I meet Pnina on the corner of West 82nd and Broadway, several blocks from the bar where Adam, my closest friend from the all-male Israeli yeshiva, or Jewish seminary, is throwing his twenty-first birthday party. The February night is bitter cold; the wind whips and waters my eyes, and I have not yet had the opportunity, since moving to the city several weeks earlier, to shop for winter clothes. I lack gloves and a scarf; in lieu of warm boots, I’m wearing beaten up leather loafers and thin socks. Five minutes outside of the subway and I can’t feel my toes.
As we hug in greeting, Pnina senses my nervousness. “Don’t worry,” she says, attempting to calm me. “Everyone goes to bars underage. Plus, this place is known for not carding.”
I’ve just returned from living in Israel for a year and a half, where the legal drinking age is eighteen; frequenting the bars on Jerusalem’s Crack Square and buying bottles of wine for Shabbat meals had been a normal part of my week. But now, back in the States, I’m just another nineteen-year-old college kid living in New York City without a fake ID.
Earlier that week, when I had received the invitation to Adam’s party, I immediately called Pnina and asked her advice on how to get in. Adam and I hadn’t been in touch for almost a year; he left yeshiva halfway through his second year and my first, and we had not stayed in touch for the remainder of my time abroad. But now that I was back, I wanted to see him. I was curious to know how he had changed, what attending a “secular college” had done to him. This was a sort game that Orthodox Jews played upon their return from studying in Israel: They investigated their old friends to see which ones had relaxed in their observance of Jewish law. Yeshivas have a way of encouraging extremism that is usually tempered by a return home and the realities of life outside of the religious bubble. Everyone always swears that they will be the one to remain shtark back home, and playing this game is part of that process.
But my desire to see Adam isn’t born out of condescension. When Adam left yeshiva, I had been the modern Orthodox Jew poster boy—the type that would have condescended if he found Adam had gone off the derech , the “path” of religious observance. Our yeshiva was a religious Zionist one located in a West Bank settlement, and in my first year there, I fashioned myself into the ideal yeshiva bochur . I spent my days pouring over pages of Talmud, deciphering rabbinic coda, and taking on stringencies in my religious observance. I stayed up late at night with friends debating the minutia of legal cases, or contemplating my hashkafa , an Orthodox Jew’s perspective on the world. I spent hundreds of dollars building my personal library of sepharim . I felt a pang of guilt when I spoke about returning to America, instead of staying in Israel and joining the army. A person prone to making long-term plans, I had been content knowing I was on the scripted path for a young modern Orthodox man.
As a child in Orthodox Jewish day school, I was taught that if you prayed to God for long enough, and with enough fervor, he would answer your prayer. Some of my plans were predicated on God answering the prayer I had repeated every day, three times a day, for almost seven years.
At thirteen, when I first felt the stirrings of desire for men, I quickly began that prayer. And until my return for my second year in yeshiva, I had always believed, incredibly, that God would answer me. How could He not, when all I wanted was to do His will—to marry a woman, have children, and not sin the sin of homosexuality? Throughout my teenage years, I convinced myself that I had enough time to turn straight, that I was still young, that eventually, if I prayed hard enough, my prayer would work.
But over the summer between my first and second years, one of my closest friends had begun dating a woman, and our conversations often turned to the prospect of marriage. Every day, another friend entered a relationship, contemplated marriage, or got engaged. It suddenly seemed that everyone had caught the dating and marriage bug; everyone, without warning, had taken a collective step forward, and decided that now was the time to become adults. With that came the realization that I was no longer thirteen, and that I wasn’t changing: at night, it was still men’s bodies that drifted through my dreams; at the mikveh , or ritual bath, I still had to force myself to look away from my friends’ naked bodies; and, in moments of weakness, it was still pictures of men that I searched on my phone at night.
The realization of my sexuality was devastating not only because it confirmed the reality I had long been pushing off, but because it shattered the plan I had charted for my life, and the belief that I was living in God’s grace. Spending my days learning Talmud lost its appeal: Whereas before I could see myself in the texts I studied, find my identity in the lines of rabbinic coda, feel the weight and gravity of the laws and rabbinic debates, I now found myself numb to the words on the page, even scowling at their newfound staleness and impersonality.
I began to sleep through morning prayers and skip class, instead spending my days in bed. At night, I changed my prayers to God: if He wouldn’t turn me straight, maybe he would allow me to sleep forever, to not wake up, to slide easily into death. Wasn’t that better than sinning, the rejection from the community that I would face, the joke my life would become? My friends, family, Pnina—they all asked what was wrong, but I couldn’t tell them. I was afraid of rejection, but I was more afraid to admit to myself that my dream, my life, had been shattered. So I kept silent, and soon arrived in New York City to begin college, depressed and semi-suicidal, and deep in the closet.
It’s Pnina who comes up with the idea to sneak me into the bar.
When the two of us arrive, we are greeted outside by a swarm of college students talking, drunkenly leaning on one another, and ordering from a nearby hotdog stand. As Pnina and I draw closer to the entrance line, a young woman reaches out her hand in warning.
“Be careful!” she says, “They’re carding tonight!”
Before I can respond, Pnina grabs my hand, drawing me closer to the bar’s entrance. “Let’s see for ourselves,” she says, denying me an opportunity to panic. We take a place in line and watch as the kids in front of us are asked for their IDs and turned away.
“OK, new plan,” Pnina says, pulling me out of line toward the curb. “Let’s wait outside for Daniel and John-John instead.” Daniel is Pnina’s boyfriend, and John-John is his best friend; the two have agreed to meet us for the night.
After high school, Pnina also attended a seminary in Israel, but in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem. Hers was a school that denied women the opportunity to learn Talmud, arguing that it was immodest for women to do so. When she returned home, Pnina only wore long, floor-length skirts, and shirts whose sleeves ended at the wrist and covered her collarbone. She soon began dating for marriage, a process that involved resumes, references that needed to be checked, and arranged matches.
But after a year and a half in college, towards the end of my first year in Israel, Pnina called me, to give me a type of warning. She said she was no longer happy with the Jewish laws, that she didn’t like the limitations placed on her as a woman. She began to describe her religious practice as suffocating. So she slowly began a transformation: She transferred colleges, immersed herself into popular culture, and began wearing secular clothing.
Pnina met Daniel at a college party, had become attracted to his wit, his intelligence, how his banter made her feel smart, an equal—not like the men she had dated before. I was so surprised—and happy—for Pnina, that all I could do was tease and ask if she was observing the laws of shomer negiah , which forbid unmarried men and women from touching. But over the following months, as I sunk deeper into depression, I started to become envious of what Pnina had: the ability to so easily implement change, and to have a boyfriend, too.
When Daniel and John-John arrive, Pnina explains the situation. John-John mumbles something inaudible, obviously pissed, and Daniel doesn’t look pleased either.
“But don’t worry,” Pnina says, “I have an idea. Daniel and Josh are going to switch jackets, because it’s possible the bouncer saw Josh’s coat. Daniel, John-John, and I are going to go inside. In a couple of minutes, I’m going to come out with Daniel’s ID and glasses, which Josh will use to get in.” When she finishes talking, Pnina looks at us triumphantly, as if she’s just hatched a master plan.
“Pnina,” I start, “That’s never going to work. Don’t you think that—”
But Pnina cuts me off. “Josh. You need to do this for me. Don’t you want to get into Adam’s party, anyway?”
It’s true, I do want to see Adam, and I don’t want to cause a scene. But there is a more pressing reason why I listen: I suddenly hear, in Pnina’s tone, a hint of exasperation, a sense that she doesn’t need to be here taking care of me, that at any moment she could go on without me. And because I’m still adjusting to this new Pnina, I don’t want to test her limits.
“OK,” I say, giving in, as Pnina, John-John, and Daniel turn to enter the bar.
I wait on the sidewalk, shivering from the cold. A few feet away, several drunk college students piss in the gutter, and loudly complain about the bouncer who turned their fake IDs away. Just as my toes begin to ache from the cold, Pnina returns. “Are you ready?” she asks, as she hands me Daniel’s glasses and ID.
“Yes,” I mumble as I slip Daniel’s glasses onto my face, and watch the world become blurry. I peer over the top of the glasses to read the address on the ID, which Daniel had instructed me to memorize. I look away from the card, chanting the street name in order to remember it.
Pnina and I walk toward the bar entrance and get in line, where four couples are in front of us. I begin to think of all the things that can go wrong. What if they catch me? Will they take my name? Will they report me? Suddenly, as the last couple walks past the bouncer into the bar, I feel a panic hit my chest. Tears spring to my eyes, and when I try to calm myself by chanting Daniel’s address, I find myself unable to remember it.
Pnina must sense something is wrong, because she turns to face me. “Is everything OK?” she asks.
I try, but fail to find the words. I look at the bouncer, and down at Daniel’s ID. I’m scared; I know the fear is irrational, that it doesn’t match the situation, but I can’t stop it. It feels like someone is squeezing my throat, drumming in my chest. “Pnina, I’m so sorry, I can’t . . .” My voice trails off. I’m freezing and shivering, and I have the urge to run, hop on a subway home, and to surrender to sleep.
But Pnina just looks at me, a look of worry on her face. “OK, OK, Josh. It’s OK,” she finally says. “Don’t worry. Just wait here while I go find Daniel. We will find something else to do. Don’t worry.”
It’s close to midnight when we arrive at the bar in the Village.
From the outside, we can see very little of the inside: The windows have been tinted, and all that’s visible are the faint outlines of bodies leaning against the glass. As we approach the bar’s entrance, we notice a bouncer sitting next to the door.
“IDs?” he asks. Everyone in the group turns to Pnina, who has become my unofficial designated handler.
“You don’t need IDs to get in here,” Pnina begins, in what I recognize as her assertive voice, a voice she has gained since moving to the city. “We looked online, and it said that this club took eighteen and over.”
The bouncer looks unfazed. “Yeah, they used to do that,” he says. “But now it’s twenty-one and over.” He pauses, thinking. “Which one of you is under twenty-one? You?” he asks, nodding his head towards Pnina.
“No, I am.”
The bouncer looks at me. “How old are you?” he asks.
“I’m nineteen,” I respond, too tired to lie and make up some story about being twenty and on the cusp of turning twenty-one. Better to be honest, I tell myself, when in reality I don’t have the energy anymore to care. I’ve been traveling around all night—the pull of my bed, the desire to curl up and shut out the world, is increasing.
The bouncer looks me up and down, evaluating. “You look like a good kid. You don’t look like you’re going to drink,” he says. I laugh at this, because it’s true; I probably won’t drink. I don’t really ever drink; I’m afraid of drinking too much and accidentally coming out to whomever is nearby.
Finally, with resolve he says, “OK, y’all can go in.” The bouncer winks at me. “Just don’t tell anybody.”
The bar is grimy and nearly empty. The cement-block walls look worn down. From where I’m standing, a couple feet back, I can tell that the bar counter, a fake wood laminate that’s peeling up around the edges, is slightly sticky with the residue of spilled drinks. The drink menu is scrawled out in marker on a wrinkled piece of paper and taped to the back wall. At first I think there are no bottles, but then I see a bartender bend over a pick up one up from the floor.
The dance floor is a small, dungeon-like room, made out of the same cement block as the first. Along the back, a raised platform has been set up, and on it, towards the middle, sits a DJ mixing music. Fog machines drift smoke out onto the dance floor, and a set of multicolored neon lights swivel from the ceiling, sending out pulsing waves of blue and green light. The dance floor itself is almost empty; the only dancers I see are a small group of young hipsters and a middle-aged woman, who is dancing alone.
I notice two other men dancing on the perimeter of the room. One is dressed in a dark purple suit and a white dress shirt, and when he turns to face us, I hear Pnina gasp: The man’s face has been painted to resemble The Joker. The other man is dressed in business casual clothes, spastically bobbing his head and body to the music, his pale skin and blond hair shiny under the neon lights. His eyes are completely glazed over, as if he’s in a trance, and I realize that he must be tripping on something, and tripping hard.
“Where the fuck are we?” I ask, incredulously.
Pnina sighs. “I don’t know, Josh. But we are here. So let’s have fun? OK?” I hear the same sound of exasperation in Pnina’s voice, and I’m reminded that I’m no longer her only priority, that she wants to have fun tonight, too.
We all head towards the center of the dance floor, where Pnina and Daniel immediately couple up, John-John sits down along the wall, and I compromise, standing by the side, watching.
I feel someone touch my shoulder. I figure it’s John-John, trying to tell me something, but when I turn around, I’m face to face with the blond-haired man. His body is still bobbing in short spasms, off key to the music, and although his eyes are glazed over, I can sense that he is looking at me intensely. I wait for a moment, staring back into his eyes, unsure of what to do. But it’s he who acts first: With a small grunt, he lifts up both his arms, zombie-like, and grabs my shoulders.
I quickly jerk out of his grasp, and move to the other side of the room, where I glance back to see the man standing where I left him, swaying slightly to the music, a confused look covering his face. I relax, figuring he’s too high to realize where I’ve gone. But then I watch as he turns, catches sight of me, and begins shuffling across the dance floor towards where I’m standing.
The man moves slowly, in a stupor, and as he approaches, I easily glide to a different part of the room, evading his grasp. When he arrives to the spot where I’ve just been, he does not stop, but immediately scans the room for me. And when he spots me, he no longer shuffles, but rushes towards me, his arms up, ready to grab.
I run around the dance floor, ducking behind people, the man following, lunging in my wake.
“Back off, man,” the security guard says, pushing his way between my body and the man’s outstretched arms. The guard puts his hand on the man’s chest and guides him backwards, towards the side of the room. Once there, the man stays put, but keeps his eyes on me, his gaze following me around the room.
Pnina and Daniel laugh nervously and invite me to dance with them. But when I try to dance, something is different. Suddenly it’s all too much, too horrible: the garish music, the neon lights, the fog machine, the hipsters with their ironic dancing, the Joker. The blond-haired man is dancing by himself in his corner, a confused look still on his face. I feel an overwhelming sadness that aches in my chest, clenches my throat, and brings tears to my eyes. I try to imagine what led the blond-haired man to this dumpy bar, these drugs, this night of chasing me. I imagine myself in a similar situation: drowning my loneliness in drugs, suddenly excited by a young man who walks through the door of a dirty Village bar. Is this where I will end up if I never come to terms with my sexuality, if I condemn myself to a life alone?
I look back at Pnina, who is dancing with Daniel. I don’t want her to worry about me, for her to feel like I’m her responsibility. At that moment, John-John nods in my direction, signaling to me that he is ready to leave, asking if I want to go, too. I nod back in agreement.
I walk over to where Pnina and Daniel are dancing. “I’m leaving,” I whisper in her ear. “Thanks for tonight.” We hug, and as I look back at the door, I pause, for a moment, to watch her dance.
Outside, John-John hails a cab. He’s been mostly quiet tonight, allowing us to drag him along, responding elusively whenever I ask him a direct question. But in the cab, John-John begins to open up. He asks what I’m studying, what I want to do. I tell him that I’m studying English, that one day, I hope I’ll be a writer.
Right now, all I can think about is the way Daniel and Pnina looked dancing in the bar: Pnina expertly moving her hips to the rhythm of the music, the way she guided Daniel’s hands to the small of her back; Daniel, for all his awkwardness and lack of dance coordination, smiling and attempting to follow Pnina’s lead. The image slips into another, from earlier, on the subway to the Village: the way Pnina had leaned into Daniel, how he had rested his hand on her upper thigh, the ease they had with each other’s bodies, the comfort they found in physical touch. And these images renew the pain of my solitary state afresh: my loneliness, my scripted Orthodox life that is no longer to be, my isolation from my body. What happened to my night that was supposed to offer me a glimpse of hope, a lifeline, from Adam?
I look over at John-John and I suddenly want to kiss him on the mouth. I want him to take me home and fuck me. I want anyone to take me home and fuck me. I want someone to hold me, to find comfort in my body like Pnina with Daniel, to know the way I move, to feel confident in my body. I want to jump out of this cab, soaring down the highway, and into the Hudson. I want to scream. I want to do anything that will stop me from becoming the lonely man I saw in the bar.
Instead, I sit in silence and look out of the window. John-John continues talking and I offer short answers. Soon we are pulling up to my dormitory, and I get out, alone. I walk back to my dormitory, undress, and crawl into my bed. I think about what John-John had told me in the cab when I said I wanted to be a writer: You have to do what you love . And, as I fade into sleep, into the one place I’ve found safety, into the one place where I no longer have to worry about ruined plans, I find myself wondering not if I’ll make it to twenty-one, but if I’ll live long enough to write about this night.