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Leaving The ‘Zero’ Life Behind


Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis:

I grew up a secular Jew in a Reform home. Once a year, on the High Holidays, I attended temple. My brother married a non-Jew and no one in the family was upset about it. As a matter of fact, most of my cousins are intermarried. I am thirty-eight years old, a litigation attorney who works for what most people regard as a prestigious law firm.

I have been in and out of relationships going as far back as my senior year in high school. Marriage was something I felt had to be put on the back burner until I was established and successful in my career. When I was thirty-two I was promoted and became a junior partner in my firm. I told my boyfriend I was ready to get married.

He said he, too, wanted to get married but wasn’t quite ready. He wanted to make some more money and achieve the goals he had set for himself in business. My boyfriend was in finance, and as you know the stock market is a roller coaster, so while he agreed we should get married there was always some reason to delay. If it wasn’t money it was something else.

One of my close friends became observant, and it was you who influenced her to make that change in her life. We come from the same background; we were high school friends, grew up in the same community and our families went to the same temple. While we attended different universities, we always kept in touch and went on many double dates. On weekends we played tennis. But then we grew apart and – I write this with the utmost respect – it was you, Rebbetzin, who caused the rift.

My friend stumbled upon your classes purely by accident and she started to go regularly to the Hineni Heritage Center. It seemed that overnight she started to behave strangely. She refused to eat at the restaurants we’d always enjoyed. She refused to have dinner at our home. She told us she had decided to keep kosher. I couldn’t believe that my friend, who was such an enlightened person, would get bogged down with all that nonsense. I always believed this kosher business was some ancient superstition, but I couldn’t convince her and she stubbornly clung to her new way of life.

When we were discussing it one evening, she challenged me: “What difference does it make to you whether I eat seafood or not, or whether I eat pork chops? Are you telling me you are willing to terminate years of friendship because I changed my choice of food? What if I went on a diet and limited myself to what a doctor prescribed? Would that bring an end to our relationship? So if God, whom I believe to be the Doctor of all Doctors, prescribed His diet for me, why should that bother you?”

I didn’t have any good answers. Nevertheless, I felt angry and couldn’t explain why. I decided to try to bury my resentment and take a tolerant view of her diet. But it didn’t end there. Whereas in the past we would have so much fun on Saturdays shopping and picking up great bargains, she now stayed home, went to her synagogue and had Sabbath meals with her new friends. She had become a person I no longer recognized. We still had some uncomfortable conversations in which she presented me with arguments I had difficulty responding to but rejected just the same.

“Are you telling me our friendship is based on Saturday shopping sprees?” she asked. “Is that what it’s all about? Are you prepared to end our relationship because I believe Saturday is the holy Sabbath, a day on which I want to connect with G-d rather than go to Bloomingdale’s? Is that so terrible?”

Our friendship became increasingly strained, and she tried to persuade me to attend your Hineni Torah classes. I refused. But my friend didn’t give up. She kept badgering me to go just once and listen to you. So I finally went. I was prepared to hate it, to tell her that, just as I had thought, this whole thing was superstition. But you were totally different from what I had anticipated. Your words spoke to me. I felt as if you knew my life.

I was especially struck by your explanation of the Hebrew language, how every word is definitive. Among the many examples you gave, you noted that the Torah word for “but” – efes – means “zero.”

Suddenly it all became clear to me. That little word explained it all. My boyfriend’s rationalizations amounted to one big zero. Our relationship of many years was one big “but.”

“Of course I want to marry you,” he would assure me, before adding his many buts – money, career, the right apartment, etc. Even the words the “I love you” were always qualified by “but.”

I had watched my biological clock ticking away and now I wished I could live my life over again, establish a Torah home and create a family. I decided to write to you in the hope that you’ll publish this so that others can learn from my experience and leave behind empty relationships, go under the chuppah, and live purposeful lives.

I attend your classes weekly and hope that one day God will grant me that gift as well.

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