The day that Steve Greenberg and Steven Goldstein officially decided to pursue parenthood, they emerged from their one bedroom on New York City’s Upper West Side to find a discarded, but incredibly beautiful, antique cradle on the sidewalk outside their building. Happenstance?
Theirs is a story steeped in it.
They met on the day that the “Forward,” a leading Jewish-American newspaper, carried word that Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi, had come out of the closet. In this traditional community, a microcosm of sorts, moving inside the already small universe of Judaism, it was a very big story.
Greenberg had been inching his way out of the closet for some time under the radar. Having helped a circle of Jerusalem activists open an LGBT community center, he decided that it was time to come out publicly. While a watershed, the public annoucement was still not as big a story for Greenberg as his meeting Goldstein that very weekend.
“He was cute, smart and warm,” Greenberg says of the man a mutual friend brought over for shabbat lunch. Handy, too. Goldstein noticed the table on which they were dining was wobbly and offered to fix it, after shabbos of course. Greenberg was smitten.
“I thought about him all afternoon and was on the phone that evening orchestrating an excuse to see him.” Within weeks, it was getting serious. Within months, they moved in together.
Though both had dreamed of having a family, Greenberg had all but given it up. Goldstein – an opera singer and actor – had come of age in very different circles and thought it still possible.
“I am the child of a Holocaust survivor,” Greenberg explains. “I had chosen to become a rabbi in part as a response to the violent deaths of so many of my mother’s family. Choosing life is a profound moral calling after Auschwitz, but I couldn't imagine how parenthood would be possible for a gay man.”
Goldstein, on the other hand, had never seen his sexuality as an obstacle to parenthood. “I came into the relationship with the idea of having kids for sure,” he says. “It took me a long time to bring Steve around. He was reticent. But I always trusted that it would happen. I just wasn’t sure how.”
Options were explored. The idea of an in-house adoption visit to their small New York apartment seemed preposterous; surrogacy and all it involved was costly. Again, happenstance intervened. Goldstein’s friend called. A teaching position had opened at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, where living expenses were considerably lower. He balked at first, but decided to apply and landed the job.
Surrogacy through a clinic they’d discovered in India became the order.
“We decided to go to Mumbai for a week, meet the people at the clinic and get a feel for what we’d be doing when we came back for the baby's birth.”
They arrived on the eve of India’s very first open gay pride parade.
Prior to that point, Greenberg explains, gay relations had been a criminal offense in India. Consequently, any action taken by an employer or landlord would not be out of bounds. Until that year many people had been afraid to come to the parade, and of those that came, many wore masks to protect their identies. This year throngs attended and everyone was out and proud.
The pair even got the chance to march in it.
“We were there amid this outpouring of joy and self-affirmation with thousands of people who’d never been or who came this time, unmasked and proud. It was exhilarating!”
At the end of a healthy gestation, during which time they followed the baby’s growth with excitement, they returned days before their child would be born. At 3 a.m. on the morning after the surrogate had gone into labor, a nurse knocked on the door of their hospital room.
“You have a little girl,” she said. And Greenberg began to weep.
Amalia, now nearly 4, will explain to anyone who asks, that she was born in Mumbai. She also will tell you, that her Abba (Greenberg's moniker, Goldstein is Daddy), has promised her that she will ride an elephant in India when they go back to visit one day.
Though they’d cultivated a wonderful network of friends in Cincinnati, they determined it wasn’t the best place to raise Amalia. They’ve since moved to Boston where Goldstein has settled into a new job at the New England Conservatory of Music.
“We came to Boston in the hope of finding a better social world for Amalia,” says Greenberg, “a place where there would be people who were Sabbath-observant and welcoming to our family….”
He’s even working to build that world for others. In 2010, Greenberg and others founded Eshel. Named for the red-flowering tree that Abraham planted to signify his tent as a welcoming place, the organization is dedicated to the support, education and inclusion of LGBT Orthodox Jews in their communities.
“In the past, people came out much later – and left. But now people are coming out at younger ages and there’s a greater interest in staying connected….I’ve been pilloried in the Orthodox community for being willing to do same-sex commitment ceremonies but until we offer a reasonable Jewish life to young people who discover themselves to be gay and lesbian, we can’t actually ask them to remain committed.”
Squaring the circle between a commitment to a traditional religious community while being part of a non-traditional social reality, Greenberg, now 58, and Goldstein, 50, are raising their daughter with the assumption that her family is quite all right, knowing that at some point she may encounter people who disagree.
“I don’t think any parent struggling to make their way in a complex world gets off the hook when it comes to big questions,” says Greenberg. “There are always going to be issues where people, including those you care about, have viewpoints that you think are wrong. And you have to find a way to respect and care about them – and be confidently in disagreement with them nonetheless.”
The upcoming season of Jewish holidays, including that of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) says Greenberg, are rooted in part in the idea of making our lives and the world better.
“Deciding to be a parent is not the only way to invest in the future of humanity,” he says, “but it is a profound way to contribute to a tomorrow that you will not be around for.”
“Gay life used to be very present tense, a call to ‘celebrate the moment.’ There’s surely something sacred in that carpe diem approach. Straight folks could use a little of that “now” energy, because they often get lost in the past and the future, forgetting to live in the moment. We bring an exuberance of experience.”
However, he says, “Too many of us have been shipwrecked in the present. It’s time for gay people to restore their connection to a shared past and to commit broadly to the future of humanity.” There are many ways outside of parenting to do that, he is quick to note.
“But one of them is to produce a child who will live way beyond us, God willing, and will be a gift to a world that we will never see.”
As for the happenstance and the signs, the Indian pride parade and the eerily timed antique on the sidewalk?
The latter now sits at the foot of their daughter’s bed, sturdily housing her beloved dolls and stuffed animals. And the rabbi is hesitant to make any grand claims, but admits that life is weird.
“It’s a dangerous theological game to play,” he says, “to turn us all into puppets with God holding the strings. I want to hold on to the sense that I am an active participant in this play and that God, part author, part audience, is sometimes winking at me. So that’s how I experience it – as a wink!”