I was having Shabbat dinner with the Hasidic family who lives down the street, as I sometimes do. I like to meet new people and have new experiences, and in the sleepy, ocean-breezy, rather homogeneous neighborhood of Santa Monica, California, where I’ve recently relocated, dining with a deeply observant Hasidic family can feel like an exotic night out.
Also, Chabad is always doing outreach. You never know who you might meet. I’ve been single since my husband and I split four years ago. I never imagined I’d be alone this long, so sure, I’m trolling for dates on Shabbat at the home of an ultra-Orthodox, black-hat wearing, 30-year-old rabbi. And pretty much everywhere else I go.
There was one other dinner guest that evening, a man also in his 40s, Reform, as am I. He was cute, with reddish hair and eyes that turned up at the corners when he smiled. He looked like he worked out. I’m not generally drawn to redheaded men, but a man with any hair is somewhat rare, as I’ve found, when dating after the age of 45. Plus, I’ve been trying to be more open-minded about who seems “right.” I’m not ruling anyone out, or in, based on instant chemistry, as I once did. I’ve dated and married my “type”—the super cute, career-obsessed artist/writer/academic — and it’s caused me some pain, and left me single. Perhaps there are other, stealthier qualities that matter more, that take more time to perceive.
After dinner, the rabbi’s wife retired to the bedroom with their latest newborn. The older kids and my son scrambled into the other room to play. I settled back in my chair in a post-dinner, wine-tinted haze. The talk turned to dating. The rabbi sat at the head of the table in his formal suit, dishes scattered around him, a prayer book by his side. He stroked his long beard. Or perhaps merely channeled the centuries of beard-stroking rabbis who have done so before him.
The dinner guest, 15 years his senior, never married, sought relationship advice. He was reluctant to make a bad choice, he said, to marry the wrong woman and have it end in divorce. And so he remained single. “Wouldn’t you say any marriage that ends in divorce is a tragedy?” he asked, “and an interfaith marriage a double tragedy?”
Well, I wouldn’t, divorced myself from a non-Jewish man who I like very much, and value as a father to our son and friend to me, as our host well knew. He’s met my own ex several times, including at drop-off at the Chabad camp my son clamored to attend the previous summer, and at my apartment when the rabbi came over to hang a mezuzah on my son’s door.
But on this evening, the rabbi agreed that divorce from a non-Jew was a humiliation and sadness. I was offended. And hurt. I know we disagree on certain points, such as the contemporary relevance of an ancient code of complex and often bizarre behavioral guidelines, but I consider the rabbi a friend. Occasionally, I’m yanked out of my sleepy, overfed, traveling-without-leaving-my-street torpor by the reminder that these friends of mine are, in fact, religious zealots.
The dinner guests they attract? Some are recent transplants from some other, denser city, looking for a feeling of connection and the simultaneous stimulation that accompanies exposure to differing opinions. But others, it turns out, are far more lost, wandering, somehow believing that the ultra-Orthodox hold the key to the Real Truth, the meaning of life laid down in ancient times.
I reject this notion outright. I love hearing a Hasidic interpretation of an ancient text or tradition. But a hyper-narrow religious tradition doesn’t lead to greater, more relevant insight about the challenges of contemporary life than a broader, more inclusive, liberal Humanist education. A Chabad rabbi is not a dating coach for 21st century life.
The talk continued between the two men. The dinner guest, whom I’ll call “Red,” floated the idea that a union between a Jew and a Muslim was the worst kind of interfaith travesty. I sat there, eyes wide, the offensiveness of this conversation compounding. Red’s own options were further limited, he sighed, because he couldn’t marry a divorced woman or a convert. He was a cohen, he explained, sitting there in his button down shirt and borrowed yarmulke. Cohens can’t marry just anyone. As Chabad.org explains it: “The purity of the cohen’s heredity has guaranteed the purity of his heritage… The cohen may not marry a divorcee, regardless of the cause of the divorce, the circumstances, or the duration of the previous marriage.”
I got up and walked to the kitchen. Red came to speak to me. “I hope you don’t think I’m prejudiced against Muslims,” he said. “My last girlfriend was a Muslim. I just said that because I thought the rabbi would agree.”
“You don’t change your story because you think it’s what someone else wants to hear,” I said. “Anyway, the rabbi is not a racist.”
“I’m really a good guy,” Red insisted.
You’re a delusional self-saboteur, I thought. You’re a cohen? You’re a single guy well into your 40s who can hardly afford to limit the dating pool based on ancient traditions of a branch of religion you don’t practice. Maybe that worked when we were wandering the desert, but today, in Los Angeles? When half the adults in many major cities live alone, do we want to restrict love between two Jews because one was married before? Rules based on bloodlines come from a tribal era which we’ve thankfully moved past. They reflect an entrenched class system, the horror of a caste system. They’re anti-American, anti-democracy. Anti-me, I realized.
And what was I doing there, anyway? Yes, I’m single, but have I grown so fearful of loneliness that I’ll fill my nights with anyone who’s free? I need to be less open-minded, I decided, more exclusive about who I consider my friends. I value the liberal, humanist ideal of acceptance of difference, tolerance of diverging opinions, but enough is enough. Open-mindedness needs some walls around it, too.
Red left. I stuck around to help clear the dishes. The rabbi looked up from his prayer book. “I’m sorry for what I said,” he said.
“That was a lot to take,” I said, my voice sharp. “The divorce thing. The marriage to non-Jews. The cohen business. That was a lot.”
“I apologize. I should have been more sensitive. I was speaking to him and I knew he was searching, but I wasn’t being sensitive to you. I was in the wrong,” the rabbi said. “I was worried you’d never return for dinner.”
I’d been thinking the same thing, actually. I stood looking down at this young man in his ill-fitting suit in his sweltering, tiny apartment. I know plenty of Reform Jews who cringe at the Chabad Lubavitchers, seeing them as pushy, embarrassing proselytizers. But it’s hard to approach strangers in a Whole Foods and ask them to lay tefillin with you. Who does that? Most of us try to surround ourselves with people like us.
Also, I like their enthusiasm, the very zeal that affronts others. This young couple sometimes reminds me of my own early adulthood in Houston, living with my then-boyfriend. He was an abstract painter and I was a writer and we threw ourselves into our lives with a youthful, optimistic conviction that our art could change the world. We had a passion since mitigated by the accumulation of years, the weight of false starts, the foresight of dreams dashed. I’ve tended to support this young family on their mission in part because they have a mission, which so many others lack. They live on the edge of poverty, continue birthing babies, put themselves out there again and again to an unmoved or even hostile reception. I admire the drive, the belief in a dream, the way they always say, “Only good news!”
“You know, he could marry you because your marriage doesn’t count according the Jewish law,” the rabbi continued. “It’s only a marriage if it’s between two Jews. So it’s only a divorce if it’s a Jewish marriage. Since yours wasn’t a marriage, you’re not divorced.”
And I smiled. Perhaps I should have been newly offended by the outright dismissal of my marriage, my once-husband, our years together. But I felt less angered, believe it or not, by knowing that a cohen could marry me. How much our own egos propel our opinions.
“Would you like me to give him your number?” the rabbi asked in that lilting cadence of the deeply religious.
Well. No. I’m not interested in a man so loosely attached to his own inner core, and I’d come down on him hard enough to flatten any potential curiosity about me. But I was heartened to know that I might marry a different cohen.
The man for me, though, would not be thinking about his lineage. Nor likely spending his Friday nights at an ultra-Orthodox Shabbat. Not that every outing must be a hunt for a husband, but this was the lesson I took from that Sabbath: just as I believed Red was searching for truth in all the wrong places, I too, needed to consider how I might be sabotaging my desire to meet someone new, even as I prided myself on being “open.”
In a way, I needed to model my Hasidic friends, to reach out to others more aggressively. But for me, the hard part would be stepping outside the comfort zone of my sleepy little neighborhood, to figure out where in this metropolis I might meet people more similar to me.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.