Russian Roulette Part I
The thing about Yitzi is that we went through every young boy’s rite of passage together.
I cruised the tree-lined cul-de-sac, scanning the cookie-cutter lawns spilling out from each house. It was exciting to see my friend, Yitzi, move up in the world. Only a few years ago we were yeshiva boys living in a basement, up until five in the morning on Thursday nights hosting “farbrengens,” the Chabad-Hassidic equivalent of a rave. The following years found us dating, getting married, moving to our posts as rabbis, and having children.
Transitioning into adulthood was mired in struggle and fueled by idealism. We were excited to finally go out on our own; establish our own communities, raise our own families. I got divorced and left my life as a rabbi just as we were transitioning into the next phase. When life gets a little more comfortable and a little less exciting.
I pulled up to Yitzi’s nugget of suburban paradise just as his children, three of them now, raced out to greet me. I barely knew them but I may as well have been their long-lost uncle. I was no longer religious and already shaved my beard but I still presented as a moderately observant Jew. I wore a kipa, arrived before Shabbos, and was going to sleep over so as not to transgress the Shabbos by driving back home.
Yitzi knew I was no longer religious and seemed okay with it. I was grateful that my friends and family took my transition in stride. No one threatened ex-communication and I prided myself for not being resentful.
To be sure, I carried plenty of resentments but they had nothing to do with why I left. If anything when I was religious, I was even more critical of “the system.” Now that I was out, I didn't want to be a bitter, vengeful reject. I would hold my head high and take responsibility for my decisions. By the same token, I wouldn’t hide how happy I was to be out. This was my journey, not a verdict on the “truth.”
By taking this approach, I earned a certain social status. Most secular people are viewed with a layer of envy and suspicion. But I was an insider who was also secular. If you play it right, you get all the envy but none of the suspicion. I was suddenly cooler than I was before. People went out of their way to treat me nicely, to show they were open-minded. I knew it was mixed with a healthy dose of pity but who cares? It was from a good place.
“Who’s coming over for the meal tonight?” Yitzi had my bags and was escorting me into the house. He and his wife hosted lavish Shabbos dinners, always intimate and lively. It was a multi-course, homemade extravaganza accompanied by limitless wine.
Yitzi made sure my favorite dishes and drinks were in abundance and always found new goodies to try. After years of favoring peaty single-malt scotches, we were on a tequila kick. Only silky smooth reposados, only the best brands.
“Her name is Julia, divorced, has a six-year-old. She’s coming with her parents. They’re Russian…”
A single mom, coming over for Shabbos dinner. My mind was racing. Was she cute? Was she outgoing and fun to talk to? Generally, Yitzi was frustratingly hard to read. But when he wanted to, he made sure you knew what he meant. What he didn’t say was, “These people are fun, we’ll have a good time.”
Yitzi and I learned how to drink from Russians. One day, as young rabbinical students, we went to visit a Jewish-Russian businessperson at his office. The goal was to befriend him, put on tefillin, a Jewish prayer ritual, get a check, and secure another meeting. Five hours, one bottle of Grey Goose, a pack of Parliaments, and a $5,000 check later, we were on our way. Just a regular Wednesday afternoon as fledgling Chabad rabbis.
After harmonizing the Shabbos services together, Julia arrived with her parents. The first thing I noticed was her broad, disarming smile and bubbly personality. My eyes dropped to her tight wrap-around dress, revealing generous curves, deep cleavage, and wide hips. She was tall with long black hair reaching past her shoulders. Her honey eyes sparkled as if she was perpetually about to laugh.
Women showed up to Chabad all the time. But as a rabbi, the dynamics between guys and girls were irrelevant. Of course, I noticed if I was attracted to someone but it was removed from any practical application so it hardly interrupted how I interacted with them.
We sat down for the meal after reciting kiddush & hamotzie, the traditional blessings for wine and bread. Yitzi seated me directly across from him, at the end of the table. Julia sat at the corner, to my right next to her parents. Yitzi’s wife, Chavah, on the other side, to my left, with the kids.
It doesn’t take long for a Shabbos table at Chabad to feel like an intimate dinner with close friends. There is very little formality. You are being hosted in a young family's home. Yes, Chabad is an organization with thousands of centers across the world, but they are independently operated so you might as well have entered the only one to exist. That is how Chabad rabbis see themselves, for the better and worse.
We compete with each other as if we weren’t part of the same international network. Yet we feel responsible for our communities as if there was no one else to do our jobs.
Yitzi was pleased with how things were going around the table. It felt like old times. We didn’t have to say a word to each other and still managed the rhythm of the evening flawlessly. Like a play so well rehearsed, the stiffness and awkwardness of opening night gone with the wind. A glance, a comment delivered with exactly the right double meaning; we shared a code we weren't quite aware of ourselves.
Jewish dietary law mandates a separation between fish and meat. So a natural lull occurs between the fish and meat courses, sometimes buffered with a hot bowl of Matza ball soup. Yitzi was in the kitchen helping Chava while I stayed at the table entertaining Julia’s parents. From the corner of my eye, I could see Julia in feverish, hushed conversation with Yitzi.
“He’s a good guy, a single dad…. my best friend, I don’t recommend him lightly…”
It was weird to hear my friend setting me up. As kids, we never talked about girls. When we started dating, we kept our experiences private. This is the way amongst many in the Hassidic community. Dating is as taboo as a sensitive medical condition. Every dating prospect is measured like it will determine the rest of your life. And it will.
Hearing my friend talk to someone about possibly going out with me confirmed that I was outside of the life we used to share. True as it was, it stung. Like I was demoted to the class of people who date so casually that it can be discussed while ladling a bowl of soup.
The sting didn’t last long. I was more excited to hear that Julia was into me. From her animated gestures and the furtive glances in my direction, I knew we were on.
Most of my experiences till now had been hookups generated by dating apps. I’d never gone out with someone I’d met in the course of my regular life based on attraction and chemistry alone. Even on dating apps, I didn’t prioritize attraction. I had one goal: to explore sex with anyone willing to explore sex with me.
Julia came back to the table and the tenor of our conversation changed completely. The fact that I knew she was into me was a gift. I didn’t get in my head or entertain every insecurity. Yitzi seemed to love what was happening, remarking to her parents, “Don’t they look good together?”
The thing about Yitzi is that we went through every young boy’s rite of passage together. One day we were innocent Hassidic boys and the next we were in Barnes & Noble perusing the aisles for nude photography. Not Playboy. That would have required a pre-meditated decision to seek out porn. Instead, we sought books that weren’t overtly pornographic, giving us the out we needed to keep it up. After a year of this, we never talked about it again. Not ever. But we both knew how desperate we were to experience what sex was like.
So in this moment, it felt like we understood each other. I could see in his eyes that he was happy for me and excited to play wingman.
On the other hand, I wasn’t quite sure Yitzi understood what was really happening. He was always a little more sheltered than I was. I loved breaking rules and crossing lines, and Yitzi gladly broke them with me. But for him, it was like scratching an itch. For me, it was a statement about my individuality. I hated being seen as “just one of them.” Yitzi did everything to make sure he was exactly like “one of them.”
I wondered if Yitzi understood what was going down between Julia and I. Or was he just swept up in the excitement of the evening?
The meal ended. Julia and I snuck off to a corner where I entered my number into her phone. Electronics are forbidden on Shabbos so this had to be done clandestinely.
The Russians left, Yitzi and I cleaned up. I couldn’t get to my room quickly enough to check my phone for messages.
And waiting messages there were. Three photos: Two selfies, in barely discernible variations. A strapless dress, lots of cleavage, side angle, looking seductively up at the camera. The other was a close-up of her breasts in revealing lingerie, no face.
“Kiss me at midnight tomorrow?”
After months of chasing women I wasn’t attracted to and being rejected by women I was attracted to, I’d finally get to play it cool. I already had plans for New Year’s.
“I’m available Monday, can we meet up then?”
Cry face emoji.
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