After twelve plus years of Yeshiva education, I was dating a Catholic-raised atheist and lying to my parents about it. I met Brian during my freshman year at Binghamton University. He was the type of boy I was always warned about—a gentile. Before I left for school all I heard was, “Be careful. Stay away from those goyish men!” It was mostly my grandmother and concerned aunts and uncles talking. My parents didn’t think I needed the warning and, truthfully, neither did I: the idea of dating outside my religion never even dawned on me, and Brian and I never dated at Binghamton. I transferred to Baruch College after my freshman year. There were more Jews in New York City than upstate New York; everyone thought I’d dodged a bullet.
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox family and community in Staten Island. More modern than orthodox—my Mom wore pants and we ate dairy out—but observant nonetheless. Shabbat was spent at home with televisions and phones switched off. Thousands and thousands of dollars were spent on private Jewish education. All my neighbors were Jewish. During my year away at Binghamton, I was getting up early to pray and staying home on Friday nights while my floor-mates hit the bars downtown. The kids I grew up with all went off onto their proverbial roads of observance or non-observance, but the thing we all shared was the undeniable fact that we would never, ever bring a non-Jew home to meet the parents.
Almost two years ago, Brian decided to visit New York for a weekend. It was the summer before he started law school and the summer before my last semester of undergrad. On a blistering Friday in June he took a train down from Albany, where he lived, and I met him in front of Penn Station. We had been keeping in touch since I left, and it was easy to have a platonic relationship with him because I never thought of him as a potential partner. After all, he wasn’t Jewish.
That first weekend visit started out weirdly. There were some pauses and searches for small talk. We tried to chase away awkwardness with shared beer pitchers over bar tables. I showed him all my favorite haunts and he spoke to me about starting law school. Somehow, amidst a sea of neon bar lights and college memories, a switch got turned on. The years we spent talking, before dating, we shared a lot, which made slipping into something more than friendship easy. The night before he was due to go back home he said to me, “I think if I was here, I’d pursue this.” Without asking, I knew what he meant. But I left it alone.
My battle with religion had hit a point of almost complete non-observance at the time. Before Brian, I hadn’t thought about my religion in a while. I was describing myself as culturally Jewish, which to me meant that I didn’t believe in God or religious observance, but I did value my heritage. I had gotten over the fear that if I turned on a light on Shabbat I would be punished in the world to come. I was going out on Friday nights and spending Saturdays watching Netflix in my Manhattan studio. Still, I was only eating kosher meat and had no intention of ever being with someone of a different faith. I reached a point of simple living.
When Brian and I started dating, I had to rethink it all. We officially became a couple in November 2012, a few months after his first weekend visit, but we counted our anniversary from our first date in July, when we saw the Woody Allen film To Rome with Love. We climbed up the stairs of an old Soho theater. I still have the stubs in a box of things I hid that year.
The first few months of our relationship, I kept telling him that it could never go anywhere. After that, I spent the next few months convincing myself that it wasn’t going anywhere. It was just young love, it would fade. But before I knew it I was twenty-two and we were exchanging I love yous and having our one-year anniversary. And in all that time I was lying to my parents and everyone else I knew.
Because Brian was in law school in Albany, it made running around the truth a little easier. My parents knew that we were very good friends but didn’t think anything more of it—at least, that’s what I thought. Brian would visit about one weekend a month and I would tell my parents I was spending the weekend with other friends, offering names and lies and false locations with ease. My parents had always been my best friends and I felt that I was betraying them. And with the guilt of deception came worries about the future: I always loved Friday night dinners and holidays with my family, and I wanted to raise my kids in an environment similar to the one I grew up in. Brian, being an atheist, didn’t care much about his own religious holidays. But could I convince him to partake in mine? He was careful of how he approached the topic of my faith and my family, but some nights I watched his face contort in a mess of anger and our time would end in yelling. He knew that I was holding back.
Ultimately, eleven months into our relationship, Brian and I had The Talk. I told him everything I needed from him if our relationship was going to continue, and he agreed to convert. To take on my life. I always thought he did it too quickly, but I was so grateful. “It’s a small price to pay, “ he said, “to have you.”
Though Brian was on board, the idea of a life with him was eating away at me. My parents were asking about other men. And every Friday when I phoned my grandmother to wish her a Shabbat shalom, she would say “Yeah, yeah, thank you. Meeting any nice Jewish men?” Usually I just told her I was working on it. Other times I asked if she’d prefer a lawyer or a doctor. While all this was whirling around me, my nights were consumed by panic attacks.
A year and two months after Brian and I started dating, on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, Mom and I took a walk. As a group of black-hatted Orthodox men walked by, she told me she knew about my secret life. She had been letting me lie to her. I rushed to explain, through tears, that I never meant to lie. That I had spoken to Brian about converting. I let the story of the past year vomit out of me, and Mom listened. She had sensed my anxiety, and wanted to help relieve the burden. All she said was, “This is obviously not the life I want for you, and it won’t be easy, but if he cares about you, then who am I to stop it?”
Brian and I are no longer together. A few weeks ago, after almost two years of dating, we decided to take a break. I’m in the second semester of my MFA writing program in New York and Brian is still in law school, in Albany. In a way, my parents knowing about us took the focus off our religious differences, and put it onto the actual relationship. So the break was not about Brian’s being Jewish or not Jewish, it was about us, together. I don’t regret being with him. Though at the time I felt panicked about all the lying and secrets and the kind of future Brian and I would share, it taught me a lot about myself. I learned that who I date is not nearly as important as what I am.
Daniella Bondar is a MFA Creative Writing Nonfiction student at The New School. Wandering New Yorker. Insomniac. She’s working on a memoir about her gold dress phobia. Follow her on twitter and find her writing at DaniellaRobin.com.
(Image via Shutterstock.)