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GUEST POST: Ga'avah yehudit—Growing up Jewish and Gay

The following is the first in a series of featured AMERIQUEER GUEST POSTS that will focus on the intersection of spirituality and sexuality in America as more and more gays and lesbians come out spiritually. Similar features will cover all of America's major faiths and will run daily this week and into the next.

Matthew Krug Miller is an economics major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He puts his gay and Jewish mind to use on his blog at http://matthewkrugmiller.blogspot.com.

When asked to write about what it means to be spiritual and gay, I was given the premise that we gays all know how difficult it is to be both. I want to make it clear at the outset that this premise is mistaken. This assumption does not fit my experience as a gay Jew. I cannot remember a time in my childhood or young adulthood where there was conflict between my sexual identity and spirituality. The closest difficulty I have faced is not being able to find that nice Jewish boy that my mom wants me to meet.

I come from a liberal, Chicago suburban Jewish family. My father's family has been here since the mid-1800s but my mom's father escaped the Holocaust, fled to Israel, and finally settled in Chicago. I grew up knowing distinctly that I was a Jew. My mother emphasized that we were unique, and that our situation, despite the tolerance we Jews have in America, was always precarious and that Israel was our only protection from persecution. So, I grew up with this sense of "otherness". At times, I rebelled, but most times, I was very proud to be a Jew. Today, I have a secure and evolving sense of my Jewish self.

Around that same time in childhood, I began to have feelings for boys as well. When I was in fourth grade, I stared at attractive boys in my class a lot and loved to be around them during recess. I knew intuitively I was gay at this time but I didn't know what to think about it in Jewish terms. Homosexuality was not discussed in my Sunday school classes. No one told me it was bad, but no teacher had told me it was good either. I never heard my rabbi preach about the sin of homosexuality ever. I did not grow up even with the sense that there was a conflict between being gay and being Jewish. There simply was not any condemnation, let alone any mention, of it in my religious upbringing.

I now know why this is now. There are two types of Judaism, loosely. There is the liberal branch, consisting of the Reform and Conservative movements in which I grew up, that is tolerant of homosexuality and then there is the Orthodox community. Unlike the liberal branch, the Orthodox has a much more austere and critical perspective of homosexuality.

When I did bring up the issue of homosexuality with my mom one time, she had said that we Jews understand it as a product of its place and time. The Torah actually does says that homosexuality is an abomination. In ancient times, however, the world population was very scarce; people and infants died all the time. It was imperative that the Jews survive and only through a sexual relationship between a man and a woman could that be done. Same sex love between men or between women did not help to ensure the survival of mankind and the Torah accordingly condemns and discourages homosexual practices. However, Reform Jews don't believe the ancient rabbis believed that same sex love was immoral. Reform Judaism rejects any suggestion that being gay is any kind of sin when we look at the Torah in its ancient context.

Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, understand homosexuality as grave a sin as Catholics, evangelical Christians, and many young Orthodox gay Jews are not as fortuitous as I to grow up in such an open-minded and liberal household. Many succumb to family pressures to marry, and some unfortunately commit suicide. I heard of one religious Jew who, in order to purge himself of his homosexuality, survived on a diet of cigarettes and water. My heart goes out to him because I do not know Judaism as a faith whose precepts would make a man go to such gruesome depth to suppress his identity.

On the contrary, my parents support me and remind me of their unconditional love all the time. They cherish me as their son, and my sexual identity does not compromise that. Despite this, though, there are times when I get so depressed because the feeling of being different overwhelms me. Knowing that I am both gay and Jewish, and knowing the hardships that both groups face within and outside each community, exhausts my soul sometimes. I become inarticulate, despondent, and withdrawn from friends and family. I can speak, but only tersely; I can think, but my thoughts are convoluted; I can live, but I barely survive.

As soup for my soul, I turn to the Torah, Judaism's holiest book to uplift my spirits. I remember that the Torah forbids the suppression of identity and I remind myself that I wasn't created in error. For instance, we Jews emphasize heavily that each person is made in the image of God. Since I was made in His image, God did not make me as a pile of junk. I must believe that I am valuable because I was created for a purpose and to have purpose in life. This Jewish philosophy gives life to my gay identity more than any gay bar or pride parade every can.

Torah also teaches me that self-love is self-acceptance. Because I want to better synthesize my identities, I have being helping revise the LGBT Jewish student group at the Hillel at the University of Illinois. The group is called Naches, which is the Yiddish word for Pride. The mission of Naches is to create a vibrant, welcoming Jewish LGBT community where students can explore and celebrate all aspects of their identities. I want to help gay Jewish students feel empowered to embrace and fuse both of their identities through social and educational programming. This past year we held queer-themed Shabbats, which were very popular.

I know many gays who, yes, do feel uncomfortable with religion, are agnostic or atheist, and for them that is entirely ok. But, my experience shows that spirituality and being gay are reconcilable and that having a spirituality can help make being gay more holy and more meaningful. I am grateful that I have been 'twice blessed' to be both gay and Jewish. It is such a blessing in my life.

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