At 16, Carl Birman started secretly to date men. At 21, he came out and plunged into a gay world of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. He joined a group called the Radical Fairies that promoted promiscuity and paganism. As for the ages between 5 and 10, he tried to bury them in the past. He did not succeed.At 39, Carl davens daily, observes the Sabbath and meditates on the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. In his struggle to reconcile the sexual abuse he says he endured during childhood with his adult quest for meaning, he has been celibate for eight years. "Given all my previous shenanigans, sins if you will, this was the only way I could move forward," he says. "But I don't think celibacy is the solution, unless you're Gandhi."
With his shaved head, thin frame and large eyes, Carl bears some resemblance to a wandering ascetic, though he works as an attorney for a nonprofit organization in Flatbush, Brooklyn. While he displays occasional flashes of wry humor, he's a serious guy, and for good reason. He would like to meet the right man one day. For now, he's trying to put the past to rest and advocates celibacy as a way "to help people figure out their direction in life. It's a way to come to terms with feelings without acting on them," he says.
Carl can divide his life in three phases.
Phase One: growing up in an upper-middle-class Reform Jewish household in Westchester, where a male member of the family stole his innocence. He told no one of the abuse. "I dissociated, though I never blocked it out completely. I became obsessed with men and interpreted that I must be gay," he says. "I didn't link the abuse with being gay until much later."
Phase Two: rebelling against "warm, fuzzy, liberal Judaism" and becoming a neo-pagan. "I took paganism seriously," he says and describes his days with the Radical Fairies as "taking gay liberation to the extreme. We were all searching for meaning and found it dancing around a fire performing pagan rituals."For about 10 years Carl lived this way. He smoked enough marijuana to become an addict. He had relationships that turned sour. He had nightmares about his childhood and one too many moments in which he felt completely powerless over his own life. By his early 30's, he knew he needed to leave the pagan world, where he heard plenty of anti-Semitic comments, and saw the Torah as an escape route. He gravitated toward the stories of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem, which illustrated how pagan desires can be sublimated. "My yearning to understand God was paramount," he recalls. "I became attracted to Orthodoxy."
Phase Three: purifying his soul and acknowledging there's no quick fix for the dilemmas of his life. Though Carl has "drifted from a world where, if you're not having sex, then you're not gay," he does not feel so comfortable in Orthodox Jewish settings. Once, he attended a panel at an Orthodox synagogue on sexual abuse and "found it appalling" when a speaker pointed a finger at the "evils" of feminism. Essentially, "it's all been independent study," he says of his Torah learning. "I can't imagine sitting down with an Orthodox rabbi but I'd like to find one. I'd like to observe all 613 commandments because I feel that's the most authentic way to be Jewish."
Carl has a difficult time understanding some of the gay Orthodox Jews he's met. "They have that American mentality that you can have everything, that you can be both Orthodox and gay and that it's fabulous," he says. "But it's not so easy for me. That's why I've chosen celibacy."
Celibacy, however, does not belong in Phase Four, which has yet to take shape. Carl admits to "middle-class aspirations" of 2.5 kids, a house in the suburbs and a religious context for living life.He toys with moving to Israel one day, but "it's all meaningless unless I have someone to share it with," he says, emphasizing that this someone would also have to renounce the sexual behavior between men that Leviticus calls an abomination. "But there are other sexual practices that the Torah doesn't mention. There are ways to work this out."
Carl used to dream that he would meet his beloved at the Western Wall. But when he took that trip to Jerusalem, he did not find him. Carl takes that as a sign that he still has work to do. "I'm not looking for a quick fix; I'm still confused," he admits. "But I'm trying to live a decent, honorable life. I want to help people and get the message out that abuse is rampant and can happen to anyone."
Carl still has nightmares. Only now he wakes up, opens his siddur and recites morning prayers. "The healing process, it takes so long," he says quietly. "But it's imperative that I work this all out. ... God will show me the way."