'The Choir Helped Me Accept Who I Am for the First Time'

An American Southerner shares the story of how he learned for sure that he's gay; an Israeli yoga teacher explains how she survived in India without her suitcase.

Gary Gruss.
Tomer Appelbaum

Gary Gruss, 32, lives in Charlotte, North Carolina; flying to Philadelphia

Hello, can I ask what you did in Israel?

I sang, with a choir, at the University of Haifa, the Tel Aviv music conservatory and on a kibbutz in the middle of nowhere. We also sang with children from the Efroni Choir – a friend, who directs the choir, invited us. There were 20 of us – our choir is called Colla Voce.

Does the name mean something?

It’s a musical instruction meaning to follow the solo voice, it’s an Italian term.

What’s your role in the choir?

I sing alto and bass and manage the choir; I’m a choir manager by profession. I also compose choral music. Besides that, I’m doing a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina.

What’s your thesis on?

On transgender people in choirs. I’ll give you the background: I’ve been directing an LGBT choir in Charlotte for nine years. About a year and a half ago, a transgender person named Noah joined us. Noah was born female and today is male. We had a big event scheduled for three months down the road, and Noah asked what part he should sing, because he’d begun hormone treatment and didn’t know what would happen to his voice. He was an alto then, but because of the testosterone he was likely to become a tenor or even second bass. I didn’t know what to say. In the end, he learned all the parts. Anyway, that was an interesting process, and it made me think. I understood that I don’t know how to help some of my singers, and that’s a problem, because for me a choir is a place for everyone, and a good manager needs to be able to help everyone integrate.

Who’s in the “everyone” category?

The members of our choir range in age from 20 to 74 – all generations, all types. Lesbians, gays, trans, Asian, Latino. The choir was founded 28 years ago, and many people who were in the closet joined, people who were afraid of even having their name printed in the program. Today we have 30 percent straights, and they’re really cool; whoever wants can join.

Even someone who sings out of tune, like me?

You know, we have a saying in the South: “Bless your heart.” That probably sounds very friendly to you, but when we say it in the South, it’s not so nice. For example, when someone thinks he’s a great singer but he’s really bad, you say, “Bless your heart.” Singers like that come to the choir, but I choose music that’s at an intermediate level of difficulty, and usually those without experience or talent leave. I want everyone to have a good social experience, but also want a quality artistic product. So we have wonderful professional singers, and others who are less so.

What do you sing?

Everything, from pop to classical. I want people to taste a little of everything: from Handel’s “The King Shall Rejoice” to Morten Lauridsen’s contemporary work “Prayer.” Every summer we have a sort of campy pop concert, with drag performances of all the divas, Judy Garland, Madonna and songs from musicals. 

You sound very devoted to the choir.

I grew up in a very conservative, Christian region in Kansas, in a small town with a lot of small minds who told me what to think. It was like in Iran. My brother was an excellent athlete and my father was a baseball coach. I tried soccer, but I was bad at it. Music was the only thing I was good at. Around the age of 20 I joined a choir in Kansas City. Until then I wasn’t sure I was gay, because everything I knew that was gay was boisterous and colorful, and I’m not. But in the choir, I saw 150 singers and many different examples of how it’s possible to be gay, and I said to myself, “Wow, maybe I am gay.” The choir helped me to accept for the first time what I am, and the music gave me the strength to tell my family, my father. And that gift, of acceptance, I wanted to give to other people.

I thought that it’s less of a problem to come out of the closet now, even in the American South.

North Carolina recently passed a law obliging people to use toilets according to their sex at birth. That means that if you’re transgender, you can be arrested for going to the toilet. And the attempt to eliminate the law created an even bigger mess. The LGTB community now has no protection. We’ve reverted to the 1960s. It’s awful.

Naama Lahav.
Tomer Appelbaum

Naama Lahav, 65, lives in Kibbutz Sha’ar Hagolan; arriving from Delhi, India

Hello, can I ask what you did in India?

I’m returning from a journey of yogis to India. I’ve been a yoga teacher for almost 10 years, and I learned from the yoga teachers’ organization that a group was organizing for a two-week trip, so I joined.

Who was in the group?

We were a mixed group of 12 people of all ages. There were two girls of 22-23 who enlivened the group, and there were people who played instruments and sang, and everyone was delightful. Some are yoga teachers and some will perhaps be teachers, from all over the country and from all kinds of streams of yoga.

Which part of India did you visit?

We landed in Delhi and from there went on to Indore, which is a large city about two hours from Delhi. Then we went to Omkareshwar, a town and a shrine on a stone island between two rivers. It has many sculptures of gods from Indian mythology.

And what did you do?

That’s where our journey actually began. We stayed there in an ashram that has a large group of Indian children who have gathered there from all kinds of homes. Children who are unable to live in their own homes, so they live in the ashram and attend the adjacent school. We practiced yoga, at first in our group with an instructor, and then we spent time with the children.

Did you do yoga with them?

There was only a little activity with them because they study a lot and have a busy schedule. They are very well looked after, with great modesty. But we ate with them, sitting on the floor, and also took part in their daily sacred ceremony.

What happens in it?

The children sing and play drums. It’s a form of prayer, with all kinds of mantras and music.

Did you go to other places?

We met an Austrian hermit who had experienced enlightenment and became a Brahmin. He told us how he got there, why he felt that this is his path.

Does he live in a cave?

He lives in a godforsaken place near the river. He is very thin, with lots of dreadlocks and his story is interesting.

What is his story?

In general, he decided to devote himself to yoga, and on the yogi path he did all the stages until he reached full enlightenment. He left his family and children, but he felt it was the right thing to do. He lives like a real monk, but it was lovely to see him because life is clearly good for him.

Does it make you want to try something similar?

I’m not into leaving civilization, living in seclusion for years and doing meditation to achieve enlightenment. But I hope to bring something of that to my classes.

What do you teach?

Viniyoga. It’s taught at Wingate [college for physical education and sports, near Netanya].

How did you get into yoga?

Yoga actually grabbed me via television. There was this Thai woman on the Good Life Channel who gave lessons, and it engaged me. I was kibbutz secretary and a kindergarten teacher, so at first I studied yoga for children.

Do you still teach children?

My students today are older, former youth movement members. Some have been with me for eight years. They are the ones who urged me to teach, because at first I wasn’t sure of myself.

What’s different about yoga for older people?

It’s unavoidable: Older people can’t do everything that young people can do, and I’m also not at an age at which you can do everything – for example, I don’t do headstands – but for those who truly persist, you can see an improvement. If you practice every day, you can stretch the muscles at any age. Even though what drew me to yoga is the strength aspect, because I am naturally flexible.

Has yoga changed your outlook?

Yes, I am far less judgmental. I experience greater tranquility and quiet, and there has also been a shift in my nutrition: I eat lighter meals, without fried foods. Yoga brings about a very gradual change, it all happens very slowly. For example, I stopped drinking instant coffee, but I still like the black “mud” coffee from Israel and even took a bag of it with me to India.

How did you get along there?

It does scare some people – the conditions in India, the food and the accommodations – but it didn’t scare me, and even the fact that my suitcase didn’t arrive for two weeks didn’t bother me.

What? That’s my nightmare!

The girls in the group gave me things here and there, and I got along.