Yossi is seventeen years old and lives in Melbourne’s biggest Jewish suburb of Caulfield. He attends Beth Dovid high school and is among their most spiritual and dedicated students. His mother died of bowel cancer when he was very young, and now there’s just Yossi, his father and older sister, Talya – a close family, and Yossi is especially preoccupied with making his father proud of him.
Yossi is also gay, and would give just about anything not to be.
When a new student arrives at Beth Dovid – blonde haired, blue-eyed Josh Davies – Yossi is tasked with showing him around campus and familiarising him with the school’s traditions. But Josh has his own troubles at home, and isn’t particularly interested in the spiritual side of education, and can’t fathom why Yossi is so preoccupied with it.
Little does Yossi know that meeting Josh will push him into examining his homosexuality and figuring out where it fits into his faith.
It’s been a topic of discussion in the YA world for a while now that the way gay characters are being written is changing for the better. Mainly because ‘coming out’ stories aren’t so prevalent, and more and more we’re actually reading gay characters for whom being gay is not the most interesting thing about them – it’s just who they are. Take American author Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Ever, for example: the book was given an ‘extreme caution’ (really?) label because ‘homosexuality is presented as normal and natural in this book’ – which rather flattered Federle. In Will Kostakis’s The First Third, the protagonist’s best friend Lucas is gay and has cerebral palsy. Kostakis recently wrote a fantastic blog on why it’s a bit saddening when readers tell him they like Lucas because he’s not ‘over-the-top’ gay.
The reason it’s so great to read books in which characters being gay is not a focus is because it’s feeding into the very reason why diversity (whether it be sexual, racial, disability etc) is so important – to create familiarity, normality and empathy. But just because there’s a change for the better, please don’t think that is synonymous with ‘enough’ – because there’s still a serious lack of diversity in YA, as has been a hot topic of discussion particularly in 2014.
This all leads me to Eli Glasman’s debut YA novel, The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew. Yes, it’s a coming out story but one that desperately needed to be told on two counts – one because it’s an Australian YA coming-out story, and two because it’s a coming-out story about a young man questioning his homosexuality alongside his Jewish faith.
Aussie YA deserves credit for many things, but like all other youth literature communities we don’t do diversity terribly well (yet!)– particularly when it comes to writing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex (LGBTQI) characters. And while it might seem like an obvious place for questions of subversion to spring from – young adult stories centred around homosexuality and faith are also fairly few and far between. Enter Eli Glasman’s The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew – one of the best YA novels I’ve read in 2014.
Yossi is a young man full of faith, who takes his spiritual education very seriously. He lives in a mostly Jewish suburb of Melbourne, and his father is likewise a very devout man.
I’d lived in this house my entire life. I belonged here. My place was amongst Jews, keeping alive traditions that were centuries old. I couldn’t imagine a life where each day bled into the next with nothing more to punctuate existence but payday and a piss up on the weekend. A life with no God, no holy days, no prayers, no significance to food or clothing.
It’s no wonder then, that when Yossi can no longer deny his homosexuality he begins soul-searching and trying to figure out where his faith and sexuality intersect. Even if that means questioning his religion, and thinking critically about the very rules that guide all aspects of his life.
‘So, yeah,’ I went on. ‘I’m gay. But I was also born a Jew. Neither being gay nor being religious are choices for me. I’ve been both for my whole life.’
I loved this book on all fronts. I loved that it’s set in Melbourne and the little details that Glasman writes to sharpen the Caulfield setting are wonderful – like Yossi’s family being part of the Lubavitch sect, their synagogue an exact replica of leader Lubavitcher Rebbe’s synagogue in New York. And I especially loved Glasman writing about Judaism, letting readers into this world that many won’t be familiar with. He doesn’t write Yossi’s life like a theology lesson, but rather lets readers in on the less familiar terms and traditions, like – a tzitzit is a traditional woollen undergarment, and you’re not allowed to sit on the same level as a siddur, a prayer book – in such a way that is both respectful and fascinating. Glasman is also able to write easy insight via the character of Josh, who is less preoccupied with spiritual traditions, and needs Yossi to explain things like kashering dishes – purifying them (and if non-kosher food touches them, you have to re-purify them).
I particularly enjoyed reading the rigors and rituals because it was Glasman establishing just what Yossi is up against in grappling with his homosexuality.
I knew that there was only sin in acting on my impulses, not simply in being the way I was. And yet, just having these terrible feelings made me feel like less of a Jew.
And this is the other reason I loved the book. Eli Glasman says on his website that he’s not gay, but someone very close to him has been through the struggles of ‘coming out’. I think I knew this, even before clarifying via Glasman’s FAQ page – because he writes Yossi’s first-person story with such tenderness and patience, beautifully portraying his grappling between religion and faith, personal enlightenment versus religious doctrine.
‘When you’re gay, your sex life is on trial. All of a sudden you are being judged for what you do in the bedroom. But Judaism sees sex as a private thing between the two people involved, and God.’
Glasman really highlighted a parallel for me too, between Yossi’s accepting his homosexuality alongside his faith, and his becoming a young adult who thinks critically and independently instead of letting school, religion and family do the thinking for him.
I also loved the character of Josh, whose presence in Yossi’s life is really part of the impetus for his questioning everything around him. I do love a rebellious teen, and Josh was a great shake-up for Yossi who I enjoyed reading for his own complicated back-story too:
‘Bloody hell,’ Josh whispered heatedly. ‘You can’t let a book tell you how you’re allowed to have sex.’
Eli Glasman is a daring new author who is much needed in Australia’s youth literature scene, and The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew should be on everyone’s must-read list. Here is a gutsy coming-of-age story that tackles internal and external battles of faith and sexuality with infinite tenderness and witty aplomb. Trust me when I say you should meet Yossi, and keep an eye on Eli Glasman.
Kill Your Darlings First Book Club: The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew
Wednesday September 17
6.30 for 7pm
Happy Valley: Design, Books, Art
294 Smith St