'And Then the Rabbi Said: The Conversion You Underwent in the '80s Isn't Kosher'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: One family that's growing closer to its religion, and another searching for its roots (and good food) in Bulgaria

Yael Benaya
Michael and David Breslow.
Michael and David Breslow.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yael Benaya

Michael and David Breslow, 22 and 29, respectively; live in Los Angeles and flying there

Where are you headed?

Michael: We’re going back to Los Angeles. We were in Jaffa at our oldest brother’s place – he lives there with his wife. We came for their wedding. Now we’re going back, and our parents are staying on a little for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They’re both retired, so they have no problem staying on.

And you’re into rugby?

I started watching games when I was only 5, but I really got into it when my older brother started playing, in college. The greatest thing about rugby is that there’s a place for everyone. There are sports where you need to be tall or fast, but in rugby you can be short and fat, tall and thin – everyone has a place. People say it’s a sport for hooligans that’s played by gentlemen, as opposed to soccer or to football, which are sports of gentlemen played by hooligans.

So your brother also plays?

I don’t know if he still does, because the team plays on Shabbat and he’s Orthodox.

Your whole family is Orthodox?

Yes. We’re in a process of Orthodox conversion. I’ll try to summarize it, although it’s really a long story.

Go for it.

Our mother came to America at the age of 13 from Mexico. Her parents had no education beyond the first grade. My grandfather worked on a farm and my grandmother was a seamstress. My mother completed school as an outstanding student and received a full scholarship to UCLA, but my grandparents, they should rest in peace, were very traditional and wanted her to stay home and attend a nearby university. My father also went there. One day, he and a friend went to the cafeteria. At the farthest table, my father saw my mother. He had never spoken to her before, but he told his friend, “I’m going to marry her.” And his friend said, “She’s too good-looking for you, you’re not in her league.” And here we are, 40-something years later, and they’re happily married with three children.

Very nice.

They both grew up without religion, but on both sides of the family there was a strong belief in God – whether they were Jews, on my father’s side, or Catholics, on mother’s side. They chose Judaism because of my father’s roots, so they underwent Conservative conversion and remarried in a Jewish ceremony. I’m jumping ahead a few years.

We’re with you.

So, 10 years ago, their rabbi told them: “I love you very much, but I have to be frank with you: The conversion you underwent in the 1980s isn’t kosher.” That jolted their world. And then they started Orthodox conversion together with our oldest brother. At the time, David and I didn’t feel ready to convert. When my parents completed the conversion, they were remarried in an Orthodox ceremony, a third wedding. Now I am in the midst of my conversion, I even received my first set of tefillin.

What else do you do in life?

I’m working on a degree in history, but I want to be a teacher in a primary school for special-needs children.

What drew you to that?

My brother David is an autistic man who is able to manage things very well. As a boy, I didn’t see anything different about him, I treated him like everyone else, and that’s how I look at people with special needs.

What awaits you now in Los Angeles?

I’m going back to school. David is getting married in November, so we have to start getting ready.

Congratulations!

David: It’s going to be stressful, but things are going forward in a good direction. We’ve been together for nine-and-a-half years, and we’ve been engaged for a year and a half. It took me a long time to propose to her, because I was out of a job and I wanted to a responsible adult, and if she wasn’t going to provide for us, I wanted to be sure that I would be able to look after her before proposing.

Where did you meet your future wife?

David: In a meeting of Hillel, a Jewish educational organization. My response to her was like our father’s response to our mother.

So, Michael, are you also looking for the one?

Yes. My brother told me, “You are next in line.”

Keep on looking at those far-away tables.

It’s a tradition, it worked for my father and it worked for David. Maybe it will happen to me, too.

Lihi and Ron Ben Mayor.
Lihi and Ron Ben Mayor.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Lihi and Ron Ben Mayor, 21 and 59; live in Kiryat Tivon and Haifa, arriving from Sofia, Bulgaria

Hi, where are you coming back from?

Ron: We went to meet my older daughter in Bulgaria. She’s studying medicine in Prague, and we hadn’t seen her for eight months. My parents are from Bulgaria, and I did an abbreviated “roots” trips for the girls. We started in Sofia, we rented a car, we went all through the southwest region. We ate a lot of Bulgarian food. And the main thing is that we were together. It was very moving.

What did you discover in terms of roots?

Ron: My parents spoke Bulgarian to me when I was a child, so when I listened to the radio there and when people around me spoke, I actually felt as though my parents were speaking to me. A great many words came back to me from childhood. Eight years ago, I went on a roots trip with my mother, to her home, and it was important for me to show my daughters the places, the food, the language, the people.

Lihi: Especially the food. Plenty of kebabs. We can’t look at them anymore.

Ron: Lots of shopska, which is a special Bulgarian salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and on top, of course, grated Bulgarian cheese. And banitsa, which is something I also make at home, a traditional pastry with cheese.

Lihi: The ones he makes are tastier.

What do you do in Israel?

Ron: I’m a lawyer. I have my own firm in Haifa, which deals with cooperative associations, in my case, with moshavim and kibbutzim.

Lihi: I’m a discharged soldier whose life is stuck now because of the coronavirus. I had so many plans. I love to travel and I wanted to be a flight attendant. At first it was really frustrating, but now I tell myself that I experienced something that others will probably not get to experience: a global pandemic, at such an early age. All my friends are in the same boat. We are trying to cope together, but it’s awfully hard to make plans now. I prefer not to plan and not to be disappointed.

Ron, what do you do in your spare time?

Ron: As a hobby, I guide tours abroad; I specialize in the Scandinavian countries.

Lihi: We’ve been traveling together since I was really little.

What’s it like traveling with Dad?

Lihi: The greatest. Overall, the entire day revolves around food. We’re always thinking about the next meal. But we also take in the culture and the landscapes. He always knows everything about the place we’re visiting.

And what do you say about traveling with your daughter?

Ron: For me it’s a pleasure. They are not only my daughters, they are also a type of friends. They’re both vivacious and happy. We also quarrel, of course, but from my perspective this is first of all my way, as a father, to impart to them a love for the big world out there. It’s not by chance that I became a guide.

What’s the connection to Scandinavia, of all places?

Ron: When I was 16 I was part of a youth delegation to Denmark, and when I landed there it was absolutely love at first sight. Like falling in love with a woman. The people, the cleanliness, the red houses, the green grass. And then I went back on a post-army trip and stayed for half a year. I decided that I had to get there often, so I did a tour guide course. And then I went on to Iceland and a few other countries, but in the end I always return there. It’s a very special connection.

Wouldn’t you like to move there?

I would like to move there for a certain period of time, if I could. Definitely in my next incarnation. That’s the place I want to live; it relaxes me. But my heart is here. I’m attached to Haifa, and I swim in the sea every morning.

In the open sea?

Ron: Yes. I started seven years ago, we’re a group that swims between two and 10 kilometers. Seven years ago, a friend said to me, “Instead of having coffee on [Mount] Carmel, let’s go down to have coffee at the seaside.” We started to swim and I saw that I didn’t know how to swim properly. So we started out, at first 300, 400, 500 meters, and for seven years we’ve been swimming almost every day. We’re called the “Carmel dolphins.”

Even in the winter?

Ron: We try to go in under all conditions, including during the winter. There are days when the sea is very rough and getting in and out is very challenging. But the most amazing story is with the jellyfish. Once I was afraid of them, I wouldn’t go in if there were jellyfish. These days we even play with them.

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