The rabbi and the yogi
My husband, Jeremy, and I first met Rabbi Moshe Greenwald and his wife, Rivky, at a Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony in Pershing Square in 2010, when we were just dating. Two years later, when we talked about getting married, I decided to convert to Judaism. Jeremy was born Jewish and I was eager to join the tribe. So, I looked up Rabbi Moshe (the only rabbi I had ever met at the time). I was prepared for a very traditional experience — like Charlotte from “Sex in the City” — with the three refusals and all. But that’s not what I got.
The rabbi and I met, and he heard me out, and then he suggested I set aside the idea of conversion for the moment and start by learning as much as I could about Judaism.
But then I mentioned I was a yoga teacher. He said he was trying yoga for the first time in hopes of getting in shape. He’d chosen Bikram yoga — a practice completely void of any religious teachings with an emphasis on physical stamina. For those who aren’t familiar, Bikram yoga is intense. And he was struggling with it.
He proposed a trade. He would make himself available to answer all of my many, many questions if, in return, I would act as a kind of yoga consultant, offering him explanations, tips and context to help make the practice more accessible. This sounded like a really good deal to me. He would offer me guidance in whatever I wanted to learn — prayers, Hebrew, Jewish culture, whatever. And I would help him deepen his yoga practice.
But here’s the thing: I’m me. And he is an Orthodox Chabad rabbi.
So there would be rules. I would just have to figure out what they were.
I had no way of knowing this agreement would evolve into a limitless exchange of emails, texts and sidebar conversations during Shabbat dinners. And in those exchanges a friendship was born. We shared experiences as a way of cracking open the wisdom and traditions in which we were each versed.
He taught me about the importance of drawing spirituality into the physical world.
And I taught him to be patient and compassionate with himself.
This wasn’t like any friendship I had ever known. Usually, when you become friends with someone, you are drawn together by a common experience — like school or work. We seemed to come from two polar-opposite worlds. And yet, when we shared yoga and Judaism, our very different worlds didn’t highlight the ways in which we were different. They did the opposite — they showed us how much we were alike. I was a daydreaming, soon-to-be-engaged, L.A. yogi. He was family man leading a congregation in one of the most diverse communities in Los Angeles.
But, at the end of the day, we were just two people trying to figure out life in the best way we knew how — two people trying to balance obligations and forgive ourselves for being imperfect.
Despite connecting on a very human level, there were these rules that seemed to draw boundaries around our relationship. Like, touch. In case you aren’t familiar with the rules of Orthodox Judaism, an Orthodox man will not touch a woman unless he’s married to her. To Rabbi Moshe, touch was reserved for his wife only.
But I’m a really affectionate person. I hug my friends. A lot. Shoot, I’ll hug a complete stranger. In the time we spent together, I felt the impulse to hug him as I would any of my friends, male or female. Because touch wasn’t allowed, and my primary concern was always acting out of respect, I became clumsy and stupid around him, literally leaping out of the way when he passed by, or dropping books because I couldn’t figure out what to do with my fingers when handing one to him. Over time, I was able to relax because I realized it wasn’t all that hard to live within this boundary.
There’s this other rule. As an Orthodox Jew, not only was Rabbi Moshe prohibited from officiating at my wedding, he couldn’t even attend the ceremony because I ended up converting to Judaism under the tutelage of a Conservative rabbi, not an Orthodox rabbi. I learned this long before my husband and I were engaged, so I never even asked. Though when we finally announced our engagement, he called to congratulate us and wish us a lifetime of blessings. He expressed a desire to be there. But he couldn’t be.
Though I wasn’t surprised at all by this, I was disappointed. People asked if I was offended. I wasn’t.
I don’t need to be an Orthodox Jew to relate to one. I don’t need to live in that world or follow those rules.
To take this one step further — I don’t need to be gay, or Asian American, or transgender, or living below the poverty level to connect to those experiences. I only need to be human.
I may not agree with all the rules of Orthodox Judaism. But I can respect them. And that’s enough.
The truth is, we all have rules we live by. We may not be wearing outward signs of them everywhere we go, but they’re there. And sometimes we hate the rules. Ask any teenager, and she’ll tell you rules suck. But without them, we wouldn’t know what’s important, what’s sacred, what’s worth drawing a boundary around. Whether we’re standing on the edge of a cliff, or speeding down a highway or exploring a relationship, without rules, we might not know when we’ve gone too far until it’s too late.
This year, on the first night of Passover, my family gathered in the ballroom of the Alexandria hotel to celebrate with the entire downtown Jewish community, with Rabbi Moshe at the helm. I witnessed one of the sweetest sights I’ve ever seen — Rabbi Moshe swooped up my toddler son in his arms and began to sing “Oseh Shalom.” My husband joined, and very soon a small group of men were circling in the center of the room.
But then a young woman approached the circle of men to join in. So, right — women cannot dance with Orthodox men. Without missing a beat in the song, my rabbi kindly told her the circle was only for men. It was an easy mistake to make. She was moved by the spirit of the moment and wanted to join. Her only mistake was in not knowing the rules.
An embarrassing moment for sure, but a human one. Looking back, I wish I had jumped up to dance with her. Women can start their own circles and dance separately.
But it was OK. She’s learning the rules. We’re all learning the rules. And in doing so, we often come right up against the edge of our comfort zones. Sometimes we even step out of them.
Shoot, I practically live in that space, teetering on the edge of my comfort zone. And I’m happy for it. Because as a result, I have a lifelong friendship with, yes, an Orthodox Chabad rabbi that both thrives within the boundaries and transcends them.
Jazmine Aluma is a Los Angeles-based writer, yogi and mother. Her blog, WritingInBold.com, is where she explores and shares all the ways in which she gets life wrong and the truths she discovers along the way. Her work has been seen in The Huffington Post, Bust.com, LA Weekly and LA Yoga magazine, among others.