Novelist examines converging worlds of Jews and gays

While Jews have often lived in actual ghettos, gays inhabit a metaphorical one, asserts author Michael Lowenthal.

"Growing up as a Jewish kid, you feel kind of queer and a little bit left out because you're not celebrating the same holidays, but at the same time you feel kind of special," the 29-year-old Lowenthal says in a phone interview from his Boston home.

"You have your own kinds of foods and traditions and language. For gay people, the down side is much more heightened, but there's also a kind of special feeling, which is really the basis for the bond that happens when gay people come out. It's the same kind of mishpoche [family ties] Jews feel in the temple."

Lowenthal explores these themes in his first novel, "The Same Embrace." He will discuss his work on Tuesday, Nov. 10 at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek.

The book tells the story of twin brothers, one gay and one an Orthodox yeshiva student. It's a deep and funny family drama that also explores the places where Jewish and gay culture intersect.

Both groups, though often discriminated against, are also seen as wielding disproportionate power, he says.

"Jews have been accused of controlling the media and banks. There's this notion that gay people run Hollywood, that gay people are more creative and talented than other people."

Lowenthal, whose fiction and essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Globe and the Advocate, is the editor of Gay Men at the Millennium.

He grew up in a Conservative Jewish family, mostly in Chevy Chase, Md. His paternal grandfather was a rabbi. While his mother's family had a strong Jewish identity, it was "more related to Jewish philanthropy, going to temple on the High Holy Days. Right from the start of their marriage, the families had big fights. My mother had to decide between getting the kosher roast beef or the lobster salad. We kept kosher until my folks split up."

Like his character Jacob, Lowenthal describes himself as assimilated. "I'm the greatest fear of the Jewish religious establishment — the drifter," he jokes. But he maintains an intense intellectual interest in Judaism.

"I certainly feel Jewish. I'm aware of it in my daily life. I'm interested in Jewish-themed books and movies. I feel at home with Jewish culture. I spent a couple of years really immersed in it to write this book. It doesn't transcend into the…spiritually practicing realm."

As gay culture has become more accepted, "gay people are wrestling with [assimilation] in the same way that Jewish people are," he says. "How do you do it without losing what's distinctive about your group?"

In the book, when Jacob visits his brother in a Jerusalem yeshiva, he is both skeptical and somehow drawn to the religious world his brother inhabits.

"The traditions and tropes there are clearly ones that have been there for thousands of years," the writer says. "They have that weight of history and reality. Gay culture is so relatively new and is always being invented. In contrast to his [Jacob's] gay life, this is in some sense a realer life."

Jacob comes out to the world four days after Yom Kippur in a TV news interview on National Coming Out Day. He particularly addresses his grandmother, the one person in his family who doesn't know.

"I was with my grandmother for Yom Kippur services," Jacob tells the reporter. "I'm not really religious. I mean, I hadn't been to synagogue in ages. It felt good, though, being with her, everyone looking over and smiling, knowing we were family. Except it was fake, because they weren't seeing the real me — or all of me. Not even my grandmother, because she doesn't know I'm gay."

If his grandmother saw the news that night, she never mentions it. Later in the book, Jacob discovers the existence of a gay uncle likely killed in the Holocaust.

Lowenthal, too, grew up with Holocaust secrets. His paternal grandfather had a son who was killed in Bergen-Belsen. Lowenthal never knew this uncle existed until he read his grandfather's obituary.

"My experience of it [the Holocaust] was essentially the presence of an absence," he says. "My grandparents were clearly German, but they never talked about their lives before [coming to America]. They never spoke in German. There was that feeling of something always lurking there over your shoulder but you couldn't talk about it and even naming it might bring it back to life."

Lowenthal says speaking about the unspeakable — both as a Jew and as a gay man — is ultimately freeing. He cites the "power of releasing knowledge, whether it's somebody else finding it out or letting it out."