Once upon a time, when my youngest, Benjy, was about 16, he acquired a broad-brimmed black Borsalino fedora. At that age I had one, too. The “Bors,” as he reverently called it, makes a statement of religious allegiance, the sine qua non headgear of the Orthodox Jewish males we call “black-hatters.”
Benjy wore his Bors to synagogue, still unsure whether brim-up or brim-down made the quintessential statement. Later that afternoon, he would change his Bors uniform for floppy Nikes and hip-hop. The same evening, would put on an NHL jersey. Finally, to bed in the scrubs he “borrowed” from his sister, the doc.
At 16, my boy was exercising his inalienable right to try on a broad, incongruous variety of personae. Sooner or later, he found one that fits. In his adulthood, he has added a kapote to the wardrobe, the garb that confers the appellation of “Chasidic” (a “neo-Lubavitcher”) on him.
I am proud that I never second-guessed his decisions. He did and does them with my blessings and envy, especially now that I am fighting off my twilight years.
A half-century ago, it was not so easy for my friend Jack.
Jack was artistic, inclined toward theater and dance. He ran and threw a ball “like a girl.” He played Curly in a youth theater production of “Oklahoma.” On occasion, Jack would get a little too close and touchy to a boy, in ways that made you feel squeamish — perhaps a function of being the only child of remote and unemotional parents, or perhaps a pre-adolescent testing out of his own sexual ambivalence.
Jack, they said, was a “homo.” That was the cruel caption ordained by the gang of pubescent boys who, like most boys at that confusing age, were no more secure in their sexuality than he was.
“Homo!” they would leer at him as he passed them in the hall. “Homo!” they would yell as he reluctantly took his turn at bat in the schoolyard. “Homo!” they would hiss at him over the telephone before slamming down the receiver.
But despite it all, Jack was a nice kid. Or, at least he was sufficiently bereft of bitterness to welcome a sensitive mama’s boy like me into his friendship. It was an odd relationship, certainly by adolescent male standards of middle-class Chicago, circa 1962 — an amalgam of sexual misinformation, sports, put-downs and toilet humor.
Jack and I sat for hours, talking about teachers, aspiration, only-child-hood, hurt, the plight of being “different.” Never once did he make a physical advance toward me, not even an affectionate stroke on the arm.
To Jack’s tormentors, I was a “homo-lover.” But, I was a kindly kid, never the bully, so gradually I became Jack’s advocate and defender. Thus, I came upon a disheartening reality that still, more than four decades later, I accept only with greatest difficulty and ire: Hateful, prejudiced people are belligerent to appeals to conscience and compassion.
After all the “How would you feel if . . ?” and “Do unto others!” arguments have been exhausted, too many people are still driven by the urge to conform, the need to be accepted, the inclination to judge, the fear of the different and the unknown.
So, Jack remained a “homo.” I remained a “homo-lover,” a friend, an advocate, a defender. And I am as amazed, frustrated and angry today as I was 50 years ago that — despite all the supposed progress in the intervening years — such malice and ignorance still prevail, even proffered by people in power and a malignant cesspool of know-nothings.
The image of Benjy trying on his Bors and a changing persona draws my mind back to Jack, who, in the best of all possible worlds, should have enjoyed the freedom to discover a “self” that fit, unencumbered by the cruelty of his peers.
I lost touch with Jack years ago, not knowing whether that talented youngster wound up homosexual, heterosexual or something in between. All I can do is wish him peace and respite from the torment of his different-ness. But with callousness and xenophobia still so rife, I’m sorry I can’t give that wish more than half a chance.
WILUDI (Marc Howard Wilson) is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, SC. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org