While growing up in the Detroit suburbs during the 1980s, I often heard my father warn me to be careful around gentiles. They might seem pleasant at first, but scratch a bit under the surface, and their anti-Semitism would surely emerge.
So when my older brother was punched in the face by a non-Jewish classmate at our local school, it seemed to confirm my father’s suspicions. My parents decided to move to a more predominantly Jewish area and to enroll me, at the age of 8, in a Jewish day school. They hoped that in a close-knit Jewish community I’d be safe from outsiders and that I would cement my attachment to Judaism.
Instead I became a target for years of emotional and physical bullying that sparked a lifelong struggle to come to terms with my Jewish identity.
As a young boy, I was enthralled with Judaism and all its trappings. Like many Jewish children, I enjoyed decorating our sukkah, lighting Hanukkah candles, and dressing up as King Ahasuerus or Mordechai for Purim. Perhaps unlike other Jewish children, I also dressed up as the prophet Jeremiah for Halloween.
Prophets were big with me then. Fascinated and petrified by the stories of miracles and divine punishment meted out in the Tanakh, I was determined to end up on God’s good side. Everywhere I went, I carried a hardbound, gilt-edged Children’s Bible, illustrated with handsome Semitic men in shepherd’s robes. At Passover, I watched The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and mimicked his odd, sonorous vocal inflections. I dreamed of someday becoming a bearded prophet who’d preach truth to the sinning masses in the marketplace, perhaps at the fountain court in our local mall, Twelve Oaks.
By the time I entered day school, my aspirations to prophethood had ended, but my love of Judaism remained strong. I felt proud of our religion’s emphasis on learning, its close examination of language and sentences from sacred texts. I admired the Jewish ideals of fighting for justice and searching for ways to live a meaningful life. A school where half the curriculum consisted of studying Torah, Jewish values, and Hebrew should have been right up my alley.
However, my actual experience of a Jewish school bore little resemblance to what I read in Jewish books. Perhaps that was because for us as Jews back then, the central text of our lives was not the Torah, but the history of the Holocaust.
For many reasons, during the 1980s, there was a renewed interest in commemorating the horrors of WWII. Holocaust memorials were sprouting up around the country, including a small museum that had just opened down the road from my family’s home. Our friends and neighbors were lining up to see it. We also trekked downtown to the Detroit Institute of Arts to watch the nine-hour French documentary Shoah as well as the Precious Legacy exhibit, a Nazi-assembled collection of artifacts of the Czechoslovakian Jewish community intended for a “museum to an extinct race.” A replica of a Seder plate from that exhibition became a popular bridal shower gift.
The Holocaust figured in Saturday morning sermons, when rabbis regularly preached about how intermarriage was causing a sharp decrease in the world’s Jewish population. On several occasions, I heard from the pulpit or read in op-ed columns in our local Jewish News that Jews who married non-Jews were finishing the job that Hitler had started.
In order to do our part to repopulate the world with Jews—presumably to make up for the ones Hitler had killed—we as children were expected to participate in activities to prepare us to find a Jewish mate someday. We took ballroom dancing lessons, attended weekly bar and bat mitzvah parties, joined youth groups, and went to Jewish summer camp. Brief romances would blossom, wither, and then blossom anew, all under the encouraging eye of counselors, adult advisers, and even teachers. In fact, I remember one teacher calling a boy and girl to the front of the class to demonstrate how to flirt.
At the tender ages of 8 and 9, the boys in my class discussed with confidence how to woo girls, how to dress and groom their hair and say certain words that might convince some prepubescent vixen to do things to us in the dark. As we approached bar mitzvah age, clothes and hair became more important, as did jewelry, especially gold bar mitzvah rings in the form of the wearer’s initials. I’ve heard stories of adolescent boys comparing penises to see whose was biggest. In our circle, the size contest was over bar mitzvah rings.
Try as I might, I couldn’t manage to feel, think, and act as the other Jewish boys around me did, especially where girls were concerned. I worried that I was not only failing to be a real man, but also a real Jew, a double betrayal that, according to my rabbi, meant I was helping Hitler.
My knowledge and love of Torah counted for nothing next to my failure to conform to traditional gender roles, which made me a target for ridicule, scorn, and bullying. The lesson I learned in day school matched the one I heard in synagogue: Being a good Jew also meant being a good heterosexual, a word whose meaning I learned on our school bus, when an older boy teased me because he suspected I wasn’t one.
For years, in punishment for the crime of being weak and sensitive, I was pinched, shoved, and ridiculed by other Jewish boys and girls my age. A brutish Israeli boy a head taller than I used to taunt me by calling me a “woooo-man” in his thick accent. During dodgeball games in gym class, the stronger boys delighted in smacking my body and face with red rubber balls that left a mark. At dancing lessons and then lavish black-tie bar and bat mitzvah parties with shrimp cocktail appetizers, I learned to hide in the bathroom during “snowball” dances, when I was never picked by a girl to slow dance—though truth be told, I never wanted to be.
Each day that I had to face my classmates, I did so with a feeling of dread, wondering what new humiliation awaited me.
I felt confused. What happened to the Jewish values lessons we spent half the day studying? Weren’t Jews supposed to have each other’s backs? And why didn’t any of the adults teaching those lessons notice or intervene?
The bullying came to a head with a boy I’ll call Mark, who liked to show off his gold bar mitzvah ring set with a tiny diamond, and say that he wanted to punch a boy hard enough so the ring would brand his unfortunate victim’s cheek.
Mark liked to corner me and tell stories of his sexual exploits with Jewish girls. I’d heard similar stories from other boys, but Mark’s stories stood out for the lurid details he shared, as well as his apparent relish in sharing them. He seemed particularly interested in my lack of experience and tried to get me to join in the sex talk. Since he was bigger and stronger than I was, I wanted to comply, but I had nothing to share, not from life or imagination.
One day, when I was almost 13, Mark showed up at my house and punched me in the gut so hard, I couldn’t talk. He said he’d heard that I’d called him a fag, and that he was going to kill me. Didn’t I know that I was the fag? I told him I hadn’t said anything, begged him to spare my life. But a few days later, he came back. Finding me alone, he beat me up again, threatened me with a knife, and then sexually assaulted me, warning afterward that he really would kill me if I told anyone.
Though terrified, I did tell. Mark was arrested, tried in juvenile court, and sent away to military school as punishment. I longed to go on with my life and pretend this episode had never happened, but I hadn’t taken into account how small the Jewish community was. At synagogue that summer, a classmate came up to me, saying she’d heard I’d called the police on Mark. Was it true? And why? To this day, I can’t remember how or if I answered her questions, but I still feel the fear.
I begged my parents to transfer me to a secular school in a different suburb, about a 25-minute drive from where we lived. There, I went from being in a class that was 100% Jewish to one that was more like 1%. And for the first time in years, I felt safe and accepted. I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t ostracized either. When other students found out that I was smart, instead of mocking me, they asked for help with their homework. When they learned that I wasn’t athletic or that I didn’t have a girlfriend, they didn’t care. The fate of the Jewish people no longer depended on my sex life.
My parents urged me to attend Hebrew school, join a Jewish youth group, do anything to meet other Jews my age. I resisted their efforts, mostly because I feared running into Mark or someone who knew Mark—the latter happened with alarming frequency—but I couldn’t say so aloud. I couldn’t even say Mark’s name aloud. So I told myself and my parents I was avoiding Jewish activities because of my disdain for the superficial, materialistic people who went to them.
In my teens and early 20s, I continued overcompensating for the rejection I felt from fellow Jews by rejecting them in turn. As I came to realize and accept my sexual orientation, I thought that to come out, I had to reject being Jewish, and so I shunned all Jewish-organized activity until I moved to San Francisco after college, where I attended a gay synagogue for the first time, and cried. Until then, I had not been in a Jewish community of people who shared my values, where proving my virile heterosexuality did not seem to be the price of admission.
In the years since, I still feel ambivalence toward Judaism and Jewish life. Sometimes I bristle at its emphasis on ritual—for example, when my father died and I experienced the attendant activities of mourning as hollow and rote. However, at this same time, I also witnessed the beauty of our faith while speaking with my rabbi, who comforted me with wise words from the Talmud and other Jewish sources.
Lately, I’ve been disappointed by the support of Jews for our current president. And yet, I’ve also been impressed by numerous Jews in the resistance movement who are fighting for social justice, inspired by the words and spirit of the Torah.
While working on a novel inspired by some of these events, I recently went to therapy and realized that some of my mixed feelings about Judaism are the result of unfinished business from the abuse I suffered as a child, abuse that I now recognize was caused by Jews, but not Judaism itself. In other words, there’s a difference between the 1980s-flavored heterosexist Jewish culture of my youth and the prevailing ideals of a centuries-old religion.
As an adult in middle age, I’ve come to see that my Jewish identity is something I don’t have to work at, prove, define, or come to any final decisions about. It’s simply an intrinsic part of my experience, albeit a sometimes complicated part of it.
Perhaps the best way to capture my feelings about my faith is a midrash we learned back in day school, related to the story of Moses, whom the Torah says went up and down Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights to receive the Ten Commandments. Why, our teacher asked us, does the text make such a to-do about all this going up and down, back and forth? Because, she explained, this story represents humankind’s relationship to faith. Sometimes we feel closer, and sometimes we feel further away, back and forth, ebbing and flowing like waves on a beach. It’s never just one thing and it was never meant to be. That constant struggling proves that you are alive.
Aaron Hamburger’s fourth book, Hotel Cuba, comes out from Harper Perennial in May.