Yet again, I was at a loss for words.

I wondered, desperately, what expression was sitting on my face.

We'd had a lovely date thus far and now Amazingly Nice, Honest, Open Rick was searching my face to see why I looked stunned.

He had just quipped about himself as an altar boy.

-- Okay, I thought dryly, I know that some Jews take a "non-traditional" approach, but having altar boys is a little too over-the-top for even the most progressive temple!

"Jessica?" Rick asked, unaware of my calculations. "Uh, did I say something wrong?"

My mouth started speaking before my brain switched into gear. I had no idea what was coming out.

"Uh, Rick," the autopiloted mouth began, "uh... did you say you were an altar boy?"

He nodded.

I nodded, indicating that I understood.

Pause.

He was still looking at me, no doubt wondering what on earth had seized my brain.

"This is going to sound strange," I began, "but, uh... are you by any chance not Jewish?"

"Am I by any chance not Jewish?" Rick repeated, apparently not sure if the question was a joke of some sort.

I nodded.

Uh... are you by any chance not Jewish?"

"Well, uh, no," he said, looking confused. "I'm not. I'm not Jewish."

I KNEW IT!!!

-- Congratulations, Jessica, you've now managed to deduce the completely obvious. My brilliant career as a private investigator has begun.

"This is going to sound strange," Rick said, still staring, parroting me, "but does that matter?"

Years of egalitarianism-above-all training surged ahead, seizing control of my autopiloted mouth.

"No, of course not," my mouth said, brightly.

"Did he believe you?" Beth, my older sister, asked when I called her in Philly the instant he took me home. I poured out the story: seemingly perfect guy, only getting better as I get to know him more, but he's not Jewish.

"It was obvious that I'd behaved strangely. But I think he got over it," I said. "At least he didn't ask about it after I changed the subject."

I was embarrassed that it mattered. I felt less liberal, less open-minded, less tolerant. Somehow, not being Jewish didn't seem an acceptable reason to stop seeing someone.

At the kishke-level, it was about preserving a heritage.

My mind kept falling back to a scene from an old Spike Lee movie where black women chided black men for always dating white women. Then there was my prideful thrill when Eddie Murphy told Oprah Winfrey that he only dates black women. I understood that, at the kishke-level, it was about preserving a heritage.

But doesn't there come a point at which loyalty to one's specific culture is trumped by a recognition of the beauty inherent in all cultures? Is there a reason why can't I be true to my own culture and love someone from another?

The very idea of eliminating someone simply because he's not Jewish sat uneasily in my conscious mind. Done subconsciously or by chance, it was fine. Done above board by deliberation, it seemed discriminatory. American education had taught me the all-important 11th commandment: Thou shalt not discriminate.

Moreover, I continued musing, Jews have no monopoly on virtues. There are plenty of wonderful, non-Jews in the world. What's so special about us anyway?

I thought about the automatic kinship I felt when I realized someone was Jewish, especially here in Phoenix where I didn't meet so many. The cultural references fit, the way we get "Seinfeld" on a deeper level. And, of course, the appreciation of a fine bagel, and the attendant understanding that it's a crime to do anything but boil them!

Is that it? A voice I didn't recognize in my head asked. Is that what has sustained the Jewish people for thousands of years? A yearning for the perfect breakfast item while reading the Sunday paper? Isn't there something deeper?

I didn't know.

"What even made you think he was Jewish anyway?" Beth said a bit groggily, interrupting my thoughts. I'd woken her up.

"Well... uh, he... um," I stammered.

"Don't try to tell me that he 'looks Jewish.'"

"Well, he does! Plus his last name is Miller." Every synagogue I knew had a few Millers in it -- it's one of those names that Jews at Ellis Island used when Cheperchekoberg or Feinoskovitz seemed too cumbersome.

Plus, the night I met him, I was with a bunch of people who knew each other through the Federation Young Leadership group. I'd assumed, somehow, that he was a part of the group.

"To be honest," I admitted, "I guess I didn't really put much thought into it."

"Dad warned you," she said.

"Thank you, Beth," I said sarcastically. "That's very productive right now."

When I was trying to decide if I should take the job in Phoenix last year, my dad had pointed out -- with my mother nodding vigorously beside him -- that there wasn't as much of an established Jewish community here.

"You're going to have to find Jewish men to date," he had said. "They won't just fall into your lap. You'll have to make a conscious effort to be a part of the Jewish community and you'll have to seek out Jewish guys."

Jewish guys won't just fall into your lap.

What I hadn't realized is that making an effort to find Jewish guys isn't enough. I'd made that effort already, even going so far as to join a plethora of Jewish Young Adults organizations. It had paid off to some extent. I had had one serious relationship and a few minor dates.

But now, this.

I thought of Rick -- mature, sensitive, kind, caring, genuine, emotionally available and stable guy.

The proactive efforts were all well and good, but there was another level. I had to commit to dating Jews.

"Whatever you do, don't tell Mom or Dad until you're sure he's worth the headache," Beth said.

Our parents had been, suffice to say, less than supportive of Beth's relationships with non-Jewish guys.

I never deliberately ruled out dating non-Jews, and my parents worried when I chose a WASPy liberal arts college. But even there, my serious boyfriends had all been Jewish. I'd always gravitated toward Jewish guys.

But now... here was Rick.

I'd already gravitated toward him. And he seemed gravitated toward me.

It's still early enough to reverse the gravitational pull, my Dad's voice answered.

I said good night to Beth and got into bed, my head spinning with a recurring thought: I like Rick.