Modern Love Stories for the Jewish Holiday of Romance

Three stories of unconventional – if not necessarily un-Orthodox – love in honor of Tu B’Av

Aja and Evan Cohen are lifted in chairs at their wedding.
Courtesy of Aja and Evan Cohen

NEW YORK — Tu B’Av, the most romantic day on the Jewish calendar, starts this year at sunset on Sunday and ends at sunset on Monday.

While there are multiple origin stories, and the holiday has become popular in Israel in fits and starts, no other day has romance built in like the 15th of the month of Av.

In that spirit, we have collected a few love stories and wedding tales ranging from the simply adorable to the totally unpredictable. We share them here in honor of the day.

The Real Housewives of New Jersey’s first chuppah

Aja Calvitti was an Italian-Catholic student at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute when she went to a “sushi and kabbalah” evening offered by the Chabad emissary to the architecture and design school.

“It sounded fun, and hey it was free food, so I went,” she recalls. That started her journey to becoming Jewish. Aja initially converted under the auspices of a Conservative rabbi in Brooklyn. She first met Evan Cohen at the borough’s Kane Street Synagogue, on the holiday of Tu Bishvat. She had a boyfriend at the time, but by the time she and Evan ran into each other on Yom Kippur, they had broken up. They sat next to each other at Yom Kippur services, and Evan asked her out. They dated “hot and heavy” for a month, Aja says, but she wasn’t sure about their future together, so she broke it off. After running into each other at a Hanukkah party, they got back together. By February she was sure she wanted to marry him. She had wanted to also have an Orthodox conversion, so they attended the required classes together as she underwent that process. In February 2009 her Orthodox conversion was approved, and in June she and Evan were married.

Evan, who is director of retail operations at the Michael Kors fashion company, had become more religiously observant than the rest of his family. Aja, who designs men’s underwear and teaches yoga, wanted to make sure that her family would be comfortable at their wedding, whose customs were sure to be totally foreign to them. So they held it at The Brownstone, a New Jersey catering hall famous for being owned by the Manzos, a family from the reality show “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” Caroline and Dina Manzo are first cousins of Aja’s mother, and she grew up knowing them as aunts. The whole Manzo clan attended.

Clearly The Brownstone’s typical wedding menu, which features a lobster station, wasn’t going to cut it. So Aja and Evan brought in their own glatt kosher caterer. Though the hall — whose décor could be described as upscale ungapatchka — can provide a “kosher-style” menu, it was the venue’s first genuinely kosher wedding.

Cultures clashed when a non-Jewish bartender unknowingly opened a bottle of kosher wine (prohibited according to a strict reading of Jewish law), and a minor panic ensued.

Rain was pouring outside and the officiating Chabad rabbi was over two hours late, stuck in New Jersey’s notorious traffic. “My mom was having a major freak-out,” Aja recalls. “Her Jewish daughter’s getting married is already weird, and everyone was waiting forever.”

It was tense.

Their Orthodox wedding was a first for both families. Evan’s nonreligious Jewish parents weren’t used to separate-sex dancing, Aja says. And then, because Aja and Evan are unconventional no matter what community they’re in, “it turned into a Grateful Dead and Phish jam,” complete with a mosh pit and Evan body-surfing the crowd. On top of it, the officiating rabbi did a headstand, shocking Aja’s father. “He said, ‘the rabbi doesn’t do a headstand in the middle of the dancing!’ and I thought, ‘seriously, that’s what you’re upset about? It was kinda nuts,” Aja recalls.

Aja wanted a Chabad rabbi to marry them, not only because she came to Judaism through a Lubavitch emissary, but also because she feels an affinity for the sect. “Lubavitch is kind of Italian. It’s not so different. So we have dinner on Friday nights rather than Sundays. But with both there’s tons of wine, tons of food. It didn’t feel so foreign to me,” she says.

For all those similarities, the Manzos encountered some new things that day, like the bedeken ritual, in which the groom approaches the bride and veils her face after making sure that she is his intended. “After the simha dancing, Aunt Dina came up to me and said ‘that was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen at a wedding!’ Aja relates, adding, “And these people are in the wedding business.”

Today the modern Orthodox couple lives in Teaneck, New Jersey with their daughter Raina and their son Yehoshua. When the boy was born, three years ago, Aja’s family was introduced to another new custom — the brit milah circumcision ceremony, or “bris,” in the Ashkenazi Jewish pronunciation. “They said we have to wait eight days to hear his name? That’s insane!” Aja recalls, referring to an Orthodox custom whereby a newborn’s name is not publicly announced until eight days after the birth.

A different kind of culture clash

Yuri Kruman was born in Moscow and came to the United States with his mother when he was 8. They settled in Kentucky, where she worked as a research biologist. He went to college in Philadelphia and then moved to New York City where, on the first day of the Sukkot holiday in 2009, he walked several miles uptown from his apartment, to Columbia University.

By that time Yuri had become religious, so he wouldn’t ride a bus or subway on Shabbat or religious holidays. At the Columbia Chabad Sukkot celebration, “I was impressed with this interesting girl from Morocco,” he recalls. Throughout the academic year, whenever he went up to campus for a Jewish community event, he’d see her. But every time he chatted with her, Yuri says, “she forgot my name.” Including at graduation, when she tried to introduce him to her parents. Despite his bruised feelings, two weeks later he saw her profile on JDate and reached out.

Yuri and Jennifer Kruman in Moroccan garb at their wedding.
Anna Rozenblat Photography

“I thought she was a ‘Moroccan princess,’ since she couldn’t remember my name, but it turned out she was an engineer,” he says. On their first date, he and Jennifer Zysman went to the Museum of Modern Art. Their second date lasted 25 hours, Yuri says. They spent hours showing each other their favorite corners of the Columbia campus. At 5 A.M. he spontaneously suggested that they rent a car and go to a winery upstate.” So they did.

Not long after that, Jennifer left to visit family in France, Morocco and Israel. Her mother is a Tunisian who emigrated to Nice, France, and then to Morocco. Jennifer grew up there, in Casablanca.

When she returned, Yuri surprised her by picking her up at the airport. A few days later, they were having drinks at a bar when a friend messaged him to say he was leaving his apartment and was looking for someone to take over the lease. Both Jennifer and Yuri were sleeping on friends’ couches at the time; they decided they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to live in a reasonably priced Manhattan apartment, and they moved in together.

Soon afterward, Jennifer was about to start a job but was having visa problems. One day they took a jaunt to Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood. There, in a small garden at the edge of the East River, a sweeping view of Manhattan spread before them, Yuri proposed.

A week or so later they were married in a civil ceremony at New York City Hall, with their best friends as witnesses, to rescue Jennifer from her visa travails. Ten months later they had a Jewish wedding in New York. But first, she brought him to Morocco to make sure her family approved.

They did.

Their 2011 Jewish wedding was “Ashkephardic,” Yuri says, a total mash-up of Ashkenazi and Sephardic cultures, with a Russian violinist and lots of French, Arab and Latin music. “Our friends wore galabiyas, there were Moroccan cookies and a Moroccan-Tunisian henna ceremony,” Yuri says. Both bride and groom wore traditional Moroccan-Jewish wedding costumes. Friends spread henna paste on each one’s hand and pressed in a gold coin, wrapping it with white ribbon. After the coin was removed, its imprint remained on their hands for weeks, an omen of future prosperity.

“It’s a big minhag,” or Jewish custom, for Tunisians and Moroccans,” Yuri explains. “It’s one thing they can agree on.”

Getting used to each other’s ways hasn’t always been easy, admits Yuri, who runs his own business advising millennial entrepreneurs. He speaks Russian to their two young children and Jennifer, who is the director of global procurement of the Estee Lauder Companies, speaks French with them.

“We’re from completely different cultures,” Yuri says. “I like to joke that Russians are passive-aggressive and Moroccans are just aggressive.”

When Jennifer was pregnant with their first child, a daughter who is nearly 4, they were having dinner one evening with Yuri’s mother, who was visiting. Jennifer began drinking a glass of wine. “My mom looked at her with eyes of horror. At the time, my mother was studying the effects of alcohol on the fetal brain. And here’s my wife, who’s French, for whom it’s totally normal to have a glass of wine while she’s pregnant,” recalls Yuri. His mother asked him, in Russian, “’Is she crazy?’ I told her it’s normal, it’s what the Frenchies do,’” he relates. Yuri didn’t tell Jennifer about the comment until much later, and then “we had a good laugh,” he says.

When their younger daughter, now 16 months old, was diagnosed with cancer last year, the couple put aside their cultural differences to deal with the crisis. Today, after treatment, she is fine, Yuri says, “but we’ve been through the ringer. Going through something like this makes you completely comfortable with each other’s ways. Now I can go to a Moroccan market and actually bargain.”

The couple live in Brooklyn and hope to immigrate to Israel within a few years. “It’s the only way to make sense of our crazy cultural combination,” Yuri says.

When hooking up happily lead to love

Bruce Temkin and Judson Morrow met on Manhunt, a gay dating site. They exchanged a few pleasantries and photos and an hour later, Judson was at Bruce’s apartment. It wasn’t until after their second or third hookup that they had a proper date, Bruce says.

Though Judson, who sells restaurant supplies, is 19 years younger than Bruce, not Jewish and grew up in a Tea Party-type Republican family in Ohio, “my family loves him. Mainly because he’s a mensch,” says Bruce, who is the national director of major gifts at Amnesty International.

They have been together for eight years and married for two. Bruce’s brother was ordained online in order to officiate at their wedding; their chuppah was made from Bruce’s bar mitzvah tallit, or prayer shawl.

“We have an amazing relationship,” says Bruce. “In the eyes of my family, Judson can do no wrong. They always take his side — always! One of his many endearing qualities is the way he treats my entire extended family. I’m lucky.”