“And Thou Shalt Love” disturbed me. It’s about Ohad (Uri Lachmi), an Israeli Yeshiva student who struggles with his homosexuality.
Released in 2008, the film uses few words and many strong images. A young man immerses himself in the mikveh, the ritual bath; He says psalms, hoping for a cure, while hiding it from his fellow students. He calls, on a pay phone, a counselor from a gay conversion clinic for support to withstand his temptations.
The film has many evocative images but one image resonated deeply with me. It is an image the camera often returns to: an elastic band around the young man’s bloodied wrist. Every time he has a “homosexual inclination,” he snaps it. It’s apparently a common practice as a part of conversion therapy. I first learned of the practice from another movie, “Trembling Before G-d,” a 2001 documentary that tells the story of gay Orthodox Jews and how they deal with the conflict between their beliefs and their sexuality. But before watching “And Thou Shalt Love,” I had never had such feelings of empathy and sadness.
I am a straight man and I was watching with a straight audience — part of a fellowship for college students run by the progressive Orthodox seminary, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. But the repeated image of Ohad pulling the band around his wrist caused me great discomfort. He pulled the band constantly, in the study hall, in the courtyard, in his dorm room. His pain, his disquiet, made an impression. I wondered what that might be like. The next day I noticed a thick rubber band on my kitchen table. I put it around my wrist while I sipped my hot coffee.
Maybe it was because I have friends who have struggled with it. I met someone two years ago who went to JONAH and said it had helped him, even if he is he still gay. But most former patients tell horror stories, like the ones told by in court by victims. But the fictional film hit home for some reason, and it centered on this solitary act with the rubber band. So, while I know deep down that I will “never know what it is like,” this is my feeble attempt at trying.
After slipping it on, I pulled the band and released it so it hit me. I did it probably every 10 minutes. There was no system. But I wanted to keep doing it as a regular pace. At first, the rubber band didn’t hurt too much. Thin bands are more painful and I had a relatively thick one. But soon my wrist skin became sensitive and every snap increased the subsequent pain.
Soon, I left my house and rode the subway. But no one would be allowed to see me doing this. They can’t. It’s weird and, worse, an abomination. If I’m gay then no one can know. So I hid the band under my long-sleeved shirt and jacket and hoped no one would notice. But still, after looking around to make sure no one notices, I keep pulling and letting go. Pulling and letting go. The sound is loud, in public. The “thwack” drew attention. It’s isolating. The band separated me from everyone else.
It soon becomes painful. The sharp pain at my wrist is loud and quick, delivered right after landing. But it causes other sensations all over my body. I reflexively shudder. My fingers begin to tingle. No one around me sees this pain, further isolating me.
Wherever I went, whatever I experienced that day, I felt the band. It’s amazing how a stupid little rubber band can weigh on your soul. It’s like being told repeatedly to not think about the pink elephant in the room. You can’t.
That evening I met someone I wanted to get to know a bit better. We attended a live event where strangers ask each other questions. It was a fun and light event, with a general levity in the audience. But I felt none of that. I was stuck in my rubber band exile. At one point, I looked down at my wrist. It was red with splotches beginning to appear. I could barely speak to my friend, who luckily hadn’t noticed. The band was a scarlet letter, uninviting me from the party that the world seemed to be celebrating. The band felt less like it was around my wrist and more like it was around my neck.
At a certain point, it became rote, this process. The lifting of the jacket, the tiny rollback of the shirtsleeve, the firm grasping of the band, the pulling long enough to be painful, the letting go, the noise, the pain, the shudder, the tingling in my fingers. The pain became dull. Even the thwack sound just became part of the ambient cacophony of the city. But I still wasn’t living in the moment. The ritualization of the process didn’t pull me out of existence, but it didn’t leave me in the moment either. It placed me in purgatory, at odds with both myself and with the life around me.
At the end of the night, I was worn down. My arm was sore, my fun evening was ruined, and I felt quarantined. After getting home, I went to use the bathroom and instinctively lifted my sleeves to do it again. As I grabbed the band and pulled it, I winced, waiting for the flick of pain and the chain of bodily responses. But this time, along with that impending doom, I felt something else: anger. At the band, at myself, at the world. Unable to release it from my fingers, I pulled the band off my wrist and threw it in the trash.
I couldn’t even last one day.
For better or worse, I’m not gay. There is no way I can know what its truly like to be in that position, wanting to be straight but knowing you aren’t. Being told that who you are is an abomination that can be fixed. But I do know one thing: as a straight person, that sucked. I could stop hurting myself whenever I wanted. I knew, always, that this was an experiment. It wasn’t real. And yet, it was horrific.
But what if it wasn’t fake? If this was as uncomfortable as a daylong act of empathy, what is it like if this is your daily existence? I don’t know.
The next day, my wrist was still a bit sore. The skin is healing and no longer deep red. But the experience left an invisible mark on my soul.