Sweet Like Sugar

By – October 25, 2011

Ben­ji Stein­er strad­dles the mid­dle – nei­ther obser­vant nor sec­u­lar, nei­ther inde­pen­dent nor reliant upon his par­ents, nei­ther clos­et­ed nor in a rela­tion­ship with Mr. Right.

Then the shift­less twen­ty-some­thing meets cur­mud­geon­ly and recent­ly wid­owed octo­ge­nar­i­an Rab­bi Jacob Zuck­er­man. The rab­bi encour­ages Ben­ji to take a sec­ond look at Judaism, and an unsus­pect­ing friend­ship takes root over snacks and Torah study.

Still, Ben­ji holds back. I didn’t tell him that his apple cake had got­ten stale. I didn’t tell him that I was pret­ty sure I didn’t believe in God. And I cer­tain­ly didn’t tell him that I had a date the next night – just days before Yom Kip­pur – with a tat­tooed skin­head named Frankie, a non-Jew­ish guy who was the half-naked mod­el for my lat­est ad pro­mot­ing Par­adise, a venue where homo­sex­u­als gath­ered to drink exces­sive­ly and pick one anoth­er up.”

When the rab­bi learns that Ben­ji is gay, their flour­ish­ing rela­tion­ship comes to a halt. Author Wayne Hoff­man sets the stage for the pair to real­ize they have much to learn from each oth­er about tol­er­ance, open-mind­ed­ness and inter­pret­ing the Torah.

1. Even though Ben­ji feels alien­at­ed from his Jew­ish­ness, Jew­ish hol­i­days play a large part in his sto­ry: His mem­o­ries of Passover appear in the first and last chap­ters, and in the mid­dle, he goes to syn­a­gogue for Rosh Hashanah, attends a Hanukkah par­ty, bakes haman­tashen for Purim, and flash­es back to Shab­bat ser­vices from his child­hood. What role do hol­i­days play in main­tain­ing Jew­ish iden­ti­ty – even for peo­ple who feel dis­con­nect­ed from tra­di­tion­al Judaism?2. Rab­bi Zuck­er­man tries to teach Ben­ji about Judaism, while Ben­ji tries to edu­cate the rab­bi about gay life. Who has the hard­er job? The rab­bi, who must over­come Benji’s neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences from the past if he is to suc­ceed where oth­ers have tried and failed? Or Ben­ji, who is like­ly the first per­son to speak to the rab­bi about the real­i­ties of gay life from a per­son­al, rather than reli­gious, per­spec­tive? 3. Do you believe that peo­ple are des­tined to be togeth­er? Does that only apply to roman­tic cou­ples, or oth­er kinds of rela­tion­ships, too? Is it pos­si­ble for one per­son to have more than one bash­ert? 4. Some of the clos­est rela­tion­ships in the book defy sim­ple cat­e­go­riza­tion and famil­ial labels: Irene and Rab­bi Zuck­er­man, Ben­ji and Michelle, Ben­ji and the rab­bi. How do the char­ac­ters in the book build their cho­sen fam­i­lies, and how do they try to ensure that they endure? 5. How much of the sto­ry is unique to Jews? Could a sim­i­lar sto­ry play out with non-Jew­ish char­ac­ters? How might it be different?

Discussion Questions

Twit­ter Book Club

Read from the Twit­ter Book Club for .

a tran­scriptSweet Like Sug­ar

Read Wayne Hoff­man’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

A Fun­ny Thing Hap­pened — True Sto­ry!

What’s in a Name?

A Gay Jew­ish Read­ing List

Are E‑Books Kosher?