The bass just underneath Rihanna’s Umbrella was making the singular gin and tonic that I’d been slowly nursing all night vibrate. I noted with curiosity that the DJ was mixing some Ishay Ribo into the song, as well. Either way, the over-iced drink was sweating much more than I was. I would have had to move onto the dance floor to get my heartbeat up, but all I could muster was a shuffle ball change between my right and left leg, accompanied by some sort of weird overbite and neck flick that caused my face to contort in such a way that a few people stopped to ask me if I was alright, having wondered if I had just stubbed my toe or pulled a muscle.
I’m 47 years old. It’s past midnight (I know because Abba’s “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” is playing), and I’m at a dance party in Tel Aviv. A gay dance party. A gay, religious dance party where the vast majority of the people on the floor had rhythm in their feet and kippot on their heads. And I was there, wearing a pulled down baseball cap, lurking in the shadows, wishing that I had brought ear plugs. I looked like Carmen Sandiego.
I am so awkward. I don’t remember always being this awkward, but given the situation, it was pretty hard to ignore the facts on the ground. It was made all the more surreal when a student of mine, someone I had taught when he was in fifth grade more than 20 years ago and haven’t really seen since, came up to me, reintroduced himself, looked me right in the eye, and told me how proud he was to see me here tonight. It took my breath away.
I checked my phone regularly, hoping for any sign of an emergency, maybe one of the kids was hungry and would need me to come home to make a frozen pizza or something. No such luck…damn independent children. Relief came some 15 minutes later when my phone buzzed because of a WhatsApp group for Jewish educators that I’m in.
Someone in the group posed a concern about teacher shortages and asked if others were feeling similar pressures. Given that I am no longer a Head of School, nor am I currently in the United States, I paused for a second, knowing full well that this question wasn’t for me and that I didn’t have much insight to offer. Still, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, so I pointed at my phone, made a theatrical sigh, and shouted out, above the din, to no one in particular, “I gotta take this; work emergency.” I walked out of the club, furiously typing.
Standing in the parking lot, a few seconds after posting my wisdom to the group, someone responded with that little heart emoji. You know the one? Not a big heart, but just a little one that you can place in the corner of a text, acknowledging it without committing to moving the conversation along. It was good enough. I had done my work for the evening. It was time to go home.
For fear of complaining or sounding ungrateful, we don’t often talk about the complexity that rests just beneath the hats that most of us wear. I navigate being a gay, single father in a religious community. I make dinner nightly while constantly (and not so subtly) begging for my children’s approval on how well I grilled the chicken or boiled a box of rice pilaf. I am an established Jewish educator with years of experience and wisdom, clumsily stumbling around dance parties, wearing a baseball hat despite the fact that everyone else is wearing a kippah, trying to meet similar, like-minded people. Most nights, what I really want is Chinese food and silence. And I could, for all intent and purposes, have that, but disappearing into that comfort would also demand a high price.
Over the past few years, I have been managing my voice more than ever before, sometimes minimizing; sometimes speaking out, trying to tease out the differences between secrecy and privacy. The former being toxic; the latter, necessary, even though it’s also blurry.
Recently, I was invited by some former students to speak to them and their friends at a local college campus. I was honored by the invitation and in their interest in hearing the story of a closeted Orthodox educator and parent who, despite the fear and skepticisms, came out and is trying desperately to keep his feet planted in each one of his worlds. For a brief moment, the talk was suspended when a concern was raised that such a topic wouldn’t fly at an Orthodox sponsored event. I was welcome to speak, just not about sexuality.
I wasn’t offended. In fact, I was grateful that we were naming the issue and not coming up with some back door excuse as to why the event needed to be canceled. There wasn’t another topic that I felt compelled to speak about, so I politely suggested that I would bow out. Before doing so, I encouraged one more push, hoping that the coordinators would see enough merit in the topic to allow these young men and women, all 24 and older, the opportunity to grapple with it and with me. My position is not, nor has it ever been, what Orthodoxy “should do.” I am simply a voice of reality, and this reality drives carpool and keeps Shabbat. This reality awkwardly dances in Tel Aviv past midnight, while simultaneously giving advice to Jewish educators in the field. The push worked; the conversation went well.
I get that I’m not saying anything that we don’t already know, but here it is: nuance matters. We can hold these crazy, contradictory ideas and values in our hands all at once, and that doesn’t make us hypocrites or liars. It makes us human beings who have the creative and critical thinking skills necessary to not just function but to thrive in a world that is not defined by eithers and ors. It’s counterintuitive, but it just might be the key to our collective success. I’m pretty sure that I cannot be the only one in this world that lugs different, conflicting parts around. The good news is, at least for me, that those parts are now on the outside, getting just enough oxygen necessary to breathe.