Dealbreaker: I Wasn’t Jewish Enough

I never thought I’d be the type of woman to date a religious guy.

A Reform Jew by upbringing, my family ate bagels, lox, and pickled herring on Sundays, lit our Menorah every Hanukkah, and sat through services on the High Holy Days. I learned how to pronounce the word afikomen. My mom referred to my face as a beautiful punim and hoped that someday I would meet a nice mensch and get married. Throughout elementary and middle school, I attended Hebrew school, but mostly for the social rather than the religious aspect. The most exciting part of my Bat Mitzvah, I’m ashamed to admit, was the lavish reception I had in my temple’s ballroom complete with street dancers, a DJ, and gourmet buffet. After I had opened the last of my Bat Mitzvah gifts, I left organized Judaism to pursue more free-spirited religious activities of the bohemian/New Age persuasion. It wasn’t that I stopped believing in the Jewish faith — though I’m not sure I ever completely bought the doctrine — it was just that it never moved me.

My initial instinct was to feel slightly uncomfortable about his religious devotion. In the past I’d dated guys with religious backgrounds — from Jewish to Catholic– but one thing they had in common was that they were not religious. Religion is never something that came up in my many years of dating.

As I got older I found that I preferred to be spiritual privately and only in ways I chose at moments I chose. An empty religious practice is just that to me — empty. I prefer to receive my messages from God by way of iPod shuffle or the beautiful pattern on peacock feathers. I’ve heard God’s voice at unexpected moments; in yoga class, while listening to music, practicing meditation, reading poetry, picnicking in Paris, or while running a half marathon. I believe in synchronicity, I know there is some sort of greater order and purpose to life and I connect with that higher power in my own ways. Post-college, I fully adopted this practice of Spiritual Eclecticism. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it, it’s a religion of my own invention. It is a conglomeration of rituals that resonate with Me. I use anything I find useful and toss the rest.

I had been fully immersed in Spiritual Eclecticism for a good 10 years when I met Andrew* at the Apple store. It was late on a Thursday evening and New York City was in the throes of a spring rainstorm. I was trying to entertain myself by reading a book while waiting for one of the tech geniuses to transfer my important documents onto my new computer. When I spotted Andrew at the Genius Bar, I had the odd sensation that I knew him from somewhere. His face looked familiar to me, so I stared at him a little longer than is appropriate. He came over to me and introduced himself, but not before teasing me for being the only person in history who read a book in the Apple store.

Andrew, I discovered, was there to get his “Z” key replaced after he had “accidentally sucked it up with a dust buster.” This admission gave me something to tease him about (he was the first person in history to use a dust buster to clean his computer). Instantly, I liked Andrew.

“Are you Jewish?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, which was the simplest response, because technically, I am. Even if I am not a Jew religiously, I am a Jew culturally. I proudly embrace my heritage.

We had been dating for two weeks before Andrew revealed why he couldn’t hang out with me on Friday night or Saturday during the day.

“I have to go to Shul,” he said, “For Sabbath.”

It was as if he just told me he had to hop on a shuttle to the moon. While I know lots of Jews, I’ve never known any that observe Shabbat formally.

“Really?” I asked. “Do you celebrate every weekend?”

He did. Andrew was an Orthodox Jew who went dark every week from Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown. When I say “dark,” I mean no cellphone, no email, no communication whatsoever. The period was extended during religious holidays such as Passover and Shavuot (which I had never even heard of before I met him). He also took time every evening to say prayers, kept Kosher, and set aside Sunday afternoons once a month to help fix up a temple in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood.

My initial instinct was to feel slightly uncomfortable about his religious devotion. In the past, I’d dated guys with all types of religious backgrounds — from Jewish to Catholic– but one thing they had in common was that they were not religious. Religion is never something that came up in my many years of dating.

I reasoned with myself. Would you rather have a boyfriend who spends Friday night praying or partying? Praying, I decided. The more I got to know Andrew, the more I grew to respect the moral compass religion provided him. In a modern dating world that can be ugly and heartless, I came to trust that Andrew would always regard me with kindness and respect, which is more than I can say about many of the jack wads I’ve gone out with. Not that he was perfect as a boyfriend — he was far from it– it’s just that I knew without a doubt that he was a mensch. And knowing that was enough to get me through the moments of doubt that surfaced when I considered how our religious differences might eventually come to a head. I knew they would, I just didn’t know when.

After about two months of dating, I asked him, “Is it a problem for you that I am not religious?” I began asking him this question about once a week.

His answer was the same each time. “Unclear.”

Each time he would say it, my stomach would somersault. Our future together was unclear then, too.

Sometimes, I’d offer to observe with him. “I don’t like to try to convert people” he said in response.

“You’re not converting me,” I argued. “I’m already Jewish. I want to know more about your faith so I can know more about you.”

He never took me up on the offer and we went on in that state of “unclear” limbo for another two months. Then, about a week ago, Andrew and I got into a tiff. I was trying to get in touch with him after he had been out of town. I had some family stuff going on and I wanted his voice of reason to calm me down. It was Sunday night, so I knew his cellphone was on. After one phone call and a couple of texts, nothing.

“Where were you?” I blurted out when he finally called me back the next day.

“I was at the grave of a famous Rabbi,” he explained. “It was the anniversary of his death. I had to wait in line most of the night.”

This was incomprehensible to me.

“You could have still called me back or at least texted,” I needled.

“No, I couldn’t,” he said. “It would have been disrespectful to have my cellphone out at the grave site.”

But it wasn’t disrespectful not to call or text me back for 24 hours? I thought.

And that was when he dropped the bomb.

“I don’t think you can understand my world. I don’t know if this religion thing is a hurdle we can overcome,” he said.

Deep down, I knew he was right. Even though we shared a heritage, we didn’t share a way of living our lives.

Andrew and I decided to split yesterday. It was a peaceful and amicable parting, but a sad one. I never thought religion would be a dealbreaker for me, especially with another Jew. As I mourn our relationship, which was really special in so many ways, I will turn to the collected works of Rainer Maria Rilke for solace and I imagine he will turn to the worn prayer book he keeps on his dresser. And both of us will wonder when we will meet our beshert.

*Name has been changed.

Photo: Thinkstock

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