Feb 27, 2024

Chaim Potok: The Gay Jewish Romeo and Juliet

During my junior year in high school, our English teacher assigned My Name is Asher Lev (1972), the novel by Chaim Potok about a Hasidic Jewish boy torn between his artistic talent and his extremely conservative religious heritage.

I could relate: I was being torn between my artistic interests and my extremely conservative religious heritage (no theater, no movies, no science fiction, no rock music, no nothing but church and the Bible).

And I didn't miss the fact that Asher Lev displays no heterosexual interests.  He does, however, become the apprentice of established artist Jacob Kahn, who teaches him about life and love, an interesting parallel to the "coming of age" movies that pair a young boy with an older woman.

I quickly sought out Chaim Potok's other works.  The Chosen (1967) is also about culture clash, but this time it's the Orthodox Reuven bonding with the Hasidic Danny (played by Robby Benson in the 1981 movie).  The novel follows them from their initial meeting at a baseball game (where Danny's pitch hits Reuven in the eye).

They remain partners to college, where Reuven's Zionism angers Danny's father, Rabbi Saunders (Hasidic Jews believe that establishing a secular state in Israel is blasphemous). He forbids Danny from speaking to Reuven again.

Danny complies, but the loss of his life-long friend has a devastating effect.  After years of anger, depression, and pain, Rabbi Saunders relents, and the two joyfully reconcile.

I finished the novel, speechless.  An amazing, touching Romeo and Juliet story!

(Robby Benson isn't shirtless in the movie, but it's impossible to write about him without at least one shirtless photo.)

How did a conservative Jewish writer manage to create two touching portraits of same-sex romance?

Certainly not by design.  But maybe the gender-stratified world of Hasidic Judaism, where men rarely interact with women outside their families, left a space free of the  heterosexist shouts of "Look at the girls!  Aren't girls great! Aren't you glad that you are attracted to girls, like every other boy in the world?"  When heterosexism stops yelling, gay voices can be heard.

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