How I wrote “For Unexpected Intimacy”

A118 unexpected

Written by Andrew Ramer. Over his desk, maggid Andrew Ramer keeps these words from Kafka: “Writing is prayer.” A Midrashist and Liturgist, his most recent book is Queering the Text: Biblical, Medieval, and Modern Jewish Stories. For more Jewrotica writing by Andrew, check out Lecha Dodi and Ritual Observance.

Rated PG-13One Friday evening after the service at Sha’ar Zahav, while we were still working on our amazingly beautiful and marvelously inclusive new siddur, five people cornered me in the sanctuary, two twenty-something lesbians and three fifty-something gay men, all with the same sexual politics. It was during the time that same-sex marriage was legal in California and they wanted to know if the siddur was going to be an assimilationist text reflecting heteronormative monogamous marriage values, or if the siddur was going to represent the range of our lives as queer people.

That small cohort approached me because I was one of the section editors of the siddur project, its writing coach, and also because I am known to be a non-Zionist anti-circumcision big-mouthed kind of a guy who has written about gay sex and queer values. I assume they believed that I was a sexual ally. In truth, my inclinations are quite monogamous (not that I haven’t had my little flings and adventures), but I assured the five that my commitment was to help craft a siddur that tells the truth about who we are.

About two weeks after that conversation I woke up in the middle of the night with the words for a blessing in my head. I wrote them down, went back to sleep, got up, typed them into my computer, added a title, “A Blessing for Having Anonymous Sex,” and submitted it to the siddur’s editorial committee. I was sure that they would reject it, and was ready to go back to the five and say, “Hey, I did the best I could, and now it’s in your hands.” To my immense surprise the committee said, “Even those of us who are opposed to the concept of anonymous sex loved the words of your blessing. We agreed to include it in the siddur, but…would you be willing to change the title?”

Had I known what trouble that short blessing was going to cause I would have said, “Not only won’t I change the title; I’m going to withdraw the piece.” Instead, I came up with four new titles (three of which I don’t remember) and from that short list they chose “A Blessing for Unexpected Intimacy,” which became “A Kavanah for Unexpected Intimacy,” and appears in the siddur as simply, “For Unexpected Intimacy.”

Andy Warhol wrote, “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” I have described the article written about those words for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as “my fifteen minutes of infamy.” I can understand why their writer would choose to focus on the most sensational text in the fifty or so pages that he was sent; journalists do that. But it was a horrible time for me and my congregation, as his article was picked up by Jewish presses, communities, and individuals around the world. If you do a search for “Unexpected Intimacy,” you can read this piece and the many comments it elicited, most of them hateful, hostile, or somewhere in between. And while I’ve heard it said that negative publicity is always the best kind, I wish I’d never written down those words in the middle of the night, or if I had written them down, I wish I’d never submitted them, and if I submitted them, I wish the editors had rejected them, and if they hadn’t rejected them, I wish they’d sent the JTA my Queer Amidah instead. Or my alternate Havdalah verse that references a female messiah (see page 508) or my blessing for being single on page 28 – a concept that still seems to me more radical in a Jewish context than one for having an encounter with a stranger. (And, where did their writer get the idea that I am politically conservative?)

Shortly after the siddur was published two gay men my age came up to me to tell me that they didn’t like the blessing. (Theirs was the only negative criticism I received to my face.) They said. “We don’t want a blessing for anonymous sex. What we like about it is that it’s raunchy, forbidden, and totally unsacred.” I was taken aback by their tone, but was able to smile and say, shaking inside, “Well, that’s easy. Just don’t keep it in your wallet with a condom, and don’t ever say it.” (Not that I imagine anyone about to have anonymous sex pausing to whisper it under their breath before going down on someone or getting pissed on. If you do or have, please let me know.)

As a monogamously inclined man (Harris did get that right) now in my sixties, I still find it ironic (and sometimes amusing) that I was the one through whom “Spirit” sent those words into the world. And it’s been interesting for me to learn to read that text through other people’s eyes. When my housemate read it he said, “If you hadn’t told me it was about anonymous sex, I would never have known. It made me think of a time when I was in the Peace Corps, and I sat down on a bus in Mali next to a man I knew I would never see again. But for the hours of our bumpy road trip, we talked in broken French like two old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years.” Another congregant told me that she’d had a conversation with a homeless woman one night on the street that made her think about the blessing. And one Friday night after the service two lesbian moms with two-month-old twins came up to me. One of them said, “When the siddur came out we read your blessing and thought, ‘Oh, those gay boys!’ But the other day my sister called to offer us an evening with the babies, along with a gift certificate to our favorite restaurant. So last night we were sitting at a beautifully set table, sleep deprived from two months of taking care of two wonderful screaming babies, alone together for the first time since they were born. We were looking at each other across the table and said – ‘Oh my God, this is Andrew’s blessing. A night of unexpected intimacy.’”

For Unexpected Intimacy

In the dark, in a strange place, our father Jacob encountered a stranger with whom he grappled all night. He never knew the stranger’s name, yet their encounter was a blessing, which turned Jacob into Israel and made him realize I have seen God face-to-face. (Genesis 32:31)

May this intimate time with another person be an encounter with angels that allows us to both touch and see the Divine. In the name of the God of Israel, who created passion and wove it throughout creation, turning strange places into holy ground and strangers into a source of blessing.

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