Third Night

an excerpt



"So, Yossi, when are you going to let your payess grow?" Yehuda Rohr tickled my right sideburn with his index finger. My body tingled at his touch, and I wanted nothing more than to take that finger and suck on it. Well, I wanted to suck on other things, too, but I'd start with the finger. If only Yehuda was gay.

And not an Orthodox Jew with an interest in Hasidism, either.

"When you do," I said lightly.

Hasidic men let their sideburns grow out into long curls, called payess in Yiddish. It was one of the outward signs of a belief in the writings of the Baal Shem Tov, who codified a belief in spirituality and joy through Jewish mysticism. Others were the long black coats, the beards and the black homburg hats worn over yarmulkes.

Though Yehuda was as interested in Hasidism as I was, he had not cultivated a beard or payess. He was FFB, frum from birth, meaning he had been raised in an Orthodox family, wore a yarmulke and tzitzit (a kind of fringed undershirt) all the time, and attended the Miami Beach Chabad where I had begun going to services. He was my age, handsome in a dark, Jewish way-curly black hair, a Mediterranean olive complexion, a wide smile and a big nose with a slight hook at the end. In Teaneck, that would have been surgically corrected when he was a kid; most of the kids I grew up with had at least a passing familiarity with cosmetic surgery, braces, or contact lenses. What G-d made imperfectly, man improved.

I was pretty much as G-d had made. Never needed braces or glasses. My blue eyes and reddish-brown hair were inherited from my maternal grandfather. My metabolism was fast enough that I could eat what I pleased and not gain weight, and the muscles I had came from my ordinary life-walking and swimming.

I had to turn away from Yehuda. I was afraid my stiffening dick might give away the feelings I had for him, and I knew that would be the end of our friendship. Orthodox Jews and gay men went together like fish and bicycles, which made my own desires-for men, and for communion with G-d through the joy of worship-difficult to manage.

The name my parents gave me is Joseph, but when I started going to Chabad in college I was asked for my Hebrew name, which is Yosef, and eventually it got whittled down to its Yiddish diminutive, Yossi. To me it was an outward symbol of the two parts of my life: the world of school and work, where I was Joe, and the Chabad world, where Yossi lived.

I wasn't born into Orthodox Judaism; my family were conservative Jews, the middle-of-the-road branch who wore yarmulkes and prayer shawls in synagogue but not outside, who prayed in Hebrew even if we didn't understand all the words. But when I was in college, I was looking for something more, and I began attending services at the Chabad on campus. Jews of all backgrounds were welcomed, and we had the opportunity to study the Torah, the Midrash (the commentary of generations of rabbis), and the Kabbalah, the book of Jewish mysticism. Studying the writings of ancient sages answered a lot of the questions I had.

There was no definitive answer to the big one, why G-d had made me gay. The best I could come up with was that G-d made me the way He did for His own reasons, which would be revealed to me in the fullness of time. Until then, I was going to have to struggle.

"Come, Yossi, have something to eat," Feigie Teitelbaum said, taking my arm in hers. She was a pretty brunette about my age, twenty-five, the hostess of this party at her parents' home on North Bay Road in Miami Beach on the first night of Hanukkah. Like me, she was a BT, a baal teshuvah, a Jew who turned to Orthodox Judaism. Had she been born to Orthodoxy, her parents would probably have married her off at eighteen or so-by twenty-five she'd be considered an old maid.

She took my arm and pulled me toward the table of food. "I made the latkes myself."

Her parents' family room was decorated with blue and white streamers, honeycombed paper dreidels and multiple hanukiyah, the specialized candelabra used at Hanukkah. It reminded me of parties I'd attended as a teenager.

And just like then, I felt uncomfortable. Everyone else was so resolutely heterosexual, though without the outward vulgarity that made me uncomfortable in high school. Sure, guys talked about girls, but it was focused on who would make the best wife and mother.