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Goodnight, New York: A Sermon on the Move

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The following is from an essay that appears in a new collection of LGBTQ writing about New York City, Love, Christopher Street: Reflections of New York City edited by Thomas Keith, with an introduction by Christopher Bram, and published by Vantage Point Books.

World AIDS Day, 2011
Parshat VaYetze, 5772

"My heart is in the east, and I am at the end of the west."

--Yehudah Halevi, Jewish philosopher and poet of medieval Spain

My heart took me to the east. I was a Long Island girl who grew up Lutheran and then fell in love with Judaism. It didn't hurt that my first college girlfriend was a nice Jewish girl who introduced me to religion as I had never known it before. Though the girlfriend came and went, I graduated from college and got on a plane to Israel with nothing but a duffel bag full of clothes and the determination to become a Jew.

In Jerusalem I was introduced to the line from Yehudah Halevi: "My heart is in the east, and I am at the end of the west." While Jerusalem entranced me, when I first heard Halevi's poem, the city I thought of was New York. I had traveled all the way to the east, only to discover that my heart was still in the west. I remember wondering whether Jerusalem could ever become as special to me as New York. Jerusalem certainly has a longer history in terms of its hold on humanity; but in terms of my personal history, there was no doubt that New York had pride of place.

For me, as for many others, New York is the place where I found myself. In Halevi's poem, the word chosen for "I" -- "anokhi" in Hebrew -- is somewhat unusual. There and in the Bible, it is possible to read "anokhi" as suggesting a kind of revelation, some realization or actualization of self. Jerusalem was central to my journey, but I never would have gotten there if not for New York.

Growing up, New York City was always a place of both possibility and caution. Trips into the city were an event. My family would take the Long Island Rail Road into Penn Station, then take the subway to wherever we were going; usually, down to Chinatown. Before getting on the subway, my mother would instruct me, "Be careful who you look at, because they might look at you back. Just look down at your shoes."

As a result of this sage advice, I have vivid memories of the shoes I wore on New York subways for decades, and the memories that go with each pair.

I am sitting on the subway, looking down at my black patent leather Mary Janes.

My mother made me wear them into the city, all dressed up to meet with the relatives who weren't close enough to invite to our home but whom I apparently still needed to impress. The number of Band-aids needed to buffer my feet from the assault of the patent leathers was substantial. I remember sitting on the subway looking down and thinking: "Maybe one day, I'll be able to wear comfortable shoes."

My family moved from Queens to the safety of the Long Island suburbs before I was 5, but even then I knew I was different from other girls. When we played house, I didn't just want to be a wife, I wanted to have one, too. Whatever role I wanted to play, I knew the shoes had to fit.

I am sitting on the subway, looking down at my sandals.

A few years later, I found myself looking at sandals. These were for trips to Coney Island to see Aunt Rosemary, one of my mother's best friends, in the Mermaid Parade. She had long red hair, and a fantastic sense of adventure. As teenagers, she and my mother created an Elvis Fan Club, getting together with friends, singing along loudly to Elvis, fawning over pictures, and wearing pasted-on sideburns in homage. Perhaps, not surprisingly, Rosemary ended up with a lot of gay friends and became an institution at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. Every year, she would sew her elaborate costume herself. She was a bride mermaid, the Star-Spangled Mermaid, and any number of years, she was crowned Queen. She would show me the pictures afterward, and now, I have no doubt they were censored. Now that I'm a parent I have jumped across the table to intercept Rosemary's pictures from reaching my own young daughters -- but the creativity and playfulness of the parade never ceased to amaze me.

I am sitting on the subway, looking down at my white leather boots.

The white leather boots -- with heels -- were part of my straight girl drag in high school. I grew up in the land of football teams and the big hair of the 1980s on Long Island. It was not the best environment for a budding young lesbian, so my eyes were always toward Manhattan, including weekend excursions to clubs like the Limelight and Tunnel, with our highly suspect IDs. Those of us who were gay knew that the people who lived in the city were part of a whole world that was different, a world in which they could be themselves. It was just a matter of time until we could get there.

I am sitting on the subway, looking down at my Doc Martens.

They had black and pink laces. I was 19, home from college, going to the New York Pride Parade for the very first time. I was with my girlfriend, and I was clad in my ACT UP T-shirt. I was angry about my cousin Mark, who had died of AIDS not long before; I was angry about all the people who were dying of AIDS, and the deafening silence of our government.

Mark was, in many ways, the epitome of a Southern man: well-mannered, genteel, with a very sweet drawl. He also was a hairdresser, and gay. Mark was HIV-positive before anyone knew what it was. He ended up in New York staying with my parents for a summer, when it was clear that Arkansas was not ready for him. That summer, he took me from my parents' home on Long Island to spend time with him in the city.

It was Mark who showed me Christopher Street when I was in sixth grade, saying, "This is a place where you can be yourself. Just be careful who you go with." Mark was lost along with a generation of creativity and progress in the LGBTQ community. Outrage at the lack of care and services given to him and so many others fueled my activism for years. People like Brenda Howard and Larry Kramer were my heroes. New York City gave their voices a much-needed public platform, and I wanted to be part of it. My boots were made for marching.

I am sitting on the subway, looking down at my Timberlands.

After the Docs came the Timberlands. In these years, as a girl who looked like a guy, I was especially careful not to look up for fear of being beaten up. I no longer had my fellow activists around me; now I was a rabbinical student, realizing that the identities which felt so integrated to me -- lesbian, rabbi, Jew -- were contradictions to others. At the same time, I was coming into my own: a kid who grew up Lutheran in the highly heterosexual suburbs, to a visible queer sitting on the subway, on the way to her Talmud class.

I am sitting on the subway, looking down at my Fluevogs.

These shoes frequently walk the Upper West Side. Now, I am on my way to a board meeting of Keshet, a national grassroots organization working for the full inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life. After years as a congregational rabbi in the Catskills, my focus is back on the city, where my partner is a rabbi and our kids go to school. I have just published my first book, and so these shoes also are taking me through airports to book signings around the country. Although I am still sure to keep my eyes on my feet, more and more, I try to look up.

I look up from my shoes, and I see change.

Gay life in New York City has changed over all these years as I looked at my own shoes on the subway. Now I am old enough to need to wear sneakers to Pride. What a contrast the 2011 Pride Parade was compared to 1991 in my Docs. This time, the parade was just after same-sex marriage had been declared legal in New York. I had been in Albany the night the legislation passed, as part of Pride in the Pulpit, a group of liberal clergy, vastly outnumbered and outspent by members of the religious right. Until the vote was taken, we had no idea if it would pass. With Pride Week around the corner, we knew it would be a celebration or a riot, depending on what happened in Albany that night. As it turned out, I have never seen such a celebration. We marched with the governor of New York, carrying signs reading "Promise Kept," our T-shirts proclaiming victory, couples all along the parade proclaiming their intentions to marry.

When I was marching this year, I thought again of Mark. I have a Christmas card from him with the words Happy Holidays at the bottom, surrounded by pictures of pine cones and ribbons. The top of the card is a picture of Mark, wearing an ACT UP T-shirt saying Silence=Death, and standing, gaunt but proud, behind a sign for AIDS awareness. On the back, he wrote:

Dear Andrea,

This picture was taken on World Aids Awareness Day! In front of the Arkansas State Capitol there was a group of people trying to join hands around it. Two years ago, twelve people showed up. This year there was well over 1,000, which was many more than needed to circle the capitol, and it is a large building. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

Hope you have a wonderful holiday and may all your dreams come true,

Love Mark

P.S. Let the family read this note and tell them I love them

We have come so far. How proud Mark would have been to see some of our shared dreams coming true.

I look up from my shoes, and I see possibility.

As much as things have changed, so much of what I love about New York is timeless. This has always been the city to which people come to find a sense of possibility, and the hope of happiness.

I remember a discussion I had with Mark over coffee in Provincetown. At that point it was clear he was seriously ill, but his sense of humor and great advice were always on target. We were talking about an awkward romantic situation he had gotten himself into, and how he was being forced to choose between two people. I asked him how he could possibly make such a hard decision. He leaned over, took my hand, and said to me, "Andrea, I only have to ask one question: Does he make me happy?" Then he smiled his big Southern belle grin and leaned back, knowing that his decision was made.

My experiences as a lesbian, as a Jew, and as a New Yorker all have taught me that life is not just about subsistence. Do we choose to be who we are? No, we choose whether we will be miserable by pretending to be someone else, or whether we will allow ourselves the happiness of being at home in our own skins. An essential part of my theology is that God wants us to live fulfilling, joyous lives. "Choose life," we are told in the Torah, "so that you and your descendants may live" (Deut. 30:19).

The Talmud teaches that when we die, we will be held responsible for all the pleasures we might have enjoyed and did not. New York can certainly be a tough place to live, but it also is full of pleasures. Years ago, I lived briefly in Manhattan, followed by a short stint in Brooklyn and a much longer tenure in the Bronx. But it was in Manhattan that Lisa and I had our first apartment. In true lesbian style, we moved in together the moment we were living in the same city, after over a year of long distance love. We lived in a brownstone on West 69th Street, a few steps in from Central Park, with two kittens and the requisite assortment of herbal tea.

Best of all, there was a short-lived but fantastic business called Urban Fetch. You could place an order on your computer -- hypothetically speaking, for a pint of Ben and Jerry's Chubby Hubby ice cream, and a video of k.d. lang's first movie, Salmonberries, that 1991 lesbian underground not-quite-classic in which lang plays an Alaskan pipeworker who falls in love with a librarian. Half an hour after you order, these choice items would appear at your door, delivered by someone on a bicycle who looked like he had waded through a lake to get to you, bearing not only your order but also a T-shirt and fresh-baked cookies in appreciation of your patronage. You were strictly forbidden to tip. We never figured out how the company sustained itself, and before long, it didn't. But it was glorious while it lasted. It was a very small microcosm of the city in which anything was possible.

The only catch was that our apartment was an illegal sublet. Just how illegal it was, we were not aware -- at least until we received a warning under the door from a private investigator who the landlord had hired to follow us. This put a damper on things, but until we had to move, the rent was the stuff New York real estate fantasies are made of.

I look up from my shoes, and I see community.

Despite my outer-borough credentials, for me, as a gay New Yorker, the rainbow always leads back to Manhattan. It was there that Lisa and I were married, in a synagogue around the corner from the sublet that had been our first apartment. The wedding was a month after 9/11. The city was still quiet. A number of our guests' flights had been cancelled due to increased security and caution. For most of us, it was our first celebration since the tragedy. I could still hear the sirens of the fire trucks racing past our Riverdale apartment on their way to the city that horrible morning, the sound seared in my memory by the knowledge of how many firefighters on those trucks never came back. There was a moment where we thought about postponing the wedding, but we realized: what better way to fight terrorism than hold a big gay Jewish wedding in New York City? And so we did.

What was most beautiful to us, however, and most representative of New York, was how many worlds came together at our wedding. Our guests crossed the spectrum of Jewish denominations as well as other religions. We had people from all the chapters of our lives. It was as if I took people with me from each of those moments on the subway, on the move and looking down at my shoes.

What I love about my life in New York is how integrated it is, how often my different worlds come together. The life I have lived in New York has been far from the Christopher Street that I saw so many years ago with my cousin Mark. Connected to a synagogue and school on the Upper West Side, we are a married couple with kids like the other parents, straight or gay. When we go to the Village, it's to visit friends or get our hair cut. Yet we know that in our freedom, we are indebted to Stonewall and the courage of those who came before.

I look up from my shoes, and I see home.

As I write these words, I am preparing to leave this city that has been my home. Lisa's work is taking us to Montreal. Yet again, as in Jerusalem so many years ago, I will be a functionally illiterate immigrant, existing only because of the beneficence of the Jewish community. We are excited about the move, but I will miss New York terribly. There will be times when, as for Halevi, my heart is in one place, and the rest of me is in another.

What I will take with me is a sense of possibility and change, and the conviction that beauty, happiness, and community all are essential to human life. What I will take with me is a belief in integration, that we really can bring with us all of who we are. These are the blessings I have discovered from my life, and these are the gifts New York has given me.

What I take from Halevi's poem, though, is that it is never so simple as being at home or in exile. Wherever we live, we are always in motion, back and forth between these different states of mind. What New York City has taught me is that home is in community; home is in relationships; home is in people. Home is where you can be yourself, with the people that you love. Home -- and holiness -- can be anywhere. "God was in this place," Jacob says in the Bible, "and I did not know." Here too, as in Halevi's poem, the word for "I" is "anokhi." I am who I am because of New York City. My heart is in New York, and New York is in my heart. Good night, New York -- and thank you.