It was not, to put it mildly, love at first sight.
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“She was so uptight,” says Cliff Churgin, 52, an easygoing, jokey, Maryland-born transplant to Israel, who works as a tour guide and is into strategy board games like Nuclear War, and Merchants and Marauders.
“I could not stand him. He was obnoxious,” retorts journalist and analyst Linda Gradstein, 50, National Public Radio’s former longtime Israel correspondent, who is Cliff’s wife and mother of his four children.
“I told him he was a fascist,” she remembers, harkening back to that less-than-successful first date. The two middle Churgin kids, 12-year-old Netanel and 16-year-old Uriel, listening nearby, roll their eyes.
Brooklyn born and Long Island bred, Linda arrived in Israel in her early 20s. In hand: a bachelor's degree in foreign service and a master's degree in Arab studies, both from Georgetown University; a year of Koranic exegesis and Islamic studies in Cairo on a Rotary fellowship; fluency in Hebrew and Arabic – and an attitude.
“I was never going to get married,” she states. “What I wanted to do was solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I thought it would be impossible to do that and be married at the same time.”
“And hey, you were right! Look how much progress there has been!” laughs Cliff, reaching over to hold the hand of his wife of 20 years – who is busy eating hummus out of a plastic container. The two crack up. Cue eye-rolling of children on sidelines.
Cliff came to Israel at 16 on a Young Judaea summer course, and then again as a junior exchange student from Emory University in Atlanta, where he majored in Judaic studies and international relations. A year after graduation, bit by the Zionism bug, he made aliyah, and set off to do military service in the Givati Brigade.
After that, and before becoming a tour guide, came a slew of jobs: with the American Jewish Congress, with a CD-Rom company that went bust, at a bagel and falafel joint downtown in Jerusalem, at the public relations department of Hebrew University, and at the local McClatchy news bureau.
Though modern Orthodox himself, Cliff found himself falling in with a more ultra-Orthodox crowd – which was fine, he says, except when it came to dating.
“My friends were getting blacker and blacker…" he says, referring to the black hats the Haredi community wears, “and when I got set up it usually did not work. It was not me.”
Linda, meanwhile, despite the plan to abstain from marriage until everlasting Palestinian-Israel peace broke out, was also dating here and there – with as little success as Cliff.
“My career was an obstacle,” says Linda, who by then was working as a translator and fixer for foreign correspondents posted to Israel – first with the L.A. Times and then with the Washington Post.
“I was going out with religious guys,” explains Linda, who grew up in a conservative Jewish home but became more Orthodox her first year in college and later spent a year at yeshiva. “The guys I met would say things like – If you are in Gaza covering the intifada, who will pick up our kids from kindergarten?” She could find no one who would “bridge her worlds,” Linda complains.
They met at a Friday night dinner at Cliff’s place, in Jerusalem’s Greek Colony neighborhood. Cliff’s roommate at the time, Jeff, had organized the Shabbat meal in honor of his visiting sister Risa and her husband Zeev. Linda, a friend of Risa’s from Washington, D.C., was invited.
The chemistry was nil, both agree. “We were talking politics and she said something like 'There are Palestinian children dying as we speak! How can you say such a thing? You are a fascist!'” recalls Cliff, who can't remember quite what terrible thing he had said.
“He pretended to be really right-wing,” says Linda. “I think he was trying to annoy me."
“I sort of thought it was funny to get her going,” admits Cliff, who was not as turned off by Linda as she says she was by him.
“I grew up in a very feminist household, with strong women,” he says. “I actually like independent, smart women with big personalities.” He could tell though, he says, "that she hated me.”
At the end of the dinner, Zeev announced: “You two are going to get married.”
“I said, ‘You are out of your mind,’” says Linda, who promptly went home and did not see Cliff for six months.
The occasion of their second meeting was at yet another Shabbat dinner in honor of Risa and Zeev, who had decided to make aliya. This time, it was at Linda’s home in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood. “I had invited Jeff and felt bad not inviting Cliff, and I was like, ‘Eh, he probably isn’t as bad as I remembered him to be,’” she says.
“But he was.”
“Not true, I was more annoying,” laughs Cliff, who remembers that she misunderstood a comment he made about women dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah, and pounced on him for being a misogynist.
“Everything” about him bugged her, says Linda, trying to explain it. “Everything.”
Three years passed. In the interim, Cliff had met someone and got engaged. But the engagement fell apart. “We were both single and religious and everyone else was getting married, so it seemed the thing to do. But ultimately, we knew it wasn’t it,” he explains.
Two years later, he met someone else and got engaged for the second time. The rabbi was ready, the venue was booked, the invitations were sent. And then, six weeks before the wedding, the bride got cold feet. “I was crushed,” Cliff. admits. He was just turning 30.
Linda, by now an NPR star, had heard through the grapevine about the broken engagements and felt sorry for the guy. When a friend told her Cliff was throwing himself a birthday party, she decided to go. She even baked a cake, and put a troll on it for decoration, “just to be funny,” she says. “I thought he was a bit of a loser and was worried no one would come to the party,” she says.
In fact, she was amazed: There were at least 30 people there. Even more amazing, she says, was that she was happy to see him. “He wasn’t annoying anymore. And he had also finally shaved off his awful beard and mustache left over from the army,” she says. “I kind of liked him.” But not, she stresses, “in that way.”
Before long, miraculously, but also naturally, the two became best friends. “We were like Will and Grace, if Will had not been gay,” Cliff says.
“He was less kooky. But it was also me,” Linda admits. “Maybe I had changed … matured or become less radical. I loved talking to him. We had great conversations, and he made me laugh.” He was so bright, she says, and well read, and knew so much about politics. Bizarrely, considering their past, they never really argued, they say. “We don’t like conflict,” they agree.
They hung out endlessly. They spoke on the phone several times a day. They cooked together and made Shabbat meals. When Linda went away on vacation she missed him. When she went out on a date, she called him afterwards. “And if someone wanted to set Cliff up with a girl, they would call me for info,” says Linda.
“Obviously, my friends said, ‘Why not Cliff?’” relays Linda. “And I would say, ‘There just is no chemistry.’ And they would say, ‘Why not find out?'’’
Finally, they kissed.
It was a Tuesday evening and they were watching the movie "The Paper Chase" at her place, sitting side by side on the couch. “I just leaned over and kissed him,” Linda, the initiator, says.
“I was quite happy,” Cliff says. “We fell into it,” they agree.
For three months, they dated: holding hands, and kissing. And then Linda – who by then had completely changed her mind about marriage and was determined to stand under the chuppah before she hit 30 – proposed.
The youngest Churgin child, 9-year-old Mishael, just home from his archery club and sprawled on the couch, looks aghast. “Wait, Mom, you asked Dad to marry you?”
“This is embarrassing,” adds Netanel.
“I felt he was the right person. I was like, what are we waiting for?” she says. The conversation started with “We need to talk about our relationship.”
Cliff, who was busy helping her clear the table after a Rosh Hashanah meal when this romantic discussion started, said: “You ruined the surprise! I was going to ask you on Sukkot!” To which she said: “So ask me now.” And he did. She started crying. “It won't be that bad,” he said. “I promise you.”
Happily ever after
Linda’s dad met Cliff on the day of the wedding – and promptly handed him two aspirin. “She is your headache now,” he joked to his future son-in-law.
“I will take the whole bottle,” Cliff retorted.
“They were immediately crazy about each other,” says Linda. The men had found, so it seems, their sense-of-humor soul mates.
The wedding took place at the synagogue at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, looking out over Jerusalem, with 250 guests at hand. Cliff had wanted to get married on December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, “given our beginning … because we fought all the time,” he explains. But that was a Shabbat and so the ceremony took place the next day. Their friend Zeev, who predicted the union at the very start, held one of the chuppah poles.
“What Zeev always said was, Love and hate are kind of connected. You might dislike someone intently because you are actually attracted to them,” says Cliff, getting philosophical.
“But I was not attracted to you,” insists Linda, nipping that theory in the bud.
“I just think sometimes people are out looking for the wrong thing,” she concludes. “I had a list of who I had wanted to marry: someone very ambitious in their career, and imbued with a great sense of social justice, etc. Basically, I wanted a male version of myself.” Instead, she says, she found someone who complemented her – and made her laugh. And it fit.
They flew off to Mexico for their honeymoon, went snorkeling in Cozumel, and made their home in the Arnona neighborhood in Jerusalem. Their eldest child, Rafaella, today a newly minted 19-year-old soldier, was born a year later.
“You know how we stay married?” asks Cliff, revving up for the punch line.
“We say – whoever leaves has to take the kids with them!” says Linda, stealing his thunder. The two of them double over laughing as said kids, used to their parents already, look heavenwards and go off to heat up some chicken in the microwave.