He was standing next to a print of Chagall in a large reception hall at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was 35-ish, good-looking with a Jewish nose and had serious expression on his face. He wore a copper blazer that matched his hair.
I was there covering a fancy fundraising event for the local paper, and I was bored, so I went over to him and commented on the artwork.
Turns out he was the curator of an informal exhibition, and I told him that I painted racy Biblical portraits. He expressed interest in my work and soon we began discussing where I was from: Israel.
I was pleased by how much he knew about Israel and its identity crisis. We asked questions like: What does it mean that Israel is a "Jewish state"? Does it mean its citizens must be racially Jewish? Does it mean the country's culture derives from Jewish holidays and traditions? Does it mean Jewish law is imposed upon its citizens?
We concluded that there is no easy answer. He gave me his card so we could be in touch.
When I looked down at his card I saw, to my surprise, that he didn't have a Jewish name. For the purpose of this article, I'll call him Chris.
I kept in touch with Chris, through e-mails and visits to his gallery, until he asked me out on a real date. I didn't care that he wasn't Jewish. I was too impressed by his maturity, intelligence, and interest in me as a person, thinker and artist.
Aside from that, he was a chivalrous mentsch, certainly more so than those secular Tel Aviv Jewish guys I dated, who were far more interested in my sexual expression than my Jewish expression. Chris' gentility probably comes from his Southern Baptist roots, although he considers himself agnostic. Yet, we had long conversations about the state of the world, the nature of God, and the nature of man.
Despite some of our divergent beliefs and political opinions, he was always ready to listen to me with a full heart and mind to understand me, and I felt free in sharing with him ideas that were important to me. He didn't always agree, but I felt that he informed his own outlook with some of my perspectives, as I did with his.
I had one of the more positive dating experiences I've had in a long time: filled with good communication, intellectual stimulation, laughter, fun, depth and intelligence. It was refreshing not to play Jewish geography on our first date and instead talk about ideas without any preconceived notions about what either of us should or shouldn't be or think. Of course, I couldn't introduce him to my parents, and the danger and short-term nature of our relationship probably added to the pleasantry and excitement.
But dating Chris has helped me answer questions we discussed when we first met.
What is a Jew and, hence, a Jewish State? A "Jew" denotes too many things for the idea of a Jewish state to have a clear definition.
The mainstream notion, taken from the Orthodox camp, is that a Jew is someone born to a Jewish mother. This is a racial distinction, but it says nothing about the character or belief system of a person or a nation. If Chris were the exact same person with a Jewish mother, could I then have introduced him to my parents?
On the other hand, most streams measure someone's "Jewishness" by his or her level of Jewish observance and knowledge. But then how can one define "observance", especially when there are so many streams of Judaism and so many "pick and choose" Jews? Is a Jew who eats non-kosher but who performs the mitzvah (commandment) of living in Israel more "Jewish" than a Jew who eats kosher in, say, Australia? Is a Jew who dons tefillin but who cheats in business more "Jewish" than a Jew who doesn't daven but who is meticulously honest in business?
Then there are so many Israeli secular Jews--bus drivers, CEOs of high tech companies, or bums on the street--who are born to a Jewish father and mother but who have no Jewish affiliation aside from being Israeli. Are they "Jewish?"
Chris embodied many qualities we don't discuss as Jewish values, but which should be: spiritual sensitivity, intelligence, creativity, and honesty. He treated people, particularly me, with respect and generosity.
I admit I haven't got it all figured out yet, but I'm coming to the conclusion that maintaining the Jewish race for maintenance sake is not a value in and of itself. Maintaining a people that is wise, happy, and free is.
I like to see myself as a member of the nation of Israel. A nation involves a history, culture and system of ethical law flowering in a specific geographic location. I view myself as a "Jew" to the extent that I embrace the positive, ethical and life-giving values of my tradition, which I hope will underlie my nation. Race is a dimension that takes on ethical meaning to the extent that the nation provides refuge from racism. However, being born "Jewish" does not give anyone metaphysical or innate holiness or virtue. That Chris wasn't racially "Jewish" doesn't make him less worthy to date or marry me.
Chris and I are still in touch, but ultimately we know that a long-term relationship is a mute prospect. Chris appreciates my vision more so than many of my Jewish friends, but he loves Los Angeles. For us to be deeply compatible, my soulmate has to share my vision for my nation and also be a part of it, which means, living in Israel.
Yet I will always think of Chris as a fine human being and a "good Jew" in my book.