‘Wagging’: My Story as Gay Jewish Male

A couple of years ago, I heard about an oral history project for older gay men and women that resulted in a staged play. I didn’t see it, but when Bob Baker, the adapter-director, sent out the call for a new cast, I signed up.

We listened to each other’s stories, wrote up the most telling ones and turned remembered conversations into dialogue. After nine months, out came a play.

Everyone’s life is a book, a saga of depth, dreams, passion. The art is all in the telling. This is our story.

We performed “Wagging Tales: Stories From the Stonewall Generation” to three sold-out houses one weekend in February at Highways Performance Space. And we’re about to perform the show again.

Stonewall, for those not up on queer history, was the bar in Greenwich Village where, in 1969, drag queens and minority gay patrons revolted against yet another police raid and said, “enough!” From sexual liberation to AIDS to gay politics and so on, no other generation of gays or lesbians has quite the same perspective that we do.

Here are some of my stories:

When I became the director of the Workmen’s Circle in Southern California in 1995, we opened A Shenere Velt Gallery, which is now celebrating 10 years of Jewish and socially conscious art. A show I mounted in early 1996, while still in my six-month probation, presented photographs by Albert Winn, a gay man seriously ill with AIDS.

None of us knew whether Al would survive until the opening. But I considered it the special mitzvah (praiseworthy deed) I was uniquely positioned to provide. I was willing, in fact, to put my job on this line.

Older members might inform our board that they could not approve of Al’s photo studies of pill bottles in the form of a menorah. But no one complained.

Even better, that spring, the new AIDS treatments came in and saved his life. He’s a thriving artist today. I believe that his resilience to hold out for his “last show” kept him alive until that Shehecheyanu (blessing that thanks God for a long life) moment.

Here’s another: Our youth branch here in Los Angeles was the first in The Workmen’s Circle to endorse same-gender marriage. There were some who felt this was not an appropriate issue for us, but within a couple of years, it had become our national policy.

Like society in general, Judaism has always responded to changing times. We always need to hear the voice of the “outsider,” the “stranger” and the “other” to advance our sense of righteousness in the world.

Coming out is an ongoing process. As new people come into your life, it matters or it doesn’t that you’re gay, and you have to determine their need to know. At first, my 70- and 80-something doyennes of Yiddish socialism had daughters to fix me up with, but after a few months, that stopped. Funny, though, they never mentioned their gay son or nephew.

The story of my life as a gay man also is a Jewish tale. Today, in the bloom of our GLBT (Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender) movement, we have rabbis and others who hold leadership positions in myriad Jewish communal organizations, who reveal new paradigms of Jewish life. Our homosexuality is simply one more aspect of life to factor in.

With others, it might be their left-handedness, their disability, their shyness, their aptitude, their love for a non-Jew, their political orientation, their crisis of faith. Being gay is qualitatively different, however, because social pressure causes boys and girls, young men and women, to turn against themselves.

What comes up in our play so insistently is that for kids who are genetically wired to turn out gay — and a certain percentage always are — the signs are there early on. Removing shame and disgust from the social equation will make those kids, and all of us, a whole lot happier.

When my sexual thoughts and urgings started, I took note. A few early relationships with women ultimately gave way to the openly gay person I am now, since coming out definitively in 1971. My gayness exerts no less active a presence in my life than the next guy’s heterosexuality, with all his attendant affairs, relationships, marriages, children, divorces, alimonies, moves.

For me, gay liberation came more easily than for some. From my teen years on, I had already defined myself in opposition to the establishment — opposition to Christian hegemony, to banal popular culture, to racism, to war, to imperialism.

Gay oppression was another thing to protest. It became almost a habit. That also partly explains why I felt drawn more to Yiddish than to Hebrew.

Homosexuality is never really a private matter, as some of our liberal and tolerant friends demand. How can it be? The social structures and prejudices that continue to bring misery, depression and worse to our queer sisters and brothers must be changed as part of the work of tikkun olam (healing the world).

I think my gayness has been an asset to my work. I give my time — evenings, weekends, holidays — in ways that I simply would not be able to if I had a family. I love my work, and I know it needs my full dedication.

But mine is a very special marriage of personality to career. I am not suggesting that gay people can therefore be loaded down with extra work assignments.

One Sunday, as I drove to work for an afternoon program, I had this epiphany. Asking myself, “Why am I doing this? No weekends, little time to myself? No fun?” I suddenly realized that being director of the Workmen’s Circle right here, right now, is who I am in this life. It’s what I do. It’s my contribution to the world.

People say the best way to meet someone is just by going about your business, and if it’s beshert (ordained), they’ll turn up. I’m not big on bars and drinking, anyway. So this guy attended a gallery opening recently, and …well, another meise (tale), another time.

That’s part of my story. Come see our show to hear more. Just as importantly, listen to the voices around you.

“Wagging Tales: Stories From the Stonewall Generation” will be performed on May 13 at 8:30 p.m, May 14 at 2:30 p.m. (followed by a meet the cast), May 19 and May 20 at 8:30 p.m. at The Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. $10-$12.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Thirty years ago this week, the Exodus began for gays and lesbians.

And because Jews are a people of stories, gay and lesbian Jews tell theirs this week with special bookmarks that open to the pages of their dual struggles.

Just as the story of the ancient Hebrews’ deliverance from slavery has been retold over the generations as the defining moment of the Jewish people, so have the Stonewall Riots become the story of the deliverance of a people.

At B’nai Jeshurun, a synagogue on New York’s Upper West Side, the story of gay liberation was retold last Friday evening in the form of its fourth annual Stonewall Shabbat Seder, with its own Haggadah, rituals and symbols that mixed traditional Jewish prayer with poems, readings and history of the gay struggle throughout the ages.

With the New York Police Department playing the role of Pharaoh’s men, the rioters in Greenwich Village on June 27, 1969, were the Children of Israel, embarking on the long journey to the Promised Land.

On that June day, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, escalated into violence, and became the official “coming out” party for gays and lesbians around the world.

Before Stonewall, much of the gay community lived as the Crypto-Jews during the Inquisition — denying themselves public displays of who they are for fear of reprisals from the wider community.

“Were you out at the time of the riots?” one seder participant asked another.

“Before Stonewall, we were all living in the ghetto,” he replied.

The Haggadah for the seder was compiled by Mark Horn, who heads B’nai Jeshurun’s Gay and Lesbian Committee. Like the traditional Passover Haggadah, it is a combination of prayer, history, debate, questions and symbols that tell the story of liberation.

Among the symbols on the Stonewall seder plate:

* Challah that is unashamedly uncovered, even during the prayer over the wine.

* A variety of fruit “because sometimes we are called the ‘fruit’ people. And while it is meant as an insult, tonight we take it as a blessing in disguise.”

* A bundle of sticks — the “faggot” — to commemorate gay men and lesbians throughout history who were burned at the stake.

* Bricks and stones to remember the “bricks of resistance thrown at the police the night of the Stonewall riot.”

* An empty cup: “We recall those who did not live to see this moment, and those who are unable to celebrate openly their identity and connection to God. We are angry with the spiritual emptiness that the overwhelming majority of Jewish institutions offer to queer Jews.”

The Haggadah’s narrative takes participants from Hitler’s attempted genocide of homosexuals to the Exodus from the closet after Stonewall; from the martyrdom of Harvey Milk, a gay San Francisco city supervisor who was assassinated, to the plague of AIDS and the emergence of today’s more organized gay movement.

Readings range from the biblical “Song of Songs” to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

Also throughout is the use of the word “queer,” which Horn said is not a universally accepted term in the gay community. He compares it with the use of the word “Jew,” which until this century was considered an epithet by the Jewish community.

“Hebrew” or “Israelite” were the preferred terms until the Jewish people decided to take the word back as their own.

“I think it’s important to look at what the culture defines as ‘other’ as queer,” Horn said. “And how each of us, whether gay or straight or otherwise, is somehow in our lives seen as ‘other.’

“And it’s a way to examine what we think of as queer to God, and how to bring that forward, into the light, a way to bring ourselves fully before our Creator.”

Horn’s Haggadah sees this mix of spirituality and gay pride as a way of “looking at our Jewish heritage through a queer lens and at our queer heritage through a Jewish lens. It means remembering the queers in the death camps and the Jews at the Stonewall Inn.”

Seder participants talk about the dual discoveries of their Jewishness and sexual identities — describing how each form of identity defines them as “queer” to the rest of society, but makes them unique to themselves.

One by one, each man and woman at the tables talks of his or her lifelong feelings of detachment from the mainstream because of sexual orientation and Jewishness.

The seder openly addresses and debates how gay men and lesbians are seen as outcasts within Judaism, through the line from Leviticus, which calls homosexuality an “abomination.” They discuss the wounds the line opens for them, then they reinterpret it.

“And here is a verse of my Torah. It is a small verse. For when I stood at Sinai I heard God call out, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. Share your bed, your heart, your life with him, that your days may be long on the face of the earth.’ But no one wrote those words down when I heard them, all those years ago,” the Haggadah says.

There are biblical prohibitions against a lot of things that are not always adhered to by everybody in the Jewish community, Horn said.

“Everybody chooses to observe some things and ignore others. It’s a question of respecting everyone’s choice and believing they are acting out of their own integrity.”

Horn believes that the gay community is mirroring the larger society in a return to spirituality, but many still fear showing up at their local synagogue because they are not certain they would be welcome there. Slowly, however, more synagogues are welcoming and recognizing them, and gays are becoming part of the organized Jewish community.

Participation by gays in Jewish religious life, Horn’s Stonewall Haggadah says, makes the Jewish people whole. And it uses strong language to make the point.

“And so to the Jewish mullahs who would murder us, and the ostriches in the Jewish community who would ignore us and hope we go away, we say with all the thunder we can muster: When you condemn Queer Jews, you keep Judaism in exile. You cannot be whole without us. And we will not be silent.”

The seder ends with traditional prayers; then, with some chuckles and a few nods and winks, the participants launch into a simple melody — perhaps the traditional gay equivalent of “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

It is a song made popular by Judy Garland, who was buried the night of the Stonewall Riots: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”