The Mensch

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A137 mensch2

As we talked further it turned out that his family were not only fairly observant but also very traditional. The prospect of him dating let alone marrying outside his faith was not only less than palatable, but was pretty much unacceptable. So our relationship would need to be kept under wraps. I didn’t know how to handle this information but given that my family weren’t exactly pro me-dating-full-stop, and given we were only 19, marriage was hardly in the cards as a goal for either of us in the near future. Indeed, neither of us knew if this was a relationship that would ever progress to that stage. But I still felt uncomfortable with this information. It felt like there was a restriction on our love before it had even had the chance to blossom.

Nonetheless we continued to date and within a year or so were very much a couple in love and spent most of our time together. Given the proximity between Liverpool and Manchester, and given his love for Liverpool Football Club, he went home often and his family visited fairly frequently – but I was, of course, excluded from these visits and was beginning to feel resentful, like an outcast needing to be hidden.

Soon the issue became a prickly thorn in the side of our relationship. The Mensch, being the good guy that he was, decided to tackle it head on with his newly-divorced parents, hoping that their own troubles and new relationships would help make them more sympathetic to us. His tactics worked and soon enough I was meeting the parents.

As far as meeting parents went, it had an extra layer of awkwardness that arose from the religious divide. There was the Friday night Shabbat dinner at his mother’s house where they sang Sabbath songs (I had never experienced this at any of my friends’ Friday night dinners which were very informal and more of a food fest), and the family dog barked along to the songs making me burst into hysterics that I failed to stifle. Then there was the pasta house dinner with his father and his new wife where I instinctively ordered my favourite dish spaghetti carbonara only to witness the Mensch wincing at his father’s and step mother’s faces and me hurriedly changing my order to mushroom fettuccine. It was uncomfortable.

Despite having grown up with many Jewish friends, my group came from extremely liberal backgrounds – a couple of them had one parent that had converted and they were more Jewish in culture than in religion. The Mensch’s family seemed worlds apart from my Jewish crowd in North West London. Meeting the parents was a one off. It was arranged to placate me and to make his family realize our relationship was real, but it was hardly the start of a blossoming relationship with his family. Nonetheless I got on very well with his two sisters and we all hung out regularly, had fun together and formed strong bonds.

Despite the issue of our religious differences, our relationship progressed and went from strength to strength and soon the Mensch met my family. My mother adored him yet was concerned at the obstacles we (and in reality more that I) would need to overcome if we ever wanted to marry. As time passed and we soon approached graduating and the next chapter of our adult lives we talked more of the future and ultimately of the need for me to convert if we were to marry. The issue we had was that in Judaism the blood line runs through a mother (unlike, for example, in Islam where it runs through the father), so for our children to be considered Jewish I would need to convert. And for the Mensch it was important for his children to be halachically Jewish. For me, having children with someone with a different skin colour or religion didn’t mean that my children would be any less a part of my family (even though there was likely to be judgment from my extended family and community because at that time mixed relationships were still less common). But I understood and respected that for the Mensch he needed his children to be accepted and considered Jews by his family and his community.

Deciding that knowledge was power I quietly researched matters myself and spoke with a couple of different Rabbis about converting. Unfortunately Reform conversion (which a few of my friends’ parents had undergone) was very much looked down upon by the Mensch’s family and community. If I were to convert I would need to do an Orthodox conversion and back in the late 90’s that would be a very serious seven year process.

Despite my earlier fascination with Judaism and a strong affinity with Jewish people and the culture (I now related this to the similarities between Asian culture and Jewish – the focus on family, community, education, achievement, tradition and of course eating/food!), this was not something I was sure that I wanted to do. I didn’t want to keep kosher or Shabbat – these weren’t even things the Mensch did anymore – and I definitely didn’t want me or my kids to have to do that. Undertaking a serious conversion and making vows to do these things and then to not do them seemed utter hypocrisy to me.

And then it appeared that our religious divide was no longer even an issue I needed to consider- the Mensch and I broke up. Looking back, it was completely normal for such a young couple who had spent nearly all of university together to go through this, but at the time (particularly for me, as it was initiated by him), it was extremely painful and felt like the end of the world. It felt like he needed not necessarily to sow his oats per se, but to be young, free and single for a while.

Within a couple of months however he returned begging for forgiveness and saying I was his soulmate. I was really no longer sure if I felt the same, in fact I felt quite open to the prospect of single life, but we reconciled, went backpacking together and at the end of that trip I too was convinced we were soulmates. We talked of marriage and planned our future. We were like love’s young dream.

But then I returned to London to start a new job and got flung into the glamorous world of media law. Suddenly being in a committed relationship and thinking about the process I would need to go through in order to one day in many years to marry the Mensch seemed less than appealing. In fact it felt stifling. And with the glittering lights of my new career it seemed a light had been turned on inside of me and I was suddenly noticing other men. I had been in a committed relationship since I was 19 and I was now approaching 25, in many ways I had lived the life of someone much older at a young age. So my curiosity as to what else existed out there combined with me blossoming into a bit of a media girl about town resulted in itchy feet.

So one day a couple of months later, when I was due to spend the weekend with the Mensch in Liverpool, upon finding out that all the trains had been cancelled due to bad weather, I called him and broke it off. I sat in the middle of the packed train station and sobbed and sobbed. I broke his heart that day but I also broke mine. It was the end of a great love affair with one of the most extraordinary human beings I have ever had the privilege to have known let alone be loved by. And then suddenly, like the Israelites lost in the desert, I found myself cast into the wilderness of single life and so began a new chapter…

To be continued in Part III of IV

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Ambi is a lawyer, expert commentator and author living in Los Angeles.