Believe It or Not
For first-time novelist Michael Lowenthal, faith is anything but religious
By Michael Joseph Gross
NOVEMBER 2, 1998: Michael Lowenthal wants to take me for his favorite falafel, at Rami's in Brookline, on Harvard Street's row of Jewish restaurants. When he pulls on the door, it is locked. "Hmm. That's funny," he says, screwing up his mouth. Pinning his hopes on "great bagels" down the street, he leads me a few blocks farther. Then his bright green Adidas Gazelles shuffle to a stop in the middle of the sidewalk. He looks at me sheepishly. "I forgot," he apologizes, laughing at himself a little bit. "Um, it's Friday."
The Same Embrace (Dutton, 304 pages, $23.95), Lowenthal's first novel, is the story of Jacob, a Boston gay activist and nonobservant Jew who is estranged from his twin brother, Jonathan, a recent convert to Orthodox Judaism who's living in Jerusalem. After Jacob's best friend dies of AIDS, Jacob travels to Israel to reestablish contact with his brother, which leads him to reconsider his relationships with his family and his religion.
Lowenthal, a 29-year-old Jamaica Plain resident and Phoenix contributor (whose interview with novelist Tim O'Brien appears in this issue), bears some striking resemblances to Jacob. The most important is his awkward self-image as a gay, secular Jew. Neither the author nor his character is particularly angst-ridden about his lust for men or his skepticism toward religion. Instead, both are respectfully bewildered, and that bewilderment drives them to seek vicarious experiences of faith -- which both Michael and Jacob admit may be completely in vain. The Same Embrace doesn't reward Jacob's search with insight at the end; it describes the infinitely intensifying tension between his respect for faith and his suspicion that it's merely a thing, a "religious part" of a person.
Lowenthal says it would have felt dishonest to end the book any other way. "I really honestly have never felt a shred of what people consider religious faith," he says. "That's why I'm obsessed with hanging around with religious people. I keep thinking that maybe they will show me the trick. Maybe it will rub off. . . . Maybe someday I will wake up and I will have this burning joy. But it hasn't happened so far."
Yet despite his lack of numinous experience, Lowenthal says, "I still have my faith, and my faith is essentially my lack of faith. I don't think I can be shaken from that. In my bones, I feel un-faith." Among the epigraphs Lowenthal considered using for the novel is an observation by former Village Voice writer Ellen Willis, from an essay describing an encounter in Israel between two siblings, one Orthodox and one secular: "It seemed that losing your faith and losing your lack of faith had a great deal in common."
"For me, in a sense, writing this book was an attempt to lose my lack of faith," Lowenthal says; and for Jacob, seeking reconciliation with Jonathan is "essentially the same thing."
Lowenthal's faith (read: lack of faith) is rooted in his sexuality. When he starts giving what is essentially his testimony, his habit of interrupting himself and doubling back on his own sentences gives way to the almost preternatural eloquence of a true believer: "When I was a kid, really as far back as I can remember, I knew the way I felt sexually, and I knew in a way that transcends any kind of learning. I knew it in my bones and in my blood. . . . But it was so central to me and so inherent that for the most part it didn't upset me -- I just had to figure out how I was going to transcend this gap between what the world was expecting and what I was feeling. And what I've come to realize is that that is faith. To me, that's my personal experience of faith. It's knowing something and believing it in a way to which questions don't even pertain -- and you know it even if you have evidence to the contrary or even if the world tells you otherwise."
Coming out, Lowenthal says, only increased his interest in religion: "When I was not out and dealing with my gayness, I was cutting off this whole potential for connection with other people and, I think, for connection in general. And once that path is open, then I can actually come into communion, both physical and spiritual -- sexually -- and then I can see paths opening up in the world, and understand and desire other kinds of communion, too."
So now, when he encounters religious people, Lowenthal says, "part of me wants to dismiss them or scoff or be skeptical, and then I always think, maybe what they feel about Orthodox Judaism or whatever is what I felt about sexuality, and if that's the case, what can I say to them? And shouldn't I support them in living out the fullest of what that feeling is for them?"
Writing The Same Embrace, Lowenthal says, "increased my faith in total human openness and honesty. You are who you are and other people are who they are. If you just go into situations letting what's going to happen, happen, and trying to hear what other people are saying and trying to articulate what you believe as honestly as you can, then it will all come out okay. You may end up changed, you may not. But if both people do it with complete openness and honesty and sincerity, it's impossible for something bad to come out of it. That, to me, was the faith experience of writing the book. Maybe that's because it's what I did in writing -- I just put faith in [the idea] that, if I just went at this, and just let these characters try to be who they were supposed to be, some resolution would happen."
By this time, it's almost sunset. For supper, we've settled on burritos from Anna's Taqueria. (Although Lowenthal really wanted pork, he seems perfectly happy with chicken.) We're sitting beside Kehillath Israel, the synagogue where Lowenthal's grandparents worshipped and which served as the model for a synagogue that's crucial to the plot of The Same Embrace.
Inside of an hour, Lowenthal has told me half a dozen times that he's not "religious" because he's never heard a voice from the sky -- which sounds an awful lot like Jacob's callow (and sentimentally Christian) idea that religious experience has to be otherworldly.
Then he leads me up the steps of the synagogue to show me the sanctuary. Before we cross the threshold he says something that helps clarify, for him as well as for me, the more confident side of Lowenthal's ambivalent belief: "I have a cousin who's very near my age, and we used to talk all the time as really little kids, saying we both felt we had some very Jewish spiritual thing in us, and in our minds it was the same thing that our grandfather had that led him to become a rabbi, and that his father had that led him to become a rabbi, and that his father had. And we both said -- we kind of reassured ourselves -- We have this too. There's something in this line, self-aggrandizing as that was, and we kind of queried each other as to how that would manifest itself in our lives as we grew up. We were both completely sure that we would not become rabbis, but that there would be something there, as silly as it probably sounds. I don't know where it comes from. But I do think that thinking about these issues and wanting to tell other people about the way I think of them, which is all writing is, is like being a teacher or a rabbi or whatever. It's wanting to think about the world and consider things and gather insights and then wanting to share them."
Michael Joseph Gross is a freelance writer living in Boston.
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