Sects and the City, Part 2
What’s one thing that every religion has in common? Storytelling. How do we share our lessons learned? By retelling our stories to those who will listen. How do we learn from our mistakes? I have absolutely no idea.
If sacred texts have taught us anything, it’s that love stinks. The Greco-Roman myths, the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare—all feature women loving the wrong men; men loving the wrong God; and a handful of Chosen People who get to love, and be loved, by everyone. It’s no wonder we mortals have spent centuries trying to reinterpret the language of worship. We want to be good people, and we want to be redeemed. But we also know that rules are made to be broken, and that we who break the most rules have the most fun. That’s why most of the girls I know would rather sneak into the House of Montague through the basement door than enter the pearly Gates of Heaven any day.
Indeed, seeking a mate outside of one’s clan can be a tricky endeavor. Why? Because religion matters, even if you don’t think it matters to you. It didn’t matter to my non-Jewish friend Ingrid, or her Orthodox Jewish boyfriend Dani, until Ingrid got pregnant. It didn’t matter much to D.J. Mike, SJM, when he asked out my friend Ellen, SWF and “shiksa girl of [his] dreams,” as he had called her. Seems for all the Jewish guys I meet who prefer to date non-Jewish girls there is a non-Jewish girl who can’t get her Jewish boyfriend to commit to her—or tell his mother that she even exists.
Ingrid and Dani were as modern a couple as you could find on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They worked for the same independent film company, and their courtship consisted of one water-cooler conversation during which Dani, an Orthodox Jew of Persian descent, asked Ingrid: “Are you Turkish?” Ingrid answered no, she was not; her parents both were Mexican-born. Dani seemed pleased with Ingrid’s answer, and soon they began working late at the office, spending a lot of time not-working in dark editing rooms. Within three months, they were living together.
Ingrid was enormously happy, but she feared there wouldn’t be a “happily ever after” with Dani. After all, Dani was Jewish. Dani kept kosher. Dani’s family expected him to marry a Sephardic girl. Dani was and did this, and Dani would never be and do that. “It’s only a matter of time,” she told me, in tears, one night. “He’ll never want me to be his wife.” We were at Dean & Deluca, shopping for Ingrid’s first-ever Sabbath dinner, and I was instantly dismissive (and jealous?). How could Ingrid be so consumed by the future when she’s in this brand-new, exciting relationship? How could she be so, like, ungrateful? (Yes, I was jealous.) Why even think of marriage at age twenty-eight, anyway? Why not just “take it day by day,” I advised, and “try to enjoy what you have while you have it?”
“You’re just saying that because you know,” Ingrid said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’re Jewish,” she said, and that was all she said, and she was right. I did know. I knew that Dani would leave her someday, though I could have never predicted how.
In the following months, Ingrid became increasingly insecure. Dani’s Jewishness was at the root of all her worries, from silverware use to Christmas vacation to her sex life. On at least two occasions, Ingrid gave Dani an ultimatum: “Promise me you’ll marry me someday or move back to Long Island with your parents!” He never made that promise, nor did he ever move out. So when Ingrid got pregnant for the second time (about a year after her first abortion), she tried a different approach. “Have this baby with me as my husband or watch me have it without you!” Well, the rest is history, written in a stenographer’s shorthand. Dani tried to convince Ingrid that she was selfish and desperate (and he was right); Ingrid accused Dani of being a coward and a misogynist (and so was she). Then Dani’s family stepped in. First, his brother, a pediatrician, threatened to throw her down a staircase to terminate her pregnancy. Then his mother sent Ingrid nasty letters, one with a photograph of Dani as a newborn, with the caption “you’re killing our baby.” Finally, his cousin, a lawyer, sent her a document stating that Dani would not sign a birth certificate for “Ingrid’s baby.” Ingrid signed in agreement, quit her job, and moved back home with her Catholic parents to raise her son in peace—with a last name belonging to his Jewish father.
So when does religion really matter? Is it at the time of marriage, when rabbis and priests and court justices lay down the law in their respective houses of worship? Once children enter the picture? For some, like my dearly departed grandmother, religion doesn’t just matter; religion is matter, as strong as stone, and impenetrable at that. “When you’re happy,” Grandma Berdie used to say, “the whole world’s Jewish.” For her there was only Us and Them. There was Milton Berle and Johnny Carson. Oscar Mayer and Roy Rogers. Bugsy Siegal and Lucky Luciano. And, to her profound bewilderment, her granddaughter and her granddaughter’s meshugenah Puerto Rican boyfriend.
D.J. Mike, three-time drinks-date to my friend Ellen, was an unusual by-product of Berdie’s old-world ethnocentrism. He was a copywriter by day and, yes, a disc jockey by night, and had much in common with Ellen, a novelist and music critic. They met at Ellen’s reading at the Knitting Factory (upstairs); they spent the rest of the night listening to acid jazz (downstairs). Since it was loud, and late, and dark, their getting-to-know-you was limited yet lovely all the same. When they got together the following night, in a well-lit Brooklyn cafe, things began to look a lot different.
“Sorry I’m late,” Mike said upon entering. “I was just finishing up dinner with my rabbi.”
Check, please! Ellen sat patiently while Mike launched into full-blown discussion of his weekly theological debates with said rabbi, and how he’s relearning Hebrew so he can live in Israel some day, and that he’s started writing in his journal again, trying to figure out how a good God can be so cruel, and, oh yeah, Ellen, are you hungry? I’m sorry! I got so carried away with explaining to you why I’m late that I’ve taken up all of our time together talking about why I was late! So, anyway, as I was saying. . . .
Ellen forgave Mike for their first date. When she told me about it, my initial reaction was What An Idiot. (Isn’t that what friends are for?) But I disguised my evaluation of Mike and instead focused on the odd dynamics of the First Date. For we all stumble when we’re nervous. We are prone to talking ourselves into corners. We offer too much information about who we are, or who we think we are, or who we want the other to think we are, and we throw in too many disclaimers/apologies before/after that information is disclosed. In other words, it’s hard to make a human connection. And dating truly does suck.
Their next date: a visit to the Natural History Museum during which Mike shared his knowledge of the ancient world (i.e., B.C.) and how, wow!, that area on the map is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered! Ellen was ready to give up. But when Mike suggested they go to his studio apartment around the corner and take a nice afternoon nap, she couldn’t resist. In bed, without words, they were back in that smoky subterranean bar, shoulder to shoulder, denim-clad knee to panty-hosed knee, with nothing but the beat of an oboe and a web of anticipation between them.
“It’s better now,” Ellen confessed. “He showed me his vinyl collection, played me a sample mix. And he loves The Millennium!” I believed in it, too. Why shouldn’t two professional writers who share a passion for sixties rock find happiness in each other’s company?
“So did you, like, sleep with him?” I asked.
“NO!” Ellen said. “We just slept—together, but apart.”
And then came the weekend. Ellen and Mike were slated for drinks in Brooklyn, which would likely yield a “real” sleepover at Ellen’s place. That is, if she would have let him through the front door.
“You know,” Mike had said, at the entrance to her apartment. “I’ve been talking to my rabbi about you.”
“Really?” Ellen asked. “You mean because I’m, like, not Jewish?”
“WOW!” he said, with relief. “I mean, you know? I’m really conflicted right now, because I really really want to be with you tonight, and stuff, but I don’t know what to do, because I haven’t even told my mother about you, and I can’t promise there’s a real ‘future’ between us, because you’re not Jewish, you know?”
He sat down on the stoop. Ellen did not.
“Why are you even in the general dating pool, DJ? Why not just try to meet someone through your synagogue or something? I mean, don’t waste my time —or yours!”
Mike was stunned. Speechless.
Ellen continued: “Did it ever occur to you to ask me about my religion? Or my views about religion? Or my favorite Beatles song? Or what I like to do on a Friday night, or a Sunday? It’s only been two weeks! Jesus, you don’t even know me. And I don’t even know if I like you, for Christ’s sake!”
More silence. “So, then,” he finally said. “What is your religion?”
Ellen put her key in the door. Mike begged her to let him in; Ellen did not listen. Mike rang her buzzer; Ellen did not buzz him in. He called her from the street; Ellen hung up on him every time. I’m sorry, he said on her answering machine the next morning, the last time he called. I’ve just never met a girl quite like you. You’re beautiful and smart and funny and you have great taste in music—and I’ve never met a Jewish girl who’s into music that way. Is it too late for me to make it up to you? Can I at least give you this mix tape I made for you? Anyway, bye Ellen. Hope I’ll hear from you soon. Take care. Bye.
“What an idiot,” I said, this time out loud, when Ellen told me what happened. “Not only is he a spineless prick, he’s also every Jewish girl’s worst nightmare.”
“How?” asked Ellen.
“He makes Jewish girls into the consolation prize. The runner-up in the Showcase Showdown. The not-beautiful and not-into-music mother of his children!”
“He doesn’t even want love, or even companionship,” Ellen said. “He wants a full-length mirror—with a microphone and speakers!”
“Fuck him,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Ellen. “Fuck him.”
We clinked wine glasses.
“Though thank God you didn’t,” I said.
Elizabeth Frankenberger wrote a musical about Anne Frank when she was in elementary school in Andover, Mass. She is now a NYC-based SJF whose work recently appeared in Before and After: Stories from New York.