An Open Heart
At a time when Orthodox and liberal Jews rarelyspeak to each other, let alone embrace, I’ll tell you about mySaturday with Marvin.
We met in New York last month at my cousin’swedding, a true case of opposite attraction: Marvin wore a neat blackbeard, a sharp green suit, and a matching dark green yarmulke thatidentified him as an FFB, an observant Jew who has been frum frombirth. I wore the sophisticated streaked hair, tiny stud earrings andblack designer outfit of another recognizable type, an independentwoman, a TJB, a tough Jewish broad.
We danced to the ’70s disco classic “YMCA.” Whenthe party ended, we couldn’t wait to meet again.
“You have something to teach me,” I whispered. “Wehave something to teach each other,” he whispered back.
The magnetism was not physical. I represented, tohim, a hedonistic world of the assimilated Jew who has flown awayfrom God to a land filled with tref. He was, to me, the world of theshtetl and the mechitzah (ritual separation between men and women),where modernity is feared, if not entirely kept out. Both of us knewthat the Jewish world is splintering, with kinsmen fighting eachother at both the Western Wall and at home over Who is a Jew. We werepoles apart, the “enemy” incarnate. And yet so attracted to eachother, we could not stay away.
First, we took my daughter, Samantha, for icecream. Then we had lengthy phone calls. Once we started talking, thebarriers disappeared. Marvin was amazed to find that I could readHebrew; that I attended synagogue services; and that my daughter hadbeen to Israel after her bat mitzvah. I saw the gleam in his eye:Maybe I was Jewish after all.
And I was surprised to learn that he constantlyre-evaluated his religious path; that he had no interest inconverting me; and that there was in him both curiosity and anopen-mindedness that most of the “liberal” men I knew lacked.
“I don’t take enough risks,” he said.
Faced with a woman like me, Marvin did not cut andrun.
Marvin invited me to spend the next Shabbat in hiscommunity. There was a time, earlier in my single life, whenexcitement meant a guy with a red Corvette convertible. Or a cowboyliving on an avocado farm. Or a Broadway producer. Or the CEO of arecord company. Irony, the smart laugh and the snide wink were oncethe aphrodisiacs of choice.
But lately, though secular power retains itsappeal, cynicism has become tiring. These days, I’m attracted to adifferent bottom line, one grounded in family and community. I’mfinding that warmth and integrity can be exotic too.
How close can two people of disparate religiouspractices become? On Shabbat, who knows?
Rising early Saturday morning, I drove across NewYork’s Triborough Bridge. Looking at my reflection in the mirror, Ibegan to see disaster in the making. Viewed through an FFB’s eyes,everything about me was wrong.
I had an ice-blue-toed pedicure showing through myBirkenstocks. I carried a purse to shul. I drove on theSabbath.
I recalled the hesitation in Marvin’s voice, aclear sign that he hoped I’d have the guts to call it off. Marvin hadalready admitted he was worried that bringing a “strange woman” toshul would send a wrong message to his son, his friends and hisrabbi. I was that strange woman, a heathen, a Jezebel.
Getting off the Henry Hudson Parkway, I consideredthe foolish impulse that made me venture where I did not belong. Ialmost turned back.
Good thing I did not. The Hebrew Institute ofRiverdale, where Marvin worships, is a modern Orthodox enclave of thekind where almost every Jew might feel welcome. Its light oaksanctuary has a huge window filled with trees. While the men andwomen are separated by a mechitzah, there is a sense of being in anopen congregation, a family with a thousand voices praying asone.
Seated against the back wall of the women’ssection, I quickly met Deborah and her daughter, Judith. The HebrewInstitute is home of Torat Miriam, one of the nation’s pioneeringOrthodox women’s prayer groups, whose members were among theorganizers of last year’s groundbreaking Conference on Feminism andOrthodoxy. They are on the firing line, standing up for women’srights to pray against darker forces that want all of us restrained.All around me, hundreds of girls and women were swaying back andforth in earnest prayer.
The rabbi, Avi Weiss, was welcoming too. Hissermon spoke about troubled marriages, how both parties must heal andkeep an open heart. I sensed that he meant the Jewish people too.Then, before the Torah was returned to the huge scroll-shaped ark, itwas sent first to the men’s section and then to the women’s.
“My husband won’t come here,” Deborah told me. “Hedoesn’t like the Torah procession, and the mechitzah is too low. Butthis place is home for me.”
For one Shabbat, Riverdale was home to me as well.While Marvin made a picnic lunch, I talked about Israeli politicswith his son Danny and two friends, who are all more frum than hisdad. We ate by the banks of the Hudson River, in the beautiful WaveHill botanical garden. In the afternoon, we joined a Pirke Avot studygroup in a neighborhood park; the topic was the importance of keepinga good name.
I don’t want to underestimate the difficulties inbridging the two worlds. But too often, liberal Jews feelsecond-rate, unworthy, fake. When invitations are offered toexperience Orthodoxy, we turn away. Too bad. Our movements havealready influenced each other. We are closer than we think. By theclose of Shabbat, my toes were still ice blue, but I stood tall.
Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of TheJewish Journal. Join her for her next “Conversation” at the SkirballCultural Center on Sunday, Oct. 5, when her guest will be Dr. JanetHadda. They will discuss the images of Jewish men in the writings ofIsaac Bashevis Singer.
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September 12, 1997 — Of Goddesses andSaints
August 22, 1997 — Who is Not a Jew
August 15, 1997 — A LegendaryFriendship
July 25, 1997 — A Perfect Orange
July 18, 1997 — News of Our Own
July 11, 1997 — Celluloid Heroes
July 4, 1997 — Meet theSeekowitzes
June 27, 1997 — The Facts of Life
June 20, 1997 — Reality Bites/p>
June 13, 1997 — The Family Man