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Love Transcends Boundaries, Love Honors Boundaries

April 30, 2020 | by Yonah Ahava

Love brought me to her and then to Him.

Sophomore year of college, I walk into Anthropology class and I see… her. I see her and she glows. She really glows, even better than the movies. My heart knows there is something about her, something kind, warm, and good. It also didn't hurt that she was a beautiful blond.

We fell in love. The type of love where someone can see your soul and you can see theirs in complete vulnerability and acceptance. A type of love where you are committed to each other, would risk everything for each other, and be there for each other. The type of love where, in my insecurity, when I asked her what she liked about me, she said, "Me."

She loved me just for who I was. It was this type of love that healed parts of me that I did not know were broken. And it was easy to ignore the discriminatory rabbi who advised us poor souls, who gave up beautiful soccer practice afternoons to come to dreary Hebrew school, not to intermarry.

Being around her family was a relief in a way that is hard to explain. Her family did not have a certain weight that I noticed my Jewish family did, a certain pessimism, a certain suspicion of everything, a certain questioning of everything, a certain ill-at-ease-ness. Her stepfather was a Presbyterian minister. A close relative tried to warn me about possible problems in this dynamic, though he never said so overtly. He just said something once along the lines of, "You are aware that her step-father is a Presbyterian minister."

Her stepfather was a Presbyterian minister. But that wasn't a problem for us. She didn't believe in Jesus. We both believed in God. We knew love.

It was not a problem though. Not for us. She didn't believe in Jesus. She didn't identify as a Christian. We both believed in God. We knew love.

We were inseparable. We had adventures after adventure. When I started student teaching, she would pick me up after school. She taught me to drive. She came to my grandfather's funeral. She taught me organization. She taught me how to play croquet.

We had our spots, our places: our pond, our restaurant, our inside jokes, our own world we created together, a world where children of any age are still allowed to play, because we are all still just kids in the park, no matter if they want to call us grown-ups.

Ironically, despite being the diehard liberals that we were, indirectly she was the one who helped me realize the excesses of my America-is-always-wrong liberal mentality. Because if America was always wrong, how could it create her?

I became more interested in Judaism. What was wonderful is that I saw in her and the way she treated me that there was nothing wrong with being Jewish. She saw that Judaism made me happy; ipso facto, Judaism was a good thing. We lit candles together each week.

I proposed. She said yes. She even was okay with a rabbi long as it was a woman, feminist that she was.

Problem: How would we raise our kids?

She didn't want them to have a religious identity at all. I wanted them to be unequivocally Jewish.

We discussed and discussed. And after every time I felt it was settled, it wasn't. I talked with a rabbi. "You have to answer this question: Is she the most important thing in the entire world?"

Yes, definitely!

And yet…

It did not feel right. I did not feel right.

The pressure was not coming from the outside. It was coming from within.

We went to see Fiddler on the Roof at the local high school where I was substituting at the time. I had a strange feeling at the end of the show, when the cast was roaming around the auditorium joyfully in their nostalgic costumes. Seeing them in their fake beards lead me to an uncomfortable idea: "In this space of pretend, you can be Jewish. In a box, for fun, it's safe; you can be Jewish. But not outside.

I asked her: If I decided to wear a kippah, would you be comfortable with it?

No, she said.

What about if our kids wanted to?

Yes, she said.

We were heading on different tracks and though I desperately wanted to, I could not stop. Who wants to leave the person you love the most in the world? Not me. But the unstoppable part of was feeling that a very big and very important part of me was going to be closed off. This really did not make sense to me because I thought that anyone could choose whatever religion they wanted to be. I thought, in different words at the time, that different religions were just different garments for the One Truth and it is just fashion which one you pick. While in some ways this is true, I did not realize that while different religions have much in common, they also have fundamental disagreements.

More importantly, I did not realize that which garment was mine did not seem to be up to me. I thought the idea of a Jewish soul was just a way for racists to make divisions between people. But how else could I explain that only Jewish things were lighting me up and I had such a thirst for more? How could my spiritual-but-not-religious self explain that something was missing and what was missing seemed to be only filled by reading holy Jewish texts, exploring websites about Judaism, or asking soulful questions?

I was inexplicably excited learning about Jewish things. It freaked me out: I thought I could choose what my soul wanted.

I was inexplicably excited learning about Jewish things. It even made me happy to see synagogues on the road. It freaked me out: I thought I could choose what my soul wanted.

Vainly hoping she would want to join me on my Jewish journey, I convinced her to come with me to a Conservative synagogue for Shabbos morning services. The mostly empty pews, the old siddurim, reminded me a little bit of the shul I became a Bar Mitzvah in. I was surprised at the emotion I felt that day. It was not the feeling of nostalgia, of familiarity or similarity to a memory. It was the feeling of coming home to a home that I never knew, and learning it was mine. It was almost as if the bimah, the chazzan, the rabbi, the prayer book, the service were all the expressions, all the ornamentation of the One's presence hovering above all and that this is the type of space I needed to be in to receive it.

This was not a rational moment. It was a turning of the heart; it was as if God was reaching out saying, "Yes, be the Jew you are."

I really did not want to be, but my soul knew better.

In our progressive world where everyone was welcome, we still had our comfort zones, our limits, our borders. She loved me, giving me the strength to look inside and be who I am, a Jew who did not want to keep his Judaism in a box.

When I broke the engagement, asking for her forgiveness, she told me that I did not have to apologize for being who I am. She loved me for being who I am and she wanted me to be me. I felt such crushing heartbreak and yet a sense of wholeness also emerged. I knew I had made the right choice.

Any contributions I make to the Jewish world are because of her.

Baruch Hashem, this story has a happy ending. After about seven years of continued spiritual searching, I ended up becoming an observant Jew who married the beautiful woman I am meant to be with.

Love honors boundaries. Love transcends boundaries. Love unites. Love allows the soul to flourish. If I have learned anything it is this: Love is a gift from God; we are here to love each person and we are here to do it well. I am still learning.

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