By Cindy Mindell ~
WESTPORT – Journalist Van “Ze’ev” Wallach was raised as a Southern Baptist in a Texas border town. Over more than 50 years, he has set out on some major expeditions – returning to Judaism, moving to the Northeast, experiencing marriage and divorce and post-divorce dating.
Wallach weaves all these adventures together in a new book, “A Kosher Dating Odyssey: One Former Texas Baptist’s Quest for a Naughty & Nice Jewish Girl.” The Westport-based writer spoke with the Ledger about his various journeys – geographic, religious, romantic – approaching each with an open heart and an inquisitive mind.
Q: Your religious life went from Jewish to Baptist and back to Jewish. Explain this evolution.
A: Both of my parents are Jewish and they were married in Temple Emanuel in McAllen, Tex. All of my mother’s grandparents came from Germany, while my father’s parents were from Russia. My great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Rabbi Chayim Schwarz, was the first ordained rabbi in Texas, settling there in the early 1870s.
So I’m 100 percent Jewish. My mother’s family had been intermarrying for decades — the pressure to do so in small-town Texas is strong. My parents separated when I was not even three-years-old and my mother returned with me and my brother, who was only one, to her home town of Mission, Tex., on the border with Mexico. My family had been living on a military base in France, where my brother and I were both born.
My father soon remarried and moved to Michigan and then New York City. My mother did not have strong connections to Judaism and let our landlady, who was a devout Southern Baptist, take charge of the religious education of my brother and me. From a very young age we attended the First Baptist Church of Mission. We did not have Jewish relatives or friends in the area to provide a counteracting view. My father never visited so he had no influence. My mother did maintain some aspects of a Jewish household: we had a menorah, she taught us the Sh’ma, we had the Union Prayer Book and “The Wit and Wisdom of the Talmud,” from the 1920s. She always had a bottle of Manischewitz wine in the refrigerator and she kept her ketubah.
I became very involved in Christianity, but as I got older I became more aware of my Jewish heritage. Everybody in town and at church knew we were Jewish, the only Jewish family in town. I especially began to question my beliefs when my brother and I visited our father in New York City in 1972 and 1974. I had a great deal of conflict around my religious identity. I first attended Rosh HaShanah services at Temple Emanuel in 1974, but I couldn’t get myself to get involved in the temple; I was only 16. I stopped going to church and started educating myself about Judaism, reading books such as “This Is My God” by Herman Wouk and “Basic Judaism” by Milton Steinberg. By the time I was a senior in high school I completely identified as Jewish and did not consider myself a Baptist in any way. I really just returned to what I was born as. Over the decades I kept educating myself by attending services, studying Yiddish and Hebrew, visiting Israel in 1982, and serving as a volunteer for Project Dorot in New York City from 1980 to 1994, visiting an elderly German refugee.
I never had a Hebrew name, and as I started taking Hebrew classes and being called to the Torah, I gave myself the name, “Ze’ev.” It means “wolf” in Hebrew; in my growing-up and on my path through Judaism, I was kind of a lone wolf and had to make my way along with little guidance.
Q: Why did you decide to embark on your “Quest for a Naughty & Nice Jewish Girl,” as the title of your book asserts?
A: The journey resulted from my divorce, which became final in 2003. I wanted companionship and warmth and love, and online dating was the natural venue for me. I’m not a bar-hopper or much of a social butterfly – hard to do in the suburbs! – so online dating made sense for me. I’m a writer, so I know how to write a compelling profile that appeals to a certain kind of Jewishly involved, educated, culturally aware woman. As a writer, I always kept notes on my experiences and realized early on that they would make an engaging and amusing story. People kept saying, “You should write a book,” so I did.
I’ve made several attempts to write novels before, but never could push them to completion. This is my first book and I’m glad I could find a publisher, Coffeetown Press in Seattle, that saw value in my ideas, which are unusual for a dating book. Most of the books are how-tos, often by women, rarely with a serious approach about a man’s experiences, and none with the perspective of a religiously involved former Baptist from Texas. I knew I had a story to tell!
I’ve always written about my life experiences and the book was a way to pull together many of them; the book is not just about dating, but also about my spiritual evolution, the impact of my Texas upbringing, cultural influences through movies and books, and the serious side of dating – how Judaism gave me a framework for dealing with the death of a woman I dated in the early 1980s, and with the cancer diagnosis of another woman I dated more recently; she was successfully treated, I’m happy to report. For the past four years I’ve been dating a woman I met through JDate who lives in Westchester County, and I touch on our relationship in the book.
“Naughty and nice” sums up my dream Jewish woman. We’ve all heard of the “nice Jewish girls,” and this played off that. I like women who have a saucy, confident side. In the book, I talk about some of the naughty girls I have known.
Q: What were some of your more interesting or surprising discoveries?
A: Where can I begin? I learned that something that feels promising can spark up online and then fall flat when you meet in person. I learned to combine a thick skin with an open attitude, since contacts can vanish without a trace in an instant. I compared online dating to playing with a Rubik’s Cube – all the sides are turning and you only see a few parts. Men and woman have multiple opportunity streams going at the same time, and somebody who thinks you’re great may also have other men in the pipeline they also think are great. Nothing is settled until a man and woman say it’s settled. I found myself always drawn to Jewish women, whom I described as “smart, vulnerable and shtetl-lovely.” I never had any interest in seriously seeking a relationship with non-Jewish women – quite a change from my upbringing, because I didn’t know ANY Jews outside my own family until I arrived at Princeton University in 1976.
Q: Have you become involved in any particular Jewish denomination?
A: I came to Judaism with no set ideas about the stream I would join. I tried every stream in the 1980s. I gravitated toward a more traditional form of worship. I had attended the beginners’ service at Lincoln Square Synagogue, which is Orthodox, in the early 1980s and that no doubt influenced me. I was married in 1989 at the Kane Street Synagogue, which is Conservative, in Brooklyn. Once my then-wife and I moved to Connecticut in 1991, we checked around and became what I call “fellow travelers” of The Conservative Synagogue in Westport.
While we were getting divorced, I began attending services at Beit Chaverim [a modern Orthodox synagogue in Westport] and liked it. I lived in Stamford for seven years and went through the same process of shul-shopping and mostly attended Agudath Shalom. I returned to Westport in 2009 and got involved in Beit Chaverim, which is very close to my apartment. I don’t describe myself as Orthodox, but I feel comfortable at an Orthodox shul and I have picked up enough Hebrew over the decades to be able to follow most of the service. I greatly like Rabbi Yossi Pollak’s approach and the cozy, hamish feeling of the place. If I lived in a place with more limited options, I would belong to whatever was there – but I would definitely belong.
Q: Did your parents live to see you return to Judaism?
A: My dad is still alive. My mother died in 1984, and she knew that I was becoming interested in Judaism and was surprised by that. But she gave me a Chai for Chanukah in 1979 that I still wear around my neck.
To read excerpts of “A Kosher Dating Odyssey:” jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/glorified-and-sanctified and