Writing gay romance between Jewish characters with two differing levels of observance
I’m writing (or, right now, more planning/outlining, with occasional writing of small scenes that I can’t get out of my head) a novel about two Jewish men who fall in love in a very Xtian, conservative town. The older of the two (late thirties) is more closeted, reclusive, and is somewhat separated from his Jewish identity as a result of a combination of assimilation and intermarriage further back in his family. The main character (mid-late twenties) on the other hand is very involved with his synagogue, works at a Hebrew summer camp, keeps shabbos, etc.
My issue is that I’m very observant (conservaform) and so is my family; I know a few folks who go to my synagogue who are “high holy day Jews”, or might also come for a wedding or bris or bar/bas mitzvah, but not many who are non-observant to the degree of this character (hasn’t set foot in synagogue since being a child, didn’t have a bar mitzvah, has a pair of somewhat observant grandparents and some cousins/etc who are observant, but most of his immediate family isn’t observant). So I’m not sure how to portray the secondary character without someone going “why not just write a Jewish guy in love with an Xtian guy” or something, because even if his relationship to Judaism and Jewish culture are somewhat distant, they’re still there. I’m also afraid that someone is going to say “why are you bashing Xtianity” about some of the subject matter (as someone who has lived in a small town, I have a decent bit of material from personal experience on Xtian antisemitism), but really the main point is that I want to portray two Jewish men loving each other.
I want to write this but don’t want goyim in particular to try to argue that I should have just made my MC’s romantic interest Xtian in the first place, because one main theme I want to explore, which I haven’t seen explored much in fiction, is being gay and Jewish. Specifically, one concept I had for the second character is how his being closeted comes largely from a place of being raised in a Xtian-secular household in a very Xtian town, and homophobia being very religiously where he lives, and so him sort of being reluctant to explore religion at all; but then seeing how the MC is Very Jewish and somewhat-openly gay, and feeling both nostalgic for the parts of his grandparents he sees in the MC (speaking Yiddish, cooking traditional Ashkenazic food), as well as longing to be as comfortable with both his sexuality and to have a relationship with G-d as the MC does.
I don’t know if this is a weirdly specific character/plot concept, but it just came to me I guess and it’s been at me long enough that I’ve started to try to outline writing it. I just want to see more gay fiction with religious, specifically Jewish, characters. Thanks for any advice you can give.
Thank you for submitting a question so close to my heart! Looks like I need to break this down into several parts:
1. How to portray secular Jews as something distinct from Christians, secular or otherwise - this may not be as hard as you think it is because you’re Jewish and your factory settings, your defaults, your unexamined ideas, may already be different from the Christians around you. Like, I was in my 30’s before I found out that gentiles don’t do the chair dance. I thought everyone did that. Give The Upside of Unrequired by Becky Albertalli (review here) a read – her main character tells the audience that “we’re the kind of Jewish family who eats bacon” and religion itself isn’t really a presence in her life, but she still finds it meaningful that the boy she’s working with at her new job turns out to be a fellow Jew.
Other possible markers of secular Jewishness:
- Finding Jewish representation/acknowledgment of our existence in fiction (or the Jewishness of celebrities) meaningful
- Casual use of the most common Yiddishisms (maybe not entire curse phrases, but, like, using the word ‘kvetch’ in ordinary conversation)
- General feeling of alienation or otherness around super overt displays of Christianity
- Foods like matzo ball soup or latkes (for your Ashkie characters, anyway; this might be different for other subgroups of us.)
In my new release Knit One, Girl Two, the main character Clara is a secular Jew and one of the details I used to illustrate that is that her first kiss involved sneaking off with another girl during a friend’s bar mitzvah reception. She also refers to her grandparents as Bubby and Zayde and has strong opinions about which Jewish foods she does and doesn’t like. She’s slightly awkward around the love interest’s higher level of observance, which is something secular Jews might feel out of self-consciousness—if the character cared. A secular Jewish person and a gentile person don’t approach an observant Jewish person’s observance in the same way. The gentile may misunderstand or have misconceptions; the Jewish person might feel self-conscious for not participating. Or feel nostalgic for observant people in their past (like “oh, my grandma used to –!”)
2. How to portray your own marginalization without sounding like you’re bashing the privileged group. Now, you’re not really obligated to watch out for the feelings of a group that has hurt you by having power over you… but at the same time I 100% understand not wanting to step on toes just to save your own peace of mind. Some suggestions for this:
- Having some of the Christians in the town be nice, but powerless to stop the jackwagon ones.
- Flat-out having your character say “I’m not mad at Christianity; these people don’t even seem like they’re following Jesus in the first place”
- Cut down on the more painful elements and focus on your main characters’ reactions to their hurt rather than describing the bigotry itself. That will cut down on how much your bigoted characters hurt your RL readers, so they’ll be mad at them for your main characters’ sake but not for their own sake and it’ll give them a little distance. (Example: “OMG, I can’t believe how much of a jerk Todd was being, saying all that garbage about Jews and gay people.” Instead of “Todd walked into the room and shouted that Jews are X and gay people are Y!”)
- Try to cut down on having the most bigoted characters belong to groups marginalized along another axis. You’re going to perpetuate fatphobia if your most bigoted character is also your only fat character, and if I were reading this story I’d be uncomfortable if the homophobic/antisemitic characters were Black unless a Black author was writing it because from a white pen this could easily be read as blaming those two -phobias on Black people instead of white supremacy where it belongs.
3. I don’t think you’re going to get “you might as well have made him Christian” coming from outsiders because you’re a Jewish person writing Jewish characters. Just speaking from personal experience.. In any case, a secular Jewish character is not a Christian character. Sometimes they can come off that way when gentiles write them, because they won’t know what kind of details to add to make their being Jewish not seem arbitrarily pasted on, but I doubt that would happen from a Jewish writer.
4. “One main theme I want to explore, which I haven’t seen explored much in fiction, is being gay and Jewish.”
I have several recommendations for you!
First of all, Jordan S. Brock’s just come out with a m/m novel called Change of Address based on her own experiences with PTSD and a service dog—it’s even dedicated to the service dog. Like her, the love interest is a Jewish adoptee, and the character’s observance mirrors her own – he and his father don’t allow bacon in the house but they’ll eat pepperoni as long as it’s somewhere else, for example.
Out of print but easy to find in libraries through ILL is The Dyke and the Dybbuk, Ellen Galford’s paranormal f/f comedy about a demon who possesses a Jewish lesbian cab driver and makes her get a crush on an Orthodox woman as a prank. (Review)
I also collected this list of free queer Jewish SFF short stories, which includes nonbinary representation. As far as my own works go, I really tried to infuse the Tales from Perach collection with all the joy and gratefulness both Judaism, Jewishness, and queerness have brought to my life – there’s a lesbian’s grateful prayer of thanks for her relationship with her wife, an elderly trans woman and her husband attending services, and a royal family with two moms and two dads putting on an exceptionally lavish Purimspiel that includes a scripted swordfight.
I’m glad you’re writing something to add to this and expand the body of LGBT Jewish literature, especially something where both members of the couple are Jewish.