I have spent most of my adult life distancing myself from my Jewish identity. On many levels this isn't that surprising: My father's family had a history of 'passing' as gentile in order to secure employment denied Jews in early 20th Century America. From them I internalized the model of assimilation: Do not have a Jewish accent; do not have a New York accent; be American first, Jew second. Act the part ("Life is a Cabaret?").
I grew up blond and blue-eyed in Suburbia. I went to Temple, not Synagogue. We were Liberal Reform Jews. Our Rabbi was a freedom rider in Mississippi. The town I lived in was a racially diverse bedroom community for New York City. We were living the post WW II American Dream.
It wasn't until I was an adult that I found out how close the Holocaust came to my home -- both of my maternal grandparents had lost siblings and nieces and nephews to the Nazis.
I was born six years after the liberation of the death camps. In our New Jersey suburb where we were amongst the first wave of Jews in the neighborhood, no one spoke of the Holocaust. Rather, WW II was framed as the great experience of my parents' youth. It was in part a romantic tale: They met while both stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia, introduced through the mail and set up on a blind date by my mother's friend and my father's sister who were at Hunter College together in NYC. They eloped eight days later. My Mother left the Nursing Corps when she became pregnant with my oldest brother who was born while my paratrooper Dad was stationed in the South Pacific as part of the occupation of Japan. They were American idealists fighting for their country.
Perhaps, unconsciously, I carried my family's shadow -- the unexpressed was affecting me. In 4th grade I decided to write a report on Hitler and got permission to use the school library to do 'research' which in those days, at that age, meant reading encyclopedias. I recall being allowed this special privilege, and I also remember not actually ever writing the report -- and -- what was oddest, not being held accountable for it. I now have an image of my teacher and her colleagues looking sadly at the little Jewish boy dealing with his tragic heritage.
My Bar Mitzvah was the last stand of my attempt at being properly Jewish: I had actually been hoping for a transcendent experience. Instead, I realized it was a performance.
I also remember that on my fourteenth birthday a year to the day later, a Sunday, waiting all day for something to happen, but no one in my family did anything to celebrate my birthday. I made a choice that day: I would not rely on my family or anyone else for my happiness -- it was all up to me. I would find my own way to grace. Naively, I thought the past was that easily left behind. From that point on, I chose to perform as the most 'normal' boy in the world. So, it was not accidental that I left that confused Jewish boy behind. I became an excellent performer.
Fast forward to April 24, 2014:
Sitting ringside opening night at Studio 54/The Kit Kat Club for the brilliant revival of Cabaret, I found myself spooked by this early glimpse of Nazism's rise, and when, at the end the Emcee stands there in a ragged striped prison uniform with a yellow star and a pink triangle, I couldn't help but think: "That's ME!"
It's still true that there are many places on the planet where people would kill me for my sexuality and many where my religious heritage (although I'm not a practicing Jew) could lead to persecution, banishment and a (less likely) death sentence -- in the 21st Century!
I imagine that AIDS is like the Holocaust for young gay boys and men. It's something that came before their time and often they feel it didn't really affect them. However, like me, many feel the collective weight that their tribe still carries -- HIV/AIDS is the threat that awaits them. Sex no longer equals death for gay men in the U.S. and Europe and many other places, but when coming out to parents, particularly unenlightened parents, the first thing most guys hear is, "you'll get AIDS."
In order to survive living with HIV for more than thirty years, I chose amongst other strategies to be completely out about my status, just as I was completely out about being gay. My internalized prejudice continued, however with my internalized anti-Semitism. I have spent the last decade slowly embracing my Jewish heritage and finding my true pride in my historical lineage. Now, I'm taking yet another step in writing about it as I believe that speaking and writing can transform our demons into little schmoos who no longer have us pinned to the wall in fear or loathing, but become friends from the past with whom we can sit down and have tea.
In order to be fully integrated as a gay man, an AIDS activist and a teacher/therapist, I must make peace with all my parts. The little gay Jewish boy that I was, supports the man I am today, free-range agnostic, AIDS elder, proponent of vital aging and living fully and lustily. Shalom!