Chabad rabbi, gay man work on healing wounds at filmfestby ALEXANDRAJ. WALL, Bulletin Staff
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"Eat figs," one rabbi told him. Another suggested he put a rubber band around his wrist to snap each time he felt attracted to a man. But the only thing that did was give him a sore wrist.
Then there was Rabbi Yosef Langer. The Bay Area Chabad rabbi told the then-college sophomore that therapy could cure him.
And on July 26, in front of an audience of several hundred people at San Francisco's Castro Theatre, Langer apologized.
Indeed, Silverstein was caught off guard. But the rabbi's words still did not go far enough, Silverstein said later.
Self-acceptance eluded Silverstein until he was 31. He largely blamed Langer for that: for telling him 23 years ago that if he only tried hard enough, he could change.
Langer, too, remembers giving this advice. It was not the first time he had dealt with the issue.
Langer explained in an interview that "like myself and every other Jew, we fall short of the mark in different ways in our relationship to God and fellow man."
"My heart goes out to him."
Now 43, Silverstein is comfortable enough with his identity to have appeared in "Trembling Before G-d," a film about being homosexual and Orthodox.
But the Los Angeles anesthesiologist never forgot what Langer told him. So in one poignant scene in a documentary filled with them, he revisits the rabbi.
What he wanted was closure. But he didn't get it at that meeting before the cameras, shot three years ago. He did get it -- at least partially -- when the two men participated in a public discussion after a screening of the film last week.
The exchange, which at times resembled a therapy session, and at others a TV talk show complete with voyeuristic audience, dominated the five-member panel, and was surely one of the more memorable moments of this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
The blue-eyed Silverstein is as likeable and funny in person as he is on screen. He talked about the confrontation over an omelet in a '50s-style diner the following day.
The realization that he was gay when he was 20 was terrifying; as an Orthodox Jew, he was "scared to death."
Chabad has long had a reputation for welcoming "lost souls," but visiting such a rabbi at home in Chicago was out of the question. So he flew here -- to what he considered the gay capital -- to consult with the Chabad rabbi of Berkeley. If anyone would have the answer, and from the Orthodox perspective, Silverstein reasoned, it would be him.
It was an educated guess, since the Harley-riding rabbi is known for hanging out with rock stars. Langer was the first person Silverstein ever came out to.
In retrospect, he says now, going to Langer probably wasn't the best choice, as the rabbi's advice was akin to "looking for a surgery to change the color of my eyes."
According to Langer, who said his position comes from the Torah and Chassidic philosophy, "the mind rules the heart. We aren't given any situation in life that we don't have the ability to transcend and turn around."
"I'm a good Jewish boy, and I'll do it," was Silverstein's reaction. "I thought I could change."
The obvious question to someone in Silverstein's position is why didn't he abandon Orthodoxy? First, he was still living with his parents. But more than that, being Orthodox was as integral to him as being Jewish. "I'm an Orthodox Jew who just happens to be gay," he said.
Taking Langer's advice, Silverstein wrote to the Lubavitcher rebbe, and his reply was more of the same.
When Silverstein and the now-head of Chabad of S.F. met again three years ago, filmmaker Sandi Simcha DuBowski came along with his camera.
Langer said he "wanted to be a part of the healing process between gays and their families. There are rabbis who are fearful of dealing with this situation. I wanted to be supportive."
In the film, Langer admits that sending Silverstein back to Chicago without any kind of follow-up was a mistake. At the same time, he doesn't retreat from his original position.
Silverstein said while the meeting was cathartic, it made him even angrier. "I wanted acceptance but I got rejection. The only reason he told me not to continue to seek therapy was because I hadn't changed."
On Thursday night, Langer said he accepted DuBowski's invitation to be on the panel because he wanted to apologize and take his relationship with Silverstein to the next level. Silverstein was visibly moved, and asked for a few moments to regain his composure.
The exchange continued, with Silverstein saying he wished Langer's answer to him all those years ago had been different: that the rabbi's response should have been "HaShem (God) accepts you as you are."
Later, Silverstein said that some people in the audience told him that they were uncomfortable; that they felt they were witnessing a therapy session that should have taken place privately, in Langer's office. Silverstein, however, called the rabbi gutsy for appearing with him on the panel.
Langer said he got only positive responses, which was gratifying since he knew that types less conservative than himself had been booed out of the Castro.
The rabbi admitted that perhaps he would now do things differently. "You have to feel for that person until you feel compassion and empathy," he said. "Then you can approach him only if you have a positive reaction from him."
As Silverstein said at the theater and repeated again on Friday, for years, being gay was the one thing that made him feel isolated from the Jewish community.
"Now, being received in this way at the film festivals, it's the one thing that's making me feel so accepted," he said. "It's so healing."
As if to confirm what he said, Silverstein was recognized by a man passing by on Geary Street. "I saw your movie last night, I loved it," the man said.
"Does that happen a lot?" a reporter asked.
"Yeah," Silverstein smiled. "Quite a bit."
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