For a former wallflower, a date with her Jewish past


NEW YORK (JTA) — When I received the Evite to my yeshiva high school’s 40th reunion, I reverted from an East Village-based traveling wine writer to the awkward, alienated high school student I once was.

Back then, the others wanted to go to Israel, but I longed for New York City. They wanted religion, but I longed to drop acid. They wanted to have babies, but I longed for books. I was lonely, rebellious and filled with nearly unbearable needs. Shabbos felt claustrophobic, and so were the rabbis, who couldn’t understand that I wasn’t being rebellious: I simply had goals other than making a good Jewish home for a husband and family.

As I stared at the screen I wondered, did I really have to revisit the witnesses to my torrid discontent? Couldn’t I just go forward without making the mistakes of Lot’s wife, looking back? Like her, curiosity got to me. I wanted to find out if I had grown out of my shyness and fear enough to assess my past with healthy distance. Weeks later I responded yes.

I Googled my former classmates: We’d been a Modern Orthodox group, but most of the girls had gone super-frum. The class beauty married a rabbi and birthed 11 children in Israel. The son of a classmate had married Ivanka Trump — of course she converted. There was no mention of Nathan anywhere, the kid who was my only date in high school.

In our senior year, we sparked during lunch one afternoon. I smiled all week when he asked me, the loner wallflower, to a movie. Nathan showed up after Shabbos with a plan: We were to head west to the Green Acres drive-in. I was no dummy. Even though I was inexperienced, I suspected what was on the evening menu.

We rolled into our spot. His hand inched for my face. Our souls didn’t collide, our bodies did,  kissing and embracing. He delivered me home a changed girl, lips sore from the workout.

“I’ll call you,” he said.

I believed him. But when the phone didn’t ring, I found out that he, like my father, had been two-timing. A friend told me that Nathan’s girlfriend was so religious, even hand holding was off limits. Ah, I understood. I was the “exotic” one, the Modern Orthodox girl who yearned to be a hippie, who wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, who read forbidden books like “Catcher in the Rye.” Nathan thought he was going to get lucky.

This was only a few months after my father left home for another woman, a huge shanda in the neighborhood. I kept my parents’ upcoming divorce a secret, but I felt this first rejection by a boy so soon after my father’s more deeply than he could have imagined.

As it turned out, Nathan wasn’t merely my only high school date, but my only Jewish date — ever. Considering my 12 years in yeshiva, being raised by a mother who couldn’t comprehend that I could ever talk with a non-Jewish man let alone be with one, this was profound.

Yet it seemed that as much as I tried, Jewish men and I were treif to each other. My college boyfriend was a Protestant from the New York City suburb of Islip, Long Island. My first love and the only man to ask me to marry him — a Boston Catholic. But if I did, my mother would sit shiva for me, so I declined. It went on from there. I had love. I had life. I had my independence and happiness.

Or so I thought.As I stood before the Long Island mini-mansion of the reunion hostess, I felt my own Elizabeth Street tub-in-the-kitchen walkup was dwarfed in comparison — and so was my life. Was I going to be the only pants-wearing, skin-showing single woman with no family pictures on my smartphone? I was also going to be the only one with two books published and a passport crammed with stamps, but reminding myself of this still didn’t help.

I sucked in a breath and passed through the rich, immaculate rooms down to the Formica den, just as if it were a sweet 16. The festivities were well underway.

“Your hair is still red!” “You haven’t changed!” “You’re famous!” Beneath the sheitels and the yarmulkes, they were still the old classmates, lovely people. No one judged me for living the secular life. I surveyed the room, thankful the person I had come to confront was missing.

Sometime after the d’var Torah and kosher sushi, a fit, short, confident man with wiry hair walked in, causing quite the stir. I never realized he had been so liked by all. He wasn’t really handsome, but he had that spark. This was the time for a Bloody Mary, but there was not even a drop of Manischewitz in sight.

Full of fake confidence, I bounded over to the guy who broke my teen heart. Instead of asking him why he didn’t call, I went cool and asked, “So what have you turned into?”

Nathan looked at me blankly. Was it possible he didn’t remember me?

“Alice,” I reminded him.

“A father, a husband and a dentist, but not a boring one. And you?” he asked so politely, he clearly still had no idea who I was.

“A wine writer,” and added, “but not a boring one.”

As I was summoning up my nerve to tell him how hurt I was after our date and how he was the last Jew I went out with, he was spirited away. I waved to him on my way out and he stunned me with three familiar words: “I’ll call you.”

I stifled a laugh. I wanted to exclaim, “You’re still reading from the same script!” I understood he wouldn’t call me. And as a married man with a wife and kids, I didn’t want him to call.

I left the mini-mansion eager to head back to the city, where I belonged. I had the chutzpah to look into my past and didn’t turn into a pillar of salt. Finally home, I kissed my mezuzah, walked past my threshold and felt in my bones there were no regrets.

(Alice Feiring is a James Beard Award-winning wine writer, author of the books “Naked Wine” and “The Battle for Wine and Love,” and a newsletter for organic, biodynamic and natural wines.)

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