Monday, March 19, 2012

Is Chaim Levin an Orthodox Jew?

This question has been knocking on my door for the past couple of months.

Some journalists have identified me as an Orthodox Jew, while others have described me as no longer religious as in today’s Washington Post article. I have tried to be clear I identify as simply “Jewish”. I am Jewish, and I’m proud of it. I’m connected to this identity, and I always will be. This why I choose to wear a yarmulke in public or during interviews. I wear a yarmulke as symbol of religious pride, not to suggest affiliation with any sect or movement. I’m Jewish and I’m gay; I am equally proud of both.

I am reluctant to talk about my current religious beliefs and levels of observance. I believe ones religious convictions and practices are between them and God. More importantly, my current religious beliefs and practices would not negate what I experienced growing up Chassidic in Crown Heights attending the best Lubavitch yeshivas (schools). It would not bear on the seemingly hopeless conundrum that gay youth face in Orthodox communities. It would not diminish the problem nor efforts to give hope.

Nonetheless, “Well, you’re not Orthodox anymore, so why should people take example from you or listen to you?” is often the first question I hear from people in the community I grew up in. While such questions are based on faulty premises, the answer is simple. What I experienced growing up gay in the Orthodox community is just one story of many. The communities’ children still face abuse, bullying, isolation, depression and risk of suicide, and are still being told that homosexuality is a sickness that can be cured through reparative “therapy”, despite its having been denounced by the American Psychiatric, Psychological and Medical Associations. Scientific research has clearly demonstrated that such practices are ineffective and harmful. A 2002 study, for example, revealed that, out of 202 participants in an ex-gay program, only 8 described themselves as being cured, 7 of whom were employed as counselors for the program. The program itself classified 176 as “failures”. Of the 202 participants, 155 reported significant, long-term harm as a result, including depression and suicidal thoughts, deteriorating relationships with family and friends, and complete loss of religious faith. Out of a misguided understanding of faith and complete disregard for science, this is what is still being recommended to gay Orthodox youth who are already vulnerable.   

I do believe one can identify as both gay and Orthodox. Personally, I can no longer label myself as Lubavitch, Chassidic or even Orthodox. With the Lubavitch understanding I grew up with, I do not consider myself Orthodox today mainly because I don’t practice Judaism the way that I used to. But, at the end of the day, no one keeps all 613 commandments given to us by the Torah (if you know someone that does, please do send them my way because I’d love to learn from them) not even the self-appointed promoters of the Torah, who would hate, oppress, embarrass, insult and harm fellow Jews for being gay, give pernicious advice to those already vulnerable and stand idly by while lives are in danger. I do still however identify with the Lubavitch Chassidic Orthodox community. It is the community I grew up in, and I hope it can be more welcoming to its gay members. I hope that my bringing awareness to the problems can help remedy them.

I survived abuse and bullying as Lubavitch boy in Crown Heights. I underwent dangerous “ex-gay” therapy because I thought changing my orientation was possible and would be the only way to reconcile myself as Jewish person. I had never encountered a gay Orthodox Jew, or even anyone who was just Jewish and gay. Until I was 21, I was degraded just because I am gay, even though I was on a hopeless mission of trying to change my orientation.

I have never attacked anyone’s religious beliefs or values, nor advocated for changing halacha. I have simply asked that people open their eyes to what is happening and realize that gay people exist and are being harmed in Orthodox communities.

Orthodox Judaism is my home, my roots; it is where I come from. The camp song we used to sing every Shabbos when I was a kid said “No matter where you may roam, you can always come back home”. Home to me is my parents’ house in Crown Heights, the place where my journey started.

I try to serve God in the best way that I can. I believe my efforts are consistent with Torah values. I am advocating that people who want to remain religious should be encouraged to do so. Whether they remain as observant, however, they should not lose their families and hope.

There is hope. By bringing awareness to the problem and sharing my story, I want to offer more hope to gay youth and their families, irrespective of their personal level of religious observance.

16 comments:

  1. No one can presume to tell you how to live your life nor does anyone have a right to judge whatever choices you've made. It's your life and you are entitled to live it as you see best and in whatever way makes you happiest.

    Its your life not theirs.

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  2. This is very well put.

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  3. Chaim; you wrote this beautifully.

    I have 2 points to share.

    1) I believe all sufferers of abuse are akin to holocaust survivors who somehow our community has found the restraint and understanding in their journeys of frumkeit. No one can judge what they and/or we have gone through.

    2) I wish there was a form of "reparative" therapy for orthodoxy. This therapy would offer us a frum amnesia so that we can block out the hurtful, inappropriate and misinformed training we received as frum jews and allow us the ability to repair the damage by creating a kinder and gentler judaism for us from scratch. The pain and hurt associated with the orthodox Judaism I know now is not one that I want to invest my life into.

    Thank you Chaim.

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    1. It is interesting to note that the Rebbe said in a Sicha that "Harchek Meeshochain Rah" keep far from a bad neighbor, means that anything, including teachings from Torah, that do not work for someone, are this person's bad neighbor, and he should keep far away from it. Alot of the principles we grew up with, worked for our parents generation, but not neccesarily for ours, and they should be seen as the bad neighbors they can be for some people.So many more of us would still be Chasidish if this were taken seriously

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  4. No one has the right to force a label on you. And no one has a right to deny you your identity or 'reclassify' you because you don't meet their approval. Like other frum gay men, once I made the decision to come out - to the Jewish community - I questioned whether I could still be considered 'Orthodox.' When I realized that much of that questioning was based on others' expectations, I was able accept myself as Orthodox AND gay.

    I'm glad to hear you are comfortable in your identity as a gay Jew (in whatever form that might take). B'eszrat Hashem you should stay that way. :)


    - Yisroel

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  5. To Frum, Gay and Married: I'm sorry you experienced bullying and abuse in your lifetime, as I'm truly sorry for anyone who experiences such things, but you de-legitimize your points (and pain) when you compare it in any way, shape, or form to the suffering and aftermath of Holocaust survivors. That is a separate category entirely and to suggest otherwise is, I believe, a gross defamation of the unique kind of torture they went through and have lived with after the war. I've had pain in my life too, and it was horrible, but it has nothing to do with the Holocaust and I would never think to suggest otherwise.

    Chaim, I think it's great you can still identify with the Lubavitch movement in Crown Heights, your roots, and that you proudly wear a yarmulka in all your public appearances. People are so concerned with labels when they need to be more concerned with their own behavior toward others.

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    1. Not to delegitimize your indignation, Anonymous, but I believe it is a gross misrepresentation of explicit simile, history and psychology to deny parallels to Holocaust survivors. Indeed, a rather prominent Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist reflecting on his experiences himself wrote: “To draw an analogy: a man's suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the 'size' of human suffering is absolutely relative.” Viktor Frankl suffered in the camps alongside those who wore the pink triangle and the gold and pink star. The psychological effects on Holocaust survivors are the same as those experienced by survivors of any complex traumatic stress. Your suggestion otherwise would indeed delegitimize real suffering were it not contrary to fact.

      You are right, of course; there is a world of difference from the Shoah. We remember those who wore the gold star. We recognize that such intolerance and cruelty was outrageous. We have vowed to never let it happen again. But, the world has forgotten about those who wore pink. Far too many parts of the world still treat gay people with intolerance and cruelty under a philosophy far too similar to NAZI Germany's. And, the oppression and holocaust (or however you are concerned to label it) of gay people continues to this day. Gay people have suffered in silence in hostile or indifferent communities, forgotten.

      We have opportunity, no an obligation to be aware, to be compassionate and to remember. We have an obligation not to dismiss, minimize or legitimize a very real, contemporary problem. We have an obligation to take a stand against oppression and harm.

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    2. I agree we have an obligation to take a stand against oppression and harm, and that's why I call out people who use "gay" as an insult, or people who use the word fag so freely and why I read about gay rights and why I treat everyone - gay, straight, what have you - with the compassion and respect that is every human being's right.

      I am merely offering an outside perspective that I believe (and, I think, many would agree with me, even if they aren't here to comment on this blog) that the effort to obtain equal rights and treatment for gay people suffers when you compare it in any way to the Holocaust. I know there were many who wore pink stars, and as poorly as gays are treated in the world, and as horrible as the bullies who drive gay people to commit suicide are, it does not compare to the systematic rounding up and slaughter of homosexuals, Gypsies, and, public enemy #1 to the Nazis, Jews. The U.S. in 2012 is not Germany in the 30's and 40's.

      Every gay teen or adult lost to suicide from bullying is tragic, but there are laws in place, in the U.S. at least, to prevent that, and laws to prosecute those who commit such acts (ie, Ravi being found guilty of a hate crime). Gay people have a united voice, a parade, clubs, organizations, websites, and beloved TV shows featuring them. More understanding and tolerance and laws are needed, yes - but gay people in this country have some protection and options, while the gay people forced to wear pink stars did not. It IS different - I didn't intend to lessen the pain of Frum, Gay, and Married, and I apologize if I did so, but I fear his link to the situation of Holocaust survivors and the situation of gay people today misrepresents the pain and suffering of my relatives who experienced the Holocaust.

      I can't know the pain of being a frum gay person who is ostracized from his family, community, and faith, but I don't think Frum, Gay and Married can know the pain of a someone who experienced the Holocaust, either.

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    3. Anonymous, I appreciate your recognition of the obligation to take a stand against oppression and harm and your efforts to familiarize yourself with issues pertaining to gay people. I do not want to deter you nor offend you, but I must point out that you wrote: “I can't know the pain of being a frum gay person who is ostracized from his family, community, and faith, but I don't think Frum, Gay and Married can know the pain of a someone who experienced the Holocaust, either.”

      Please refer to what you were responding to: "no one can judge what they and/or we have gone through." It appears to me that you actually agreeing with the thoughtful gentlemen. The only claim made regarding Holocaust survivors' pain was your suggestion it is irrevocably incomparable to contemporary suffering. As recognized by a Holocaust survivor and renowned psychiatrist of the time, I observed that the psychological effects of complex traumatic stress for individuals are the same -- not the specific traumas for individuals and not the repercussions for their families, communities or societies. I understood it to be effect of complex trauma that the thoughtful gentlemen wrote about. “Survivors of abuse” is assumed to refer to gay survivors of homophobic oppression, bullying and harassment only in your responses. What was written was that the frum community should have compassion and understanding for “survivors of abuse” [unspecified] “in their journeys of frumkeit” as it had managed to find for Holocaust survivors, who, like people with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, sometimes struggled with issues of faith and observance. Do you believe it should not? What exactly is it that was actually written that you are taking issue with? Only in your responses is it suggested that the pain experienced by those you have faced homophobia might have something to do with the Holocaust. I responded to these suggestions of yours and your indignation toward them, as I am again.

      I believe efforts to bring awareness to the struggles of individuals suffer when they are responded to with parade counterexamples; indeed, such strikes me as unaware, insensitive or offensive. Consider, for example, responding to the outrageous horrors of the Holocaust with glib examples of people who managed to escape or survive, the existence of communities not under control of NAZI Germany or the subsequent creation of Israel and our resolve not to let it happen again. If the example is too sacrosanct, consider telling someone who is contemplating suicide that their suffering is somehow not worthy enough (for what, I do no know) and that they should wake up and smell the roses in someone else's garden (frumgaymarried.blogspot.com/2012/03/depth-of-my-pain.html).

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    4. The US in 2012 is not the US in 2012, not everywhere, not for everyone. Yes, some states have laws prohibiting discrimination and/or hate crimes on the basis of orientation, but, even in those states, the law does not prevent such actions -- no more than the Torah has prevented murder. That's why we have courts. Murder, however, is something that is rather easy to pursue in court; discrimination and hate crimes are not, and many are not inclined to subject themselves subject themselves to further injury by pursuing such cases. Yes, there are gay communities and organizations, but not everyone is able to avail themselves of them.

      Coming to terms with ones orientation in order to do so is the very struggle discussed here. This is a struggle that is often difficult even in liberal communities. The fact is that nearly all gay students across the country, even in the new millennium, reported that were were harassed verbally or physically at schools because of their orientation within the past year, and over 80% reported that teachers never or rarely intervened when present. The fact is that gay people are 3 times more likely to attempt suicide. Yes, the general situation has improved, but the realities of particular individuals may often still seem grim. The only united gay voice I am aware of involves the fictitious “homosexual agenda”. There is no united gay voice any more than there is a united Jewish voice, American or homophobic voice; indeed, gay youth often do not recognize that they have voices until they come to terms with their orientation, and gay voices are often still silenced, dismissed or otherwise not suffered.

      You are absolutely correct that gay people are not systematically targeted, rounded up and slaughtered by the US government. But, no one suggested we are. We are however targeted, ostracized, demoralized and sometimes killed, directly or indirectly, by individuals and communities -- some more systematically than others. I find this to be intolerably outrageous, but that may very well be just be my insider perspective.

      Clearly, you also correct that we cannot know another person's pain. But, we can know about it. Frankl used the analogy of gas pumped into a chamber to convey both his existential suffering and human beings' generally. Obviously, such suffering is not a gas pumped into a chamber, and I do not see how such an analogy could misrepresent the gas pumped into a chamber; indeed, I fail to understand why the concern would be with the gas pumped into a chamber rather than the suffering to be elucidated through the analogy. I do understand, however, that the image of gas pumped into a chamber may be particularly, even uncomfortably vivid within the context of Frankl's story. Perhaps, that was his intention. Perhaps, he, as a Holocaust survivor, intentionally evoked for hopeless, life-or-death suffering the image of the gas chambers which claimed his immediate family and friends. Perhaps, it's something that he knew people reading his story and philosophy would recognize and understand that such “suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind.” I believe that this analogy actually recognizes the Holocaust as the most horrifically complete consumption of the human soul and mind we can even hope to grasp. I believe that it is not our place to deny a Holocaust survivor his analogy, nor his recognition of the commonalities between Holocaust survivors and later survivors of oppression or abuse for whom he wrote. That kind of suffering is a difficult to understand, seemingly relentless, uncontrollable and fruitless suffering that can lead one to consider suicide and the effects of which are still felt years later. It is not unique or exclusive to Holocaust, homophobic oppression or sexual and physical abuse survivors, though there most surely are unique and exclusive aspects to Holocaust, gay and abuse survival experiences.

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  6. All my grandparents were in the holocaust and have since led healthy lives with many children and grandchildren.

    The Holocaust ended in 1945. People have had the time to deal with the trauma and stress; the abuse of a child and adult can go on their entire life without reprieve. It may in fact be worse on an individual level.

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  7. Frum, Gay and Married - we can agree to disagree about bringing the Holocaust into this, but please know all the while, I empathize with the pain you are going through and hope that it gets better for you.

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  8. Thirty years ago, I drank a chocolate milkshake with my pork sausage hero sandwich on Passover. Truly a shonda.

    I looked very Jewish then and look even more Jewish now in my 50's. I work in Times Square. Weekly, sometimes daily, strangers ask me where's the nearest kosher restaurant. I cannot help but be perceived as Jewish, and many assume I am, at the least, Conservadox. I'm not, but I'm aware -- which is why some of my Orthodox co-workers years ago would say to me, "You're going to Hell, you know".

    To some of the Black Hat Orthodox and to some of the Mitnagdim, you're not Orthodox. Based upon how you were brought up, in your own words, you're not Orthodox.

    Outside of Boro Park, Crown Heights, Williamsburg, and Kiryas Joel, you're Orthodox. When it becomes automatic NOT to daven Shacharit, Mincha, and Ma'ariv, you may no longer be Orthodox. When you eat out traif all the time, you may no longer be Orthodox.

    Even if you do leave Orthodoxy, the good works you've already done suggest that you may be a Tzaddik. Quoting Emerson, not Mishna, "God will not have his work made manifest by cowards". Gay and Orthodox, you evince courage every day. May God bless you to keep on keeping on.

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  9. If you are halachicly Jewish, are shomer Shabat, and have a kosher home, you are part of the Orthodox community. No matter what you call yourself. And no matter what anyone else says. Period.

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  10. so what of gay guys who were brought up in reform/liberal Judaism, or wanted to convert from where ever but cannot Precisely because they are GAY..?
    It is almost as if we view our Jewish identity as an esoteric bit of interesting culture. What if people want God as much as they want to be out..
    How long are we not going to look at the whole picture about being gay and Jewish/Jewish and gay

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  11. Greetings! Do you have personal pages in online social media websites?

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