Finding their way home to Judaism: three same-sex couples share their conversion stories


“My parents were old hippies,” said Felicia Park-Rogers, who grew up in the Bay Area. “They were very suspicious of organized religion and anything else smacking of authority.”

When Park-Rogers, 35, met Rachel Timoner, her partner-to-be, in San Francisco in the early 1990s, she was thrilled to be falling in love but suspicious of her new lover’s involvement with Judaism.

Timoner was raised in a Reform community in Miami. Although the lavish bar and bat mitzvahs at her parents’ shul had turned her off, she still felt drawn to Jewish spiritual life. When she found a Renewal synagogue in San Francisco, the seed of her faith began to take root.
“And she began to drag me to holiday services,” Park-Rogers said.

The couple’s once-in-a-blue-moon joint appearances at shul evolved into a weekly return engagement at Shabbat. Then, about a decade ago, Timoner was out of town during the High Holidays, and Park-Rogers found herself with a decision to make.

“I went to Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services on my own,” Park-Rogers recalled. “After that experience, I said, ‘I have my own relationship to this.'”

Park-Rogers finished her conversion about four and a half years ago, just before she gave birth to Benjamin, her first son. She and Timoner now have a second son, Eitan, who just celebrated his first birthday.

Same-sex couples confront the same choices that are issues for most straight couples. To live together or not to live together? To marry — or at least to formalize a partnership — or not to marry? To have kids or to have a second house in Palm Springs?

Spiritual decision-making is also frequently a factor in the calculus of gay life. In fact, finding a religious tradition that affirms gay experience and offers the support of a vibrant community can be one of the most important aspects of self-realization for gay men and lesbians — especially for people who see being in a committed relationship as a natural extension of their spiritual lives.

That kind of deep introspection led Ron Paler, a 40-year-old pathologist, to convert to Judaism five years ago. Mike Loya, Paler’s partner for more than a decade, will finish his own conversion in the next couple of months.

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David Fyffe, left, and Arlan Wareham show off piece of a Katyusha rocket that landed near their Tsfat home in August.

Love ‘n’ Bloomers


The tomb of a venerated rabbi has become the apparent final resting place for the underwear of hundreds of Israeli women looking for husbands.

Israel’s Maariv newspaper reports that authorities have collected around 400 pairs of knickers and bras from the grilles of the tomb’s window and on nearby trees.

According to believers, an unmarried person will meet his or her soulmate and marry within a year after visiting the grave of Rabbi Yenothan Ben Uziel in northern Israel.

But as for leaving undies behind at the tomb, that’s going way too far, say local clerics, who want to nix that ritual.

In fact, Rabbi Israel Deri, who has jurisdiction over protecting holy sites in the north, suggested to Maariv that would-be romantics risk a sort of love curse if they insist on dropping off their unmentionables.

“Having consulted with the chief rabbis, I can say with certainty that not only are these women guilty of a profanity, but they will also never gain benediction,” Deri said.

 

Get Married Without Disowning Your Mom


Welcome to tonight’s main event, bride-to-be vs. mother of the bride. These two lightweight champions are battling it out for the hostess title. Ladies, take your corners. Have a clean fight, a fair fight and no hitting below the garter belt.

Many a wedding have lead to knockout, throw-down arguments between mother and daughter. Should it be black tie or California casual? Meat or fish? DJ or band? Should there be fewer guests at a lavish wedding or more guests at a bare-bones one? And why should cousin Sally, who the bride hasn’t seen since her sweet 16, get an invite over a co-worker? Planning for this happy occasion shouldn’t involve constant bickering and hurt feelings. But brides envision their wedding one way, and mothers envision it another way. Mothers threaten to boycott the wedding, and daughters threaten to elope. But wedding preparations don’t have to take down family relationships.

Rachel Zients had a bad experience during the planning of her bat mitzvah, and after she got engaged to Jay Schinderman, the 30-something television writer-producer initially worried about the possibility of a rerun.

Brides don’t want to feel trapped by their parents’ opinions, and parents just want to be part of this special occasion. But is it possible to effectively balance expectations when planning a wedding?

Zients and her mother, Eileen Douglas Israel, decided to try.

“It was a goal of mine to have harmony during my wedding planning,” Zients said. “The most important thing my mother did was recognize that I was an organized, working woman who didn’t need her to do everything, but who appreciated the things she did do.”

Israel gave her daughter the freedom to plan her wedding the way she wanted to. In return, Zients called on her mother when she really needed her.

Since she lived in Santa Monica, Zients enlisted her mother and future mother-in-law to help scout locations in New York. The mothers explored numerous hotels and banquet halls and reported their findings back to Zients in Los Angeles. When Zients flew to New York, she had the luxury of only focusing her attention on a few likely venues. By assigning this task to the mothers, Zients received real help rather than empty advice.

After the wedding was set for the Metropolitan Club, Zients planned other elements of the ceremony on her own: the flowers, the music, the dress. Her mother supported most of her choices.

But the two butted heads on the processional music. Zients felt that getting married was like starting down a yellow brick road, so she wanted to walk down the aisle to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Her mother wasn’t on board at first.

“My mom thought it was untraditional, but it just seemed right to me,” Zients said. “I took a step back and listened to her, but decided it was important to me.”

While a bride should remain open to hearing her mother’s opinions, a mother also needs to know when to trust her daughter’s taste. Such balance is key in harmonious wedding planning.

In the end, Zients went ahead and used the song. After the ceremony, her mother confessed that the music worked.

Unlike the mother-daughter affair of the Zients-Schinderman wedding, Robyn Lazarus enlisted the help of her entire family. Additional help can also bring with it additional problems, so it’s important for family to share ideas but not make demands.

Lazarus’ parents, Alan and Janet Fink, and her sister, Missy Fink, attended meetings with everyone from the caterer to the wedding coordinator. There were moments of conflict during the planning of Lazarus’ wedding and the family didn’t always agree, but they did try to keep things in perspective.

“The wedding was really about what Robyn wanted, we just helped her get there,” Janet Fink said.

While most brides-to-be turn to their mothers for help, Lazarus said it was her father who had very distinct ideas about the flowers, the lighting, the tables and the food.

“He knew what he wanted my wedding to be like; he wanted everything to be top-notch,” she said.

Parents and siblings should suggest a location or recommend a vendor, but not insist on one. That way, they voice their opinion and communicate their view without imposing it on the bride.

“I wanted to make sure I was making the best choices and I appreciated my family’s thoughts and input,” said Lazarus, who teaches second grade in Simi Valley.

While some brides might have felt suffocated by such heavy family involvement, Lazarus said it worked for her.

“Having my whole family contribute to the planning process made my wedding even more special,” said Lazarus, who married her husband Mike at the Century City Park Hyatt earlier this year.

It’s important for brides to remember that while it is their wedding day, it’s also a family event, and parents want to feel like they’re a part of it — especially if they’re picking up the bill. Lazarus found that all of her family’s guidance helped reduce — rather than increase — her wedding stress.

“My family is always involved, so I think their role in planning my wedding just mirrors the relationship and family dynamic that we have,” Lazarus said.

It’s easy for a bride-to-be and her parents to squabble over guest lists, seating charts and napkin rings. And it’s common to think that the wrong name cards could ruin a wedding and that a less-than-perfect guestbook means disaster. But if both sides can remember that this day is not just about the wedding and the reception, but about the start of a marriage and an event that is truly a family affair, these fights can be kept to a minimum.

Rachel Zients remembered a particularly snowy Manhattan day when she was running through a jam-packed schedule of location callbacks with her mother. In between bustling and price checking, Zients received unexpected words of wisdom.

“One of the location managers said, ‘This is what you should remember, this is what you should take with you. This moment of running around New York City with your mom,'” she said. “She was right, this was a really special time for me and my mom.”



Steps Toward Sanity

So the big day is months away, but the arguing has already begun. Looking to put an end to all the bickering with your folks? Andrea Ross, event manager at the Chicago Marriott Downtown on the Magnificent Mile, has helped countless couples and their families plan gorgeous weddings. She offers up the following practical tips and insider secrets for brides-to-be:

• Be Honest With Your Mother: If you have a vision or want something specific, tell her. If she makes a suggestion that you don’t like, tell her.

• Get Organized: If your mother makes a suggestion, write it down. If she brings you an article, accept it. Keep these items in a folder and tell her when you plan to work on that specific wedding item. For example, if she cuts out pictures of cakes, tell her you’re putting them in your cake file, but don’t plan on making that decision until two months prior to the wedding. This way, she won’t bug you — er … ask you — about it everyday, but feels like you’re taking her suggestions seriously.

• Agree to Disagree: Your mom is going to hate some of your ideas, and you’re going to dislike some of hers. Just because you love each other doesn’t mean you’ll love all of each other’s ideas.

• Share the Details: In order to avoid confrontations with your mother, give out as much information as possible. Neither you nor your mother want to be contacted by Great-Aunt Ethel who wants to know what the activities for the weekend are, where she can make room reservations and if there’s a Sunday brunch. Set up a Web site, send out an e-mail or mail your guests an itinerary. You may even want to appoint a sibling or maid-of-honor to be the point person to answer guests’ questions. This will help reduce friction between you and your mother.

• Have a Family Meeting: Include both the parents of the bride and the parents of the groom. Lay everything out: who is paying for what, who is planning what and how everyone envisions the day. This discussion will help set parameters like the number of guests each side will invite, the total budget for the reception, who will conduct the ceremony and who should sit where. Conduct this meeting in a public place, like a restaurant, so no one will raise his or her voice.

• Don’t forget that a wedding is about the union of two people. It should be fun and as least stressful as possible. — CD

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Will She Marry Him?


In my last Singles column, “Change of Heart,” I left off with one important question for my girlfriend, Carrie: “Will you marry me?”

Did she say yes?

Well, let me back up a bit.

A few days before the column came out, I drove over to Carrie’s parents to ask for their blessing. Carol and Roy were watching “24” when I got there, so I waited until the commercial break — odd priorities, but I suppose it’s more riveting watching Kiefer Sutherland trying to stop the explosion of a nuclear warhead than watching me trying to stop the nervous trembling in my right leg.

Roy stood. Carol took a seat. I dove right in.

“You guys know I love Carrie very much, and I’m going to ask her to marry me. I’d like to get your blessing.”

They both seemed to gasp slightly, but then Carol gave me a hug and began repeating the phrase, “Oh my God!” Roy stiffened his body and seemed to freeze slightly. He didn’t give me a hug. Luckily, I did see some blinking. Carol teared up a little, and I answered all her rapid-fire questions about the ring, and how I was going to propose.

And then suddenly, she admonished me for coming in the middle of her favorite TV show: “You better save it on your TIVO for me.”

Roy relaxed a little, “It’s too bad you couldn’t come on a Friday, when there’s nothing on TV.”

I laughed, although I’m not sure he was joking. Carol hugged me again, and they quickly ran back to catch the last 10 minutes of their show.

The next day, Roy called me to meet him for lunch. I got a little nervous as I drove over to meet him. I get along well with Roy, but wondered what kind of warnings would he have for me before I married his daughter. Although he’s a peaceful man, I imagined him chasing me through the house, swinging his belt if ever I hurt his baby girl.

It turned out he just wanted me to know that he was happy for us. “I don’t show a lot of emotion,” he confessed. “Do you believe how Carol was acting?” he asked me, referring to her “overemotional” display of teary eyes and a hug. I nodded knowingly. I mean, this is my future father-in law. As we left, I thanked him for lunch. Then, just before getting into my car, I grabbed the guy and gave him a big, fat hug.

The morning that the column came out, I drove over to The Jewish Journal office to get a fresh copy of the newspaper. Jumping back into my car, with a new parking ticket flapping on my windshield (so maybe I don’t always read the signs), I drove over to the Farmers Market to pick up some food.

I really wanted to take Carrie on a picnic, but it was still drizzling outside. I stayed optimistic and went to Loteria, our favorite Mexican place to get two of their finest burritos (considering the cost of the ring, I contemplated buying one burrito and splitting it in half).

I picked up Carrie from work and, amazingly, as she walked out the door, the rain suddenly stopped. I quietly thanked God. We drove to a nearby park and spread out the picnic.

“Oh, before you eat, guess what?” I said nonchalantly as we sat down. “I wrote another column in The Jewish Journal,” and gave it to her. Of course, given my last columns, she didn’t know what was coming — especially with this one titled, “Change of Heart.”

She took one look at the title and said, “Uh oh.” I hovered nervously behind her, waiting to pop out the ring. As she read, she occasionally looked up to laugh or nod her approval. And then I saw her body stiffen as she got to the last line. She froze, just like her dad.

“Oh my God,” she gasped, just like her mother.

I grabbed the ring, got on one knee and asked, “Will you marry me?” She cried and answered, “Yes.”

We kissed. Two pot smokers nearby clapped. I waved back to them.

Then Carrie went through a rainbow of emotions, the likes of which I have never seen. She laughed, she argued, she protested, she cried, she smiled, she didn’t know what to do with herself.

Suddenly she stammered, “Ar … re you sure about this? We’ve been arguing lately.”

We had been arguing, but mostly because I was sneaking around trying to deal with the engagement preparations. We’ve never really had secrets before, and the months I was planning all of this were hard for me. It’s strange to not be able to discuss one of the biggest decisions of your life with the woman you love. But Carrie had always wanted to be surprised.

Carrie started to cry. “I love you so much. Of course I want to marry you,” she said.

“Then why are you crying?”

“I guess I don’t really like surprises,” she said. Speaking of which — she hadn’t even looked at the ring on her finger.

“Do you like it?” I asked.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “Is this real or is this cubic zirconia?”

Was she kidding me? “Cubic zirconia? I sure wish I had the option….”

Seth Menachem is an actor and writer who lives in Los Angeles.

Change of Heart


It was only last October when I penned the column, “No Rush,” for this paper, arguing against marriage.

Now, eight months later, I take it all back. Well, most of it.

As I wrote, I still do believe that other people often try to convince you to get married in order to convince themselves. It’s the same reason your friend convinces you that girls love his new mullet — and you have to get one, too — “You know what they say: Business in the front, party in the back.”

So what’s changed?

I no longer believe one has to be settled in one’s career in order to “settle down.” I’m an actor, so I need to accept that stability is pretty rare. And I have. After making a living as an actor for the past couple of years, this year has had me back to showing up at friends’ houses just as they’re eating dinner. Despite the free meals, I feel much better when I’m buying my own food. So I gave in to “the man” and took a side job to help me when I’m not making money as an actor.

My mom told me that when she got married there were 15 friends and family squeezed into the rabbi’s study. That was it. That was all they could afford. And they had a great marriage. My dad became a successful partner at Ernst & Young, they had four children and they loved each other very much. My dad was a sweet, funny and charismatic guy. But then he died, which is not great for a marriage. Who would take out the garbage? Besides, I really miss the guy. The point is, though, that my dad didn’t wait until he had a career — he just married the only woman he ever loved, and they struggled and succeeded together. Time, I’ve learned, is limited.

So, as I’ve mentioned before, I love my girlfriend, Carrie. She’s sensitive and, even though she says I tend to hold in my feelings, we do share a good cry whenever we watch “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” (you had me at, “Move that bus!”).

She’s also beautiful, even if I don’t always say it (if I say it too much she might realize she can do better). She also thinks I’m funny, even if it’s the fifth time that day I’ve said, “Pull my finger.” (What’s more amazing is not that she laughs, but she actually pulls it.)

Carrie has opinions about things but is willing to listen to others. Me, I already know what’s right, so what’s the point? She’s patient, whereas I’m so ADD that I’ve already forgotten what it is I’m writing about. (Wait one second while I scroll back to the top to remember my thesis statement … and … got it!) What I’m trying to say is I’m lucky to have found Carrie.

Being single was fun at times but it always felt empty. I couldn’t wait until I found the right girl. I’ll admit it — it scared me a little when I found her. Life-changing events can be scary. But, lately, all I can think about is how great it will be to spend the rest of my life with her. There’s comfort in knowing you’ve found the one person you want to be with forever.

I found the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with, and I think she feels the same way. We both want kids, even if we have to squeeze a handful of them into a tiny apartment –but I’m going to work very hard to make sure we have room. When I’m away from her I think about how good it would feel to wrap my arms around her. When I’m with her, I feel so content that I need to remind myself not to take that contentment for granted. I will work hard to make sure we have room for our kids. I will also make sure that I won’t let a day go by where Carrie doesn’t get kissed. If I can’t do it, I’ll find someone who can…and he better be a good kisser because my girl deserves the best.

I love Carrie so much, and can’t wait to start our own family and be a great father. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I should get married.

So, Carrie … how about it? Will you marry me?

Seth Menachem is an actor and writer who lives in Los Angeles.

Twisted Spinster


 

My friend has a red velveteen frog that lives on the arm of her red velvet sofa.

Her living room has become the gathering place for our little group, five of us, all single. We spend many a night on these couches, shoes kicked under the coffee table, ordering Chinese food, watching “American Idol.”

One day, I looked over at the frog, and I thought, that thing is so spinstery. And that’s when we named him Spinster Frog. We make him talk, which is hilarious to spinsters like us. He holds up his stuffed hand and says, “Slap me four” — because, of course, Spinster Frog only has four fingers. We pick him up and move his spindly arms and make him say things like, “Don’t go out with that guy, he wears bad shoes! Stay in and hang out with us. Spinster Frog hates second dates!”

Spinster Frog never turns into a prince. He celebrates spinsterhood.

It’s a good time to be a spinster, if you ask me, but before I tell you why let’s define our terms.

Spinster: “A woman who is not married, especially a woman who is no longer young and seems unlikely ever to marry.”

Of all the dictionary definitions I found, most of which are the same, this is my favorite because of the phrase “no longer young,” which I prefer to “old” as in “old maid.” I wish they would let me put “no longer young” on my driver’s license, under date of birth.

The word spinster doesn’t scare me. In fact, I love saying it. If you want to have some fun, just greet one of your girlfriends with a casual nod and a “Hey, spinster.” Of course you can only do this if you yourself are a spinster. Otherwise, you will be violating the cardinal rule of taking back terms that were once meant to malign (If my Jewish friend says, “Hey Heeb” that’s a funny greeting; if a non-Jew says that, it’s an ass-kicking).

At various times in history, spinsters were thought to be witches, lesbians and prostitutes — or worse, unattractive. They were even hired out as slave laborers in 17th-century England. Today, it’s hard to say what age is “no longer young” and who is “unlikely ever to marry.” For every woman who seems to be on the fast track to Spinsterville, there’s some 60-year-old hottie on the JDate of her life, meeting her soul mate.

True, many of my fellow spinsters would prefer marriage and are simply making the best of things until a man comes along. I myself like being in a committed relationship. I’m in one now. Still, I have to be honest; how can I get excited about entering into an agreement that’s easier to get out of than a cellphone contract? When one of our friends, a former member of our red couch clan, got engaged last week, she came over, told us the proposal story and showed us the ring. It was all very magical and romantic, even to a coal-hearted “no longer young” spinster like me. There were tears and genuine joy (although Spinster Frog was very sad) but a part of me had to think big whoop.

I just signed a deal with T-Mobile. Where’s my champagne?

OK, that sounded bitter, and spinsters really have to be careful to avoid the appearance of bitterness. I celebrate the ritual of marriage for those who want it. I say, “l’chaim” to you. In my now-engaged friend’s case, she couldn’t be happier. They are a perfect couple. Marriage was made for couples like this.

When telling us the proposal story, she recalled, “I barely even noticed the ring when he gave it to me, because my fantasy isn’t about a ring, it’s about being married.”

That was so beautiful.

And I wish I felt that way, but to be honest, I was thinking the opposite. I’d like some jewelry and a fun proposal story to tell my friends, but the lifetime of marriage part gives me the willies.

That’s just me. My point is, whether marriage seems enticing or not, there’s no hurry like there used to be, when you’d have to marry the last guy to take an interest in you before the spinster window shut. For most of recent history, if we weren’t married, we were pitied. These days, for every desperate spinster there’s a desperate housewife.

Teresa Strasser is a TV host and Emmy Award-winning writer. She’s on the Web at teresastrasser.com.

 

Have a Holly Jolly Schmooz-fest


Chinese-food-and-a-movie faces strong competition in our
city once again this year. This Christmas Eve, on a night that would otherwise
be distinguished by what we aren’t celebrating, Stu and Lew Productions brings
Jewish cheer with its “Schmooz-a-Palooza” party. Going on its 10 year, the
annual event for under-40 Jews has practically become an institution.

“We were the first, I think, great party that came to L.A.,”
said Lewis Weinger, the “Lew” behind the name. This year, the party again takes
place at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, and Weinger expects the
1,200-some tickets will sell out, as usual.

It began 10 years ago with two friends, Stuart Wax and Lewis
Weinger, and an idea to create a new way for Jewish singles to meet.

“I think what prompted me to start was that I felt there’s a
real need in the community to create a fun, hip place for young people to get
together and to party and hopefully date and marry within the faith,” said Weinger,
a self-described ba’al teshuvah (returnee to Jewish observance). 

While people typically think of “Schmooz-a-Palooza” as a
singles event, it’s evolved over the years. Today, Weinger runs the operation
without Wax, and the feel of “Schmooz-a-Palooza,” which this year falls on the
sixth night of Chanukah, has become more party than mixer. People come in
couples or in groups of friends, and schmooze, dance and mingle, or not, as
they choose.

“It’s become this networking, reconnecting, ‘Wow, we went to
camp together 10 years ago [sort of event],'” Weinger said. “From that whole
energy, I think there have been countless relationships, not only getting
married, but friendships and business connections.”

And realizing that not everyone loves a dance party, Stu and
Lew experiments this year with a chill alternative in the form of the loungey
House of Blues Foundation Room. A pricier VIP ticket grants guests entree to
the smaller penthouse room usually reserved for members — complete with couches
and a fireplace.

“I’m not looking to provide an exclusionary kind of atmosphere,”
Weinger said, “yet they said this room is small. We can only sell a limited
amount.”

In other words, plan ahead, or risk a night of take-out and
overpriced popcorn.

8 p.m.-2 a.m. $25 (general), $40 (VIP).
House of Blues, Los Angeles.

Love and Loyalty


We would always say that we were the ambassadors of love and happiness, causing people to smile as they passed by us, the chemistry almost touchable.

At that point, the fact that he was a Jew and I was an Italian Catholic didn’t seem to make much difference. We were in love and that was all that mattered.

As we traveled through our relationship and through the past two and a half years, we overcame many of the obstacles that couples face. We also embraced the issues that arose due to our interfaith relationship, knowing that it was an important and vital component, not something to put off or take lightly.

Our discussions about religion began early on and became a running dialogue. We started off slowly, trying to discuss this delicate topic without hurting any feelings, but soon realized that if the relationship were to proceed, the hard questions needed to be asked. How do you want your children to be raised? Can you accept symbols such as a Christmas tree or a menorah that reflect the other’s religion? Do you feel that you can be true to yourself and your faith if you have a partner who is of a different religion?

Having asked these questions, we knew that the answers were nowhere except within. We read, we discussed, we attended seminars about being interfaith, and we learned about each other. Through this and because of this, our love and relationship continued to grow.

David voiced to me during one of our many discussions that he felt very strongly about having his children bar or bat mitzvahed. Knowing that his father was a Holocaust survivor who has since passed away, I understood and empathized with his strong feelings about this, and I began to think. Raising Jewish children was not something I ever had to consider before, and when I met David, I initially assumed that we would do "both."

I then began to think more about David’s desires in regard to what I viewed as my greatest hopes for my future children: that they be kind, moral and believe in something larger than themselves. If these were the things that I regarded as most important, and if my spouse had such strong feelings, then getting there through Judaism rather than Christianity would be OK. Not always easy or natural for me, but OK.

You would think that any tension and unhappiness that arose regarding our interfaith relationship and its future would come from my family, since I had decided to raise my future children Jewish. However, it proved to be the opposite. My mother, although not happy with the decision, was supportive, realizing that these were my decisions to make, understanding that she would still play a significant role in her grandchildren’s lives. David’s mother, however, despite the sacrifice that I had decided to make for him, believed that it wasn’t enough and that he should still marry a Jewish woman. Her unhappiness with our growth as a couple soon became obvious and vocal. She expressed to him her belief that there must be a common base in order for a relationship to survive — and that base needs to be religion.

Slowly, the constant pressure, comments from and discussions with his immediate family began to chip away during two years of soul-searching, discussions and resolutions until David became torn and conflicted between our love and his loyalty to his family and religion. I understand that his family only wants the best for him. However, I also believe that there doesn’t need to be a choice between love and loyalty; that the two can co-exist if both people are willing to compromise in some way.

We, as a couple and as individuals, had reached a place where we both felt that we were being true to ourselves as well as to our religions. However, David’s growing inner conflict was something he could no longer resolve or even understand, and it hindered our growth. Knowing that this was something he needed to resolve within himself in order for our relationship to survive, we decided that it would be best for him to work it out alone. We decided to split up, putting our relationship and love to the ultimate test.

Being without him fills me with a tremendous sadness, as does the uncertainty of whether or not our roads will join together once again. I don’t know if the resolution of his inner conflict will reunite us or keep us apart. However, I understand that this is a journey I cannot take with him, and I can only pray that he finds the strength that I know he has within himself to find his own truth. I look at this as a time for answers, knowing that God has a plan.

If our love is as true and as strong as we believe, we will find our way through this and will be stronger for it — once again bringing smiles to other people’s faces as well as to our own.


Lia Del Sesto is a freelance graphic designer and professional vocalist from Providence, R.I. Reprinted courtesy of InterfaithFamily.com, a member of the Jewz.com Media Network.

The Rebbetzin Will Keep Her Name


One of the great debates after I became engaged to a rabbi was how I would be addressed by my husband’s congregation. I did not plan on changing either my first or my last names after my wedding, but this would be an unintelligible decision to the parishioners.

The world seemed to be divided between those who could not imagine why half of a couple would change half of her name upon entering into the holy bond of matrimony, and those who could not imagine not doing so. The members of my husband’s congregation fell into the latter category, and so, after I agreed to wed both my husband and his position, we debated how I should introduce myself without unduly violating their delicate sense of propriety.

“Viva Hammer, the Rebbetzin Weiss,” was one brilliant suggestion. It was in the fashion of the British royalty, a la, Sophie, the duchess of Wessex. This was somewhat of a mouthful, though, and eventually it became, “Hello, this is Viva, ahh, err, the rabbi’s wife.” There was always a slight hesitation after the “Viva,” as if I had to remember to delete my last name, in deference to cultural sensibilities of the congregation.

The members of the community, in their consummate wisdom, renamed me Mrs. Weiss. This particularly annoyed my husband, Aaron. “If you’re here at all,” he said, “it is purely in the capacity as my rebbetzin. You certainly would not have chosen this uplifting crowd as your community if you had been untitled!”

I never corrected anybody, though, whatever they chose to call me. Keeping my name is not part of a moral crusade for me. My name has always been Viva Hammer and I could not see any good reason to change it. To provoke an argument over my personal philosophy every time I introduced myself seemed futile. You either understood the concept or you didn’t.

My in-laws were somewhat in disbelief that they had acquired themselves a daughter who would not take on their name. My mother-in-law had written a well-publicized article a decade before denouncing the practice of keeping two names in a family. She argued that it detracted from the wholeness of the marital unity, and cited the verse: Mishpachotam l’vet avotam (Their families according to the houses of their fathers.) After Aaron and I read the article together, I got worried, thinking Aaron might start getting cold feet about my decision. He laughed. “This is my guide: is it written in the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law]? If there was some Jewish legal prohibition or strong custom, of course I couldn’t be an accomplice to your doing this. But family names are a gentile addendum to our own naming system, in which a person is the child of its parents from birth to death. I’m not going to forbid your keeping your last name based on some questionable extralegal mumbo-jumbo.”

What a relief! I thought to myself that there are certain benefits of marrying a man who was a strict interpreter of the law.

Still, my husband’s family always addressed me in person and in writing as Mrs. Weiss, and again I did not correct them. In fact, letters that were addressed to us as Rabbi Weiss and Viva Hammer were so rare, that I used to cut them out and keep them in a special file: the Hammer-Weiss album.

Things became more complicated when I found out I was pregnant. I had never made the children’s names a deal-breaker issue between us. Following my original philosophy, I was concerned to preserve the name I had used since birth, but did not feel strongly about how one acquired the birth name, since it was such an arbitrary process anyway. So offspring Weiss was fine with me. But my husband felt differently. He had always wanted us both to hyphenate our names, but knew that this would make him a laughingstock with his congregation and the rest of the religious world. Aaron felt that if the children only had his name, it would belittle the enormous physical and emotional sacrifice I had made to have them. He wanted our partnership in their lives to be manifest wherever they went. Besides, if the children started off double-barreled, they and the world would be used to the concept by the time the children became spiritual leaders of congregations, or whatever other profession they pursued. I was so proud and grateful to have married a man who thought this way.

So we navigated the bumpy territory between Aaron’s world and mine, and sometimes I found myself Mrs. Weiss and sometimes Viva Hammer, and sometimes Viva Hammer-Weiss. At my work, I was the master of my title, and no one had to know about the naming choices I had made. I had started my career as Viva Hammer and had never changed. It turned out, however, that in my white-shoe law firm, they were just as prejudiced as in my husband’s congregation. One day, an invitation arrived for a holiday party, addressed by hand in florid calligraphy.

“Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Hammer,” it read in bold letters.

“What’s this about?” Aaron asked, outraged at the error.

“Darling, now you know what it’s like to be retitled in honor of one’s spouse’s employer’s sensibilities. I think it’s quite a good compromise, don’t you? And G-d created Adam, man and woman he created them. A single, indivisible unit with your first name and my last. …”

And I cut out the lovely lettering and added it to the Hammer-Weiss file.

White Wedding


The Riemer family is something of a rarity in the Jewish world of post-Communist Central Europe.

Not only are Daniel Riemer and his wife Magda both Jewish, but both of their 20-something daughters, Zuzana and Sandra, have found Jewish men to marry.

This is no easy feat in a part of the world where intermarriage is the norm and where tiny, far-flung Jewish communities still suffer the effects of the Holocaust and Communist-era repression.

Zuzana Riemer’s wedding on Aug. 5 made local Jewish history. It was the first full-scale, traditional Jewish wedding for a member of Kosice’s Jewish community in 60 years.

"The message is that they’ve broken the ice," said Rabbi Hershel Gluck, a London-based Chasidic rabbi who officiated at the wedding. "In a place where for decades people have been battered — by the Holocaust, by communism, by internal squabbling and other difficulties of the post-Communist period — it says that positive and constructive things can happen here, too."

But the family’s nachas is bittersweet.

Both daughters are marrying foreign Jews and will be moving, or already have, to places far from Kosice, a city of 250,000 in the far eastern tip of Slovakia. Zuzana Riemer is moving to Los Angeles; Sandra Riemer made aliyah five years ago.

Not only are they leaving family and friends behind, but they also are moving away from a Jewish community struggling for survival.

"The most important thing is that they’re happy," their father says with a shrug.

The quest for a Jewish spouse is a universal preoccupation among Jews wherever they live.

But the challenge is particularly great in parts of Europe, where individual Jewish communities — such as Kosice’s — may be only a few hundred or even a few dozen individuals. There are only about 3,000 Jews, most of them middle-aged or older, in all of Slovakia.

"It’s not easy for young Jews to meet and marry in Europe," says Gadi Gronich, program director for Yachad, which is affiliated with the European Council of Jewish Communities and is described as Europe’s largest Jewish singles network.

With more than 3,000 Jewish singles in more than two dozen countries on its mailing list, Yachad organizes singles weekends, parties, trips and other events that generally attract 75 to 100 people from across Europe. Gronich says the events have resulted in at least 50 marriages.

Other communal and private organizations also aim to help Jewish singles meet and match.

"Except for the United Kingdom and France, we are speaking in Europe about small- and medium-size communities, so the chance to meet new people is very low," Gronich says.

Shawn Landres, a 29-year-old Los Angeles-born scholar of anthropology and religious studies, has a particularly incisive take on the issue.

He is working on a doctorate in religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, writing about "intimacy and memory among Generation X Jews in Los Angeles" — that is, an analysis of the L.A. Jewish singles scene.

He is also the new husband of Zuzana Riemer.

The couple met in 1998 at a winter sports gathering in the Tatra mountains, organized by the Union of Jewish Students for young Jews from several central European countries. At the time, Landres — who also is a research student in anthropology at Oxford University — was doing fieldwork in Slovakia, and actively looking for a bride.

"To me, marrying a Jew was a given. There was no question about it," he says. "The problem came in finding someone whose values and world view were even remotely similar to mine — and I did not meet anyone like this in the United States."

The couple’s Orthodox wedding was the first traditional Jewish wedding held in Kosice since the Holocaust. The pair had a civil wedding in Los Angeles last fall, but decided it was important to have a religious ceremony in Kosice to make a statement, even though neither is strictly observant.

"I don’t know if we inspired anyone to greater observance by doing the wedding this way, but we felt that it was important to show people the beauty of the ceremony and of Judaism," Landres said.

Both wearing white, the couple stood under a red, blue and gold velvet chupah in the Jewish community courtyard, flanked by the looming wall of a partially ruined synagogue.

Zuzana wore a floor-length gown in honor of her grandmother, who had not had the chance to wear a wedding dress. Her grandparents wed in haste during World War II, just one day before a mass deportation of unmarried women from Kosice.

The wedding was officiated by Gluck, who for more than 20 years has traveled widely in Europe to promote Jewish revival in small, far-flung communities.

He was aided by scholar Jonathan Webber, Landres’ doctoral adviser at Oxford, who carefully explained each step of the ceremony to guests, many of whom had little knowledge of traditional Jewish rites.

"We are celebrating a marriage in the way marriages were celebrated in this part of the world for hundreds of years," Gluck said. "Thank God we are here again, celebrating a marriage like this in Slovakia."

Still, Zuzana Riemer’s move to the United States means that the critical mass needed for Jewish survival in Kosice and Slovakia as a whole will be that much harder to achieve.

Landres doesn’t see it quite that way.

"I don’t feel as if I’m stealing Zuzana from the Slovak Jewish community, because I maintain close ties here and we plan to visit a lot," he says.

The Rebbetzin


Didi Carr Reuben was not keen about the idea of dating a rabbi, and on her first official date with Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, she was desperate for a way to get out of it.

"He’s a cute guy, but I couldn’t see cuteness," says Didi in her husky voice and Bronx accent. "All I [imagined] was a guy who was 98, 3 feet 2 inches, with a white beard, smelly; three teeth, davening in another language."

Little did this aspiring pop star know that two years later she would marry the rabbi, and eventually serve by his side as a rebbetzin of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades for more than 15 years.

The rabbi had noticed her striking looks and spirit when she auditioned as an entertainer for a banquet at his former synagogue. In the middle of their first date, Didi, thinking she had found an ingenious way to ward him off, looked him straight in the eye and said: "I’m an atheist, hard-core."

She waited for him to immediately scamper out, but instead, he assumed a rabbinic pose and simply said, "Frankly, I don’t give a –."

For Didi, that’s when the date began, she told The Journal. At that point, she found out she and Steven had a lot in common — in particular, that they both think outside the box. "He introduced to me a new notion of God," she says.

At the time, Didi was an actress (appearing in ABC’s 1977 television series "Sugar Time," among other shows) and a divorced mother of one. She had not stepped foot in a synagogue for 20 years. But after that magical first date, Didi found a new love, a new God, and ultimately a new career — that of a rebbetzin.

"If I had known what it was like to be a rebbetzin, it would have been exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up," she says.

That is, if she went by a nonstandard definition of the term. Didi, now 52, doesn’t act — or look — like the stereotypical modest and shy rebbetzin.

The license plate on her car reads "REBOTZN" — with the "O" in the shape of a heart. She is opinionated, provocative, sometimes raunchy; and her attention to fashion and appearance lends glamour to a role that is often considered devoid of glitz.

Her musical talents, sense of humor and boldness are useful in her social activism and community service. She works on the musical aspects of synagogue life, visits and entertains the sick, and is very active with her community’s teenagers, openly discussing sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll as part of their confirmation classes.

She seems to be doing something right. Since the couple moved in at Kehillat Israel in 1986, the number of families has risen from 225 to over 900. And Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben was recently installed as president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis and received honorary doctorates of divinity from both Hebrew Union College and the Reconstructionist College in Philadelphia.

But the added prestige and growing community haven’t tempered Didi’s outspoken personality.

Her husband laughs off his wife’s unconventionality. "She’s a New Yorker; she speaks her mind," he says. "I’m proud of who she is and I love who she is — all of her — you can’t separate one piece from another."

Satan in the Shtetl


“Great-grandma was a naughty girl,” says British filmmaker Ben Hopkins, whose feature debut, “Simon Magus,” is the tale of a Polish shtetl in peril.

The iconoclastic director’s single Jewish ancestor was the Eastern European mistress of an English gentleman in Vienna; in the 1910s, she moved to England to live with him and bear him (and other men) children. Her convent-educated daughter did not learn she was Jewish until she planned to marry. “Great-grandma told her she couldn’t wed in church, because she was Jewish,” says the Oxford graduate, who was raised as an atheist.

Nevertheless, around 1990, Hopkins says, “the Jews sitting around the samovar in our collective DNA came to life.” Grandmother began referring to herself as a Jew; father, an ancient historian, immersed himself in studies about first- and second-century Judaism; and Hopkins made an unexpected entry in his journal: “Make ‘Simon Magus’ a Jewish story.” “It was obviously written when I was drunk, as it is very scribbly,”confides the irreverent, award-winning filmmaker.

“Simon Magus,” the tale of a visionary outcast (Noah Taylor) who becomes a pawn in an anti-Semitic plot against his Jewish community, has an eerie, magical atmosphere reminiscent of the works of Yiddish author I.B. Singer. The movie, which stars Rutger Hauer and Embeth Davidtz (“Schindler’s List”) was inspired by the early Christian legend of Simon Magus, the Samaritan magician who attempted to buy himself a place among Christ’s disciples after Judas’s death. Hopkins, the struggling director, identified with the failed magician: “It quite accurately described my life at the time,” he says.

A coup for the director was casting prominent British thespian Ian Holm as Satan, a part that was relatively simple to write, Hopkins says.

“The devil is a fantastic character,” he explains. “God is a bit boring.”

“Stuart Magus” opens today at the Nuart in Los Angeles.