The pious atheist
by Jay Blotcher
In the new book Sweet Like Sugar (Kensington Books, $15), a 20something graphic artist named Benji Steiner crosses paths with a 70something Orthodox rabbi named Jacob Zuckerman. Their worlds could not be further apart, but they are drawn together, first by a health emergency, and later by intellectual curiosity. The story of their growing friendship in suburban Maryland – and the religious dogma that drives them apart – is the narrative arc of this book, which manages to evenhandedly speak volumes about the mixed blessings of modern Judaism.
Hoffman, a 40-year-old New Yorker who has crafted a thorny but endearing story about modern Judaism, is a gay atheist.
"I grew up Conservative in a traditional household," he said in a phone interview. "We kept kosher, we went to synagogue every week, I was bar mitzvahed, I went to Hebrew School three times a week." But when Hoffman left his family and Maryland suburban life for Tufts University, he experienced a life transition. "When I went away to college, I decided I was done with religion. I'm an atheist, and it struck me that there was not much point in keeping up observances if I didn't believe in God."
At Tufts, Hoffman focused on two goals: his education and his emerging identity as a gay man. Eventually, he realized that his wholesale rejection of Judaism was only a reaction to the entrenched homophobia of Jewish liturgy, which had made it clear there was no place for homosexuality. Instead, Hoffman decided to embrace those parts of his religion that nurture him. When he became a Manhattanite, Hoffman once more would celebrate certain holidays that resonated with both joy and nostalgia in his own home: Chanukah, Purim, Passover.
In Sweet Like Sugar, Benji Steiner is also a gay man, but hardly Hoffman's doppelganger. The protagonist was born in 1980, a decade after Hoffman. The author placed the lead character in his mid-20s to allow him flexibility in values. Benji is "old enough to ask the questions, and young enough that he hasn't yet answered them."
He nonetheless struggles with the role that Judaism plays in his life as a gay man, especially when Rabbi Zuckerman becomes his friend. As the interaction deepens between the men, Benji analyzes his own sense of Jewish identity. Why, for instance, does he have a predilection for dating blond, non-Jewish men? Like Hoffman, Benji eventually chooses to embrace those parts of his religious heritage that nurture him, and not feel compelled to embrace all aspects of it.
"Saying that you don't believe in the letter of the law does not mean that none of it can have any meaning," said Hoffman.
Eventually Benji tests the fabric of this intergenerational alliance and reveals his sexual orientation to his Orthodox friend. Benji learns that the rabbi also harbors conflicts with the unyielding tenets of his religion where love is concerned – in his case, with a woman he met while caring for his terminally ill wife. Both individuals are in need of healing from the wounds inflicted by Jewish dogma.
What of Hoffman's own current relationship with Judaism? It is, as they say, complicated. For the past decade, the unwavering atheist has drawn a paycheck working for the august Forward newspaper, and currently he is deputy editor of Nextbook Press, publisher of the Jewish Encounters book series.
"It's true, I don't go to synagogue, but I spend 40 hours a week as a professional Jew. I have a place in the Jewish community, and this is it."
The topic of his second novel differs greatly from that of his debut, 2006's Hard, a brash, darkly funny tale about creeping conservatism in NYC's gay community during the 1990s, when sex clubs and bathhouses were under fire. Neither book is autobiographical, said Hoffman. "Hard was a more direct translation of real life into fiction, and Sweet is much more a mosaic interpretation."
Hoffman said much of Judaism still rejects gay people, even as progress has been made in the last decade. "But that doesn't erase the past," he said. As for romance, Hoffman's partner since college, journalist Mark Sullivan, is a blond Irish Catholic.
To support his new novel, Hoffman plans a book tour, and hopes to appear not only at bookstores, but at Jewish synagogues and religious conferences.
And what of Hoffman's status as an atheist, albeit an atheist with a religious novel under his belt?
"Unchanged," he said. "Very much unchanged.
Hoffman reads from Sweet Like Sugar on Tues., Oct. 18, 7:30 p.m. at Books Inc, 2275 Market St., SF. On Wed., Oct. 19, he reads at 8 p.m. at Smack Dab, the monthly open mike night at Magnet, 4122 18th St., SF.