> Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

Not So Modern Love

August 9, 2016 | by Risa Miller

Bill and Hillary weren't the only couple to meet in the library.

In Jerusalem where one of our married daughters lives, I was recently walking down the narrow byways of her charming gentrified city neighborhood with my two year old granddaughter in hand. She looked up at the tall, Talmud-carrying man walking in our direction and she called out “Sabba” – Hebrew for grandpa. She was wrong. Sabba had flown back to Boston already, but I saw what she meant. He was that type, especially with the black velvet yarmulke and grey beard.

I guess I’m a type too – the grandchildren call me Bubby, my choice. Deep down I hope that ‘Bubby’ conjures enough cognitive dissonance. I’m a youthful 62; Bubbies are shtetl born people who skewer noncount nouns and say things like “my hairs” or insist that you give them “a locht in kup”.

We were 20-year-old college juniors in Baltimore and religion was something you took a course in.

But – and this thought is hard earned and maybe comes with my AARP card – it’s not so bad to be a type, to look like what we are at the essence, a Mommy and Abba, a Bubby and a Sabba, especially when the generations, to quote King David, grow like olive shoots around our table. Sometimes, especially when we have cause to celebrate and reflect, such as the birth of another grandchild, we turn to each other and ask, “Well, how did we get here?”

In January 1974, we were 20-year-old college juniors in Baltimore and religion was something you took a course in. He was a Dead Head who wore black turtle necks, skinny black jeans, and an ankle length Army Surplus store khaki coat which his mother, in her first woman-to-woman confidence, told me she would throw out when he wasn’t looking. He’d worn a Smith Brothers beard since high school when he broke his jaw in a football scrimmage, and he was one of the few philosophy majors in his graduating class at Johns Hopkins.

I majored in English at Goucher, a women’s college about 20 minutes down York Road. I wore a blue jean mini skirt. Those days you took your jeans and cut off the legs and reset the seams in the front. In a streak of independence from my stylish and pampered upbringing I’d sewn it myself; wearing that ratty skirt was pure rebellion.

To my dismay, my fiction writing professor at Goucher gave me a little too much personal attention. I complained to my dean who let me take my fiction writing course at Hopkins. A great solution. A shuttle bus ran twice an hour between the campuses and though Hopkins had been coed two years it was still dominantly male. The tradition of Hopkins/Goucher couples was almost a 100 years old.

I saw him the first time in the coffee shop, before my writing class. I began going to the library to study at night. I was deep inside a semester of William Butler Yeats, TS Eliot, and Ezra Pound. I found him on the B level of the Milton Eisenhower Library, the second level underground. I sat at the end of the conference table where he studied. I sat in the same spot every night for a week. He didn’t look up much except when the streakers (that 70’s phenomenon) came by in an uproar and the table resettled itself. But I got to work and made eyes at him. The B level was the smoking level and finally one Sunday night he came over and bummed a Kool and asked if I wanted to go out for coffee. We met off and on that week in typical college fashion.

“I can’t see you tomorrow night. I’m a Sabbath-observing Jew,” he said. I burst out laughing.

The following Thursday I stopped by his apartment. He fixed us some cold drinks, popping cubes out of an ice tray. I couldn’t help notice the packs of burgers, dogs, and chicken in his freezer, provisions from his parents just in case he would be dying of starvation. I fully expected we would settle on some weekend plans. But as we sat down, he hummed and hawed, clearly the prelude to something dark or awkward.

This boy in the black turtleneck and black jeans who had the Grateful dead on a constant stereo feed had an announcement to make. “I can’t see you tomorrow night. I am a Sabbath-observing Jew,” he said.

I burst out laughing. He didn’t look or act like an orthodox Jew and I knew something about them. My older brother, in some adolescent surge of rebellion and search for meaning, had been a card-carrying yeshiva boy since he was 15. My brother and I were good friends and I knew orthodox boys didn’t hang out doing college stuff with college girls.

It turned out this boy who bummed my Kool had had a spiritual moment in the Israeli desert the summer before, and had come back to Hopkins to a new advisor, a logician and philosophy professor who wore a kippah and invited him to join a seminar in Jewish philosophy. Over the year he’d come to see that Judaism was something you did, not just studied.

“I can see you Sunday if you want,” he said. “But tomorrow is the Sabbath.”

I could have run in the opposite direction. But I didn’t run. Instead, I said, “You observe the Sabbath?” Thinking of the chicken in the freezer, I said, “I can make chicken soup.”

His eyes lit up. ”You can?”‘

I was onto – something. Except for the fact that I had lied. I had no idea how to make chicken soup.

At Law School graduation, 1978

I can’t recall now how I knew that Joel L down the street had a soup pot but I went to borrow it. I had to wait until after 4 pm because Joel, a poet in the Hopkins graduate Writing Seminars slept all day. And, under cover of getting a few ingredients at Eddie’s Supermarket down the block, I ran into the back phone booth at the Blue Jay Bar & Grill next to Eddie’s and called my mother. I told her that I’d just told this guy I could make chicken soup. How did you make it? She answered with one of those frustrating non recipes of no measures or proportions. A little onion, a few carrots, a handful of this and that. Somehow I muddled through.

Every Friday afternoon I went to his apartment and made chicken soup. Matzah balls too.

Who knows if the old canard about the way to a man’s heart is true, but every Friday afternoon I went to his apartment and made chicken soup. Matzah balls too. We started a Friday night ritual and attracted a crowd of Hopkins students, including Bill Z (Greek) the penultimate party guy who took seven years to get his BS; Walter S, a Ukrainian nationalist who always walked around with a hand inside the plastic grip of a six pack of beer. He was possessive about that beer. He set it outside the door of the apartment before he walked in, which we thought was funny because who knew about alcoholism in the 70‘s?; Bernie C, another poet, who later that year stuffed a few boxes in what we called the Bernie C Memorial Closet and went off to have a go at romantic tragedy on the Left Bank of Paris; Joel L who, since it was his soup pot, joined us for a few Friday nights but went on to make a living selling plans for a one-man-build-it-yourself-helicopter out of a small ad in the back of Popular Science.

They all faded away. But this boy and I discussed and argued and talked and argued and talked: how can a Jew love Pound’s Cantos when Pound was such an anti-Semite? Did God exist? Our first real fight was about how kosher was kosher if you just avoided butterfly shrimp wrapped in bacon in a Chinese restaurant.

Our first real fight was about how kosher was kosher if you just avoided butterfly shrimp wrapped in bacon in a Chinese restaurant.

Finally, together, we joined his professor and wife for Shabbos. His professor was Dr. Gottlieb, now well known as Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb from Ohr Somayach. We began to go the Gottliebs more regularly and were introduced us to their Rebbe, the Bostoner Rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz.

After college graduation and dozens of Shabbats, we moved to Boston where he started law school and I started graduate school. We got married during semester break in January about two years after he bummed a Kool from me in the library. We began our family pretty much right away, years earlier than our old friends, college classmates and cousins who stayed on the more ‘normal’ trajectory of establishing themselves in jobs first before all that other life stuff began. Nothing was easy but we lived in a community of young newly religious couples just like ourselves. The original urban family. The Bostoner Rebbe and Rebbetzin facilitated and inspired the ‘how to’ and the occasional ‘whys?’(which begs a book-length description). I’ll just say that we had been so cool and so pleasure oriented and now we had to live up to this life full of meaning. Even when we were having fun.

In the past few months, on the heels of our 40th wedding anniversary and welcoming a new grandchild into what one of my writer friends calls the family corporation, my husband and I both lost our fathers, two very proud Jews who got pleasure from our families and, we assume, extreme pleasure ‘seeing’ the hordes of their grandchildren and great grandchildren sending them off at the cemetery. Both shiva weeks were full of talk- talk- talk, especially about our family trajectories, our upbringing, and our return to formal religion. I rewound the chicken soup story a half dozen times until someone asked why didn’t I run in the opposite direction.

It’s the indomitable ‘spark’, that indestructible core of Jewishness that lurks within whether you know it or recognize it or not.

I might have answered what I’d thought all along: that I met a guy I was crazy about and I had this latent Jewish thing anyhow and he presented me with the opportunity. But in the vulnerable mindset of shiva where you strain to visualize eternity and souls, especially souls without the husk of the body, I had a clearer insight into how supernatural and independent Jewish identity is. The concept has a name, the pintele yid, what both the Bostoner Rebbe – a Jew with a thousand years’ wisdom – and the anti-Semites of the world have recognized as real and true. It’s the indomitable ‘spark’, that indestructible core of Jewishness that lurks within whether you know it or recognize it or not.

My husband and I might look like types, but I’m guessing the pintele yid doesn’t. What would a pintele look like anyhow – or two of them? Two college kids in a library wearing ratty clothes? Does one pintele yid talk to the other? What language do they speak?

There’s a lot of poetry you can make about that pintele: Like a spark waiting for ignition into a flame. Like a spark that can never be extinguished. Like the spark that is the Jewish soul. There are lots of quotidian things to say about an enduring marriage too, but as far as the path we took and the changes we made it clearly took two of those sparks to make this flame.

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