The first time I approached Nurit, she was leaning against the wall with a dessert plate in her hand. Cookies and sliced fruit and occasionally birthday cake with rainbow-colored icing were staples of the social hour that followed every Friday night service at Beth Chayim Chadashim. It was called the oneg, a Hebrew word for “joy”—aspirational, like the tribe of single queers it attracted alongside the already partnered.
For me, joy did not come naturally, but hung back, had to be coaxed from its hideout gradually, a fact that was not obvious, for I moved through the world with a joyful façade. People loved my sunny disposition, which seemed especially pronounced in Jewish contexts. I was the unencumbered Jew, unburdened by grim history, by grandparents murdered, by deeply ingrained distrust. I was open and eager to connect, any cautiousness mainly the residue of habitual self-doubt and prior disappointment in love.
Born in Israel, Nurit had grown up in Brazil, where her family had moved when she was nine. Now in her late twenties and new to the United States, she was in the first flush of exploring her gay identity and had found our synagogue by googling “gay + Jewish + Los Angeles.” I had noticed her coming to Friday night services that summer. She was petite, full around the hips and breasts, her mischievous brown eyes accented by black mascara. Her dark hair was stylishly cropped, and she wore low-cut tops and tight, tailored suits, buttons straining at their holes. Her voice, the first time you heard it, came as a complete surprise: from her look, you expected sultry sophistication—Marlene Dietrich—but what you got was Betty Boop.
“You’re getting to be a regular,” I said to her, trying to sound casual, repeatedly dunking a lukewarm tea bag in my paper cup.
She returned my smile and, in between bites of a juicy red strawberry pinched between her fingers, asked, “So, would you like to combine with me?”
“Combine with you?”
“In Portuguese, we say combine, to make a plan.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, finally getting it, “let’s make a plan!” And we both laughed.
Linguistic differences notwithstanding, I had not expected Nurit to be so interested and so forthright. I mean, there were plenty of other women in the room closer to her age. I was in my late thirties, had come out as a lesbian two decades earlier, and was in the final stages of study for my conversion to Judaism. Most Fridays, coming from work, I dressed in soft-butch business casual, with short blondish hair, glasses, and never any makeup.
“How about a hike?” I said. “We could take my dog, Tikva. I’ve only had him a few months, and we like to try new places.”
“Oh, I love dogs!” she squealed, which I found out later was not actually true. But we made a plan to meet that Sunday. I’d pick her up outside her apartment in Westwood, and we’d drive to Topanga Canyon.
When Tikva and I pulled up, Nurit was waiting on the sidewalk in sporty polyester shorts, a crisp white T-shirt, and socks pulled up to her knees—outfitted more for a soccer match back home in São Paolo than a hiking trail in the Santa Monica Mountains. But she was excited and chatty, and I enjoyed listening to her heavily accented English; it reminded me of my immigrant parents.
Nurit was an old Jewish soul of Russian descent, a seductive mélange of melancholy and moxie. She spoke three languages—Hebrew, Portuguese, and English—and had also mastered the modern hieroglyphics of physics and astronomy. Nurit and her twin sister grew up in Tel Aviv, literally on Einstein Street, and physics was the family religion in which father, mother, and both daughters would become ordained, all four earning the Ph.D.
A post-doc appointment at UCLA in astronomy and physics had brought Nurit to California, and she would soon be hired for a research position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She was ambitious and knew her stuff. But at the same time, she could be sweetly naïve and childlike, and I was drawn to her madcap charm. She collected stuffed animals and delighted in cartoon characters like Calvin and Hobbes and Mowgli the Jungle Boy. She idolized an incongruous pair of Greek divas, the opera singer Maria Callas and the television fantasy heroine Xena, Warrior Princess. And the first time she saw the hand-painted placards along Hollywood Boulevard hawking “Star Maps,” she found it remarkable that residents of Los Angeles should take such an avid interest in astronomy.
Nurit told me the story of standing at age seven at the open window of an apartment in Germany, where her father had taken the family during a visiting professorship. She lifted up her shirt and shouted at the top of her lungs, Puuuuuuupiiiiiiiik! Pupik, the Hebrew word for “bellybutton,” meant nothing to German passersby, but to her it was the pinnacle of transgression, a guileless up-yours to the whole former Third Reich.
My mother was German, but Nurit took that too in stride and gave me the nickname Schnitzel, to her own permanent amusement.
Because Nurit was so voluble, I could do what I did best—quietly observe and appreciate a vivid personality in full flower. Meanwhile, she liked my introspective nature and emotional restraint. Each of us, it seemed, was seeking something the other had.
That same fall, when I was falling for Nurit, my youngest brother was three months into a cancer diagnosis—colon cancer, very rare and very deadly in teenagers. Alex was nineteen years old and living on an organic farm commune in the Pacific Northwest, and on Memorial Day weekend, he had been rushed into surgery straight from the E.R. to remove a tumor that blocked his intestine, leaving him with a colostomy in his lean young abdomen. The emergency over, he went back to live and work on the farm in remarkably good health and spirits through the summer. I had been flying in and out of Spokane from L.A., savoring every moment in a parallel universe, off the grid and close to the land with my brother.
Several months before Alex’s diagnosis, Beth Chayim Chadashim’s Rabbi Lisa Edwards had introduced me to one of the morning prayers, the Asher Yatzar, giving me a photocopy with three versions of the text (English, Hebrew, and Hebrew transliteration). Like most rabbis, Lisa didn’t proselytize, and she waited until I’d asked for it. For me, becoming Jewish had been a six-year endeavor that included a practicum. I had taken classes, read books, found a rabbi; I joined the temple even before I’d completed my conversion. But it was only in the final year of my studies that I felt ready to begin saying daily prayers.
One of the first prayers of the day, the Asher Yatzar is traditionally recited after going to the bathroom. In this seemingly unholy moment, the prayer begins by praising God for the miracle of the human body, for the creation of its “openings and vessels.” It continues, “If one of these passageways be open when it should be closed, or blocked up when it should be free, one could not stay alive or stand before you.” The prayer concludes by acknowledging that God gave each of us a pure soul, breathed it into us and someday will take it from us—“restoring it to everlasting life.”
This prayer, I later realized, spoke with eerie precision to the possibility of a blocked intestine and how it could lead to death. It encapsulated the entire experience I would soon go through with Alex.
Though I was already well along on my path to becoming Jewish when we met, Nurit imbued that endeavor with a verve and coziness—a heymish-ness—I hadn’t felt before. Because she was only nine when she moved from Israel to Brazil, Hebrew for her was permanently honeyed, filtered through the wide-eyed wonder and open-heartedness of early childhood.
That September, Nurit and I sat together in the sanctuary during Jewish New Year services led by Rabbi Edwards—Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Ten Days of Awe. I was entranced by Nurit’s small fingers moving across the pages of the prayer book, whose Hebrew letters, as impenetrable to me as Braille, she read fleetly. Leaning into me, she would share her special take on one phrase or another.
In the Mi Chamocha prayer, for example, she reveled in the notion of God as superhero, a biblical Captain Marvel. Who else is like you, oh Lord, among the gods? the prayer goes. Who else performs such miracles?
“No one!” Nurit squeaked gleefully into my ear.
Judaism, a faith of outsiders, seems fundamentally concerned with loneliness—anticipating, preventing, and assuaging it. Jews mourn not in isolation but in a minyan, a group of at least ten. A book of scripture is never left lying open in an empty room, for there should always be someone there to read and interpret it. During the traditional Sabbath blessing over candles, wine, and finally bread, a cover is placed over the bread until its turn comes, lest it should feel left out. In many Hebrew blessings, the plural is favored over the singular. L’chayim, for example, often translated as “To life,” literally means “To lives”—because one life by itself would be no blessing at all. The formation of lasting couples, families, and communities remains one of Judaism’s most cherished values.
Nurit’s understanding of astronomy and physics recognized a similar tendency toward something like communal bonding. Standing in pajamas in my kitchen one morning, while I prepared cereal and coffee, she explained that planets and stars occur in clusters—cosmic shtetls—from the time they are born to the time they die. The same is true for miniscule forms of matter—electrons faithfully orbiting the nucleus, for example, and neutrinos, tinier still and nearly impossible to detect, eternally emanating from Sun to Earth.
“They want to be together,” Nurit said earnestly, giving herself a hug, modeling the concept that everything in the universe clings to, huddles with, something else. “They don’t want to be lonely.”
For many people, Jewish liturgy could be one long, keening lamentation, especially during the Days of Awe. It’s when Jews, as a people and as individuals, express their deepest sorrows, regrets, and mortal fears; the ritual can bring even the most secular, assimilated Jew to tears. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer stands out as one of the darkest prayers in the holiday liturgy: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his appointed time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning.” And so on.
But for Nurit, the sound of Hebrew, the sight of its letters dancing on the page like barefoot children, invariably evoked sweet memories. Hebrew was the cooing voice of bedtime, of her parents tucking her in and reading her stories. Hebrew made her laugh and sing and showed her God’s gentleness.
The prospect of losing Alex weighed heavily on me (who by cancer, I added to the mournful litany), and Nurit, probing her heavens filled with light, helped me to bear it.
From Nurit, I learned the difference between theoretical and applied physics—and, by extension, theoretical and applied anything, from faith to farming to photography—and the distinct personality types that gravitate to each type of field. Theoretical physicists, she said, were misty-eyed dreamers and poets, luftmenschen who live in the airy realm of the imaginary, of what might be possible, whereas applied physicists were earthbound “engineering types,” limited by what’s already known and proven, pragmatists utterly lacking in romantic qualities.
Needless to say, Nurit landed squarely in the “dreamer” camp. At the time we met, she was developing potential models of conditions at the farthest edges of our solar system, where at that time no space probe had ever reached. To me her work, entirely theoretical, was the stuff of poetry—“piercing a hole,” she said, “in the curtain that separates us from the rest of the galaxy.”
When people ask me why I converted to Judaism, I often find myself, like the priests I grew up with, drawing a cross in the air. I use it to explain how I think of religion. On the vertical axis, there’s the notion of a divine and powerful being “up there,” and on the horizontal axis, human beings living and working together “down here.” The horizontal axis interests me most. It’s where, I believe, the presence of God or God-ness or goodness is manifested through human compassion, intention, discipline, and action.
As a Catholic boy who came to embrace Quaker ideals and practices, Alex was always fully committed to this horizontal dimension. Even as he faced his own mortality, he seemed able to shrug off the vertical, with no expectation of an afterlife. I have no need to set my soul straight, he wrote in his journal late in his illness. I don’t think I anticipate the existence of a heaven or hell, nor some superior being to determine which I am suited for. Perhaps my spirit, or some form of my consciousness, will live on. I hope so. But not in the way that there’s a place for the good ones to go, and then another of punishment for the undeserving.
In October, Alex had a second operation, this one planned. The goal was to turn my brother back into a normal boy by reversing the colostomy, reconnecting the intestine, and restoring normal bowel function. But on opening up his anesthetized body, the surgeon discovered rampant tumor growth, not only in the colon but in the liver, too. The operation was quickly aborted, and my brother was sewn back up. We learned that Alex had only weeks to live, and a new reality to live with: a permanent intravenous line in his left forearm delivering Total Parenteral Nutrition, or TPN, a vitamin-fortified sugar and salt solution, a baby bottle poured into a vein. It’s how they feed comatose patients and premature babies and others who cannot eat and digest normally. Until then, the one thing Alex could do—and relished—was feed himself from his own bountiful harvest. Cutting this farmer off from his food was cancer’s ultimate insult.
I sometimes picture the scene very differently. My brother is not lying down in the surgical theater; he is standing. Ever helpful and eager to learn, he’s holding up the flaps of his own abdomen for scientific inspection, as in one of those seventeenth-century anatomical drawings. He is not a terminally ill patient but a collaborator illuminating the darkest mysteries of the human body. He is neither frightened nor angry. He speaks. And he invites me to look even closer.
A crucifix hung above Alex’s hospital bed like some lurid, anatomically correct model of my brother’s tortured body, complete with abdominal gash. On the first day after his surgery, in a plucky gesture of nonviolent resistance, his friends decked the cross in a colorful blanket of autumn leaves. But by the second day Alex requested its removal from his room altogether.
Soon after the crucifix came down, the hospital chaplain came to check on Alex. Another professional making his rounds, taking the spiritual temperature of the room, he hadn’t come to pass judgment. He asked Alex how he was doing, but Alex had no energy to talk, and the chaplain didn’t push.
“I’m here if you need me,” he said, glancing around the hospital room, crowded with medical equipment and a grim-faced assembly that included my sixty-six-year-old father and me. My father wore the same clothes he had since arriving from Florida, a drab windbreaker and baseball cap he left on even indoors. He looked drained, distant, barely able to maintain eye contact from behind his heavy bifocal glasses, whose upper and lower halves offered equally disconsolate views of what was happening to his son, and to him.
“You must be Alex’s father,” said the chaplain, looking more like a college professor than a minister in his corduroy jacket and button-down shirt. The low murmur of pumps and monitors helped mask the painful silence.
“Maybe you’d like to talk?” he asked. “We can step out into the lounge.”
My father, seeing that Alex had dozed off again, nodded, and the two of them headed for the door. “I’d like to come too,” I said, and followed them down the hall.
My father was a small man, a couple of inches shorter than my mother and I, but big-hearted, a charmer of little kids and grandmothers, of waitresses, nurses, and nuns. He’d had his first heart attack at forty-two and, besides the heart attacks, over the next twenty-five years he survived a life-threatening heart infection, heart-valve replacement with that of a pig, emergency quintuple bypass surgery, a defective pacemaker, and finally congestive heart failure with its literal enlargement of the heart.
That Alex lay dying of cancer at nineteen, as my mother had at fifty-five, while my father continued to beat the odds was an ongoing shock to him and to the rest of us.
“Why Alex and why not me?” he sometimes lamented out loud.
Had I ever wished I could give my life to save Alex’s? Parents of gravely ill children seem to do so as a matter of course. I never did. I loved life and wanted to keep mine; Alex loved life and I wanted him to keep his, too. Trading was not a viable option, anyway. Each of us has a life to live—“the given life, and not the planned,” as Wendell Berry, Alex’s favorite author, wrote—and wishing it were otherwise seemed pointless.
In a private corner of the visitors’ lounge on Alex’s hospital floor, the chaplain and my father sat face to face, and I pulled up a chair at my father’s side.
“I know how hard all of this is for you,” the chaplain began, “but what’s your biggest concern, right now, today?”
Speaking the unspeakable, my father’s answer came slowly, in his baritone voice and Hungarian accent, which suddenly seemed thicker to me. “My son. He’s so sick. He doesn’t have much longer.”
In the pause that followed, it was all I could do not to rush in with words. But I followed the chaplain’s lead.
“He’s a good boy,” my father continued, his vowels lengthening, consonants hardening. “He was always a good boy. But I am worried.”
The chaplain understood before I did. My father’s biggest fear was that if his child did not receive the final blessings of the church, despite having lived a good life, he would be barred from heaven, and thus prevented from joining his mother, who waited there for him. In my father’s mind, this would be a punishment worse than death.
Finally, the chaplain spoke. “Your son is in God’s hands,” he said with reassuring authority.
My father stared down at his own pale hands folded limply in his lap. The gold wedding band on his left hand had joined him to his new wife back in June, but it must also have reminded him of the wife he had lost, the mother of his seven children.
“He’s going to be okay,” the chaplain said. “God is going to take care of him. You don’t need to worry about that.”
Like an absolution, the chaplain’s words seemed to release my father from at least this one fear, and in letting it go, my father began to cry quietly. I was crying, too, and pulled tissues out of my bag for both of us.
In the hospital cafeteria, a low-ceilinged windowless place, the bottom-most stop on the elevator, my father and I talked over cups of hot tea, to which, had we been home, he might have added a shot of rum.
Having grown up in a German-speaking village in rural Hungary ultimately taken over by Communist Russians, my father spoke three languages by the time he turned fourteen. After the war, his family’s farm was confiscated, and, stripped of nearly all their possessions, they were forcibly resettled. As a teenager, he’d somehow found the clarity, the will, and the courage to leave. He fled, alone, across the closed border, risking arrest or even death, and after a series of close calls finally landed in a refugee settlement in Germany.
Now, by turns wistful and animated, my father began telling stories of his childhood. One that I had never heard before centered on his favorite Christmas present, a wooden rocking horse.
Contending with war-time deprivation, his parents would give him the same rocking horse year after year. What thrilled him then and still did—his eyes brightening at the memory—was how every Christmas the rocking horse reappeared with a fresh coat of paint and a fresh straw mane that made it new again.
He loved that horse, and I loved the story, and the tender uplifted place it opened in my father when he told it, and in me as I listened.
“When you were little I bought you a rocking horse for Christmas,” he continued, “but you only wanted to play with the box!” Laughing hard, we must have been the loudest people in the cafeteria.
Back in L.A., I told Nurit the story of Dad’s rocking horse, and instead of being moved like I was, she grew silent. Slowly, I drew out the explanation. From her perspective, the story was not one of imaginatively overcome hardship—on the contrary, there was no grievous hardship, because they lived. When each year’s holiday came around again, the family was still there, still alive, still together. Her anger, deep and unyielding, was directed partly at me for the sympathy I felt for my father.
She was right, of course: By the time my father was ten years old, Jewish families in Hungary were vanishing by the day, rounded up, deported, executed. For Jewish children, holidays and toys and wonderment did not exist even in tatters.
The given life. The lives most brutally taken.
Alex went back to the farm, and I joined his friends and hospice team in a dedicated circle of care around him. When he could no longer walk, we carted him out to the fields in a wheelbarrow. When he could no longer eat, we brought him fresh snow to melt in his mouth. When he could no longer speak, we still listened. In just six months he’d gone from being my baby brother to becoming my ancestor. His bedroom—lined with his harvest, jars of fruits and grains, and herbs hung from the ceiling to dry—had become a tomb packed with supplies for the journey to come.
On the last night of his life, Alex sat upright at the edge of the bed, his feet dropped to the wooden floor, restless and repeatedly trying to stand up though he didn’t have the strength to. I quit trying to talk him out of it; I just wanted to be close. I slid onto the bed behind him, pressing my chest against his back and wrapping my arms and legs around his. I whispered in his ear that I knew he wanted to go and that he could go. And with one last grunt of an exhalation, his body collapsed into mine.
Nurit had been traveling throughout the fall, presenting her research at international scientific conferences. She didn’t come to the farm until mid-December, two days after my brother died, and it was an awkward visit. I was physically and emotionally spent from the final days and nights with my brother and his closest friends, and the accommodations, with no plumbing or electricity, were a bit rustic for Nurit’s taste. But I prepared the outdoor tub for her, heating the water on a wood-burning stove. Shedding a large towel, she sank into the steaming bath. Her skin, whole and smooth, glistened under the crisp night sky brimming with stars, even the closest ones trillions of miles away. I pulled my coat tighter, watching her watch them.