Sunday, 13 July 2008

I am HIV positive and I know God loves me

On the eve of Aids Awareness Day, Ori Golan talks to Avreimy: gay, HIV+ and ultra orthodox.
In 1990, aged 20, Avreimy told his family and friends that he is gay. As a member of a close-knit orthodox Jewish community in Britain, this was a bold step to take and one which had immediate consequences. "My family did not want to know, and friends whom I had known for years abandoned me. It was quite bad." he summarises in his understated manner of speech. "Friends I grew up with, whom I had known for years, didn’t want to know me; my family shunned me; everything was up in the air."

Avreimy is not his real name, but one he has chosen to reflect his cultural background while still protecting his anonymity. To this end, other names of people and places have also been altered.
Today, wearing black trousers and a white shirt, sporting an unkempt beard, and on his head a black kippa, Avreimy cuts the archetypal figure of an orthodox Jew. Even his speech is typical of members of the orthodox community, with Yiddish words and biblical Hebrew generously interspersed in his flow of colloquial English.

With his religious upbringing in revolt against him, Avreimy abandoned his Yeshiva studies, peeled off his religious garb and bade farewell to the Northern city from which he hails. "I decided to go to Paris looking for love" he smiles ironically.

In the French capital Avreimy met a man 15 years his senior. They embarked on a whirlwind romance. "In the late eighties Aids wasn’t an issue, and, anyway, the man assured me that he’d been tested and was negative". They threw caution to the wind and had unprotected sex.
A few weeks into the relationship, Avreimy fell seriously ill. He had high temperature, accompanied by night sweats and thrushes all over his body. "One day", he recalls, "my legs just gave way, and I collapsed". He returned to Britain and was referred to hospital where he was given a routine blood test. When the nurse returned with the result of the blood test Avreimy learnt that he was HIV positive. From there it was a slippery downward descent. He developed wasting syndrome which caused his muscles to shrink and confined him to a wheelchair. He could barely eat and felt constantly exhausted.

Looking back, Avreimy says, it was an act of ‘chesed’ (grace). "A friend took me to an HIV demonstration. There was a guy standing next to us. I thought to myself ‘he’s cute’. We exchanged smiles and that was it." A few days later, through the intermediary of a common acquaintance, the guy contacted Avreimy. It was true love. "John looked after me, fed me, cleaned me, and took me out in my wheelchair. When no one from my personal environment wanted to help me, he made me feel very special." A decade later, Avreimy and John are still together.

God, explains Avreimy, provides each person with a soul mate. Despite the fact that John is non-Jewish, HIV negative and gay – making him an unlikely candidate - Avreimy is convinced that John is his God-chosen soul mate. "And", Averimy points out, as if by way of illustration, "shortly after I met John, I miraculously recovered."

Indeed, religion is a central driving force in Avreimy’s life. It is a recurring theme on which he bases his reasoning and from which he draws his convictions. He frequently invokes celestial providence to account for the turn of events in his life, imputing his fate to ‘God’s will’. And far from expressing rancour against his lot, he is thankful to his creator for the many acts of grace he has been blessed with and the wonderful people who have enriched his life.

"In 1996 I went to Los Angeles to attend an HIV conference where I met an orthodox woman whose brother had died of Aids. Ever since, she has become involved in helping members of the Orthodox community who are affected by Aid. She immediately introduced me to other gay orthodox men; she set me up with a ‘buddy’, kept me informed of available treatments and medical advances; and would regularly call to see how I was. When I was seriously ill with pneumonia, she set up a web site asking people to pray for me. Anonymous individuals who I had never met before, called to check up on me and wish me well. It was this pious woman who gave me back my ‘Yiddishkeit’ and restored my faith in the almighty. I am sure that these god-sent people account for the fact that I am still here today."

Gradually, Avreimy embarks on a dreamy, somewhat wistful, soliloquy of personal events and experiences which have shaped his destiny. And some of his uncanny tales of guided providence strike a significantly eerie cord. So much so, the borders between his talent for narration and flair for elaboration appear undefined.

"I went to an Aids conference in Durban not long ago, where I became very ill. I was pale and my eyes were sunken and yellow. As I was crossing the street I met this very old nun." He laughs and interrupts himself. "I am telling you, God works in miraculous ways." He picks up again:

"She looked at me and asked if I was alright. I replied that I was feeling unwell. She asked me to wait. A few minutes later she returned and picked me up in her car. We drove to hospital. This nun, a total stranger until our chance meeting, talked to the doctors, arranged it so that I did not need to pay, and sat with me when the doctor came back with the test results. The doctor, who happened to be Jewish, told me that I needed protein and that I should eat meat. I explained that I only eat Kosher meat. In response, he gave the nun directions to a kosher delicatessen. It was erev Shabbat and the delicatessen was on the other side of Durban. I was sure it would be shut by the time we got there, and declined the nun’s offer to take me there. But she insisted. We crossed Durban in her car until we located the Kosher delicatessen. Fortunately, since the owner lived in the flat directly above, the shop was still open, and I had my kosher meat. She then drove me to her house where she offered me some water before dropping me off at my hotel. I was in her house only once, but even now I remember the street where she lived and can describe in detail the inside of her house. As soon as I recovered, I wanted to thank her, so I decided to pay her a visit. But when I knocked on her door I was told there was no nun living in that house. I tried every house in the street but was told that there was no nun by that name, or of that order, living there. She had completely vanished and I never saw her again. I am telling you, it’s ‘min hashamyim’ (from the heavens), he summarises confidently.

Being in a gay relationship and, at the same time, re-embracing his faith, how does Avreimy square the circle? He smiles at the metaphor. "I am a complete square and I am a complete circle", he replies. "Firstly, the pills I take reduce my libido and I am not sexually active. There is nothing in the bible that prohibits two men loving each other. There is only a prohibition of two men having sexual intercourse, like ‘man and wife’ It is all a matter of interpretation." He pauses and then adds, as an afterthought, "I didn’t become gay or Orthodox; it’s what I am. It’s my neshama (soul) and the way God created me".

And God created others like him.

According to Avreimy, there are many young gay men in the orthodox community struggling with their sexuality. They often find themselves living dichotomous lives, torn between their sexual proclivities and their affiliation to the fold. The pressure to conform, he explains, is very strong and the spectre of ostracism very threatening. Most gay men in the orthodox community end up marrying and having families. Few manage to keep their homosexual drive dormant; most find outlets for it. This puts them at greater risk of infection by the HIV virus, alongside many other sexually transmitted diseases, since their sexual encounters with other men are more furtive and their conduct more risky.

Astonishingly, in spite of his experiences of rejection by his own community, Avreimy harbours no grudge, and expresses no bitter feelings towards it. Quite the opposite; he remembers his rebbes with affection, recalling their kindness and patience toward him during his childhood.
His own family has still not accepted him. He describes his relationship with his parents as ‘strained’. "I talk to my mother irregularly. She is not involved in my life and I don’t discuss with her my health or my medical treatments." He has no contact with his siblings. They have made it clear to him, he says, that they are not interested in seeing him. "They claim to be religious" says Avreimy, with a rising tone of anger "but they possess no yiddishkeit. The torah stipulates that you should look after the sick, but they have shown no sympathy and have expressed no interest." He does not mention his father.

Avreimy is currently on combination therapy and after an initial "hiccup" – as he puts it – is now responding well to it, with an undetectable viral load. Nonetheless, he still suffers from bouts of diarrhoea and has had pneumonia on several occasions. In one hour of interview he ‘excuses’ himself three times to go to the bathroom. "My doctor gives me so much strength" he says "He calls regularly, sends me birthday cards and updates me on the latest treatments. You couldn’t get a better doctor."

Supported by housing benefit, Avreimy now lives outside the Jewish community in one of the big cities. However, bills and everyday expenses remain an issue. And this is where his religious convictions resurface. "If you follow in God’s path, God will provide" he explains. "People helped out and pitched in; washing pans, kosher plates, vacuum cleaner, whatever I needed, I got, and I am very grateful to each one of them."

Avreimy is also a service user of JAT, the Jewish Aids Trust, whose aim is to reach out to those in the Jewish sector affected by Aids. "My experience with JAT," he says, "has been superb".
"The people in JAT are like a family to me. There’s a woman who has worked tirelessly on my behalf, making sure I can get to and from medical appointments on time, and there’s a guy who helps me with my shopping. It’s sometimes every-day things like that make all the difference."
Having enlisted the help of other, non-Jewish voluntary organisation, Avreimy makes a clear distinction between them and JAT.

"In JAT, they know where I am coming from and are sensitive to my needs. They understand Jewish issues that are related to HIV: shabbes, Kosher food and services rendered on week-days. With other organisations I find that they lack the basic concepts which are fundamental to my lifestyle. For example, most of their services are available on Saturday; whether it is massage, acupuncture, home help or support groups. I don’t want to break Shabbat and with JAT it is never an issue. They support me physically and spiritually and if I am at a loose end, or just need someone to talk to, I know there’s always someone there. There are a lot of HIV positive people in the community, as well as members of their family, who benefit from their services. "

Avreimy also emphasises the importance of another major project that JAT is engaged in: the education of the Jewish community on safe sex and the prevention of Aids. ‘Aids is not just a gay issue; it’s an issue that involves everyone, old, young, straight gay. And JAT tries to put this message across."

Asked if he has any regrets in life, Avreimy becomes subdued. He looks pensively into space and then says softly, as if in contemplation: "If I could live my life again, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I have everything I want: I have good friends. I have somewhere to live; I have food; I can breathe; I can pray. I am thankful to my creator for all these mercies."

His words never take on a valedictory vein. Not once is the prospect of death mentioned. His smile appears genuine, his voice optimistic and his composure serene. Looking at this young man as he walks away, it is impossible not to marvel at the confidence he has in a celestial authority and the equanimity with which he appears to have accepted the ill-fated cards which life has dealt him.

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