We’re Not in Kansas Anymore: A Gay Jew’s Journey Through Israel

By J.A. Gooch

I was a stranger in a strange land.

With the middle eastern sun glittering in the vast ocean of a sky, the cobblestone streets — polished to a sheen by time and tread — poking through the soles of my shoes, and the ancient sound of Hebrew swirling upon the breeze, I could not help but experience my own “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” moment. Sure, I had traveled abroad many times before, but never to this little corner of the world. The previous few days in Israel had spewed at me a hefty dose of culture shock, though not unpleasantly, I might add. However, despite grappling to understand my surroundings, nothing I’d experienced before compared to this day. This was the day time stood still.

It was Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, and our first Friday night in Israel. Jerusalem was all hustle and bustle as its inhabitants scurried through the tight, maze-like streets, eager to finish the last of their to-do lists and purchase the finishing touches for their ritual Friday night feasts. Speaking of food, we’d already been in town a few hours and settled into our hotel rooms when we heard the synchronized rumble of our empty tummies. Breakfast seemed like a decade ago, and dinner . . . well . . . that was at least a year away. So to sooth our hunger, we decided to venture into the city; the neighborhood where we were staying appeared to be bursting with culinary excitement, but once outside we were surprised to see that which had been so alive just minutes before dwindling to a complete halt. According to both Jewish and Israeli law, shops were beginning to close in honor of the weekly holy day. Men with dense beards in wide-brimmed hats and women in colorful head scarves — some with children hammocked to their breasts — fled into taxis, trollies, and busses with their briefcases and shopping bags in hand, hoping to make it home before the sun touched the earth. It was Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, and time was coming to an end.

Long story short, we ate. We were lucky enough to find a little hole-in-the-wall vegan joint just down the block, which I, a passionate carnivore, dubbed “manna from heaven.” The hotel was just a short walk away, and once back, it was time to dress for services. Part of the night’s itinerary included visiting two synagogues, (Beit Knesset in Hebrew, meaning a house of assembly.), each belonging to a different sect of the Jewish orthodoxy. This was an interesting experience, dressing for Shabbat. At least for me, anyway. Being gay and Jewish never felt like much of an oxymoron until I arrived in Israel. There, the majority of governmental responsibility is entrusted to the Orthodox, a group unfortunately known for its marginalization of LGBT people and opposition to their rights. However, just on the other side of the world, in America, the majority of Jews are known for their liberalism. I am one of those Jews, and so are my friends and family, so I wasn’t necessarily considering these differences while getting dressed. With just enough understanding of Jewish law to cover my head before entering a synagogue sanctuary out of respect for the Divine, I, without sacrificing my personal sense of style, did what I have done many times before.

It was a shiny thing — the fanciest I own, in fact — and perfect for the occasion, in my opinion. My meticulously wound turban, as I suspected it would, was already turning heads in the hotel lobby, where we gathered to say the traditional blessing over the Shabbat candles. I say “as I suspected it would” because one doesn’t often see a loudly dressed six-foot-tall man in a fashion turban parading around the hollows of West Virginia, and just like at home, I expected to see a few dilated pupils. What I did not expect, however, was what happened next. Through my peripheral vision, I caught sight of our Israeli tour guide approaching me from across the room with a peculiar tenderness in his eyes.

“James,” he whispered.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Your turban . . . it’s beautiful, but I don’t want you to be offended.”

Initially, I thought, “Well, thanks for the compliment,” but as my internal dialogue continued, I couldn’t help but already be offended.

“What do you mean?” I asked. I genuinely wanted to know what he was talking about before I jumped to additional conclusions.

“The turban, it’s a traditional head covering for orthodox women; I am afraid some of the men in the synagogues we’re visiting may be caught off guard and not let you in. It’s a gender thing, you see?”

“Oh,” I said. I never wanted to offend anyone, especially not for religious reasons. “I don’t have a yarmulke with me, but I can switch into a hat.”

“I think that may be best,” he suggested. I could tell that he meant no harm and only wanted to protect my feelings and honor the Beit Tefillot, the houses of prayer, we were visiting. So I headed toward the stairwell (Even elevator access is restricted on the Sabbath.) to change into my hat. I didn’t mind, really. Well, not until I met a new friend of mine on the third floor, just outside my room.

To protect his identity, I will call him Ori, which means light in Hebrew. I chose this name because what happened that night was completely enlightening for both him and for me. Ori, I learned on the first night of our trip, was a young Israeli man in his early twenties, who had just finished his mandatory service with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). We bonded over a great many things that first night spent between the Holy City and Tel Aviv, specifically the fact that both of us were openly gay Jewish men. As previously said, my American Jewish experience differed greatly from that of the average Israeli, and this conversation proved that. I learned just how difficult it can be to be both religious and queer in Israel, something that I had forgotten since coming out nearly ten years before.

Upon seeing me sashay through the hallway, I could practically hear his heart thud to the pit of his stomach.

“Oh, honey!” he cried. “I don’t know if I would wear that. I mean, it’s beautiful and fierce, but they are going to be so mean about it. If it were me, I wouldn’t do it.” I had noticed that he opted out of wearing some of the jewelry I’d become accustomed to seeing on his fingers and wrists.

“You think it will be that bad?”

“You have no idea,” he replied.

Tempted to trust him — after all, he was the Israeli one — I found myself caught between the desire to show respect and the intense yearning to defy persecution. And just as I was about to de-turban myself, I opted for the latter. It was a hard decision to make, but the journalist in me was curious about what exactly would happen should I wear my chosen head covering. I began reasoning, trying to justify my decision: “My head is covered, that’s all the Torah asks, right?”

I could feel my vegan shawarma churning in my stomach as we made the quarter-mile trek to the first synagogue. With each step, my nerves, swelling within my throat, choked every ounce of excitement I’d previously had for this night. But after arriving at the gate, where we men separated from our female friends, my nervousness dissipated into frustration. In an instant, everything that challenged my beliefs as a Reform Jew and an advocate of gender equality confronted me head on. I was now angry, and even more so when the man appointed to greet us at the door refused to shake my hand after shaking everyone else’s. It was because of the turban, but I wasn’t having it — he was going to shake my hand.

“Shabbat Shalom,” I said with a forced smile, extending my hand into the void.

“Uh — Shabbat Shalom,” he murmured back, barely touching my hand as if it harbored the Plague. It was going to be a long evening.

Once in the sanctuary, I was enveloped by the chanting of familiar liturgy, the one thing all of us Jews have in common. While our ideas and beliefs may vary, we are bound together by words, and it is those words, those of the Torah, the holy scriptures, that every Jewish sanctuary honors in elaborate fashion, shrouding them beneath the grandeur of specially tailored fabrics, richly finished woods, and carefully painted murals depicting scenes from the sacred texts. As I stood there, soaking in my surroundings and meditating the words of the Shema, the most sacred prayer in Judaism which acknowledges the oneness of God and the Jewish people, I noticed the man — the one who’d neglected to acknowledge my presence — standing directly beside me.

“It’s beautiful,” I whispered to him, pointing to the beautifully adorned ark, offering a smile despite my internal rage. And that’s when it happened.

“Yes. Yes it is,” he said, returning the smile.

Although it wasn’t what I’d hoped for, I could see that in that moment, surrounded by our common heritage, this man — like me — had realized that we, above all else, were brothers. Ori stood nearby, surprised by what had just occurred.

The next synagogue experience was altogether different. From a block away, we were greeted by the joyous exuberance of a nonsensical melody surging toward us in the night. Just as before, men and women separated; however, once inside the second sanctuary, I was not only met with handshakes (Yes, handshakes with an S!) but a plethora of pats on the back and was ultimately pulled by the wrists into a sea of merriment. The two hundred plus men who filled the tiny closet of a space danced arm in arm around the perimeter of the room, drunk on a made-up chant purposed for evoking the presence of the Divine and a sense of brotherhood. So drunk, in fact, that none of them seemed to notice my flashy turban. And if they did . . . well . . . none of them seemed to care. We were all children of God that night.

Overwhelmed by the heat emitted from the mass of dancing bodies, a few of us decided to step out onto the veranda to cool off, Ori included. Wiping the sweat from his brow with the cuff of his jacket, he grinned at me, stumbling to find the words to express his astonishment.

“It’s okay,” I said, giving him a hug. “I think we both learned a thing or two tonight.”

He smiled again.

If there is one thing I learned during my stay in Israel, especially that day, the day time stood still, it was something that I already knew to be true. As a gay Jew — a minority within a minority — I understand the importance of not judging others. But despite my inherent knowing, I do not always afford others the same level of grace that I expect. That night, before I ventured with my peers into the unknown, I had already prepared to fight a battle — a battle that would never be waged. I was blinded by a few negative things I had heard about a group of people I did not fully understand nor had ever encountered first hand. And although my assumptions appeared to proven right at the threshold of the first synagogue’s sanctuary, I stood corrected. Ori, he told me later, learned the same.

As the great American fictionist Mark Twain once wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.” In addition, as the beloved poet and thinker Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” My friends, it is my hope that you go out and see the world, not with a sword and shield in hand but an open heart. Nevertheless, as you go, challenge and be challenged. Test the waters, within reason of course. And by doing so, may you learn a thing or two, and may the stories you acquire and the lessons you learn change you so that you may change the world.

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