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by Jesse Zel Lurie
HER NAME was Sarah Rose, after her grandmother, Sura Raisel, who never left Poland and was lost in the Holocaust.
His name was Ismail, nickname Izzy. He was an Arab-American, the son of a Brooklyn restaurant owner born in Haifa when its population was mostly Arab.
They met at Cornell University as juniors. He was studying civil engineering, to help build a Palestinian state in the country that he had never seen. She was studying marine biology, to rescue coral reefs all over the world, including in Israel.
They fell in love, a love that they felt in their bones. “I get a stomach ache,” he whispered to her one evening, “when I have to leave you to go to sleep in my dorm.”
Sarah Rose’s parents strongly disapproved of her boyfriend. They were Zionists. Her father Jacob, known as Yankel, had made a pile in the shmate business. He had an expensive retirement home in the heart of Jerusalem, which he occupied during the Jewish holidays. He figured that after her graduation, he would take Sarah Rose to Jerusalem and keep her there until she forgot her childish romance.
AFTER GRADUATION, Sarah Rose and Izzy spent a few weeks in Brooklyn under the indulgent but disapproving eyes of his parents. (Izzy’s father had had a Jewish girlfriend in Haifa before he immigrated to Brooklyn.)
When Sarah Rose and Izzy parted, they had planned to reunite after he found a job. She flew to Jerusalem with her parents, found a job at the Israel Museum, and when her parents returned to New York, she lived alone in a luxury two-bedroom apartment.
She was cool and distant to the men she met. She took courses at the Hebrew University and immersed herself in Jewish history. She decided that the Zionists were right and that her love for Ismail was wrong.
She wrote Izzy not to write to her again. Izzy obeyed, but he kept in touch with her through Sam. He kept asking, “When is she returning?” Sam’s standard answer was, “I’ll tell you.”
Fast-forward a couple of years: Sam fell in love with a Catholic girl who agreed, at Yankel’s request, to convert to Judaism. Sam told Izzy that Sarah Rose was returning to New York for his wedding, and gave him the flight number and date of arrival.
Yankel and his wife were taken aback when Izzy appeared at Kennedy Airport to welcome Sarah Rose. She was so surprised to see him that she stopped dead. Then she hugged Izzy, a hug that lasted for a few minutes. He slipped her a card with his address and phone number, and then left. She went home with her parents.
She could not enjoy the homecoming that they had prepared. In the evening, she phoned Ismail. “Come and get me,” she said simply.
Yankel decided that if he tried to interfere, he would lose his daughter. So as he hugged her goodbye, he said, “Ask him if he will convert.”
Izzy had some familiarity with Jewish conversion. He told Sarah Rose, “Your new sister-in-law would not be registered as Jewish in Israel because she was converted by a Reform rabbi. As for me, everybody already thinks that I’m Jewish because of the name, but to preserve peace in the family, I will go through the same rigmarole with the same Reform rabbi.”
After their wedding, Izzy and Sarah Rose moved to a Jewish neighborhood in Queens. Izzy became active in the Reform temple, but he refused to allow his temple friends to nominate him for the presidency. “It doesn’t seem right,” he said to Sarah Rose.
They raised a Jewish family, two sons and a daughter. All of them went to Cornell.
Yankel died happy. “All’s well that ends well,” he had said to his wife.
“Love conquers all,” she replied.
Jesse Zel Lurie is the 102-year-old former editor of Hadassah magazine and a veteran journalist and man of letters in American Jewish life.