Since we couldn’t drive on Shabbat, the synagogue kept all religious Jews tethered to a walking distance.
The Boys Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew, by Eli Glasman, is the coming-out story of a gay kid in a homophobic environment: a sect within an orthodox Jewish community of Melbourne’s inner suburb of Caulfield. By admitting to and acting on his sexual preferences, the protagonist, Yossi, risks being exiled from his father and sister, his school and school-friends, and the religious community around which his daily life revolves.
I knew that there was only sin in acting on my impulses, not simply in being the way I was. And yet, just having these terrible feelings made me feel less like a Jew.
When I first heard the title The Boys Own Manual to being a Proper Jew and read that it was the story of a young man breaking orthodox Jewish traditions, risking all to be himself, my mind swam over to Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, which I read as a young adult and absolutely adored.
I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflictor of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also, I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two thousand years.
Well, I am none of those things. And yet, in all honesty, in all honesty, I confess that my accusers are not altogether wrong: I am indeed, in some way, all of those things.
Glasman’s writing has a lightness of tone, so Yossi does not undergo the intense internal agonising of Asher Lev. And, despite his struggles, Yossi does not have to pay the ultimate price of exile for coming out to his community.
Instead, Glasman offers his young adult readers a faith in the power of familial love and friendship and acceptance to overcome prejudice and fear. In its way, The Boy’s Own Manual to being a Proper Jew is indeed that – a manual, giving young people an argument to reconcile sexual orientation with traditional Jewish observance. Perhaps this is the reason that the philosophical wrangling in Glasman’s novel is more straightforward; rather than arising from Yossi’s own inner wrestlings with sexuality, God and scripture, the answers come from the outside: through books, and the Rabbi at the gay-friendly synagogue to which his love-interest Josh introduces him.
The book then says that forcing a gay man to go into a heterosexual marriage is a form of duress. Since gay men can’t go into heterosexual relationships, because it goes against their sexual orientation, they shouldn’t be expected to, just so that they can impregnate a woman. Therefore, gay men are exempt from the obligation Jewish law places on men to impregnate women and have children … He talked about women, too. For whatever reason, Jewish law states that the commandment to have kids is a requirement that men must fulfil, not women. He also said that there is no mention in the Torah about lesbians. So, technically, it’s not forbidden …
Yossi stops going to the communal bath house, part of the religious rituals of cleanliness that are part of the rhythm of his and his father’s life, because ‘being in a room with naked men is too tempting’. I wondered about the message of this idea that human beings (whatever their age) can’t be ‘trusted’ not to be ‘tempted’ in the company of the general gender to which they are sexually oriented, naked or otherwise, and can also imagine a scenario where any naked bodies might arouse sexual feelings in adolescence, regardless of sexual orientation.
But moments like this reflect a tendency of the book to skate over Yossi’s relationship with his own body and his real feelings about his relationship with Josh.
On the novel’s back cover, John Safran describes Yossi’s family and religious enclave as ‘the bagel belt … a mad little ghetto [Glasman] knows all too well’.
‘I belonged here,’ says Yossi.
My place was amongst other Jews, keeping alive traditions that were centuries old. I couldn’t imagine a life where each day bled into the next with nothing more to punctuate existence but payday and a piss up on the weekend. A life with no God, no holy days, no prayers, no significance to food or clothing.
It’s a religious enclave few outside the community know at all. And while I was wary of this reduction of non-Jewish life to a life with no God or meaning, and felt a certain alarm at the lack of women’s agency in this worldview of love and marriage (which, despite Yossi’s sister Talya’s search for love, is not something examined in the novel), I did find Glasman’s revelations of ritual, particularly in relationship to cleanliness and food, truly fascinating. Yossi’s life is ruled by rules, some quite bizarre to the outsider, and Glasman evocatively describes them, through Josh’s cynicism, as being ‘like playing out someone else’s obsessive compulsive disorder’. I found myself reflecting on the superstitions, rituals and habits of my own life that I take for granted, yet which might appear strange to others.
Then Talya took up the hem of my Shabbat pants. I had to chew a piece of cotton as she did this because an undertaker sews the clothes of a dead person while they’re wearing them and chewing cotton is a way of proving you are alive and fending off the Evil Eye.
Glasman writes, ‘If you’re a Jew, your sex-life is on trial’, and as the bombs rained down on Gaza, I couldn’t help but wonder if that extends to the political life of a Jewish writer, and whether or not that is fair. The games Grand Theft Auto and Angry Birds as well as the cooking program Huey’s Kitchen made their way into the privacy of the community, so it’s hard to believe there would be no news or discussion of Israel or the politics of Zionism, yet these ideas play no part in Glasman’s book or the lives of the young men coming of age in segregated schools.
That point aside, I enjoyed the way Glasman points to the schism between reality inside the enclave and perception from outsiders with his anecdote about Yossi’s best friend’s second cousin, who has been seen bouncing down the street on a pogo stick and waving a yellow flag, discussed while the boys are ritually washing crockery and cutlery:
‘He’s not crazy, by the way,’ I said, handing him back a wet fork.
Josh held the fork away from him as he put it inside the zip compartment of his suitcase. ‘Who?’ he asked.
‘The guy dancing on the street corner. He’s just trying to bring happiness into the world. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that to bring the Messiah we must bring as much goodness and joy into the world as possible.’
I have a feeling that with The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew, that’s what Glasman may be trying to bring, too.