I pick her up, put her on the washing machine, flip the switch to Spin cycle, and move the tefillin out of my eyes. It’s 1993 and I am new to Judaism.
I got my first pair of tefillin a few months earlier after passing the Beit Din (Jewish law court) for my Reform conversion. They’re an ancient ragged pair, but I’m thrilled.
I first put them on one Sunday in the fall of 1993 at Congregation Ohev Shalom in Orlando, a Conservative synagogue. The way the rabbi taught me then, I still use.
A few weeks earlier, my father had caught me in the shower with Pam*, a woman eleven years my senior who’d flown in from Orlando to stay with me at my parents’ home in Newcastle, 95658. I was 27.
In my conservative Christian home, sexual sins were the biggest sins. As my parents put things together, helped by a letter they got from Diana, my ex who detailed all the nasty things we’d been doing around the house, they realized I had been using their Jesus-filled sanctuary for “immoral purposes.”
They write me out of the will and I flee to Orlando with Pam. It’s August 1993 and I’ve been bedridden by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for almost six years.
Our relationship spirals downhill for a couple of months until Pam can’t take it anymore. She drives off one evening and spends the night with her ex. My stuff is already packed due to our fights, and so a few days later, I move out from Pam and in with a family I met at shul.
I’m all prepared to bounce from Pam. I’ve been placing singles ads and on my first night away, I spend it with a black alcoholic who prints out for me at work a copy of my 200-page triumphant tale of my conversion to Judaism.
One of the dating sites I’m using is operated by a Messianic rabbi. I’m not Messianic but I am interested in meetings girls of all kinds.
I answer an ad placed by Paula’s mom. Paula is not Jewish. She’s nine years older than me. She’s been married twice to the same guy, eight years each time. She has three kids.
On our first date, I take her to Olive Garden (well, she picks me up in her mom’s station wagon but I pay for dinner). For our second date, I pay for us to have Shabbat dinner at my Conservative shul but an awkward conversation with the family I’m staying with freaks her out and she ditches me. I call her late Friday night and talk her into coming to shul with me the next day.
Motzi Shabbos, Paula drives me to her mom’s place and we spend our first night together. The next morning, I walk into the living room and her mom says, “She’s a tiger, isn’t she?” We barely make it to shul for shacharit.
So a couple of weeks later, after Sunday morning minyan, while I’m still wearing my tefillin, Pam helps me take my washing out to the machines in the back. We put my filthy clothes in my washer and become strangely stirred.
In the chaos of my early life as a Jew, a tightly wound pair of tefillin provides much needed security. Now I have an eager girlfriend, my second major source of strength. She’s game for anything.
As my soiled garments spin clean beneath us, I stand on my tip toes, wrap my arms around Paula, and straining against my tefillin, I choose life.
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