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Featured piece and Q&A by Lauren Stein. Lauren is an Expressive Arts Therapist and Improviser. She enhances lives by bringing out the holy sparks of Fun and Humour. Find her at http://improvtherapist.wordpress.com.
Several months after this interview, Philip Belove passed away suddenly on Dec 30, 2014 of a heart attack. It was very unexpected. Thankfully he went quickly and didn’t suffer long. As well as collaborating on this book, he was a contributor to Jewrotica. And he was a wonderful man. He and Marilyn were working on their 2nd book, OLD ENOUGH TO LOVE BETTER. The project is currently on hold. May his memory be a blessing.
Marilyn Bronstein, a Jewish educator, and Philip Alan Belove, a couples therapist, got together to create a project: a book about couples. Not dysfunctional couples and what they did wrong, but great couples and why they work so well. And what they produced is not a catalogue of aphorisms or vague advice. Their resulting book, Rabbis in Love, is full of personal, juicy stories, letting us feel like we’re under the same roof as the couple–or under the bed of the couple, as one Talmudic student ventured(!)
Did I mention these couples all include at least one Rabbi?
Their book contains nine profound interviews (a tenth couple was interviewed, but revealed so much that they asked not to be included in the book). After each interview, the authors reflect on the “blue thread,” the themes of love that bind this couple together. So I felt that the only way to do justice to a review of their book was to do the same for them. So I roped my boyfriend, Alan Herman, into joining me to interview Marilyn and Philip. Below the interview, I have written my own “blue thread.” Enjoy the read, and I hope you find this, as well as their book, as insightful and personally relevant as I do.
Lauren: Your interview subjects span a wide range, from across the denominational spectrum, including converts to Judaism, different ages and lengths of relationships, a same-sex couple, couples where both partners are Rabbis, and a span of relationship styles, from those who never touched before their wedding and who keep the laws of niddah, to one couple who practices an open relationship. Where did you find your subjects?
Marilyn: I knew some rabbis to start off with, and they said you should meet so-and-so… They led us to a really great spectrum.
Philip: We sort of stumbled into the whole project, because we started off just interviewing couples, in general, and then we interviewed Ronnie and Karen, the first couple in the book, and it was so gorgeous and so glorious. The previous couples that we’d interviewed, they’d been having some struggles. Ronnie and Karen, they’d been together 35 years, and it was a different take on a couple, and it seemed like still on a honeymoon period. And then there was all this Jewish overlay, and we thought, let’s just focus on that, and that became the whole project.
Marilyn: We were still interested in the aspect of relationship as a spiritual path, and our message was: Bad is good. Which is to say, So what if your relationship has all these challenges? If you grow, it’s still good. And so we were on this mission of interviewing these couples and seeing the good in the challenges of their relationships. But then all of a sudden, wait a minute — there’s good is good! They didn’t have all these challenges, and that’s really inspirational. Maybe let’s focus on that. What does it look like when we start collecting stories that are inspirational?
Lauren: Which of the stories still resonates with you the most?
Philip: Ronnie and Karen, their Sabbath. That little closing out the world. I still get verklempt when I quote it! Where he said, shutting out the world with all its harsh scratches. And reaching the space where they can be completely vulnerable to each other, on as many levels as possible, and they try to do this on a regular basis. That to me was just extraordinarily beautiful and touching. We have a chance to do it, and it matters enormously to me. That was the great inspiration for me, was that I suppose at some level in my past, my own relationship challenges, there were some ways where I was never totally vulnerable, I was always guarded at some level. And what I got from Ronnie and Karen’s story was that at some place you have to be quite open to your partner, and that was amazing to me.
Marilyn: For me, the reaction was like Sophie’s Choice. You have to choose one of your children? Choosing what was so unique about each couple. Seeing how they weave their spirituality and their love together. For each of these couples, what do they do that is a reminder of the divine? I saw how Ronnie and Karen talked about Shabbos, then you see someone like Deena and Leibish. I saw how they took the Mikvah, a ritual of purity. Most people if they aren’t that religious they might not like that, might even find it weird. But they take it to a place where this is also an emotional purification, where every month they have an emotional clearing in their relationship, and I find it fantastic.
Lauren: I love that you illustrate with stories, instead of these intellectual stuff, and I’d love to hear how these interviews impacted your love lives.
Philip: Well, like I said, the practice of having a very, very special, vulnerable Sabbath, became extraordinarily important to me. That was really important. There was… the piece from Yisroel and Sara, it was almost like the thing he cherished the most from their relationship was where the two of them were each doing their thing but in the same space. So it wasn’t an interaction. They were taking care of things together, and very connected, but they weren’t interacting or talking about something. That’s one of the things he held most precious. This spiritual connection. I had always sensed it too, but it was nice to hear somebody name it.
Marilyn: When I started the project, in a way, I was looking for models, I called it the Moshiach couple, that would embody the spiritual love and relationship for me. I was looking for what can they model for me, or teach me about spirituality and love? I think what evolved for me is this bigger picture. I named it, love can be a force in itself to change the world. That it’s not just about, they can teach me and my partner how to love, but that love becomes a force for the bigger community.
First of all, love is possible. And love is possible in a spiritual context, too. I think for some reason there’s a subliminal message in Western society that spirituality and love don’t go together, that if you want to choose the spiritual path, it’s the lonely path on top of the mountain. And that I really started to understand from these stories. Shefa Gold said, when we asked, “Do you see relationship as a spiritual path?” And she said, “I see my relationship as the measure of my spirituality.” It’s the testing ground. Okay, you think you’re a generous, wonderful person. What happens when it comes to taking out the garbage? How generous are you? Let’s test this out. I think that’s what I was seeing in all of these couples. I’m really seeing how, if you live together all the time, that becomes the measure of your spirituality. How do you deal with all the little details? Lisa and Andrea talked about it too, one of them handles vomit, and one of them handles blood. It’s the reality when you’re bringing up kids together. Who’s going to handle that? Or do you have to run off and pray at that point?
Lauren: Could each of you reveal a personal story of something that happened to your love life after the interview?
Philip: Instituting a very private Sabbath evening at home…It involved a meal, and making love. Eating and making love. Maybe making music.
Shutting out the world and creating a safe space. It’s a great idea. In fact, one of the Rabbi couples–these guys work on the Sabbath, so they’d have it another night, but it was really important for them. That was pretty good, as a private practice.
Marilyn: I think for me, what affected my relationship… I’ve been in the same relationship for 27 years. I begin to understand, I’m super-extroverted, so my idea of fun is going out to dance with my love, or being in an intimate setting with a couple hundred other people. You know, at a party or something like that. I would test out my questions sometimes on my partner, and I’d say, so give me a story of something you’d consider to be magic in our relationship? And he’d say, yesterday. And I’d say, yeah, yesterday! Because we’d gone out tangoing and it was like…you know those moments when you’re not sure who’s leading and who’s following, and it was perfect. And he said, I was in the driveway, I was working on fixing your driveway. You were somewhere in the house. And he said, that was great. He said, you know, if we had to give up the tango night forever, that would be fine. But that moment, that was wonderful. And I sort of got it. It was like, oh, wow. That’s a different kind of quality time. Those moments of just having your own moment but still being connected to that person. Like Yisroel and Sarah were talking about being in the same room and not talking, or we were in the same kilometre and not talking… there’s this closeness there.
And I started to understand his needs more. That that’s what he needs to feel close to me, is like this, let’s shut out the other 99 people, and it’s just going to be us, even if we’re not making love at that particular moment, but we’re very connected to each other.
Philip: At one point I asked Ronnie, “How did you know so much about love when you were such a young man?” And he tells this story about his mother being a Holocaust survivor, and she was in the camps when she was a teenager, so you can only imagine, and his mother and father, they end up in Israel, and he said that when they told my mother that she was an animal, my father walked across Israel and said, you’re the most beautiful person that I’ve ever seen. And they created a love between them that was going to be a shelter from the rest of the world. And then he went on to say, “I could never have anything less than that for myself.” And so this way that the love between them was a thing in itself, it had a reality that could shut out the world and it could serve to protect, and it could protect them, it was like a living thing, between the two of them that was more than just any one of them.
There were some funny examples. Caroline and Haim had it too, and in order to keep it alive and vital, they had to sacrifice certain things that were important in their own ego, they had to sacrifice in order to create this bigger thing. And that to me was a sanctifying of what they had. To me, it was hysterically funny.
Haim was used to being in command, and had his own vision of what things needed to be. Caroline had this idea that being a good wife meant to always serve her husband’s vision, and then after their sixth kid or something, she just got this epiphany, this “Wait a minute” moment, where she realized, she had to have a lot more say-so in how they ran this thing together, and that was when she started to make demands on him. And that was her great lesson. And in a way it was a sacrifice because she had a lot invested in this idea of herself as being this servient, serving and supportive, the wind beneath his wings. She really liked that. No, that had to change, she had to take leadership every bit as much as he did. And that was a change in her personality. And then for him, he said, “I was a wild man, and she tamed me, she changed me, and I’m very grateful for that.” This was all in the name of keeping this bigger thing that they had.
And then after he said, “She changed me, she tamed me,” there was a moment of silence. And Caroline said, “It was like dropping water on stone. He thinks he’s stubborn, but I’m an immovable object.” That was another very interesting thing is the power of women, consistently, in all of these stories.
Lauren: How has this process shaped your understanding and practice of Judaism?
Philip: For me? (Laughter) Well actually, it got me much more involved. [Before the project,] I really kept my distance. This brought me back. This side of it, and in a very pleasant way. So that was the change it made in me, just the fact that observing Sabbath and thinking about Sabbath. I found a way of thinking about a lot of Jewish practices in ways that made great sense to me. I had to really come to all of it, and I like where I ended up.
Marilyn: I think what changed for me with the project was to see the integration of how Jewish spiritual practice can be more woven daily into my life. Yeah, it was the dailiness of it. It was always, taking a break from my family and my partner, who’s not necessarily… into Judaism, and like, going up and spending Shabbat with the Rabbis and learning, but it was so a part of my life. For instance, my boyfriend is not Jewish, and he’s Buddhist. So I think, at a certain point when we were working on the book, I decided to do an Oneg Shabbat, inviting 25 of my closest friends, and we did a Shabbat together, which was fascinating, because he was coming from a very Buddhist perspective, but somehow we found a way. … It turned out to be quite beautiful because one of the things we did in a circle is everybody went around and spoke about “In my tradition… this is how I make something sacred.”
So it sort of made room for everybody to have their own personal room but it was also incredibly inviting for everybody in the room because when you share that, when you open up room for that, you see the commonality in all spirituality, rather than seeing the differences. In each of the stories I was sort of fascinated by each of them, drew something very different from the same source. Even Shabbos or like I said, the Mikvah, or even one of the most interesting couples for me was Dawn and Ohad, who go pre-Rabbinic, where they’re saying, the kind of Judaism we want to practice goes back before the Rabbis begin to Christianize Judaism, as they say, so I think there’s… bringing it back to what you’re asking, there’s understanding that you can bring some form of daily practice of Jewish life and there’s room for interpretation that can be in a very personal way.
Philip: We open the book with this famous story, a lot of people quote it, about this rabbinical student who hides under his teacher’s bed, and listens to them while they’re making love, and they’re making all this noise, and huffing, and puffing, and panting, and groaning, and the student says something like, “Oh my God, this sounds like you’ve never tasted meat before.” And the couple interrupts making love, and the Rabbi says, “What are you doing under the bed?”
And the student says, “This is Torah I also need to learn.”
So it’s a cute story. And it says, you know, it’s really important, guys, to know how to make love. But the weird thing about the story is it’s still a conversation between the older male rabbi and the younger male student. And the female voices are not in the story.
Marilyn: Yeah, even though she’s in the bed, like obviously she’s there, right? But no mention of what the rabbi’s wife had to say when she discovered that there was someone under the bed.
Philip: Or the student’s wife when he went home and he had a whole new technique, you know? No mention of that conversation.
The Talmud is sexually positive. But what’s left is the female voice.
Marilyn: I want to segue-way into something else, which is interesting.
We were working on a piece, the theme was something about, love is meaning you don’t necessarily have to agree with your partner. And of course we were disagreeing about that very line. So we had to break into dialogue, we each needed our own voice in the book. That was a great evolution for me, because I think of myself as someone that’s very super-flexible, that can go along with whatever’s going along, and then I can blend into it. And I just found myself saying, “No, I can’t agree with this, I need to put my opinion here, that’s not the way I see things. And I think that there’s enough of a difference that we need two voices here.”
Philip: Maybe that’s a particularly Jewish thing, too. In Judaism, the two students who go in the corner of the room and agree right away don’t learn as much as the other two students who go in the corner of the room and argue for the rest of the day. They learn more, and that’s the better value.
Lauren: And your explanations helped me understand how the Talmud came to be.
The Talmud is basically setting out to say, okay, this is what we Jews believe. But then what you get is a bunch of arguments: this one says this, and this one says this, and… It sounds like the Rabbis had the same process as you two, which was, “Surely, we’re going to agree.” And then they’re like, “Forget it. Let’s just put every opinion in.”
Philip: The big change is that it’s really important that there’s a male and female voice in many of these things. Because if the couple is the smallest unit, there are still two voices in that unit, to make it vital.
Lauren (to Alan): Do you have any questions?
Alan: I knew the first two couples, which just floored me. I don’t know them well, but I knew them enough from the Montreal Ghetto shul. How is Rabbi Cahana doing since the last update to the book? And I’d be curious, would you do a follow-up interview with all these same couples a couple years after? There are new challenges they’re facing.
Marilyn: That’s a great question. And by the way, I’m very happy to hear your voice. I was very aware, the whole time, yes we need the male and the female voice…
Alan: I’ve been silenced! I’m kidding, I’m kidding.
Lauren: Well, the female voice is more important. (Philip laughs)
Marilyn: I mean, the great thing is that your face is very expressive.
Alan: I was hoping it was coming across. I’ll make a great mime one day.
Marilyn: I’m quite close with Ronnie and Karen, so I’m seeing what they’re going through really close up. It’s interesting because of all the couples, they were the one that really didn’t share much of a challenge, because I don’t think they have that much of a challenge.
Alan: Thank you for saying so. The others really put a lot out there, and though Rabbi Cahana and Karen said wonderful things and great pointers and great tips, I did walk away feeling like some of the nuts, and bolts, and the grit had be excluded. And I didn’t blame them for excluding it, but I was aware that there was a difference.
Philip: There were hints of it. Did you pick up the little hints anywhere?
Marilyn: Yes, but I know them well, and that is the way they live their lives. It takes a lot to ruffle their feathers. I’ll give you a very concrete example. It’s one month after Ronnie has just had his stroke, where he can only blink at this point, he’s barely alive. You need a Jewish context, it’s 30 days before Tisha B’Av, the destruction of the Temple. Those days are supposed to be a dark, internal time. So Karen e-mails me to say, Ronnie is taking this time very seriously this year. I mean… I don’t know many people that could go to that place, like one month after this incredible crisis occurred. But both of them are capable, and I’ve seen it close-up, I’ve seen the way they handle this, with love and gratitude. Ronnie just wants to teach about love now. I asked him if he’d be interested in doing a teaching and he said yes, I want to teach about love. And he actually spoke at Limmud and was saying how, he was talking about this image of walking, strolling in the garden with God, you know that image of Adam and Eve, and someone said, “But you’re paralysed.” And he said, “No, I’m para-realised.”
And he says, “Thank you.” Thank you that he has now opened his heart, he’s become more vulnerable. He wasn’t that vulnerable before, now he needs to ask people for help. And he said every time he does that, it brings him closer to love and it brings him closer to God. I don’t see any schism, I see his love and her love even deeper, and their faith in God even deeper. They laugh at people who come to this… Ronnie is not always understood that well, because he can’t necessarily project his voice that well. So she says it’s a little bit like a Rorschach test because people guess what he’s trying to say. My girlfriend came to visit him and he’s saying something and she’s going, “How could God be doing this to you?” And he just laughed and said, (in a strained voice) “I assure you there is a God, and it’s fine, what He’s doing to me.” He thought that was very funny, that that would be her interpretation of what’s happened to him.
Alan: Was there anything that didn’t make its way into the book that you would have wanted in there? Was there a message, a theme, something that came up in the process…?
Philip: Two things. If I would have done it again, I would have liked to talk about Shekhina more. I didn’t do that.
I would have liked to put a blank for the tenth couple, saying something about the blue thread being the idea of privacy. That that seems like a really important something, that you have to draw a line to protect what’s sacred, that that’s really important.
Marilyn: One thing that we were struggling with is that Ohad and Dawn were so explicit…
Marilyn: That there were some things that we couldn’t print.
Truly we did struggle. It was a little bit too edgy. We’re trying to figure out, well, let me see, people who would read that maybe wouldn’t be able to read about the Orthodox couple. It was maybe too wide a spectrum at that point. But, with great regret, we left that out.
Lauren: Everything you’ve learned from the processes, the book and being in relationships, are there nuggets of wisdom to share with other couples?
Marilyn: We did that in the back of the book, what did we learn from that.
I learn and I teach well through stories, so some people actually find it a bit of an annoying trait. But as someone’s telling me a very personal story, I’ll interrupt them in the middle and I’ll tell them a parallel story. It took me a while to realize that some people find that annoying, because they think maybe I’m not listening. But I guess that’s what helps me a lot. First of all, it gives me a distance because it allows me to see my life through somebody else’s story. So there’s distance there. And, also, that’s the way I learn. Oh, that’s how you do it, that’s how you do quality time. Okay, I can incorporate that. Because the words “quality time” don’t mean anything to me, but when I get up close to someone doing it, then it really affects me.
When we lived in villages, you would just, like, open the window and peek into, how is your neighbour fighting today, or how are they making love, or whatever. Everything was very accessible, you could see how people interrelated. It’s both of it, how do they argue and how do they make love, I mean, both of it. The close moments, it’s good to see that. And it’s good to see that arguing and fighting and disagreeing, it’s all part of the growth of both of you.
Philip: What does it all come down to?
A relationship is a life form, just like you are. It has a story, just like you have a story. You and your partner’s stories are part of this larger story that belongs to the relationship. Or the relationship is just one of the things that enhances your life story, it’s a choice you make. At some point you say, the relationship story is overriding–is the context for my story–it depends which way it goes. The relationship is the context for your story and your partner’s story, equally. Then you have a sacred relationship. And from that, everything else flows.
It may come down to, if I am not for myself, who will be? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? It may all come down to that.
Marilyn: We’re working already on our second book. The potential title is “Old Enough to Love Better.” We realize that in this past book what we were looking at is this ancient wisdom that was passed down. And I feel that these couples that are immersed in Jewish practices draw from that. But now we’re actually looking at, what kind of wisdom do you draw from your own experience from living a few years?
One of the questions we’ve been asking people is, “What do you do different in relationship now that you didn’t do, let’s say, 15 years ago or 20 years ago?” So, we realize that there’s actually a theme. We’re looking at wisdom and love, in both of these projects. But in this one it’s wisdom that we glean from life experience, I guess.
Philip: Don’t forget to mention my website.
It’s got the introduction, and Rabbi Ronnie and Karen’s chapter in it. You’ll find a lot of very entertaining blogs about relationship issues. It’s fun.
Lauren: I think it’s great that you’ve brought the wealth of knowledge of being a couples therapist into this book. I don’t know if you’ve then brought a lot of what you’ve learned from the couples back into your practice.
Marilyn: Very much. That’s one of the things that I thought was interesting, who this book would touch. I find a lot of people that weren’t Jewish were very touched by the book. It sort of allowed them to enter this secret lives of Jews, how do Jews make love.
And actually young people, too. I was very moved by a lot of young people that have read the book and been very inspired by it. I start to think about, maybe so many young people now that have come from broken marriages themselves and maybe don’t get a chance to see couples that are really committed and really in love close up, and how do they do it.
Lauren: Thank you for this book. And I love that you did at the end of it, give so many lessons, which is very insightful. I really appreciate it.
Alan: Toda raba.
As Marilyn and Philip went through the process of interviewing, transcribing, and reflecting on their interviews, they learned through experience about collaboration–whether that collaboration is raising kids, leading a congregation, or writing a book. Marilyn and Philip soon discovered that they don’t necessarily agree on what each couple meant by something, or what the main essence of each interview was. Over time, instead of compromising and finding a way to write in one voice, they decided to write with two voices, allowing their distinct opinions to emerge.
In a book full of stories and full disclosure, we get to see the story and full disclosure of the authors. We also get to see what each of the writers learned overall from this project. Not in generic aphorisms, but in personal, real-life examples, revealing how they are affected by what they learned and how those lessons look in practice.
I highly recommend reading the juicy and profound book Rabbis in Love, with a partner or alone, one chapter at a time.