints a successor. There has even been a female rebbe. Usually they are incredibly learned, speak multiple languages and are able to respond to everyone, no matter their religious background.”
However, when people today speak of the rebbe, they usually refer to Rabbi Manachem Mendel Schneerson, or the Lubavitcher rebbe. This rebbe is probably best known for the reason why Chabad is so prominent in modern Jewish life. His idea was to spread Judaism throughout the globe so that no matter where someone went, they always could get a kosher meal or find a place for Shabbat. Chabad centers are now everywhere, from Mumbai to the Congo.
However, here’s the catch: This rebbe died in 1994 and there was no successor to him as he never had children. Since there was no one appointed to follow him up, many people have grown to idolize him. If you visit any person who is affiliated deeply with the Chabad movement, you will find numerous pictures of him throughout the house, usually looking very peaceful or acknowledging a throng of men. There is a contingency in the Chabad movement of people who believe that the rebbe is actually not dead, that he is coming back and he is actually the messiah that Jewish people have been praying for.
“That’s not all people in the Chabad movement,” he pointed out to me. “In fact, many of the Chabadnicks view these people as being out of touch with the Jewish community or too much like idolatry. But the supporters are fervent and strong. In fact, when you are in Israel, you might go to areas where you’ll see yellow flags with a crown on it, and underneath it says ‘Masiach’ in Hebrew letters. These are often those believers.”
As a person who really marches to the beat of her own drummer when it comes to faith, I have often viewed the rebbe through a filter of the secular world. I’m confident in that he was a brilliant and learned man who changed the face of Judaism in the modern world. But beyond that, his effect on my life had been relatively small. And especially as someone who was shunned by the religious community after her divorce, I was attempting to keep my distance from such zeal.
So imagine my shock when I arrived in Tzfat, the city of the Kabbalists, when I saw those yellow flags flying. My heart dropped, afraid and nervous. Why would a secular girl come here, where she is bombarded by the teachings of Chabad? Sure, I was Jewishly educated and deathly smart when it came to my faith, but I rejected a lot of the dogma after my divorce and that sense of religious betrayal that came as a result. But I knew what I wanted: I wanted to connect to the mystics my ears heard about all those years. My soul yearned to sing Lecha Dodi, one of my favorite prayers, in the land where it was created. I wanted to find a tzadik (righteous person) for guidance. I needed spiritual cleansing after two years of wandering and simply trying to survive, so when it was time to go back to Los Angeles I returned spiritually clean.
As I arrived at the hostel and got ready for Shabbat in the cold of the mountains, I was incredibly guarded as the girls started roaming around and laying out the candles for Shabbat. I was blending in by wearing a long skirt, shirt and tights, but nothing felt right. There were ebbs and flows of comfort and distress. Then, as if it were waiting for me to relax, I started finding a rhythm in the day. It was foreign and strange because it wasn’t a part of me, unlike these people who followed the rebbe and didn’t ask why. As I began to communicate and keep the Sabbath, something seemed to change, particularly Saturday afternoon.
After lunch in the Kabbalah cave at the hostel, I went upstairs and laid in bed. I didn’t sleep, but I wasn’t awake either. My mind tried to tell my body to wake up, to move, but it wouldn’t obey my call. It kept me in this state, to the point where my soul was moving through the land around me, and all of sudden he was there: the rebbe. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there. Was this real? How could a secular Jew see him? And there was an open book in front of me, bound in brown leather. I, a woman, was studying with the rebbe.
I sat there reading with him very quietly when all of a sudden a woman ran in. In this state I recognized her, although I couldn’t see her face either.
“Reina,” she said to me. “Remember I told you about that girl and her Muslim friend? She is alone and there’s no one talking to her. You need to go make her laugh.”
“But I’m studying,” I said.
“She needs you, and you are so funny. It’s who you are.”
I looked at the rebbe and without a word he waved his hand and sent me away from him and study. I turned away and walked out the door, and then woke in shock. A woman, not to mention a secular Jew, had a vision of the rebbe.
When I shared this with one of the religious women in the hostel, she was amazed. “Very few people have visions of the rebbe,” she said, her mouth ajar. “Not even Hassids. You need to take it seriously. Use it to guide you.”
Everyone I spoke to about the vision had their own interpretation, but I decided in the end to go with mine, which included steering myself away from religion and towards humor. No matter how much I love G-d, my place was with the rest of the universe, making it smile, think, feel good. I’m sure even the rebbe knew that not everyone was meant to follow him, but some were meant to be away from that. I was put on this earth for something; maybe I just needed a divine kick in the pants.
Whether this was real or not, I felt that it was something I was going to follow for myself as a person who balances a world between modern life and a Jewish spiritual point of view. After all, the rebbe was an individual guide, and he represents different things to different people. Where that vision would take me, I didn’t know. But I was looking forward to seeing the path ahead.