Recent Comments

    Hanukkah: Shaken with a Southern Baptist Twist

    Photo By Christopher Turner

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    The announcement that this issue of the San Francisco Bay Times would include features on Hanukkah and food put a huge smile on this face. Both have played important roles in my life. I decided to pass on the food option. After one year in San Francisco, my doctor asked, “Are you just eating your way through the city?” Still am. I’m far from being an expert on Hanukkah, but the Jewish holiday, the friend who introduced it to me, and its lessons have changed my life forever. The Festival of Lights shed a light on me.

    It’s also about memetics: many lasting ideologies are propagated in spite of truth or logic. Beliefs that survive aren’t necessarily true. They survive because they are good at surviving.

    It was a swelteringly hot, late August, in 1963. A young teenage misfit entered the halls of McClean Junior High School in Fort Worth, Texas, for 7th grade—sometimes known as pubescent hell. He felt “different” in so many ways: chubby, glasses, braces, some skin “issues.” He was not comfortable in his own skin, but at least was smart and witty. There were lots of reasons to feel different and outcast. Even worse, his big brother was in the 9th grade. He was a cool kid and wouldn’t acknowledge they were related.

    That young man was me. It didn’t take long to find people like myself hanging out at the corner of the playground—awkward, uncomfortable, frightened. One of the new clan was named Alan Hamill. He, too, shared the things that made us “other,” except the pimples. But he had something else on his “other” list. He was Jewish in the Land o’ Baptists. Oy. I was equal parts fascinated and wary.

    It was an instant friendship. We bonded over lots of things, including our shared dislike for all things sports and the dreaded locker room before P.E. We became BFF’s. There were sleepovers, but never anything inappropriate. On Saturday mornings, instead of playing tag football, Alan introduced me to the finer things in life at the local retail outlet: Neiman Marcus. 

    Life was good. In fact, as 9th grade approached, we decided to try out for cheerleader (yes, there were boys on the squad). Shockingly, we made it! It was fantastic being that close to the football players on the bench—or is it the dugout? There are no pictures to share, because my cousin’s boyfriend burned our house to the ground the month before I went to college. (That is a tease for another article.)

    Alan’s family accepted me with open arms. His parents owned the Westcliff Hardware and Gift Shop. They celebrated Christmas at the store and Hanukkah at home. I went to my first Jewish wedding—his sister’s. They introduced me to noodle kugel, latkes and Carshon’s Deli. I loved it all. I loved them.

    For all the wonderful shared discoveries, there was one dramatic and confusing difference. Alan’s religion didn’t believe in hell. Mine told me that Alan was most assuredly going straight there.

    The repetition of that dogma was constant. For me, there was something wrong with a religion that would send my best friend to hell. And yet it was simply a fact that was repeated over and over and was unquestioned by any of the people in my life. It became my truth.

    We remained friends through high school. We graduated in 1969 and went our separate ways. Alan went off to college in Boston, Massachusetts; I went to Abilene, Texas. Before departing, I wrote Alan a goodbye letter. I told him how much his friendship had meant to me. That was just the intro. The purpose of the letter was to tell him that my greatest failure in life up to that point was not being able to bring him to a saving knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I hoped that he would someday experience salvation so we could both go to heaven—because that was not where he was headed. Alan never acknowledged receipt of my letter, and communication ceased suddenly and completely.

    Fast forward almost twenty years. I had come out and found myself in Dallas, Texas, conducting the gay men’s chorus. It was 1987. I had found my logical family. One day, I asked a chorus member for a recommendation for a physician in Dallas. He said, “I have the best Doctor in the world. His name is Alan Hamill.”

    I didn’t know what to do. Should I contact him? Did he hate me for my ignorance and arrogance? Embarrassed, I called. He immediately set me at ease. He welcomed me to his practice and into his life with the same openness and warmth his family had shown me some 25 years earlier. No guilt. No blame. No hellfire.

    He had become the most amazing holistic physician. He was a light in the entire community. He understood the healing power of music as well. It was amazing having my junior high BFF as my doctor. Ten years later, Alan abruptly announced he was closing his practice. He had full-blown AIDS and could no longer care for others. He needed to care for himself. Within 6 months, Alan was gone.

    I was honored to be included in the huge tribute to Alan’s life at his home synagogue in Fort Worth. I was not prepared for what I experienced. One person after another stood to share stories of this beautiful gay man. Others spoke to the tragedy of lives taken too soon by the AIDS pandemic. These people celebrated the whole person I had known and loved. Nothing was hidden. No shame. Just broken hearts missing him. Hell was not mentioned.

    By that point, I had already been to countless funerals for my friends who had died. The vast majority never mentioned that the person who had passed was gay, had AIDS or left behind grieving partners, longtime companions whose names were never mentioned. Many turned into rip-roaring, Bible-thumping revival services. Note to husband Dan: Don’t even think about allowing such a thing!

    My “truth” about who was going to hell and who was not was shattered by my Hanukkah-celebrating chosen family. I decided to join them in their belief that there is no hell—except the one we manage to create on earth.

    Now, my apology. I tricked you. The article wasn’t so much about Hanukkah. Sorry about that. It was about a story brought to mind by thinking about Hanukkah—the precious memory of a best friend whose life and faith changed mine.

    For me, it was a miracle! It didn’t last 8 days, but 50 years. As we all celebrate Hanukkah this season, I will light a candle for Alan and thank him for the light his life poured onto and into mine. It will be a festival, of the best kind. And I’ll probably head to Miller’s East Coast Deli!

    I have been changed for good.

    Happy Hanukkah.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.