Under a Spell
The road to marriage churns up an unusual conundrum: What happens when you fall for the matchmaker—not the match?
When the matchmaker said she had a poet-rabbi for me to meet, I ran over.
Malka, who lived on my block, had previously set me up on blind dates—shidduchim, as they’re called in our Jerusalem circles—and in the process had come to understand my affinity for creative, spiritual men. We sat down at her kitchen table and she sorted through adzuki beans as she told me about the guy.
At first, it didn’t sound too probable. He was from another Middle Eastern country, and I hailed from Nashville-Norfolk-Maryland. Eight years before, at the age of 17, I’d bought a one-way ticket to Israel and settled there. My own parents’ multicultural marriage had exploded, and I wasn’t eager to repeat that awful scenario. Also, the man in question was not exactly a rabbi, but studying to become one; in fact, he had only become religious two years earlier—a ba’al t’shuvah—which was another strike against him. In my dating experience, the newly religious could really get under my skin with their earnestness. Also, he was 33, eight years older than me.
Noticing my skepticism, the matchmaker revealed her trump card. He is, she said, “critically acclaimed”—dropping some glittering Israeli literati who had blurbed his last book—“and has a play showing right now in Tel-Aviv, something he wrote in his former secular days.”
“Really?” I perked up. “What’s it called?”
Malka, a fellow American, didn’t know, then added: “He won’t see it because it’s too racy.” I burst out laughing. Surely, even God had to appreciate the irony of someone who’d boycott his own creations.
Still, I hesitated.
“Well?” said the matchmaker, a ladleful of zucchini soup poised over earthen bowls. I wanted to please her—and I wanted some of that soup—so I said yes.
On our first date I was struck by the man’s brilliance, warmth, and handsome dark looks. He appeared like some ancient god carved out of Jerusalem stone, manly, thickly bearded, especially compared to all the other pale-faced wispy-bearded Jewish men who were sitting in the same hotel lobby with their own blind dates. A song played loudly, “I’ll Be Watching You,” and became the bass rhythm to our nonstop conversation. I came back with stars and flowers in my eyes, praying he wanted to see me again.
After work the next day, I sat opposite Malka, who placed a hot bowl of millet soup before me, and I waited, my heart on tiptoe, until she revealed that yes, he wanted to see me again—that very night, if possible.
We met at the matchmaker’s. Her two adorable children were sleeping, and Malka’s husband was busy working on a Hasidic book in a different room.
My date entered the living room in a pullover sweater, his shoulders bowed, carrying a slim book of poetry he had written. I squinted: Was this the same man? He appeared smaller, even effeminate, and his hairline appeared to have receded overnight. Also, I saw a single strand of white in his black beard, which reminded me of our age difference. The conversation stumbled and shlepped along, no brilliant jewels anywhere. I kept wishing for music to be playing in the background, like last time.
I couldn’t understand it, I said to Malka later, after he’d gone home. How could one date be so different from the next? “He looked totally different!” I told her, relieved to finally express myself in English. “We had nothing in common!”
There was, Malka explained to me, a Kabbalistic explanation: The first date is hesed—your hearts are open to each other, it’s all joy and love; second date is gevurah—when judgment starts to kick in; the third date is tiferet—hopefully the harmonization of the two.
I wanted to show I was reasonable—and to find out which date was the fluke!—so I said yes. Malka and I headed to the kitchen, where we finished her soup. Before I left, she and her husband shared with me some Torah passages they had been studying. How romantic, I thought.
On my third date with the poet-rabbi, our cultural and religious differences really cropped up, and we began to spar. His ideas about religion and politics were dogmatic and utterly unoriginal; he seemed, as I’d feared, like a crazy ba’al teshuva.
Just as I was about to write him off, he began to peel an orange for me—slowly, deftly, like the first man in the first garden with the first woman. My heart shot into my throat.
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