Around 1980, I found myself in a San Francisco gripped by the deadly AIDS epidemic.
Before the plague, I had the most exquisite lifestyle by the bay. I was, by day, a happy librarian; by night, an aspiring opera singer (not especially promising, but having a great deal of fun). Then AIDS came and my gay world transformed overnight from opera hall to hospital. I watched as, all around me, party animals of every species morphed into organized, responsible, compassionate caretakers and community workers.
I became embarrassed of a lifestyle that had, it seemed, so little to do with anything of ultimate importance.
One night, devastated by the death of yet another friend, I walked miles through the city. Raised a Baptist, I flashed on a scene from the Exodus, where the Israelites paint their doorposts with lamb’s blood so the angel of death will pass them over. I thought to myself, “the angel of death is here, and I have made no sign!” I remember I even paused in front of a butcher shop as if in search of lamb’s blood. Finally, I happened across the sole Jewish bookstore in the city, and, surprised, I entered. In a glass case I saw a pretty, small box. I was told it was called a mezuzah, and that it was nailed on the doorposts of Jewish homes. I bought one, walked home, and put it up right away. It was my sign.
The mezuzah was empty, of course. I had no idea that a tiny scroll with Hebrew text was supposed to go inside. Nailing it up was, however, the beginning of a response.
Today I am a rabbi, I hope still responding.
(There are no real beginnings,