Tag Archives: marriage

Modeh Ani: I Am Grateful

by Laura Greene (Whitefish Bay, WI)

In 1957 I boarded the SS United States and sailed from New York to Germany to marry a “nice Jewish boy from New Jersey.” Neither of our parents attended our wedding, although they both approved of the marriage. The Army Chaplin provided the men for the minyan, and they held the chupah. I didn’t know any of the guests or what a minyan or a chupah were. At the end of the ceremony the rabbi folded my hands around a sheet of paper. I thought it rather strange to be handed a marriage license at the end of my wedding. The rabbi looked directly into my eyes and his last words to me before releasing my hands were, “The responsibility of having a Jewish home is yours.”

I was dumbfounded. This wasn’t fair. I had no knowledge of such things. Why was this my responsibility? Why hadn’t he warned me that he was going to say this in front of God! I would have argued, protested, refused. But now it was too late.

I am the daughter of two American-born, secular Jewish parents. I grew up in New Jersey which Jewishly is a suburb of New York. My Jewish grandparents on both sides went back to Moscow and Constantinople. They and my parents spoke Yiddish and attended Yiddish theatre. Yet none of them celebrated a Jewish holiday.

My mother never lit a Shabbat candle. Our so-called Seders meant bread on one plate and matzah on another. Hagaddah?  I never heard of it. I stayed home from school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because it didn’t look nice for me to be in school. My parents usually had an argument on Yom Kippur because my father, who stayed home from work, insisted on eating. To him religion was superstitious nonsense. Sometimes he referred to it as black magic and he mocked the religious. Yet, I always knew I was Jewish. My brother had a bar mitzvah by memorizing his portion. My mother made chicken soup, chopped liver, kugel, bacon and shrimp.

In college a sorority sister invited me to her family Seder. Her brother was studying to be a cantor and he sang the liturgy. The family explained the proceedings as the family read from the Hagaddah and sang the traditional melodies. How kind and gentle the family were. How non-judgmental. I felt cheated at how much I had missed. If I married a Jewish boy, maybe I could catch up. My parents wanted me to marry Jewish. They were pleased when I found Victor.

Victor and I met in college. Like me, Victor was Jewish all the way back. In fact his father lay t’fillin every morning. I found out much later that his father never told him why or taught him how. Victor’s Hebrew and religious school experiences were fraught with unhappy memories. He entered the army after college graduation and was sent to Germany. We decided not to wait to get married, and instead, took the opportunity to visit Europe during his leave time.

When we returned home, we both enrolled in school. He earned a Ph. D degree and I earned an MA degree. Our friends were academics. We hosted Seders and invited our non-Jewish friends. Victor knew how to lead a Seder and I knew how to cook. I lit my grandmother’s brass candlesticks that my mother had tucked into my luggage when I left for Germany. Victor’s first teaching job was in Manhattan, Kansas and there I had my next Jewish experience.

There were two resident Jewish families in Manhattan. They adopted the itinerant, and, for the most part, uncommitted Jewish university faculty members. The ever-fluid Jewish community owned a one room building and from time to time a student rabbi from Fort Riley would pay a call. For Passover the two resident families ordered supplies from Topeka and arranged for shipment to Manhattan. I ordered two boxes of matzah.

Nina Becker taught me how to light Shabbat candles and how to bench. I was awkward, but I did it. I never forgot what the rabbi said at my wedding. What was I going to do when I had children? I knew nothing.

While in Kansas, I gave birth to a daughter.  Then, since academics travel, our son was born in Ohio. Knowing nothing about the importance of names, and neither family making suggestions, we just picked our children’s names because we both liked them. Our son was circumcised, but there was no brit milah. It didn’t matter to anyone. The decision still haunts me. We never missed hosting a Seder, and I never missed lighting Shabbat candles.

Victor’s next teaching job was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so we said good-bye to Kansas. By then our daughter was eight-years-old and our son, three. Victor drove a U-haul truck with all our belongings and I followed him in our VW Bug with the children. They had been the only Jewish children in that college town. There were no child car seats or seat belts in those days. To avoid the summer heat and traffic, we left about 3 a.m. I fell asleep at the wheel and hit a guardrail. The car went airborne over a fifty-foot embankment, plunged down, hit the ground, and bounced a few feet before stopping.

Miracle number one: The car did not turn over. Miracle number two: My children were not hurt. They had bounced between and among the nest of pillows and stuffed animals.

“That was fun, Mommy, can we do it again?” said my three year old when the car stopped moving.

I did everything wrong after that. Believing it was safer in the car than on the road, I told my children to stay in the car. Dazed and shaken, I climbed up the hill to get help.

Miracle number three: The car did not catch fire. My daughter had the good sense to turn off the motor. We stayed in voice contact. Victor, unaware of the accident, continued his journey.

A trucker spotted me. It must have been very strange to see a woman pacing the interstate road in the dark and screaming over an embankment. There were no cell phones in those days.

“Where’s your car?” he asked.

Shivering in the 80-degree heat, I pointed.

“Stay here. I’ll report the accident at the next exit.” He drove away.

Two cars passed without slowing. Meanwhile, I kept telling my children to stay put. It seemed forever before a police car arrived. The officer was kind. He asked me where I got my jacket. Until then I hadn’t noticed that the trucker had put his jacket on my shoulders.

The policeman stayed with me until Victor arrived. When Victor saw only me and not the children, his face contorted in pain.

“The kids are fine,” I said.

He put his head on the rolled-down window and cried for a few moments, then climbed down the hill and retrieved our children. Geoffrey’s pajamas were the color of the rising sun. I still cannot see the orange sun without remembering that accident.

Miracle number four: The VW Bug had not rolled over, but the guardrail had ripped a hole through the door of the driver’s seat. The hole was large enough to put my head through, but we walked away from that accident. We completed our trip scrunched in the cab of the U-haul truck. I never knew who the truck driver was. I never had the chance to thank him or return his coat. I wondered why I was still alive and my children safe. What made him stop when others didn’t?

We arrived in Milwaukee in August. I wanted to attend High Holiday Services. I needed to thank God I hadn’t killed my children. I needed to thank God for being alive. I needed to thank God for sending us the truck driver.

We visited all the Reform and Conservative synagogues in town. At each one we were told that without tickets we couldn’t attend the High Holidays. I asked why a person needed a ticket to pray. The answers did not satisfy me. Defeated, I told one Conservative rabbi that we’d pray in the park. He responded differently than the others. “A Jew should not pray alone on the High Holidays. If you decide to join us fine, if not, that’s fine too.  Come and welcome.”

We joined that day and enrolled our daughter in his religious school. Shortly after, at my daughter’s public school orientation, a woman approached me. “You’re new in town,” she said. “Are you Jewish?”

Her question shocked me. People in Kansas and New Jersey just don’t go around asking that question. I must have looked stunned because she laughed.

“I’m a speech therapist. I can tell by your accent you’re from the east coast. So I guess you’re Jewish. I’m Jewish too. Give me your phone number and I’ll invite you for Shabbat.”

To my surprise, she did. We talked. She said the synagogue I had just joined was looking for teachers and I should apply. I laughed.

“I don’t know anything,”’ I said.

“So, you’ll learn. You’ll keep one step ahead of the kids. I’ll help you.”

She did, and I did. We became good friends. Bit by bit I learned. Many people mentored me. I took courses through the Jewish community and the university. I attended Jewish conferences. It wasn’t long before I identified strongly as a Reform Jew. In time I received certification from HUC and teacher certification from the University of Wisconsin. I learned Hebrew, and, through the years, have received numerous teaching awards. I love what I do. My life was enriched because of my involvement in Jewish education. After 40 years of teaching in religious school and Hebrew school and helping kids prepare for becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, I have gained far more than I have given. Perhaps my debt to the truck driver is now paid in full. I wonder if he got his jacket back.

Just as I have been influenced by my many teachers, so have I influenced the children I’ve taught. I think about my Jewish journey and how far I have come. Was I led here? I like to think so. My husband is no longer reluctant to attend services with me or display Jewish artifacts in our home. When we recently downsized from a house to an apartment, he requested that a mezuzah be on every doorpost of our apartment, not just the front door. I wish I had treasured that strange paper the rabbi placed between my hands on my wedding day, but I didn’t know what a ketubah was. When I told this story to my present rabbi he smiled.

“You could have said no.”

His answer surprised me. Until then it never occurred to me that I had that option.

My daughter didn’t marry, but my son married a Jewish girl and they recently joined a synagogue. They live far away from me. My oldest grandchild now attends religious school kindergarten. He will learn Hebrew, see his grandmother light Shabbat candles and understand why. My brother, an atheist, is a strong supporter of Israel and his daughter and her family are active members of an Orthodox Jewish community. Our parents must have done something right, and maybe we did, too. I am blessed. L’dor v’dor.

Laura Greene holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. She has written twelve books for children and has received commendations for her work from the National Council of Teachers of the Social Sciences, Council for Wisconsin Writers, and the Writers League of Texas. She is currently seeking publication of her first adult novel: Walking on the Razor, a literary thriller about Eli Cohn, an Israeli spy whose courage saved a nation. Married, with two children, and three grandchildren, Laura enjoys reading, knitting, ballet, music, travel, cooking, and teaching. 

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Mr. Blumen

by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

Stiffly they sit, side by side
In sepia-flavored photo on the shelf
Their hundred-year synced stories
Now torn by jagged scythe most quick
From the banshee-screaming reaper:
The cossack’s rapier brandished high
In Warsaw, slashed and missed them.
The dysentery, the loneliness
Vale-filled tears, endless pain:
They survived it all,
Two lovers near burning in the ghetto;
Sixty years on, now one off
So how shall he presume?
Without her skin to smell,
Her wisdom and nags
Her giggles and word-arrows
Piercing his cast-iron armor
Or lighting his slow-built ardor
Why breathe? But he will
Most assuredly go on,
For the Eldest Cossack
Has missed yet again.

Chaim Weinstein taught English for more than thirty years at two inner-city junior high schools in Brooklyn, NY. His poem, “The Shul is Dark,” appeared on The Jewish Writing Project (February, 2010), and an early short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne. He is currently working in several genres and is hoping to  share a larger selection of his work in the future.

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A Jew by Choice

by Anna Gersman (Schomberg, Ontario, Canada)

Doubts, fears and uncertainty have plagued my life and the choices I have made, including my decision to become a Jew. I was brought up an atheist, knowing nothing of God, prayer or ritual. I feared religion and avoided it. I could not understand its purpose. Growing up, my ears were filled with jeering words of ridicule for those who did have faith. “Religious people were weak;” “Religion has caused all the wars and problems of the world;” “There is no scientific proof or rational thought to verify religion;” “Look at the millions murdered in the name of religion,” I was told. As a child, places of worship filled me with dread. The great emptiness of godlessness clouded my childhood. I was firmly exiled from God.

The conversion of an atheist is not easy. The long process, for me, was a series of small steps, gently guided by the encouragement and patience of those who loved me, my family and friends. I found my way cautiously with great fear and distrust.

The initial strands of my journey began when I met my Jewish sailor husband in the early 1980s. I fell in love with his warmth, humour and kind spirit.  We sought adventure and together one glorious September, we set sail for the Caribbean in our sailboat. Looking back, I wonder what guided me, where my inner faith and strength come from that helped me push off from the shore. We were not of the sea. He was a Jewish boy from Johannesburg, South Africa, and I was from Newmarket, a small town in Ontario.  Together we sailed out onto that massive expanse of water, enveloped by its surging power and energy. As we crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Bermuda, our world was endless sky and sea. We felt God’s breath blow across the surface of the ocean, softly, gently at times and then fiercely.

Caught in our first storm at sea, I was terrified of capsizing and being pulled down into the cold dark depths of the Atlantic. I did not know how to pray, and yet I prayed with a desperate conviction for survival. I felt God’s presence many times out on the ocean, in the power of the universe, in the vast array of stars, in the schools of dolphins leaping in the moonlight. I realized I could not feel exiled from God at sea, and after several ocean voyages, I was no longer an atheist. I knew there was a God and yet I was a long way from formal religious practice.

My husband was a secular Jew, and we enjoyed the social part of being with family and friends during the Jewish holidays. My mother-in-law accepted me as a non-Jew, regularly encouraging me to “just have a baby dear.” Her words were wise because in fact the miracle of childbirth brought me significantly closer in my journey towards Judaism.

When my oldest daughter was five-years-old, prompted by discussions at school, she asked me “Mommy, what are we?” Those words sent a hollow echo reverberating though my godless soul. I sensed my duty as a mother was to understand my own spiritual identity and pass this on to my children. I had learned over the years to prepare the traditional menu for the Jewish High Holidays. I could make chicken soup and knaidlach (matzoh balls), but I did not understand the rituals or historical significant of the holidays. I spoke to my husband about our children’s sense of uncertainty about their religious identity, but he could not fully comprehend the void I experienced. He had an unshakable confidence in his own heritage, a strong sense of belonging and identity. He had difficulty seeing the yearning and bewilderment in our child, but he took her hand and went to find a synagogue to attend High Holy Day services.

For me, the goal of parenting is to create an independent, capable person. My understanding of the goal of conversion is to create an independent confident Jew, eager to explore further. For my children’s sake, I knew I had to convert. I told my husband and he looked at me tenderly saying, “I have waited a long time to hear you speak those words.” I felt privileged to have married someone, who stood by me while I stumbled on a personal journey towards faith. We joined Temple Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue. Our children were enrolled in Saturday morning Hebrew school, and gradually over time the unfamiliar became familiar.

I cannot describe the joy I felt learning the Torah stories alongside my children. The stories of Noah and the flood, of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and the exodus from Egypt, came alive for me as I slowly painted my interior world with their ancient symbols of hope, redemption and forgiveness. The first few times we attended services my husband wept as emotions long buried in childhood flooded back. The Hebrew prayers and melodies he had long forgotten came back with new significance and meaning as he sat with his family in shul. It was wonderful for me to witness his reconnection to Judaism, and his experience helped me feel secure in my decision to become a Jew.

During my conversion interview the rabbi asked me, “Why do you want to become Jewish?” “For my children,” I replied. “I want them to know God.” He smiled and his eyes twinkled as he said “usually we want people to choose Judaism for themselves, but this is a good place to start.” At first I struggled to be part of the synagogue world; I was uncomfortable with the prayers, fearful I would do or say the wrong thing. The rituals of Shabbat drew me in like a moth to a flickering flame. Gradually, as I stumbled through the Shabbat blessings each week, I came to know the peace that Shabbat brings.

At synagogue services I wrap myself in my tallit (prayer shawl) designed by my husband and painted by my daughters, feeling the shelter of God’s love when I draw it around myself. I have learned the great comfort of communal worship, being led in prayer as though through a beautiful garden. Now, I feel safer to ask questions as I continue to search for my own way of being Jewish. The loving ancient words of the Torah and the siddur (prayer book) bring me solace and comfort in this fast paced high tech world.

At my daughters’ B’nei Mitzvot the rabbi spoke to them, stating “our hope is that you will continue in the path of Jewish learning.” I hear that universal message and know that their journey, like mine is ongoing. I hope one day to visit Israel, and to chant Torah, but for now I listen for the sound of God’s voice as often as I can in all that I do.

It is not easy to convert from nothing, to construct a religious life without a solid foundation set in childhood. Each person undertakes their own unique and personal journey towards faith. I have been fortunate.  I chose a loving Jewish partner who waited patiently for me to make my choice; lucky, to have chosen a shul and congregation accepting and tolerant of differences; lucky, to have found a rabbi able to encourage and welcome the unaffiliated, the disenfranchised, and do the holy work of outreach. As we read in synagogue, “Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city, but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mishkan T’Filah – Reform prayer book.)
___
Anna Gersman grew up in a large family in King City Ontario. She has traveled and sailed extensively in South Africa and the Caribbean with her husband and children. She has been a nurse for over 20 years. She is currently working with seniors as a case manager in home care and as a camp nurse at URJ Camp George during the summers. Anna has been a member of Temple Kol Ami, a Reform congregation in Thornhill, Ontario since 1997. There she found a spiritual home, encouraged to develop every aspect of Jewish life. Anna is currently working on a memoir of her journey to find her Jewish voice. She lives in Schomberg, Ontario near Toronto with her husband Sydney, and their teenage daughters Ariel and Liora.

This piece is reprinted with permission of the author from Living Legacies –  A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume II, edited by Liz Pearl,  PK Press: Toronto, Canada, 2010.  For more information about this publication or to order copies please visit http://at.yorku.ca/pk/ll.htm

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On Expectations and Commitment

By Esther D. Kustanowitz ( Los Angeles , CA )

I believe that commitment is commitment. Even more so, I view matrimony as a commitment that is inviolable. But recently I was reminded that not everyone has the same barometer for what is considered commitment. I had dinner with a potential business associate, a married man with children. Suddenly, over the course of dinner, our business seemed to veer into funny business. First came a few compliments, most of them professionally related. Then he asked to hold my hand. I told him no, and that he had made me uncomfortable, but that didn’t stop him. He told me it was simple affection and I was over-interpreting it, but I think my yeshiva day school background spoke up at that moment. Years of learning about drawing fences around areas of temptation, creating moats and walls that kept sin in the barely visible distance, suddenly made sense. But in that more compromising position, in that moment of a potential breach in a protective fence, I was uncomfortable.

Since that hot summer night, I have wondered what I’d done to convey that there was possibility there, or whether I overreacted at a display of affection that perhaps, as he kept claiming, wasn’t what I perceived it to be. I pondered how similar the actions of hand-shaking and handholding were, and tried to revisit the events from alternate perspectives. I put myself in his shoes, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he was expressing an intended affection-minus-sexual-desire only to be rejected. I stepped into his wife’s loving and trusting shoes, and wondered how I would feel if my husband, the father of my children, was in a foreign city and held the hand of his younger, female, single potential business partner over dinner and wine.

Maybe this kind of thing happened all the time for him and his wife. If so, perhaps it wasn’t a violation of their commitment, and therefore, strictly speaking, within their understanding of morality. Or maybe they had an open relationship that permitted liaisons on foreign soil. I put on my yeshiva girl glasses and thought to myself, this is why people are shomer negiah, and don’t touch members of the opposite sex until they are married to one; because “good touch” can turn to “uncomfortable touch” while a wineglass empties. But regardless of any subjective moral codes or extenuating circumstances between him and his wife, for me this action on his part represented a crack in their commitment. And that made me uncomfortable.

I believe in honest communication, and have high standards once commitment is proclaimed. And because I know not everyone mirrors my constant commitment to commitment and communication, I try to keep my expectations (and sexpectations) in check, while keeping my standards high. It’s a hard line to walk, and this line is probably part of what has kept me single. This is something that I, and probably other single Jews, struggle with, and is sometimes categorized among the frustrated as “unrealistic expectations.”

Where are our models for contemporary Jewish dating? Maybe we need a liturgy that gives us the words to praise the divine elements of dating, or a Shulchan Arukh (code of Jewish law) that instructs us how to behave. Every Passover we read about being commanded to “see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt ,” about identifying personally with an ancient story and people. By seeing ourselves there, we can begin to understand what their lives were like and the choices they made.

I believe that by keeping in our hearts the injunction—whether divine, rabbinic, or personal—to treat others as we would like to be treated, and by clearly communicating our intentions, we elevate our dating behavior to a higher ethical level. We—or at least I—can only hope that at the end of the dating process, this approach will yield a more concerned, communicative, and ethical partner to stand at our side as we conquer the world. To put it another way, by elevating the way we see each other while we’re seeing each other, we will more fully be able to see ourselves.

Esther D. Kustanowitz writes, edits and consults on matters relating to Jewish life, pop culture, dating and relationships, and online social media. Esther wrote “First Person Singular,” a singles column in New York ’s The Jewish Week for more than four years. She currently blogs at My Urban Kvetch (http://estherkustanowitz.typepad.com/)and at Jdaters Anonymous (http://jdatersanonymous.com/). She also consults for the ROI Community, an international network of young Jewish innovators in their 20s and 30s, and has been known to teach improv. She lives in Los Angeles , CA .

Reprinted from Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices, Vol. 4: Sex and Intimacy, © 2010, edited by Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg, published by The Jewish Publication Society with the permission of the publisher. Available from the publisher at http://www.jewishpub.org/product.php?id=351.

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Marrying Jewish

by Norri Leder (Houston, TX)

I got married at 33, just two months shy of 34, and, let me tell you, it was cause for celebration.  My sister and I have five first cousins.  Between the seven of us, one cousin and I are the only ones currently married.   Two others were married, but are now divorced, and both of those unions were interfaith.  They married non-Jews.  My grandmother would say to people in her thick Georgia drawl, “If you have five grandchildren, you’re lucky if two of them are married.”  And I married a nice Jewish boy.  I hit a home run.

My husband Jason and I knew each other as young children.  Photos of us exist from a family friend’s birthday party at a miniature golf venue.  I remember having a crush on him as a kid.  His big brown eyes looked like Speed Racer’s.  But we were never at the same schools, and our families weren’t in close contact.  He reemerged at the same friend’s birthday party – but this time the friend turned 30 instead of 7.   Jason and I noticed each other, finagled an introduction, and the rest moved incredibly smoothly.  He called when he said he would.  Our conversations were long and effortless.  He displayed great sincerity, integrity and smarts.  Dating around for well over a decade had jaded me,   but Jason leaped through every ring of courtship.  After six months or so, I realized, “We’re never breaking up.”  This was it.  I felt peace, and upon our later engagement, elation.

Companionship – to me – always seemed like a huge bonus in life.  Truth be told, I was frequently angst filled over the years worrying about whether I would ever find that “special someone.”  I now shudder to think of the time wasted fretting about this issue, and can only hope my daughters are spared the anxiety.  Ever since I hit late adolescence, I longed for a companion.  I wanted a friend, a partner, a romantic “soulmate.”  And I always wanted that person to be Jewish.  At first, I wanted Jewish because my parents told me it was so important.  Their reasons were manifold.  Judaism was a beautiful, vital part of our lives, and I would want someone to share that with me.  It would profoundly disappoint them, and even hurt them if I married a non-Jew.   My grandparents would be crushed.  Marriage is so much harder when the husband and wife have different religions; matrimony has enough challenges.

Then there was the genuine guilt of marrying outside the faith.  Jewish organizations have commissioned studies that show how intermarriage drains the number of Jews worldwide. The studies include statistics showing overwhelming odds that your children, grandchildren, and certainly great grandchildren will not be Jewish if current intermarriage rates continue.  Rabbis, Jewish professionals, and practically all identified Jews know these numbers, and they expend tremendous energy trying to retain Jewish culture – and yes – Jews.  This issue resonated with me as an identified Jew, a Jew who actually took part in at least some religious traditions and felt connected to her culture.  I didn’t want to diminish a three thousand year old heritage for which my ancestors had endured hardship and persecution.

On a personal note, Judaism was always an integral part of my upbringing.  My sister and I attended very integrated public schools and had friends from a variety of backgrounds, but we always had a family Friday night Shabbat dinner, kept kosher, and observed Jewish holidays.  We had passionate dinner time discussions, many times involving Israel, Bible stories and the merits and drawbacks of religious observance.  We had friends over to share holidays or Shabbat with us.  At Passover time, we were all enlisted in a massive effort to clean the house and switch out our dishes so nothing was “contaminated” by bread.  My sister and I attended Hebrew school three times a week, studied for a year to prepare for our bat mitzvahs, and attended Jewish summer camp.  In our family, Judaism was fun, social, warm and relevant.  Its absence in life – and certainly family – would be palpable.  So, I invested myself in trying to meet a Jewish man.

One way I tried to ensure I would marry Jewish was by only dating Jewish.  Many people I knew hoped to find partners from their same cultural background,  be they Jewish, Indian, Catholic or Latino, to name a few.   But I was particularly disciplined.  I remembered my father saying that if you don’t date a non-Jew, you won’t fall in love with a non-Jew.  This comment generated lots of teenage rebellion in me during middle school and high school.  But as I got older and experienced heartbreak on my own, I knew I didn’t want to endure it more than necessary.  Ever since my college years, when I met a non-Jewish man I was attracted to, I forced myself to let it go.  In some cases, I set him up with close non-Jewish friends, in the hopes that two great people might find happiness where I took a pass.    And I continued to wait for my Mr. Right.

But as my late twenties were starting to take hold, dating was getting older and older.  Oh, the bad dates – how do I recount them all?  The set up with the guy so big he could barely fit in my Honda Civic.  The car actually tilted once he finally got situated.  (I’m too picky, complained my cousin/matchmaker.  In time I wouldn’t see his weight at all.)  The brother of someone who took me out a couple times and said approximately 20 words combined on both dates.  (I’d regret it, said the brother.  He was very successful.)  The overly slick, combed back guys who drove sports cars and wore clothes that screamed of mid-life crisis before mid-life.  And, of course, those I found compelling, but they didn’t feel the same about me.  My mother would always say, “You like them more than they like you, or they like you more than you like them.  When it’s even, you get married.  That’s the way it is.  You only need one.”  Her words were meant to comfort, but the search was starting to take a real toll.

By around age 30, I started to wonder if it was really possible.  Maybe I would never meet anyone at all – forget the Jewish element altogether.  My first cousin, a single man, would panic me even more, telling me that odds were terribly low that I would meet anyone I wanted to spend my life with at all.  “Meeting someone Jewish is even less likely.  Statistically, everything is stacked against you,” he warned.  He may have even pulled out the old, “You have a better chance getting killed in a terrorist attack than meeting a man, much less a Jewish man.”  It felt overwhelming, and depression would take hold at times.  I would call my sister and close friends, chanting what was becoming a mantra:  “Do you think I’m ever going to meet someone?” One of those friends was a non-Jewish buddy from law school.  We were very close, and there had always been a pull between us, but he was one of those I let go.  Suddenly, I began to wonder.  What if I was making a terrible mistake?  Work was nice, friends were great, but I didn’t want to spend my whole life alone.  What if my cousin was right?  What if I was passing up my small statistical chance for happiness?   It haunted me.

And what if I took action?  How would my family react?  Would I feel shame?  Could I sacrifice personal happiness for heritage?  But soon, the questions shifted.  Would I be happy with a non-Jewish partner?  What would I personally be giving up?  How would I pass my traditions and beliefs on to my children?  Would I sing the songs and prayers by myself?  With whom would I carry on the passionate debates about Israel, religious observance and history?  Who would care with me?  Would my children, as the statistics predicted, disappear into the American melting pot?  I ultimately realized that I wanted a Jewish partner.  I needed someone who cared about the meaning.  I needed someone who saw it as a beautiful gift – something worth handing down.  Parents, guilt, and Jewish continuity all took a backseat to this.

As for my law school friend, after much hand-wringing, I decided to take a chance.  I knew I wanted a Jewish partner, so – I thought – perhaps he would consider converting to Judaism.  As a general rule, I can’t say I endorse converting to a religion for the sake of romance.  But we were close friends, and I thought it might work in our case.  Regardless of the outcome, I was terrified of losing the friendship.  And, truthfully, I was also very frightened at the thought of rejection.  I went over to his apartment.  I shakily confessed my feelings, with the caveat that he should not even kiss me unless he could consider building a hut in his backyard once a week each year and hanging fruit from it (in celebration of the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot).    It was a scary moment, because I knew he had feelings for me, but didn’t know if he would be willing to jump this far.  Additionally, I knew that if he reciprocated, my Jewish life would be different and possibly more challenging than I had anticipated for myself.  Ultimately, he opted to date someone else he had been seeing.  And he didn’t bother to share his choice with me until weeks later.  It was very disappointing for me initially, and I was back to ground zero in terms of finding Mr. Right.  Still, the process crystallized the importance of culture and religion to me personally.   This realization is with me to this day.

I met my husband within a year or so of this event, and everything — miraculously —  fell into place.  We have a strong, happy marriage full of humor, affection and joy.  We also share a lovely Jewish connection with each other.  We have beautiful Shabbat dinners with our children and parents each week.  We build our sukkah in the back yard each year and invite friends over to share the fun with us.  Jason and I attend lectures on Jewish topics, debate Israeli politics and belong to a chavurah (a group of Jewish friends that meet regularly) through our synagogue.  Our kids keep kosher and attend a Jewish day school.  It wasn’t easy getting here, but I have to say, it’s truly wonderful.    And what about those years of anxiety spent finding a partner?  What of all those failed attempts, lost opportunities and psychological stretch marks?  The impact runs deep.  Almost a decade into marriage, I still have this recurring dream.   Jason has left me.  Maybe he met someone else.  Maybe he’s just rejected me.  My parents are asking me what I’ll do.  Where will I work?    I’ll have to move out of the house.  And even more pressing, at least in my dream, is how will I meet someone new?  My mind races with the realization that I’m alone again.  I have to start dating, looking, trying all over.  I’ve returned to the same agonizing spot I was in before. Then – I wake up.

The dream makes me appreciate the life I have.  Work is good, friends are great, and I’m not alone.  For me, it’s an incredible feeling, especially because I wasn’t sure I would land here.  I never took it for granted.  As I write this, I realize some might think my dating approach was backward and impractical.  In this enlightened age of diversity, why limit myself?  “Be open to everyone,” they might say. “Give yourself the chance to meet everyone.  Religion is only one aspect of life; it isn’t everything.”   Others might think my insistence on dating Jewish men to be lacking in spontaneity or somehow squelching the natural way we meet people in life.   Some might even consider my approach to be racist.  Did I somehow think my background was part of a special pedigree that had to be preserved?  As for the racism charge, I can decidedly say I feel no superiority to others.  How could I?  My family’s story is one of poverty and oppression, of faith and endurance, just like millions of others in America.  The Jewish people’s story, while unique and compelling in some ways, is no more special than many other ethnic and religious groups’ tales.  As for the natural development of relationships, I obviously chose to let mine progress only with lots of forethought.  I consider it perfectly valid, thoughtful and sensitive to think through expectations for a relationship.  I think I would be naïve if I didn’t recognize that practically any date could turn surprisingly into a romance, and therefore any romantic relationship could develop into a marriage.  As for diversity, some of my most valuable  experiences in life have been in highly integrated schools and through my many friendships with people from different cultural backgrounds. In fact, I would have been completely open to dating and marrying a Jew from Ethiopia, Iran or India.  My question is how do we slide into the melting pot without forgetting who we are?  For me, marrying Jewish – or trying to – was a way to remember who I was, and not melt away.  I’m glad I didn’t.

Norri Katzin Leder lives in Houston, Texas.  A graduate of Brown University and the University of Houston Law School, she worked in management consulting for over six years, and is now a full time mother of two amazing, wonderful, brilliant daughters.  When not packing lunches, she is active in the Houston JCC Jewish Book and Arts Fair and other sundry organizations.  She enjoys writing, and hopes to do more of it in the near future.

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