Achieving the Ordinary


Writing a Jewish Life: Memoirs
By Lev Raphael
225 pages. Carroll and Graf. $15.95.

It may be hard for some young people to believe, but not too long ago homosexuality was the “love that dare not speak its name”—even in the blue states. Only a decade ago, consensual same-sex relations were often illegal, television shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the recently-ended Will and Grace were unheard-of, and same-sex marriage—well, that was out of the question.

Lev Raphael, whose collection of short memoirs, Writing a Jewish Life, remembers. In fact, his new book often feels like a flashback to a hazier, dimmer time, as Raphael speaks proudly of holding hands, or introducing his longtime partner to his Michigan neighbors—acts which, today, would barely merit attention. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, and, at the same time, of the generation gap between people of Raphael’s generation and my own (Raphael was born in 1954, I in 1971). As Raphael notes early on, “the 1950s and 1960s were not remotely like the ‘70s.”

Raphael makes that comment in the context not of sexual mores but of the Holocaust—yet the generation gap is present there, too. Beginning with the second sentence of the book, Raphael reminds us over and over (Writing a Jewish Life is really a collection of short essays, not a single memoir, and so there is much repetition of facts; a little knitting together of the disparate pieces would have helped the overall result) that he is the child of Holocaust survivors, and actions that are now Holocaust clichés were de rigueur in his childhood: not wasting food, hushed talk about “the war,” fear and hatred of Germans. Perhaps because Raphael devotes much of Writing a Jewish Life to issues of gay identity, these aspects of his life seem like a throwback to an earlier time.

And yet, that’s precisely the point: that Raphael has “been there.” He was an openly gay Jewish writer before one could really be an openly gay Jewish writer. And the battles which now seem quaint—like writing letters to the editor about anti-gay sentiment in the Lansing State Journal—were, at the time, anything but. Raphael is not always the most subtle or erudite of writers; Writing a Jewish Life often seems bereft of truly sophisticated reflection on the arc of Raphael’s life, and the wider issues it involves. But there is no doubt that he was a pioneer.

Andrew Ramer, another gay Jewish pioneer who has helped create ritual for the gay community, has remarked that while many Jews learn their Jewish heritage from their parents, almost no gays or lesbians learn of theirs. There may, today, be Queer Seders and mikva rituals for coming out—but few teenagers hear of them. And of course, no one at all had them in the pre-Stonewall days when homosexuality equaled perversion.

For Raphael, coming to understand both his sexuality and his relationship to Jewishness was inextricably bound up with writing. Raphael becomes honest about his sexuality only with the prodding of a writing teacher, to whom he comes out in college, and who tells him to “write something real” instead of the fantasies he’d been attempting. But writing something real means feeling something real—and that means the wall of lies known as “the closet” has to crumble.

Likewise with Jewishness. As the book’s title implies, Writing a Jewish Life is largely about Raphael’s coming to understand his Jewish heritage by writing about it. Raphael’s first published story, originally written for that same writing teacher, was an obviously autobiographical tale about the child of Holocaust survivors that Raphael says he was “afraid to tell.” As Raphael describes it,

Writing the story led me to consciously confront my troubled legacy as a child of survivors, and for the first time I started to read furiously about the Holocaust, steeping myself now in what for years had been bits of narrative gleaned from my parents….

In Raphael’s case, sexuality and Jewishness were on parallel tracks: both were unspoken, both were haunting, and both were explored in the written word.

As Writing a Jewish Life progresses, it falls prey to Raphael’s successful adjustment as a gay, Jewish adult. The earlier essays are filled with trauma and struggle; the later ones, with a comfort that approaches banality. Raphael does not really have anything interesting to say about September 11 (who does?), and the many details he provides about the landscaping and decorating of his home in Okemos, Michigan, feel like a waste of time. As Tolstoy said (in a passage from Anna Karenina quoted by Raphael), “all happy families are like one another”—and not terribly interesting as a result.

But then, that, too, is the point. Real liberation is not exciting; it’s boring. The fact that Raphael and his partner, and his partner’s children, can live as ordinary a life as anyone else is precisely the point of all the pride parades and marches. There’s a passage in Writing a Jewish Life which describes Raphael’s pride when his stepson takes part in a perfectly ordinary “creative” Rosh Hashanah service, complete with Debbie Friedman melodies and storytelling. It’s a story that could be told by thousands of proud parents around the United States, quaint in its innocence—what Raphael finds “transcendent” happens every week at the better synagogues in America. But because Raphael and his partner had to earn the right to be called a “family,” there is something more than quaintness. In the ordinary, there is a taste of the victorious.

The throwback quality of Writing a Jewish Life is at its most intrusive, however, in the memoirs regarding Israel. Americans describing Israel always do so at their peril, particularly if they, like Raphael, do not have a full command of Hebrew and are thus limited in their contact with actual Israelis. Unfortunately, Raphael falls right in, sentimentalizing Israel on the one hand and condemning it for not being liberal enough on the other. Moreover, though Raphael claims to have “traveled extensively in Israel over the last fifteen years,” his account of gay life there is woefully anachronistic. Of course, homophobia is extremely strong in Israel—witness the current attempt by religious extremists to cancel the World Pride march slated to take place in Jerusalem this August—but gay life is hardly “low-key and closeted,” and hardly limited to the furtive cruising for sex and secret meetings that Raphael describes. Tel Aviv, the “pink city,” has over a dozen gay clubs and bars; Jerusalem’s Open House now flies a rainbow flag over the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall; there are gay city councilmen, gay pop stars—and a gay couple recently won Israel’s version of The Amazing Race. Raphael’s account of gay Israel—which includes interviews with several American expats, but precious few actual Israelis—belongs at least a decade in the past.

Raphael is also much too simplistic when it comes to explaining religious homophobia. In one passage, he writes “when a New York rabbi went to Oregon to support... limiting the rights of gays and lesbians and actively discouraging homosexuality—and he claimed religious authority—that, too, was hatred, plain and simple.” Well, not exactly. It’s also ignorance, fear, and, perhaps, that rabbi’s sense of his own precious religious values being under ever-increasing attack—and over-simplifying the complex phenomenon of homophobia actually makes it harder to combat. The fact that the Nazis targeted both Jews and homosexuals is, for Raphael, proof that “hatred is hatred.” But with a bit more distance from the Holocaust than Raphael allows himself in Writing a Jewish Life, important distinctions do emerge.

Raphael gains that bit of distance—that bit of peace—only at the end of Writing a Jewish Life, in another short memoir which displays all of the innocence and time-boundedness of the book. In it, Raphael journeys to Germany—“the heart of darkness”—to research a planned memoir about his mother. As before, Raphael’s initial responses are very much of their time and place, and today, to someone my age, have the ring of cliche: “Germany, the country I swore never to visit. The country whose products I never bought, the country that was so alien and radioactive I used to imagine maps of Europe without it.”

And the lesson Raphael learns is a simple one. He makes new friends in the town he visits, enjoys the scenery, even “feels at home.” In other words, he becomes an ordinary American abroad. Nothing special, but sometimes—especially if you’re the gay Jewish son of Holocaust survivors, born in the 1950s—ordinariness is hard-won.