In a pretty happy childhood I never questioned the things that I was told. Everything seemed so simple and genuine within my Mexican Jewish community that I was fully convinced of their truth: look both ways before crossing the street; there’s a good guy and a bad guy in every movie; eating bread during Pesach is forbidden. It made so much sense that the how’s and why’s didn’t bother me with their rhetoric, until I looked inside myself.
During puberty, a new (though latent) part of my identity was asking to be heard in a deep way. I didn’t really get what was going on, but I was pretty sure that if I heard what that voice needed to say, I’d have no choice but to watch my world shatter.
See, I’d always had it easy with the girls. Talking to them came effortlessly and it felt right to be around them. I had grown up with such strong women figures, like my mother and my grandmother, that I was naturally inclined to be more comfortable around girls. With the boys it was different; I didn’t know how to talk to them. I figured that if I swore a lot I’d automatically be invited to the sleepovers and stop being so afraid of soccer.
The older I got, the more boundaries between genders appeared as if out of nowhere. Girls started to ask me why I spent so much time with them. They weren’t comfortable with my presence anymore, maybe because they wanted to talk about a boy or the changes that their bodies were going through. Besides, my father suddenly realized he had to train me for my bar mitzvah and he decided that forcing me to go to synagogue would do the trick. There, in an Orthodox synagogue, I had to be with the men in the men’s section and watch how men behaved.
Now, Mexico is a pretty “macho” society. Men don’t bond in an open way; their conversations begin with money, drift to sports, pass through checking out women, and transition into how women are so complicated. Only then they can hint that they’re feeling something. Of course this is not true for every man but this is what I saw at the synagogue. How much more could I understand about it when I was 11?
I’d been told so many times that I belonged to this part of the gender party line that I just started copying what I saw. In a sense, it worked. I didn’t have to face the part of my identity that was begging for recognition.
With the boys it was different; I didn’t know how to talk to them. I figured that if I swore a lot I’d automatically be invited to the sleepovers and stop being so afraid of soccer.
Maybe by now I should’ve already told you what I’m talking about. Even though you probably figured it out, you want me to confirm it, right? This is exactly how I felt. Everything was there subconsciously, but there was a long way from noticing it to actual saying it out loud (even to myself), so let’s leave it unnamed for a few more paragraphs.
By employing the “male conversation formula” I had learned at the synagogue to fit in the men’s sections of my life, I ended up locking my feelings away. Even though I never quite felt like one of the guys, and I would terribly miss my female friends, it wasn’t so obvious to others how weird I was.
I was told that being gay was as unnatural as having three arms; that I wouldn’t count for minyan; that I could not get near children because I would pervert them. They managed to drive me far away with the force of every hit I took.
This new mask I had developed would’ve lasted no more than a year or so, but before it could explode and expose the real me, a twist presented itself. Although I wasn’t welcomed in the female groups anymore, some girls really wanted me to be with them. It turned out I was the boy that some of them wanted to talk about when I wasn’t around and I decided I would take what I could get! I started hanging out with girls individually, treating them as friends without realizing what their expectations were, and when their romantic intentions finally became clear to me, I decided to look at it all as just a game of holding hands and writing love letters.
My little adventure continued for a few more years. I had the chance to muffle the sound of that locked away part of myself that, by now, was beginning to scream out of desperation. I’d distract myself from the noise by being in as many relationships as I could. I had the popular girlfriend, the shy one, the new-girl-at school, the nerdy one, and of course, the lesbian one.
I’d distract myself from the noise by being in as many relationships as I could.
With that last one, it seemed that I had made it! I had finally found a road that wouldn’t force me to abandon my family, my friends, my roots and my Jewish identity, that would also let me avoid making eye contact with that angry boy inside that hadn’t been heard even once. Poor guy, I was being so hard on him, but the thought of the shame in my parents’ eyes, the disgust in my friends’ reactions, and the broken heart of my grandmother petrified me. I knew it would only take one time to give in to what he wanted me to hear.
I’d love to say that I couldn’t hold it in much longer because of what my heart was telling me or because of how faithful I wanted to be to myself, but this didn’t make me blink once. See, within my community, everything that sets you apart from the established collective identity can be a threat. I was trying just as hard as everybody else to fit in to the way of life we’d been taught, but my hormones couldn’t care less.
I started to live a double life without much skill for it. Little escapes turned into big adventures with boys I’d meet on chat rooms and secret lonely nights out. Keeping these stories to myself was so demanding that I ended up closing myself off from others even more. Getting caught was the most horrifying thought I had ever had, so I was even less open to sharing my feelings than I had been before.
…being gay is not something you choose. You can’t suddenly be straight by wishing it.
Unable to support this lifestyle, I spent several months avoiding the fact that I had to make a decision that, no matter what, would force me to leave half of my identity behind. I remember a point at which I considered locking myself up in a loveless heterosexual marriage and pretending I was another quiet and smiling member of the Jewish community. But before I could gather the strength to do it, life came up with a new plot line: I fell in love.
I met him at college. After a few months we were so in love that we couldn’t hide it. The guilt started to mix with this strange, new comfort of allowing myself to just be. Although I had listened to my heart out of the hormones, I decided I’d shout who I am to the whole world out of love. After all, the intimidating barriers and prejudices I was afraid of could have just been in my mind.
But unfortunately, they were not. Soon enough the optimism was torn down by a very aggressive and violent series of reactions that, as I feared, drove me far away from Jewish life. I suddenly realized that I was not simply considered a sinner, as I thought I would be: I was a manifestation of the sin itself. There was no space for me, an abomination, within the walls of my community or my home anymore.
My mother’s reaction destroyed my whole conception of family and filled me with fear of coming out to any Jew. She barricaded our home to somehow protect me from myself. I was allowed to live at home as long as I’d pretend I wasn’t who I was. She’d scream awful pejorative phrases at me with such hate and desperation that made me feel as if I had no home anymore. This confirmed for me that there was no way of being Jewish and gay, and that I would have to choose between them.
I was not simply considered a sinner… I was a manifestation of the sin itself.
But being gay is not something you choose. You can’t suddenly be straight by wishing it, just as much as you cannot become gay by wanting it. Religion, on the other hand, is something you can choose to leave behind. The punches were coming from every corner of the deeply traditionalist people I grew up with, and their hate speech was so determined to cast me out that I had to make no effort to distance myself from them. I was told that being gay was as unnatural as having three arms; that I wouldn’t count for minyan; that I could not get near children because I would pervert them. They managed to drive me far away with the force of every hit I took.
By distancing myself from the mainstream Mexican Jewish life, I realized that my identity crisis may not have been caused by my homosexuality alone. Since tradition is the core of the Mexican Jewish community, its educational system is mainly based on teaching rituals and centuries-old ways of doing things that often didn’t originate from Judaism. I realized that I had never been taught Jewish philosophy, theology, or history (apart from Purim, Pesach, and the other holidays) and I didn’t even know what made me Jewish.
Not wanting to let go, I got deep into the Jewish history and philosophy of feminism, homosexuality, and conversion (all concepts condemned by my community) and to my surprise, I discovered the value and richness in concepts that were only words to me then: compassion, tolerance, unity, diversity.
I managed to let go of the learned idea that I had to respect the past by repeating what has been done for centuries and realized I could honor that past by living honestly in the present. How can something that was established hundreds of years ago be the reason why I cannot be myself today? How can respecting myself mean disrespecting my past? Different perspectives widened my sight and helped me understand why people needed to reject me in order to maintain their identity: because of the lack of knowledge and love.
How can something that was established hundreds of years ago be the reason why I cannot be myself today? How can respecting myself mean disrespecting my past?
See, the institutionalized Mexican Jewish community sees Judaism as an unchanging concept without realizing how many transformations it underwent before reaching us. Within the communities’ walls of tradition and loyalty to the past, a lot has been taken away from individual growth and development. Too many feel a lack of something they can’t put their finger on, but since it’s a shared feeling, it’s becoming part of the Mexican Jewish identity.
Today, I feel lucky to have been an outcast, for it made it possible for me to learn and love outside of the norm. This softened every punch I took and eventually inspired my mom to do the same and and transition into the caring, life celebrating, inclusive person she has become.
Nine years have passed since then and I still feel transformed, but I am anything but that. I am myself more than ever before. I know now how knowledge allows you to hear alternate opinions without feeling threatened and how love builds a space in which you can relate to anyone with true willingness to understand them.
Because of this, I can’t turn my back on those that did so to me. I now take the punches and aim to feel love for the ones who throw them. I still fall a lot, but I am certain of my Jewish-gay identity, for it gives me the strength to pull myself back together again every time; to look in the eye of those who keep trying to make the walls higher and let them know that I have learned with my whole heart and I have loved with my entire soul, and that if that is not Jewish, I don’t know what is.
Jaime Azrad is a 28 year old Mexican Jew with a BA in Communications. He specializes in strategic communications management for NGO’s and advocates for indigenous and minority group’s rights and inclusion in Mexican society. He is also a volunteer for Guimel, the Mexican Jewish LGBT+ Committee. Jaime can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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