I often believe that Yom Kippur falls at exactly the right moment in one’s life each year. Five years ago Yom Kippur fell a week before my fiftieth birthday. At that moment, exiled in Washington, D.C., after Hurricane Katrina, I had to help my family survive our evacuation. Last year, a few weeks before Yom Kippur, our rabbi, Alexis Berk of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans, had a meeting at Jeff and Mark’s (my co-parents) house, to discuss what the synagogue could do in order to become more gay-friendly. Rabbi Berk mentioned that she wanted to speak in support of gay marriage during the high holidays, but she had not decided whether or not she would. We can be liberal in our warm, family-oriented synagogue in New Orleans, but we are not San Francisco or New York or even Chicago.
In what seemed like a completely unrelated event, one of my best friend’s sons, a kind and talented seventeen-year-old boy, was hospitalized for anorexia a few days before Yom Kippur. He had been fighting this largely misunderstood disease since he was ten years old. Having anorexia is having a constant voice in your head that tells you not to eat this or that: You are fat. You are ugly. Exercise. It takes different forms for different people, but it always tortures the soul of the person who has to live with it. It tears families apart as they watch their loved ones, often children, starve before their eyes. Families suffer in silence.
The day before Yom Kippur, his mother wrote that she was unable to move forward and that she needed my help. She needed me to write to her son, whom I had known since birth. I began immediately writing a letter, but let it sit over the Yom Kippur weekend. I thought about him at services all day. As I read Yom Kippur liturgy—about how the gates are open now and that we should not wait until tomorrow—I wanted to go home immediately and send him the letter. But I knew that the right time would come.
The morning of Yom Kippur, when I dressed for synagogue, I decided to wear the tallis that my co-parents and my son had bought for me in Israel the year before. Rabbi Berk’s Rosh Hashanah lectures—great as they were—were not the ones I had hoped to hear. So I resigned myself that most likely Rabbi Berk would not be able to speak out in support of gay marriage on the holiest day of the year. Subconsciously, though, I must have felt differently. I wanted to wear the tallis as a symbol of coming out not just as gay, but also as a spiritual Jewish woman. This exquisitely woven tallis was sitting on my mantel for months, but I had never worn it at synagogue. One of my friends told me: “It is not that I am not a feminist; it is just that men wear tallit and yarmulkes and that is the tradition.” If that were true, that this was the prayer shawl for men only, then who better to wear it then a lesbian? “Lesbians have been cross-dressing for years,” I thought. We were the first to break the dress codes at many points in history. I did find on Google that, in fact, the Torah does not delineate whether only men or women can wear the tallis (not that that would have stopped me). I took the beautiful blue, orange, red, and purple tallis under my arm, and carried it to synagogue.
The moment I put the tallis around my shoulders, my service started. Immediately, I was taken up in the embrace of the rich cloth, the whole texture, the weave of my life, my family, the renewal of New Orleans. As soon as I felt the cloth on my shoulders, and the fringes between my fingers, I knew that the tallit is for both men and women. As I sat there, I felt every bit a woman, a beautiful Jewish woman in a beautiful Jewish tallis. I was in the deepest prayerful state I had been in for years. I also knew that the knots at the end of my tallis, the tzitzit, made me think not necessarily about abiding every one of the 613 Mitzvot, most of them quite antiquated, but instead about the rich history of my people, and the deep threads that bind me.
One of the threads led me directly to thoughts of my father, Albert Mark, who died soon after Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2006. He was an extraordinary man. He was raised in the Orthodox movement, but having lost both parents at the tender ages of ten and fifteen, he became rebellious toward organized religion. He may have left organized religion behind, but he was spiritually and culturally Jewish until the day he died. He lived a fascinating life, full of mitzvot. His friends were like the knots on his shawl, and he supported every one of those he loved. He cheered on his four children, whom he called by his own made-up Yiddish/Russian nicknames: Carlsbad, Katarina, Rivkahla, and Andruskala. My only regret—and it was an odd one—was that we had not wrapped him in a tachrichim. He was not observant, but in my grief, I wished, as I touched the fringe of the tallis, for the comfort of the burial cloth.
In the rabbi’s lecture this Yom Kippur morning, she began by mentioning the Civil Rights Movement and the terrible exhibits that she and last year’s confirmation class had seen in Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery. She talked about the horror of the exhibit of the black and white water fountains and wondered what contemporary exhibits of bigotry we would look back on centuries from now. I whispered to Mark: “She is going to come out in support of gay marriage. She is leading up to it.” And Mark nodded “Yes.”
At that moment, Rabbi Berk started talking about the hatred against gay people that spilled all over the web. And my heart just stood still. I did not expect this reaction. Gay people have been out in synagogues all over the world for four decades. I am fifty-six and I personally have been openly gay for thirty years. But this was my Rabbi, in New Orleans, with my family.
The rabbi said that someday, many years from now, we will look back and be embarrassed about this country’s response to gay marriage, and she did not stop there. At that moment I saw the two lesbians who had been at Touro for as long as we had and they were crying. The rabbi continued. She promised to conduct gay marriages. She went on to say how impossible it would be to do everything exactly as it is written in the Torah, giving poignant and funny examples. She was strong, powerful, and political. I too started to cry. My teenage son didn’t hush me. He showed absolute respect. I knew that this public recognition of gay people’s lives was a moment I had been waiting for my whole life. I was so deeply grateful that it was Yom Kippur and appreciative to have the tallis over my shoulders.
I gave thanks to the rabbi and decided to stay in the synagogue for the entirety of the day. From the meditation and singing service, we moved to the chapel for the rabbi’s afternoon study group. We were reading the Torah portion that tells the story of Jonah. The rabbi led us away from conventional readings by pointing out the complexity of making the hero a disgruntled teenager who falls asleep in the hold of the boat going in the wrong direction, rather than initially acting on God’s commandment to warn the people of Nineveh that they should stop their evil ways or else risk being overthrown. Of course we all know the story: Jonah is thrown overboard after he confesses that he is the cause of the storm, he is swallowed by a big fish, and returns to follow God’s commandment and warn the people of Nineva. They repent instantly as if they are just waiting for him to come.
It seems that God is not as concerned about the Ninevites as God is about Jonah. God knows that something is missing in Jonah’s life. Throughout the reading, Jonah repeatedly says, “Let me die” and, “Throw me overboard.” All of a sudden, like a rushing in my ears, all I could see or hear was my friend’s child. He is nothing like Jonah, as he has a great big heart and loves so many people. But it was something else. I felt like we were both like the boy in the hold who was unable to wake up. I realized that in this passage, God is not the old white guy with the beard, whom I have never been able to pray to with any confidence. Instead, he is the concept of the Eternal. Not God, but life itself. L’chaim.
I heard my friend’s son’s voice saying: “I want to die. I want to die. I want to die.” What “God” was trying to teach Jonah was not complicated at all: simply to live, to live. In my friend’s son’s case, to live was not so simple. The disease was tenacious. But he did not have to learn how to explore the complexity of life all by himself. God did not need Jonah to warn the people of Ninevah. He could have found ways of doing that himself. But he did need to save Jonah. He did need to tell Jonah to stop wanting to die. He did need to show Jonah that, like the gourd that dies from the heat and can no longer provide shade, every living thing on earth has a purpose, needs nourishment, and deserves to live. To the eternal, your life is so important, so important that he will spend all this time helping one young man.
And then I knew what to say to my friend’s son: your life is so important to me that I will take all this time, all this time, feeling the four corners of the knotted shawl to make sure that I remember not all 613 rules of mitzvot, but the greatest mitzvot of all: the 613 ways I have learned how to say: “Live. Please stay alive because I love you. We hold your life precious. I will teach you to cherish life. Open the gates and help us help you open yourself to life.”
Little did I know that just a few weeks later, as I wrote this article, we would be mourning the lives of Asher Brown and Tyler Clementi, who took their own lives because they were bullied about being gay. Little did I know that each day the newspaper would print a picture of another child who took his or her own life because they could not stand the pain of being harassed. As a gay rights elder, as a member of the gay community for thirty years, I feel that we had failed our children. How could we not call them to us, and let them know that each of their lives is so precious? How could we not have made sure that hate and bullying laws were enforced, that gay rights education classes were taught in every school in this country?
Today in New Orleans we are healing from hurricanes, but stray bullets are still killing African American children in our city. A young two-year-old boy named Jeremy Galmon died from a gunshot wound in New Orleans last year while sitting in a car with his grandmother. Charles Sawyer was a fifteen-year-old who went to our neighborhood school. He was shot and killed on February 5, 2010, while waiting for a school bus. Were we asleep in the hold of the ship going the wrong way? How could we have let these young boys die?
By the afternoon of Yom Kippur, as our fast wore down and the sun was beginning to set, I could feel the presence of life all around us. That day I prayed for my friend’s son. Today during the period of the high holidays, he is starting his first year in college. He is alive. Today I pray for all our sons.
Dear God, let him live. Let them live, show them how to live. For once I can actually turn to God and pray fully because for me at least, God, I suspect that you are nothing less than life on this fragile planet. Life in all its forms. Gourd. Cattle. People. L’chaim.
That evening I broke my fast and finished the letter to my friend’s son. In the letter, I told him that when I was his age I was suicidal because I was gay and did not know how to come out, and that if I had killed myself then, believing that I would never be able to have love, or a child, or a fulfilling life, I would have missed so very much.
Never did I believe that I would be sitting next to my remarkable son, and never, never did I dream that a young rabbi, almost half my age, would be brave enough to speak words of truth to a synagogue in Louisiana that would give me faith in humanity, and remind me to wear the tallis to treasure the fabric of life, and to struggle to make sure no one falls through its meshes. L’chaim.
Click here to read the sermon this article references.