I somewhat begrudgingly grabbed my jacket off the seat and allowed the old man to sit down. My momentary inconvenience turned to joy when I heard the man speaking Hebrew on his cell phone. Although I was a bit scared by his ultra-Orthodox garb -- the top hat, the beard, the black suit -- I tried to put my prejudices aside and practice some Hebrew on my train ride to New York.
And so I began with, "Me'eyfo atah?" ("Where are you from?") And so the conversation continued. It turns out Avraham was from Jerusalem and had been in the States fundraising for his Kiruv organization, essentially a group whose mission is to turn other Jews ultra-Orthodox. We then chatted back and forth, he complimented me on my Hebrew, and I began to relax. After all, I wouldn't want to make assumptions about him any more than I'd want him to judge me.
Then came the question: "Are you married?"
"Because I'm gay, and in most states I can't marry."
The fact was that I wouldn't be married now anyways -- I'm 26, and I'm not ready! But I wanted to speak proudly of who I am. I explained to him that I thought it was important to respect different ways of living, just like I respected his.
"Don't you want to be with a woman?"
"No, I've tried, and it's not for me."
"But can't you fix it? Or improve it?"
Fix it or improve it. I think that's finally what put me over the edge. The pain was searing. All my life I had worked to build my confidence as a member of the LGBT community. I had pushed back on this notion that I should be with a woman, or that it should be anyone else's business. And here was a man from halfway around the world whom I had never met before telling me whom to sleep with. This man whom I worked so hard not to stereotype was proving to be ever so stereotypical.
He became quiet, and when a double seat opened up, he moved to another part of the train. While I knew it must've been simply because he wanted more space, a part of me thought it was because I was gay. I tried not to dwell on the issue, so I searched for calming tracks on my iPod and stared out the window and thought.
We finally pulled into Penn Station, and I grabbed my things. I stepped off the train and saw Avraham struggling with his luggage and his sense of direction. I quickly offered to show him the exit he should take. I then walked with him, pointed to the exit he wanted, and said goodbye. Truth be told, I really didn't want to stand anywhere near the man. I was hurt and offended and was hoping to avoid another lecture on my sex life and identity. So I headed to some random exit, not even sure it was the one I wanted. It turned out to be farther from my destination than I wanted. At about the same time, I thought to myself, "That old man must be totally lost by now."
So I had a choice: I could get off at the farther exit and avoid Avraham, or I could, despite it all, be a mensch and help the man find his way out. And without thinking another moment, I ran, my bag bouncing behind me, and found Avraham dazed and confused. I asked him if I could take one of his pieces of luggage, and he handed me one to carry. We then walked together toward the exits, saying not a word, I in front and he behind. We got to the escalator and went up toward the street.
As we got to the top, he smiled at me and said, "I hope you become ultra-Orthodox."
While I know Israelis aren't big on "please" and "thank you," this really stunned me. After lugging this man's baggage around Penn Station for 20 minutes, this is how he thanks me?
How was I to make sense of what seemed like such senseless ignorance? The best explanation I could up with was this: the man actually liked me. And he did change seats because he wanted more space, not because he feared me. And ultimately, he wanted me to become ultra-Orthodox because, much like an evangelical Christian "sharing the word," this was his way of thanking me. So wrapped up in an ideology of superiority where the only way to live right is his way, he said all he could say: be like me.
And so I don't really question my decision to help the man, nor do I live my life any less proudly than before. As my rabbi once said, "Sometimes we do good deeds to remind ourselves of the kind of people we don't want to become." You see, when Avraham told me he hoped I'd become ultra-Orthodox, the only response I could muster was, "No, thanks. I'm OK." What I wish I had told him is what I hoped for him: an open mind.