‘Mom, do you have a minute.”
My mother was sitting at her desk in our family’s dank, basement business office. I was on my way to work.
“Sure,” she said. She turned away from her desk.
I took a breath. I was about to tell my mother something about me that would forever change my relationship with her and my family, something that those closest to me had suspected for a while, something that many people like me felt.
“If I give you some extra money every week,” I asked, “can you buy only kosher chicken for us from now on?”
Mom stared ahead. I was outing myself — as a baal teshuvah.
The product of a Conservative bar mitzvah, of a Reform religious school, I had lived at the edges of an Orthodox life for several years, slowly increasing my observance of the mitzvot. Now I was stepping over the line.
Mom, proudly Jewish, who had found her immigrant parents’ Orthodox lifestyle too restricting, knew what my simple question meant.
She buried her head on her typewriter. “Where did I go wrong?” she asked in mock confusion. She knew this conversation was inevitable.
This was about 25 years ago, but I thought about it recently when James McGreevey, New Jersey’s politically embattled and spiritually tortured governor, declared on nationally broadcast news conference that he was a “gay American” and resigning, effective last week, from office.
Many details of what really happened with his alleged Israeli paramour are a matter for history and the courts, but the rough draft of McGreevey’s recent life and his public soul baring struck me as familiar.
As someone who believes in the unfailing and uncompromising nature of Torah and traditional Jewish ethics, I cannot accept homosexual behavior as a legitimate expression of intimacy.
As a heterosexual, I cannot comprehend the urges that McGreevey said led to his political downfall.
As someone who examined his soul and decided to lead the only type of life he felt true to himself, I cannot help but empathize with McGreevey.
I don’t mean to be flippant. The pain his announcement caused him and his family probably can’t be compared to the discomfort of someone embarking on a new spiritual path, be it Jewish or Christian or Islamic or any other faith — most parts of society accept religiosity more readily than homosexuality.
But there are often costs to a religious change of identity — hurt feelings, split families, accusations of being a “fanatic.” Telling parents that you have decided to take a different spiritual path is arguably less earthshaking in its consequences than the governor’s step, but every baal teshuvah must feel, to some degree, that he or she has taken a few steps in McGreevey’s shoes. There are issues of “rejected” parental values, of family meals you can no longer join, of assumed holier-than-thou feelings on your part.
There are even workshops for parents of baalei teshuvah, which address some of the problems that arise when Elliott become Eliyahu — just as there are support groups for the parents of gay children.
I was lucky. My family didn’t need a workshop. None of the unpleasant scenarios happened to us. My family and treasured friends supported my lifestyle change even if they didn’t quite understand it. My mother buys the kosher chicken, and keeps a set of kosher dishes to accommodate me when I come home. My friends are still my friends. They see that I have not changed, although some of my actions necessarily have.
But I hear stories of fellow baalei teshuvah who are not so fortunate, who remain estranged from their families, who are bitter.
Changing one’s life — or announcing any change of identity — is not a step lightly taken. Ditto for friends who take the opposite step from me, telling their frum parents that they are leaving the observant way of life.
McGreevey, according to media reports, weighed his decision for weeks once details of his hidden life were apparently about to become public in a lawsuit. Before making what may be the most public self-outing of a prominent homosexual in American history, he sought the counsel of already out-of-the-closet friends in the gay community and the directors of a gay advocacy group.
After making the declaration that he knew was sure to change his personal and professional life, he looked relieved, like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, his aides said. The worst decision, to paraphrase Churchill, is better than the best equivocation.
Anyone who makes a difficult decision, who tells one’s circle of acquaintances the truth about his or her life, must know how McGreevey felt.
I felt spiritually at ease after I spoke with my mother that morning 25 years ago. My life since then has only improved. I wish James McGreevey, who left public office on Monday for a new private journey, the same blessing.