A reckoning is not ‘politicizing’: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on Orthodox gay ‘acceptance’

Yeshiva University posters from 2020—which were reportedly torn down by rabbis on campus.

The tragic death by suicide in April of Herschel Siegel, a 25-year-old Yeshiva University graduate from Atlanta, has shaken the North American Jewish community. Siegel was gay, and as JTA reports, had, in a March Instagram post, written about his “trauma,” writing, “my very EXISTENCE as a gay, Jewish, Male was an abomination.” This has led some to consider whether Orthodox Judaism is perhaps not the most hospitable place

I read, among others, Simon Italiaander’s essay in the Forward, “My friend Herschel Siegel died by suicide. Politicizing his death doesn’t help gay Jews.” Italiaander’s argument is that Siegel’s trigger can’t have been an unwelcoming Orthodox Jewish world, because the Orthodox community can be accepting of Siegel specifically, and—per Italiaander, who is also gay and Orthodox—to gay men generally:

  • “Herschel’s family loved and accepted him unconditionally.”
  • “Herschel was a fixture in our [Atlanta Jewish] community. He was rarely seen alone, embraced and loved by all.”
  • “I disclosed my sexual orientation to dozens of rabbis, mentors, friends, colleagues and family members. And never, ever, did I receive anything but warmth.”

I read this and was struck more than anything by the vagueness of it all. What is acceptance in the Orthodox world? On the latest Bonjour Chai podcast episode I asked this of Avi Finegold and our producer Zachary Kauffman—the answer being, in brief, that Orthodoxy is not a monolith, so it depends—but will ask it now of The CJN’s readers as well.

I ask because terms like “accepted” and “loved” and “warmth” are abstractions. They tell you, bare minimum, that someone can enter a space and not be spat upon.

What they do not tell you is whether you could, in a given family or community, show up with a date or a spouse and be accepted as a couple, nor how your children would be welcomed. They do not speak to whether you might have cordial chit-chat one minute and then be in services, learning that being who you are is abhorrent.

I should say that none of this is specific to the Orthodox world. I’m still in (the final months of) my 30s but am old enough to remember when no countries had legal same-sex marriage, and when Will and Grace depicted gay male life as, you live with a woman but the two of you talk about men. Until about five minutes ago, and to some extent even still, even in secular settings, an openly gay couple could be accused of shoving it in people’s faces for holding hands or whatever.

It could be that the more liberal parts of Orthodoxy (which exist) are still a bit behind the times, but by 20 years, not 200. As for the less liberal, this is, as I understand it, another story.

I will allow that it’s a wide world, where people’s level of interest in sexuality versus faith varies widely. Catholic priests and nuns are not all, presumably, asexual, yet are (ostensibly) celibate. If a certain number of gay men and women prioritize a certain understanding of Judaism over fulfilling intimate lives, this is them living their truth.

Italiaander writes, of the challenges he experiences as a gay Orthodox man himself, “My closest friends are deciding where to send their oldest child for day school while I’m looking for my next foster dog.” A part of me wants to tell him that he can literally just not be Orthodox, or even join up with one of the more liberal parts of Orthodoxy, and he too can have a spouse and kids, living as he does in 2023, when such things are possible. But then I remember that he has, to borrow a line from Sex and the City, chosen his choice, after “growing up non-observant.” This is the life he wants.

Where this falls apart, for me, is when I—forgive me—think of the children. The children growing up gay in these settings, who have not opted in, and who cannot opt out without blowing up their lives. I may be a godless liberal, but I am also a parent, and all I can think of is, imagine if this were my kid.

I agree with Italiaander that individual suicides shouldn’t be pinned on political issues. It could be true at the same time that Orthodoxy has a homophobia problem and that an individual gay Orthodox person had unrelated demons. You cannot know what someone was thinking, not exactly, even if their Instagram offers some glaring clues. And that extends to relatively proximate outsiders.

Italiaander was not Siegel’s close friend, or he would have mentioned this. The headline begins, “my friend,” but in the piece itself, we learn that Italiaander “knew Herschel Siegel personally,” and that he “grew up in his community and am friendly with his family.” Enough of a connection for an op-ed pitch, in other words, and enough to share one’s own lived experience of the milieu in question, but not to know exactly what was up in someone’s inner life.

Seems a bit much, then, to extrapolate, as Italiaander does:

“If Herschel Siegel were still alive, I don’t think he would have a single claim against anyone; I think he would give out hugs (and balloons!) to the countless people who have supported him all the way through.”

Given that Siegel posted online about his struggles in a faith tradition that treats who he was as abomination not long before taking his own life, and indeed, given that whatever his exact reasoning if one can even call it reasoning, he was upset enough to kill himself, maybe we could lay off this talk of hugs and balloons. It’s not helpful to insist we know precisely what happened, but it’s also not great to posthumously attribute a sense of cozy gratitude towards his community onto someone who was evidently experiencing anything but.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz