We’ll Turn Manhattan Into An Isle Of …


It was a Jewish Week story that tipped me off to the fortune teller. He was Jewish and had a “branch office” somewhere near Times Square, which is another way of saying he accepted walk-ins from the little stretch of sidewalk he called his own.

I can’t remember where he stood, exactly, or how I figured out who he was since it has been a good 15 years since I turned to him to read my future, but I do remember that I found him. He was thin and bearded and looked more like an accountant than a soothsayer. But since he read palms — not taxes — for a living, I proffered up mine, eager to get some answers once and for all.

Looking over their crevices, he foresaw a very long life.

Not that I cared. Like most young people, I assumed life was inherently long. What was fuzzy to me was my love forecast. Who would I marry? And when?

I was already 22, having recently graduated from Barnard with another year of the Jewish Theological Seminary to go. It was during my junior year abroad in Jerusalem that I had broken it off with my college boyfriend. To be fair, I hadn’t so much wanted to break up for good from such a steadfast boyfriend — only to put in on pause while I was in Israel and he was back in the States. What can I say other than I felt so young and didn’t understand why I needed to anchor myself so permanently to someone else. Let’s just say he didn’t see it that way, and so finding myself suddenly unattached, I quickly became involved with a long-haired Israeli who sold jewelry on the midrachov. And if what I had with my hometown boyfriend was too serious, this relationship was too capricious for me. I could never understand why he didn’t want to commit.

I also spent a lot of time with my Hebrew teacher, a law student at the university, who was a few years my senior. We would watch Hal Hartley films at the Cinematheque and hang out at the park reading Hebrew poetry for hours. I thought he was the dreamiest man on planet earth and wondered why he never tried to kiss me. (He later came out.)

By the time I returned to New York, there was no one. Looking closely at my hand, the Times Square fortune teller foresaw marriage at age 28. He also saw two children in my future. To my young ears, waiting over five years to meet my match seemed like an eternity. And only two children?

I gasped. I had always loved children. Even when I was no more than a child myself, I was always toting around someone else’s baby on my hip. I had hoped for at least four children, maybe five.

So I did what any good Jew would do, I argued with him.

“Look again!” I admonished, giving him my hand for a do-over.

He looked again.

“I’m sorry. What do you want from me? That’s what I see. You’ll marry at age 28 and have two children.”

And guess what happened?

When I was 28 I did, indeed, get married. But I was divorced by the time I was 30. Did my fortune teller see that and just keep it to himself? And what of my beloved children?

Now, as I inch closer to 40, I would consider myself extremely lucky to have one child, let alone two. I would also consider myself lucky to meet a man who was as steadfast and earnest in his devotion to me and commitment to marriage and children as my college boyfriend. Where had I gone so wrong? And could I still repair the damage?

The images of me in my early 20s came rushing back to me on a recent visit to Manhattan. I was there to try my luck at love, even though I had moved to Israel from my hometown of Chicago nearly two years earlier. When a girlfriend suggested that perhaps her single friend who was living in New York was a match, I eagerly agreed. Why not? I said.

And so it happened that after he visited Israel and we had a momentous first date, followed by a few months of long-distance correspondence, I flew to New York to spend five days with him. While I parked myself at a girlfriend’s to be safe, in the end we spent nearly the whole time together: holding hands as we strolled through the Lichtenstein exhibit at the Morgan Library, and then working our way up to Bryant Park where, suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by an honest-to-God flash mob — the throng of young people who all gravitated to the scene WHAT SCENE? like a colony of life-sized ants all marching to the same beat.

We stole kisses on a bench in Central Park, the air crisp and cool, the leaves beginning to turn a burnt orange, and saw the latest Woody Allen movie at a theater on the Upper West Side, where the audience seemed indistinguishable from the players on the screen.

It was at a neighborhood pizza place that I asked what would happen when I returned to Israel.

He told me he didn’t know. “I guess I need to know if I miss you when you leave,” he said.

I felt discouraged. What of the days we had spent together in harmony even if there were some very noticeable kinks along the way? It seemed clear that if we were going to work out, one of us was going to have to move, and that that one of us would have to be me. After all, he was the one with a demanding and important job. Beyond that, as a transplant to New York from another country, he was head over heels in love with his adopted city.

I, on the other hand, did not feel much love for New York. Even during my university days I always felt disconnected from the city. I found it lonely and alienating and I couldn’t wait to get away.

“Could I move here for love?” I asked myself as I cut through the leafy park and saw all the young mothers pushing their expensive strollers. I asked it again as I made my way down the hustle and bustle of Broadway, past the book vendors and the coffee carts and the steam escaping from the vents in the sidewalk.

Could I live here and be happy? I knew that I couldn’t.

To be squeezed into a tiny apartment, to have to wait in (not “on!”) enormous lines just to buy a few things at Trader Joe’s, to have to compete with the hungry, ambitious, well-dressed masses every time I left my home? I knew it wasn’t me.

I knew I could live in Chicago. I love Chicago with my whole heart: The sense of space, even in the Loop, the down-to-earth people and the secret parks away from the crowds where even in the bitter cold my dog likes to run free.

But it was there, in my beautiful condo with the perfect view of the downtown skyline, that I knew one prophetic night that I had to get out. “If you don’t pack up and go you will die alone,” said my inner voice.

My heart sent me to Jerusalem, a city of light and stone and mystery and the place I now call home.

And yet, despite now having all the trappings of stability — a steady job, a circle of friends, and a lovely, sun-filled apartment with a porch for my dog to keep an eye on all the passersby — I still do not know which place to call home. Could it be because without a partner in which to share my home, I will be forever a visitor waiting for my life to begin?

In the end, my New York romance fizzled. I wanted too much and he seemed to want so little. It was a familiar and painful pattern, with me feeling like I was being kept at arm’s length; like I was forever knocking on the door, begging to be let in.

After it officially ended, I felt beaten down and too tired to begin all over again. I was exhausted by JDate, of all those faces, all those words, all those strangers. How did one bypass all the endless fronts and starts and stops to reach a real and lasting connection?

I reviewed all the dates and mini-romances I had had since I moved to Israel. The long-haired academic. The chubby scientist. The sweet younger man who was like an eager puppy but who barely said a word. None of them was right.

Was it me or was it my expectations?

And would the universe just send me my groom already or was I doomed to keep roaming the world like Cain, a restless wanderer on this earth, searching, searching, searching for my other half?

New York City, it turned out, was east of Eden, after all.

Abigail Pickus, who lives in Jerusalem, wrote “The Matchup” column in The Jewish Week for two years.