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Jeff Leavell

On Becoming Jewish-ish

Here are a few basic facts about me:

1. I am gay.

2. I was a heroin addict. I now have 7 1/2 years sober.

3. I have been a prostitute.

4. I have had sex with easily over five hundred men.

5. I have stolen, lied, and willingly and openly caused pain to others.

6. I have always felt unbearably alone, while at the same time I have always known that God was with me.

7. I have always believed that I was capable of being more than who I was.

8. No matter what, I always prayed. My whole life has been a non-stop dialogue with God.

9. And the most important thing of all: That I, like everyone else, no matter what I have done or who I am or have been, am redeemable and that God's love is completely unconditional.

There was nothing exceptional about me as a child. I was raised in Madison, New Jersey, a small, upper-middle to upper-class town just outside of New York City. I spent most my childhood trying to pretend I was from somewhere else. The rest of my childhood was spent at the library reading books and putting on "shows" for the patrons. A favorite show of mine was the "To be or not to be" speech from Hamlet. Another favorite was reciting Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabelle Lee." I would dress in all black with a long black cloak I found at a thrift store, and I would go into the children's reading room and perform my "shows."

I was raised without a religion, but with an acknowledgement of the religion of my father's parents. Baptists. Mostly, though, my childhood just seems sad to me. I was lonely, I was different and I felt lost.

It wasn't until my brother married a Jewish girl that it was brought to our attention that actually, by default, by some bizarre Jewish rule, my brother and I were Jews. Through lineage. Through my mother's mother's mother. Through Jacob Grossman and Jenni Nodelman. Through Sadie Whatley and Sadie Barber. Through Beverly Leavell.

My brother, Damon Leavell, married Ariel Ellman. They had an Orthodox wedding and I was the best man. It was the second time in my life I've ever worn a yarmulke. The first time was when I went to a funeral with a friend of mine from high school. I had the biggest crush on him. Now he's dead. OD'd. So, I was the best man at my brother's wedding and I was wearing my yarmulke and my boyfriend at the time was Jewish and I had recently found out that I too was Jewish. Ish. Sort of.

The wedding was steeped in some kind of magical realism that I couldn't explain to anyone at the time. I watched those boys -- I have to admit that I fetish-ized all those Chabadniks with their peyos and tzitzis –- and I felt a kind of connection. I know that might sound crazy, maybe even delusional, but I did. I saw them and I wanted something from them. I didn't know what it was. I even sexualized them. I loved dancing with them, and my boyfriend and I were asked to join with them in a Minyon. They took the time to explain the prayers we would be saying, and what they meant in English, and then how to pronounce them in Hebrew. I was amazed at how open and willing they were to include us, even though we were gay. I even went so far as to tell the Rabbi I was gay, and that before I prayed with them I wanted to know if that was going to be a problem. He told me that as long as I was Jewish, he had no problems. I now know it isn't really as simple as that, but I also know that it also isn't much more complicated than that.

After the wedding I didn't pursue my Jewish identity, but I liked saying I was Jewish. I felt Jewish. By that I mean that in me was a desire to be with God. Always. I don't know if that's how others would describe being Jewish, but it is my definition. I believe that my whole life has been a journey towards God. To finding a way to connect with that thing, that identity that is God, in a way that is straightforward, honest, and pure. So much of my life has been about pain, about the hurt and the wanting. I wanted so many things, that I never saw what was right there. I never saw the way shadows and light fell across my ceiling, or the way the lights of the far off Veranzano Narrows Bridge looked like dancers against the night sky. I never saw any of it, because I was so busy asking God for help.

Moving to Los Angeles was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I moved here with my boyfriend -- the Jewish one from my brother's wedding -- and within three weeks broke up with him. I found a dying man while hiking in Griffith Park. He died while I sat there, holding his dog and praying over and over to God that everything would be all right. Before I prayed and held the dog, I called over the edge of the mountain for help, and someone answered. I didn't know what I meant by all right. Just that everything would be okay. The man died. The paramedics arrived, and I stood around holding the dog. I have no idea if that's all right, but it's what happened.

I quit my first LA job, working as the guy who takes out the garbage for guys who work as editors of a now failed gay magazine -- my official title was Assistant Editor. I then went to work as a driver for a production company, but got fired, got a bunch of other jobs and quit, until somehow I ended up working for a non-profit juvenile facility in the Valley. I started out as an administrative assistant to the director of family services, and ended up being a case manager for adolescent boys who were placed in the facility for a variety of behavior problems, gang affiliation, and drug use. Most of the kids I worked with were either placed by probation or the Department of Children and Family Services.

I think I first began to truly understand who God was, beyond my own selfish wants and needs, when I worked with those kids at the juvenile facility. It wasn't that I saw any huge miracles occur -- in reality most of the kids failed, by the program's standards. If they completed even half of the year they were supposed to, they usually went back to the same life that had brought them in. Many of them ran away from the facility, got high while there, stole, lied, all the things we drug addicts do. But what I did learn was that regardless of all their failings and all their "wrong doings," I loved them.

Around June of 2003 I got rid of my TV, became obsessed with a boy across the street who would stand in his window and watch me, and I started reading the Bible -- the New Testament, because I thought as a writer I should know it.

The more I read the bible the more I thought I was being watched, and not just by the cute boy across the street. It was like the Bible was causing a bizarre paranoid reaction in me. I decided I should start with the old testament instead of jumping ahead. I was reading from the New International Version, "Words of Christ in Red Letter". The red letters really freaked me out. I spent hours pondering Genesis Book 6, because I wanted to know who the "sons of God" were and who the Nephillim were. The "Three Visitors" in book 18 also caused me hours of pondering. I couldn't reconcile the God of the Bible with the God I knew in my heart, so I focused on almost alien-like aspects of the Bible. Anything that talked about angels and visitations obsessed me. I started reading Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil to supplement my biblical readings.

Through June and July of that year, my obsessions with being watched, doing little "shows" for the guy across the street, and angels and God and philosophy grew. I was also cruising the parks a lot. Here is a quote from my journal on July 15th -- And with a darkness reminiscent of has been all about dick! I fucked an older latino with a nice fat dick, then this 23 year old named E who was fucking hot and wants to meet again so I can fuck him, then I hooked up with this kid named Alex, he said he was twenty, we sucked each other off for a few moments then he moved on. M wants to come over and cuddle tonight. I'm just not in that space. Maybe it's the heat, but I've been so distracted lately -- I can't even write. All I want to do is go to Echo Park and cruise the hills and bushes. I'm in high predatory mode. I want to wake up tomorrow and spend all day at the park sucking uncut dicks and fucking hot asses. It's an obsession. Is it the heat or addiction? I've called the local Chabad and I have an appointment with the Rabbi. We're meeting at Starbucks. I'm going to tell him I'm gay. I think it's important he knows that right away. I'm also not going to read the Christian Bible anymore. It's freaking me out. August 31st is my next real entry. It reads, I'm going to Chabad to do Tefillin with the Rabbi. I kind of think that God is evolving. Like through his relationship to us he has evolved, growing, and maybe that is why he needed to have us. I mean, why else would we be? We exist so that he can exist and grow. We all grow and learn through this relationship.

Within six weeks my whole focus changed. I'm not going to say that I went to meet the Rabbi and never cruised a park again, because that would be a lie, but in between all my human-like obsessions, I had found something new, and much of my time was spent trying to reconcile the God I was now learning about and the God I had always known.

My first meeting with the Rabbi from the local Chabad was at Starbucks in Los Feliz. I was nervous. I didn't know what to wear so I went with LA casual: khaki shorts, a light blue T and sandals. I knew immediately who he was when he walked in. He stood out, dressed all in black with his black hat and big beard, the tzizis hanging from his shirt. He smiled at me right away. We talked for about an hour. I wanted to know about sin. I wanted to know about evil and about hell. He wanted to talk about other things, easier things, but he explained to me that sin and evil, these weren't things he was so concerned with. He told me that for each man's sins another mans good deeds, or mitzvah's, would be there as a counterbalance. He never really told me about hell or evil.

I told him I was gay. He was good at not reacting, just smiling, the face of total acceptance, and in his way, as much as he was capable, he was totally accepting. He said that in this neighborhood I shouldn't think I am the only gay person he has come to meet. He told me that he has shown the movie Trembling Before G-d at Chabad, and held discussions on it. I was glad to hear this, but what about sin? Did he believe it was a sin? Would I go to hell for it? He told me that he believed that God must love me so much to give me such a big struggle to overcome. That he believed that God must know how strong I was to be able to handle being gay. He told me that he could not judge me negatively, only favorably with love, and that no Jew should ever judge another Jew any other way. That was good enough for me.

In my mind, I created a way to accept what I had been told. I believed it was acceptance, and in many ways it was. He did tell me that if his son were gay, he would believe that it was something that his son could overcome, and he would do everything in his power to help him overcome it. I had a hard time with that, but was able to overlook it. I did say a little prayer that his son wouldn't be gay. Being gay was easy as far as I was concerned, but having to overcome it, having to live with knowing your father couldn't really accept it, that would have been hard.

The Rabbi asked me to come with him to the Chabad to do Tefillin. I had no idea what he meant, but I was up for anything. I was mesmerized. I told him a little about my family situation, how my brother and I had not been raised Jewish, and that even though my mother was Jewish, she was raised more Christian than anything else. He told me a story about a Rabbi in Russia a long time ago. The Christians in the neighboring villages were offering money for every Jew who converted to Christianity. This Rabbi spent two days going from village to village, converting. He made enough money in those two days to support his family for a year. I remember the way the Rabbi smiled as he told this story, his eyes gleaming, like it were the greatest tale ever told.

"You can hold a Jew upside down and shake them, you can baptize them a hundred times, you can take them far away from their people, into slavery and foreign lands, and deny them access to their religion, but they are always a Jew."

The light of God. In my soul. A tiny flame burning always. Never to be put out. That which separates us. God created us with a piece of him.

So I was in. Access guaranteed.

But what about all the first-born Egytian babies? I mean, if I'm reading the text right, every time the Pharaoh, who probably wasn't a good man, was about to acquiesce, God would "harden the Pharaoh's heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt." (Exodus, 7.3) I see punishing the Pharaoh, even all the Egytians who treated the Jews wrong, but what about the babies who were born? Why them? And why not just let it all be? Why did God have to show his many wonders by killing the Pharaoh and his armies at the Sea of Reeds? Because my God, the one I talked to all those nights while fiending for dope, he wasn't like that. And I don't think it was just because I had the spark of light, the Godly soul. I don't think it is because I am Jewish...ish.

But then I haven't read the whole thing yet. I'm just up the point where God is telling everyone all his rules, and how little the life of a slave is worth. Maybe later on I'll figure out why all those people died, right?

I went to see the Chabad Rabbi almost every day. We would do Tefillin, and he introduced me to a young Yeshiva student who was to help me learn. Mostly, we read a little and talked about life. He liked to listen to my stories, and I liked the way he smiled. Not in an overly sexual way, but he just smiled like all the things I was saying, my whole life, had never occurred to him. He once told me that I was the greatest miracle he had ever heard. And that this journey of mine, this "return" was beautiful. He was a good guy.

I had my Bar Mitzvah at the Chabad during Yom Kippur. I had no idea it was going to happen. I was taking a client from the juvenile facility out on a day pass, because his parents were too drunk to be there. We were going to go to the beach, but I told him that first I had to go to Shul to hear the Shofer being blown. My client was not Jewish, and he had no idea what I was talking about, but he was excited to check it out. I was nervous. I didn't know if I could bring him with me or not. I later found out bringing him was not a problem, but my leather shoes were. Who knew?

So they blow the shofer, and then I am called to Torah, son of Abraham, son of Beverly, I guess no longer son of Perry Leavell? I go up and I read, and then we all dance around the Torah and sing, and they throw rice at me, and then the Rabbi -- or did he do this first? I can't remember -- gave me my Hebrew name. Yosef. I wanted Yakov, because that was my great great grandfather's name. I had no idea who Yosef was, but the Rabbi seemed to think it was the perfect name, so I took it, promising to do the research later. I could always change names, right?

It would have been the perfect moment if the Rabbi hadn't asked me if C -- my client -- was Jewish, and if I hadn't lied and said yes. C was called to Torah, and only after having read it did he say he was Christian. But I still had my Bar Mitzvah, a new name, and a funny story to tell. When the Rabbi asked me why I had lied, I told him the client was Jewish but was "just trying to be difficult." Who knows if he believed me or not? The Rabbi was always amazingly generous when it came to my "idiosyncrasies," such as lying.

By that time I had a new boyfriend. Catholic. Mexican. Uncut. Very sexy. (We live together now). The Rabbi is very tolerant of this. He even told me to invite "my friend" to watch me put on Tefillin. I was going to have him wait in the car. I guess I'm the intolerant one. Rene -- the sexy, Catholic, Mexican, uncut boyfriend -- came with me to dinner at the Rabbi's for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. He thought all the Jewish boys were sexy and everyone was very nice. He even liked the food, once he got used to it. There were plenty of other gay men, and everyone was very accepting in an urban, Hollywood, kind of hip way. This is Los Feliz, by the way, not some remote village in the country. Gay men rule here.

But I wasn't having it. I was reading my Torah. I had bought all five books in the "MidRash Says". I had a copy of the transliterated "Siddur," and a book called "My Prayer" that would help me to understand the importance of it all. The Rabbi had even given me my own Tefillin -- which I still think I do wrong, when I do it. The problem is, there was the God with the "G-d," and then there was my God. The one who didn't care about dashes and Tefillin or any of it. Because it was just me and him. Me standing before him. Telling him. Everything. And loving him. So the two never reconciled. They couldn't. There was no way. I realized it one night, it was some time in September. I was reading all these emails from some Chabad place in Brooklyn. One in particular was about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the importance of repenting. For my sins. The importance of standing before God, dash or no dash, and saying I am sorry. For letting him down.

Letting him down? Had I let him down? Because I thought we were good. I thought it was all about unconditional acceptance and love and forgiveness, but then something happened. I was all alone in my apartment, sitting at my desk, reading this article online, and the tears came. Relentlessly. I knew what I had done. What I was doing. What I am still doing. I knew the way in which I had let God, no dash needed, down. By not loving myself. By not forgiving me. It was unbearable to me that maybe I had not been the friend to him that he had been to me. The weight of it was crushing. I stood up and I kept saying, through these almost choking sobs, that I am sorry. I am so sorry for what I have done to myself and the way I have behaved. To others. To me. To this life I have been given. Because that's it, isn't it? We have been given this life. This beautiful and glorious thing. This hugeness, this place of wonder and magic. And I had pissed all over it. Sometimes, even now, I am pissing all over it.

I began wearing my Yarmulke every day. Someone told me I shouldn't, because I was going to restaurants that weren't kosher, and it would give the wrong impression of someone who is truly "observant." I should have told that person -– it was at dinner during Sukkot at the Rabbi's house -- to fuck off. I was wearing it for two reasons -- because with it, the world knew I was Jewish, and because it served to remind me that God was there. Always. Every single moment and instant and event. No matter how big, little, or irrelevant. God was part of my life to such an extent that maybe saying he "was a part of" is the wrong way to say it. Maybe I should say that it served to remind me that God is my life.

At some point I stopped going to Chabad. I began to feel like it wasn't very accepting to say that my being gay was a sign of God's love because He (capitalizing because the Rabbi would) had chosen me to carry such a burden. What burden? What thing to overcome was this gay thing? God doesn't really care if I love a Catholic, uncut Mexican, does he? I hope not.

I found a Reform Synagogue named Beth Chayim Chadashim that I liked. They sang a lot, gay couples held hands, the Rabbi was a lesbian, there were straight people there with their kids. Some people called it "Jewish Light," but I didn't care. I don't care. Being Jewish isn't about that for me. I go to BCC to be with others who are in a similar pursuit. And some of them are. I am not in the pursuit of observing rules and regulations. I am not in the pursuit of anything short of returning myself to a condition of Godliness. And I don't mean that in a grandiose way. I mean that I believe that we are all here to make this place a beautiful and wondrous world. I give tzedaka. I try to smile and say hi. I try to be nice while driving. I try not to gossip, and I try to love my boyfriend, and I talk to God all day long. Who I fuck is not important to God. How I make love, well, I believe that might be important, but I'm not sure. What is important is that I do good things, right? That I am trying to be a good person.

What do I do with a God that has his representative say, "The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages."? (Exodus, 17.16) I did a Google search on Amalek (after doing a search on "Jesus as an alien" -- who knows what that was about, but it is fascinating what people believe). I came across a site that used this quote as justification to perform genocide on the "Arab peoples". The Amalekites, I learned, are the descendants of Aisav, Jacob's brother. They had sworn to destroy the Jews to gain vengeance on Jacob's stealing Aisav's birthright.

I love reading the Torah. I love learning, and I even find that through the reading, through the studying, through the constant struggle to understand and to come to terms with all the multiplicities and contradictions, that I find a peace. That I find myself thinking about God. Always. And that is the greatest gift I could ask for. But I can't accept that God is at war. I accept that we are at war, and I might even say that the fact that we fight each other is just a representation of God's own inner struggles, but this isn't the place to argue that. At least not yet.

I believe it is trite to say that God is love. It is limiting and narrow. But I also believe it might be true. What do we do with Hitler? What do we do with Charlie Manson and the Pharaoh and the kids I work with and the guys who killed Matthew Shephard, and Al Queda, and George Bush, and all the people who do all the things that seem to tear down any semblance of beauty that could ever hope to exist? What does God do with them? No one has answered my questions about sin and hell. So I'm going to answer them myself. This is what I do, I feel compassion. I feel empathy. And when I don't, I pray to feel these things. I pray to be as generous with my kindness as possible. It doesn't change what has to happen. It doesn't stop the need to kill or to go to war or to do all the things we do, but maybe if we looked at our enemies a little kinder, maybe if we realized that regardless of how the world looks to us, that God would be taking us all. That in the end, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, Hitler, and Charlies, all the monsters and angels, all of us, would be making the return to that which we came. That sin and hell, that redemption and love, the wondrous beauty of life, all these things were the struggles we lived, whether we overcome them or not. And maybe we come back. Maybe we keep fighting the fight till finally we lose and can admit that in the end, it's just God's love. For whatever it's worth.

So I have my best friend. And he doesn't come into conflict with the songs and the prayers and the readings. He just isn't always the same God those things are talking about. And that's okay. It doesn't make me less or more Jewish. I've begun to light the candles on Shabbos. I have been back to Chabad. I plan to cook my first Passover dinner, and invite a whole bunch of non-Jews to come eat. Even the uncut ones. I gave up eating pork, and consider what it means to eat kosher. I don't wear my yarmulke every day, but I think about it. I have made a commitment, no matter how many times I fail or fall down, to be with God all day long. To think of him and to remember. Even when it all seems pointless and meaningless and ugly. The world is larger and more beautiful because of this. The hole I tried to fill with heroin and the non-stop fucking and sucking at the parks, the emptiness and the wanting, are slowly being filled by something bigger than I had imagined.

©2004 by Jeff Leavell

After growing up in New Jersey and New York City, Jeff Leavall moved to California. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he work as a case manager with gay homeless youth. He received his B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, and will be enrolled in Antioch’s MFA program this year.

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