For the free thinker, organized religion is an affront, a set of circumscribed behaviors that emphasizes conformity at the expense of ethical commitment. But rejection of the precepts of religion can be morally hazardous. There is beauty in all Godly teachings, and this is one of the major themes explored by Lev Raphael' latest work, "Dancing on Tisha B'Av."
These short fictional pieces are told through the eyes of Jewish or gay protagonists--some are both; all are outsiders looking in. They are social scientists, recording the events of their lives as data. Only later, in the quiet laboratory of their minds, do they reflect and try to make sense out of the information they have processed.
The alienation that percolates throughout Raphael's tales occasionally is resolved neatly. Estrangement can propel characters to introspection and to eventual self-acceptance. But sometimes, as with life, there are no happy endings, only beleaguered resignation or bitterness and soul-abrading acrimony.
Several tales feature continuing characters. In "Dancing on Tisha B'Av," "Another Life" and "Abominations," we follow the ongoing relationship between Nat and Mark. Both are committed Jews and both are gay. They meet one Sabbath afternoon in a small college synagogue.
Mark shows up out of nowhere and is welcomed immediately. Not only can he read the Torah fluently, he is the much needed 10th man for a minyan --a prayer quorum. Nat is smitten, but confused. Mark, sensing Nat's bewilderment, becomes his mentor in life and love.
Mark has come to terms with his sexual identity, has worked it into his Judaism. Nat has not. When their relationship is discovered locally, both are brutally expelled from the minyan . Mark is able to react philosophically but Nat is flooded with self-destructive anger that masks deep disappointment and grief. He goes out to a gay bar and dances on Tisha B'Av-- he saddest day in Jewish history as it commemorates the destruction of the Holy Temple. It is a 24-hour period traditionally marked by fasting and mourning.
Nat's gay identity remains concealed from his parents, who live miles from the university. When Nat is inadvertently "outted" on a large scale, he is forced to come to grips with himself and does so with a quiet dignity. With the help of his sister, Brenda, a voice of sanity throughout the trilogy, Nat readies himself for the giant leap: admission of his homosexuality to his parents.
In these stories, Raphael's profound respect for his religion is evident. He sees the grace and meaning in Judaism and demands a place for himself within its framework, even if traditional observance has failed to carve out a place for him.
Other stories deal with the horrors of the Holocaust and its crippling effect on survivors. In "Inheritance," a mother's legacy to her son is more than just the German reparation money she has willed to him. At the tale's conclusion, we find ourselves immersed in the narrator's pain. Yet the story is uplifting in its revelations. Our future is determined by how we deal with the past. Hope comes from remembrance, even if the recollection is agonizing.
Raphael has paced his stories well, weaving the dark tales with the lighter ones. "Sanctuary" is a humorous anecdote that depicts to what lengths people will go when fighting for the loved one. In this story, all three protagonist happen to be gay, but it is irrelevant. "A New Life" is a light but moving work illustrating the return of a woman to Judaism despite sabotage from her boyfriend.
What is so refreshing about this collection is the tone of the stories. Raphael is never strident, always insightful. His characters are voices of reason, observers rather than judges, stating facts and feelings without hidden agendas. The prose is poetic in its simplicity; the stories move swiftly and the dialogue is thoughtful and natural. Raphael is equally adept at writing humor as he is at creating erotic tension. His sex scenes, which are explicit, sweat with passion.
Nothing earth-shattering happens in any of the pieces: There are no serial killers who plague the big cities; no monsters pop through the bog and eat an entire town; the world is not on the brink of collapse. But after reading "Dancing on Tisha B'Av', we learn a bit more about ourselves. And that's as good as it gets from any work of fiction.