When the 16-year-old protagonist of Daniel M. Jaffe’s new novel comes across a passage from the book of Leviticus, he blinks and clamps his eyes shut. “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination,” it reads.
He then continues to pore over the prohibition, realizing that “anyone who committed such abomination ‘shall be cut off from among their people.’”
It is in those early stages of discovering his sexuality that the character, Jake Stein, is sucked into an emotional vortex, his desires clashing with a religious Jewish identity.
“This is very much autobiographical, reflecting my inner conflict at the time,” says Jaffe, 61, in a phone interview with Haaretz, about “Yeled Tov” (“Good Boy” in Hebrew).
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The grandson of an Orthodox immigrant from the Haredi neighborhood of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem, Jaffe was brought up in New Jersey by a reform mother and moderate Orthodox father, eating kosher food and attending an elementary Orthodox Yeshiva.
The character Jaffe created in his own image – also raised in a religious South Jersey family in the 1970s – joins a school play adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” where he falls hopelessly in love with one of the male actors. Upon graduating high school he goes to Princeton, where his predicament escalates further.
Jaffe reflects on his own freshman year in Princeton as his “crisis” year.
“There was a clash between my interpretation of Jewishness and my acknowledgment of being gay,” he recalls.
Like others in the LGBTQ community who grow up in conservative environments, Jaffe felt there was “no way out” and decided, at age 18, to end his life.
He overdosed on sleeping pills and was found by his college roommate. But even after waking up in the campus infirmary to see his crushed parents by his side, he still could not bring himself to tell them the reason for his suicide attempt.
“From a mature perspective looking back, I think the religious issue was indeed part of it. But it was also more than that – just like any young person not knowing how to cope with this, feeling that my future would not be as I had envisioned, that I would not be accepted by my family ... the unfortunately usual list of things,” he says.
Over time, the pressure eased. Jaffe attended sessions with a therapist and began taking small steps outside the strictness of his religious observance, like eating nonkosher food. He also volunteered with Jewish-Soviet immigrants, who risked everything to assert their identities and to live freely. “If I admire those people, how can I not respect myself?” he thought at the time.
In the book, Jake Stein comes to learn of gay activism on his college campus. Similarly, by senior year Jaffe had joined the Gay Alliance of Princeton and came out to his parents. His voice breaks when he recounts how his mother took his hand and asked, “Is that why you were so upset years ago?”
Still, it took his parents a long time and various attempts at treating his “sexual disorder” before fully accepting their son. Jaffe says it was not during his bar mitzvah, but rather an empowering confrontation with his father years later that he became a man. “It was when I stood up to my father and defined myself as a man different from him but a man just the same,” he says.
For parents who give the wrong signals
Decades later, before he passed away, Jaffe Sr. let his son in on an old family secret: his grandfather’s brother was also gay.
“Back in those days in the Orthodox community, if you kept your business to yourself then that was OK. All those years, my father had not thought to tell me about it. This is one of the reasons I wrote this novel,” Jaffe says.
“If I would’ve known that one of my great-uncles was gay in an Orthodox family and had been accepted as a human being and not ostracized, I don’t think I would’ve tried to kill myself. I would’ve known that there was a place for me.”
For the past 25 years, Jaffe has shared his life with his now-husband, Leo Cabranes-Grant, with whom he resides in Santa Barbara, California. After a career in law, Jaffe transitioned to writing, focusing over the years mainly on the gay Jewish experience.
His first novel, “The Limits of Pleasure” (2001), depicted the conflict of a middle-aged gay man who felt he didn’t deserve a good life and that his sexuality betrayed his grandmother’s survival in the Holocaust.
The recurring theme of the Holocaust symbolizes the heritage Jaffe himself felt he was breaking with. “When I had those feelings of betrayal, it was to those who survived to keep a tradition going,” he says. “But then I thought, if the tradition is about survival and adapting, why should I not adapt and survive?”
Yet only after decades of staying silent about the painful personal experience of his suicide attempt did Jaffe decide to open up. “I was actually ashamed and embarrassed by it,” he explains. “But then I realized maybe I can help some people by talking about it – not only young people themselves, but parents who might unintentionally be giving the wrong signals to their children.”
“Yeled Tov” is a story of a young man’s journey to accept himself. In other common threads to Jaffe’s life, Jake Stein tries to date women in college and confronts his father. But Jaffe speaks his message loud and clear through one of the most powerful lines in the book, when a character simply states: “We’re supposed to live by the Torah, not die by it.”