Sweet Like Sugarby Wayne Hoffman
With eloquence and wit, Wayne Hoffman explores the unlikely camaraderie between a young Jewish man and an Orthodox rabbi, in this rich, insightful novel about love, honesty, faith, and belonging.
In Yiddish, there is a word for it: bashertthe person you are fated to meet. Twentysomething Benji Steiner views the concept with skepticism. But the elderly
With eloquence and wit, Wayne Hoffman explores the unlikely camaraderie between a young Jewish man and an Orthodox rabbi, in this rich, insightful novel about love, honesty, faith, and belonging.
In Yiddish, there is a word for it: bashertthe person you are fated to meet. Twentysomething Benji Steiner views the concept with skepticism. But the elderly rabbi who stumbles into Benji's office one day has no such doubts. Jacob Zuckerman's late wife, Sophie, was his bashert. And now that she's gone, Rabbi Zuckerman grapples with overwhelming grief and loneliness.
Touched by the rabbi's plight, Benji becomes his helperdriving him home after work, sitting in his living room listening to stories. Their friendship baffles everyone, especially Benji's sharp-tongued, modestly observant mother. But Benji is rediscovering something he didn't know he'd lost. Yet the test of friendship, and of both men's faith, lies in the difficult truths they come to share. With each revelation, Benji learns what it means not just to be Jewish, but to be fully humanimperfect, striving, and searching for the pieces of ourselves that come only through another's acceptance.
"A story that is beautifully told, profound and funny." Jonathan Rosen, author of Joy Comes In The Morning
"A stirring story about the face of love on many different levels." Carolyn Hessel
"An unforeseen tale of friendship and faith." Dave King, author of The Ha-Ha
Wayne Hoffman is a writer and editor whose cultural reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, The Forward, The Advocate, and elsewhere. Wayne is currently deputy editor of Nextbook Press. He lives in New York City and the Catskills.
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Sweet Like Sugar
By WAYNE HOFFMAN
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Wayne Hoffman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI was looking at Internet porn when the rabbi opened my door.
It wasn't as sordid as it sounds. I wasn't some yeshiva boy caught performing an unholy act. And he wasn't even my rabbi. Just a rabbi. An old, white-bearded man who had other things to worry about.
Still, I was startled when my office door opened without a knock and even more surprised to see the rabbi. He stood on the threshold, hand on the doorknob, breathing slowly and deliberately, wordless. I glanced down at the picture on my screen, a young shirtless guy—his hair thick and black, his teeth large and white, his eyes filled with devilish desires; his posture suggested complete confidence, his physique total vanity. I glanced up at the rabbi: ashen, hunched over, weak on his feet; his belly was bloated, his hair thin and dull, his expression a museum of sadness. One a man, the other also a man. I looked down again and switched off the monitor.
As I stood up from my desk, I saw Mrs. Goldfarb behind the rabbi. She craned her neck and peeked over his shoulder.
"Benjamin," she said to me, "I'm sorry to bother you, but Rabbi Zuckerman is feeling a bit faint. Do you think he could lie down on your couch for a few minutes?"
Nobody had called me Benjamin for years. I'd gone by Benji since junior high. But Mrs. Goldfarb still thought of me as one of her second-grade Hebrew school students, and to her, I'd always be Benjamin.
"Of course," I said, although this was a somewhat odd request. The rabbi owned the Jewish bookstore in the front of the shopping center, where Mrs. Goldfarb worked as the manager. But in the six months since I'd opened my office in the back of the shopping center, neither of them had ever stepped inside. Mrs. Goldfarb at least waved if she walked by my window on her way to the parking lot and she'd say hello if we bumped into each other at lunchtime in the sandwich shop several doors down. The rabbi had never given me more than a passing nod. Even now.
Mrs. Goldfarb gently nudged him forward, and I took him by the elbow, lifting his hand from the doorknob and leading him slowly toward the sofa. He lowered himself onto a cushion and then, with a labored groan, raised his legs onto the couch and turned his body to lie down on his back, his black lace-up shoes still on. He closed his eyes, one hand on his chest clutching his silver-framed spectacles, the other at his side holding his black knit yarmulke.
"I think he's just overheated," Mrs. Goldfarb said to me. "Our air-conditioning isn't working so well and the store gets very hot on a sunny afternoon. I'm sure he'll be fine after he lies down for a few minutes. Is it okay if I leave him here with you?"
"Sure," I said, not seeing any choice.
Mrs. Goldfarb turned to the rabbi. "You just relax here. I'm going back to mind the store, but I'll come check on you in a little while. Tell Benjamin if you need anything." Without opening his eyes, the rabbi feebly waved her off.
Mrs. Goldfarb walked out the door, and I followed her onto the sidewalk.
"Are you sure he's all right?" I asked. "He looks awful."
"Rabbi Zuckerman is a very stubborn man," she said, pausing to light a cigarette. "He started feeling dizzy about an hour ago. I told him to go to a doctor, or at least go home, but he wouldn't. Then I remembered seeing a couch in your office, right in the window, and I thought maybe he'd agree to lie down there. He didn't at first, but when he lost his balance and almost knocked down a whole bookshelf, I insisted."
"What should I do if he gets worse?" I asked.
She took a deep drag and exhaled slowly. "Just run and get me, Benjamin," she said. "I'll handle it. I don't mean to bother you—"
"Oh, it's not a bother. I'm just worried about him," I said, even though, truly, I was mostly worried that he'd bother me: snoring or throwing up on my couch, or simply, with his rabbinical presence, preventing me from surfing for more porn.
The porn, incidentally, was for a project I was working on. A legitimate, work-related project. A new bar called Paradise had opened in D.C. and the owners were looking for a graphic designer to create an advertising campaign that would make the place seem sexy. I was hunting for semi-naked photos for a mock-up ad I planned to pitch them. That's why, on an otherwise ordinary Monday in June, in my little suburban office, I was looking at dirty pictures. Until the rabbi appeared.
The rabbi didn't move when I went back inside. I switched off the overhead light and muted the sound on my computer.
He didn't move when the telephone rang, but I shot up from my chair with a start and grabbed it on the first ring. It was Michelle, my roommate.
"It's over, for real this time," she said, skipping "hello" altogether. "You will totally not even believe what he said to me this morning."
Looking over at the rabbi, who appeared undisturbed, I whispered into the phone, "I can't talk right now. I'll call you back later."
"Benji, I can't even hear you. What did you say? What's going on?"
"I can't talk right now," I whispered again, a bit louder. "I've got to go. There's a rabbi on my couch."
"A what on your couch? A what?"
I placed the receiver back in its cradle, turned off the ringer, and checked Rabbi Zuckerman. He was asleep.
When I turned my monitor on, the nearly naked man was still there. Glancing over at the rabbi, I closed that window and started working on a different job instead: an album cover for a friend's band, where everyone kept their clothes on.
"How long did he sleep?" Michelle asked that evening as we stood at the kitchen counter, scooping Chinese carryout onto her Corelle dishes.
"Not that long. Maybe an hour."
"That sounds seriously creepy, Benji," she said. "Some sick old man passed out on your couch. You don't even know him."
She was picking the water chestnuts out of her shrimp lo mein and putting them on my plate, like she always did.
"I know who he is," I said.
I cut the egg roll down the middle and put half on her plate.
"Yeah, but you don't really know him," she said. "It's just weird. You're not the school nurse. What if he died right there in your office?"
"He wasn't about to die," I protested. "I was just doing Mrs. Goldfarb a favor. It was no big deal."
Michelle stared at me with a cockeyed expression that said, "Give me a break."
"Besides," I said, "it's the closest I've gotten to sleeping with a man in months."
She cracked a grin and bit into her half of the egg roll.
We each grabbed a bottle of Amstel Light—we were watching our figures—and headed to the living room to finish our dinner.
Michelle spent most of the meal talking about the latest minidrama with her boyfriend, Dan. The current spat was over the Fourth of July: They'd made plans to spend the day together downtown, having a picnic by the Jefferson Memorial and watching the fireworks on the Mall, but that morning, scarcely a week before the holiday, Dan had invited a few of his buddies to join them.
"I told him I thought we were going to spend the day together," she said. "And he says, 'Well, we still are spending it together.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, together with your friends.' And he's like, 'What's wrong with my friends?' I mean, is he for real?"
"What is wrong with his friends?"
"God, not you, too. Don't you get it?"
"I get it, he's being dense." "He's just being a typical guy. I didn't think Dan was like
everyone else I dated, but maybe they're all the same once you get to know them."
"Guys," she clarified.
"Hello? I'm a guy, remember?"
She gave me that cockeyed look again. "You're not a guy."
I raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, shut up, you know what I mean," she said.
I did know what she meant. And, unfortunately, she was right about guys as far as I could tell, which explained why, five years after we graduated from the University of Maryland, Michelle and I were still living together in the suburban apartment we'd only planned to share for one year, tops. That's why, even though we were both what most people would consider attractive—no gruesome disfigurements, no missing teeth or fingers, no prominent warts—neither of us had managed to hold on to a boyfriend for more than four months. That is, until Michelle met Dan, who had lasted nearly eight months so far, and actually did seem different from everyone else she had dated, meaning that he was the first one I honestly liked.
She vented about Dan while I ate my lo mein; my role in these situations was simply to listen and nod sympathetically until I was prompted for a response. I had cleaned my plate by the time she was done talking.
"Sometimes I wonder if it's even worth it," she said, working toward some kind of conclusion. That was my cue.
"I think Dan's pretty great," I offered.
That was all it took to set Michelle off on a new speech, recounting Dan's many virtues: He likes football, he's open to foreign films, he's a great kisser. Soon she was taking back most everything she'd said just moments before and vowing to work out some kind of compromise for the Fourth of July.
"Do the picnic with his friends during the day," I suggested, "but make it just the two of you for the fireworks at night. That's the only part that really seems like a date."
She pondered this for a second.
"That sounds like it'd be okay," she said. "You're always so good at figuring this stuff out."
"Then why am I still single?" I asked.
"Nobody's good enough for you," she answered. She stood up, leaving most of her dinner on the coffee table, and walked toward her bedroom. "I'm going to call Dan right now and see what he thinks about your idea."
"I'll see you later then," I said. "I'm going out."
She stopped and turned to me. "Got a hot date?"
"It's for a job. I'm going to Paradise, that bar I told you about. I'm working on an ad campaign for them and I want to see what the place looks like at night."
"All right, but not too late," she said, pretending to be my mom. "You've got work in the morning."
* * *
Artists and theologians have offered many different visions of Paradise, but none, to my knowledge, has involved vertical blinds. Nonetheless, vertical blinds were the defining feature of this newest interpretation, located just north of Dupont Circle on Connecticut Avenue.
Looking at the full-length front windows from the sidewalk outside, I could only make out fragments of men between the white plastic strips: a tattooed bicep framed by the sleeve of a clingy T-shirt, pale legs sticking out of the summer's most fashionable drawstring shorts, a face bearing the sloppy smile that comes from too many two-for-one shots of Absolut Citron.
Inside, the pieces came together. Dance music pumped at a volume just quiet enough to have a conversation, but loud enough to keep an older crowd away. The lights were dimmed to a flattering level, but still allowed patrons to check one another out with some degree of discrimination. The place smelled of beer and new plastic and CK One.
An inexperienced observer might have called the crowd homogenous: Men in their twenties and thirties—there were no women, none—milled about alone, or in groups of two and three. Haircuts ranged from short to very short; waistlines all seemed to be between thirty and thirty-two inches; clothes were casual yet uniformly neat and unrumpled; everyone was clean-shaven except for four men with identical soul patches. Three bartenders—all shirtless, hairless, and ever-so-slightly gym-sculpted—were nearly impossible to tell apart. And the crowd was overwhelmingly white, despite the fact that Washington was an overwhelmingly black city.
But someone like me, more familiar with D.C.'s gay bar scene, could see the room's diversity—a pierced eyebrow here, a leather armband there. A group of deaf boys signed to one another in the corner, near a bank of televisions showing music videos. One young man's wrinkle-free black T-shirt said "Support Our Troops—Impeach Bush" in white letters, while another man's white T-shirt bore a caricature of Hillary Clinton—the odds-on favorite in the 2008 presidential election, which was still more than a year away—and said "Another Clinton? Just Say No." People's shoes were sure indicators Of who lived downtown (funky black shoes) and who lived in the suburbs (tan workboots), who worked by day as a personal trainer (scuffed sneakers) and who was a congressional aide (same sneakers, no scuffs). It was a veritable melting pot, albeit in a very limited, D.C. kind of way.
I stood against a black brick wall in my cuffed jeans and tan workboots, sipping a rum and Diet Coke, taking mental notes about the space and the crowd, while I waited for Phil.
We'd been friends for years. Bar buddies, actually, meaning that we only ever saw each other at bars—I'd been to his studio exactly twice, briefly, and he'd never ventured across the District line to visit me, or for any other reason as far as I knew. But we were good companions: We kept an eye out for each other, each making sure the other wasn't too drunk, too lonely, or being hassled by some loser. We were well suited for this kind of relationship, because we liked each other but weren't attracted to each other, had similar taste in bars but different taste in men.
"This is an unexpected surprise," he said, clinking his beer bottle against my glass. "Out? On a school night? You?"
"I've got homework," I said,
"If this is your homework, I can't wait to help you cram for your finals."
I could always count on Phil to meet me for a drink, no matter what night it was; he lived in the middle of Dupont Circle, so for him, going to a bar usually involved a three-minute walk down the block. When I'd called him at the last minute to say I was headed to Paradise, he didn't hesitate. "Sounds heavenly," he said. "See you in an hour."
We stood side by side, both surveying the crowd while we chatted without making eye contact. Phil told me about the new guy he'd been dating.
"I just saw you a week and a half ago," I said. "When did you meet him?"
"Three nights ago," he said. "But it's serious."
I'd heard this before. But I listened again, knowing I shouldn't bother committing the guy's name to memory for at least another week.
"And how about you?" Phil asked. "Any new guys?"
"Nope," I said.
He gestured at a man standing at the bar. Blond, cute, wearing an Izod shirt and sipping something pink from a martini glass.
"Get a load of that one," said Phil.
"I thought you and this new guy were serious."
"Not for me, dummy, he's not my type," he said. "But he's right up your alley. Blond, just the way you like them. And he's checking you out."
Phil was right. And, like a good bar pal, he quickly made himself scarce so the blond at the bar could come over and talk to me.
"Do you go to Washington Sports Club?"
That was his opening line.
"I'm sorry, what?" I asked.
"The gym up the street," he said. "Have I seen you there?"
I didn't belong to that gym, and he probably didn't, either, but it was an easy enough way for him to start a conversation. It worked. Within twenty seconds, we were facing each other, talking about things other than the gym. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Phil give me the thumbs-up from across the bar and then he slipped out the door.
I had to work in the morning, and I lived a half hour away in Maryland, so this was just idle flirtation, not a pickup situation. But we spent the next hour talking about Mister Izod's job (paralegal), his recent move (from North Carolina), his last boyfriend (a pothead with bad credit). We didn't get around to me, somehow; I'm better at listening and he didn't ask many questions.
He did walk me back to my car, though. Before I got in, he gave me his phone number and e-mail address. And a kiss. And a promise to chat later in the week.
The traffic lights on Sixteenth Street are perfectly timed: If you go above or below the speed limit, you'll hit red lights at least a dozen times, but if the street is clear and you travel precisely at the limit, green lights will greet you at every intersection. I set my Corolla's cruise control to coast at thirty miles per hour and let my mind wander as I rode the hills of Northwest Washington, past the churches and Rock Creek Park and the stone-fronted homes.
When I started the drive, I was thinking about Mister Izod, what we might plan for the upcoming weekend, and what I'd wear.
Excerpted from Sweet Like Sugar by WAYNE HOFFMAN Copyright © 2011 by Wayne Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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I found this book facinating. The characters are so in depth, the story is passionate, moving, funny and deep. I absolutely loved it. I was so interested in what what happening to each character and everytime a new character was introduced it was done so with the same care and energy that you had no choice but to care about what was happening to them. Now I am not Jewish and there were terms I was unfamiliar with, but it did not take away from the story, in fact it makes me a little more interested in the subject. I highly recommend this book, it is one of the best I have read this year, it is so deeply moving, yet also light and quick that it is a must read this fall.
Benjamin Steiner grew up in a traditional (though just "almost Kosher") Jewish home in the DC suburbs. Now in his mid 20's, and openly gay, he feels disconnected from his family, his religion and - to some extent - his life, as he struggles to get his graphic design business going while placating his parents with participation in the Passover Seder. A man comes into his life, but not exactly what Benjamin had been hoping for. Benjamin becomes a helper and listening ear to an 80-year old widowed Orthodox rabbi who lives near his office, a relationship that his family and friends don't understand, but seems to fill a need on some level. They become a teacher to each other, as the rabbi helps the young man understand Judaism as a way of life rather than just a religion. Benjamin tries to help the stubborn rabbi adapt to a more relaxed approach to traditional teachings, including reconciliation with a person from his past, and a revelation that a gay person can still be a good Jewish man. Though I'm not Jewish, the book resonated with me on many levels, in the way that gays and lesbians try to reconcile their childhood experiences and lessons with the life we find available to us. The author treats a sensitive, relatable subject with intelligence, realistic emotion and a positive outlook toward what we can accomplish. Well written and much recommended, five stars out of five. - Bob Lind, Echo Magazine
Enjoyed the storyline and the conflicts between the rabbi and the main character. Loved the ending.
I Thought Sweet Like Sugar was the best book I've read in a long time. I loved the dialog and Benji, the central Character's, struggle with his Jewish faith. His struggle is something I connected with in a strong way. I think anyone raised in a religious home - even a modestly religious home - be it Jewish, Christian, Moslem - struggle with those teachings as you get older. I found myself in tears in many places as Benji experiences some surprising and unexpected realities from the people around him. It's a wonderful book.
Hoffman, Wayne. "Sweet Like Sugar", Kensington Books, 2011. "The Look of Love" Amos Lassen I became a Wayne Hoffman fan after reading his novel "Hard" and have been anxiously awaiting another book from him. Finally we have one and it is one of the most beautiful books that I have ever read (and I read a lot). Hoffman manages to combine my two favorite topics-Judaism and gay life-in the most sublime of ways and written in glorious prose. I began the book on a Friday morning and did not leave my chair until I finished it Friday evening (with the exception of a few moments in which I shot Hoffman an email to let him know how much I was enjoying his book). The theme of the faces of love that he uses is not new and could easily fall into melodrama or cliché but it goes nowhere near either. We start off meeting Benji Steiner, a twenty-something year old gay Jewish male who feels that his destiny might not hold love for him and he is indeed skeptical about meeting his soul mate. Then something very strange happens that changes his life forever. Steiner has am office at the same mall as Rabbi Jacob Zuckerman has his Jewish book store. The heat of the summer causes the Rabbi to tire easily and he uses the couch in Steiner's office for rest. As he comes to the office, a camaraderie develops between the two and through this each man gains new understanding about "love and faith and honesty and belonging." Coming from an Orthodox Jewish family myself, I could easily relate to the novel-so much so that it was eerie at times. I was raised with the Yiddish idea of "bashert"-that there is an ideal mate for everyone and we will know when we find him or her. Like Steiner I was distrustful that it would ever happen, unlike Steiner it never did (or hasn't yet). Rabbi Zuckerman had his "bashert" in his wife Sophie who died. The Rabbi had a hard time dealing with the feelings of loneliness and grief. Benji Steiner realizes this and the two men build a beautiful friendship from which both men profit. What is so interesting is that the Jewish religion has so many mysteries and is so beautiful that many do not realize what they have missed until after it is gone. In many cases, American Jews have become so assimilated that the religion becomes a twice a year affair. Being Jewish is not just a religion, for me, at least. It is a way of life that I have always adhered to and have always been proud of. Couple that with being and I can either have the best or worst of two worlds, depending on how you look at it. I think I have the best (or did until I came to Arkansas where both lifestyles are somewhat foreign). Reading about Benji Stein brought back so many memories that I actually thought that I might have been reading about myself. One knows he is alive when he faces truth and both Stein and the rabbi reach that point together. As they move toward that. We see hope fate brings two very different people together and how we are both united and divided by religion. We also see that sometimes the prejudices we hold can disappear with learning about or from another person. Benji Stein felt alienated from others because of his religion yet it also allowed him to feel connected to others. Interestingly enough I am writing this review during Passover, 2011 and Passover is the perfect example of what Benji experiences. The beautiful thing about the holiday is that when I sit down to Seder everywhere in the world Jews are doing exactly