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When Nice Jewish Boys Aren’t So Nice

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I wore “Life” around my neck from the summer I was 16 until the spring I was 22. Five years, nine months.

The necklace was carved from Eilat Stone with two letters forming the shape of “Chai”–Hebrew for “life”–a metaphor I chose from the summer I went to Israel for the first time.

And one day, nearly six years after that summer, my boyfriend pulled hard until the chain bit into my neck, tugged until the charm fell off in his hand, glinting in the center of his palm between the lifeline and heartline.

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“You will never wear anything that I didn’t give you. Do you understand?”

This same boyfriend made my two cats “disappear” in the middle of a stormy November night. He would squeeze the soft skin on my upper arm until bruises bloomed like bluebonnets. He said he would kill himself if I ever left him.

To this day, people ask me why I loved him in the first place.

We had met nearly 23 months before, on a golden day in August, just before my first year at college. I remember the exact spot where I saw him–in a sunny strip just outside the door to the I House cafe, sitting between the door and the shadow from the building across the street. He glowed.

He started talking to me because of my Chai necklace.

“I like your Chai,” he said.

And I smiled.

The necklace was my talisman. I bought it the first time I was in Jerusalem the summer I fell head over heels in love with Israel.

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That was a surprise, actually: I didn’t expect to fall in love with Israel that summer I turned 16. In fact, I hadn’t even wanted to meet Israel. I had wanted to spend the space between 10th and 11th grade strolling the 3rd Street Promenade with Aimee and Lisa. I wanted to sit by the phone and wait for Matt Rodriguez to (OMG please!) realize he liked me and ask me out. I wanted to go to movies, and buy clothes at Forever 21, and paint my nails black, and hit the Mar Vista swimming pool with a bottle of Sun-In and a bathing suit my parents would never allow carefully hidden under the Nirvana t-shirt I’d wear as a cover-up when I left the house.

In other words, I wanted to be, like, super original.

But my parents had other plans. (They actually wanted me to be original.)

“Oh, you’re going to Israel,” my mom told me. “It’ll be the adventure of a lifetime!” And just like that I was unceremoniously dropped off at LAX along with 120 other Jewish American teenagers from LA I had never met. We were to spend the next eight weeks discovering our roots.

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My parents were those parents –curfew was 9:00 p.m., and my dad would copy down the license plate numbers of any guy I went out with. “Seatbelts!” he would bellow after us as we’d pull out of the driveway. But for some reason, my parents trusted Israel–it didnt’ matter that I would be gone for nearly two months, a whole lot of nights without curfews or parents to write down license plate numbers. But as visions of all of us singing Hava Nagila around a campfire floated through my mother’s head, the meta-message wasn’t lost on me: Israel was safe. Why? Because it was a country full of Jewish people who would take care of one another.

And so, with an eye roll and heavy sigh, I kissed my parents goodbye and got on that plane.

And then it happened.

I fell in a mad crush with Israel–in a tumble, like my first kiss behind the air vents at Century City Mall when our braces got stuck together. This was like that, sudden and shocking and out of control, and it happened, near the fields of Kibbutz Gezer.  It was during Havdalah services when we welcome the new week, after one of the counselors lit the braided candle and all of us were gathered in a giant circle, singing and swaying side to side. With my two roommates on either side of me, I felt engulfed in a sense of belonging that I had never known before.

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I felt more alive than I ever had in my entire life.

This was the first time I didn’t have to explain why I didn’t eat pepperoni pizza or shrimp tempura, or why I couldn’t go ice skating like everyone else on Friday nights, or why we faced Jerusalem when we prayed. Everyone here already knew, because we were home. 

Later that night, all of us nice Jewish boys and girls freshly showered and smelling like the perfume section at Walgreens, we took a bus and rode through the hills into Jerusalem for the first time, to Ben Yehuda Street.

And that’s when I found the Chai necklace in a little shop lit brightly in the middle of the street.

I saw what I wanted immediately: A Chai pendant–cobalt blue and emerald green with tiny flecks of gold running through. I loved the meaning: “Life” in Hebrew, and the colors reminded me of the way the world looks from way up high. Through God’s eye.

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And as I stood there, thrumming with this new awakening, this new life, I knew I had to have this talisman around my neck.

I would wear that necklace until it was torn from me by hands I knew and loved like my own.

How funny it was that the necklace he eventually hated made him speak to me, and made us fall in love, in the first place.

On that golden day in August, he pointed to the Chai around my neck.

“Are you Israeli?” he asked.

“No, but I love it there, and I want to live there some day.”

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“Cool. I’m from there.”

A nice Jewish boy.

That night, when we kissed, he tasted like that first summer in Israel.

So, how could I not fall in love with him?

I was raised in a world where nice Jewish boys don’t kill. Or steal. Or rape. Or choke their girlfriends until the world narrows into one exquisite spark.

But I was also raised in a world that values life. And I chose “Life”–literally–in that shop on Ben Yehuda Street that first summer in Israel. And when I saw “Life” in the center of his palm, I knew that I needed to make it mine again, as far away from him as I could run.

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE. If you cannot talk on the phone, or are outside of the U.S., you can take advantage of their live chat service here

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