‘Sweet Like Sugar’ by Wayne Hoffman

Sweet Like Sugar (Kensington Books) is a charming novel that describes the convergence of a young man’s openly gay identity with his previously pushed aside Jewish beliefs. Benji Steiner is a 26-year-old secular Jew. Benji was raised in a Conservative Jewish family. As a young man, he attended Hebrew school and had a Bar Mitzvah. After he went away to college, Benji began to explore his gay identity and his Jewish roots were marginalized. Now, he’s running his own struggling graphics arts business and is active in the Washington DC gay bar scene, although his dating life isn’t going very well.

Through a “meet cute” happenstance, Benji befriends Rabbi Zuckerman, an elderly Orthodox rabbi.  The two grow close, learn to depend on each other, bicker, and challenge each other about their various differences—all the while leading Benji to explore a life that simultaneously allows for a modern gay lifestyle and the traditional Jewish teachings of his youth.

Rabbi Zuckerman owns a Jewish bookstore in suburban Maryland. He comes from a working class emigrant family and is recently widowed. Without his beloved wife, he seems a little lost. After an accident in his car, Rabbi Zuckerman must walk to and from the bookstore, and to and from temple..After their chance meeting,  Benji begins driving the rabbi home after work, and slowly their relationship develops– spurring Benji’s interest in his lapsed Jewish faith.

Each chapter contains a flashback that relates to Benji’s early Jewish development or acknowledgement of himself as gay. These memories include a family Passover dinner with grandparents, a disastrous childhood Purim costume festival, a school visit to the Holocaust Museum, a family trip to Israel, a confusing incident at Jewish camp, a night getting high and skinny-dipping, and a Conservative rabbi’s message about homosexuals, among other stories. These touching flashbacks add a strong sense of universality to Benji’s character and plight– since most of us have experienced somehow similar things while growing up.

While Benji hesitates to tell the rabbi that he is gay, it turns out that Rabbi Zuckerman also has a history that he is trying to hide from Benji. Eventually, the rabbi explains to Benji about the Yiddish concept of bashert, which suggests that fate will lead us to our one perfect match. Rabbi Zuckerman even expresses this with the genderless phrase “We are all destined to have someone come into our lives.” Nevertheless, when Benji eventually tells the rabbi that he is gay, the rabbi’s response is cruel and unequivocal. Is this unexpectedly harsh reaction partially due to Rabbi Zuckerman’s secret?

Throughout Sweet Like Sugar, Benji returns to his familial home for the major Jewish holidays. The novel cannily contrasts the Jewish holidays with gay celebrations such as Halloween and The White Party, which Benji attends in Miami over a Thanksgiving weekend. These regular events serve to unite their celebrants, bond them into the group, and build a common culture.

You should be warned by the syrupy title, the book ends a little too smoothly with all loose ends tied up. Along the way, however, it keeps you involved with its likeable characters that undergo predictable changes and a few well-timed twists to motivate the plot. While primarily offering pop-laced meditations on Jewish religiosity and faith, Sweet Like Sugar offers universal lessons in the role of fate, a successful gay romance, and one approach in combining a gay and spiritual life.

by Wayne Hoffman
Kensington Books
Paperback, 97807582656232, 290pp.
September 2011