Something special happened to me the summer I turned 13. It wasn’t just that I became a teenager. As puberty progressed and hormones raced through my body, I came to grasp that I wasn’t simply becoming a man — I was starting to like men. This was the fateful summer I realized I was gay.
After school ended, I spent the first part of vacation staring at our class picture, focusing on Cindy, the girl I thought I was in love with all through seventh grade. It wasn’t very long before I caught myself looking more and more at David, my best friend, who was standing next to Cindy in the picture. I was in love. David didn’t help the situation when he gave me a new picture of himself — the picture he sent out with his bar mitzvah invitations. He was adorable in that image, his braces adding a gleaming metallic touch to his smile. But the detail I remember most was not what was in his mouth, but what was on his head: a yarmulke. I already thought he was cute; the yarmulke was like icing on the cake.
I still did all the typical guy things with my friends that summer — street hockey, movies, looking at copies of Playboy that we found in our fathers’ closets. But I enjoyed being around my guy friends for reasons I could not yet express, reasons that made me nervous. Soon, all the guys I was friends with were sending me their bar mitzvah pictures. Atop the heads of every single one of them was the glorious yarmulke, and whether it was David or Scott or Aaron or Nathan, they all looked great.
I have never had a bar mitzvah. Though raised in a heavily Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey, my family was Italian and Catholic. We were practically the only gentile family, and for a time, the only one on my street. In our little shtetl, this blending and sharing of Italian and Jewish culture was referred to as a pizza-bagel existence, and food was a big part of it. I remember my first knish, shared in the backyard with my next-door neighbor, a pretty girl everyone thought I would marry. I think I gave her a taste of her first cannoli, too.
Still, it was the boys I was more concerned with, and that miraculous summer, gifted with languages, I was chosen to help my friends practice Hebrew. I always made them wear their yarmulkes during our practice sessions, and it increasingly appeared in my fantasies about them when I went home to my goyishe family.
To this day, when I see an attractive man wearing a yarmulke, I cannot contain my excitement. I have often found myself making a beeline to such a man, hanging near him, trying to talk to him and trying to figure out if the conversation can lead to something more. I blame it on the fact that my budding homosexuality arrived in conjunction with the impending bar mitzvahs of all the boys I was in love with. Psychologically, the issue is called imprinting. For straight men it often happens with things like high heels, if, say, the first woman they had sex with was wearing red pumps. But the object of my affection is, instead, a religiously infused round piece of cloth.
And this brings me to my problem. I have never been able to indulge my fetish. Reform Jewish lovers have tried to help, offering to wear yarmulkes during the act, but that’s not the point. I have to have found the man already wearing it, and sex is supposed to come later.
When I explain my fetish to Jewish women, they look at me with an expression that suggests they either feel sorry for me or think I am a total nut. Then they break into nervous laughter, telling me they always thought of the yarmulke as something men were required to wear on holidays, and there’s nothing sexy about it.
I have gone to gay Jewish groups and Purim parties (a popular event in the gay Jewish circuit — how often do you get to dress in drag as Queen Esther and still be able to tell your Aunt Ruthie that you’re honoring your religious heritage?). But none of these efforts have worked. Most of the men at such events don’t wear yarmulkes, and I’m never attracted to the ones who do.
The ironic thing is that I am physically close to men with yarmulkes all the time, but not in the way I had hoped. I live in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. While the neighborhood is widely known for its Dominican population, my apartment is just blocks away from an Orthodox Jewish community and from Yeshiva University, which is full of handsome young specimens of yarmulke-wearing manhood.
I pray for delayed trains at the 181st Street subway station, when it’s filled with guys from Yeshiva. These students come to the university from all over the world, never knowing that in doing so, they are fueling my secret fantasies. My yarmulke fetish has been eating away at me for more than 23 years, but unfortunately, I don’t have the chutzpah to approach any of these men.
But there might be hope. This year, Jerusalem will be the host of World Pride, a global gay event. The last one was in 2000 in Italy, the country of my own heritage, and thousands of people showed up, much to the Pope’s annoyance. I am sure anyone with a gay guido fantasy had their fill at that event, even finding men dressed as Roman gladiators. I certainly did my part to help out those needy Italian-loving souls. I hope Jerusalem will return the favor, and that every gay Jew who likes to wear a yarmulke will come and show his pride in his religion, his homeland and his sexual orientation. Maybe then, I’ll finally get to fulfill my own fantasy. For now, I’m just waiting, waiting for my own personal messiah to take me to the Promised Land.
Michael T. Luongo is a freelance writer living in New York.