Every love story has so many details leading up to it that in themselves are small miracles, and ours is no exception. Layers upon layers, there are a myriad of factors that in retrospect come together in perfect harmony to bring us to our destined one. We are taught that there are armies of Mal’achim (‘angels’) working for the Infinite, putting us in situations to encourage our development, urging us to grow into the best possible versions of ourselves, influencing us to be in the right place at the right time to meet our soulmates.
For me and my husband, it required crossing the ocean numerous times. We often joke that our angels must have been especially frustrated: it turns out that there were quite a few moments that we were supposed to meet and again and again one of us thwarted the opportunity or we somehow missed each other by minutes. Amongst the numerous trials we faced in becoming one, it was the actual decision to date that was hardest for us both, and went against almost everything I had been taught about dating during my religious transformation. It is that ‘almost’ that allowed me to take the brave step to date someone that seemed all wrong except for the most important thing. And it is for that reason that I get to spend every single day with the one person that has taught me to love and give in ways that I never dared hope possible.
It wasn’t love at first sight.
I was fresh off the Aliyah-making airplane, besotted with the land of Israel, having solidified my ba’al teshuva status and finally completing my conversion to Judaism. (Those aren’t contradictory – another essay for another time.) I was donning stockings in the Middle Eastern heat, wearing muted colors in cuts that didn’t cling, flaming with passion for Torah and Judaism. My Aliyah perks covered free tuition for a Master’s degree and I had a performance scholarship on top of that; this was the only reason I happened to be sitting in the lobby of the Jerusalem Academy, ready to meet the members of my chamber music group for the year.
At best I found him naively annoying. I still remember when I first saw the guy, clad in cargo shorts, a printed tshirt, sandals, and of course, no Kippah. He wore his red hair long, and walked with a jaunty step, violin slung over his shoulder. As soon as he opened his mouth I rolled my eyes – ‘gung ho’ is an understatement about how he felt regarding music and how excited he was about our group. He had known some of these students for over a decade, and we had been selected to play together and represent the school’s best. Oy. He also happened to be the only person in the group of five that spoke English, so as much as he irked me, he was my only means of communication to schedule meeting times.
To put it lightly, our rehearsals were rocky. I truly didn’t want to be there, but in order to get my scholarship I had to continue playing with these secular Israeli musicians. In the country that I had made my home, this was the only place where I felt like an outsider and by far he was the one that antagonized me the most. The thing that was most disturbing to me was his apparent pure love for playing his instrument; my own relationship with my cello was fraught with conflict and pain. I was jealous of how easily he fell into the role of group leader, as my introverted leadership skills left much to be desired. He talked. A lot. And he practiced. A lot. I was also bugged by his ease around me, treating me like just another human being instead of the wariness that I was used to from secular Israelis.
One evening our rehearsal ran late and he offered me a ride home. As he maneuvered the car near my apartment, he asked me with the characteristic bluntness that I was getting used to from the new culture I was now a part of:
“Why did you become religious?”
I opened my mouth to tell him my stock response when I noticed the seriousness on his face. I hesitated.
“Do you want the short or long version?”
“I want the real version.”
So I told him. I still don’t know what inspired me be so frank with this virtual stranger who I had no desire to get to know better. I told him what I had been searching for my whole life, how I had found tastes of it in music but not enough to nourish my soul. I told him of my childhood and teenage rejection of Judaism, the loneliness of my philosophical studies. I told him the strange story of what happened to me on Birthright, and how I had discovered that my ‘perfect’ musician’s life was a lie. I spoke about one of the most difficult decisions in my life: to hold on to what I had found on that trip, and fight for it, to be brave in ways I knew might cost me everything that I had worked for up until then. I told him about my mother’s death, about discovering that I may not be Halachically Jewish, about converting. I spoke for over an hour.
This man who couldn’t keep quiet in rehearsal, who shared his opinions like rain and asked questions without holding back, was silent. And with his probing silence and earnest gaze he urged me to keep speaking. To tell my truth: no watering down, no excuses or rationalizations. I told him about the things I normally didn’t share even with my closest friends: of truths that I knew beyond a doubt but didn’t reside in my usual cocoon of logic. As I finished speaking and looked over at the person sitting beside me, I knew that he’d understood everything I had said, even the silences that were spoken between my words.
I lay in bed that night, terrified, and made a quick decision to cut off this budding friendship. I couldn’t fathom what had come over me. Why did I tell him so much? Why did I bare my soul to this secular Israeli boy with whom I had nothing in common and put up with only because his English skills allowed me to keep my scholarship? I had just gone through the painful process of severing ties with all my closest male friends so that I could start dating and find my soulmate in my soul country. Why was I inviting yet another one in? And one that was so wrong in terms of the woman I wanted to be?
Ironically it turns out that he was laying in bed making a similar decision. Sure, he thought I was pretty, but I was a flaming religious American that had left the musical opportunities he’d yearned for his whole life in order to move to the country he was planning on leaving. (I’m Canadian really, but to him we were all the same.) Sure, he liked my cello playing, but forging a friendship with me was fraught with moral and cultural complications that he wasn’t willing to take on. Never mind his own conflicted history with religious Judaism that he had put on hold until he sorted out his musical career. He’d recently decided that he was devoting his energy this year solely to practicing and auditioning for programs in America. He had no time for girls, especially a crazy religious blonde.
Our relationship became cold and cordial and for once, our chamber group started making some progress.
Then I had a dream that changed everything.
In the dream, we were sitting beside each other. He looked exactly the same, yet there were lines around his eyes that I knew were from years of smiling. Yes he looked exactly the same, but for the first time, I realized that he was beautiful. He was doing nothing except looking at me, and his eyes shone with something that I had never seen in any human being before. Smiling through those eyes, with love and understanding that burst out of every cell, he looked at me. And he saw me. All of me. He saw everything, and with dawning comprehension I realized that he loved everything I was with a depth that I couldn’t comprehend. I didn’t know that it was possible to look at someone in such a way, especially me; to see into every part of my soul, to ignite the infinite spark that resided within, to love the cracks and fill them with binding glue. Under his gaze, I became whole. I finally saw myself in his eyes, and subsequently through Gd’s eyes. Beautiful, capable, able to love and be loved. And my dream self knew that if I was brave, one day this man would look at me like this for the rest of our time on earth.
I woke the next morning with that gaze burned into my psyche. Looking in the mirror, I knew I had changed. And I knew that I was in trouble. The truth of that dream left a taste in my mouth that could not and would not leave. It was the promise of love that I had never dared dream possible, and I knew beyond logic, beyond reason, that it was the real deal.
Needless to say I morphed into full-blown crush mode, acting in a way that I thought I had left behind in my giggly teenage years. I couldn’t look him in the eyes. I blushed, I stumbled. My playing was out of tune and self conscious. All in all, I acted like a complete idiot. When I could no longer stand myself, I surrendered my heart and retreated farther than I had before. And yet that look on his face came to me in more dreams and I couldn’t let go no matter how hard I tried.
Post-Aliyah life went on, and with every passing day I felt more helpless and confused. As much as I tried to avoid how I felt, I had to keep on seeing him for rehearsals, humiliating as they were. I was frustrated with my Creator for putting me into this situation and angry at myself for not being able to let go of the whole shebang. I simply could not fathom how I would ever be able to put these contradictory pieces together in any sort of sensible way.
While this whole internal conflict was happening, I had also delved into the murky world of dating in the religious community: meeting with Rabbis, sharing my worldview, my goals, my religious parameters. Ideas were sparked, proposals were made, and phone calls took place between references. I was gearing up to go on my first date with someone who seemed to meet my criteria. Before deciding on a time and place, I had one last meeting with my Rebbetzin, who was involved in putting together the match. Suddenly she raised her hand to stop my chattering.
“Andrea what’s wrong? For all your passion and genuinity, you sit here about to go out with someone who seems perfect for you and all the light has gone out of your eyes. Why aren’t you excited about this? What’s going on?”
Her words were like a sharp pin that burst the balloon of pressure I had been carrying. I burst into tears. When I got myself together I looked at her, the woman who loved me and always ‘got’ me, even when I didn’t get myself. The woman who I connected with the first time I heard her speak, who had guided me through my most difficult transitions and seemed to accept me implicitly. Through all the years, the greatest gift she has given me is her trust, and through that trust, I have learned to trust myself. But on that day, I looked at her, and for the first time was terrified to tell her what I was thinking.
“Who is he?”
She knew. Of course she knew. The woman has Binah up the ying yang and I should have been used to it by then, but of course she shocked me yet again. I started telling her about him, details of his life and what I knew of his history, his plans to go to America, his violin playing. Stuttering and stumbling over my words, I arrived at his Kippah-less-ness and she held her hand up again.
“No no. Tell me about him. Who is he really?”
I opened my mouth and then closed it. And suddenly it hit me: what had been glaringly obvious all along yet I’d refused to see. I remembered my first conversation with her about marriage, when we had discussed the sharing of life goals, building a home together, supporting and helping each other to become the best possible versions of ourselves. She had told me about how hard it was, how marriage would test me in ways I had never been tested, but how incredible the potential was to build something so beautiful together. Amongst discussing Hashkafic concerns and ideal personality traits she had ended by telling me to go home and focus on figuring out only one thing.
“You must ask yourself and discover, what is your bottom line? What do you live for? Why are you here? What is the root of everything that you stand for, the basis that everything is built on? What is that one thing, the most important thing to you? When you find that, you’ll know what you’re looking for in your Beshert. The other stuff is important, but it is not the most important. This one thing is the most important, and the rest, while hopefully making your life easier, is negligible. I usually tell girls to narrow it down to three things, but from you, I want one.”
I had thought about it long and hard, for it was a hard question. I had prayed for clarity and peeled away at the layers of my soul, finally coming to the one thing that I lived for, the one gift I’d been given that I was best at, the main reason that I was here. And that was genuinity. It all came down to my ability to be truly honest with myself, to examine my motivations with insight and bravery. What drove every major decision in my life was my deep desire to be able to go to sleep at night feeling honest and whole, and to be brave in service of that wholeness, whatever the cost. That was where I could be infectious, what I had to give, and that was why I was here. Genuinity was my bottom line. And that was what I needed my soulmate to have, what we together needed to bring to the world. I had never even considered that my secular crush might also live for my one thing, the same bottom line, but suddenly it came into clear focus. When she asked me about who he really was, I realized that he was genuinity. He was my bottom line in every interaction that we’d had. I brought it out of him, and he brought it out of me.
I told her about this. I told her about his beautiful idealism, about how his naiveté annoyed me yet had indescribable depth and was something that I strived for. I told her about my recurring dream and how his gaze was something that I held with me every moment. I told her about how he scared me.
“Andrea, I know you’re scared and don’t expect me to say this, but I give you my blessing. Most of all, I trust you and I want you to trust yourself. I don’t think you should walk away from this, and I don’t think you can walk away from this. If genuinity is what you live for then we both know exactly why you have met this man in this way. I know it makes you angry, I know this is not how it’s usually done. But has anything in your journey been how it’s usually done? This is not going to be easy, but I have seen this sort of relationship work. I know it goes against so much of what you’ve been taught, but I am not Gd and neither are any of your Rabbis. Gd has put you in this situation for a reason and I do not think you’ll be able to live with yourself unless you try.”
She smiled impishly. “I can’t wait to meet him.”
And that’s what gave me the clarity I needed to accept my mission and start meeting his eyes in rehearsal once again. The truth is that I found my Beshert by not following almost all the teachings and marriage advice I received. If it hadn’t been for one mentor I trusted giving me the go ahead, I would likely be single, married to the wrong person, or divorced by now. Maybe one day I will be as brave as she was and have enough Binah to advise others with that much foresight, but as of now, it truly bothers me that if a friend was in a similar situation, I would hesitate to suggest dating and marrying someone in the way I did. It is sad that my fear of going against conventional wisdom might discourage someone from knowing the joy that I’ve been granted. Maybe writing about this is the start that I need to help reconcile the contradiction.