Saar Maoz, subject of the documentary Who's Gonna Love Me Now?, talks about coming out in an Orthodox Jewish family, and finding peace.
Speaking from Tel Aviv, Saar Maoz sounds like a man who's had a weight lifted from his shoulders. The subject of Tomer and Barak Heymann's documentary, Who's Gonna Love Me Now?, the affable gay Israeli lives with HIV, but no longer worries about what his family and the Orthodox community he grew up in think about his sexuality and condition.
It was different when Maoz, 44, was 14, and realised he wasn't attracted to girls. The eldest of seven siblings living on a religious kibbutz, Sde Eliyahu, in northern Israel, he was terrified of coming out.
“My big fear was my family would kick me out, or the kibbutz would kick me out, and I wouldn't be able to stay around my friends, my family. It was a very scary thought. So how I dealt with it was to hide it.” He kept his secret for five years, “and gradually got more depressed. To everybody I was a very friendly teenager. But I spent a lot of time in my room, crying.”
Since the Torah decrees homosexual intercourse punishable by death, religion offered no comfort. In any case, it had started to feel restrictive to Maoz “from a very early age”. “There is an age where it's all like Seder nights and candles and nice songs, and then at some point it starts to limit you. That's how I experienced it.”
His family, moreover, weren't living in the city, where people “can go with the flow of what occurs in their life”. The kibbutz (“Imagine a small country with a fence around it”) demanded conformity (to democratically agreed rules), and being different could lead to problems.
“If your path is on the middle of the road, then you are fine. But if your way is on the side of the road, then you have a bumpy ride.”
Maoz was eventually expelled, although not because of his sexuality - “I was kicked out because I did not keep Shabbat. You are not meant to go out driving, drinking or smoking.”
While he was still at the kibbutz, his pious mother discovered he was gay. In the film, she describes it as “a crisis . . . There were elements of grief, one of which was anger . . . In a religious society it's totally unacceptable.”
She was “disgusted by the thought of what two men do together”, and saddened by the idea that her son wouldn't have children. “Part of the big argument,” Maoz tells me, “[also] was that I kept it from her for five years.” His father, a patriotic officer in the army, laughed and told him: “Take two pills and it will pass.” At the time, the Israeli ideal of manhood was someone who was there “to work the land and make sure we had a country”, says Maoz. “There was a lot of homophobia.”
Inevitably, he asked himself many questions throughout his late teens/early 20s, “because when you find you're gay, it's part of the fabric of this identity crisis”, he says. “Who am I? Why am I not like everybody else? How can I design my own identity in a way that I am proud of myself?” He laughs. “Also, I think it's quite Jewish to examine [things]. It's a nice Jewish trait, not to just accept things as they are.”
Still unreconciled with his parents, he took a trip to London after doing service as a paratrooper, and was “charmed” by what he found. “I just wanted to be free . . . And suddenly arriving in London, living by Hampstead Heath, nobody seemed to care.”
He found love with a man, which he thought would last forever. But when the relationship ended after three years, Maoz fell in with someone else and spiralled down into a reckless life of unsafe sex and drugs, that ended with them both contracting HIV. The virus added a further complication to his relationship with his family, though it also began to break the near-silence between him and his father. “[We] always talked," he says. "But mostly it was like a 'Hi Dad. Is Mum there? Can you pass her the phone?' kind of relationship. I don't think we had a meaningful conversation from the 90s till 2003, when I was diagnosed.”
For years, Tomer Heymann had wanted to make a film about Maoz – whose openness about his HIV status (unusual for an Israeli at the time) had stunned the filmmaker in 2004 – but he'd always refused. By 2011, though, Maoz had built a secure network of friends in London, acquired an alternative family as a member of the London Gay Men's Chorus, and resolved most of the issues he had with himself; he finally felt the time was right. The result is a compassionate study of a family striving to overcome their prejudice, fear, and hurt, in encounters that are raw and painfully honest, but always underscored by love.
"I think we were all at the point where we were ready to say the things that there was to say,” Maoz suggests. “But I also think if we'd had any idea what it'd bring out, then maybe we wouldn't have done it. At times it was really heavy.
"For me, on a personal level, it shows what happens when you dare to scratch the surface and have the courage to actually say what you want to say, and have the courage to listen to what the other person has to say, because I think listening needs a lot more courage than talking.”
To the film-makers' surprise, Maoz decided to move back to Israel, giving them an ending they never expected. He wanted to be close to his nephew and nieces (his hope for kids of his own was thwarted when he contracted HIV), and to do something meaningful with his life.
Joining the Israel AIDS Task Force allowed him to return on his own terms, and gave him a “massive boost” because of their work's social significance. This doesn't mean going back has been easy.
“But I had been in England for 18 years, watching things in Israel, and saying, 'This is good, this is not good,' and passing comment. And I thought, 'If you want to change your country, then you have to be in your country.'"
Who's Gonna Love Me Now opens April 7
An edited version off this story appeared in The Jewish Chronicle