Tuesday, January 31, 2012

My Failed Attempt to Visit Vietnam

By the winter of  2010 I was openly not religious and immersed in my studies about Vietnam. I was studying Vietnamese 3 times a week with Long and spending much of my free time with him and at his house. I was also getting very depressed. I had accepted the fact that I was attracted to men a few years before hand, but my religious life style always motivated me to try and ignore that aspect of myself. But now I no longer believed in a religion that hates homosexuality, so my only reason for not pursuing it was fear. I was afraid of how my family would see me, how my friends would see me and I was afraid of such a major change in my life. But the more I tried to ignore my attraction to men, the more I realized that I couldn't. But how was I going to approach learning about this part of myself?

I decided that a trip that coming summer to Vietnam would be the perfect answer. Why Vietnam? For a number of reasons. First, my studies gave me a "legitimate" reason to travel there and what to do with my time while I was there. I would go for a few weeks and take classes in Vietnamese. Second, I did not know anyone in Vietnam. Any Vietnamese people I knew at the time were all overseas. I would be completely anonymous and free to meet new people and experiment living a gay lifestyle. Thirdly, I am what is called in gay slang, a rice queen (for all those who asked about that tag in previous posts, I told you to be patient and I would explain). A "rice queen" is a non Asian guy that is only or particularly attracted to Asian guys. For all these reasons, I reserved a ticket to Vietnam for July of 2010 and I was VERY excited.

When I told my parents of my plan to travel to Vietnam to take classes in Vietnamese they became very concerned. At first they would just say "we are concerned but its your money, do what you want with it." But as the days passed concern quickly turned to panic. My parents told me that since I was newly not religious, that it was a dangerous time in my life for me to go to a country with no Jews. They feared I was vulnerable and would fall in love with a Vietnamese girl and that marrying a non Jew was the worst thing I could do in their eyes. It would be unforgivable.

Of course I knew how my family felt about intermarriage, but at the same time I could not put their fears to rest  by announcing I was going to meet guys, not girls. I told them not to worry, but they got very upset and begged me to cancel my trip. At first I refused. This trip was so important to me, I could not imagine canceling it. But one night after a very difficult conversation with my parents on the phone I agreed to put the trip off for one year.

At the time I was very angry and very disappointed. I had so much planned for this trip and it all disappeared a few days after being planned. But in the long run things worked out very well. In 2011 I did go to Vietnam and I had the most amazing time of my life. I met the most amazing people who changed my life forever. But of course, that story will have to wait for another post :)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Life, Pain, Judaism and the "Afterlife"

I had planned about writing this post about something totally different. However, I have been debating a reader of this blog in the comment section of my post "What Got the Ball Rolling" and I figured I should write a post about this topic as well.

When I was young, someone in one of my religious classes asked the Rabbi the basic question that everyone asks, "why do bad things happen to good people?" The Rabbi said that no one is perfect and that every time someone feels pain in "this world", they are being punished for some sin and now they wont have to worry about being punished in the "next world". I took this lesson to heart. Every time I got hurt, be it banging my toe, or breaking a bone, I thought "good thing this happened and I must have DESERVED this pain".

I do understand that the lesson was not meant to make me feel the way I did. However, I think the way I began to embrace and accept pain is an inevitable part of being brought up with a philosophy that diminished the value of life and emphasizes the "afterlife". The comment that one of my readers wrote on the post "What Got the ball Rolling" said that a gay person should learn to live without sex so that they can have a good life in the the world to come. But there is no evidence of life after death. People are more often than not born into their religious beliefs by chance. They do not choose them. A religious person raised that way from childhood is presented the ideas of Heaven and Hell as fact. But the truth is, if they could have easily been brought up in a different environment and they would never come to the conclusion that there is a heaven and hell based on life experience, science or logic.

So why waste the one life that we KNOW we have? Because some books that have been around for a long time say so? It is a very similar thought process that allows the suicide bomber to kill himself along with innocent people. He only values the "world to come" that he was taught about. We condemn the killer as evil, but that is simply because we have a different value system. The religious Jew or religious Christian has no more reason to believe in his religion than the religious Muslim. 

I personally believe that if more people learned to value this life, the real life, the one life we all know we have, there would be a lot less evil in the world. Steven Weinberg once wrote "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion." 

To my religious readers I want to say, if you believe in your religion and it makes you happy then enjoy. I mean that wholeheartedly. Everyone should do what makes them happy, as long as they aren't  hurting someone else. But DO NOT expect others to give up their happiness because you have an old book that says they should.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Leaving the Faith

I know may people that left the religious life and community. Almost all of them have told me how they gradually started to try new things. They did not run right away and eat pork, rather they would eat kosher food in non-kosher restaurants at first. Over time most of them slowly worked their way up to a more secular life style. Almost all of them have that "one thing they could never bring themselves to do". For some it is eating pig meat, for others it is not fasting on Yom Kippur. To each their own.

I on the other hand tend to jump into the deep end of the pool. It was one Saturday in 2009 while staying at a friends house for the Sabbath that I finally admitted to myself that I was no longer religious. The following day, while talking to my mother who was visiting Israel at the time, the topic of different levels of religiosity in the family came up. When my mother asked me what my level of religiosity was, I admitted it was noting. She looked horrified but not surprised. She told me that we would discuss it further when my father arrived in Israel later that week.

Meanwhile I had a Vietnamese lesson the next morning with my friend Long. I called him up and told him to bring me "something yummy and not kosher to eat." After our lesson we went to the park and he gave me a Vietnamese pork dish called "xoi" (which I highly recommend). A few hours later, we went to McDonald's, the symbol of everything not kosher in the eyes of American Jews and I ate my first cheese burger (I would also recommend cheese burgers but not from McDonald's). This was all very new and exciting to me and I was enjoying the experience. But the whole time, in the back of my mind I knew I had a very difficult conversation with my family waiting for me at home.

My father arrived that Thursday and my whole family (including my sister, her husband and their baby daughter) were going to spend the Sabbath together. I was anxious and terrified. I kept waiting for the ax to fall. I did not know when my parents planned on talking to me about my change in life style. It did not end up happening until that Sunday.

To respect my family's privacy, I won't go into detail about the conversation. Needless to say it was very emotional, very difficult and full of tears. I knew I was breaking my parent's heart, but I knew I wasn't happy being religious. It seemed at the time that I had to choose between my happiness and my parent's happiness. This was a horrible position to be in.

Of course this all put quite a strain on my relationship with my family. But they love me very much and I love them. They did not disown me or stop talking to me, like I know happens to many children in similar situations. It was a big change and with time they have learned to live with it. Of course, I did not know it at the time, but this was just the first conversation that I was to have with my family that was to change their live's forever. But the next conversation was still another year away.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Atheism and Homosexuality

I am often asked to what extent my atheism is linked to my homosexuality. It would be a lie to say they are not connected at all. However, my path to atheism occurred independent of anything having to do with me being gay. I am sure plenty of my readers are thinking to themselves "that is bull". Many people have said to me "you must be an atheist because you are angry at "god" for making you gay, or because religion and homosexuality don't mix." But I assure you that it is the truth. My path to atheism was an intellectual journey, while my path to acceptance of my sexuality was an emotional one.

As I wrote in an earlier post, my finale 9 years of religious life was very much based in fear of a scary, short tempered, intolerant god. This fear kept me from asking the obvious questions that in the end led me away from religion. I remember one time in synagogue on the Sabbath, we came to the "prayer for the sick" and I saw some people talking during the reading of the prayer. I thought to myself "now the sick people might not get better because they need all the prayers they can get." What a dumb thing for me to have thought! It is as if I imagined god thinking to himself  "this person is going to die because only 1,000,000 people told me how great and loving I am, and I really need to hear that from 1,000,002 people." But actually I did not imagine that. I did not question the idea that more prayers equals better results that had been taught to me by my teachers and rabbis. It was taught to me and I accepted it as fact.

I only learned to start asking questions when I started to study at university. I started my BA in history back in 2007 and it was a life changing experience. I was exposed to philosophies and historical facts that that I never knew before. Most importantly of all I was taught to always ask questions and to never take anything you read at face value. These new lessons allowed me to look at my life and the world and come to my own conclusions.

While my becoming an atheist was not caused by my being gay, my becoming an atheist made it much easier for me to accept that I am gay. Walls that once existed were torn down. What was taboo was now not. Of course that is another topic for another post. Keep reading :)

Monday, January 16, 2012

How I Met One of my Dearest Friends and Fell in Love with Vietnam

It must seem very random that I would end up learning Vietnamese and planing on moving to Vietnam. But Vietnam has actually played an essential part in my life over the last few years, both academically as well as personally.

The first time I started focusing on Vietnam was on my search for a topic for my thesis. At the time I wanted to focus on military history and my thesis adviser recommended I read about the Vietnam War. After reading a number of books on the subject, I found that a couple of things really bothered me. First, everything was written from the American perspective and second, I had no idea if I was pronouncing all the Vietnamese names correctly. So I set the goals of learning more about Vietnam and learning at least the basic pronunciation of Vietnamese.

The only way I can describe the effect these new studies had on me is to say that I fell in love. I fell in love with Vietnamese culture and history. In my mind Vietnam became a larger than life, exotic and romantic far off land. I started to dream about someday going to visit a country that only a few months before would never have been on my radar.

At the advice of a professor, I called the Vietnamese Embassy in Tel Aviv in an attempt to find someone that could teach me Vietnamese. I was put in touch with an embassy's staff man's son, a guy by the name of Long. Long became my tutor and we met several times a week to study. In a short period of time we became good friends. His family often invited me to their home and were very warm and welcoming. It was in that house I also developed a love for Vietnamese food.

This was all happening at the time in my life when I started to realize that I don't believe in Judaism anymore. Since Long and his family are not Jewish, I felt very comfortable being around them at that time. Elsewhere in Israel and with my friends and family, I felt very self conscious about not wearing a kippa (Jewish skull cap) or eating non-Kosher food. There I was safe from judgment.

Long became one of my dearest friends. I am forever thankful for his help and understanding during that difficult time in my life. He also helped Vietnam come alive for me. He had real stories about his life there and about his family's history. I was able to put faces and names to what I had been reading about. This added personal connection to the country fueled my passion and desire to go visit.

This is not the whole story of my connection to Vietnam, but it is the start. There are still failed trips and successful trip to talk about (and I will also eventually explain what "rice queen" means since so many I've my readers have asked me that question). But those are stories for another day and another post :)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

What got the ball rolling

Just a few years ago, I would have bet all the money in the world that I would always be a religious Jew and that the secret of my attraction to men would die with me. There were many reasons for this, but they all together boiled down to fear. I was afraid of disappointing my family. I was afraid of rejection by my family and by everyone I know. But most of all, I had a very real fear of god. 

Fear had not always been the main driving force in my life. I can remember a time when I really did believe in the religion and was happy within it. It was nice thinking their was this all powerful, all knowing god and that I had been lucky enough to have been born a member of his "chosen people." I remember very clearly the day this changed.

I was 15 years old and in 10th grade. I went to a Jewish, Modern Orthodox private school where we learned both secular and Judaic studies. I was in one of those Judaic classes being taught by a Rabbi with whom I had a very good relationship. Someone in the class thought it would be funny to ask a question about sexuality. The Rabbi responded very seriously. He gave a list of sins for which "god NEVER will forgive you." He said that anyone that committed any of these sins, would "lose their place in heaven and could never get it back." All of these "sins" had to do with basic sexuality and I knew I was guilty. Even more so, as hard as I tried to repress it, I knew I was attracted to guys, which made my situation even worse! 

I became very scared and slowly my idea of a loving, protective god was replaced by the idea of a vengeful, angry god. Fear became the main drive in my life for many things. I also knew that being gay was a death sentence according to the bible and I started to expect death often. Every time I was in a car that turned too tightly, or every time I was on a plane and there was turbulence I thought to myself  "I'm about to get whats coming to me." 

I was luckier than many that I broke away from that life of fear at a relatively young age. By the age of 24, I left Judaism/religion behind and moved on (a story I will explain another time). But I have met many people from a number of different religious backgrounds that lived their lives in fear well into their 40s, 50s and in one case his 60s! This is so sad. We only get one chance at life. Why waste it in fear? 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The New Road

Many times I've been told "You know, you should really write a book". And I always think "What a great idea! I enjoy writing and I have a pretty interesting story to tell. I should write a book!" Ya, right. Who has time to write a book? Not me. Between work, graduate school, a social life and any other number of commitments, it just won't fit into my schedule. So I thought to myself, "Its the 21st century, write a blog". So that is why we are here. Welcome!

So what makes people tell me that I should write a book? It must be because I have led my life along quite a twisted road. I was brought up as a radically right wing, religious Zionist Jew. I left my family and home in the US at the age of 17 to move to Israel. I was heading off to fulfill the destiny of the Jewish people and was on a mission from god! I was going to learn Hebrew and join the Israeli Army. I had planned on getting married to a a religious Jewish Woman and having kids while living in some settlement in the "West Bank".

At first everything went according to the plan. I moved to Israel, learned Hebrew and joined the Israeli Army. My family were all so proud of me. I was constantly being set up to go on dates But I was not really happy. I was struggling with two major issues. First, as the years went by Judaism stopped making sense to me. Second, I didn't want to marry a nice Jewish girl. I'm gay. At first out of fear of some scary, vengeful god and of disappointing my family I tried to keep all that buried deep inside.This lead to years of personal struggle. But in the end keeping everything bottled up was futile.

Now, it is ten years later. In the past few years I have left the religion and come out of the closet. I traded in the dream of marrying a Jewish woman for the dream of marrying an Asian guy (more about this later). I traded in the Jewish people for intense individualism.  I traded in god for...well....logic? free thinking? nothing? I traded in Hebrew for Vietnamese and I plan on leaving Israel after I'm done my current degree and heading off to live in Vietnam. (I know that seems random, but come back to read future posts and all will be explained). So it would not be an understatement to say I have turned my life upside down. 

American Orthodox Jews refer to their way of life as "the path". When they meet someone like me they say, "He is off the derech" (derech is the Hebrew word for path). This is considered a very negative thing to say about someone. But, I do not see it that way.While I may have left that path, the road I am on now is very interesting and exciting. I can't wait to see where it ends up.