My husband, the famous Rabbi of Havurah Shir Hadash, does not think I am Jewish. This is not because I don’t attend Friday night services regularly, or that I steal crumbs of bread during Pesach, or that I regularly buy things at retail. It is because I do not come from New York. Worse yet, I actually come from Los Angeles, a city famous mainly for stealing the Brooklyn Dodgers from their true home, and where you cannot get anything resembling a real bagel, and just forget about getting a bialy. People in Los Angeles don’t even know what a bialy is. I tried to elevate my status once by identifying a bialy, but apparently it was a knish.
I explained to David that I grew up as a card-carrying Jew, belonging to Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood. David shook his head sadly. “Reform,” was all he said. It might as well have been Protestant. In Sea Gate, the community in Coney Island where he grew up, the only synagogues were Orthodox. Never mind that his family ate bacon sandwiches and shrimp cocktail and never went to any of these shuls. The synagogues were there, complete with pious, long-locked men whose davvening rang out morning and afternoon, lending an aura of authentic Judaism to the very air that David breathed.
You would think, then that it was he who kindly brought me into the fold of real Judaism, but that is not the true story. When we began dating twenty four years ago, David was a teacher of poetry in the public schools and the owner of a Jazz club. Charismatic yes, religious no. Although it makes sense now that all his experiences and skills would eventually lead him to the Rabbinate, if you had told me then that I would one day be a Rabbi’s wife, I would have laughed my head off. In fact I did laugh my head off when he showed me his Bar Mitzvah picture where he stood in front of the Torah, looking chubby and solemn. He told me how he had embarrassed his secular family on that day by vowing to put on his Tallis and lay Tefillin every day for the rest of his life. Ha Ha. Not my boyfriend.
In our first year together we were both so estranged from Judaism that we exchanged “Christmas” presents in December. Although neither of us would ever think of having a Christmas tree in our home, it did not occur to us to light the menorahs in either of our respective closets.
When Rachel was born a year after our wedding. we lit our first Chanukah candles together, holding our infant daughter close to the light. We knew we were holding someone important enough to pass something on to, and this was our first step to reclaiming a piece of our heritage.
Inspired by those Chanukah lights perhaps, we joined the Rogue Valley Jewish Community, and David was soon on the board of directors. It was I, the future Rebbitzin, however who actually went to services, and don’t let him tell you differently. This is the emmes: David might recognize a true bagel, but in 1985 I was the one praying on Yom Kippur, while he was home working at his computer and eating bacon sandwiches.
When David had a religious awakening and dove into studying and practicing Judaism in 1988, I was as bewildered and jealous as if he had a new woman in his life, one who he spent more time with, and was more passionate about than me. It also brought up my own negative feelings about religious Jews. I remember my father saying, “All religious people are rigid, especially Orthodox Jews.” I suspect he was referring to the stringent Rabbis at the Cheder he was forced to attend after school when he wanted to play football. He had no idea that his rejection of that Orthodoxy and later becoming “Reformed” would someday hinder my status as a Jew married to a true New-Yorker.
I was embarrassed when David started wearing a Yarmulke regularly, in sophisticated, liberal Ashland. This religious husband with a scraggly beard had replaced the hip, handsome, businessman that I married, and didn’t seem to mesh with the secular, groovy lifestyle I thought we had. When I wasn’t busy teaching, storytelling, and taking care of our children, I was exploring my inner child with my women’s group. As far as I was concerned, psychology was the way to personal growth, not religious fervor.
I began to see some changes in David, though, besides his yarmulke and love of the Torah. I saw his eyes fill with tears for the first time in years as he prayed. I felt him softening in a way that I hadn’t seen since we had first met. I did some changing, too. When we went to Israel together in 1990, I sensed my own connection to the land and the people. I got inspired to explore Jewish storytelling, and found that these ancient stories called to me in a voice that was much more resonant than the other folktales I had been telling.
I remember very clearly the day that I told David, “I was afraid you and I were walking on very different roads, headed in opposite directions. But now I see that although we are on separate paths, yours a spiritual one, mine a more emotional one, we are headed in exactly the same direction. We’re just getting there in our own ways.”
This has more than proved to be true over the years. Jewish Renewal has opened up the “inner child” in David, while still allowing him plenty of room to be the Wild Man that he is. In his work, I see him developing more compassion every day. And I have found my place in the world of Judaism, too. Telling Jewish stories, creating Jewish plays with the Sunday school kids, leading women’s ceremonies with the Rosh Hodesh group-all of these have deepened my life. When people ask me if I like being the Rebbitzin, I say “No, but I love the Rabbi.” Actually, I do like being the Rebbitzen; I just don’t like to admit it. And I do love David. He says that he loves me too, even if I did steal the Dodgers from him, and I still can’t tell a bialy from a knish.