Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dick > Latkes, or Latkes > Dick?

In my younger and perhaps more experimental days I wrote what I consider to be “the semin-al” [that’s a pun, so laugh] article discussing the topical situation of being Jewish and gay in Toronto. Using the leitmotif of Toronto’s village structure I expressed my discomfort at what were meant to be “my two villages” i.e.the Church and Wellesley Village, Toronto’s gaybourhood, and the Forest Hill Village, our city’s de-facto J.A.P. nabe. While I recognized that both were part of my identity – I admitted that I felt at home in neither. At the time I was 24 and I had moved back into my parents’ house in Toronto after completing my undergrad degree. I found myself alienated by Toronto Life; the choice that I felt was imposed on me between suburban heterosexual normativity versus downtown homosexual hedonism. My larger insinuation was that as Torontonians we prescribe to a set of villages as a sort of safety net; we chose where we lived because we feel comfortable only in certain areas. My theory, to put it succinctly, was that we wanted to be surrounded by people who had Longchamp purses because we all had Longchamp purses [at the time I think Coach was the purse du jour, so consider this an update for the new decade].
After going to business school and spending 70k I learned that this whole village mentality was what organizational behaviour professors call an in-group bias. We like those who are most like us.

In the intervening years I discovered my own Toronto Life, which precariously found itself on the second floor of an old Annex Victorian. The apartment that I nicknamed Buggeryville sat about halfway between the centre hall normalcy “up-hill” and sexually charged deviance “down-hill”. Equilibrium was temporarily reached - temporary being a key word of course.

Habitation in Toronto’s villages is somewhat time sensitive. I recently moved back into the Faux Hill,, housesitting as my parents travel around the world, and now that I am pretend lord of the manor I’ve actually begun to enjoy the uptown lifestyle. Its quiet, and clean (compared to Bloor Street) and if I want some gay I can turn up the Katy Perry and invite over some friends who will try and see if any of the hot neighbourhood construction workers have the Grindr app installed on their iPhone.

And yet, in truth, I’m still Faux in Faux. Forest Hill is not really my home. But where is? A part of me realizes that the need for a village trumps a lot in this town, which begats the age-old question: if you belong to two different communities just where exactly do your loyalties lie? Temporary respite in the Annex, or Ossington only leads to the same sort of question later on in life. Does gay trump Jewish or does Jewish trump gay?

I was talking with a gay and Jewish friend recently who admitted that he really longed to meet a nice Jewish boy, even though this desire made his dating life fairly difficult by severely limiting the pool of potential choices. Why the desire for a Jewish mate? When pressed he admitted that he felt more Jewish then he did gay. As I jokingly responded, in Chanukah theme: latke’s > dick.

And while being Jewish and gay isn’t mutually exclusive, I would argue that there is
an underlying current in Toronto’s broader Jewish community of you’re either in the Village or you’re not. This is not entirely due to Conservative Canadian Jewish indifference (at best) towards homosexuality, but the factual realities about being gay. Any gay with any sense of religion (from Jewish to Christian…_ has to coalesce their sense of religiosity with their [homo]sexuality. Bridging that divide is still something that inherently requires a personal thought process. If you’ve grown up kosher but come out of the closet do you suddenly start eating breakfast sausage because you’ve started to eat breakfast sausage?

I think this question underscores the strong desire and perhaps in different terminology, the need, for gay Jews to find a place that fits within the heteronormativity of Torontos’ Jewish Village. That lingering insularity of present day cultural Judaism is surprisingly prevalent for those of us who may have blown the closet doors of those Faux Hill Centre Halls wide open. Just like our sister’s, who wanted to marry Nice Jewish Boys, shockingly a lot of gay-Jews have that same want. A friends’ boyfriend recently hosted a gay, Jewish bar night with the caption: “the event you’ve all be waiting for” and for the hundred plus gay Jews who attended… it really was.

The pull of the Jewish Village even for gay Jews is specifically strong in Toronto. We have one the best-organized Jewish communities in North America. UJA Toronto, the defacto organizational nucleus of Jewish Toronto, is the benchmark to which other North American Federations aspire - few can speak to a $400 million capital campaign. Yet within this well organized core there are relatively few gay Jewish organizations; unlike major gay centres like New York and Los Angeles - Toronto has no gay synagogue. Even cities with similar sized Jewish gay populations such as Boston and Philadelphia have LGBT specific synagogues; Atlanta, with fewer people, fewer gays and fewer Jews also has an LGBT synagogue. In some ways this probably speaks to Canada’s greater tolerance of LGBT issues (especially in Toronto from a broad socio-political perspective) yet it may also speak to the fact that Torontonian Jewry hasn’t really found that happy medium in terms of figuring out what to do with its faygellehs.

One of the problems may be that Toronto Jews, when it comes to religion, are far more conservative then our American urban counterparts. According to research by UJA Toronto only 19% of Torontonians consider themselves Reform; in the States, however, Reform Judaism is the largest of contemporary Jewish movements, with 35% of American Jews classifying themselves as Reform. In Toronto Conservative synagogues are the principal places of worship, housing almost 40% of Torontonian Jews (in the States the number falls to 30%). On top of this and what is most concerning in terms of being gay and Jewish is that Canadian Conservative synagogues have actually started to break away from what was the major governing body of Conservative Judaism in North America: the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Four Toronto-based synagogues (including Beth Tzedick and Adath Israel probably the two largest and wealthiest synagogues in Canada) formed the Canadian Council of Conservative Synagogues. While certainly geography played a role in this schism, social issues came to play as well. According to the Canadian Jewish News: “[there were] growing theological differences between Adath Israel and Conservative synagogues in the US who tend to be less traditional in practice and where the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary has begun to admit openly gay students to its rabbinical program.”

Thus my issue when it comes to finding a place in the Jewish Village is that I worry that homosexuality in Canadian Conservative Judaism operates under a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell type of anachronism, or even worse, is simply trotted out for political opportunism. While officially non-denominational (Conservative, Reform or Orthodox) UJA Toronto’s vision speaks to conservative and traditional mores; ie, “supporting core Jewish values” and to preserve and strengthen the quality of Jewish life in Greater Toronto, Canada, Israel and around the world…. When core Jewish values are often defined by mispocha, education and supporting the next generation wherein do we begin to question where Judaism and sexuality intersect, if at all? The only reference to LGBT issues on the UJA website has little to do with acceptance of gay people, and more to do with politics (i.e. the decision to march in Toronto’s Pride Parade had NOTHING to do with acceptance and everything to do with contemporary Israeli-politics).

And still… gay Jews just want to be a part of that Jewish Toronto Village. So where is our place? Is it through organizations like Kulunu (supported by Hillel, which in turn is supported by the UJA), which has a fairly religious bent, while Jewish parties at gay bars pose the rather awkward question of: are we just going out to get drunk and hook-up with other gay Jews where simply knowing that your partner has had a bar-mitzvah is as much a form of in-group bias as a Longchamp purse is for your typical Village JAP (not that there’s anything wrong with it)?

My worry, much as my initial problem with the Village, is that it is a bit insular isn’t it? It’s a bit, trying to buy into the hetero-normativity of the Village when as gays, we don’t have to; especially as “day-walkers” gay-Jews have the potential to cross the insipid boundaries that modern day Judaism likes to put-up.
This of course leads to the very relevant discussion of whether conceptions of Judaism in the twenty first century are based on religious or cultural affiliation. If culture is the case, (and lets throw in Israel into the mix), then really Canadian gay Jews should be quite angry at the short thrift we’ve been given from our Conservative Jewish fore-fathers. Why must Canadian Conservative Judaism cling to unnecessary traditions regarding homosexuality?

But in the same vein it should be asked: why do gay-Jews want to be part of the Village? Do we desire a sense of political representation (ie to implement community change in terms of acceptance of homosexuality), or are we trying to hook-up with each other to fulfill some sort of cultural manifest destiny?

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