by Eli Jacobs
My family secret goes back to 1994. My brother Danny was in the last days of his life, dying of AIDS in a lower Manhattan hospital. I was thirty-one, and I’d been living in Israel since I’d moved there from New York, ten days after my wedding in 1986. I hardly ever went back home. I didn’t go to New York to visit Danny in the hospital. I sent a few letters.
Our fourth child was due within weeks, and Passover was days away; each of these was reason enough for my parents to make the trip from Staten Island to the Middle East. I picked them up at Ben Gurion airport and drove them to our red-roofed home in a small West Bank town. While my mother eagerly instructed my father which suitcase to open and which gifts to give to each of my children, my wife prepared lasagna, salad and instant coffee. About an hour later, I heard the sound of my mother’s metal crutches approaching my bedroom.
“Eli, I want to tell you something. I went to see Danny in the hospital. I didn’t know what to do about this trip. I said to him, ‘Bubele, how can I go to Israel and leave you here? He took my hand, and he said, ‘Go, Ma.’ “
I nodded. My mother continued, “We wanted to be here for the bris. We thought it was more important than—. You know. Choose life.”
I said, “I agree. That’s right. Choose life.”
“Daddy can’t take it. He wishes Danny would die already.”
“I know,” I said. “I feel that way too.”
We’d been through it before. Six years earlier, Moshe, my other brother, died of cancer. The waiting and the false alarms were draining.
On the second night of Passover, I spoke to Danny on the phone. It was the last time. I flew to New York, and my parents stayed in Israel. Danny died while I was in the air. My sister, Geula, and I took care of the funeral. Shiva would not begin until after the holiday week. So, I stayed in New York for a few more days and then flew back to Israel. After Passover, Geula sat shiva in her house in Passaic, New Jersey, and my parents and I sat shiva together in my home, in Israel.
Nine years later, in 2003, following my mother’s death, I received a condolence card from Gary Adler, Danny’s romantic partner for the last four years of his life. “I’ll be in Israel on a synagogue tour. Would love to see you.”
Sitting in a Jerusalem coffee shop, Gary told me about CBST, the gay synagogue that held services in the basement of a church in Chelsea. Danny had become a member a few months before his death, and now Gary had joined and even sang in the choir. On Yom Kippur, when attendance rose to more than two thousand, services were held in the Javits Convention Center. “And every year, the rabbi talks about Danny in her Kol Nidre drasha.”
I asked Gary to explain.
“You know. She talks about your parents leaving your brother on his deathbed to go visit their Orthodox son in Israel. How they didn’t even come to his funeral. The plight of a Jewish gay man from an Orthodox home.”
“But he agreed,” I said. “My mother asked him what to do and he said she should come to Israel.”
Gary was an imposing man. Almost six feet tall, barrel chested, shaved head, diamond earring, black leather jacket, blue bandanna tied to his jeans. He leaned across the table, took hold of my wrist, and squeezed.
“Eli.” He spoke my name the way my family had in America, with a long A sound, Ay-lee. When I moved to Israel, I switched to Eli, rhymes with jelly, because it was a common Israeli pronunciation.
“Aylee. Aylee.” Now Gary drew out all his words as if speaking to a dense pupil in his fifth-grade public school class in Brooklyn. “That’s true. Your mother did go see Danny when he was in Sloane Kettering. And she did ask him what to do about her trip to Israel. But he didn’t say, ‘Go, Ma.’ Oh no! He did not say that.” Shaking his head, “No, no, no. Danny told your mother, ‘Don’t go, Ma’. Danny begged your mother not to leave him when he was dying.”
When I heard from Gary that there were two versions of my mother’s last visit to Danny on his deathbed—Go, Ma versus Don’t go, Ma—I saw it as a mystery never to be resolved. Both Danny and my mother were dead.
Around the time of Gary’s visit, my life had taken a series of twists and turns. I’d separated from my wife and moved out of the settlement that had been my home for seventeen years. I felt wronged, but I knew that divorce always has two sides. I must have contributed. A new romance began. It was perfect, and yet, for some reason, it wasn’t right. So, I left.
My religious identity was shifting. Through years of studying in yeshiva, I’d internalized and, I thought, developed a more grown-up version of an idea my father told me often when I was little. The Torah’s laws are like the user manual for a car. When you follow the instructions, everything is OK. But now everything was not okay for me. I still believed, even knew for fact, that the Torah was divine and halacha the right way to live one’s life. But it was not right for me.
Gary was a difficult person—the indignation of his gay-activist persona underscored almost every sentence he spoke—but I was drawn to him. He connected me to Danny. So, whenever I came to the States, in addition to visiting my father and sister, I tried to see Gary. Our relationship became important. I referred to him as my brother-in-law. He, jokingly, referred to me as his “brother-outlaw.” By spending time with Gary, I declared identity with the underdog, I defied my parents, I protested Orthodoxy’s condemnation of homosexuality and I offered reparation to my brother. Perhaps I was seeking in Gary a new home as well.
Sometimes I texted Gary, “Meet at shul on Friday night?” The first time I thought that going to the Church of the Holy Apostles, whose basement was converted for the evening to gay synagogue, would feel strange. In fact it reminded me of the American shuls of my youth. The dusty smell when you open the door, the overcoats in the entry hall, the announcements board behind glass with service times and other notices on yellowed paper, some hanging askew where a corner had torn away from a thumbtack.
After prayers and a little singing and dancing, while everyone else made their way to the kiddush in the front right corner, we went to the front left corner of the room, sights set on a cardboard poster perched on a wooden easel. We ran our fingertips across white letters on a black background, one name of more than a hundred—Daniel Victor Jacobs.
After shul, we went to dinner at Angela’s Kitchen and then back to Gary’s house in Staten Island where we drank red wine and smoked pot. I asked Gary about my brother.
How did they meet? Was Danny sick when they met? How many years were they together before Danny died? What did Danny say about our parents? Each time Gary answered my questions in detail and with great drama. And each time what he said sounded new, as if I had never heard it before. The details about my brother’s life did not stick in my memory.
Over the next fifteen years I was unsettled more often than not. On too many nights I woke after a few hours of troubled sleep, desperate to escape a nightmare: it is my last day at the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Baltimore where I was a student for four years. I can’t find my car—now packed with suitcases and boxes of holy books—anywhere. The campus has become an oxygen-less moonscape. Or, in another version of the dream, I can’t find the key to the closet that holds all my possessions. I am trapped forever in yeshiva. The terror was so great that I forced myself to wake; I ran out of the bedroom and stayed in the living room until morning.
Other times I woke to a pillow wet with tears and a faint recollection of crying in my sleep. TV and movie dramas (whether sad—death, cancer, AIDS, funerals, family strife; or happy—births, weddings, brotherly camaraderie, reconciliation) made me sob. I avoided goodbyes.
At those times of terror and free-floating sorrow, holding onto dualities—my ex-wife was right and I was also right, God was right but I was also right, my mother told the truth but Gary also told the truth—was like trying to hold onto a pair of fighting cats.
I moved further away from religion, no longer believing in God, the divine nature of the Torah, the afterlife or the Messiah. I married again, had a sixth child, divorced again. I moved from city to city. I spent hundreds of hours in therapy and attended new-age workshops and writing retreats.
Upon hearing my story, people would say, Wow, what an interesting life. You’ve been through a lot! For a moment, I might feel proud, but in the car on the way home, I would feel lost and alone.
Again and again, I found my way back to the facts that felt solid, true. My brothers, Moshe and Danny, were both alienated from my family and then both became ill and died. They each died two deaths, one from rejection, one from illness.
I figured that the arithmetic of death must be unique, not a mere one death plus one death equals two. It is more like an order of magnitude; one death plus another death equals tragedy squared. And in the case of the Jacobs family, two sons, tragedy squared and then squared again. This thought fueled me into action. I was inspired to write.
September 2017, Stockbridge, Pennsylvania
A year into my writing I make a trip to New York to interview relatives and family friends. I am seeking more details about my parents and their relationships with my brothers. I want to prove that my mother lied to me, that she pretended to care about Danny, but in fact had disowned him. It would be a clean narrative with villains, my parents; victims, my brothers; and a naive observer, myself.
So far, it’s been frustrating. When asking my mother’s contemporaries what she really said about my brothers, over and over I hear, “She didn’t talk about it.”
On this stifling hot September day I am on my way to see Gary, and this time I will record our talk. He now lives in the woods, in a small town in the Poconos. The drive from my Airbnb in Staten Island to Pennsylvania feels like a trip out of the world and into a quieter place.
We sit in the basement study, Gary across from me in a large swivel chair with his back to a desk and a walker at his side. Now seventy-two and recovering from hip replacement surgery, he is wearing a plaid bathrobe. Gary points to a large cardboard box and tells me to bring it over. Three of its corners are split, bundles of papers and photos are leaking out. The carton is too heavy and cumbersome to lift, so I grab the top and drag it across the room.
I slide my iPhone onto the coffee table and press record. Gary tells me, again, how he and my brother met—at an exhibit of gay art where they went into a side room with posters and lithographs and made out. Gary tells me how he felt when Danny told him that he was HIV-positive—he figured that he didn’t have much to lose because Danny had about two years to live and he’d probably dump Gary like all his other boyfriends had. He boasts that it was he, who noticed the first sign of AIDS—lesions on the bottom of Danny’s left foot. He details the various treatments and Danny’s determination to avoid AZT.
Gary tells me about the doctors and the intos and out-ofs the hospital, the plans for the death; the doctor accurately predicted the date. And the marriage ceremony and exchange of wedding bands the night before the death. Gary now wears both rings on one finger. He gives me an hour-by-hour account of Danny’s low oxygen level during the last days. We both remember the phone call from me to my brother, during those last hours; Danny asked me to forgive him and said that there had been times he resented me for being a spoiled-brat little brother who got things that he didn’t. The moment of death, the funeral, the shiva. All of it.
Outside the temperature is in the eighties and in here the air conditioning is blasting. I ask Gary for something warm. He says that he’ll look through Danny’s things, but I tell him that Danny’s clothing would be too small, so Gary brings me one of his own sweatshirts, and I put it on.
Gary says that he is going to the bathroom, and I ask about the box. “It’s for you. Take whatever you want.”
Eagerly, I begin to remove the papers and other things one at a time, inspect and sort them into two piles. One to leave here at Gary’s house and the other to pack into my suitcase. I leaf through Danny’s journals, drawings, postcards, photos, letters, scripts of musicals he’d auditioned for. I study flyers for self-funded cabaret shows he appeared in, bank statements, letters to insurance companies appealing to them to cover experimental treatments. I set aside everyday items that must have sat on Danny’s dresser: a pair of eyeglasses and a pair of sunglasses both with the same preppy, tortoise-shell frame, a crocheted blue and white yarmulke, colored pencils, bank cards, pins with political slogans about AIDS, an AA chip.
I keep reading and thinking and sorting. As I lift each item, I imagine Danny holding it in his hands. A faded page appears to be a form from a wellness workshop. In one of four rectangles Danny wrote:
Sept 4, 1984 — I stopped drinking and drugging and joined AA
Nov, 1987 — I tested positive for HIV
Winter of 1990 — tested positive lesion on foot
I pull the page close and read it a few times. I rub my thumb over “Nov, 1987 – tested positive for HIV,” and repeat the words in my head. This is important, but I don’t know why. Danny was born in November, but that’s not it.
Jet-lag and the two-hour drive from Staten Island are taking their toll. The smell of the box’s twenty-year-old dust is lulling me to sleep. Over and over, I think, November ‘87, tested positive for HIV. I struggle to understand the significance. I fall asleep.
After dozing for I don’t know how long, my eyes open. I am alone in the room, in a twilight state. I look down at a bank card from Chase in my palm. It looks just like the one in my own wallet, but the name is my brother’s. I check the date to see if it is expired and wonder if Danny will have to get it renewed when he returns. But of course, it expired, in 1995. And of course, Danny will not return; he died in 1994.
I reach for a photocopy of a hand-written letter on the take-to-Israel pile. The handwriting, slanted and conscientiously spaced on lined paper, could have been my own. In the letter, my brother thanked our aunt and uncle for the invitation to our cousin’s wedding. He explained how family weddings formed his warmest memories. He wrote that he was in a loving relationship with his gay partner, Gary, and that they would never be able to have that kind of wedding. He appealed to Uncle Julie and Aunt Daniele to invite Gary to the wedding. Later Gary would tell me that they agreed, but my parents protested and the invitation was rescinded.
The bank card could have been mine; Danny’s hand-writing could have been mine. The letter to our Aunt and Uncle—if I’d been in his situation, my words would have come out like his: passionate, respectful, articulate. We were so similar, we were brothers. I never realized.
The page from the wellness workshop has fallen to the floor. I lift it and look again at the words that called out to me earlier—Nov, 1987 – I tested positive for HIV.
Now, I understand.
March 1988, New York City
Our brother Moshe died at his apartment on Amsterdam Avenue and 69th Street on a Tuesday evening. Then his body was taken to the Riverside Funeral Chapel on Amsterdam and 76th. When Danny and I arrived, we were told that they weren’t able to reach any of the regulars who normally sat with bodies until the arrival of the ritual burial team. Back in Israel, I was studying for the rabbinate, preparing for a test on the halachot of mourning. I knew that the tradition of not leaving a corpse unattended, based on the pragmatic need to ward off rodents, was not obligatory in modern times. But Danny was insistent that we step up and take on this duty. So he and I spent that night at the chapel.
After some waiting, we were shown into a formal sitting room that looked as if it had been lifted from a nineteenth-century mansion. Brass sconces jutting out of felt-covered walls shone softly, two maroon sofas faced each other across a Persian rug. A temporary coffin was aligned against the far wall. The long box was made of dull tin and mounted on wheels like a gurney. Moshe’s body was inside.
The timing of the death was convenient for me, an opportunity to practice the laws I was studying in preparation for rabbinic ordination. My motivation to become a rabbi came from my father who himself was a rabbi, but more than that, it was a reaction to Moshe and Danny. They rejected the lifestyle and left religion. We never talked about it, but we didn’t have to. My parents’ tight, hushed whispers when they spoke to each other about my brothers, taught me that Moshe and Danny’s rejection of Orthodoxy was a colossal tragedy.
When my sister Geula married, Moshe’s non-Jewish wife, Josephine, was not invited to the wedding. Moshe was forced to choose between his wife and his family of origin. Danny was subjected to similar rejections. For each of my brothers, these incidents cut deep, jagged wounds.
I sympathized with my brothers’ pain but deep down, I believed that they were responsible for their own fates. They were wandering souls who had lost their way and refused the invitation to come back home.
I came to Riverside equipped with a spare kipa for Danny and a sense that my faith enabled me to face death with equanimity. Danny cried on and off, but I didn’t cry at all.
We sat cross-legged on the rug facing each other. I was upright and Danny leaned forward. Our eyes never quite met. One of my hands rested on my thigh, and in the other I held a small, gray book of Psalms. Some of the time I recited prayers. Danny closed his eyes and listened.
I paused and after a silence, Danny spoke. He told me about days he’d spent with Moshe, taking him to treatments and doctor’s appointments. One morning, Moshe was moving very slowly, and Danny had to help him dress. They missed a cross-town bus and were late for a chemo treatment. The nurse was nice but had to turn them away. They made their way back across Manhattan by bus and then downtown by subway to a doctor’s appointment. They were an hour and a half late and had to wait for a break in the schedule. After four hours, the doctor called only Danny into his office and showed him a scan from earlier that week. The cancer had spread. There were now multiple tumors in Moshe’s brain.
They rode the subway back uptown without talking. When they exited the station at 72nd Street, Moshe took Danny’s hand. They walked a few blocks, hand in hand. Then Moshe turned to Danny, “It was a long, hard day, but we got a lot done.” Danny smiled as he told me this sweet, sad story about our big brother. He looked at me. We both smiled.
A few minutes later, a creaking noise came from the coffin. It stopped but then came again. I sat still. Danny wrapped his arms around his chest and shook. He moaned. I got up and approached the box. It had a plastic window in the top of its lid. I could see the shape of Moshe’s head and chest, wrapped in a white sheet and covered with hundreds of ice cubes.
“The sound is from the ice. It’s melting and shifting.” This simple explanation should have calmed Danny. But it didn’t. Every time we heard the sound of the ice cubes creaking, Danny shook and moaned.
September 2017, Stockbridge, Pennsylvania
Gary’s air-conditioner makes a shifting noise as the thermostat adjusts the speed of the fan. I shiver and hug myself. I look again at the paper in my hand. It is the answer I’ve been searching for, but it answers a question I haven’t thought to ask.
Danny was diagnosed with HIV in 1987, a year before Moshe died. When we spent that night with Moshe’s dead body, Danny already knew that he was carrying a fatal virus inside of him.
This meant that I had been wrong. Danny’s reaction that night was not because he was weak, or unsustained by religious faith. He already knew that he was HIV-positive, and he knew that HIV was followed by AIDS and AIDS by death. I wonder if, rather than shaking out of fear, Danny was actually feeling his own body lying in that box smothered under ice. I wonder if Danny shook because he was shivering from cold.
I grip the page in my hand. An image of Danny, as if he were still alive today, takes shape, life-size, hologram-like, and standing next to my chair. He would be sixty-two to my fifty-four. He’d be rounder in the middle than he was in one of the last pre-AIDS photos I found in the box, wearing a flannel LL Bean shirt tucked into jeans and brown laced shoes. We would talk about Mom and Dad, and life in the Jacobs family. His voice would sound like it had always been with me. Inside me. Had never left me. We would catch up on the lost years: music, books, movies, my children. We’d be serious and pensive, but we’d also laugh.
This Danny (not the one who died in 1994 at age 39, whose bearded face I didn’t recognize when the undertaker cut open the thick plastic bag covered with yellow hazard signs and red-lettered warnings) looks directly at me. His eyes are soft. He smiles and at first it is the same sad, ironic smile I saw when he told me about Moshe saying, “It was a long hard day, but we got a lot done,” when really, they’d gotten nothing done that day, but it was okay because anyway, Moshe was about to die. But then Danny’s smile deepened and became a knowing smile, a forgiving smile. A brother’s smile.
If Danny were alive today, we’d both know where we came from. 144 Castleton Avenue in Staten Island. And arm-in-arm with someone who knows that place intimately, who hates it as I do, and never wants to go back, it would be possible for me to also love that place, even miss it. If Danny were alive today, I would not be alone. If Danny were alive today, I would have a home.
With my eyes shut, I take deep breaths, bringing Danny inside me and spreading him around so he can’t get away. But soon his presence grows thin, his voice faint. A different voice assaults me from within, saying, “Your narrative—villain-victim-observer—is shattered. It’s not about your parents. It’s about you. You were no naïve observer. You thought Danny was defective and weak. You were an unctuous, sanctimonious prick.”
Twilight gives way to halogen light, I see the room’s contours clearly and Danny—with his forgiving, knowing brother smile—is gone. I never mourned for Danny, because I never missed him. And now, twenty-three years after his death, I feel myself wanting to talk to Danny, and wanting it more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.
Less than a year later, Gary, who survived four years of intimacy with Danny and his HIV and AIDS, would die of a massive stroke at the age of seventy-two. I will always remember that, for a few minutes, in the over-air-conditioned basement of Gary’s house in the woods in the Poconos, while rummaging through a dusty box of old papers, my brother smiled at me and I found my home.
Eli Jacobs grew up in New York and moved to Israel when he was twenty-three. He writes about his family, loss, mourning and marginalization on the basis of religious or sexual identity. His work has been published in Palaver Journal, Snapdragon and Eastern Iowa Review. He holds an MA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Bar Ilan University and an MS in Education from Johns Hopkins University.
Author Website: www.elijacobs.net