Love is a world-wide web where your soul-mate hides from you.
Forty days before conception, a heavenly voice announces, This woman and this man will marry.
(Talmud Sotah 2)
Asher came to Israel from Los Angeles, where his name had been Allen and he'd worked as a computer technician. An intense, dark-bearded man in his late 20s, he was searching for several things he believed he could find in Jerusalem.
First, he was looking for God - for a firm spiritual path. Observant for only a year or two, he also longed to study Torah in its authentic place. And while still young enough to enjoy the adventure of a foreign country, he felt ready as well to seek his wife, his life partner.
He registered in a yeshiva program for Americans and worked hard at his studies. To earn extra money, he played guitar and sang on Jerusalem's downtown pedestrian mall, where tourists threw shekels into his hat. One Friday evening, at a teacher's Shabbat table, he met Penny, an American girl of 21 who was studying at a women's seminary in Jerusalem, and fell in love with her.
But no, that's too fast. They met. He liked her looks and cheerful manner. He asked her out. They did not go to a movie and sit in that dark place with their knees innocently touching. As religious people, Asher and Penny went to a public place - a cafe near the central bus station, where they considered, over cups of Israeli coffee, whether to get married.
After all, men and women are not purposeless atoms colliding with each other merely to see what kinds of combining may occur; the reason to go on a date is to locate your bashert
, the life partner God has appointed for you.
Asher asked her how many children she wanted, if she expected, once married, to cover her hair, and how many guests she would like at her Shabbat table. She inquired if he would continue his learning, how he intended to support a family, and what sort of married life he dreamed of.
Of course, they talked ordinary talk as well, sharing childhoods, paths to Torah, how they felt to be in Israel. So now we can say it: Asher fell in love. He understood that this young woman, whose face and fingers he memorized while they spoke, was his bashert
Unfortunately, his open-eyed intensity repelled her, his looks and table manners were not so great, and he wanted a lot more children than she did. When he called again, she let him down as easily as she could, making it clear that he was very nice but not for her. Now she would continue looking for her bashert
Asher was greatly disappointed, but only temporarily. For he continued to believe that she was
his intended and continued to court her. He called her weekly and brought small gifts to her seminary on Friday afternoons before the Sabbath, to remind her that they were meant to be together.
She remained indifferent. No matter how eloquently he explained to her that she simply did not understand the underlying reality, she thought she understood reality just fine. Feeling harassed, she complained to her rabbis. Her rabbis informed his rabbis, who counseled him to leave her alone.
"You don't understand," Asher explained patiently to them. "She and I will spend our lives together. Just because she does not understand this now does not make it untrue."
So he continued to telephone her, even after she refused to accept his calls, and continued to bring her small gifts. Since she would not see him, he had to leave these gifts with her dorm counselor, who tried to return his previous gifts, which had been refused. But Asher would not accept them. To take them back would be to betray the truth.
Asher lived at that time in a furnished room in Nachlaot, a Jerusalem neighborhood mostly inhabited by a combination of English-speaking immigrants who are gentrifying the area and old Sephardi families perplexed to find their property values increasing while their neighborhood disappears. But Asher's rented room was in a poorer corner of the neighborhood, down near the Jerusalem highway where black-coated haredi
Among the haredim
are many beggars. However, the potbellied fellow in a dirty white shirt and threadbare black coat who stopped Asher one Friday morning as he was hurrying to class was not asking for charity. He had just written a commentary on the Sayings of the Fathers
, and he wanted Asher to buy a copy.
"Okay," Asher agreed, "but can we do it quickly?" The old man took Asher's shekels, Asher slipped the book into his backpack and prepared to rush on. Wrinkled and white-bearded, a full head shorter than Asher, the old man put out two stubby fingers, as if to make a point. "Now I want you to buy another
copy of this book," he said, "and this one I will inscribe."
The old Hasid had found the perfect customer - a young man of generous instincts, open to the world's suggestions. Though impatient to be off, Asher agreed to buy the second book. The old man uncapped an archaic fountain pen and wrote on its inside front cover.
Asher hurriedly dropped the second book into his backpack beside the first and flew on his way. Not only was he late for class, but he still had to deliver to his bashert
her pre-Sabbath gift. He rushed all day until the peace of the Sabbath enfolded him - and then, in too little time, the hustle of the week began again and Asher remembered to take the books out of his backpack.
," the old man had written. "This is a very fine man. You should open your heart to him.
Could this be? Asher, stunned by a congruence almost too wonderful to believe, immediately recognized the encounter with the old man as miraculous - a divine intervention. He gave the book to the young woman as a gift and he told her the story in intense detail, expecting this gossamer of miracle to corroborate for her, too, that the universe had joined them together.
But neither the book nor Asher's passionate recounting of the story convinced her of anything. Asher had probably invented it all, and even if the story were true, she did not believe it imposed any obligation on her; anyway, she found him weird and dull, and she trusted her feeling.
That was ten years ago. Asher drifted out of contact with his Jerusalem circle of friends, so that no one who knew him then knows now where he is or how his life turned out. The American seminary girl, however, later married another American yeshiva student and moved with him to the bourgeois Orthodox suburbs south of Jerusalem.
Thus, by definition, she was not Asher's bashert
. Still, couldn't Asher have been partly right? Perhaps she was his
intended, but he wasn't hers. That is, Asher's frustrating story may be neither lie nor delusion but something almost as painful: a partial transmission or broken connection along the infinitely complex web that connects every human life to every other.
Recently, Asher's story came up at a dinner table in Jerusalem, that city at the heart of history and myth. As so often happens, someone else at the table had a similar story to tell.
P'nina was a graphic artist who lived in Jerusalem's upscale German Colony. She was 30 years old, with lively gestures and long dark hair that swirled with each quick turn of her head. Her apartment was just off a main thoroughfare, upstairs from her studio. For advertising purposes, her name was written larger than usual on a tile fixed to the front of the building: P'nina.
One morning, not so early for Jerusalem but early for an artist, there was a knock at her door. Standing at the top of the stairs, she buzzed the door open to see a black hat, black coat, black beard, white shirt -- a haredi
man about her age. "Are you P'nina?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered. "Why?"
So he told her this story. He - another unanchored soul -- was searching for a wife. Embittered by his experience with matchmakers, fix-ups, blind dates, chance meetings at the Shabbat tables of friends and relatives, all of which had yielded nothing, he had at last consulted a m'kubal
, a follower of the mystical tradition. The kabbalist, a little man with a potbelly and a wispy beard, listened to his account, asked his name and his mother's name, sank into mystical thought for a few moments and then - supplying only the essence - told him that he would marry a woman named P'nina, which in Hebrew means "pearl."
Look for the name! Could it really be so simple? The young man was dubious, of course. But when he spotted the name-plate on P'nina's studio, he thought, Why not?
He sounded, in short, like a kook. But P'nina, like most artists, was tolerant of - even a connoisseur of - eccentricity, so she did not reject his approach out of hand. She came downstairs to chat with him in sunlight on her front step and discovered that he was a sophisticated fellow, with interests and experience beyond the world of Torah and knowledgeable about art in particular.
"And you," he asked at last, "are you married?"
"No, but yes," she said. "I'm on my way to the huppah
." Explaining that she was engaged and already at work planning her wedding, she offered him her wide smile and a look of wise sympathy, for an unmarried woman of 30 knows something about the difficulties of finding one's bashert
. She had finally found hers, a lanky creator of construction sculptures.
," the young haredi
man replied in ironic lament - such a waste that here we are feeling a connection between us but you are already spoken for.
Thinking this was the end of their conversation, P'nina asked his name. He knew hers, after all; the connection between them was based on it.
"My name," he said, "is Avinoam."
"That's a coincidence," she confided, rather startled, for that was her fianc?'s name, too.
"A coincidence indeed," her caller agreed, for the name, though not unique, is somewhat unusual. Now, like the m'kubal
had done, he asked the name of Avinoam's mother. (For when we plead for special mercy, as when we need help to find our soul-mate, we approach the gate of Heaven through our mother's name.)
"Avinoam ben Sarah-Miriam." It was, they agreed, even more resonantly coincidental that the Avinoam now on P'nina's doorstep and the one who would soon join her under the huppah
were known to a merciful heaven by exactly the same name.
While this coincidence, too, proves nothing, it suggests that the kabbalist may have been on to something. Isn't it possible that this Avinoam ben Sarah-Miriam found this woman P'nina on a sunny morning in Jerusalem because he was - somehow - her bashert
Of course not. This haredi
man had arrived too late, when another man already stood in his place. But simplify the equation to its basic logic: P'nina's destiny was to marry Avinoam ben Sarah-Miriam, just as each of these Avinoam ben Sarah-Miriams was destined to marry a P'nina. One of them found our P'nina at the right time; the other brushed by her in Jerusalem's upscale German Colony one bright morning and must continue to seek his pearl.
As P'nina prepared herself for breakfast and work, a cognate story floated into her mind.
Late one afternoon seven years before, soon after she had divorced her first husband, a man followed her home from the bus. She was living then in a tiny apartment in Ramat Eshkol, a north Jerusalem neighborhood conquered first by the Israel Defense Forces during the Six-Day War and then by building contractors who erected battalions of apartment buildings along its streets.
Passing the pocket-mall across from her building in the dusky light of late afternoon, P'nina was nervously aware of the man's footsteps behind her. When, as she unlocked the security door of her building, he put his thick hand against it, keeping her from entering, she felt a full pang of fear.
He wasn't a mugger or a rapist, though - this was not America. "Miss - you -," he said gruffly, insistently, a stocky fellow of middle age. "Let me talk to you."
He wanted to talk about his son. A special person, the apple of his eye. He had, this father, watched P'nina on the bus. Her open features, her self-assured gestures and easy stance convinced him that she was the right young woman for his son. It was, to him, not theoretical.
Her amusement, then indifference, then annoyance left him undeterred. It was too important a matter for her mood to decide. "My son," he said like a complete sentence. "He and you, perfect for each other. We will have a big wedding - I am myself a caterer." She noticed that his intensity gave him a slight accent, though he was native-born. "Many gifts will be bestowed on a young couple such as yourselves. He is 23 years old, the same as you. You will be happy together."
Half to end the conversation and half because she conjectured that the man's certainty might itself have significance - after all, he had guessed her age exactly - she agreed to meet the son. Who knew, maybe he was her bashert
So the next afternoon, as the golden light faded again over Jerusalem, she hurried home, bathed, dressed, then sat and waited at her window, like the biblical Batsheva, for the son to call on her. Sure enough, a young man soon passed her building, searching for numbers.
He was black-haired, wearing (she still remembered years later, because the style was so odd) a green wide-wale corduroy jacket and a dark workman's cap. It seemed some kind of eccentric immigrant's costume, and that charmed and cheered her. Perhaps something could work out, after all. He was thick-boned like his father but tentative in his motions, indicating a solid character without the father's overbearing self-assurance. She sensed a spiritual capacity, which was important to her. He paced in front of her building, slowly back and forth, considering. Then, deciding, he walked off quickly the way he had come.
In brief, he lost his nerve. And that was the end of that.
Does this mean that he was not her bashert
? Of course. But must it mean that he was not somehow meant for her, nonetheless?
To us, who live in the poor world of mundane causality, searching for the ladders that lead to other levels, is left the task of inventing the logic that will finish our story.
Could it be that this P'nina was the American girl (named Penny by her family) whom Asher courted ten years before? After her seminary program, she married another American learning in yeshiva. But this first husband, too, was not exactly her bashert
- a mistake, as we see so often now. He turned out to be inflexible in his religious practice and narrow in his religious understanding. After she divorced him, she left both her suburb and Orthodoxy, returned to Jerusalem, and became a graphic designer to earn her living - a lovely, vivacious woman who, though no longer "religious," retained a deeply spiritual side to her nature.
At first, while preparing to be in business for herself, she worked in a designer's studio. One afternoon, a man who wanted her to marry his son followed her home from the bus. Haval
, the young man, whose name was Avi, was too shy, or too stubborn, to surrender himself to his father's meddling.
His father feared the wildness he saw in his son and thought marriage would tame it. But actually, Avi's wildness was mostly played out by then. He had served in the army, then served a few more months on "Tel Aviv Beach" in India, playing drums all night, taking drugs, and getting to know a few women.
After six months, bored by so much freedom, he came home. He next went to college, majoring (because he had been dazzled by visits to ancient temples and museums in India) in art history and religion.
But he was a man easily bored - that may be one definition of wildness - and soon dropped out of college. He rejected his father's hunch that ringing the doorbell of a woman he had never met would solve his problems. He did not know where to search next, though he believed that the world offered meaning and mission, if he could find it.
In such a state, he was ripe to be pulled off the bench on which he was sunning himself one Friday afternoon near the holy Western Wall. A Bratislaver Hasid struck up a conversation with him, took him home for Shabbat and began to direct his mind. Avi studied, he repented, he became a good Jew in a black coat and, feeling happily integrated and reconciled with his family and his past, renamed himself Avinoam, which means "my father is pleasant."
But how could a guy like him find a wife among the tame haredi
girls? He was too wild. His rabbis fixed him up - nothing. The matchmakers were clueless. (With matchmakers, if a man and a woman are both Jewish and about the same height, they think it's bashert
So finally he went to a holy man. The m'kubal
, looking deeply into the structure of the human web, said to find a P'nina, so Avinoam went searching for his bashert
That could have been our P'nina, but she had a path, including a fiancÚ, of her own. Her fiancÚ was an artist whose father had immigrated from Australia to pre-State Palestine, where he married a Polish girl who had spent the war years among the Jews in Shanghai. Avinoam, the youngest of their seven children, himself in turn made a considerable cultural journey from their Orthodox home in order to find American-born P'nina.
But let us stop now. For if we were to tell the story of Avinoam's wanderings, and of those he touched on his way, our story might become the story of the whole world, all of whose people are bound together beyond explanation, like a substance made of fire.
This much we know: Asher has dropped out of sight, the haredi
Avinoam is still searching for his bashert
(sometimes, as we have seen, though the link is programmed, the connection is not made), and P'nina - P'nina is about to celebrate her wedding. Mazel tov!