Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Books

“Becoming Eve” by Abby Chava Stein— A Jewish Trans Coming-Out Story

Stein, Abby Chava. “Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman”, Seal Press , 2019.

A Jewish Trans Coming-Out Story

Amos Lassen

Abby Stein’s “Becoming Eve” has finally arrived after having been on to read and review lists for a while. Having been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, I have been very curious about Abby’s coming out story and reading about if she has been able to reconcile her faith with her gender. I remember all too well how it was for me to come out as gay as an Orthodox Jew and I have since heard thousands of stories from others and each is different to some degree. For Abby, being a descendant of a great rabbinic dynasty, the pressure must have been great yet as we read here, she was successful and has become an icon to others who experience what she went through. She was born male and destined to become a rabbinic leader but she became a woman.

Raised in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn that is “isolated in a culture that lives according to the laws and practices of eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, speaking only Yiddish and Hebrew and shunning modern life” already gave her quite a load to ponder. She was born as the first son in a dynastic rabbinical family and poised to become a leader of the next generation of Hasidic Jews. It didn’t happen quite that way.

At a young age, Abby knew that she was a girl. She looked for answers wherever she could find them including in forbidden religious texts and smuggled secular examinations of faith. Finally, she was able to leave her ultra-Orthodox manhood and came to mainstream femininity. This was indeed a radical choice that resulted in her leaving her home, her family, her way of life.  Abby’s story has two strands or two transitions—the first was her transition from male to trans woman, the second was the transition from ultra-Orthodoxy. In the past, we have had a series of books from those who left Orthodoxy but, as far as I know, this is the first and therefor only memoir of a trans woman leaving it.

For those who have never lived in an ultra-Orthodoxy community, there is a lot to be learned here. These communities give their members a feeling of safety, a feeling of belonging, a unique culture and love but these communities are indeed insular and Abby shares that she did not speak English (Hasidic Yiddish is the language of these communities), she did not go movies, the theater or museums, she did not wear jeans, she had not heard the Beatles or Britney and she did not see television. She also shares her feelings about biology, culture, faith, and identity. I remember rebelling against so many rules that we had but I never dreamt that I could leave them behind me. I have since done so, or so I think, but I am reminded all of the time of the ways we did things in my family and in my community which was not nearly what Abby experiences. After all, I grew up in New Orleans and there was no ultra-Orthodox community per se.

It seems to me, after reading Abby’s story, that there is a question that we all face:  How far does one go to become the person he/she/they were meant to be? It is difficult to struggle with issues of faith because of sexuality, I cannot imagine how difficult it was for Abby because of gender. She has explained as best she can but there is so much that cannot be put into words.

Abby explains that she first questioned the Hasidic lifestyle because of her gender, thinking that the very same people who were teaching about God and Judaism were the same people who were wrong about her gender. Could it be possible that they were also wrong about other things as well. Hasidic society is gender segregated as is Orthodox Judaism and this means that boys and girls do not play or learn together. One is forced to remain in the gender with which he/she/they were born. As we are well aware, Orthodox Judaism is a patriarchal religion and every father wants a son. Abby was the son they wanted, especially after he came along after five sisters.

Most of Abby’s story takes place before her decision to transition and she says that the epilogue is the prequel to another book. Her transition is still ongoing and she says that she and her editor focus on reaching maturity and this is her story of becoming— of her coming into her real self. The full story is yet untold and the full Abby is yet to be. Today she Jewishly observes nothing and celebrates what she wants to. Anny’s story is beautifully written and an important book that I am sure will be read again and again. The only downside is that now I have to wait for the next part of the story.

Below is a short biographical sketch of Abby Klein. I took it directly from the book for those who have never heard of Abby and for those who want to know more.

“Abby is the tenth-generation descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement. In 2015, she came out as a woman, and now works as a trans activist. In 2019, she served on the steering committee for the Women’s March in Washington, DC, and she was named by the Jewish Week as one of the “36 Under 36” Jews who are affecting change in the world. She lives in New York City. Of course, her story is not over.”

 

“Textual Activism” by Rabbi Mike Moskowitz— Essays, Articles and Speeches

Moskowitz, Rabbi Mike. “Textual Activism”, Independently Published, 2019.

Essays, Articles and Speeches

Amos Lassen

I never thought I would see a book like this in my lifetime. I suppose that what makes life so beautiful is that there are surprises every day. “Textual Activism” is a collection of essays, articles, and speeches at the intersection of deeply traditional rabbinic texts and radically progressive Jewish values. Rabbi Moskowitz dares to go where few Orthodox rabbis venture. His essays are written with fine scholarship and a deep commitment to the way that faith informs our lives. Yet they are also written with humility, kindness, and a good deal of personal courage.

Rabbi Moskowitz shares his own story and many brilliant ideas, that serve as tools for bringing together the division that religion often places between us and each other, us and God, and even us and ourselves. I believe that one of the things that guides Rabbi Moskowitz is his desire that all of us have access to the creator of life, especially those who long for a life informed by authentic faith and meaningful activism as it involves including and celebrating the transgender community in religious spaces.

Rabbi Moskowitz has “taken the directive to pursue justice to heart. He utilizes his vast Yeshivah knowledge to uncover and expand our tradition’s wisdom and teachings” and what he has to say is groundbreaking. He covers gender and immigration and makes us aware of his deep commitment to seeing people as God has created us, in God’s own image.”

He explores issues of Jewish LGBTQ life from within the framework of Halachah/Orthodox Jewish law and thereby challenges our religious traditions by calling for them to expand and deepen for all Jews. There is a great deal to be learned here and what is here is but a beginning.

“Homosexuality, Transsexuality, Psychoanalysis and Traditional Judaism” edited by Alan Slomovitz and Alison Feit— Jewish Orthodoxy and the LGBTQ Community

Slomowitz, Alan and Alison Feit (editors). “Homosexuality, Transsexuality, Psychoanalysis and Traditional Judaism”, (Psychoanalysis in a New Key Book Series), Routledge, 2019.

Jewish Orthodoxy and the LGBTQ Community

Amos Lassen

I did not think that I ever would see a book like “Homosexuality, Transsexuality, Psychoanalysis and Traditional Judaism” that so  explores “the often incommensurable and irreconcilable beliefs and understandings of sexuality and gender in the Orthodox Jewish community from psychoanalytic, rabbinic, feminist, and queer perspectives.” But more than that, this book explores how seemingly irreconcilable differences might be resolved. 

The book is divided into two separate but related sections. The first section examines the divide between the psychoanalytic, academic, and traditional Orthodox Jewish perspectives on sexual identity and orientation, as well as the acute psychic and social challenges faced by Orthodox Jewish gay and lesbian members of the Orthodox world. We are asked to engage with them in a dialogue that allows for authentic conversation.

The second section looks at gender identity, especially as experienced by the Orthodox transgender members of the community as well as highlighting the divide between theories that see gender as fluid and traditional Judaism that sees gender as binary only. The contributors share their views and experiences from both sides. They also ask us to engage in true authentic dialogue about these complex and crucial emotional and religious challenges. 

I understand that this book is meant to be of great interest to psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic psychotherapists. As an active member of the Reform Jewish community and a gay male, I found it to be fascinating. I worked to make our religion more welcoming to LGBTQ people so while I did not really read anything new, I am so glad to have all if this information in one place and as a way to opening the conversation.

We have articles from psychoanalysts, feminists, rabbis, and a writers on queer life and theory. They have come together to provide  a crucial conversation with one another. The editors have brought together a group of writers who share their clinical, theoretical, and spiritual resources to bear on questions that have never before been seriously and simultaneously considered.

Here we have an ancient religious and hermeneutical tradition engaging with a very current situation that is changing traditional assumptions about identity.

 “Trying to pretend to be something I am not in front of you all is becoming more trying by the day as I’m not the heterosexual being I portray for you. I wish I could have told you guys everything and I know you would have understood, but deep down, I know our relationship would have changed.” These are the words of a South African teenager who committed suicide while on a trip to Israel with his friends. It is heartbreaking but it is also very real and frightening. It’s crucial that Jewish institutions and leaders give visibility to the conversation on LGBT identities in Judaism, rather than avoiding them. Only through open discussions on the matter will we be able to try to live in an environment in which no teenager will ever be so afraid to reveal their sexual identity that they prefer to death.

Some modern Orthodox communities are slowly starting conversations about “inclusiveness, plain ignorance about the way LGBTQ Jews are harassed or dismissed in communities seems to be one of the main obstacles that queer Orthodox Jews face. But as long as Orthodox leaders frame sexual orientation and gender identity as choices, it can be difficult to advance a discussion on the matter.”

“Queer Expectations: A Genealogy of Jewish Women’s Poetry” by Zohar Weiman-Kelman— Using Poetry

Weiman-Kelman, Zohar. “Queer Expectations: A Genealogy of Jewish Women’s Poetry”,  (SUNY Series in Contemporary Jewish Literature and Culture), SUNY Press, 2019.

Using Poetry

Amos Lassen

In “Queer Expectations, Zohar Weiman-Kelman looks at how Jewish women have used poetry to challenge their historical limitations while rewriting their potential futures. Jewish women have had a strange relationship with history as they struggle for inclusion while resisting their “limited role as (re)producers of the future.” Here we see  how Jewish women writers turned to poetry to write new histories by developing “queer expectancy” as “a conceptual tool for understanding how literary texts can both invoke and resist what came before.” The book  brings together Jewish women’s poetry from the late nineteenth century, the World War period and the 1970s and 1980s. We are taken on a boundary-crossing journey through works in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew, setting up encounters between writers of different generations, locations, and languages. 

Emphasis is on genealogical lines of continuity drawn by authors Emma Lazarus, Kadya Molodowsky, Leah Goldberg, Anna Margolin, Irena Klepfisz, and Adrienne Rich in all of their diversity. The poets push back against heteronormative imperatives of biological reproduction and inheritance, and instead opt for connections that are somewhere between traditional models of gender and history. Looking backward in queer ways allows new histories to emerge, intervenes in the present, and provides hope for unexpected futures.

By the construction of a cross-temporal and cross-linguistic genealogy of Jewish women’s poetry, Weiman-Kelman does away with the boundaries between theory and praxis in her own work and shows how scholarship can  bring about political change. She does so through the disciplines of literary analysis, historiography, biography, and queer theory. The originality here and the new methodology changes traditional ways of thinking about literary analysis, questions of influence, and what queer can mean.

“Gay Passover: The Gayest Version of Exodus Ever Told” by Saul Sugarman— Welcome to a Different Kind of Passover

Sugarman, Saul. “Gay Passover: The Gayest Version of Exodus Ever Told”, illustrated by Max Charmley, Self-published, 2019.

Welcome to a Different Kind of Passover

Amos Lassen

Passover is traditionally celebrated as a holiday of freedom and as members of the LGBTQ community, we know what it is to be without freedom. We have made great progress in the last few years and right now we are the freest that we have ever been. For that alone, this year should be special and I cannot imagine it being more special than having our own Haggadah. Saul Sugarman has taken care of that for us by writing an unconventional Haggadah and it begins with the premise that many gay people come from humble roots and move to big cities. While Egypt was not exactly home for the Israelites since they were living there as slaves, they left in search of greener pastures. Like the children of Israel, many of us discovered our identities during the journey from one place to another. Sugarman reimagines the Exodus to have been something like this.

And yes this is a Haggadah but one that is definitely unconventional. “Gay Passover” sees the Exodus as a comedy that features Neil Patrick Harris as Moses, Cher as God and Oprah as the Angel of Death. We do not moan bout being slaves and talk how everything would have been enough; instead we have a few laughs and raise a few cups and enjoy a variation of the original setting out from Egypt.

This story begins in a suburban Middle American town, where residents face their own plagues including having the plainest and most basic of hairdos while living in ugly homes with no fabulosity. But then the gays arrive and soon everything is very different, the neighborhoods are gentrified, parties became fabulous and there is none of that Manischewitz purple wine. The town mayor begins to worry the entire town will turn gay, and orders families to kill their gay babies  and there is always one—one mother couldn’t do it, though, and so one the child that was  spared became Neil Patrick Harris, the adoptive son of conservative senators. “The Burning Bush” is a lesbian bar in Kansas and the 10 plagues for suburban straight people include skinny jeans and glitter bombs. Cher is the self-declared job and she is still trying to turn back time and help with things that happened before she established herself as the deity, This book includes the story as well as a “gayder” (pronounced like seeder but with a “g”) plate with symbols reflective of the LGBTQ community and our shared experiences.- Songs and games like “Let My Gays Go” and “One Twink, One Twink”: a variation on Chad Gadya- “The four gays”: a variation on “The four children” and even recipes to throw a fabulous “Gay Passover” party.

 

 

 

“A Rainbow Thread: Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969” by Noam Sienna— An Infinite Rainbow

Sienna, Noam. “A Rainbow Thread: Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969”, Print-O-Craft, 2019.

An Infinite Rainbow

Amos Lassen

I first heard of “A Rainbow Thread” via a friend who told me he had just ordered a copy and while my friend gave me no details aside from this book Jewish and gay, I went ahead and wrote to the publisher to get a review copy. When the book arrived I was first astounded by the 425 page length and then by the tremendous amount of research that it must have taken to compile such a book. Writer Noam Sienna tells us that the book maintains a balancing act between “LGBTQ Jewish history as an infinite rainbow, with no beginning or end, and with no clear boundaries between its different facets” (great analogy and the fact that there is “a thread: a continuity that links our lives, our joys, and our struggles today to an ancestral heritage in the past and to our inheritors in the future.” Sienna does not see history as a march toward a universal goal. Rather he sees it as processes that are made up of  connections, interruptions, and innovations. While we cannot push who we are on those who came before us but we also cannot ignore their history that has become some of our behaviors and shared practices; traditions  that take stories to other places and times, and that are often relevant in our lives today.

I can imagine Sienna going through the history of the Jews looking for examples to back his thesis and to find so much (that many of us never thought about— my adult life has been consumed by my wanting to find a way to preserve the LGBT Jewish literary canon so that the wealth of information it holds can be shared by everyone. Yet with all the work that I have done in the past, I did not come across many of the selections in this anthology.

Sienna explains how to encounter primary historical documents as a way of imagining new futures. He uses classical midrashim as two texts and lets us reread them through queer eyes thus expanding our ideas on what Jewishness is today. We see that Jewish sexuality and gender in practice was not as restricted by boundaries of gender, sex, nationality, or religion as we might have thought. Sienna is not pushing any kind of gay agenda but rather pointing out that we must rethink Judaism. In doing so, we question assumptions about how Jews have understood sexuality and gender throughout our long history as a people during which Jewish identity is often imagined as existing in spite of, or in opposition to,—the world of Jewish tradition. We are encouraged to read and reread, reimagine and revise what today’s Judaism can mean. process of constantly rereading, reimagining, and revising our understanding of what Judaism has meant, and what it can mean for us today.

What is contained in the book spans two millennia, five continents and translations from fifteen different languages. “A Rainbow Thread” is, in effect, queer Jewish history that includes poetry, drama, commentary, law and memoir. Like so many others, I have doubted that there is a place for me in Judaism and I thought I was forging a new path when I remain determined to be an active practicing Jew. I have since learned differently and now have a way to prove it— with this book. I am overwhelmed by the amount of information in “A Rainbow Thread” and I find myself lingering over each text included here and wondering why I had never read it before. We are done sitting on Judaism’s margins and we can now pitch our tents where we want. It may not be easy to do so but remember that it was once impossible to do so. I am in awe of what I see here and can’t wait to use it as a teaching tool.

“My Butch Career: A Memoir” by Esther Newton— A Life of Struggle

Newton, Esther. “My Butch Career: A Memoir”, Duke University Press, 2019.

A Life of Struggle

Amos Lassen

It does not happen often that I read a book that is filled with passages that remind me of similar events in my life. Esther Newton’s “My Butch Career” which is already a Lambda Literary nominee is such a book. I laughed, I cried, I thought heavily as I read and I am determined to meet Esther one day to discover that she is really my true sister or brother or whatever.

Esther Newton had a difficult childhood. She shares that she “became an anti-girl, a girl refusenik, caught between genders,” and that her “child body was a strong and capable instrument stuffed into the word ‘girl.’” Later, in early adulthood, when she was on her way to becoming a trailblazing figure in gay and lesbian studies, she “had already chosen higher education over the strongest passion in my life, my love for women, because the two seemed incompatible.”

She has quite a story to tell and I loved reading how she came to terms with the new identity that she chose as she struggled to be an academic at the same time that she searched for love. This was happening at a time of intense homophobic persecution; a time when acceptance was a rarity even in the academic community by people who knew better. To reach that point in her life. Newton went through dramas and conflicts and even sexual molestations and attempts to live what was thought to be a “normal” (whatever that means) life.

She was denied tenure at Queens College and at SUNY Purchase despite having written a highly influential book. Some of the important periods of her life include her father Saul’s strong masculinity and its influence on her, her introduction to middle-class gay life, and her love affairs (“including one with a well-known abstract painter and another with a French academic she met on a spur of the moment trip to Mexico and with whom she traveled throughout France and Switzerland”). By the time she was finally able to achieve personal and scholarly stability. This was “in the company of the first politicized generation of out lesbian and gay scholars with whom she helped create gender and sexuality studies.” I remember reading her “Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America” and being blown away by it. I had already left this country and was pursuing academic status in Israel where we were preparing to launch the first academic gay and lesbian studies program in 1980. I know that this book would somehow need to find its way into the curriculum.

I see Esther Newton as one of our first gender outlaws and her story is such an important look at the road to becoming a gay academic and how recently this happened. Here was Newton at a time when transgressing from one’s assumed gender was thought of as heresy and what an important story for those who will soon face this.

Newton shares how she developed her butch identity and that she prefers the words “dyke” and “butch” to lesbian. She also tells of the difficult time she had as an anthropology graduate student and professor because of her sexuality (and here is a place to weep openly as I did). 

Newton’s mother was unmarried when she was born, and it was a long time before Esther learned who her biological father was. The man who played the role of father in her life was a domineering yet charming leftist and  former Communist who achieved prominence in psychology. He had three other wives after he left her mother. Esther is part Jewish and identifies as  a secular Jew. She loved the Jewish and leftist feel of New York City, and was miserable when her mother moved to Palo Alto, California.

Newton went through years of anguish trying to work out her sexuality. While at the University of Chicago she was told that she had to wear skirts to be accepted as serious anthropologist. She did not realize that writing her dissertation on drag queens would restrict her choices for employment and, in fact, it led to her becoming involvedd in LGBT studies and in the gay liberation movement. Today, she strongly supports butch/femme identification. 

Newton says early on in her book that “Young people do not see being butch as ‘transgressive,’ but lesbians challenge the gender hierarchy just as much, or more, by staying women. I am opposed to pressure being put on masculine girls and women to ‘go all the way’ by transitioning.” I read quite an alarming rebuttal to this which showed me the person who wrote it, did so not really knowing what she was talking about and had misunderstood Newton.  

I especially love that Newton did not hide the personal from us and she shared the mistakes she had made in life as well as how her personality developed. She shares her failed relationships as well. By doing so, we never question her honesty—she is, at times, brutally honest.   After years of struggle, personally and professionally Newton finds a community in an evolved culture and “helps to create the academic study of gender and sexuality. This book is simultaneously a memoir and an exemplar of this important field.” Today at 78 years old, Newton re-examines her milieu and shares her story with us all and I feel great pride in having read what she has written. Esther Newton, although she might not like this title as a gender defying secular Jew, has become my Queen Esther.

 

“Esther Newton, one of the pioneers of gay and lesbian studies, is formerly Term Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan and Professor of Anthropology at Purchase College, State University of New York. She is the author of several books, including Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas and Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town, both also published by Duke University Press, as well as the groundbreaking Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America.”

“David and Jonathan: An M/M Romance from the Bible” by Neil S. Plakcy— Hearts Together

Plakcy. Neil S. “David and Jonathan: An M/M Romance from the Bible”, Samwise, 2019.

Hearts Together

Amos Lassen

For as long as I can remember we have used the Biblical story of Jonathan and David as a way to show that men who love men were around during the time of the Bible. We really have no idea if that is true or not since we accept the Bible on faith and on proof. Regardless it is a beautiful that has temped writers to expand on it throughout history. Neil Plakcy’s “David and Jonathan” is a new attempt. We are to understand from the Bible that the hearts of David and Jonathan “are knit together” as we read in the Book of Samuel we see it as one of the earliest same-sex romances in literature. However, the Bible “provides relatively little of the techniques we expect of fiction.” Character descriptions are skeletal and skimpy or non-existent and very little is written about the lives of the people and how they occupied their days aside from spending forty years wandering in the dessert. Plakcy tells us that he has used his research into history to add  details to make the story come alive.

I have spent a good part of my life studying the Bible and to this day, I still devote an hour a day to reading the Bible in its original language. We quickly realize the many faults in the stories from the Hebrew Bible or as it is commonly and incorrectly known as The Old Testament. So often the stories are incomplete and it is left to us to fill in the rest and this can be great fun. What we fill in with is known as midrash and it has been going on for as long as we have read the holy writings. In the story of David and Jonathan, things do not happen in order and the timeline is totally bewildering and names change. I really want to believe that David loved Jonathan more than he ever loved a woman but I cannot  figure out the timeline so I do not see when the two even had time to be lovers. David was way too busy with Jonathan’s sister, Michal and then Batsheva as well as all the other women in his life. Besides he was also busy writing poetry and uniting the people. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful story and one that I never tire of reading.

Plakcy’s story is beautiful but we must remember that it is a story and not history. He uses language from the Bible and it is based on something in history of which there was no happy ending. After David loses Jonathan he returns to be a warrior-king and a womanizer.

If you are familiar with the Biblical accounts of David and Jonathan, you’ll know what a mess they are—things happen out of order, without reference to previous events, and even the names of Jonathan’s brothers change from one account to another. When possible, I’ve incorporated actual quotes from various editions of the Bible—without footnotes, of course, because this is fiction, not an academic treatise.

And readers of MM romance should note—because this is based on a historical account, there is no HFN or HEA. After his romance with Jonathan ends at the conclusion of this account, David goes on to gore and glory with multiple women.

Plakcy’s Bible used the line, “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” (1 Samuel 18:1.). I have seen it in various other translations including David loved Jonathan more than he had ever loved a woman.

One of the problems with the David story is authorship and it is believed that it was written by several different authors. I understand that Neil Plakcy decided to use the basics of the story and build a romance on it. I believe that he has succeeded beautifully especially in his use of language. What he has added is the nature of the sexual relationship between the two men (of which nothing is written so these are his thoughts) and it works beautifully.

I feel confident in what I say as a reviewer of LGBT literature and as a person who is considered to be a Bible scholar. Every  year I teach a course on David and every year I learn a bit more. It’s good to have another David and Jonathan story to add to the mix.

“Nirvana is Here: A Novel” by Aaron Hamburger— Back to the Present

Hamburger, Aaron. “Nirvana Is Here: A Novel”, Three Rooms Press, 2019.

Back to the Present

Amos Lassen

With social media today, it is possible to find old friends that perhaps we have not thought about for many years and I must admit I am guilty of doing just that. In Aaron Hamburger’s new book, “Nirvana is Here”, we meet Ari Silverman, a Medieval Historian who is able to reconnect with Justin Jackson, his high school obsession who is now married (to a woman) and the first African-American CEO of a successful dating website. Any kind of reconnection can be emotional and hard to deal with and it is a good idea for one to prepare himself first. As Ari gets ready to see Justin for the first time in twenty years, he begins to remember the relationship they shared in the suburbs of Detroit. What were secrets back then are not necessarily secrets today. Things were very different during the early 1990s and there are secrets that they still share. But Ari has something else on his mind as well— his ex-husband has been accused of sexually harassing a student. We suspect that these two issues will come together causing Ari to make a decision that can totally change him. As we meet the characters, writer Hamburger has us face issues of identity, race, sex, and family and as we deal with them, we learn something more about who we really are.

I became a fan of Aaron Hamburger with “The View From Stalin’s Head” and “Faith for Beginners” and for whatever reason, I felt that he was writing to and for me directly. Many of you know that I have spent a lot of time researching and understanding the Jewish LGBT community so when Hamburger told me about his new book, I jumped at the change to read it, include it in the canon and write about it and I was definitely not disappointed.

Ari has never let go of the past and now, removed from it by two decades, the trauma of an assault from when he was so much younger comes back to him and the only perspective he feels will help him  is to reconnect with Justin, the boy he had such a crush on. As he thinks about this, he remembers that there are still secrets they shared and still share.  It does not happen often but every once in a while, a book comes along that blows me away and “Nirvana Is Here” is one such book. It made me smile and it devastated me but more than anything else, it kept me reading… in fact, I devoured it in one sitting, reading all the way through the night. I saw so much of myself in Ari just as I am sure that other readers will find themselves in him as well. Quite simply, this is a coming of age story but it is also so much more; it is a story of recovery and dealing with both past and present as set against the band Nirvana. For me, this was a weak point since I had lived out of the country when Nirvana was at its height and all that I have ever know about the band is its name. Hamburger beautifully captures the decade of the 90s and his characters who come of age then.

From the moment I began to read, I had the strange feeling that Ari is not just a character in this novel but someone who I knew and was part of my present life. We see him as both a 41-year-old Medieval History professor and a traumatized high school student who is struggling. with his own sexual identity. It seems to me that the focus of the book is on Ari’s teenage years that so heavily impact his later life.

Most of the book is a reflection on the past with surprises. We learn why Ari transferred to a different high school, and we read how his friendship with Justin developed over the years.  I had better stop because I feel that I am getting very close to writing a spoiler and I do not want to do that because I want everyone to have the same beautiful experience reading this book that I had. I want to personally thank Aaron Hamburger for returning to our literature—it feels like it has been a long time since “Faith for Beginners” (2005). I do hope that he will pull up a chair and stay awhile.

“Hearts Alight” by Elliot Cooper— A Gay Chanukah

Cooper, Elliot. “Hearts Alight”,  Independently Published, 2018. A Gay Chanukah Amos Lassen Chanukah is this country. Has become verycommercialized and Dave Cunningham hates that it has. He changes his mind a bitwhen he realizes that he has a chance to bring a bit of a holiday happiness tohis long-time crush, Amit Cohen. Dave is determined to make the perfect giftand tries to get a few personal details out of Amit who will not compromise hisstoic nature. Dave  unintentionallylearns the Cohen family’s secret: Amit is a golem and Amit has a problem that isdeeper than his magical origin, and a Hanukkah miracle might be the only thingthat will keep the flame burning between the ton guys. Maybe I missed somethingbut I do not understand how David could fall in love with Amit and not knowthat he is a golem and therefore not human). But this is a story and Elliot Cooper is a good storyteller. Dave’s friend Jake is Amit’s nephew and so he has a bit of inside help in learningabout the man he has such a crush on. We see Amit through Dave’s eyes and asthe beautiful man that he is. However, when a jerk makes fun of Amit and Amittakes off, Dave goes after him and we learn a secret.  Jake tells Dave Amit can “recharge” his batteries when touchedby someone who cares. Romantic love could be what keeps Amit Earth bound, evenafter he’s fulfilled his spiritual obligation.

Dave understands and accepts Amit but there are the factsof his being non–human that could make things difficult.  Amit’s being a golem is a unique twist but it didn’t work for me. I suppose Iam too grounded in Judaism and the traditions and culture of the religion. We have had a hard time being accepted into theJewish religion as gay people so, for me, adding a gay Jewish golem to the mixwas a bit too much. However, if I simply would read this as a story, I would totallyenjoy it.Dave was frustrated becauseof the guilt he felt by not being able to get with with the gift-giving goingon around him. Finding a gift for a golem is a unique and challengingexperience. Dave’s friendship with Jake, and the hesitant beginnings of hisromance with Amit are very well written. And I really got into Dave’s feelingsabout the modernization of Hanukkah. Writer Cooper gives us quite a rainbow ofcharacters with Amit, a gay golem, Dave, a bisexual man and Jake, a trans maleand Dave’s best friend.