I was talking with a young woman last Sunday afternoon. She had called me because she read the column I wrote here last month, about Sinai Temple’s decision to perform same-sex weddings. She said she’s gay and came out to her family a year ago. They’re Iranian Jews who care a great deal about the judgment of their friends and relatives. They’ve given her untold amounts of grief for the shame they think she’s brought on them. They tell her she’s ruined the family name, made her sisters and female cousins unmarriageable, bitten the many hands — the grandparents’, the aunts’ and uncles’, the friends of friends’ — that have reached out to save her from her own foolishness.
I’m neither the village elder nor the town psychologist. I listened to this woman’s story because she sounded sincere and spent and terribly, tragically sad. Like so many traditional Jews who still live under the illusion that they can re-create, in Los Angeles, the suffocating, male-dominated, vicious-aunt-and-mother-in-law-operated households of the old ghetto, her family had raised her to be seen and not heard, obey but not think, get married and have children, and live happily ever after no matter how she really felt. She had done all that, even married, up to her mid-20s. In the last year she divorced her husband, came out first to her family and then in a public way, and was abandoned and denounced by the older members of her extended family.
I’ve never met this woman, but I know her well. She’s the Ashkenazi girls I meet at USC, who tell me they’ve had to break a dozen taboos just to avoid being married right after high school. She’s the Iranian girls I hear about who might have two doctorates and a silver star for community service, but whose families are ashamed of them because they remain, in their early 30s, still unmarried. It’s true that coming out, especially for a woman, is a much more drastic, even shocking, step than choosing school over marriage, but at their core the two are really not that different: a 1,000-year-old taboo; a trembling, terrified individual mustering the courage to cross a barrier; a family that wants the best for its children, that believes it knows best.
Forget the wicked witch of an aunt who takes advantage of a family crisis to vomit her own, bottled-up grief and insecurity on a helpless niece, the washout uncle who has no power in his own house and decides to be king in someone else’s. Forget the friends who suddenly crawl out of the bushes to warn of the seven plagues. The parents of these defiant girls, I know, love their children as much any of us. What they do, right or wrong, is what they believe is right.
Often, they’re right; sometimes, they’re not.
I said this to the young woman on the phone last Sunday — that as parents, we fail not as much in our love as in our wisdom. “You can judge a man by what he does,” a character in a novel once said, “or you can judge him by what he would have done had he been aware of all his options.” So often, I told this woman, I’ve erred with my own children because I didn’t know better. Then, as now, I wished for nothing more than a voice that would save me from my own, so-called, wisdom.
Maybe, I said, your parents don’t know there are other respectable, happy families in their community who have accepted and even embraced their children’s homosexuality. Maybe they don’t realize that the world is infinitely bigger than the few dozen self-appointed “leaders” they think they should follow.
I received a great many e-mails and Facebook messages in response to the article about same-sex marriage. A few Ashkenazi readers warned me of heavenly wrath and earthly pestilence. One Iranian man complained that the Conservative movement is responsible for the fact that his daughter has gone to college and, as a result, remains unmarried in her 20s. Another berated me for calling some Orthodox Jews intolerant, then went on to say that the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements were all “European garbage.” There’s only one kind of “real” Judaism, he said, and that’s what he practices. But by far the great majority of writers expressed support and appreciation for Rabbi Wolpe’s decision to perform gay weddings at Sinai Temple. And by far the great majority of these writers were Iranian Jews who were glad to see their point of view reflected in the article. One woman stopped me on the street to say how proud she is that her daughter is involved in her school’s gay-straight alliance. A man wrote to say he attends an Orthodox shul, but that if his own children turn out to be gay, he would want to have a place like Sinai for his whole family to attend.
Maybe, I told the woman on Sunday, your parents would act differently if they were aware of other possibilities.
No one has asked me for advice here; even if they had, I doubt I’m qualified to offer it. But just in case my Sunday caller’s parents find themselves in the same dark valley where I often reside, in case they, like me, long for some hitherto hidden pathway to make itself visible, I thought I’d offer these small bits of truth:
• Your daughter is not as small or large as her sexual orientation. She has a thousand other emotional and intellectual facets and capabilities. She’s the same child you deemed worthy of your love and protection before she, or you, knew she was gay. She is more precious, more important to you than all the wagging tongues and trigger-happy fingers who’ve suddenly decided that their own limited lives would improve if only someone else’s child would be banned by Rabbi Wolpe from marrying in Sinai Temple. For every one of those soap-box preachers in this town, there are dozens of intelligent, educated, wise men and women who accept and embrace your daughter and support her quest for personal fulfillment.
• You are not as small or large as your daughter’s sexual orientation. Even the town lunatics who try to cow you into “controlling” your children because they’re afraid of losing what little control they have over their own wives and daughters know this. They realize, even if you don’t, that the era of collective shame and inherited guilt, of an entire family being blamed for one member’s deeds or misdeed, has long passed.
• There was an age in which most Jewish parents would rather see their daughter dead than divorced. The fear then — public embarrassment, social isolation, loss of status for the family and eternal misery for the divorced woman — was remarkably similar to the fear now. But times have changed for divorcees and, believe it or not, at least in California, for gay women and their families.
It’s not easy to stand back and watch while one’s children make choices that we believe are wrong. The key is to remember that not everything we know is right. Outside the shtetls and the ghettos and the limited minds of big-mouth crusaders, there’s often more than one possibility.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.