Like Benji Steiner, the protagonist in his touching new novel “Sweet Like Sugar,” Wayne Hoffman is gay and Jewish.
But unlike Benji, a 26-year-old graphic designer prone to dating pretty boys and church-going Christians, Hoffman has not spent countless hours with an elderly Orthodox rabbi who would have a heart attack if he knew what the author did in the bedroom.
Such is the premise of “Sweet Like Sugar,” Hoffman’s follow-up to “Hard,” his racy first novel that chronicled gay life in New York at a turning point in the AIDS crisis. This latest book, as the G-rated title suggests, describes the unexpected and at times awkward friendship between Benji and an ailing octogenarian rabbi, Jacob Zuckerman, whose Jewish bookstore abuts Benji’s office in a suburban shopping center outside Washington, D.C.
Hoffman, a former managing editor of the Forward newspaper, grew up in Silver Spring, Md. and, like Benji, became a bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue. He found the inspiration for “Sweet” at his own version of the shopping mall: a midtown Manhattan office building that housed the English and the Yiddish editions of the Forward.
Hoffman had an inviting couch in his office overlooking 33rd Street — I know, because he was my boss when I was a reporter there. One afternoon in 2006, a black-clad, white-bearded man who worked at the Yiddish Forward, or Forverts, located on the other side of the floor (though culturally, it may as well have been on the other side of the planet) showed up in Hoffman’s office looking ill. The editor who escorted him asked if the old man could rest on Hoffman’s couch, and thus was born the opening scene of “Sweet Like Sugar.”
“Here we are, sharing an intimate moment. He’s sick on my couch, 5 feet from me, I don’t know his name, we haven’t spoken a word, and I realize I don’t even know if he speaks English,” recalls Hoffman, now deputy editor of Nextbook Press, which helps to promote Jewish literature.
“What if he woke up? What would we say? If he rolled over and I said, ‘Hi, I’m Wayne, I’m a gay, atheist leftist,’ that could be a lot to handle.”
That conversation never occurred, but the “what-if” gave rise to a lively, if predictable, novel about one young gay man’s search for Jewish identity.
Laden with pop-cultural references and flashbacks to the humiliations of an American Jewish childhood, including sexual harassment at a Jewish summer camp and trips to Florida to visit Grandma — not to mention dates who whisper to Benji, “I want you to be my bagel boy” — “Sweet Like Sugar” opens up a conversation about the intersections between gay and Jewish identity, and how Jews on opposite sides of the political spectrum can come to terms with differences when confronted with another’s humanity.
After the fictitious Rabbi Zuckerman, a recent widower who works too hard, falls asleep on Benji’s couch, Benji offers him a ride home and a tender friendship ensues. As Benji navigates a bad-luck streak with men and wonders if he’ll ever find his bashert, or destiny, the rabbi opens up to him about his beloved wife, reigniting Benji’s lapsed interest in Judaism.
By the end of the book, Benji has come out to the rabbi — briefly compromising their friendship — and discovered that despite the rabbi’s pious appearance, he, too, has not always followed the letter of Jewish law. What doesn’t happen is a big hug fest, with the rabbi realizing that he’s been interpreting Leviticus all wrong, and deciding that two men making love is actually kosher.
“The rabbi never changes his mind,” says Hoffman. “The rabbi doesn’t suddenly march in the Gay Pride Parade. What the rabbi does is realize that in all sorts of ways, he’s already open to the fact that not all Jews believe exactly what he does, but they’re still Jews.”
And this, Hoffman says, is what he hopes people will take from the book.
“What I’m trying to do is reach people who may or may not agree with everything my characters say but are at least willing to listen. It’s not about being in denial and pretending things are fine, it’s about how to be in the community together with other people who do not share all of your values.”
Wayne Hoffman will read from “Sweet Like Sugar” at 7:30 Tuesday, Oct. 18 at Books Inc., 2275 Market St., S.F. and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 19 at Magnet, 4122 18th St., S.F.
“Sweet Like Sugar” by Wayne Hoffman (352 pages, Kensington, $15)