Sunday, April 20, 2008

'I Came Out on Yom Kippur in 2004' A story by Marla Lukofsky

Major changes happened that year. I don’t like change much. I’d survived a rough ride with breast cancer a few years back, and was now entering my second season of being back in Toronto. I missed my life in Los Angeles. I missed my partner too but that five-year relationship was now over and I wasn’t coping well with its loss.

To keep myself sane and stable in between showbiz auditions and few bookings, I started my own cookie business called “Marla's Marvels Flaxseed Cookies.” “This Cookie Will Move You In More Ways Than One,” was the slogan of my high-fiber delectable delight. I went from Comedy to Cookies, from Funnies to Flax. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew one thing for sure; it was helping me get through to the next day and the day after that. As my father said, “It's keeping you out of trouble, Marla.”

When my dad Lou, the quiet patriarch of our family, died suddenly that first day in June, the Lukofsky clan’s life changed forever. Any family activity after that day felt like a hurdle because it would be a first without him, our father and my mother’s life partner for over fifty-five years. Now Yom Kippur was upon us and it would be the first of many where my mother would attend our synagogue for the High Holidays without Lou by her side.

Initially, I decided not to attend High Holiday services at Beth Torah, the traditional, conservative-style synagogue also known as “The Little Shul that Could.” The events of the last few years had placed the High Holidays way down on the list of things that I considered important. My father’s death was the final blow.

After my absence from Rosh Hoshanah, I received a message from Elaine and Fern, my two older sisters, that Thea (an old school chum) had kindly requested I attend the Yom Kippur services. Her exact words were, “Tell your sister to get her ass over here for Yom Kippur tomorrow, or else!”

The following morning, I woke up in time to start the holy fast and promptly broke it 15 minutes later by having a much-needed cup of tea. Shame on me. After attending the entire day’s service, I temporarily returned to my apartment during the three-hour break, which began at 2:30 p.m. While reading the holiday program at home, I noticed that Rabbi Yossi was leading a discussion group in the sanctuary during the break. The discussion was entitled, “Homosexuality and Judaism.” I rubbed my eyes and re-read it. Could this be? How daring of my rabbi. How wonderful of him. How noble. How brave. I had no desire to attend. It was scheduled to end at 5:30 p.m. I arrived at the synagogue at 5:31 p.m.

Surprisingly, most of the congregation had not yet returned to Shul. I did however see my mother Ruth, an attractive woman, in the lobby surrounded by several men who were chatting her up. Some were friends of my father and others were just getting some eye candy. There weren’t any chairs in the foyer; nowhere to rest my secular bones, so I peeked into the sanctuary to see what was happening. To my horror, the controversial dialogue that I had tried so hard to avoid was still going on in full force. Approximately 75people conglomerated before the rabbi, clinging to his every word.

“Oh no. What do I do now?” I asked myself. I already knew how some Jewish folk felt about homosexuals, especially after seeing the movie, Trembling Before God. I didn’t want to hear any more irrational, ignorant rantings or pontificating homophobic comments ever again. I wondered, should I just walk out of here or should I stay? My feet were tired. (High heels never agree with me.) I decided to plunk myself down in a seat at the back, far away from the hoopla, hoping it would end soon and we could get on with the rest of the holy day.

Rabbi Yossi, a full-figured young man with a charming smile, casually sat on the steps of the stage, reading details of Jewish beliefs for and against homosexuality. “Oh God”, I thought. “I can’t handle listening to this rhetoric much longer. This better end soon.” When the rabbi opened the floor for questions and comments, (a deadly combination) a woman in her 40’s raised her hand and said, “I believe that homosexuals should have equal rights for employment and housing, but I don’t believe they should be allowed to get married in a synagogue because it says in the Bible that people who marry should be able to procreate and homosexuals can't.” I saw many heads nodding and heard the murmur of the mass condoning her comment. “Oh boy. Here we go,” I said under my breath.
Then a blond-haired middle-aged man stood up and spoke.

“I don't think that gays should be rabbis because being a rabbi is a positive role model and being gay is not a good role model for our kids.”

“Oh Lordy, have mercy,” I mumbled to myself. “Marla, how much more of this can you take?”

Just then, the widow of the first rabbi of Beth Torah proudly stood up and said, “It's wrong and disgusting to be homosexual. The Bible says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Laughter broke out amongst the small crowd. Well, that was it for me. My patience was no longer patient. My arm flew up in the air and the rabbi’s attention was mine.

“Yes Marla, you wanted to say something?” Yeah, I wanted to say something all right. Just what I was going to say was anyone's guess. I heard a voice speak. It was me.

“My name is Marla Lukofsky and my father was one of the founding members of this synagogue and I...I am a homosexual.” I don’t know if there’s a sound for 75 heads turning, but I heard it. “Many of you have known me since I was a child. You may have liked me. I wonder if some of you no longer do now that you know that I'm gay. I'm sure there must be other homosexuals in this congregation, but you'll never know who they are because they don’t feel fully accepted or comfortable enough to be themselves. And I'm sure there are homosexuals who were once members of this synagogue but have now left to go somewhere else where sexual preference is a non-issue and only the content of their character matters…and you will never know who they are or what they could have contributed to this Shul. Jewish people on a daily basis complain about being persecuted and have fought for their own equal rights. Yet some Jews don't allow those same human rights to be extended to homosexuals – another persecuted minority – whose only crime is that they love another person of the same sex. How can you, as a Jew, ask for something that you are not willing to give to someone else? It just isn’t right. You live in a glass house yet you throw stones.” As I spoke, I noticed some members slowly filing in and filling the chairs. I glanced over to the other side of the room and saw my mother sitting alone. I pointed to her.

“My mother’s sitting right there and she had no idea that I was going to say this because I didn't either, and god knows what she's thinking of me right now, but this has to be said.” More and more people were taking their seats. It was clear from their expressions that they didn't know what they had just walked in on. I continued. “To the woman who quoted the Bible and marriage issue, I have to ask you, if your daughter fell in love with a man but couldn’t conceive, according to what you said, your own daughter wouldn't be allowed to get married in this synagogue. Would that be okay with you? Quoting the Bible can be a very dangerous thing. You have to be well versed in it and I'm not, nor are you, because if you were, you’d know that there are quotes in the Bible that approve slavery, men having multiple wives, and stoning to death anyone who commits adultery. God knows how many people that would affect in this room. I'm sure you don’t support those things in the Bible, do you?” I looked across the room. “And to the lady over there with the Adam and Steve quote. I just need to let you know that what you said was hurtful, dangerous, and not at all funny, and I don’t agree with what you said today.” I looked back at the now full sanctuary and continued.

“When I discovered I was gay, I told my parents first, not my friends.” At this point I started to get choked up but just plowed through. “Most people tell their friends first and their parents last, if at all, but not me. I believe in being honest with my mom and dad, so I told them. And my father said to me, ‘Marla, are you happy being gay?’ and I said, ‘Yes Daddy. I'm happy that I know who I am.’ And my father said to me, ‘Well, Mommy and I have always said we want you to be happy, and if you’re telling us that you are, then we accept you and support you.’ By now I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer and kept going. “To me...that is what Judaism should be about and that is what love is all about, and that's all I have to say.”

I sat down. My hands were shaking, and my heart was pounding. “Oh my god,” I thought. “There are no more secrets. I’m an open book. Oh well. Let the chips fall where they may. I'm ready for it. Bring it on.”

A heavy silence filled the room for a moment. The rabbi asked if anyone else had anything to say. A young man stood up and said in a hesitant voice, “Changes should happen, but they must happen slowly.”

Once again, I heard the words of a conservative person who has his equal rights intact. I didn't agree with him. There’s no time like the present for such change. I would have responded to him, but I was too emotionally spent. I’d said enough for one day. The rabbi concluded the discussion and announced that the service would resume as soon as the entire congregation was seated.

A man who sat in front of me turned around and tenderly shared as tears ran down his face. “I knew your father. He was a good man. I’m not surprised he said those words to you.” I glanced over to the aisle and saw a long line of people forming, running the length of the sanctuary, starting from where I was. They were the attendees of the discussion group and they clearly wanted to say something to me, so I stood up to face their music.

“Hi, my name's Susan. You’re so brave to have said what you said and done what you did. I'm so glad to have joined this Shul, and it's an honour to meet you.” I was in total disbelief as she shook my hand. The next person came up to me.

“Hi, I’m Jeff, and my 13 year old son is here with me today, and it’s thoughts and words like yours that made me want to come to this Shul. I support everything you said and I’m so glad to meet you.” His eyes were filled with tears as he shook my hand. Another man came up to me – an old neighbour.

“Hi Marla. I liked you before and I like you even more now. How brave you are today.”

Person after person, with compliments and handshakes, greeted me sharing their thoughts, their emotions. It was overwhelming.

I looked over to my mother who was sitting on the other side of the sanctuary. Now I had to face her music. As I moved towards her, I stopped to say something to the woman behind me who had quoted the marriage/Bible issue. I spoke calmly, “Madame, if I ever get lucky enough to find someone who loves me as much as I love them, I’d want to get married in this synagogue; the synagogue that my parents helped build. And if I can’t because of you or anyone else who shares your point of view, then that will be a very sad day for me and also for you, even though you may not realize it right now.” I headed over to my mother who sat quietly in her chair, posture perfectly erect and eyes fixed on mine. She rose to greet me. I put my hands on her shoulders and burst into tears.

“Mommy, do you hate me?” She put her arms around me.
“No Marla, of course I don’t hate you. Why would I? Just look at it this way; now we're both out."
“What do you mean, Mommy?”
“Well, not only are you out as a gay person, but I’m out as a mother of a gay person, and that's fine by me.”

She sat back down and I sat in the chair to her left. Leaning over, she told me that the cantor thought I was incredible. “How do you know?” I asked.
“Because while you were talking, he came up and told me so.”

So there I was, beside my mom, as if nothing had happened and that felt strange. Shouldn’t the world look different? Shouldn’t it be different? I know my hands were still shaking and my heart was still pounding. After a few minutes, my mother broke our silence by placing her hand on my thigh and said, “Ya done good kid. Ya done good.” That’s when I felt myself choke up again. You see, my mother had never said that to me before. She was a woman of few words, few compliments, so when she spoke, it really meant something. I hope she remembers this day. How could she not?

At this point, Fernie and Elaine had finally arrived, missing all the hoopla. They rushed over and told me to move over so they could sit by my mother’s side. I spoke up firmly.
“No, I'm not moving.” My response took them by surprise.
“Why do you want to sit beside mommy so much?” Fernie asked.
“You never wanted to do that before,” Elaine added.
“Well, something big happened,” I said.
“I can’t tell you now, but you’ll hear all about it soon enough.”

With ten minutes remaining in the service, Rabbi Yossi left the pulpit and rushed over to where we were seated. He leaned over and said that he wanted me to have the honor of closing the Yom Kippur ceremonies by reading a particular chapter, and he handed me a folded piece of paper.

“Come up in three minutes or so, Marla.” He dashed back to the pulpit. Shocked and nervous even though I’d been a stand-up comic for years, performing in front of thousands of people, I said to my mother in trepidation, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Yes you can, Marla. You can do this.” Sometimes a person’s words or a look they give is enough to provide us with the strength that we need, when we need it most. The three minutes had passed.

I made my way up to the pulpit. The rabbi put his arm around me and we stood there together with our backs to the congregation. While prayers continued, Rabbi Yossi confessed that he thought what I had done was great, having more of an impact on the members than anything that had happened during these high holidays.

“I could give a thousand sermons, but they wouldn’t accomplish what you did today with your one. You didn’t just give a sermon, Marla. You were a sermon. I hope you’re proud of yourself. I know you’ve had a very hard time these last few years, but take in this moment and let it stay with you.”

Finally, it was time. I turned and faced the congregation and read my paragraph. I read it slowly and surely with substance and meaning. I looked into the eyes of individuals as if I were reading just to them. The words were of hope for the future. As I kept reading, I looked out over the entire sanctuary filled with so many people on the holiest day of the Jewish year, and I thought, “This was a Yom Kippur unlike any other and never shall be. Maybe this is what Yom Kippur should be about when entering into a new year, a year full of new hopes with new ideas.” I also wondered, “If my father was still alive and sitting with my mother, what would he be thinking of me after what I had done today?” But no matter what anyone thought, I knew I had done the right thing was the right thing to do.

* Sadly, on February 9th, 2006, eighteen months after my father’s death, my mother Ruth Lukofsky passed away after a most difficult battle with leukemia and the complications that ensued. The fact that my mother witnessed that day in 2004 makes this story all the more meaningful to me.

** Also, I want to note that many minority groups have discriminated against homosexuals; minorities that themselves have been discriminated against and since been awarded equal human rights under the law. It's their intolerance that shocks me most of all.

By: Marla Lukofsky

November 25, 2004

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