Hear, O Israel: How My Church-Going Boyfriend Made Me a Jew

I started attending synagogue out of revenge. In the mid-1980s, while living in Texas, I abandoned a Ph.D. program. My research involved hours alone in the lab with a speech synthesizer, building and rebuilding single syllables. I hated it, but I resolved to finish my Masters project because I didn’t know what else to do. During this period of waking every day with gritted teeth, I met Chris, a computer science undergraduate who hated his work, too. We fell in love, and I moved into the apartment above his.

Chris came from a long, documented line of devout Episcopalians. I’m Jewish. Fascinated by each other’s religion, we enjoyed discussing our concepts of God. Chris’s explanation of the Trinity went over my head, and he seemed to regard my “one God” upbringing as primitive, but we each liked being close to someone who, like ourselves, felt connection with a force we could sense but not see. 

The chief conflict in our relationship was over time, not religion. I spent every spare minute on my research, and Chris’s heavy course load wore him out. We had only Saturday nights together—or at least we did until Chris announced he planned to get up early for church in the morning and every Sunday thereafter. In fact, he said, he was thinking of teaching Sunday School.

We were lying on my bed, the Jewish futon of earthly pleasures. I’d lit the bedside oil lamp. I lifted my head off Chris’s chest and asked, “Can’t we talk about this?” 

“About what?” His voice sounded to me like a viola played on the lowest string.

“You’re making a unilateral decision,” I said.

“You know there’s only one thing more important to me than you, and that’s serving God.”

The idea of “serving” still didn’t make sense to me: I’d been taught that people are partners with God. But I knew it made sense to Chris, so I said only, “Why now?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied. “I just feel the need.”

“Couldn’t we figure out a way for you to have both me and God?” I asked. “We do have a conflict here.” I sat up.

“We do?” he yawned.

“Saturday nights and Sunday mornings are our only times to make love.”

“Maybe we stay in on Saturday mornings?” He yawned again, deeply. “You never go to synagogue on Saturdays. Look, I’m sorry, but I want to get out early tomorrow. Can we call it a night?”

“If you like.”
He kissed me on the nose, blew out the oil lamp, and turned over. I lay awake a long time. It surprised me that, although I had

never attended Saturday morning services regularly, I resented Chris’s assumption that I would give up the option. I felt anger, not for our dying sex life but for my lack of religious life. As Chris lay breathing beside me, I came to a decision: I’d start attending Shabbat services. If I countered his unilateral decision with one of my own, we’d have to compromise. Maybe we’d become more spiritually intimate, relieving the growing silence between us. Maybe I’d learn whether he wanted to be included in my future, and whether I wanted him there.

That week, I located a promising synagogue. I got up early Saturday morning, showered, and put on upgraded clothes. When I kissed Chris’s cheek before leaving, he smiled in his sleep. I reflected that it didn’t take much to make him happy. I thought myself unreasonable by comparison.

The single-story synagogue stood on a flat lot on a quiet street across from a creek. The flame-like sculpture of Hebrew letters over the front door spelled out the word Sh’ma (“Hear!”—the first word of Jews’ foundational prayer: “Hear, O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One”). I thought this a good omen for a speech scientist. Waxy-leaved shrubs, past flowering, nodded against the brick walls. The building seemed humble compared to the synagogue of my childhood, which had a granite façade and floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows. I’d been bullied there because I enjoyed my studies. This synagogue, in contrast, appeared a peaceful place for a bookish girl to learn Hebrew without being spit-balled. 

The service was to begin in 10 minutes, but no other cars occupied the parking lot. Perhaps I’d heard the receptionist wrong when I called: perhaps there was no service. Or worse: perhaps the congregants didn’t drive on Shabbat and were taking their time walking. Perhaps they would ostracize me for having driven. I tried both doors and sat down on the front steps. I wished I’d stayed home with Chris, or even gone to the lab. 

Then I saw a man pushing a stroller down the sidewalk with a vigorous gait. When he saw me, he nodded and headed my way. A small boy walked beside him and a smaller boy rode in the stroller. All three wore kippot. The man wore a neatly pressed suit and shoes as scuffed as a grade-school teacher’s. He didn’t look older than 30. 

“Hi, I’m Marc Blumberg, the rabbi here,” he said, extending his hand. “Who are you?” I heard no Texas accent—nor Oklahoma, Louisiana, Tennessee, or any of the other accents I’d come to know.

I gave him my name and wished him gut shabbos.

He introduced the boys, Jed and Aaron. Yes, there was a service today, he said, but people commonly arrived late; and yes, most people drove. He unlocked a side door and hoisted the stroller up the stairs. I followed him in.

Daylight from tall windows illuminated the sanctuary enough for me to make out the bimah and a portable lectern standing to one side. The rabbi lifted the younger boy out of the stroller and set him feet-first on the thick carpet, which absorbed all sound except for our voices. It reminded me of the soundproof booth in my lab, except the booth felt as confining as a coffin. The older boy climbed onto a high-backed chair against the back of the bimah and opened a picture book. The rabbi sat down on the bimah steps and I sat down, too.

“Where are you from?” he asked. “You talk like I do!”

I laughed and told him I’d grown up outside Boston.
He and his wife had come from Connecticut.

He asked whether I was single, and I told him no. He glanced at my unadorned ring finger and asked how serious the relationship was. I told him, “Very,” but the question rang in my ears. Then he inquired after my Jewish history. I told him about the perfunctory quality of my family’s observance, how we never talked about our spirituality even though we felt it. He said, “Your grandparents were the first generation born here, right?”

“As far as anyone knows. How did you —?”

“It’s a common pattern of assimilation. Your family sounds like mine.” Startled by this comparison, I expected him to tell me that joining his synagogue would be the best decision I could ever make. But he didn’t. Before I could wonder why not, he stood up to prepare the sanctuary.

The rabbi flicked on light switches: the work of kindling fires on Shabbat is forbidden, but it is better to break a rule yourself than to force another to do so. The light brought paintings alive on the sanctuary walls. A dozen watercolors depicted elderly men at what looked like an Orthodox synagogue. In one paint- ing, a gaunt man arranged silver goblets in a case while other men in magnificent tallitot prayed in a circle behind him. The painting focused on the gaunt man, who looked reverent, proprietary, and a bit tattered compared to the others. I thought, My mother’s family name is Levinson: “son of the Levite. The Levites were temple caretakers, like this man. He could be my great-great-grandfather. I had never seen photos of my ancestors, nor known their names, nor which Eastern European villages they had fled. For a few moments, I regarded my history. 

Congregants began to enter. I moved to an aisle seat halfway back. Elderly members labored down the aisle, and the rabbi stepped down from the bimah to assist them. Younger people came next, though none were by themselves like me. Some cou- ples came with adult or teenage children who broke away from their parents and sat with one another. Then came couples with young children, the toddlers stepping proudly. All the babies reached for the rabbi. It seemed as though everyone belonged here, individual and matching, like notes on a musical scale.

Once everyone had been seated, the rabbi climbed the bimah steps, and conversation stilled. He produced a velvet bag from behind the lectern, and every adult—even the women, to my surprise—took out a bag, too. The rabbi drew out a bundle that unfolded into a tallit as long and wide as he was tall. Everyone else did the same, gold threads glinting against ivory backgrounds, fringes hanging from the corners. They kissed the top edge, then wrapped them around their bodies with a swift, swirling motion, covering their heads. I felt as though white cranes had suddenly alighted in sacred space. The rabbi began singing softly in a clear tenor with perfect diction, and everyone followed.

I didn’t know the melodies, so I listened. The man next to me sang like my father’s father, Marks Blicher, with a deep baritone, a slight Yiddish accent, and a wet quality that made it seem as though his throat needed clearing. The woman in front of me squawked with the nasal Brooklyn accent of the only great-aunt I’d ever met. The asthmatic wheeze of the baby in her arms resembled my brother’s. Here in Texas, on a random Shabbat morning thousands of miles from home, I stood among a chorus of unclaimed kin.

That afternoon, I would tell Chris I needed to attend synagogue every week. He would support me, so the conversation I’d hoped for would not happen. Eight months later, we’d end what little remained of our romance. A month after that, my Masters thesis would be officially accepted, so I would pack up my apartment. I would cry all five hours of the flight back to Boston, missing Chris and fearing the unknown.

Now, in the sanctuary, surrounded by lost relatives, I heard whispers of this future. I lifted my voice in grief and praise.