Andi Rosenthal is a convert to Judaism, marketing director and freelance writer living in Larchmont, N.Y. She is a URJ Schindler Outreach Fellow and frequently lectures and teaches about issues relating to interfaith life. She also recently completed her first novel, The Bookseller's Sonnets.
Star/Crossed: Jewish Stories from an Interfaith Life: The Only Starfish
"Star/Crossed: Jewish Stories from an Interfaith Life" is Andi Rosenthal's monthly column about "the continuing journey of a Jew by choice, navigating the joys and challenges of choosing a Jewish life, sharing my choices with my Christian family of origin, and living the legacy of a rediscovered Jewish heritage."
There's nothing in the world quite like that gut-punch feeling you get when seeing your ex-boyfriend's profile posted on JDate.
Even though Ira broke up with me more than six years ago, and we've both been through a couple of serious relationships since then, both of us happen to be single at the moment.
I don't visit JDate very often, especially since ending a three-year relationship this past March, and then losing my dad a mere ten days after that. After the traumas of the past spring, I don't feel ready to find a new boyfriend. Nonetheless, after a brief email a few days ago, in which Ira mentioned that he was "busy--too busy--with JDate," I couldn't stop myself from checking out his profile.
I had imagined when I saw his picture next to the attributes he is seeking in a partner, that I wouldn't feel anything, except perhaps the desire to wish him well in finding someone new. But when I read his profile, I unexpectedly felt that same gleaming filament of loss cutting through my heart, as familiar as my own face in the mirror, its sharp pain undimmed by time.
Our relationship was brief, yet its shadow still follows me to this day. Perhaps it is because of the way in which Ira broke my heart, and also that because of him, I almost didn't become Jewish.
After our breakup, my friends and family members told me not to worry, because, in their words, "there are lots of fish in the sea." But for me, in the words of the old 1960s song "Red Rubber Ball," Ira was "the only starfish."
For the record, we didn't meet on JDate--but through a personal ad that he had posted in the early spring of 1998. When I responded, there was no initial talk of religion, no obvious requirements. Right away, however, I learned that he was Jewish, and he learned that I was "half-Jewish" but raised Catholic--and that I was planning to convert.
Time passed. Our correspondence grew in warmth, depth, and sweetness. I remember being cheered by the messages from him that seemed to be waiting for me every time I checked email. The more we wrote to one another, the more he delighted me. We loved the same type of literature, the same rock groups, and even the same operas, and our passionate way of communicating with one another about our lives made me think I had finally found someone I could relate to, honestly and completely. I didn't care that he was divorced, and I didn't care about our age difference--in fact, I thought it was a good sign that we were born almost exactly 18 or chai--the Jewish number representing life--years apart. What was more, he had a little daughter who lived with him, and hearing her happy, lilting voice in the background of our phone conversations convinced me that he must be a wonderful, loving father.
When we eventually met in person--our first date--on a rainy April night just before Passover, I went downstairs to meet him and saw for the first time this person with whom I had already, to some degree, fallen in love. I still remember that moment, looking into the bright green eyes of this stranger--and yet, not a stranger--who had changed my life.
And the happiness continued--briefly. But after just a few short weeks of talking every night on the phone, seeing one another at least three nights a week, and finding out how much more we had in common, the phone calls suddenly stopped. Frantic, I called. I emailed. I paced the floor of my apartment. And I waited.
The email came three days later, on a Tuesday morning, four days before my birthday. He said that he was sorry. That he had really enjoyed his time with me. That he didn't think I was right for him. That there were other reasons that he didn't want to get into. That he knew I would understand.
But I didn't understand. I wrote back, asking what had gone wrong. He didn't answer.
In our brief time together, Ira had made me believe that I had found my equal, that I was safe and loved and, perhaps for the first time, good enough just as I was. Now, with the sudden infliction of an unexpected heartbreak, I felt as vulnerable as an abandoned child.
For months after that, he called every so often and asked if he could see me. Ever hopeful that we would get back together, I would say yes. And we would spend a few hours together, a night at the most. And then he would retreat into silence again, refusing to call or write.
More than a year after Ira wrote his breakup email, I found myself finally going on with my life. I had even met with a rabbi a couple of times to discuss the possibility of converting. And then I got a call from Ira, late one night. As we chatted, I finally worked up the courage to ask him what had gone wrong between us. "Nothing went wrong," he said. "I wanted to marry you. But you're not Jewish." "But you knew I was converting," I argued. "I told you that."
"It doesn't matter," he said. "Even if you convert, I still won't see you as Jewish. I don't think I ever will."
I felt cold inside. And my journey to conversion ended then and there--or so I thought.
I had cherished the dream of conversion to Judaism for many years. But his words--"I won't see you as Jewish"--made me feel as if the process would be pointless. If my birth religion was an issue for someone who said he had loved me enough to marry me, then I didn't want to imagine the reactions of other Jews, once they knew I was not Jewish by birth. I thought that Ira's reaction to me meant that everyone in the Jewish community felt the way he did.
A few years later, after becoming part of a warm and supportive congregation, I realized that Ira's reaction was the exception, and not the rule. But before I went through with my conversion, I did a great deal of soul searching, wanting to be sure that I was not approaching it with any sort of hope that it would change things between Ira and me. It took several conversations with my rabbi, and finally, a letter that I wrote and sent to Ira just before my conversion, to help me realize that I wanted to be Jewish because that is who I am--in spite of those who would view me as inauthentic.
Now, as an active member of my congregation, with the hope of rabbinical school on the horizon, and the desire--someday--to meet someone with whom a loving Jewish home will be a reality, I still find myself afraid of meeting someone like Ira, with whom I could fall blindly in love, yet who may also treat the accident of my birth religion as a deal-breaker, and whose prejudice against me may be stronger than love. For me, that fear is there in every first date, in every interaction with a potential boyfriend, in every memory of the happy hours I once shared with Ira, so long ago.
But for now, I prefer to think of Ira and me as two starfish--or perhaps, two stars in separate orbits revolving around the shared faith that we both love and cherish; one solitary light shining, the other veiled in a darkness of his own creation.