The yeshiva was a wonderful extended home. There was Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, one of the greatest men I've ever known. He was a legendary scholar, able to quote from memory any passage from the Talmud and the relevant commentaries. But more significant than his scholarship was the love he showed us. He never uttered a harsh or negative comment about anyone, though he had reason to be bitter. His father, Rebbe Elchonon Wasserman, was put to death in a concentration camp. I remember telling Reb Simcha how uncomfortable my father's presence at my bar mitzvah made me, because he wasn't observant and had never worn tefillin. Reb Simcha, with warm and compassionate eyes, sat down so close to me that I could smell the wonderful aroma of his pipe tobacco and said, "Your father is a good man. He works hard so you can come to our yeshiva. Judge him by how much he cares for you -- anyone can learn to put on tefillin."
A danger was lurking outside the yeshiva. It was the real world -- a world with intolerance, bigotry and hate. I was 12-years-old in 1963, and couldn't understand why discrimination and overt acts of prejudice were tolerated in parts of our country. Perhaps being a child of Holocaust survivors made me overly sensitive, but my understanding of being one of the Chosen People was clear: it required being intolerant of blind hate, to any group -- the same kind of hatred that led to the extermination of 9 million people, of which 15 would have been my immediate family.
By this time I was becoming aware of opinions, some stronger than others, in the yeshiva: you can never truly trust a gentile; Reform and Conservative Jews are more dangerous to our people than Nazis; and women have no place in religious studies. I wouldn't understand it completely for years, but the seeds for my separation from the Orthodox community were being sewn.
As I turned 16, I started to drift away from Orthodox life. I didn't know what to do about them, but I was noticing girls and I wanted to be free to pursue them. Over the next year I gave in to the temptation of a McDonald's cheeseburger, stopped going to synagogue regularly, and went to college at UC Santa Cruz. My transformation was complete by the time I was a junior -- for the only time in my life I forgot to fast during Yom Kippur.
College life was intoxicating. As a psychology major I was able to be part of the human potential movement of the 1960s and '70s. I was part of a global community that preached love, tolerance and acceptance of all. Most compelling for me was the freedom to interact with anyone, to be able to have close friendships with people of every walk of life. In college I found feelings of love and community again, but this time in a secular environment.
After college I returned to Los Angeles to get my Ph.D. in social-clinical psychology. I settled into my new home in Venice and struggled to find a social life. Two years later I began to date. At that time, whether I dated Jews or non-Jews wasn't an issue for me. My only involvement in the Jewish community was attending High Holiday services with my father. Other than spending time with childhood friends, I no longer fit into that community.
My new life revolved around graduate school, jogging, backpacking, and hanging out with artist friends.
After graduate school, I dated a lot and had several serious relationships, mostly with non-Jewish women. I got serious enough with one woman to discuss marriage. She said she wanted to be married in the church in which she had grown up. At that moment, my liberal, even radical sociopolitical world collapsed. I hadn't known my religious background had any punch left. We eventually broke up for various reasons, but I learned a lesson: I couldn't think about marriage without appreciating how deeply ingrained Judaism was in my soul.
The year 1985 was an important one for me. I went to Israel for the first time, and I met Lori. She had a wonderful laugh, a keen mind, and a very accepting character. I knew I was in trouble after our first date. But I was no longer naïve about what religion meant to me -- and Lori was not Jewish. She even played bells at her church, whatever bells were. Within a month, I felt compelled to tell her that I could never have a Christmas tree in my home. We didn't talk much about religion over the next year, though Lori knew that to marry me would mean having a "Jewish family."
Eventually we decided to marry -- and had to tell friends and family about our engagement. All of our friends rejoiced with us. Two of my best friends, with whom I had grown up, asked me to reconsider, and they asked more than once. My younger brother told Lori, without consulting me, that no matter what I promised her I would never go through with the marriage. When I finally told my parents (I had avoided telling them for as long as possible), my mother broke down in a tearful heap only to rise and scream at me, "What Hitler couldn't finish you are doing to us." And they liked Lori!
We agreed to have a Jewish wedding. For me it meant seeking out a Reform rabbi. I had never stepped into a Reform temple, and now I was depending on the Reform movement to start my Jewish family. Luckily, our first contact was with Eli Herscher, a Rabbi who cared enough about us to require that we meet with him privately several times and take a 20-week Introduction to Judaism course. The course gave us a way to structure discussions of religion, get beyond superficial issues, and ensure that we really knew one another in a meaningful way.
Once we were married I took responsibility for creating a Jewish home. I bought the challah for Shabbat, cooked the ethnic dishes I loved as a child, and planned religious holidays. Now that I couldn't take religion for granted, I was much more conscious of it's importance to me, and I found it very nurturing. Along with our daughter, Adrianne (from Lori's previous marriage), we have since been blessed with two more daughters, Delaney Malka and Liza Claire.
After being married for two years, Lori came to me and said she had decided to convert to Judaism. She'd been taking classes and meeting with Rabbi Herscher, and had independently planned this move. I admit, I had reservations -- I didn't want her to convert unless she truly felt inside her soul that it was right. She reassured me that she wanted to do this because of what she had learned, the spirituality she felt, and the welcoming contacts she had made in the Reform community.
I can't deny that I was very pleased she wanted to be Jewish. And since I already loved her so deeply, I was glad that we were on this spiritual journey together.
Barney Rosen, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with offices in Encino and Pasadena. He is Director of Psychology at Huntington Hospital and a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Intermarriage and Jewish Identity
More than 15 scholars will address the theme of "The Reappearing American Jew: Identity and Continuity" at a two-day conference, Feb. 6-7.
Co-sponsors of the event are the Hebrew Union College and USC's Institute for the Study of Jews in American Life.
Sunday afternoon and evening sessions on Feb. 6 are "American Jewish Identity: Historical Texture and Context" and "Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity." Both are at the Irmas campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 11662 Wilshire Blvd., West Los Angeles.
On Feb. 7, morning and afternoon sessions will focus on "Jewish Identity in the Context of California and the West" and "Jewish Identity in Multicultural Contexts." The 10 a.m. session is at the Hebrew Union College and the 1:30 p.m. discussion at USC.
Attendance is free; reservations are recommended by calling (213) 740-3405. -- Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor