Dani Perez, a secular Israeli working as a software engineer in Boston, has never had trouble balancing his faith and his sexuality—until he meets Avi Levine, a gay Orthodox Jew and sign language interpreter. As they fall in love, Dani finds himself wanting Avi in his life, but he can’t understand how Avi reconciles what his religion demands with what his body desires. And although he wants to deny it, neither can Avi.
Despite the risk of losing Avi forever to a religious life that objects to their love, Dani supports him through the struggle to find an answer. Will they be able to start a life together despite religious ideology that conflicts with the relationship they are trying to build?
(NOTE: FLYING WITHOUT A NET includes several prayers, including the following two excerpts.)
Tefilah: Blessed are You, Who Has Such Phenomena in His World
We say, Hashem, that you created humans in Your image. Yet we believe with complete faith that You have no corporeal body.
If You did, and it looked like Dani's, well, then.
Is it chillul Hashem—desecration of Your name—to say, Good going? He is…gorgeous. And I finally perhaps understand what people mean when they talk about human beauty. I mean, I've appreciated good looking people before. But this is the first time I've been literally up close and personal with another man's body. With Dani's body, specifically.
And he is… amazing.
Dani is as beautiful on the outside as he is on the inside. And while I knew that he was a very handsome man, I had not thought about what that might mean for his physique. He is the physical embodiment of the fantasies I did not know I had. As Shlomo HaMelech—King Solomon—wrote in Shir HaShirim, “As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the sons; in his shade I delighted and sat, and his fruit was sweet to my palate.”
I understand Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, much more now. I can relate to the lover who is basking in the beauty of their beloved, who is so struck by the appearance of the one who is in their heart that they wax poetic, that they write the most epic of love songs.
“My beloved is mine, and I am his, that feeds among the roses.”
I have never completely understood all the blessings we have for all the random occasions of life, but the one for seeing a beautiful person or creature now resonates with me. Baruch atah, Hashem, Elokainu melech haolam, she'kacha lo ba'olamo—blessed are you, Hashem our God, King of the universe, who has such phenomena in His world.
* * *
Tefilah: Create for Me a Pure Heart
In these, the earliest hours of the day after Yom Kippur, please, Hashem, hear my request.
My heart is torn. I am caught between love of You and Your mitzvot and love of myself. Love of myself and love of my family. Love of my family and, perhaps, the possibility of love for another man.
I know. It's too early for me to call any feelings I have for Dani anything other than friendship. And I know that from the perspective of halacha, of Your laws, there is no sin involved in thoughts, in feelings.
But what if those thoughts, those feelings, cause others pain? What if by my actions, or at least by my consideration of future actions, I am causing pain to another person.
To my parents? To my family?
I stood next to Abba at shul all day. We sat in the same seats that we have used for as many Yom Kippurs as I can remember. But I was a different me from whom I have been. And when we struck our hearts with our fists and asked forgiveness “for the sin we have committed with false denial and lying” and “for the sin we have committed by disrespecting parents and teachers,” I couldn't help but look over at him and also think about Ima sitting in the women's section on the other side of the mechitzah. When they find out, when they learn that I am not exactly the son they think I am, when I tell them that I am still their Avi and I hope they can still love me, how will they react?
I have friends who have left Your path when they could not find a way to reconcile their love for You with their love for another man. I do not want to turn away from all of Your laws, from the way I have been taught and from the life I have grown up loving. But I fear that my parents will reject me outright when I tell them.
I should have more faith in them. I should have more faith in You. Please, Hashem, help me to have faith.
Lev tahor be'rah li, Elokim–God, create for me a pure heart. Al tashlicheni milfanecha–do not send me away from before You.
* * *
“All of the dati people I knew before I came out, they all thought that gay people were an abomination. And while, yes, I’m learning that not all dati people feel that way, I still have trouble understanding how someone can identify as dati and gay,” Danid said. I mean, yeah, halacha doesn’t mandate thought, just action. But how many people know that? How many people practice that?”
“A lot of people know. Think of it this way. Halacha has a lot to say about kashrut. But not everyone keeps the same type of kosher, even among the dati community. So, for example, I don’t hold that you have to only eat glatt meat or chalav Yisrael milk, but other people do. That doesn’t make my type of kosher any less legitimate than their type of kosher. The people who only eat glatt or chalav Yisrael won’t eat the food I make, but that’s because of how they interpret the rules. In my experience, most of them don’t believe I’m not keeping kosher; they just hold by a greater stricture.”
“We have a difference of opinion on how to interpret the law,” Avi continued. “Judaism allows for that; we have a long tradition of different communities having different standards, all of which are considered legitimate interpretations of halacha. Same with this. My interpretation of halacha has no problem with my being gay and my being frum. Someone else’s opinion of halacha may not be as inclusive, but those people may also say I don’t keep kosher enough or that the fact that I have a television in my house or an Internet connection means that I’m not frum. I disagree. My community disagrees. If they don’t like my interpretation of halacha, they can leave me to my life. I’m not going into their houses and saying they have to be accepting of my kashrut standards, but at the same time they cannot come into my house and tell me that I cannot eat my own food to my own standards of kashrut.”
Avi stopped and took a breath. Dani closed the distance between them and took Avi’s hand. “Okay, motek, I get it,” he said. “I think. I mean, it’s still a huge thing for me to work through, since I have been so used to the dati community that I know judging me simply for whom I choose to love. I just… Until I met you, I had never met an Orthodox Jew who was open-minded about gays. So I admit it will take me some time to adjust my biases. Please be patient with me, motek.”
“We’ll be patient with each other,” Avi said, bending for a kiss.
* * *
V'ahavtcha, al tassir mimenu l'olamim—and Your love, may You forever not remove it from us. Please help us to find our way as we navigate our love, through Your love.
* * *
Today we're very lucky to be interviewing EM Ben Shaul, author of Flying Without a Net.
Hi EM, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Tell us a little about yourself, your background, and your current book.
EM: Hello, and thanks for hosting a tour stop for Flying Without a Net. This is my Interlude Press debut novel, and it’s very close to my heart, as well as to my home.
Flying Without a Net is a love story about two Jewish men—one a secular Israeli and the other, an Orthodox sign language interpreter, who must find a way to balance their feelings for each other with their respective views of faith. As an Orthodox Jew and writer of gay fiction, Dani and Avi’s story is so important to me. I live in a simultaneously Jewish-friendly and gay-friendly neighborhood just outside of Boston, and I hope to share a better understanding of my faith, as well as the challenges it can present for two men in love.
BBJ: Please tell us, what hobbies do you have for when you’re not writing?
I read a lot when I’m not writing. When I am writing, I find it difficult to read other people’s fiction, mostly because I don’t want to unwittingly steal an idea from someone and incorporate it into my story accidentally. But other than reading, I sew, I cook, and I knit.
My sewing these days usually takes the form of either mending clothing that my kids have accidentally torn or sewing items that we need around the house, such as replacement throw pillows for our sofa or curtains for our living room windows. I have a vast stash of fabric that I have no specific plan for, but that can be helpful – last school year, one of my daughters informed me on relatively short notice that for a school project she wanted me to sew her an outfit. I didn’t have time to go shopping for fabric with her, but I let her go through my stash of random fabric, and in not very long she found fabric that she liked and that suited the project.
The cooking I do is usually focused around making meals for either the Sabbath or upcoming holidays. I like to make menus ahead and figure out a good combination of dishes that will be both nutritious and tasty but that will also appeal to everyone around the table, including our seven-year-old twin daughters. For the recent fall Jewish holidays, with two festive meals per day for six separate holiday days plus the intervening Sabbath days, that’s a lot of meals to put together. I was glad that I save the menus year-to-year, because it allowed me to use the previous year’s menus as a guideline for what I should serve this year. It took a lot of the guesswork, and therefore the stress, out of the month of holidays.
My third major hobby is knitting. I have knit many traditional items – sweaters, socks, gloves, mittens, hats, scarves, and the like – but my true enjoyment comes from making less traditional knit items. I have knit many stuffed animals for my children, and a couple for their friends. I currently have one knit elephant almost complete and a second one in the early knitting stages. I also knit items derived from TV shows and movies I enjoy. From the “Doctor Who” universe, I have knit a TARDIS, a number of Daleks (which are much cuter in knit, stuffed form than they are on TV), some Adipose, and a Dalek dress, hat, and booties for the infant daughter of friends of ours, which was used as her Purim costume. Most recently in the realm of my geeky knittery, I completed a shawl that is a map of the night sky, with the beads and eyelets creating an accurate map of the night sky from the North Pole, with Polaris as the center star. It was a project that took a long time and had a lot of fiddly bits, but in the end I am so glad I put in the effort.
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About the Author
E.M. Ben Shaul lives in many communities. An Orthodox Jew and writer of gay fiction, E.M. lives in the simultaneously gay-friendly and Jewish-friendly Boston area with her husband and twin daughters. A technical writer by day and freelance editor by nights and weekends, E.M. likes to knit, cook and coin neologisms. E.M. seeks to explore the seeming conflict between religious teachings and the heart’s desires.
Flying Without a Net will be published by Interlude Press on November 17, 2016. Connect with author E.M. Ben Shaul at embenshaul.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/EMBenShaul and on Twitter at @embenshaul.
Grand Prize $25 IP Gift Card + Multi-format eBook of Hold // Five winners receive Flying Without a Net eBook.