If You Knew the Real Me (Pesach, 5777—Day Two)

Pesach, 5777—Day Two
April 12, 2017—16 Nisan 5777

What is it like to walk around with a big secret, something about you that cuts to your core that you do not want other people to know?  I thought about that question this week as I encountered a thought-provoking article about singer and song-writer Barry Manilow in the current edition of People Magazine.

I have always been a Barry Manilow fan.   His songs were the soundtrack of my teen years: Mandy, I Write the Songs that Make the Whole World Sing, Copacabana.  And so it was with interest and sadness that I read that, at the age of 73, for the first time, he is coming out.  He is letting the world know that he is gay; that he has been in a committed, monogamous relationship for almost 40 years with his best friend and business manager Garry Kief, whom he met in 1978 and married in 2014.   When Barry met Garry, it was love at first sight.  “I knew that this was it.  I was one of the lucky ones.  I was pretty lonely before that.”

Why only now is he letting the world know?  To be in the closet for almost 40 years feels like a biblical punishment, like wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. For almost 40 years, Barry and Garry would leave hotels by the back way to avoid fans and to avoid suspicion.  For almost 40 years, Barry Manilow kept his most important relationship a secret, going so far as to take a female production assistant out with him on social occasions to further obscure who he really was.  Why live in the closet for 40 years?

This is what he said in People, and I quote:  “I thought I would be disappointing if they knew I was gay.  So I never did anything.”

This story about Barry Manilow’s life in the closet for almost 40 years evokes the Haggadah piece about the Four Children.   We know of the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask.  But Barry Manilow’s closeted life reminds us of a fifth child: the one who is a bundle of insecurities.  The one who has the imposter syndrome.  The one who feels that if you really knew me, you could not love me.  You could not love the real me. So I will not let myself be known.  I will carry my secret, for years.

The closet is not only where LGBTQ hides.

The closet is a crowded place, because all kinds of insecurities find a smothering shelter there.

If you really knew about my OCD, my obsessive compulsive disorder, you could not love me.  If you really knew about my fragile ego, my constant self-doubt, you could not love me.  If you really knew about my temper, my penchant for melting down and cursing a blue streak, you could not love me. If you knew about my excesses and my addictions, I eat too much, I drink too much, I exercise too much, I am a person of excess too much, you could not love me.

Last month, we convened our Makor seventh graders together for an especially important session.  Our guest speaker was a man named Daniel Bahner, now about 30 years old and an outreach coordinator for Keshet.  He talked about growing up in conservative Cincinnati Ohio, in a Conservative shul, as a person who always knew he was gay, but he had to be in the closet because it was not okay to be gay.  We asked him to tell his story to our seventh graders so that they could know there are to be no closets here.  Live your life in full color.

What can we learn from the seder that can help us banish the demons that scare us into not letting people know who we really are?

In the ballad of the Four Children, the parent has a ready response for each child’s situation.  The wise child wants Jewish learning, he is given a halakhic tidbit. The wicked child excludes himself from the community, he is given tough love.  The simple child is given a simple answer.  The child who does not know how to ask is given a prompt.  Every child is responded to in a way that reaches their particular concern.

If so, what do we say to the child who is a bundle of insecurities, who worries that if you knew the real me, you could not love me?

I think we say two things.  The first is we love you for who you are, whoever you are, whatever your choices.  Pirkei Avot distinguishes between conditional and unconditional love. Unconditional love is not dependent upon your doing anything or being anything or believing anything or behaving a certain way.

When Barry Manilow told the world that he was gay, and married to Garry,  people were happy for him.  Their support and encouragement coaxed him out of the closet.  When we are happy for the choices adults make in their lives and love them for who they are, when we can radiate unconditional love, perhaps that can give them the self-confidence to let go of secrets and be who they really are.

The second thing comes from a poem that the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote late in his life, it was in the last collection of poems that he ever published.  Looking back at a lifetime of seders, he realizes that the categories of the Four Children are not helpful.  It does not really matter whether a person grows up to be wise, wicked, simple or one who does not know how to ask.  What matters more, Amichai writes, is whether a person grows up to be kind and loving.  If we want to insist upon anything, it is that the people in our lives grow up to become kind and loving.

I suspect that I was particularly drawn to the story of Barry and Garry, and their 40 years in the closet,  because it made me think about my mother, this being my first Pesach without her.  When I read the People magazine article, I thought again of the last conversation I had with my mother before she passed away this year on Rosh Hashanah.  She was lamenting that almost 70 years earlier, when her sister Esta married a non-Jewish man, my mother had cut off her relationship so that her young daughters of dating age would know that they were to date and marry only Jews.  When Esta passed away suddenly from an asthma attack, a young woman in her early 20s, a bride for such a short time, my mother was tragically not speaking to her.  My Mom never forgave herself for this.  She was holding it literally on her death bed 70 years later.  From this tragic and lifelong lament she learned the lesson of radical unconditional love.  In my last conversation with my mother, she gave me her picture of Esta and her husband, which is in my office, a perpetual reminder that every person is that fifth child, every person is that bundle of insecurities, and every person deserves to be loved for who they are.  If they can sense that love, they can chuck their secret, say good-bye to their closet, and live as free people, no longer slaves to their deepest insecurities.  God and Moses freed our ancestors from Egypt. Let’s free our friends and loved ones right now from the many closets in which they need no longer be enslaved.   Chag kasher v’sameakh.