Jonathan Shmidt Chapman is director, educator and producer of theater for young people and families in New York City. Jonathan shares his story of growing up as an Orthodox Jew and gay man as part of Keshet's celebration of National Coming Out Day. Keshet works for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life. This post originally appeared on Keshet's blog on MyJewishLearning.
When I thought about my future as a kid, the image of a wedding would come into focus. A beautiful huppah, my beaming parents and adult me standing next to the love of my life with whom I’d build a Jewish family. Judaism was always a strong and important force in my life, one I cherished. My commitment to carrying on my heritage was a given, particularly charged by the fact that I’m the grandson of Holocaust survivors.
But as I grew into my teens, that image of my future became distorted when I realized that there would never be a bride in white standing next to me. At the time, I could never imagine a second groom wearing a kippah at my side either. Merging a Jewish path and a gay identity felt like a pipe dream.
Growing up, I was a student at an Orthodox yeshiva. Each day in Talmud class we analyzed traditional Jewish laws and values in ancient Aramaic, but I was surprised to find how often the Rabbis brought the conversation to current politics and the "evils of the modern world." While the study of Talmud was characterized by rich and dynamic debate, "evils" like homosexuality were taught as black and white—they were inherently wrong, case closed. These lectures on the "abomination" of being gay scared me to my core, as I was simultaneously discovering that I was most definitely attracted to men. While I was being told it was against everything G-d and Judaism stood for, in my soul it was the most natural and honest thing I could feel.
After many years of fear and confusion, and the occasional suicidal thought, I reached the light at the end of my teenage tunnel: my freshman year at a large, liberal college. There, I met a group of supportive, down-to-earth friends who challenged me to look in the mirror. One late night in February, I got up the courage to come out to my parents…via Instant Messenger (after all, it was the early 2000s). Hiding in the warm light of a computer screen, I communicated words to them I never imagined articulating. I held my breath and stared at the words, waiting.
What followed were lots of questions, fear and worry. It was done, out in the world and irrevocable. The years that followed proved to be a bumpy landscape for me and my family, with highs and lows as we navigated this new reality. While I had gained newfound self-acceptance, my life had become more secular and my connection to Judaism a bit fainter. My mother worried that I’d never find happiness and my father felt conflicted and hurt. The good news was that they still loved me, but they were slow to understand me and I became increasingly frustrated that they weren’t progressing faster.
By my senior year though, I had to admit that they were making an effort. They read books on Judaism and Homosexuality, turned to my hometown rabbi for support and started telling friends. I came to realize that my parents are human too, that they were figuring out all of their feelings just like I was and they needed the same love, patience and gentle respect from me that I was seeking from them. In time I had become very comfortable with myself and my life as a gay man, and imagined that I’d eventually find a partner, but my hope of having a Jewish family was a distant memory.
I would enjoy the occasional Shabbat dinner with my family on Friday night and then hit the bars in Hell’s Kitchen with my friends on Saturday night. My gay identity and my Jewish identity were like tolerant neighbors who refused to socialize with one another. After many failed first dates and unfulfilling excursions in online dating, I realized that finding someone who could understand my faith and share in my family’s culture was more important than I thought.
And then one ordinary Monday afternoon in September, I took an elevator ride that changed my life. David and I struck up a conversation between floors two and six and I instantly felt a connection. We shared a ton in common, and remarkably, he happened to be Jewish too. The first time I brought him to my parents’ Shabbat table, I nervously held my breath during quiet introductions. My father began reciting the blessings and David put on a kippah and chanted them along with my family. I watched my parents relax, settle in and get to know him.
Over the course of that dinner, something changed for my parents. My homosexuality had transformed from an abstract, scary idea into something beautiful and palpable: the connection they recognized between me and David, holding hands next to each other, laughing and kibitzing with them at their dinner table.
Fast forward to May 19, 2013. There I was, standing under the chuppah, looking into David’s eyes. My parents are in front of me on one side of the chuppah and his are behind me on the other. I’m surrounded by our closest friends and family, listening to a rabbi pronounce us LEGALLY married in the state of New York and before G-d. I pinch myself. This is not a dream, this is really happening. My parents have tears in their eyes, but they are the joyful kind. Later, we dance. I spin my mother around the dance floor and my father and brother lift me in the air on a chair. I watch my parents give a toast with pride. I realize that it was possible after all. I don’t mean to suggest I have it all figured out.
My feelings about the intersection of traditional Judaism and the modern world are still complicated. I still have the same big questions about how Torah fits into modernity that I had as yeshiva boy. But now I ponder those questions and work to make sense of the world alongside my husband at our own Shabbat table, filled with humor, love and a deeper understanding of meaningful Judaism than I ever had during my time at Yeshiva. Our relationship has actually brought me closer to my heritage and has provided me with a stronger understanding of its place in my modern life. What I do know is this: I didn’t have to choose one path at the cost of another. For the first time in my life, my Jewish identity and my gay identity have blended to one—just me. All of me.
Visit Keshet's National Coming Out Day page for more inspirational stories and activities to honor the day! The photo from Jonathan and David's wedding was taken by Shannen Norman. The Schusterman Philanthropic Network is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.