Glasman, Eli. “
The Boy’s Own Manual To Being a Proper Jew”, Sleepers Publishing, 2014.
“Sexuality, Spirituality, Culture, Family, and Finding the Space In Between”
Yossi Speilman is a 17-year-old gay Orthodox Jew who feels that his sexuality makes him less of a Jew. He lives in an Orthodox community and consequently he must hide who he is. At least that’s the way it was before Josh, a non-religious boy comes to his school. Josh is something of a rebel and Yossi is asked to take care of him and he tries to tech Josh the traditions of Judaism but instead Josh has something to teach Yossi causing him to look at his religion differently. When the two boys are caught kissing at the bathhouse, Yossi realizes that he can no longer ignore who he really is. This also affects Yossi’s family and everyone has to expand their ideas of what faith is.
I must say that this story really resonated with me and I have so much in common with Yossi. What makes it even more interesting is that this book is set in Australia and I was raised in the southern United States but basically only the location differs for us. So many Jewish boys have lived what we read here. Let me say early on that is going to be quite a long review because there is just a lot to say.
Yossi attends Beth Dovid high school in the Jewish suburb of Caulfield that is part of Melbourne. He is among their most spiritual and dedicated students. His mother died of cancer when he was a young boy and now he lives with his father, a religious man and Talya, his older sister. Yossi works hard to make his father proud of him. As I said before, Yossi is gay and really is not happy about it. With the arrival of Josh Davies at his school, Yossi is given the job of showing him around and teaching him the school’s traditions. However, Josh is not so interested in any of this and can’t understand why Yossi is. What Yossi does not realize about Josh is that he is gay and has no problems with it; in fact Josh will push him into examining his homosexuality and figuring out where it fits into his faith.
I know that we have had more than our fill of coming out stories but this one is quite special. Here we have a young man questioning his homosexuality alongside his Jewish faith. While this is a Jewish story what we have can apply to any religion. Eli Glasman shows us the danger of cultural stereotypes and also that being serious about religion does not exclude humor. Sure, religion is responsible for giving us rules to live by but these do not stifle self-discovery that all of us have been through and everyone will experience. It is part of growing up.
While Yossi is a young man committed to his religion, culture and community he is also a typical teenager exploring his sexual feelings. It is hard not to like him and it so good that Glasman didn’t portray Yossi’s homosexuality as a “torturous burden that blights his life”. Yossi does not find his homosexuality as insurmountable but as a challenge as to how to express it within the laws of Judaism and how to tell his friends, family and wider community. He knows he is gay, he has always known; he isn’t embarrassed and he knows he can’t change. In the beginning he does go to his rabbi, Rabbi Pilcer about something he learned on an Internet chat site. The rabbi advised him to wear a rubber band on his wrist and snap it whenever he had a sexual thought about another male. This, Pilcer claims, will “cure” him. It doesn’t. If you have seen the film “Trembling Before God” which is about gay Orthodox Jews, you will recognize this “cure”.
It is to best to say that Jewish teachings on sexual behavior are both complicated and peculiar. Masturbation is forbidden; having homosexual thoughts is all right but acting on them is not. We see that it is Josh who is really the catalyst for Yossi’s coming out. Josh does not come from an Orthodox background and therefore he does not understand what Yossi believes and in fact, he challenges him. The chats that Yossi and Josh share are there to explain various Jewish teachings, not just those on sexuality.
After Josh takes Yossi to his first gay synagogue, Yossi begins to understand that he can be gay and religious – he meets other gay Jews and begins to see a way forward for himself. Yossi has his first sexual experience with Josh and it is depicted as natural and affectionate. The following morning, we see that Yossi is not embarrassed about the sex and nor is he remorseful. Rather he and Josh speak about the reasons for the religious prohibitions against anal sex and condoms. I am not sure that this conversation is necessary but it does show us something about Yossi’s dealing with himself.
When Yossi does come out, it is not easy— his father, sister and friends don’t accept immediately that he is gay; they learn as Yossi does to integrate their idea of homosexuality into their orthodox worldview. Here is where author Glasman really shines—he does a great job of presenting a balanced account of Yossi’s experience. I love this book and I love that Glasman was able to bypass the trap of producing a novel about teenage sexuality; he has written a story about an interesting, intelligent and loving young man who happens to be Jewish and gay and whose life is not defined by his gayness or his religion. Here is a novel that can be solace and support to young people facing coming out in a potentially hostile environment but this is also a joyful book filled with joy and that should inspire all readers to question rules and develop creativity and love to find their path in life.
Glasman gives us wonderful little details such as Yossi’s family being part of the Lubavitch sect, their synagogue an exact replica of leader Lubavitcher Rebbe’s synagogue in New York. Glasman writes about Judaism and lets his readers enter this world that many are probably not familiar with. He lets readers in on the less familiar terms and traditions, like – a tzitzit is a traditional woolen undergarment, and you’re not allowed to sit on the same level as a prayer book in ways that are both respectful and fascinating. Glasman is also able to write easy insight via the character of Josh, who is less preoccupied with spiritual traditions, and needs Yossi to explain things like kashering dishes or purifying them (and if non-kosher food touches them, they must be re-purified). I remembered my own experience with burying pots, pans and dishes for six years in ordered to make them kosher again. I laughed and I cried as I was reminded that while my friends had lovely garden with flowers, we had a garden with buried pots and pans.
By explaining about the rituals and traditions of Judaism, Glasman established just what Yossi was up against in struggling with his homosexuality. When he could no longer deny his sexuality, he was forced into soul-searching and trying to find the place where faith and sexuality come together.
He knew that meant questioning his religion, and thinking critically about the very rules that guide all aspects of his life and he says, “I’m gay. But I was also born a Jew. Neither being gay nor being religious are choices for me. I’ve been both for my whole life… And yet, just having these terrible feelings made me feel like less of a Jew”.
It might surprise some readers that Eli Glasman says on his website that he’s not gay, but someone very close to him has been through the struggles of ‘coming out’.” He writes Yossi’s first-person story with such tenderness and patience, beautifully portraying his grappling between religion and faith, personal enlightenment versus religious doctrine”. For me Josh is also a loveable character and it is his presence in Yossi’s life that is really part of the impetus for his questioning everything around him. Josh was a great shaker-up for Yossi and his own complicated back-story was fun to read.
While Eli Glasman is a new writer he has a voice that we need to listen to. He writes about the important issues we face—sexuality, spirituality, culture, family, and finding the space in between. Keep your eyes on him. I know we will be hearing more.