The Book of Jonah

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Written by Karen Taylor, a first-time Jewrotica writer. This piece is dedicated to Larry Kramer.

[Editor’s note: Today is Yom HaShoah and today’s piece on Jewrotica deals with the concept of loss – albeit a very different kind of loss. For a piece that more directly relates to Yom HaShoah, check out Surviving. Also, note that “The Book of Jonah” contains references to the Biblical character Jonah, a prophet who was swallowed by a large fish according to legend.]

Rated PGThirty years. Thirty years since that first ugly story appeared in the New York Times: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.”

The years that followed were, well… I watched friends, colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors transform into skeletal, frightened men smelling of vomit and despair. Nurses dressed for radiation attacks who refused to clean up after patients whose disease may – or may not – be infectious.

And the equally agonizing family conversations in stark white hospital rooms. “Mom, Dad, I am gay. And I have AIDS.” Decades later, grandparents and great-grandparents still considered being gay a death sentence. Politicians, safely kept in place by those frightened, angry parents, preached hate, threatened punishment, and played God, deciding who was innocent and who was guilty, who should live and who should die.

Jonah was one of the few who refused to succumb to helplessness. “Choose Life,” had been drummed into him from an early age. Relentless, he organized friends and allies into marches and demonstrations, shouting “Justice, justice!” Even as his friends fell around him, dying in his arms, he fought back tears as he cleaned their bruised, wasted bodies, promised them that he would continue the fight, repeating the kaddish over and over.

The rabbis say that we recite the mourners’ kaddish to magnify the name of Hashem, so as to fill the gap in our souls when we lose a loved one. Thirty years later, Jonah couldn’t say it enough to fill the gaps in his soul. The thousands of ghosts that hovered on his walk to and from his apartment have faded, leaving only a bleak void. Sometimes he could fill that void with hot anger, anger that pushed him out into the streets, fueling his speeches, until he staggered home, wrung dry from the surge of emotion, to a dark and empty apartment, where whispers of memories haunted the corners.

Sometimes he considered himself lucky. How could he not? He is alive, when so many are not. But luck had left him growing old and alone, in a community that values youth. They spoke about him and his generation in the past tense. They still get infected. He watched the children who grew up not knowing a time when sex and illness were not tied together. And he grieved for them, too.

When he got a call from one of the small upstate colleges to give a speech on World AIDS Day, something finally cracked inside Jonah. Thirty years. Thirty years of fear, and pain, and righteous anger. Thirty years of losing the people he loves, the people he didn’t have time to get to know, the people he would never know. He’s spoken in front of bored-looking medical students, received commendations from two-faced politicians, and exhorted young queers to take charge of their sex lives.

He considered his options. Thirty, even twenty years ago, he would have gone. Ten years ago, he would have dashed off an email dripping with acidic comments, which would have been published in the local gay magazine, with editors either rationalizing his venom as the words of an elder statesman, or claiming he was a crazy maverick without contemporary relevance.

As if AIDS is now past tense.

“Fuck it,” he muttered. “I’m going to Tarshish. “

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