Sweet Like Sugar

Kensington   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.

Discussion Questions

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?


Twitter Book Club

Read a transcript from the Twitter Book Club for Sweet Like Sugar.

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