Jaffe, Daniel M. “Yeled Tov”, Lethe Press, 2018.
A Good Jewish Gay Boy
I always look forward to a new book by Daniel Jaffe and that is probably that is because he says what I think (and much better than I could day it). I have managed to get over the Jewish guilt I used to have about my religion and my sexuality and have learned to embrace them both knowing that these parts of my life have made me who I am. I always wanted to be a “yeled tov” or a good boy but it was difficult to do so before reconciling those two important aspects of my life and my being.
Jaffe takes us back to 1974 to meet Jake Stein who also wants to be a good Jewish boy but who finds himself struggling to reconcile his traditional beliefs and his strong faith in God with his growing attraction to other boys (now this sounds very familiar). At school he was in the school play, “The Diary of Anne Frank” and while he should be overjoyed to get cast, he is upset because he knows that he should be thinking about the terrible suffering that Jews went through but instead he is falling for the kid who’s playing Peter van Daan. Things get no better for him when he gets to college and meets his very handsome roommate who seldom wears clothing. Jaffe shares the story of a young boy and man who fights hard to find a middle ground between “desire and devotion”. He asks God for advice and what he hears back is what he imagines what God would say about doing the right thing. do the right thing (I am not sure that God knows how to answer questions about lust). Jake seems, on the other hand, to know a great deal about lust since he deals with it so often—he finds himself lusting after men at the synagogue;, he lusts after his best friend and he lusts after his college roommate, he lusts after schoolmates. He feels that God is not sympathetic with his plight and the more he lusts, the more he feels shut into himself and shut out of society. He sees only one way out and that is abhorrent to God.
I have read many gay coming-of-age stories and there are some that are very good and there are some that are the same old story with different names. Here we have something very different in that we are with Jake on his journey and we feel what he feels (due to the skill of writer Jaffe). Jake so wants to be slutty and promiscuous but he knows that is not the way good Jewish boys act (he obviously does not know the same Jewish boys that I do).
Now let me explain something here. Jewish boys have the same urges and lusts that everyone else does but there is a difference that is based on faith. Those who are raised in Orthodox homes have a great deal of trouble trying to understand how faith and sexuality can work together. It is indeed possible that they can but to make this happen it must come from within. Once you accept who you are it is a great deal easier. Sure, you might lose a seat at the family Sabbath dinner but there are other places that will welcome you quickly. Let me give you an example. When I decided that it was time to come out to my family, I sat down with my father and told him how I felt. To my surprise, he did not say “get out”. Rather, he stroked his beard and said, “I don’t like what you are but I would rather you find someone to love instead of never knowing what love us.” No one was more surprised than me and, in effect, my father saved my life. We later feel out over other things so it did not end well but a brief time, I was very proud of him.
We read the Torah incorrectly and we find admonitions that are not there like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is not about homosexuality as so many claim but about the lack of hospitality. Misunderstandings can cause dire results. There were several times as I read that I wanted to call out to Jake and tell him to come and sit with me for a while but remember that the story is set in 1974. Things were very different then.
Basically, Jake is a “yeled tov” of the title. He lusts passively and we really never know if the reason he makes no moves on someone else has to do with his not wanting other people to know that he is gay or because he is afraid of rejection. When he was young his father told him that regardless of what he does, he is to never hurt the girl that he is with. Obviously Jake changed that to mean that if he can do this, he will always be a good boy, a yeled tov. However, he can only be a good boy when he himself realizes that he is.
There is so much to like in this book and first among those is the plot that shows Jaffe’s own familiarity with Judaism yet while this is a book about a Jewish guy there is no need to be Jewish to enjoy it. The Yiddish phrases used are all either defined or easily understood by their usage. Jaffe’s dialogue is excellent and is his character development. I just wonder if he anticipated what he was getting into with Jake who appears on almost every page. Jake’s conversations with God are amazing and as you near the end of the book, you should be prepared to shed a few tears. God tells Jake, “There are times when a man must make his own decisions. You’re a man now Jake. It’s time I let you decide for yourself how to live… Yes, being a man is scary, indeed. Give yourself time… I’m going to step aside now. But I’ll always be here. Make Me proud of the life I granted you. Be good to yourself”.
Let me close by saying the same thing to all of you, my friends and readers— “Be good to yourselves”.