From the banks of the Susquehanna.
(Not pictured: 312 naked men.)
This week I write from the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, from an old house that was the northernmost southern stop on the Underground Railroad, where I am surrounded by 312 or so naked gay men. It is a naturist retreat and I'm here to perform - in costume of course - with the Kinsey Sicks. In eighteen years of performance, it's our first nudist gig (how many people ever get to say that sentence?). But Debbie Reynolds once said to us (this is also true), "Never turn down work, girls. I never have." And so we always say yes, and every gig is an adventure, this one perhaps more than many.
I'd like to think I am no prude. I make much of my living on stage with a group that sings some of the bawdiest lyrics I've ever heard. And as for nudity, I'm no stranger to the various hot springs of Northern California. And I've attended queer retreats that were relaxed in their dress code, with nudity breathing easily alongside feather headdresses and crinoline petticoats. But this is the first environment I've ever been in where nudity has been the norm and the requirement, and I'm finding myself more squeamish than I'd like to admit. I confess I've struggled most at meal times, seeing the men lined up to take food in the dining hall. I try not think it, but the thoughts come unbidden: too many genitalia at the buffet; too much pubic hair at chafing dish level. Yes, I talk a good game against body shame, but when it boils down to it I am deeply grateful for the layer of denim that typically separates me from dinner.
More of concern is that I find myself unexpectedly judgmental about this whole enterprise. Being in just your skin in the open air feels great; while walking from hot tub to cold plunge it seems logical. But organizing a 10-day retreat around the principle of not wearing clothes seems a little, well, immoderate to me. Yes, your clothes are off, I think, but what next? What is it about this experience that makes it worth the money and the travel? Is it just about breaking with convention? The fun and triumph of being a bad boy? Can nudity in itself really form the basis of a group identity? Enough so that you'll show up year after year to strip down to your tattoos?
Group identity, the quality of "belonging," is a tricky thing. This week's parashah is called Pinchas (which in Biblical Hebrew probably means "mouth of brass" but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out this week that in Modern Hebrew it could be read as "Penis? Heaven forbid!"). The portion has a variety of components to it, but in a certain way they all point toward the sometimes ritualistic and sometimes brutal project of forging group identity.
The portion opens on the heels of the vicious slaying of an Israelite man and his Midianite wife by Aharon's grandson, Pinchas. This murder comes during a terrible plague among the Israelites, and also during a period of some significant potential social change. There is boundary blur between the Israelites and the neighboring Moabites, a blur that involves both sex and idolatry. God, a rather formidable wounded spouse, demands recompense for the infidelities, and requires that the offenders literally be hung out to dry (and whan I say "literally" I mean "literally"). But when this particular Israelite and his Midianite wife sashay past the tent of meeting where the Israelites are gathered, Pinchas takes justice into his own hands, following them into their chamber and impaling them together on his javelin, in an unmistakably sexual gesture. Shocking poetic justice for the crime of cultural interpenetration.
The plague immediately stops and Pinchas is now a hero and God's favorite. The reward of eternal priesthood is given him and his heirs for reinforcing the border fence around Israel's sexuality and theology, which he was apparently qualified to do as the cohen with the biggest stick.
So in this episode we see the first example of enforcing group identity: punishing those who violate it. After all, offered a choice between faithfulness to the group or death, faithfulness to the group or bodily harm, who wouldn't honestly choose the group? This is not just ancient history; we all see how identity continues to be enforced this way in gangs and in cults. But more invisible to the culture as a whole is how through violence against women, gay people, and transgender people, gender roles and norms are enforced. Those who deviate from the group identity, even in this day and age, know they run the risk of retributive justice.
As the adrenaline and the testosterone of this episode ebb, the portion moves on to another means of fostering identity: the simple act of counting. A census is held in which the tribes and clans are all named and numbered. Identifying the children of Israel and how they're connected with each other, shouting the roll call of our people, noting our numbers and our connectedness, getting a sense of group composition and continuity (these are now the descendants of those who left Egypt; not the generation of the Exodus anymore) - these seem to have real effect in any project of community building.
The portion then touches on a way to secure group identity for those most hungry for it. As the character of Roy Cohn says in Angels in America: "Hire a lawyer; sue somebody; it's good for the soul." We read here the famous story of the daughters of Tzlafchad, whose father died without leaving any male heirs to inherit his land, a situation not contemplated by the laws handed to Moshe at Sinai. The daughters bring a suit that reaches the Supreme Court: Moshe and God. This is not just a suit about particular property. It is about identity: who is an Israelite and who is not? Women had not been counted in the previous verses' census. Were these women part of the tribe or no? Belonging is their demand; real estate is just shorthand for it.
Finally, Torah illustrates one last mechanism for building group identity: the cycle of ritual. Days when pilgrimages are required; days for sacrifices; the elements of those sacrifices. The rituals involved are complicated; they involve relinquishment of meaningful property - bulls and rams and goats. Through this year-in, year-out calendar of ritual activity not shared by non-Israelite nations, a sense of identity emerges. Just as Jews sitting annually in synagogue for Yom Kippur feel Jewish, and as Jews having their annual defiant Kol Nidre cheeseburger feel Jewish. Ritual establishes and deepens group identity; it marks you as part of a people and places you safely (one hopes) within that community's arms.
Which brings me back to this gaggle of naked men whose sense of group identity I at first mistrusted. I began having some conversations with attendees. Most are my senior by fifteen years at least. One had had a promising career in the arts in New York when he was young, but gave it up to return to rural Pennsylvania to care for his ailing mother. He became a contractor and would get jobs through the union. He saw quickly the nature of group identity in that world, and how the ones perceived as gay wouldn't get the contracts or would get laid off of jobs first. Even without Pinchas and a javelin, those who didn't fit in were punished, and punished publicly. My new friend, to evade such retributive justice, invented what he called "a ghost family." I asked what he meant. He told me he invented the fiction of a wife and children who had been killed in an accident. He knew that after finding that out, no one would ask him again about his personal life, and no one did.
I thought about the fear that someone must feel to invent that particular fiction. The storyline was invented, but I suspect the pain described was not fictional at all. The implied threat against his livelihood and, probably, his personal safety, was significant. Spending decades cloaked in this story of tragedy was in itself tragic. No, he hadn't lost a family. But he had sacrificed his own truth in order to be offered the group's benefits and protection.
He retired over a decade ago and started a new era in his life. He doesn't care who knows he's gay. In this new wave of openness he found love. And he began coming to this annual retreat, where he sheds not only his clothing, but anything that remains of the lies in his life. His story may be unique. But there are 311 other unique stories here, all equally surprising and compelling: men who served in the military in the early 1960s, men who tried to be straight, men who live in small towns, men who are farmers among farmers. They come here and offer up their garb and with it all vestiges of pretense, of posturing, and of self-protection. The ghost families are released to the spheres.
And they do this every year like clockwork. This week in the woods is a mo'ed. It's a designated ritual time as real as any festival on the Jewish calendar, and more eagerly anticipated than many of them. Their sacrifices happen every year at the appointed hour. And in this ritual, in the annual get-together, in the annual accounting of who is still here and who is now gone and what is their legacy, community - identity - is formed. An outsider might wonder how not eating is sufficient to form the organizing principle of a Jewish holiday, but we on the inside know that fasting is a bodily mechanism to support work of the soul. And here, in the wilds of rural Maryland, on land surrounding a house that was a stop in the Underground Railroad, where black Americans fled retributive justice in search of real belonging, nudity itself is secondary. Here, in this spot, it is 312 souls that are bared.