Like Benji Steiner, the protagonist in his touching new novel, “Sweet Like Sugar,” Wayne Hoffman was born both gay and Jewish. But unlike Benji Steiner, a 26-year-old graphic designer prone to dating pretty boys and church-going Christians, Hoffman has not, he says, spent countless hours with an elderly Orthodox rabbi who would have a heart attack if he knew what he did in the bedroom.
Such is the premise of Hoffman’s follow-up to “Hard,” his racy first novel, which chronicled gay life in New York at a turning point in the AIDS crisis. “Sweet Like Sugar,” as G-rated a story as the title suggests, instead chronicles the unexpected, and at times awkward, friendship between Benji and an ailing octogenarian rabbi, Jacob Zuckerman, whose Jewish bookstore abuts Benji’s office in a suburban shopping center outside Washington, D.C.
Hoffman, who grew up in Silver Spring, Md., and, like Benji, celebrated his bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue, found the inspiration for the book at his own version of the shopping mall: a midtown Manhattan office building that housed both the English and Yiddish editions of the Forward newspaper. A former managing editor of the Forward, and my boss when I was a reporter there, Hoffman had an inviting couch in his office overlooking 33rd Street. One afternoon in 2006, a black-clad, white-bearded man who worked at the Yiddish Forward, or Forverts, located on the other side of the floor — though culturally, it may as well have been on the other side of the planet — showed up in Hoffman’s office looking ill. The editor who escorted him asked if the old man could rest on Hoffman’s couch, and thus was born the opening scene of “Sweet Like Sugar.”
“Here we are, sharing an intimate moment. He’s sick on my couch, five feet from me, I don’t know his name, we haven’t spoken a word, and I realize I don’t even know if he speaks English,” says Hoffman, who is now deputy editor of Nextbook Press. “What if he woke up? What would we say? If he rolled over and I said, ‘Hi, I’m Wayne, I’m a gay, atheist leftist,’ that could be a lot to handle.”
That conversation never occurred, but in its stead came a lively, if predictable, novel about one young gay man’s search for Jewish identity. Laden with pop-cultural references and flashbacks to the humiliations of an American Jewish childhood, including sexual harassment at a Jewish summer camp and trips to Florida to visit Grandma — not to mention dates who whisper to Benji, “I want you to be my bagel boy” — “Sweet Like Sugar” opens up a conversation about the intersections between gay and Jewish identity, and how Jews on opposite sides of the political spectrum can come to terms with differences when confronted with another’s humanity.
When the fictitious Rabbi Zuckerman, a recent widower who works too hard, falls asleep on Benji’s couch, Benji offers him a ride home, and a tender friendship ensues. As Benji navigates a bad-luck streak with men and wonders if he’ll ever find his bashert, the rabbi opens up to him about his beloved wife, simultaneously reigniting Benji’s lapsed interest in Judaism. By the end of the book, Benji has come out to the rabbi — briefly compromising their friendship — and discovers that despite the rabbi’s pious appearance, he, too, has not always followed the letter of Jewish law. What doesn’t happen is a big hug fest, wherein the rabbi realizes that he’s been interpreting Leviticus all wrong, and decides that two men making love is actually kosher.
“The rabbi never changes his mind,” Hoffman says. “The rabbi doesn’t suddenly march in the gay pride parade. What the rabbi does is realize that in all sorts of ways, he’s already open to the fact that not all Jews believe exactly what he does, but they’re still Jews.”
And this, Hoffman says, is what he hopes people will take from the book.
“What I’m trying to do is reach people who may or may not agree with everything my characters say but are at least willing to listen. It’s not about being in denial and pretending things are fine, it’s about how to be in the community together with other people who do not share all of your values.”
Wayne Hoffman will read from “Sweet Like Sugar” on Oct. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at Stories Books & Café in Echo Park, and on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in the Westside Pavilion. Wayne Hoffman will read from “Sweet Like Sugar” on Oct. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at Stories Books & Cafe, 1716 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park, (213) 413-3733. He will also read on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in the Westside Pavilion shopping mall, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 475-3138.