Lisa: We’re so pleased to welcome author E.M. Ben Shaul today on the tour for her new novel, Flying Without a Net.
Hi, E.M., thanks for being here with us today. Let’s start by having you tell us a little bit about the book.
E.M.: Hello, and thanks for hosting a tour stop for Flying Without a Net. This is my Interlude Press debut novel, and it’s very close to my heart, as well as to my home.
Flying Without a Net is a love story about two Jewish men—one a secular Israeli and the other, an Orthodox sign language interpreter, who must find a way to balance their feelings for each other with their respective views of faith. As an Orthodox Jew and writer of gay fiction, Dani and Avi’s story is so important to me. I live in a simultaneously Jewish-friendly and gay-friendly neighborhood just outside of Boston, and I hope to share a better understanding of my faith, as well as the challenges it can present for two men in love.
Lisa: It sounds like a lovely story, and I can see why it’s close to your heart.
Now that we know a bit about the book, let’s learn a bit about you. Give us few random facts about you so we can get to know you better.
E.M.: – I wrote my first short stories in 1984 on a Smith-Corona Coronamatic 2500 typewriter. The typewriter had been a gift for my bat mitzvah. It still exists somewhere in my parents’ house, as, most likely, do the early stories I wrote.
– Despite my early start with fiction writing, I never saw myself as a writer. I majored in Linguistics in college and became a professional editor. After a few years of working as the managing editor at a very, very small publisher, I had to decide whether to stay and know I could never advance or change careers. A friend convinced me to try my hand at technical writing. Once I had been a tech writer for about two years, I realized I had forgotten how to write anything that wasn’t a short, declarative, active-verb sentence; a bulleted list; or a numbered list of steps. I decided to dip my toe into fiction writing by writing what I thought would be a short-short fanfic story. It turned into a crazy-long multipart series. And then I was hooked.
– I made the transition into original fiction in 2003, when marriage equality was first being discussed in wider circles in Massachusetts ahead of the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that brought it to reality. That is when Avi and Dani first showed up in my brain.
– When I’m not writing, I’m likely knitting. I enjoy knitting nerdly fannish objects. Among my favorite objects that I knit was a Dalek costume for the infant daughter of a couple of friends.
– I used to be caffeine addicted, and then I stopped being able to sleep. So I weaned myself off caffeine (except for chocolate) and haven’t gone back. I figure if I could get through the infancy of twins without caffeine, I don’t have any excuse to start again.
– I love to cook, but I don’t have a lot of time to devote to cooking. I have therefore collected or created a large number of recipes that look very fancy but that take very little active time to create.
– I went to Orthodox Jewish day schools from Kindergarten through twelfth grade.
– After I graduated from high school, I did what would now be called a gap year in Israel. While I was there, I studied for three months in Jerusalem, lived on two different types of collective agricultural settlements for a total of four months, and then did volunteer work for three months.
– One of the agricultural settlements I lived on was a kibbutz whose main industry was carrots. I worked in the carrot fields in the morning and the carrot packing plant in the afternoon. For six months after leaving the kibbutz, I wouldn’t eat anything that contained carrots.
– I love puns, and it is a daily struggle not to use puns in all my interactions. My love of puns and wordplay comes from my parents, especially my father, who taught me that words are toys to be manipulated and reformed for humorous effect.
About the Book
Dani Perez, a secular Israeli working as a software engineer in Boston, has never had trouble balancing his faith and his sexuality—until he meets Avi Levine, a gay Orthodox Jew and sign language interpreter. As they fall in love, Dani finds himself wanting Avi in his life but confused by Avi’s observance. Dani can’t understand how Avi reconciles what his religion demands with what his body desires. And although he wants to deny it, neither can Avi.
Despite the risk of losing Avi forever to a religious life that objects to their love, Dani supports him through the struggle to find an answer. Will they be able to start a life together despite religious ideology that conflicts with the relationship they are trying to build?
Tefilah: Create for Me a Pure Heart
In these, the earliest hours of the day after Yom Kippur, please, Hashem, hear my request.
My heart is torn. I am caught between love of You and Your mitzvot and love of myself. Love of myself and love of my family. Love of my family and, perhaps, the possibility of love for another man.
I know. It’s too early for me to call any feelings I have for Dani anything other than friendship. And I know that from the perspective of halacha, of Your laws, there is no sin involved in thoughts, in feelings.
But what if those thoughts, those feelings, cause others pain? What if by my actions, or at least by my consideration of future actions, I am causing pain to another person.
To my parents? To my family?
I stood next to Abba at shul all day. We sat in the same seats that we have used for as many Yom Kippurs as I can remember. But I was a different me from whom I have been. And when we struck our hearts with our fists and asked forgiveness “for the sin we have committed with false denial and lying” and “for the sin we have committed by disrespecting parents and teachers,” I couldn’t help but look over at him and also think about Ima sitting in the women’s section on the other side of the mechitzah. When they find out, when they learn that I am not exactly the son they think I am, when I tell them that I am still their Avi and I hope they can still love me, how will they react?
I have friends who have left Your path when they could not find a way to reconcile their love for You with their love for another man. I do not want to turn away from all of Your laws, from the way I have been taught and from the life I have grown up loving. But I fear that my parents will reject me outright when I tell them.
I should have more faith in them. I should have more faith in You. Please, Hashem, help me to have faith.
Lev tahor be’rah li, Elokim–God, create for me a pure heart. Al tashlicheni milfanecha–do not send me away from before You.
* * *
“All of the dati people I knew before I came out, they all thought that gay people were an abomination. And while, yes, I’m learning that not all dati people feel that way, I still have trouble understanding how someone can identify as dati and gay,” Danid said. I mean, yeah, halacha doesn’t mandate thought, just action. But how many people know that? How many people practice that?”
“A lot of people know. Think of it this way. Halacha has a lot to say about kashrut. But not everyone keeps the same type of kosher, even among the dati community. So, for example, I don’t hold that you have to only eat glatt meat or chalav Yisrael milk, but other people do. That doesn’t make my type of kosher any less legitimate than their type of kosher. The people who only eat glatt or chalav Yisrael won’t eat the food I make, but that’s because of how they interpret the rules. In my experience, most of them don’t believe I’m not keeping kosher; they just hold by a greater stricture.”
“We have a difference of opinion on how to interpret the law,” Avi continued. “Judaism allows for that; we have a long tradition of different communities having different standards, all of which are considered legitimate interpretations of halacha. Same with this. My interpretation of halacha has no problem with my being gay and my being frum. Someone else’s opinion of halacha may not be as inclusive, but those people may also say I don’t keep kosher enough or that the fact that I have a television in my house or an Internet connection means that I’m not frum. I disagree. My community disagrees. If they don’t like my interpretation of halacha, they can leave me to my life. I’m not going into their houses and saying they have to be accepting of my kashrut standards, but at the same time they cannot come into my house and tell me that I cannot eat my own food to my own standards of kashrut.”
Avi stopped and took a breath. Dani closed the distance between them and took Avi’s hand. “Okay, motek, I get it,” he said. “I think. I mean, it’s still a huge thing for me to work through, since I have been so used to the dati community that I know judging me simply for whom I choose to love. I just… Until I met you, I had never met an Orthodox Jew who was open-minded about gays. So I admit it will take me some time to adjust my biases. Please be patient with me, motek.”
“We’ll be patient with each other,” Avi said, bending for a kiss.
* * *
V’ahavtcha, al tassir mimenu l’olamim—and Your love, may You forever not remove it from us. Please help us to find our way as we navigate our love, through Your love.
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