Last night I was working at our local co-op market. The crowd there is pretty diverse — Hasidic Jews, Caribbean immigrants, Park Slope people with $50 t-shirts (ironic, baby, ironic!)…and anyone else in search of good, cheap food. Once a month, I wait in front of the store in a loud orange vest and carry people’s groceries. Sometimes you get some good conversations. Other times, you can’t believe the people you’re talking to.
It was almost the end of my shift. An woman in her late 60s showed up (danger, my mind flashed, slow walker) asking for an escort to the subway station (another danger sign: it’s 15 minutes away). I smiled and said sure. She was an old black woman with one of those hairdos that is frozen into place and pastel pink church clothes. It turned out that she lived a block or two away from me.
We made conversation for a few minutes, and I could tell she was gunning up to ask me something. (When you’ve got a beard and sidelocks and a t-shirt, it’s only a matter of time until people ask, in one phrasing or another, what’s up with you.) She prefaced it: “Now, don’t feel you have to answer this…”
Oh, boy. This was going to be a good one.
She told me how she was a God-fearing, church-going woman, and she believed in every word of the Bible (“Old and New,” she said). And she didn’t think homosexuality was right. But what, she asked me, do I think about that man in the homosexual club?
“The gay club murders, you mean?” I said. “In Tel Aviv?”
She nodded. “I mean, I know those people have it comin’,” she said. “But that thing that happened, it just seems…wrong.”
This next part, I don’t understand at all. I could have told her how some of the holiest people I know are gay; how the most devout Christian I’ve ever met was a gay man who believes that Jesus made him gay as one more way of accentuating how we’ll never truly understand the mysteries of Creation, and how one of the most Godly books that’s been written this generation, Wrestling with God and Men, is about the incomparable onus of being queer and religious, and was written by Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi and a gay man. Or I could just tell her how I helped start the straight-gay alliance in my high school and how a group of tranny boys showed me that being a man was okay (or just showed her the book I wrote about it).
But I didn’t.
Instead, I said, “Of course it’s wrong — it’s just as wrong as opening fire on people because they’re spending money on the Sabbath or wearing the wrong color of clothes.” I told her I believed that God made everyone the way they are for a reason, and it’s not up to any of us to try and decide what that reason is — it’s between them and God.”
She went “Mm-hmm” — that kind of conversational combination of amen and keep on talking that I learned about when I was doing fieldwork in college at black Baptist churches and haven’t heard anywhere else. “It’s like Sodom and Gomorrah,” she said. “People there were doin’ all kind of Lord knows what, and God took care of them. And I know that day’s coming, but I ain’t gonna be the one to tell ’em that. He told Abraham and his nephew to leave that city, and only after they left, God swept down the destruction.”
I said, “Who knows what God’s really thinking? God’s got an agenda. He didn’t put us down here to be the Angel of Death; He’s got angels for that. All He told us was to love our neighbors.”
He? Since when had I referred to God as He? And why was I agreeing with her?
At this point, my brain split up into a few parts. Part of me was freaked that she was asking me as a typical Orthodox Jew, and I was supposed to answer like some sort of spokesman or something. And then part of me saw it as a teaching opportunity, like I was undercover as a gay-people-supporter and I could subvert all her bigoted views and show her the One True Path.
And then there was a part of me that wasn’t being subversive at all, but was instead trying to reconcile my own personal beliefs about homosexuality — as a person — with the beliefs of everyone around me. And, perhaps, with the beliefs that I am supposed to hold.
And I realized, I’m kind of answering her truthfully. How do I know what God believes about gay people? How does anyone? For all I know, maybe God really did give the queer gene to certain people in order to test their willpower. That sure as hell doesn’t sound like the God I believe in — but, then again, I really firmly believe that God is both more powerful and more clever than anything that we give God credit for.
So, yeah — I didn’t say any of that to her. And she didn’t say much more to me — just took her bags from my hands, nodded like she agreed with me, and started to descend to the subway.
“I think you’re right,” she said. She’d stopped on the third step down, turned around, and cocked her head, that universal gesture of going into Deep Thought mode. “The Bible doesn’t say ‘Abraham destroyed the city of Sodom,’ it says that God did. I’m going to think about that.”
With that, she disappeared into the belly of the subway system, leaving me stunned and thinking. Of all the lessons I could have gotten from her, this was what I least expected: using texual analysis to combat hate — or, at least, to learn how to hate more lovingly.
She was absolutely right. Man, if she walked into the club in Tel Aviv, I bet she would’ve given those people a hug. And possibly taught them a thing or two about how to wear floral pastels.
And more illuminatingly, I think she hit upon the basic flaw of fundamentalists — or, at least, fundamentalists like the Tel Aviv gay club murderer: They really never read what the Bible actually says.
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.