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Prelude and Fugue

There are men who leave you for another woman, and there are men who leave you for a man. Then there are those who dump you for God.

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
March 20, 2012
Justin Berger/Flickr
Justin Berger/Flickr
Justin Berger/Flickr
Justin Berger/Flickr

We met during a youth music festival, flirting across the wind section of a large symphony orchestra. If there was an obstacle to our romance, it was not that he was Jewish and I wasn’t; it was that he played the tuba and I played the violin. There’s a reason why there are no duets for these two instruments.

Two years later, on a sweltering afternoon in his mother’s apartment in Holon, we tried to read through Handel sonatas with him playing the basso continuo—an athletic feat for the tuba. Soon he was sweating with exhaustion, and my ears rang as if my head had been stuck inside a church bell. The tuba and violin just weren’t meant to be together without the chaperone of a full orchestra. But that didn’t stop us from moving in together soon after. When he got a position with an orchestra in Jerusalem, and a job I had meant to take up in London fell through at the last minute, I moved to Israel to be with him.

Our religious difference was not an issue—at first. At age 23, he was stridently secular. He despised his Orthodox fellow Israelis for their refusal to serve in the army, their reliance on the state to support their large numbers of children, their attempts to kill any form of fun on a Friday night. Penguins, he called them, in reference to their black and white clothes. Parasites.

Like many young Israelis, he had traveled the globe and was as intrigued by other spiritual traditions as he was repelled by his own. He had been mesmerized by the ritual of a Japanese tea ceremony; meditated in a Zen monastery in San Francisco; joined in the cathartic whirl of Capoeira on an orchestra tour to Brazil.

I, on the other hand, wanted to convert to Judaism. There were Jewish roots on my father’s side, and when I first entered a synagogue in college, I had felt their tug. I wanted to learn the beautiful tunes of Erev Shabbat, the mysterious choreography of the Amidah prayer with its bows, turns, and curtsies. I played with ideas for a new, Hebrew, name.

All this was a source of amusement to him. That a 27-year-old blonde from a German Lutheran family would be smitten by the Tel Aviv bars and dust-green hills of Jerusalem was not in itself a surprise. After all, there were many more like me, scattered across kibbutzim and volunteer organizations in the country. But to choose to be Jewish and take on all those rules and prohibitions? Why not take all the joys Israel had to offer—the sunshine, the beaches—and leave it at that?

But after a year of us living together, during which I repeatedly failed to obtain a work visa, he began to talk about my conversion with hope rather than ridicule. It would make things easier with the immigration department. We would, if we ever so chose, be able to marry.

“You realize that they’ll ask about you,” I said. “When there’s a boyfriend in the picture, the rabbis want to meet him.”

“I know,” he said with a shudder. The newspapers were full of bitter debates about the Orthodox grip on conversions in Israel. “I’ll have to learn, too. I might even have to wear a kippa. It’ll kill me, but I’ll do it for you.”

He met a young oboist, a man who had recently become religious; chazar b’tshuva was the expression—he had come back with an answer. Together they went to a yeshiva. And just like that, my boyfriend was hooked. He told me how he had watched the rabbi say a blessing over his glass of water before drinking and was struck by the beauty of the gesture.

“They’re crazy, of course,” he told me with a grin. “But—” and here he made a little semicircle in the air with his index finger, like a Torah scholar introducing a counter-argument—“there’s something special there, too.”

Within a month, he was observant. He rose early for morning prayers. He blessed his food and his drink. On Friday afternoon, he flipped the switch in the fridge to stop the light from turning on automatically. I was delighted. I was now enrolled in an official conversion course and had swapped my jeans for long skirts. On Shabbat, we joined in the ecstatic chanting in a synagogue filled with young, shining faces. Peeking through the lace curtain that divided the men from the women, I thought my boyfriend looked sexy wrapped in a striped prayer shawl. I bought him a cute knitted kippa. There was something intimate about our spiritual journey.

Intimacy of the old kind, however, was over: We stopped having sex. He moved out. One day he turned his head as I reached up to kiss him, so that my lips missed his. At a friend’s wedding, he refused to dance with me. I explained to him that while there were things I was willing to give up to become Jewish, I knew my red lines. I wanted to dance with my husband at my own wedding, for instance; I would not send my children to a school that banned Anne Frank’s diary for being unchaste. He listened—by now he had taken to swaying back and forth when he thought about something—and said that he could not impose any such borders. He wanted to go all the way.

I took my cue from the vivacious young women at the synagogue, the moped-riding Australian rabbi, the raucous laughter around the Shabbat dinner tables of my modern Orthodox friends. Like the slinky long skirts I filled my closet with, I was looking for a Judaism that fit—even flattered—me.

My boyfriend’s yeshiva was strictly black-hat.

His old friends, all secular, started to call me. “You have to do something,” they said. In a country so bitterly divided between the religious and the secular, any move from one camp to the other strained relationships. No more Friday night group outings to bars, or weekend hikes in the Golan Heights. When my boyfriend called on a Friday afternoon to wish them a peaceful Shabbat, his friends heard the reproach.

Perhaps we had been blind to the signs. “Going all the way” had, after all, been his motto, whether in his choice of an esoteric computer operating system or just goofing around. Had there not been something of the Sufi Dervish spinning toward transcendence in the way he had sung “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall” down to the very last bottle—when he hadn’t even been drunk? Was his devoted study of the intricacies of halakhic commentary really so different from his passion for Bach fugues?

He still played in the symphony orchestra, but would study Torah during breaks, rocking over the open book on his music stand. He even continued to show up for reserve duty in the army band, where he played sousaphone. On the bus heading for the base in the desert, he lectured his fellow reservists on God. Those were the only times he now dressed in any color other than black and white—the uniform of God’s army, he called it.

Yet for a good half-year, our relationship held. Whether out of love or habit, our lives remained entangled. He drove me to the airport in the middle of the night, paid my phone bills, served me home-cooked cholent on Shabbat. I would borrow his car, finding the radio switched from the classical music station to one broadcasting fervent sermons. At concerts, the sound of his tuba made my diaphragm buzz. We both knew that in his world, there was no place for a relationship between an unmarried man and a woman. But when I asked him whether he would have married me even if I had been Jewish—although I was in the process of conversion, I still had many months before I’d be allowed into the mikveh—he struggled to respond.

One night, a suicide bomber blew up a café in the center of town that we had sometimes stopped by for milkshakes. He was now living in the yeshiva and, I told myself, in all likelihood safe. Even so, I was worried. While ambulances howled in the streets outside and the terse voice of the radio broadcaster rattled off the number of dead and wounded, I kept dialing his number, reaching only his voice mail. Finally, he called. A rebbetzin was starting a new Bible study group for women, he told me; would that be something of interest? No note of concern, or “Thank God you’re OK.” All I got that night was an earful of Torah. I hung up with a new sense of clarity. He had come back with an answer. However narrow his new path seemed to me, he needed the freedom to walk it alone.

Suddenly free myself, I hurtled in new directions. I traded an ill-fitting job in high-tech for an internship and, soon after, my first job in journalism. When I was offered the opportunity to join a Dutch television crew breaching the military blockade that was then encircling Bethlehem, I jumped at it, even though it meant breaking Shabbat. I walked out of conversion class in the midst of a sermon about the “cold spot” in the heart of every Christian that is reserved for the Jews. Friday nights I could still be found in synagogue, among the swishing skirts of the young women, but the next morning I was just as likely to hop in a jeep with U.N. workers and head to the beach.

He came to my apartment at the end of the summer to pick up the last of his belongings. It was Elul, the month leading up to the High Holidays, and he was eager to cut the last ties that bound us. While he rolled up the cables for his stereo system and I wrote him a check for the bed we had once slept in together, we left the front door ajar. An open door, he had learned, prevents the forbidden state of yichud, of being alone with a woman. It protects against the evil inclination. I knew better than to offer him a drink. My kitchen was no longer sufficiently kosher. And neither was I.

Soon after, I met the man who would become my husband. I did convert in the end, but not until we’d had two children—dunked in the ritual bath, like me—and moved to the States. I have not seen my ex in years, but I think of him whenever I hear a tuba in concert, its penetrating sound, shimmering with overtones, always threatening to shake loose something deep inside.

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim is a music critic and writer living in Westchester.