I was 2 years old when everything changed. My father, who was not yet 30, was a rabbi at a synagogue in Budapest. After multiple harassments, he decided with my mother that America would be a much better place to practice freedom of religion and raise a family. My parents told family and friends that we were vacationing in Yugoslavia when, in fact, we had no intention of ever going back. It was 1972 and we were escaping communist Hungary, the threat of imprisonment looming over my parents’ shoulders.
We arrived in the United States a few months later, settling in Brooklyn, New York, where my father would learn English and audition as an assistant rabbi at a Reform synagogue. For our part, my sister and I went with the flow, assimilating into American culture. We spent most days like those of our classmates at the Jewish day school we attended. Other days were different, after all, we were the immigrant rabbi’s kids.
Being the rabbi’s son seemed normal, maybe privileged at times. In some ways, I felt like a child star with a couple hundred fans. My father’s congregants doted on me as if I were their own. I attributed this affection as kindness, and probably much of it was. As I grew older, I recognized that part of this behavior was their way to get closer to my father. In some cases, it was to satisfy their natural curiosity about the “Man of God,” who is also a family man, their spiritual leader, marital counselor, and advisor.
As the son of this complex figure, I felt I had to maintain a certain standard of propriety. In public, I was at best, charming, and at worst, pleasant. I endured the cheek-pinching and intrusiveness of strangers. I wore a suit at temple when my contemporaries wore regular clothes. I sat through services where I was probably the only one under 40.
I felt I had to be better than most in order to uphold what a rabbi’s family “should be.” But I put this pressure on myself: This was never asked of me by either of my parents. Nevertheless, I felt as if I held my family’s future in my hands. I worried that, if I were to “drop the ball,” my father would lose the respect of his congregation. He would lose his job and we would all be destitute. This was the logic sequence of a 7-year-old. When I became a teenager, I learned that the world was not quite as black and white as I imagined, but I still held on to some unwritten responsibilities.
Two years before my bar mitzvah, I realized I was gay. I remember worrying that this news would be devastating to my parents and there would be ripple effects if the congregation got word of it. I thought, “What would that say about my parents? Would anyone ever trust my father’s advice? After all, if he raised a gay son he obviously didn’t know what he was doing….”
Not only did I fear the crush of rejection from my family, but also from an entire community. This was the 1980s and AIDS was just starting to make headlines. Gay and AIDS were nearly synonymous among those who hated gays, those who now had a name to give their hatred. It was an enormous amount of pressure for an 11-year-old.
Through most of my adolescence my strategy was to ignore my feelings and power through, bargaining with myself: Maybe I’m not actually gay, maybe it’s just a phase–as others would say. But, after several futile attempts at non-acceptance, I came to realize it wasn’t a phase. I needed a better long-term strategy for my survival–to go with what I know.
I decided I had to be perfect at everything so that being gay wouldn’t be “so bad.” Although that was another losing strategy, it yielded benefits. I lifted my high school GPA from a 2.0 to a 4.0. I participated in a diversity of extracurricular activities from football to mock trial, to representing my senior class as VP. I was determined to have only one “flaw.”
By the time I made it to college I saw that I was not alone–there were others just like me. I questioned why I ever thought I needed to be perfect. I learned that I should be loved for who I am, not for what I can accomplish. Simultaneously, my parents divorced and my sister and I became all but estranged. We were no longer living a Jewish fairytale, but pursuing, as individuals, what we needed and loved.
I am happy to say that pursuit has worked out well for all of us, as our family has never been closer. I am a successful entrepreneur who has lived much of the American dream: I graduated college, got married, bought a house, had a kid, got divorced, and now I am raising my boy as a single dad.
I see clearly that my son Sammy and I share a unique bond: We are connected by the impact of our father’s place in the world. Sammy never asked to be a part of a social movement, the same way I never asked to be a rabbi’s son. We were both born into these roles. It’s what we do with them that will matter most.
Sammy’s place in the world is already the focus of interest to many people we know. As he grows older, he will undoubtedly be asked more questions about how he was raised or how it feels to have two dads. Some will pity him and go out of their way to “make him feel better.” Some will expect him to speak out about how well he is doing. Some will want to prove his heterosexuality and others, the opposite. Of course Sammy did not seek out this attention, as I didn’t when I was his age. But as an involuntary representative of a community–in his case, children of gay parents–he will stand out simply because of who I am.
I have learned from my own experiences that young people put unnecessary pressure on themselves to please the people they love most. I will do my best to make sure Sammy doesn’t feel that pressure, or at least do what I can to help carry the load. I want him to know that he doesn’t need to be perfect or a poster boy for gay parenting. Perfect has got a bad history–although the truth is, Sammy is perfect to me.