I remember when I first saw the Hasidic polyamorous sword fighter at my local bar. I was astounded to see someone dressed in a kippah and wearing tzitit, drinking whisky and challenging the local patrons to sword fights. I was thinking about what kind of life trajectory let this fascinating fellow—let’s call him David—to be at this bar in Bushwick at this time. He was still clearly connected to his faith, but also living a vastly different life from others in his community.
To my delight, David described himself as an open book, and we met for a chat. Although I asked him about many components of his life, I focused most on understanding his experience with relationships and sexuality.
David was born in Brooklyn in an ultra-Orthodox community. This meant that his mother wore a wig, and his father wore a black hat and full beard. They both practiced strict adherence to rabbinical interpretation of Jewish law. During David’s childhood, there was a stark division between genders. He described how there was minimal contact between girls and boys after kindergarten, as they went to different schools and sat in different sections of the synagogue. David said that you weren’t supposed to frivolously talk or look. And you definitely could not touch someone of the other sex.
“You can’t bullshove (bullshit) with girls. If you are in the same space, you must be cordial, but keep talking to a bare minimum,” said David.
Apart from the rules about not engaging with the other sex until it was time to select a mate, there was no sex education. David remembered hearing what sex was in his teen years and thinking, “It can’t be!” He was taught that masturbation was a sin, as it involved “the destruction of the seed, which is comparable to murder,” recounted David. “The blood is on your hands as if you killed your children.” I asked how rabbis would respond when given facts about masturbation, like evidence showing that masturbation doesn’t impact your ability to impregnate a woman. David responded, “Judaism and science don’t always line up. We act the way we do because God says so. It is the rule of the King.”
David said it was easy to stick to the rules when he was young, but once puberty hit and his hormones began to have a mind of their own, it became much more difficult. He spoke about how he had a strong desire to connect with girls, and he could tell that girls also wanted to talk to him. He fought that temptation because he felt that every act he committed would defy the honor of his family and would oppose God.
During his late-teen years, David became very depressed, partially because within a few years he would begin the process of being set up with a wife. “I would sleep just to not be awake.” David explained. “Eventually it got to a point where I thought, ‘Screw this. What God wants doesn’t align with my wants, but let me have my life and my desires. I can’t live in a depressing hell because God said so.” So David decided to start dating.
He found his first couple of dates through Craigslist. David preferred to date non-Jews, because then he was only participating in one sin instead of two. David had his first kiss outside of a Starbucks. He was 22 years old. It wasn’t so much that he wanted to have sex; he just craved a real connection. He first made love to a woman that he met in a cab a few days later. He finally had the connection and meaning that he craved. The morning after, she turned to David and asked, “Do you want to be my boyfriend?” David said yes. “We never technically broke up,” David explained, “Though she got married, and now we are dear friends.”
He spoke frankly about his experience with polyamory. “We revere monogamy above the person. If you’re not monogamous, it means you don’t love me. Based on that logic, you love monogamy, not people,” said David. “It never worked for me. Every time I’ve tried it, it has turned into a cluster fuck.”
David remembers the day that his parents found out about his lifestyle. He was sitting in yeshiva—an Orthodox Jewish educational institution—and both of his parents showed up. They have 13 children, run a school and a synagogue, and are community leaders. So the fact that they were both outside of his yeshiva in the middle of the day meant trouble. Sure enough, his mother had used his computer and found pictures of David with women. He remembers his mother saying, “This is World War III, this is the Holocaust all over again.” David recalls lots of crying and screaming. Afterwards, a rift formed between David and his family.
So David decided to move to Bushwick and experience freedom. Fortunately, his family did not disown him, and with time they did what they could to accept his alternative lifestyle. Although he would not bring a date to Shabbat dinner, and his parents continued to pressure him to get married, there was less animosity as time went on.
David ideologically agrees with everything that he’s learned from the Torah. He doesn’t argue with the fundamentals or justify his behavior in the eyes of God. However, he lives a polyamorous lifestyle for his sanity. “I only eat kosher meat. But girls—non-kosher,” David jokes. “This is the only point of contention between my interests and God’s interests.”
He explained that Judaism has something to say about every action in his life, which makes it divine. “If you could prove to me God doesn’t exist, I would probably be the biggest drug addict you’ve ever seen,” David explained. “I’m sure drugs feel really good. But there’s something deeper here. Something beyond. If you aren’t aspiring to something that’s higher than you, then who cares? Without divinity there’s nothing timeless. Then the world becomes one big party. God gives me a goal to work towards.”
David continued, “I wouldn’t trade my faith for anything.” “Other than polyamory?” I joked.