I was born Jewish, and I was born gay. But only one of these facts was immediately obvious. I realized the latter in middle school but only came to accept it in my mid-20s. Being Jewish, though, that was clear from the get-go. I grew up steeped in Jewish culture, ideas, traditions, and philosophy. My family is traditional and was pretty observant while I was growing up in Israel, where your specific location on a spectrum of Jewish observance will usually define everything about your life.
My family is different from most Israeli families, in that our religious observance is egalitarian and liberal. Equal opportunity Judaism is much more widespread in diaspora communities than it is back home, and we were one of the families that stood apart, seeing observance on a spectrum instead of on a binary. I was never afraid that the religion in my home wouldn’t accept me. It was the staunch orthodoxy that permeated every other aspect of Israeli society that constructed seemingly impossible barriers to coming out.
Israel in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when I was coming of age, was not a gay-friendly place. It’s still complicated to be anything other than heteronormative (especially outside of Tel Aviv), but back then, it was just not a thing you could tell people without serious repercussions. I didn’t know any out gay people while I was growing up. It was something that folks talked about in hushed voices, if at all. I didn’t need to be told that coming out would be a choice to exist on the outskirts of society.
Although being more liberal in our faith placed my family somewhat on the outskirts, Jewish practice still played a major role in our home. We observed all the holidays. We kept kosher. We went to synagogue every Friday evening and every Shabbat morning. Every Saturday, for Shabbat, we abstained from TV, computers, phones, cars, cooking—all of it. It was a day of rest and board games and reading books. Sometimes after synagogue, we would walk a mile to the local library, and we’d sit for hours, reading, and choosing new stories. I remember those afternoons as quiet, but also as full of adventure as my sister and I swallowed book after book, reading our way around the world.
I went to religious schools all the way through ninth grade. Morning prayers. Afternoon prayers. Torah studies. Mishnah. Talmud. I learned to taste the world through Judaism.
When I was fourteen, I started a diary. In it, I wrote about a recurring daydream in which I was kissing a girl in my class.
“Dear Diary,” I wrote, “Do you think this makes me a lesbian?”
The next year I transferred out of religious school, starting tenth grade at a secular high school for musicians and dancers. I joined the choir, and dived head first into the culture at my new school. I’d never hung out with secular kids, and they were different. They went out on Friday nights, got drunk, smoked weed, and dressed however they wanted
Soon, so did I.
I had boyfriends, flings, one-night stands. I kept hoping one of these awkward teenage guys would make me feel something. Sometimes, if I was drunk enough, they did… sort of.
There were zero out lesbians at my high school, including faculty. There were two out gay boys in my grade who were somewhat accepted, but mostly just fetishized and fawned over—not really seen as fully human. I did kiss a few girls, but I always blamed it on the booze, laughing it off in the morning.
“Dear Diary,” I scribbled, 15 years old and worried, “I think I need to break up with my boyfriend. I’m just not attracted to him. I hope he doesn’t think that I’m a bitch.”
Around this time I dropped out of my religious youth movement. With all my new extracurricular activities (a lot of choir, but also a lot of partying), there wasn’t time for prayer services, holiday gatherings, or study sessions. I also stopped going to synagogue every Shabbat, pleading too much homework, then for most Shabbatot, until I wasn’t going at all. By senior year, I could party with the best of them. I was known for it.
I was also totally closeted and totally miserable.
“Dear Diary, I think I’m attracted to women,” I wrote in another journal, 18 years old and trying hard to figure this out. “And I don’t know why. But what’s for sure is that I’ll never be able to act on it.”
In Israel, after high school, most young people serve several mandatory years in the army, and that’s what I did. I re-joined my religious youth movement for my stint in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). Almost immediately, I began to pray. A lot.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1)
I woke up early, every day, to read psalms. I started to keep the laws of Shabbat again, even more fiercely than before. I was strict about keeping kosher and became angry with others when they watched TV on Saturdays. Even if I couldn’t go to synagogue, I read the prayers to myself. I tried to imbue the words with intention, tried to find meaning. It was a chaotic time, and the words gave me a core to hold onto.
I wrote in my diary, in various ways, the same words.
“You cannot, cannot, cannot be attracted to women,” scribbled on one page, over and over, “Just stop thinking these thoughts. Just stop.” I couldn’t say the word ‘gay’ yet.
I repeated these phrases to myself, trying to re-pattern my brain. I’d learned, in therapy, that you can force your mind to learn new patterns if you consciously make yourself aware of your subconscious urges. Sure, my therapist was talking about something else entirely (I hadn’t even told her about my thoughts), but it had to apply here, didn’t it?
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” (Psalm 23:4)
Slowly, the praying started to help—not with quelling undesirable urges, but with finding comfort, solace, and understanding. I was waking up early but reading the psalms in a new way. One morning I looked upwards at the sky and said a prayer of thanks for the ability to pray.
At this point, I was dating a man, but I was slowly coming around to the idea that this thing that I’ve always known about myself might be an unavoidable truth, something I would have to face, one way or another at some point. The only way out is through.
I was terrified.
“I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.’” (Psalm 91:2)
Eventually, push came to shove. When I met the woman who would be my wife, I could no longer keep on running. I didn’t want to anymore. I wanted to feel these things, freely, and I was so tired. Tired of trying to suppress the thoughts that just wouldn’t go away. I had given it my best shot, and it wasn’t going to happen.
We had met in a songwriting class at the college we were attending outside Tel Aviv, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her, making excuses to hang out, offering to do group projects together, study groups, all of it. One evening, when I was helping her with some homework, we’d kissed, and there was really no way back from that earthquake. So we kept meeting up after school, more and more frequently, taking some pretty extreme measures to make sure that no one at school knew. For months I felt like I was sleepwalking. This had to be a dream.
Spending time with her made me feel ablaze, like I’d been struck by lightning. I wanted to keep feeling like that.
I would be lying if I said that coming out was easy, that the strength I found in faith softened everything and it all just worked out. Once it became clear that this relationship was real, and not about to melt away into our pasts, we told our families and our friends at school. Some conversations were harder than others.
The road out wound its way through a lot of tears, anger, arguments, and thorny conversations. My parents were scared for me, they knew what we all knew, that there is a price to pay for being open about who I am. Eventually, they came to understand that the price I paid for hiding is far steeper.
My wife and I ended up moving across the ocean, initially for school, but we became enamored by our sudden surroundings. People didn’t look at us strangely here, we could hold hands and even kiss in public.
We made it to the other side.
“Because you have made the Lord, who is my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling, there shall no evil befall you neither shall any plague come near your tent.” (Psalm 91:9-10)
I was born Jewish, and I was born gay, and it’s taken me the better part of three decades to see these two parts of me come together, give me strength, and inform one another. In many ways, I’ve had to redefine what it means to me to be Jewish, as I’ve come to terms with being gay and what that means in the wider Jewish community. I never, ever hide today. Through my journey, I’ve learned compassion, perseverance, faith, and honesty. And I’m still learning.
These days, in our home, we light Shabbat candles and observe the holidays. Most of the time. I’ve come to realize that Judaism is more than what we do, or what we did as a family when I was growing up. It’s how I think. It’s the questions I ask, the books I read, and the food I eat. It’s in the community I belong to, the events we host in our home. It’s the way I connect to myself, to my friends, to my family, and to my wife. It’s one of the ways in which we decide what kind of life we want to live, even as we challenge and ask questions. It’s finding our winding way through.