Long Reads

Finding Queer Community, One Shabbat at a Time

The safe space my husband and I were looking for.

November 30, 2018
Photo by Jenny Huang

“We need more gay friends,” my husband Alex declared at dinner one night late last year. It seemed less like a complaint and more like prescriptive advice as one would pick up from Dr. Oz, like getting more fiber in your diet or burning anything in your fridge that contains lectins.

“We have plenty of gay friends,” I shot back, only to realize after going through the virtual rolodex in my head that I responded prematurely. We did in fact have very few gay friends, most of which were exes that were there out of convenience. As we’ve watched coworkers and acquaintances galavanting with their gaggles of gays, we realized that we wanted that same sense of queer community.

This was the first time in our relationship that we had a chance to reflect as a couple. We’d been so preoccupied tackling some of the larger life hurdles like moving in together, getting a mortgage, and renovating an apartment. Now that we had made it to the other side, this was a breath to pause and take stock of what was missing.

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Come Jan. 1 of this year, we had two resolutions beyond our annual “lose 10 pounds and quit sugar”: Make more gay friends and join a temple. The latter was something that had been on our to-do list for way too long.

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Top Comment:
“Shabbat is a really special time of the week that we get to bond with our family and friends. Y’all should check out the local Chabad near you. I’m sure you’ll find a whole bunch more friends to host there and some extra inspiration and meaning on the side :) ”
— Bryndel G.
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I was what you would call a high-holiday Jew, as in someone who comes out of the secular woodwork around Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur to completely immerse myself in temple, brisket, and all the Manischewitz I can get my hands on. Alex is what you would call a no-holiday Jew. He didn’t grow up celebrating anything or going to Hebrew school, but began to find connection to his heritage after birthright (a sponsored trip to Israel for Jewish youth). Joining a synagogue just seemed as if it was the only answer to this desire to find connection to Judaism as a couple.

“Do you even know what they’re saying?” Alex whispered to me during the first Friday night service we attended.

“Well, no. I just know the prayers by heart,” I responded, shining a light on the glaring issue at hand: We were just using going to temple to check that box of being Jewish but hadn’t yet discovered what Judaism meant to us.

That’s when I stumbled upon OneTable, a nonprofit whose mission is to support 20-and-30-somethings in making Shabbat an accessible and habitual part of modern Jewish life, helping those who partake find and build community. It was everything we were searching for, plus the added benefit that I would get to cook. It was truly beshert.

And just like that, Mensch4Mensch Shabbats were born. The name came about at first as a joke. “Masc4Masc” is a label displayed on gay dating profiles to explain that the individual is “masculine,” and is only attracted to and looking for other “masculine” men. Instead, I used mensch, the Yiddish term for a person (gender-neutral) of integrity or honor. Eventually my “Mensch4Mensch” gained more significance, as a way to alter a terrible colloquialism of toxic masculinity used by gay men into something more positive, and inclusive.

Shabbat was the queer space we were missing and craving. It became the forum to network with queer writers I’d admired on Instagram. It became an opportunity to reconnect with old friends we’d been putting off seeing. Hell, it gave us the best reason to spend time with my mother. As I gave up my dining room table years ago so Alex could move in his piano (that’s true love, people), my mother’s apartment and her big, unused table became home base for all entertaining.

While my life became consumed by cooking in the form of recipe development for various publications, this was a chance to just cook whatever I wanted to. Free of meticulously measuring and timing every single item, I could just pour my soul into creating a meal. I wasn’t following anyone else's rules but my own.

I began playing around with ingredients or dishes I had been wanting to cook but was putting off. I finally tackled a few Iraqi recipes from Alex’s mother that I’d been dying to make him. I got to watch the excitement of friends cracking into their first tahdig, mesmerized by the beauty of crispy Persian rice. I used as much sumac as I could on everything from chicken to brownies. (Have you ever added sumac to your brownies? It’s delicious.)

It pushed me to be a more thoughtful cook. It was like hosting Passover seder or Thanksgiving, but twice a month. I began to think in terms of how I could create a full meal that would come together at the same time, without keeping me away from my guests. Every Thursday after work, I’d run to Breads Bakery for challah, then to Murray’s Cheese to stock up on cheeses and charcuterie, and then to my mom’s place to start cooking.

I’d spend all night Thursday getting ready for the following day, when I would rush home early from work to set up. My counter would be lined up with mise en place in little bowls ready with dressings, sauces and garnishes. Vegetables, meats and fish would be divided between sheet trays, either cooked in advance or ready to get roasted. A giant cheese board would be set up, ready for hungry noshers.

Hosting Shabbat taught me hospitality on a deeper level than culinary school or any restaurant I’d ever worked in. Judaism teaches of hakhnasat orchim, the act of showing hospitality. It’s considered one of the great mitzvot (good deeds) that Jews should strive to incorporate into their everyday lives. As a jaded New Yorker so accustomed to focusing on myself or my husband, this was the first time I began to really prioritize others.

I gave directions. I took coats. I poured wine. I accommodated for any allergies or aversions. I took music requests. I welcomed any and all plus-ones. I cleaned every last pot and plate. I played host like I never had before. I felt fulfilled, both creatively and spiritually.

And it worked. Slowly, we began to build meaningful friendships. My Shabbats led to double dates, movie nights, and road trips. A short glance at our social calendar made it clear that we had achieved not one but both of our resolutions, finding not only gay friends but our connection to Judaism through joining the temple of Mensch4Mensch. We’d grown a chosen family of chosen people.

Then, Pittsburg happened.


It wasn’t like anti-Semitism just appeared on the scene, with acts of hate towards our community slowly growing in severity and frequency over the past two years. Just last year, groups of men carried torches through the streets of Charlottesville while chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti have been popping up on Jewish temples and homes. In January, Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old queer Jew who wrote about food for his college paper, was stabbed and killed by a white nationalist in California.

The Tree of Life shooting was the deadliest act of anti-Semitism ever to occur in North America. It took place the morning of our final wedding celebration in Los Angeles. While the party was beautiful, it was extremely difficult to know that as one Jewish family gathered to celebrate such a joyous occasion for a couple, others had just begun to sit shiva for loved ones lost in such an unacceptable act of hate that occurred that very morning.

I returned to New York confused. Growing up and living in this city, you’re in a bubble that reveres Jewish culture. Hebrews and gentiles together line up for matzo ball soup from 2nd Avenue Deli or babka from Breads Bakery. You can pause to reflect on tragedy, but the nature of the city allows us to return to routine all too quickly, relatively free of the animosity that so many other Jewish communities face everyday across the world.

“I’m going to host Shabbat on Friday,” I told Alex the Monday after the attack, just as we were exiting the red eye from L.A., red-eyed and barely ready to return to the work week.

I had no idea when I’d find time to prep or if anyone would even come, I just knew I had to join the wave of solidarity Shabbats happening around the world in response to this attack. This was no longer a posh dinner party, but a community forum. I wanted to expand my table into a space where youth from any background could come together and take part in an age-old Jewish tradition.

There were no prerequisite requirements of religious beliefs or beliefs in a higher power. Attending simply meant increasing the visibility of Jewish culture, while aligning yourself with this marginalized group that needed to see and feel support. Celebrating Shabbat was an immediate way to organize and stand up against hate.

I invited everyone. Anyone who had ever been to a former Shabbat was summoned. Coworkers I was hesitant about fraternizing with outside the office were welcomed with open arms. I wanted anyone with desire to attend Shabbat—even if just the slightest inkling—to know that they had a place to go.

Shabbat was the queer space we were missing and craving.

The original dinners of 12 grew to a 50-person feast that we had to move to the lounge in my mother’s building to accommodate. There were Jews, queers, queer Jews and those that just love someone who identifies with any of the aforementioned categories. We had those bursting with pride in their Jewish culture, those eager to reignite their practice of a long-abandoned childhood tradition, and those curious about something they’ve never experienced before.

After lighting candles and digging into the giant lasagna I threw together the night before, I got to thank this group of friends, family and recent-strangers for joining us to ring in the Sabbath and commemorate the lives that were just lost. It was an evening of laughter, political discussion, overflowing glasses of wine, Jewish geography and tons of babka that I hope will inspire my guests to host themselves, continuing to preserve and expanding the reach of this tradition.

As Alex and I continue our narrative as a young Jewish couple, it’s clear this is the year for taking action. This is the year for showing up for our communities and any other that needs support. This is the year for celebrating Jewish culture, queer culture, and every other vibrant, underrepresented culture out there, even if it just starts with dinner. This is the year for being a mensch.

At the end of the evening, as Alex and I were washing dishes and collecting empty wine bottles, he paused and turned towards me to say, “We have too many gay friends.”

What do you serve at Shabbat dinner? Let us know in the comments below.

10 Comments

Emma L. December 6, 2018
Thank you so much for writing this beautiful, personal, inspiring piece, Jake.
 
Diari December 4, 2018
That cheese board is 😍
 
Bryndel G. December 2, 2018
Loved reading this @Jake Cohen. Shabbat is a really special time of the week that we get to bond with our family and friends. Y’all should check out the local Chabad near you. I’m sure you’ll find a whole bunch more friends to host there and some extra inspiration and meaning on the side :)
 
Chad S. November 30, 2018
I love any excuse to purposefully become closer to any community.
 
Eric K. November 30, 2018
"We’d grown a chosen family of chosen people." I love that line. Thank you for this, Jake.
 
Author Comment
Jake C. November 30, 2018
<3<3<3
 
kwolffman November 30, 2018
Such a beautiful article...mentions of Pittsburgh still bring tears to my eyes but your feast for 50 gave a hopeful note to the tragedy. Thanks for sharing!
 
Nancy November 30, 2018
Jake...lovely and serious article. Thank you. When you have the time, will you please post the sumac brownies recipe. Or just give an indication of how much sumac you'd add to a recipe that fills an 8" square pan. And, shabbat shalom. Nancy
 
Author Comment
Jake C. November 30, 2018
I just stir in 1 teaspoon cured sumac to any recipe with a little sprinkle more on the top with flaky sea salt!
 
JenniferM November 30, 2018
Sumac in brownies is a revelation - can't wait to try it!