Kellen Kaiser was raised by two lesbian couples in the San Francisco Bay Area, as she recounts in her new memoir, Queerspawn in Love. But the book also focuses on a romance that began when she was in college, and a former Hebrew school classmate—a young man named Lior who’d made aliyah and joined the IDF—returned home on leave. In this excerpt, Kaiser goes to visit Lior during a particularly tense time in Israel.
Lior and I decided I’d come to Israel for the summer of 2002, despite all the violence. My friend Jenny’s parents forbade her to come with me. My youth movement had also canceled their yearly six-week trip. I seemed to be the only one stupid enough to go.
The spate of shootings and bombings in downtown Jerusalem didn’t faze me; neither did spending thousands of dollars and making my family, little brother included, worried sick. I was steadfast, resolute, impervious.
Throughout the 17-hour flight to Israel, I imagined all the time I would get to spend with him and went over the quickly devised rules my parents’ had given me about where I was allowed to go in Israel and how I might get there.
Though I had shaved my legs before boarding, by the time we landed there was stubble. My attempts to refresh myself were limited to what one might accomplish in an airplane bathroom.
When security finished questioning me, I searched the airport for Lior, my hair already messy from having shoved my way past people in an attempt to reach him quicker. Then there he was. The buzz cut, the soft-framed eyes that scanned the passengers looking for me, eyes that matched his uniform as they took me in.
“Hey there, beautiful.”
The drive home was thick with our physical need for one another. I couldn’t wait to tug on his chest hair, breathe in his scent, and taste the salt of his dried sweat.
In his apartment, the fans worked their heavy rotations over where we were tangled in the sheets.
“I can’t wait to wake up next to you semi-regularly,” I murmured, as if the word “semi-regularly” could possibly be romantic. “Have I told you lately that you are perfect?”
He shook his head to say both, “No, you haven’t” and “Come on, now.”
“I don’t need anything but you to entertain me,” I insisted.
He nodded and ran his hand over my hair. “I agree,” he said. “I think we could have fun in a cardboard box.”
We fucked until our parts were too sore to continue. And there were no bombings on my first night there this time. Thank God for the little things, I thought. It was fun to seduce him, to convince his tired body it was worth the effort. His desire transformed my self-esteem. If I never left this bed again, it would be all right.
Only upon the third day’s arrival did I realize, with a shock, what the drill was going to be: He would leave me for five days a week. I’d wait for him to come home on the weekends. And on some weekends, he didn’t even do that.
Our routine for his departure also took getting used to. The new Jerusalem bus station was bright and shiny, with metal detectors at each door. Every Sunday morning, a rush of soldiers flowed through those doors to go back to the army, Lior among them. After a kiss good-bye, he’d join the churning sea of army green, hundreds of young people pushing onto the buses. I’d turn away and board a cab instead of a bus of my own.
I was “allowed” to take buses that went from city to city but was told by Lior’s family to avoid the ones that operated within Jerusalem itself, because they were the ones more frequently blown up. I bent the rules one day midweek and took a bus to the mall—a bustling place that was itself replete with metal detectors at the entrances. The next morning that same bus line was blown up at 8:00 a.m., full of schoolchildren.
You never get used to something like that.
There is a particular aloneness that one feels upon moving to a new city. I was not used to living by myself, having been raised with constant companionship: four mothers providing for my every need. But each time Lior went back to the army, it was just me and his things.
How strange it was to prepare to go to sleep in his bed, and to then wake twisted in his sheets, without him beside me. Daily, listening to the hollow click of my tongue on the top of my teeth, as I tasted my morning breath, I had to overcome my desire to languish in the heat and stare at the trees outside. These lazy days were punctuated by the sounds of cats fighting outside, as they poured through the garbage like rats do in New York City, I touched Lior’s clothes in the closet. Smelled him on them. His laundry soap. His scent.
The small space seemed vast and quiet. I roamed the apartment looking for distractions, making lists of tasks I needed to get done. Get up, make breakfast, maybe if I was lucky there would be some missing ingredient and I’d have an excuse to walk to the shuk, where I might buy hummus, peppers, pita, olives, cheese, or chocolate rugelach as a treat, and see people in the outside world.
On the street, people were routinely going about their lives, whereas I, surrounded by all the foreign languages and exotic smells, felt like I’d been dropped into someone else’s life entirely. I would listen in on strangers’ conversations in Hebrew and, based on facial gestures, imagine what was being discussed: You wouldn’t believe what she said to me…
Being there without Lior made me feel very grown up; after all, I was turning 21 that summer, across the world from everything I knew. A kept woman in a Jerusalem apartment, I didn’t have to work. I could stroll through the streets of the world’s holiest of cities at will. In my lonelier moments, this freedom would fill me with a pride that, to some measure, made up for the hardship I’d undertaken for the summer. (Let’s be honest. It wasn’t that hard. What did I know of suffering?) Nonetheless, at least weekly I called someone I knew well to chat, check in, have a chance to say how much I really cared.
“I’m in Jerusalem, but I really miss you!”
Cody, thousands of miles away, snorted at my affection.
“How’s the weather in New York these days? What are people wearing?” I inquired.
“It’s fine. You’ve been gone all of three weeks, for Christ’s sake. Everyone is wearing the same things,” Cody said.
“Well, here it’s super hot, but Jerusalem is just not a town where you can rock booty shorts, if you know what I mean.”
She couldn’t have known what a lifeline that was to me, discussing the mundane with someone who knew me.
Late on Friday nights, I felt like Sleeping Beauty, waiting for Lior’s touch to awaken me. After the slip of the lock on the front door, the light would turn on, and my eyes would pry open slightly to see him drop his heavy pack and gun to the floor. Roused from my half-dream state, I’d watch as he checked the gun and stored the ammo separately, then came to the bedside to begin his undressing routine, the first button of his green pants already undone. By the time he was naked, I was fully awake.
“Hey there,” I’d whisper. “Welcome back.”
In the morning, when the sun spread through the curtains, we’d lie in bed intertwined or read the paper with my head tucked against his chest and his arm around me. We’d sleep in late and only leave the house to visit with family or go to movies at the mall.
It was heaven.
More than once, I waited all week for Lior only to be told that he was not coming home, that it would be another seven days. It felt like being thirsty and having water offered and then rescinded. The situation made me very selfish. When the bombing of a bus in Megiddo, the biblically determined inception point for the apocalypse, killed 17 people on June 5, my first thought was What? Now he’ll be sent to fight in the territories instead of coming home for the weekend. How unfair! Compassion for the dead and their families seeped in bashfully only after.
One Saturday afternoon, without Lior home, I wandered the verboten downtown, unable to resist a taste of the forbidden (after a rash of recent shootings, the official word was that it was unadvisable to go without armed guard). I’ve never been great at following rules. The sidewalks edging the sand-colored stone buildings were largely empty. When Lior was home on the weekends and we went out together, he wore his gun even when he went out without his uniform. Alone, I had no such protection.
Across the street from me, a man was walking in the opposite direction, clearly in town visiting from the shtachim, the occupied territories. He had the knit kippa and ragged peyes of a settler. A modern cowboy on Jerusalem’s lonely streets, he had his M16 slung against his back, two handguns at his side, and a knife strapped to his boot. He seemed a more apocalyptic sign than any I’d seen. I wasn’t sure if I should feel safer with him around, guns or no guns. He looked like a character from a video game. I’d might have been playing back home with Cody if none of this had ever happened.
The weekends the army kept Lior I visited his family, splitting my time between his divorced aunt and uncle’s houses as he did, feeling like a foster child in each. They were nice to me but they were not mine.
“How are things going for you?” Aunt Barbara asked me when I was in her home. “Do you want more broccoli kugel?”
She offered me the kugel dish before I had a chance to answer either question. Often the dinner conversation was all in Hebrew. They’d remind each other to speak in English, and then quickly slip back into their preferred language, occasionally translating certain words, but usually the simple ones I already knew. They’d say what was, to me, a string of nonsense and then translate, “You know shel, it means ‘of’?”
Meanwhile, on the TV, which they kept playing in the living room as we ate, the news showed the army’s progress through some shell-shocked Palestinian town and then split to a commercial in Hebrew with a catchy jingle.
One day, Lior’s cousin Hadassah piped up that she’d seen me on the street and recognized me by the way I walked. “You had such a spring in your step,” she said. “You were clearly not from here.”
Despite my sense of melancholy, I stuck out like a bouncy sore thumb in tense Jerusalem. I smiled too much, laughed too loud for the bleak atmosphere the city was coated with that summer.
After the meals at the uncle’s house we “benched,” which means we said the Birkat Hamazon, the post-meal prayer, which I only vaguely knew the words to since it’s said in Conservative and Orthodox homes but not in Reform households like mine.
I mumbled the words under my breath, catching the tail ends of most of them, self-conscious about my technical non-Jewishness. It was different in Israel. Back in California, I was the most Jewish person most of my friends knew. Here, I didn’t rank in the top one million, if I ranked at all. I knew Lior wanted me to convert officially. See, although I do have a Jewish mother, Kyree, she is not the one who bore me. My biological mom is Nyna, the blonde Southerner, and even though Nyna is the one always dragging us to synagogue, here that gets me nowhere. Also useless is the fact that the guy she chose to sleep with was Jewish. Thanks to Jewish law, that’s not what counts. As per usual, I’m half in, half out of the box.
I thought back to my bat mitzvah. After having not spoken with my dad for seven years, I decided at 13 to extend an invitation for him to read an aliyah as part of the ceremony. I figured it made sense since he was the reason Nyna had raised me a Jew. He was even a Cohen, whether or not that status officially trickled down to me. But his experience of Judaism and that of my raucous, celebratory, queer congregation bore little resemblance to one another. His was the only East Coast Yiddish pronunciation, all s’s at the end of words instead of the modern Hebrew t sound that strung the rest of the aliyot together. He said “Nasan lanu” instead of “Natan lanu” and “Nosein” instead of “Notein.” Up on the bimah, looking more stereotypically Jewish than the rabbi, he looked pasted onto the scene, cut out from some other service.
Pre- and post-bat mitzvah, I had attended Sunday school and then after-school Torah study and my Zionist summer camp, and now I was working for Hillel, all the time knowing I didn’t fully count—although, thanks to the varied branches of Judaism, it did depend on whom you asked. I’d be welcome to move to Israel, under the law of return, since they base that on the Holocaust-era Nuremberg qualifications, which I fit under thanks to my biological dad. But I still wouldn’t be considered legally Jewish if I lived there, since that’s decided by the religious establishment.
In my conversations with Lior’s family, we commiserated over the unfortunate power the ultra-Orthodox wield in Israeli government. Lior’s uncle was a Conservative rabbi, and in Israel this is less respected than it is in the States.
In the United States there is a rainbow of types of Jews: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist. In Israel, it’s more black and white. You are either Orthodox or not. If not, perhaps you were raised religiously, and so then you are at least traditional, but that’s still seen as a downgrade rather than a legitimate choice. Conservative Judaism in America is pretty religious. In Israel it’s considered a poor excuse. So Lior’s family got my situation’s absurdity, but then again they didn’t—not really.
“So why didn’t your mother just convert?” they asked me when somehow we became entangled in another discussion of my religious status.
I shrugged and said that my biological mother, Nyna, while Jewish enough in practice, refused to convert on the basis of not wanting to give up her other Gods. How crazy must I have sounded when I explained that? I didn’t mention Lior’s recent concession to my multifaceted spirituality: he’d started carrying around a piece of jet, a feather-light black stone that my mom’s witchy friend had blessed for him, even though he insisted the religious guys in his unit would flip if they knew he was smuggling pagan amulets.
Excerpted from Queerspawn in Love: A Memoir, Copyright © 2016 by Kellen Kaiser, published by She Writes Press.
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