It was my sophomore year and a group of us were gathered in a dorm room, teenage bodies splayed across beds and chairs and floor. I don’t recall exactly what prompted the conversation, but someone asked a dorm mate, an Indian national, to talk about the possibility of arranged marriage.
“That’s crazy,” complained one of my friends. “To assume that the person you are meant to be with happens to be from your ethnic group. You could find him anywhere. It’s racist.”
Well, that stopped me in my tracks. Since hiding in that tiny, crowded room wasn’t really an option, I just sat still, hoping no one would notice me. And it might have worked, if not for my close friend who announced to my horror, “Leah will only date and marry Jews.” Despite all of my attempts to be seen as a left-leaning, color blind, student of the world, I had just been called out as a bigot. Awesome.
I grew up in a Jewish bubble. Day school, Jewish camps, Israel, shul every shabbat. When I got to public high school, it was in a town that was more than fifty percent Jewish. During our senior year, an Episcopalian friend described what it was like having her first non-Jewish boyfriend: “I feel a little guilty,” she said.
I went on one of the first ever teen trips to Poland and Israel, where we were constantly reminded that we were personally responsible for keeping the Jewish people alive. For some, I imagine, it was a lot of pressure. Not for me. The rules about dating in my house were clear. Date Jewish boys. Marry a Jewish man. End of rules. I was a good girl, and I never questioned them.
And then I got to college.
I found a home at Hillel and in other Jewish organizations, but in my dorm, I was one of only a few members of the tribe. For the first time in my life, most of my friends were decidedly not like me. This was no accident. I had chosen my university over others closer to home because I had watched as friends and relatives went off to Columbia or Barnard and then came home every other weekend. Or they went to Brandeis with a cohort of fifty of their closest friends from summer camp. I made a conscious decision to go where my Judaism would have to be my choice and my responsibility.
If left to my own devices, would I still choose to keep Shabbat? To keep kosher? To only date Jews? That last question turned out to be the hardest one to figure out. I was spending my time studying languages and African history, living in an International Studies dorm where diverse backgrounds and cultural experiences were the norm. I was, and remain, an unabashed liberal who prides herself on valuing difference and tolerance. How could I shut myself off in the most intimate of ways just because of religious difference? Did my Jewish commitments make me a racist?
During my senior year, I got a strange request from my Hillel rabbi. I often babysat his sweet, plump-cheeked little girls, and he knew I could hang with kids. Now he had a favor to ask of me. A family had called him. They had no connection to the Jewish community, but had suddenly decided they needed a private Jewish tutor to ensure that their children wouldn’t intermarry. Freshly returned from a year in Jerusalem, I was filled with the confidence of someone who had navigated third-year Russian classes conducted in Hebrew, long days in the Interior Ministry, and ongoing battles with an Iraqi plumber. I could handle anything.
Or so I thought. Because when I got to their big, sprawling, suburban home—which bore no evidence of their Jewishness—I was less sure. And when their little boy blurted out that he wanted to be Christian because they had presents, and Jews (in his experience) had nothing—I quietly told them I would not be their tutor, and that they needed to find a community. And I started to think seriously about the kind of parent I wanted to be someday. Why did this family even care if their children intermarried? Would they have had an answer for those dorm mates of mine, staring me down like I was waving a confederate flag?
After college I dated a number of different Jewish guys and started to hone in on what was truly important to me. A nice looking Israeli asked me out in line at the kosher bakery. After a couple of dates, it was clear that his personal religion involved serious worship of cash. Then an old friend suggested I go out with her boyfriend’s brother. He was handsome and articulate and I thought maybe it could lead to something. But then I discovered a problem: Kissing a boy who had just eaten a non-kosher burger? Startlingly unappealing.
Then I got a call from someone I had met at a party. He was newly religious, and a prominent right-wing Republican. For a few dates, I managed to avoid politics—maybe I could have avoided it for a long time. But the moment I knew we were done? Sitting in a kosher restaurant he was explaining to me how women don’t have the arrogance necessary to represent the congregation before God. And that’s when I stood up. “Really? I didn’t know you needed arrogance for that. I thought you needed humility.” And I walked out, leaving him with the check. Apparently I was more intolerant than I thought.
When I met the man I would eventually marry, before we even went out on our first real date, we found ourselves discussing what we wanted our homes to be like someday. We talked about electricity on Shabbat, day school, Israel. Not romantic? What about “love will find a way”? To me, though—to us—these imaginings were the most powerful aphrodisiac. To know, to be sure, that we shared each other’s vision of what our little bubble would look like. It was such a relief. I could feel myself exhale.
When our eldest son was in third grade, he was obsessed with religions. Next to the computer, he left a stack of notecards with facts about Zoroastrianism, Islam, the Navajo. It was really incredible to watch. Walking to shul on Shabbat, as he asked his eleventh question about the Baha’i, his siblings rolled their eyes. I worried a little that all his studies would pull him to explore those exotic other cultures from the inside. Now that he’s approaching his Bar Mitzvah, his interests have continued to expand. He pushes and strains against the bubble we have created. But recently, his answer to the question, “When have you felt God’s presence?” was telling. “When we daven Kabbalat Shabbat together, as a family,” he said.
But what about that worried girl, desperate to disappear from that dorm room confrontation? A racist? I didn’t know what to say. I sat, tongue-tied, as each face in the room turned toward me in horror. I was saved, though, by my knight in shining armor—the very friend who had exposed my Jewish dating habits moments earlier. He was a newly-out 19-year-old, always on the lookout for subtle (and not so subtle) homophobia, and by extension, all kinds of discrimination. I really couldn’t have anticipated what he was going to say next.
“Have you even met Leah?” he practically shouted, “Have you seen how she never misses Shabbat services? Do you realize that she always offers to be responsible for the food for our parties so she can make sure there will be something for her to eat? How she made endless batches of latkes for the entire dorm on her single electric burner? Who should she choose to make a home with?”
I very much want that to be the dream for my own kids as well. But I don’t tell them that they need to marry a Jew to replace the people who died in the Shoah, or so our grandmothers don’t turn over in their graves, or to bolster our survey numbers. It feels like staying Jewish on a dare. All I can hope is that they continue to find flashes of the divine, enveloped in the bubble we call home.
(Image via Shutterstock.)