In a world where everyone was off limits, I was free to assume my own worth. Now, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
I stood in back of the room behind all of the men. Their white prayer shawls blocked my view of the cantor and the Torah but I didn’t mind. Until six months ago, I was leading my own congregation for the High Holidays. Today, I was standing sans prayer shawl, reciting only the evocative, nostalgic passages, leaving out the boring ones.
I was dressed in loose, comfortable clothing, not the restrictive layers of rabbinic attire I donned my whole life. No one knew who I was except the rabbi. He was a friend, and until not too long ago, a colleague. He was discreet, hospitable, and, most of all, not awkward.
As services wrapped up, I thumped my prayer book shut, anticipating the festive Rosh Hashana lunch we were about to share. Then I saw her. Tall, with flowing chestnut hair, and a long skirt lilting to her gait. Prayer book in hand, her posture was determined yet gentle. My eyes followed her, hypnotized until she was out of sight.
Later, after evening services, we gathered for yet another holiday meal. My friend, the rabbi, suggested I sit at a table with other young professionals. Then, I saw her coming from the other side of the room. She sat right next to me.
“Will I be awkward? Will the conversation flow? Will she like me?” These questions rushed through my head as I steadied myself like it was obvious she should sit next to me.
Until recently, I never had to find out if someone actually liked me as a guy. I was safe to fantasize that everyone I was attracted to was also attracted to me. In a world where everyone is off limits, I was free to assume my own worth. Now, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
After exchanging pleasantries, she told me her name was Liora and that she was an actor. There is no way she’d be interested in me now, I thought. If I had any chance at all, I needed to keep the conversation deep and meaningful, where I thrived. Self-discovery and Jewish safe zones like Birthright were all-time favorites. Turns out she was in the process of becoming more religious and just ended a five-year relationship. I was becoming less religious and just ended a five-year relationship. She was coming back for services the next day and we agreed to continue the conversation then.
After services, we joined the rabbi and his family for Tashlich, a Jewish ritual where we discard our sins in a natural pool of water. Liora and I talked during the one-mile walk to the pond. We shared seemingly endless parallels, save for the one major difference: she was becoming more observant and I was steadily shedding my religious practice. It was like the two of us were at a crossroads, each of us going in a different direction.
I liked that. There were enough similarities to feel connected, yet big enough differences to keep things from getting serious. God knows I wasn’t ready for a new relationship, nor did I want one. My whole life was about simplicity, exploration, discovery, and if I could avoid it, no drama. I didn’t want anything that required absolute definitions. I was just emerging from a world where everything was dictated by absolute values and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t swapping one set of absolutes for another. Whether it was religion, politics, relationships, or sexuality. I was a free agent.
As the afternoon drew to a close, we decided to get drinks. Liora suggested we go to a bar on a boat at the city’s dock. We ducked inside, ordered wine and popcorn, and sat at the cafe-style tables, rocking gently to the cadence of the water.
Was this my first real date? Until now, I had only been on aggressively orchestrated dates as a Hassidic young man. It was never just because we got along. The dates in my Hassidic community are by choice and not “arranged” but they are at the zenith of performative human interactions. We pretend we haven’t already done months of oppo research and are essentially conducting an interview to determine physical chemistry. After all, one must know if your future mate, partner, and offspring bearer match up with what was already concluded in the research.
If all goes well, you get engaged. And I did. After five dates during a ten-day period. So, sitting here on an unsanctioned date with someone I just met, enjoying the time for what it was without a thought for its long-term procreative viability felt like a long overdue vindication that I had any worth at all as a man who was attractive enough on my own merits.
The next day I messaged her saying I happened to be in her neighborhood. I had been up all night reflecting. Why would someone like her be into me? I wasn’t in great shape, I had an ungroomed Hassidic beard and wasn’t anywhere near her zone of cool. She was an artist and an actor! People generally liked me as a person but was she attracted to me?
There was almost no physical contact between us the day prior. Any physical contact was so formal that it almost confirmed that nothing else was going on. I berated myself for lacking confidence and initiative. Maybe I should have taken things further after our date. Suggest we go back to her place.
So here I was showing up at her doorstep. That should signal that I am interested in developing things further, hopefully, something intimate and yes, physical.
I wasn’t in a rush to have sex. I wanted to embrace her and feel our breath heating the air between us, run my finger along the softness of her forearm. It would surely be the most beautiful thing in the world.
I spent a few hours at her place wondering the whole time whether I was missing a cue. Gosh. How does this work? Is it really this vague? Does it require this much guessing?
Evening was upon us and it was time to leave. I stood in her kitchen, my back against the counter. She was talking but all I could hear were voices in my head berating me for not making a move. We hadn’t so much as held hands and I was in her apartment! Was something wrong with me? Did she not like me?
Then, my ears registered what she was actually saying.
“You are so wonderful and I think we could be great friends. I had such a lovely couple of days with you and we have so much in common. But I don’t want to lead you on. Nothing romantic will happen with us. Is that ok? Can we still be friends?”
I was out of my body and she was talking to another person. I didn’t even need this to be romantic, after all this is the blossoming of a beautiful friendship.
“Liora, you are so sweet. Thank you for being upfront and honest. Of course, I wish something more could happen between us but I value our friendship much more than I want anything else. I totally respect how you feel.”
She gave me a hug and I left. My heart was broken into a thousand tiny pieces, yet my brain applauded my courageous reaction. As I got into my car and turned on the ignition I tried to suppress how much I wanted to kiss her, hold her hands, feel her body, run my hands through her hair, and gaze at her beauty. Instead, every time I looked at her, my gaze would be filtered through the lens of a friend, not a lover.
I pressed on the gas and started to wonder how sincere I really was. Was this just a long con, hoping a friendship would eventually lead to sex?
Wasn’t it natural for this connection to evolve into physical intimacy? I craved it so much. Was I a bad person for wanting that, yet also not wanting a serious relationship?
Then a thought occurred to me. I had never been with a woman in a social context. Yet, when I became a rabbi it felt very natural to create meaningful relationships with the women I met. I was always respectful and maintained strong boundaries. So my only orientation towards interacting with women was ardently platonic.
This ability, which allowed me to be a successful rabbi and community leader was now haunting me like a ghost. Would women ever see me as physically attractive? More importantly, would I ever learn to tell a woman I was attracted to her without solely relying on the safety of meaningful conversations to form chemistry?
I thought back on Liora, the woman who walked past me, prayer book in hand, and then disappeared out of my sight. I was grateful these questions were relevant at all and accepted, that at least for now, I made a new friend.