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Don’t Ask, Don’t Kvell

Compromise about a bar mitzvah suit? Sure. About basic human dignity? Perhaps not so much.

Jesse Green
December 14, 2006

In the last few weeks, we passed a significant milestone. Several, actually. On Thanksgiving, I received from Erez my first hand-me-ups: a pair of comfortable walking shoes that he, at roughly 12.7287 years of age, had outgrown but that my 48-year-old feet slip into perfectly. Andy says I will have to surrender them fairly soon, when they fit Lucas (now just shy of 11). But, not to worry, they will be mine again when he too outgrows them.

I have also noticed, while folding the laundry in our all-male household, that I can no longer tell whose underwear is whose, except by secondary markers like the logo and the characteristic pattern of holes. The T-shirt with the Big Dipper on the back: that’s mine. A nebula at the neckline means Erez. Socks are anyone’s guess.

And similarly, without getting into the mortifying details, our weights are converging. At my annual physical in October, my doctor made a deal with me: if I’d shed some pounds by the time I returned to her office in six weeks, she would not perform a spontaneous, involuntary orchiectomy. So I did what any sensible person would do: I made a graph in Excel. I find it so pleasing to watch the “actual weight” line drift down toward that nice ectomorph plateau, even if the data points aren’t so much actual as possible.

Nevertheless, through increased exercise and a careful monitoring of caloric intake (sadly, I learned that chocolate-chip scones are not dietetic) I did start to lose weight. Meanwhile, Erez, using very similar techniques (basketball; staring at his food) was starting to look like the kind of beefy, big-shouldered jock who scared the daylights out of me when I was his age. Oddly, his doctor didn’t seem to mind.

All this shape-shifting has made it hard for us to decide about clothes for Erez’s bar mitzvah, in March. Not only are his weight and shoe size changing so fast that it seems pointless to buy anything until the morning of the event, but we are also unsure what kind of clothes to buy. Ours is an informal temple, but even if it weren’t I am leery of buying a suit for a 13-year-old. Perhaps it’s because of my own history with adolescent haberdashery. Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I begged my parents to take me to a store called Krass Brothers for my bar mitzvah outfit; every week in its ad in the Jewish Exponent, Krass Brothers published a photo of a lucky boy modeling his wide-lapelled suit, which came with an extra pair of pants, free!

But my mother would have nothing to do with a store named Krass. Instead, she took me to a Main Line institution called Jacob Reed’s Sons, where I was immediately directed to the Husky department, as if I were part of a sledding expedition. There, a salesman suggested that I might do better with a jacket and slacks than a regular suit. Did he actually say “I don’t think anyone makes suits in those proportions”?

In any case, I ended up with a shocking pair of lozenge-patterned bell-bottoms and a navy blue blazer. And a gratuitous (though not unpleasant) little goose from the tailor.

I thought about that tailor, muttering with pins in his mouth as he worked feverishly to make the goods fit a misshapen reality, when I read the recent decision concerning the ordination of gay rabbis and the blessing of gay unions in the Conservative movement. Decisions, really: The 25 rabbis on the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved three grossly clashing responsa. Two affirmed the status quo, one baldly and one with the bizarre concession that homosexuals who seek to be ordained or married might do so after reparative therapy that made them ungay. Good idea, seeing how well it’s worked for the evangelical Christians.

But the third of the approved responsa—in some ways the best of those that passed—is the real monstrosity. This one allows for gay rabbis and gay unions as long as those involved do not “practice sodomy.” Apparently lesbians can claim their pulpits immediately because this euphemism only refers to men; the verse of Leviticus on which the homosexual proscriptions are rather tenuously based ignores women altogether except as the designated objects of male lust: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman.”

To my mind, this passage only prohibits such activities as snoring too loud and watching football in bed, but generations of hair-splitters and demagogues have created an exegetical industry in merging its cryptic implications with the Anglo-Saxon legal notion of sodomy, itself now largely abandoned as unworkable. For myself, following Potter Stewart, I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I feel it. Some gay Orthodox narrowly and hopefully define it as meaning only anal sex, thus granting absolution to all their other gay activities. Others, looking back to the Biblical story of Sodom itself, interpret the word as meaning rape. But the only definition that matters is that of the homophobes who enshrine it as policy. To them, it’s whatever gay men do.

In any case, though committee members told The New York Times that this little no-sodomy caveat will, in practice, “never be policed” (I’d like to see that subcommittee at work), such an expectation only underlines the shocking hypocrisy of a religious ruling that welcomes people who love each other to all the blessings of union except the blessing that, in most cases, brought them together in the first place. I can see the rabbis now, consulting their notes while instructing pairs of grooms, standing under hand-decoupaged chuppas, that they may now kiss—but just on the forehead please. A little to the left. No! Not there!

To the extent that this ruling debases the holiness of physical love between adults, I don’t blame the four members of the committee who resigned in protest, even though they favored upholding the ban, not reversing it. At least they made sense. But the practical result at Conservative seminaries and synagogues—like the one my father still belongs to—will be a choice among three internally and externally contradictory instructions. This is a compromise without a conscience: Don’t Ask, Don’t Kvell.

Though Erez’s bar mitzvah will take place in a Reform temple, where such hateful niggling is passé, I bring my Conservative heart with me no matter how far I stray from Conservative practice. And it’s not just me. Andy also has a nostalgia streak so wide you might as well call it his personality. Everything that has become so burdensome about planning what is meant to be a joyous event is the result of memory: the kind we want to respect, the kind we want to revise. There’s also the burden of forethought. Who does not resent a little, even as he looks on with awe and pride, his son’s overtaking him?

It’s an illusion to think that any of these issues can be resolved with a Brooks Brothers outfit—or, for that matter, with the right flowers, the most apt menu, the least annoying music. (And no, stop bothering me, we haven’t reached decisions on any of those yet; we haven’t even agreed on the guest list.)

However dispiriting they may prove in endorsing basic rights, contradictory options are useful in choosing clothes. At the moment, it looks like Erez will be wearing a mix-and-match ensemble: a simple blue blazer and classic Joe Boxer sweatpants. As for me, I’ve promised myself—if I reach my goal weight by mid-February—a new bar mitzvah suit. And if enjoying the food at the feast means I can’t wear it for long, the money won’t have been wasted. It will fit Erez soon enough.

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