When Lev Raphael’s debut story collection, Dancing on Tisha B’Av, was published 25 years ago, I was enthralled. For me, it was the first book of fiction that truly brought together my gay and Jewish identities. Reviewing the book for the Washington Blade, I called it “a dazzling collection of short fiction” and noted that it “ties together a dual identity into a cohesive and logical whole.”
What has stayed with me the most over the years was the very first story in the collection: the title story, which Tablet has republished today, just in time for Tisha B’Av. That story, in which a young gay man faces ostracism from his Orthodox minyan, had originally appeared in Shmate magazine in 1985, and was later included in Men on Men 2, a 1988 collection of gay short stories edited by George Stambolian.
“New American Library did not want this story in Men on Men 2 because it was too Jewish,” Raphael told me in a recent phone interview. “George never told me that until the book came out, and then he took me aside at an Outwrite conference and said that he fought very hard to keep the story in—which is ironic since that’s one of the stories that was singled out by reviewers as being one of the best in the collection.”
Raphael credits Stambolian with helping him shape the story, and punching up its ending. But the initial inspiration came from his own life. He recalled attending Orthodox services and talking over lunch afterward to a couple who were “casually mentioning that a lesbian came out in their parents’ home congregation, and she was asked to leave. I said, how horrible. And, that would be a great story.”
That first story, he told me, “put me on the map in gay writing… It’s an old story, but I see it as something that marked an important stage in my career.”
After his debut collection came out in 1990 from St. Martin’s Press, it won a Lambda Literary Award. In my Washington Blade review at the time, I wrote: “Raphael has begun a dialogue too long unspoken.” Raphael has gone on to write two dozen more books across a wide variety of genres. And while the dialogue around gay and Jewish issues has since broadened to include a wide array of authors, he remains at the center of the discussion he began 25 years ago.
Related: Dancing on Tisha B’Av