Many times people ask, “Do you think it’s nature or nurture?” I always respond by telling them that my love for Israel is most likely a combination of both.
Raised Orthodox in the Washington Heights section of New York, I can’t say that I grew up with a strong Zionistic passion. I attended Breuer’s Yeshiva, a mainly black-hat German-Jewish “yekkish” yeshiva that taught us more about the importance of being on time than the goings-on of Israel. We never participated in the Israel Day Parade as it was co-ed, and while I received many certificates of trees and Israel Bonds for my bar mitzvah, I didn’t really have a close connection to Israel until I studied in a post-high school yeshiva in Neve Yaakov, in northeastern Jerusalem.
Living in Israel for two years was the first time I was away from home. Being 18, it was also the time in my life when I was figuring out who I was as a person. While I was studying in yeshiva, I was also starting to identify my gay feelings. I recall a time when I phoned a rabbi in Israel and told him of my feelings of confusion about my sexual identity. The rabbi asked how old I was and when I told him, his response was, “Oh, you’re just young and confused. It’s probably just a phase. Focus on yeshiva, your connection to Hashem and your learning; you’ll be just fine.”
And so I listened. I spent the next two years immersing myself in Torah studies and really strengthening my relationship with Hashem and Eretz Yisrael. I toured the holiest parts of Israel with my yeshiva and recall praying at the graves of many of our ancestors, always asking God for guidance. I found solace and hope in following some of the kabbalistic intensities of Israel. I knew dunking in the Arizal mikveh in Safed would offer me the opportunity to repent before leaving this world, and praying at Amuka would find me a wife within a year.
As my colored shirts turned to white and my khaki pants turned to wool, I would spend much time at the Western Wall, and during my walks through Jerusalem, I would think about my Jewish identity and connect to Hashem in ways I never did back home in the States. With my tzitzis dangling from my pants, I would hover near the Kotel, at times feeling I wasn’t holy enough to touch or kiss the Wall, but connect to Hashem and the Jewish people around me who were also feeling the holiness of the Presence.
“What do you expect from me?” I found myself asking over and over as I read a chapter of Tehillim [Psalms].
Fast forward 10 years: I am now an out gay man. Many times people ask me, “Do you think it’s nature or nurture?” I always respond by telling them it really doesn’t matter, because either Hashem “natured” me to be gay or put me in the environment that nurtured me to be gay.
I decide to return to Israel, and as soon as I board that El Al plane, I already have a feeling of hope and a closer connection to God. I imagine Israel in 1948 and think about how it is a country built on hope that still offers hope to many Jewish people around the world. I’m not exactly sure what Zionism means today, but when I’m in Israel, I feel the unconditional love of a God to His Jewish people, and my connection to that people.
I explore Tel Aviv, a city I never visited before. While I had shed my Orthodox identity, and the clothing that went along with it, my heart begins to beat fast as I recall the connection to Israel that strongly solidified so many years before. On a walk along the Tel Aviv boardwalk on the way to the gay beach, a Chabad emissary asks if I had put tefillin on that day. As he binds my arm with leather straps, I connect with Hashem in that ever-close way I can only do in Israel.
Having reconciled my faith and sexuality, I find myself surprised at my ability to actually touch the Kotel and pray to Hashem in a much deeper and personal way. I find myself taking in the energy around me from Jews from all walks of faith, and feel connected to a people who, no matter where they are on the spectrum of Jewish identity, still feel at home at this very special place.
I know at that time that no matter if I identified as Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, the Kotel will always be home to me, and that God will listen to my thoughts and prayers. After ridding my heart of turmoil, self-hate and questioning, I am now able to stand in front of this wall with an open heart. Still, as I look around me at others praying in this special place, I find myself asking Hashem the very same question I asked years before, “What do you expect of me?”
Jayson Littman is the founder of He’bro, which produces and promotes events for gay secular and cultural Jews in New York.