“If Gayle were interested in converting, then you’d have a chance. But as things stand now, it won’t work.” I walked out of the rabbi’s office, asking myself what I should do next.
It won’t work.
Harold in the Air Force
The rabbi’s three awful parting words were the only answer that came to me.
It won’t work.
They replayed in my mind over and over. A dead end. No way out. My world – at least the one I had known for the past 11 years – seemed to be crashing down around me.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. When I first met Gayle, I never would have imagined I’d be meeting with an Orthodox rabbi, asking him how I might become an observant Jew and raise a Jewish child. I was the one who went to synagogue twice a year, some years anyway. Lobster was one of my favorite foods. I thought religion was something that was supposed to bring people together, not get in the way of a relationship. Sure, being Jewish was important to me. But what did that have to do with who I marry? If Gayle wasn’t Jewish, so what?
Ok, so she was more than simply “not Jewish.” When we met, Gayle was quite the devout Christian, a full-time Christian in fact. As the Minister of Music for a Texas mega-church, she stood in front of thousands of congregants every Sunday morning, and spent most of her waking hours during the week rehearsing the church’s 12 choirs and musical groups.
We fell in love, and suddenly it didn’t matter that I grew up in New York and she grew up on a farm near Peoria.
She wouldn’t have gone out with me, except that some good mutual friends insisted on setting us up. Before we met, devout Christian that she was, she wasn’t planning on spending her life with a Jew.
But we fell in love, and suddenly it didn’t matter that I grew up in New York and she grew up on a farm near Peoria. It didn’t matter that she was passionately committed to the church while I had a lukewarm relationship with Judaism. We were in love, and love conquers all, right?
Gayle growing up on the farm
I sat on a bench outside the synagogue, trying to collect my thoughts. My mind drifted to our courtship those many years ago. As a favor to her, I had sung in her church choir one Sunday morning. While waiting just outside the church’s sanctuary for the service to begin, a friend of mine in the choir leaned over and said, “So tell me, what’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing in a place like this?” At the time, I laughed – almost uncontrollably.
Now it seemed more of a challenge than a joke.
Past is past, I thought. There has to be a way around this. We have a young son. We decided we’d raise him as a Jew. Gayle’s not quite the devout Christian she used to be. At the church, she’s been connecting more and more to the music and less and less to the religion. And she was more than willing to raise our son Jewish. She just wasn’t sure she wanted to convert, that’s all.
I sat on that bench a long time, thinking about all the other intermarried couples I knew. Some were very happily married, deeply in love. And yet – there was almost always an unspoken chasm, a place in the deepest part of one’s soul where Jew could not follow non-Jew, and vice versa. My mind turned to a woman in Gayle’s church, married to a Jew. They loved each other very much. But the chasm was there, nonetheless. One day, she had confided to Gayle that there were times she found it hard that he couldn’t fully share in something that was such a deep part of her.
Gayle in church
I stood up and took a few steps from the bench, now a bit defiant. Ok, God, I thought. This is Your fault. I was doing just fine, when I felt this kind of tap on the shoulder, nudging me to connect with You, pushing me to learn more about Judaism, putting me in certain situations where neither I, nor Gayle for that matter, felt satisfied in a less traditional setting where we might have fit in as an intermarried family. You’re the One who brought Orthodox Jews in my path, just at the time we were in the midst of adopting our son. You’re the One who put the idea in Gayle’s mind that we’d raise our son Jewish even as she continued directing the music for a church.
“For 11 years, I had no need for any of this. Why now? God, You got us into this mess. You need to get us out of it!
And He did.
I had already been going to classes at Aish for a year, which happened to be just down the street from the synagogue whose rabbi had made things sound hopeless. Discovering the beauty and depth of Torah at those classes was part of the tap on the shoulder I had felt. Another part was meeting the several now-grown children of intermarried parents who attended those same classes, who felt like they were not fully in either camp, and had come to Aish to figure out where they belonged. Not what I wanted for our son, I had thought.
After my rant at God, I suddenly remembered something that Rabbi Turtletaub, one of the Aish rabbis, had said to me nearly six months before. That had been when the chasm had started to widen, when our hours of talking had gotten us far but not far enough, and we needed to find someone who might help us figure it all out.
Rabbi Turtletaub met with each of us together, and then privately. He told me about other intermarried families he’d counseled, and how when the Jewish spouse became observant and the Christian spouse remained Christian, things often didn’t turn out so well. I had told him he wasn’t giving us much hope.
To my surprise, he insisted I shouldn’t give up hope at all. That after meeting Gayle, he had sensed something. And that, as the Jewish sages say, everything can change “in the blink of an eye.”
Top: Harold and Gayle at the first wedding ceremony.
Bottom: The couple at their chuppah.
I snapped out of my reverie and looked back at the bench. In the blink of an eye? Was I really going to wake up tomorrow and find everything changed? Yeah, right. Miracles might happen to other people – but to me? I remained skeptical. But a part of me silently hoped.
A couple of months later, God tapped me on the shoulder again with the same message. Ever since the rabbi had told me “it won’t work,” I had stayed away from his synagogue. Then one Shabbat morning, for some reason, I felt I wanted to go. The Torah portion was from the story of Joseph. And sitting among hundreds of people, the rabbi’s words seemed tailored just for me.
The rabbi described how, when Joseph is taken from jail, his prisoner clothes are exchanged for a new uniform, representing his dramatic change of status. The Torah describes Joseph being taken from his prison cell, where just a few moments before he seemed destined to reside permanently, by saying he was “rushed” to Pharaoh. Often, the rabbi explained, things are happening behind the scenes that aren’t apparent to us. And then – all of a sudden – things are “rushed,” things turn around completely. Joseph’s story shows us that no matter what things looked like yesterday, today can be different.
I thought to myself involuntarily, Yes, Joseph’s whole world transformed, as Rabbi Turtletaub would say, ‘in the blink of an eye.’ And at that moment, I let go. I just knew. Everything was going to turn out ok. I didn’t know exactly how. But it didn’t matter how, because it would. I was sure of it.
And things did start to change. Maybe not quite in the blink of an eye. But like pieces of a puzzle, everything started to come together. We started to go to an Orthodox synagogue together on Shabbat, just to see what it would be like. And there we found the most amazing people who met us where we were with warmth and kindness, and gently challenged us to reach higher.
And miracles really did start to happen. We traveled to Israel with our son, who had become a sponge for all things Jewish. Now 4 ½ and still a pre-writer, he scribbled a “prayer” on a piece of paper and gently placed it in the crevices of the Western Wall. “What did you pray for,” I asked.
In a voice full of confidence, he said, “I prayed that everyone should know that Hashem is One, and that there should be peace over Jerusalem.”
The tap on the shoulder had become a warm embrace.
There’s more to the story, much more. Enough to fill a book, which in fact we did. Our full journey, with all of the twists and turns, tears and laughter, heartbreak and triumph is set forth in our recently released book, Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope.
Today, we are a Jewish family – not by fate, but by choice, by design and by destiny.
And although we can’t include the details of our entire journey here, the conclusion is not in doubt. Little by little, we continued to learn and grow and move closer to Judaism and to each other.
Gayle and I drew inspiration from the stories we read of ministers, priests and others who had traveled from great spiritual distances to become Orthodox Jews. Gayle began to learn Hebrew and take classes at the Orthodox synagogue, which was becoming her spiritual home. One day, she realized that her only attachment to the church was performing music there. And so she stopped working at the church and found other outlets for her music.
And then one day, Gayle made the decision that she no longer wanted simply to do Jewish things, but to hear the call of Sinai, to be part of the Jewish people. And so she began to study intensively with a compassionate and caring rabbi. We moved to an Orthodox community where we could walk to synagogue on Shabbat. We continued to learn. And the more we learned, the more we grew. The more we embraced Judaism, the more it embraced us. “It won’t work” no longer applied to who we had become.
And then one October Sunday morning, the moment finally arrived. Gayle emerged from the mikveh, and emerged as Avigail Shira bat Avraham.
Harold Berman is the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” the first true-life account of “an intermarriage gone Jewish.” (available on Amazon and at http://www.doublelifejourney.com)