I was standing naked in a bathroom with a stranger pointing a needle at my penis and I thought, you know, life is weird. Don’t get the wrong idea, I am a Southern gentleman. The stranger was a rabbi, actually a mohel, but my Johnson was definitely in his hands and he was absolutely about to poke it.
All I wanted was Barbie’s Dream House and a set of decent Shabbat candlesticks.”
It didn’t matter that he was a man of God, that this was his job, or that I had paid for this service. Having anyone direct a sharp object at your privates is at best an unsettling feeling. I looked at the florescent lighting above us and all I could think was, “Oh! The places you will go!”
I didn’t necessarily plan on ending up in a bathroom with an old man cradling my junk while chanting Hebrew. How could I? I am from the Mississippi Delta, where the singing of Hebrew of any sort isn’t exactly on the list of traditional activities. Judaism is pretty scarce in the Delta, and becoming a Jew certainly isn’t on anyone’s bucket list. The people I grew up with want to find a new place to go deer hunting and they cross-stitch Bible verses onto pillows. I’ve always felt like a bit of an alien, but it’s fair to say that voluntary ritual circumcision is a little off the beaten path. On the other hand, when I think back to my early, more impressionable years, no one should be surprised. Where else could I possibly be?
Judaism came to me the way it would for anyone strangled with Southern fire and brimstone. It was beamed down from satellites and zapped across cotton farms and eventually found its way into my living room and onto my television set. No, there wasn’t a weird telethon on the Shalom Network. The chosen people paid me a house call via my babysitter: HBO. There is no proselytizing like marinating in the glow of a TV when you’re eight years old. It was there that I found my people.
What I obviously mean to say is that Barbra Streisand, that is, Yentl, had a very lasting and powerful influence over my life choices. I am living proof of what watching Yentl 36,000 times can do to a person. To my little virgin eyes, she was the most amazing person who had ever lived. We were a perfect match, Babs and I. She sang and danced and talked to God with candles while cross dressing in the forest, and so I sang and danced and talked to God with candles while cross dressing in a locked bathroom.
The more I watched the movie, the more obsessed I became. The movie is about a young girl who disguises herself as a boy so that she can study Torah. I was some sort of Yentl in reverse. I eventually stopped hiding in the bathroom to reenact scenes and brought my show to our living room. I needed a bigger stage and a more complicated wardrobe and hair selection than bathrobes and beach towels could offer. I started hijacking my mother’s dresses, nightgowns, and heels. My floor show was about a young boy from Arkansas who had to disguise himself as a girl so that he could openly adore Mandy Patinkin. I would get myself all wrapped up in my mother’s overcoat, hat and scarves like a freezing immigrant from Eastern Europe. I’d stand there in front of the television picturing myself on a boat coming from the old country. I looked just like a mini-version of Babs. I’d sing the final number over and over until my Mom had had enough. These are the things that happen when you tell an only child to go entertain himself.
The final scene of Yentl is my favorite. It’s when Barbra sings, With all there is – why settle for just a piece of sky? It knocks me out every time I hear it. I’d think to myself, “Don’t you worry. I won’t!”
My parents were perplexed. They were good Christian people. What had they done to deserve a cross-dressing, Jewish eight year old? They focused my religious instruction and plied me with every masculine toy they could get their hands on – basketballs, Bibles, guns, a model of the Millennium Falcon – anything and everything that eight-year-old boys were supposed to play with in 1983. I was disgusted. All I wanted was Barbie’s Dream House and a set of decent Shabbat Candlesticks.
None of these parental tricks worked, of course. I found sports baffling. Guns aren’t pretty. I had been praying for years begging to be turned into a girl and it got me nowhere, so clearly God was useless. I was heavy into Star Wars; I just wanted that metal bikini for myself, not stare at the person wearing it. Instead, somehow I reached the point where it was no longer acceptable for a boy to wear Smurfette gym shoes and a homemade Wonder Woman tiara.
Growing up is hard and being different is a challenge. Kids are the meanest, especially if how you express yourself cannot be ignored. It’s damn near impossible to suddenly not be feminine or sound like whatever boys are supposed to sound like. Peer pressure forced me to pack away my Yentl obsession – the nightgown, the towel hair – and close my living room drag show. I focused my attention elsewhere, namely on making it out of my hometown in one piece. I made it my mission to try blending in, to be invisible.
It’s that last part that I could never wrap my little head around. I’d let my guard down for one minute and the next thing I knew Tallulah Bankhead or some other glitter bomb would come flying out of my mouth. I was the gayest. And like anyone with a flair for the dramatic, I was led kicking and screaming to a theatre department. It was there in college while fluffing my dreams of staring in Yentl Part Two that I discovered the next best thing to Barbra Streisand: a whole gaggle of Barbras. Yes, I found a college theatre department’s most renewable resource: Jewish girls. I was completely enamored. I watched as they sang all the songs and felt all the feelings. They were everything I wanted to be: loud, brave, and busty. Those girls accepted me and took me in as one of their own. They reconnected me with the mini-Yentl I was as a kid and I vowed to be just like them one day.
While my characteristic Talmudic shrug, hand talking, and generalized anxiety disorder usually keep my Christian past a secret, I quietly think of my Yentl years when questions arise. I wish I could tell you that I had a far more mystical Jewish beginning than dancing in my mother’s nightgown while listening to “Papa Can You Hear Me” on repeat. Let’s be honest. That sounds far more like the birth of a drag queen than a Jewish American Princess. It certainly isn’t the sort of story you share with a panel of rabbis if you want them to approve your conversion.
That’s right, my Jewishness had to be questioned and reviewed by a board of rabbis. How Jewish is that? I didn’t just get to say, “Hey, everybody, look at me, bust out the Manischewitz. I’m a Jew now!” No, in spite of my Jew Fro and affinity for deli meats, I had to actually do some work. Converting is more complicated than a simple prayer or declaration of allegiance to matzoh balls. It is not easy, becoming Jewish is a full time job; especially for a Southern Baptist. I had to read and study Jewish literature and immerse myself in all things Heeb as if I were defending a dissertation. It was intense. What a downer. I mean have you read The Diary of Anne Frank? My conversion was a yearlong process complete with essays and a monthly meeting with a rabbi. I was prepared for the reading and endless questions. Yentl is my favorite movie, so I knew to be ready for the inquisition. What I wasn’t expecting was for my yearlong home-schooled religious studies program to culminate in a penis slicing and skinny-dip.
To be fair, you should know that I am circumcised. I was before I converted. That happened many, many moons ago. I suddenly feel like you should all buy me dinner. The circumcision is considered to be the physical symbol of the relationship between God and the Jewish people, so it is customary to perform the ritual on new Jews as a way to affirm this new bond. What this means is that I paid an old man a lot of money to sing some Hebrew while poking my wiener until it bled. A drop of blood was collected and then presented to a group of rabbis. This is where I should admit that this ceremony is suggested and totally not required. That’s right. I’m a gangsta Jew. I got my penis carved for my people.
Surprisingly, that’s not the most awkward part of my transformation. After the penis poke, I had to disrobe in front of my rabbi and give myself a sort of Jewish baptism while chanting Hebrew prayers. I’m clumsy and hate swimming, so it was a lot like giving a cat a bath.
Life is weird. Who knows why we choose the things we choose. All I can tell you is that when I watched Yentl all those years ago, I knew two things instantly: I am Jewish, and men are attractive. Don’t be nervous. Watching Yentl won’t make you Jewish, just a little gay. I was obsessed with the movie as a kid because in Yentl’s story, I saw myself. I knew, even at eight, that I was different. Knowing who you are is the easy part. Finding a way to be the person you are supposed to be (and learning to love that person in spite of everything you’re taught), that is a whole other universe.
Maybe it’s a coincidence or a side effect of my Streisand obsession, but the people who got me to the other side are Jewish. When you find your tribe, you have to hold on to them, and that’s exactly what I did.
Jeremy Owens is the creator, host and producer of “You’re Being Ridiculous,” a quarterly reading series on Chicago’s Far North Side. He is a food writer for Gapers Block and Oy!Chicago. He has been featured in JUF Magazine and Story Club Magazine.
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2015.