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Jewish Journal

Rabbi-Bad Boy Complex

by Lori Gottlieb

October 4, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Generally, when I think of rabbis, I think of wrinkled septuagenarians in majestic-looking robes.

Sure, I've seen the Ben Stiller movie, "Leap of Faith," where the actor plays a hoops-shooting, hipper-than-thou New York City rabbi who raps his way through services. But to me, the characters in that film seemed about as realistic as the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park." When it comes to real-life rabbis, I've simply never conjured up images of 30-somethings in faded jeans and grunge-inspired oversized T-shirts who live in Greenwich Village lofts and write books detailing their sexual exploits.

Last winter, at a Jewish book fair in Austin, I met a fellow author who happened to be a rabbi. This particular book fair was organized by a vivacious young yenta at the Austin JCC named Debbie.

"So," Debbie said matter-of-factly on the phone: "I've set up a dinner between you and your future husband." Based on our book jacket photos, Debbie had decided that the rabbi and I would soon be picking out china patterns and registering at Williams-Sonoma.

"You're both young, Jewish, attractive and authors," she said by way of explanation, as if the four definitive compatibility criteria for "soul mate" had been met. Never mind that we live 3,000 miles apart, or that I happened to, um, have a boyfriend at the time.

"Boyfriend, shmoyfriend," Debbie replied breezily. "Now listen," she continued. "You're going to marry this guy. You're both scheduled to speak on a Sunday afternoon, then we'll go to dinner. Do you have to get back to California right away, or should I book an extra night at the hotel?"

I stared at the receiver. Could Debbie secretly be in cahoots with my mother in Los Angeles? I began to wonder whether I'd been invited to this event because of my book or because of a shidduch?

I told Debbie I needed to get back to California the same night and explained that, even if I hadn't been dating someone, the rabbi setup wouldn't work out. "My fantasies of Mr. Right have never involved Mr. Rabbi," I said.

"We'll see," Debbie clucked confidently. In Austin three months later, my conversation with Mr. Rabbi, which took place in front of a crowd as I hurriedly signed books and he rushed to go onstage, went something like this: Hey, hi. Good presentation, great book. Gotta go onstage, got a plane to catch. E-mail sometime, you too. See ya, good luck. So much for the matchmaking.

It wasn't until several weeks after we'd both returned home that I realized I needed to talk to the trendy rabbi. I figured Mr. Rabbi, who'd trained in Los Angeles, could hook me up with some young, like-minded, nontraditional local rabbis who'd "get" me. Three hours and an expensive phone bill later, however, our conversation went from religion to relationships. This led to witty banter, which led to playful sexual innuendo. Then, before I knew it, I was having a flirtatious conversation with a rabbi! How could this be happening?

I decided not to take it seriously. First of all, I still had a boyfriend. And second of all, you can't flirt with a rabbi. To think of a rabbi in those terms seemed creepy.

Over the next two weeks, as we continued our conversations, it was reassuring to know that a rabbi not only understood my ambivalence, but had experienced it firsthand.

Secretly I wondered: If it's OK to talk like a sailor in front of a rabbi, could I also picture myself saying, "Oh, yeah, baby!" in a different kind of passionate discourse? What did I want from Mr. Rabbi anyway: spirituality or sex?

That's when I decided to introduce Mr. Rabbi to my friend Lynn. Using Debbie's logic from before the festival, I thought, "They're both young, Jewish, attractive, and authors."

"Listen," I told Lynn on the phone, "there's this guy, he lives in your neighborhood, he's smart, cute, cool, creative, early 30s. Interested?"

"Sure," Lynn said. "I'll meet him for a quick drink."

"Great, but there's one more thing." I didn't quite know how to say this. "He's a rabbi." I waited for Lynn to nix the date.

"Okay," she said nonchalantly. "Give him my number."

After we hung up, I attributed Lynn's comfort with dating a rabbi to the fact that she lives in New York, the hipness capital of the world, where anything goes. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe this was about me rather than geography. After all, people everywhere are married to rabbis.

I couldn't figure out my hangup until last month, when I was driving up to San Francisco from Los Angeles, and Mr. Rabbi asked me to join him for dinner after one of his Bay Area book signings.

"Please come," he joked, "because if I have to eat alone, I'll be tempted to call my ex-girlfriend." That's when it hit me: I like rabbis to be rabbis, and dates to be dates. I don't want to hear about a rabbi's sexual exploits, or even the fact that he's had ex-girlfriends.

In a twisted Jewish woman's version of the Madonna-Whore complex, I may be the first to coin the Rabbi-Bad Boy Complex.

So I think I'll go ahead and call those freethinking L.A. rabbis I'd asked to be referred to. Perhaps what I really need to learn about Judaism is how to celebrate our sensuality as well as our spirituality without compartmentalizing either.

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