Leigh B. Pennington
Leigh B. Pennington

Connecting two worlds

Interviewing someone I have only met in 2-D is a very new experience for me. Normally I have the pleasure of meeting the people I talk to in person at least once or twice. There is something to be said for some good old-fashioned 3-D interaction. However, this did not stop Shulamis and Dovid Charlop from leaping through the screen with the verve of lives well lived. Dovid and Shulamis often interrupt one another, but it’s in that way two people do who have been married for years so that they operate with one brain, one consciousness. They know where each other is going before the other one gets there, so if one of them is taking too long the other takes it upon themselves to speed up the process. They also seem to share a memory bank filling in the anecdotal footnotes for the other’s life constantly.

I had already spoken to them a few times before I asked them to do this interview. They graciously agreed. When I interviewed them we discussed the Corona scare that my family went through, how we all fell to sickness like dominos, my mother’s scare with testing positive for flu and Corona at the same time. They are very sweet people and always ask how I am doing, with a genuine tone that tells you they are truly interested in your life even though you are the one giving the interview. The kind of interviewee that wants to interview you while you interview them.

We also talked about the varying progressions of the coronavirus in different people and how it can be mistaken for a cold. They asked about my sister’s baby. We talked more about how the village rallies to raise the child. We also talked about some of my own work. Dovid is a big enough man to say when he was unknowledgeable about what I had written saying he was not an “academic.” In reality, this man has a very high intellect but has the humility to not consider himself smarter than anyone. They were just as interested in me as I was in them and before I knew it we were discussing endogeneity in Judaism, North American indigenous creation stories and much more.  These people have so much breadth and depth that they pull you out of yourself, that you could do no wrong that would be unforgivable in their eyes, that they celebrate you. Shulamis said to me: “You could research for the rest of your life and still be fascinated by the world, you have such a strong desire to know, it’s wonderful!”

Even though Shulamis and Dovid seem to operate on one wavelength the beginning of their stories hails from two opposite worlds of Jewish history and culture. Shulamis’s mother and father were born in Poland, her mother was fourteen when the Second World War began, and her father was just a few years older. After the war ended they immigrated to Memphis, Tennessee to a small Jewish community with a very small amount of survivors. “The survivors became like family to one another. You know I didn’t have grandparents and uncles and I just thought you were supposed to have many sets of second mothers and their children were supposed to be like your cousins and that was normal.”

In the midst of growing up in an area of the United States where there was a Church on every block Shulamis’s parents stopped speaking Yiddish to her and her sisters’ as it was “just to bizarre and too different from the rest of the culture.” Her father ran many businesses in the early years of Shulamis’ life and later on owned a General Electric franchise and did quite well. Shulamis’s mother was a stay-at-home mom and a very nurturing presence in her life. But life was serious to them according to Dovid, “they could laugh and smile but life was serious,” having to work their way up out of impoverishment to provide a life of stability for their family. Shulamis recalls that her childhood was conflicted because she went to a public school with all non-Jews but was told not to have any non-Jewish friends. However, she says “they did not put their trauma on us.”

On the other end of the American Jewish spectrum, both sides of Dovid’s family originated from “White Russia.” However, once the pogroms hit the shtetl at the turn of the 20th century they hopped on that big wave of Russian Jewry to the United States and never looked back. His mother’s side of the family were all educated lawyers. His aunt branched out a bit and designed rooms in the White House. They were very different from Dovid’s father’s side who were working-class people that went from the shtetl in Russia to the shmata factories in the United States.

Dovid grew up in Great Neck, New York with a solid 70% Jewish population. He was the “standard Jewish New Yorker.” Bagels and lox, Leonard Bernstein, New York Times, brisket, his grandfather drank borscht and they hated it, seltzer, but “religion was also just like whatever.” Everything in Dovid’s house was light and kibbitzing. There were no serious conversations unless you were talking about Vietnam or Marxism.

During their college years and early twenties, Shulamis and Dovid went down a similar trajectory in life that led them to Jerusalem. Shulamis went to college in Rhode Island in the 60s where she studied psychology and had a number of satisfying internships. Despite her success in college, the experience was a tumultuous time. In a fit of restlessness, she moved across the country to her sister in Los Angeles. Shulamis lived in a few different places in California and got exposed to things that the South and the East did not have, namely spirituality. She had some interesting jobs but she really wanted to see the world. Being good Jewish parents her mom and dad said “we will pay for all of your travels if you’ll go to Israel.”

Immediately she felt that there was something in Israel that was much bigger than anything she ever saw before in relation to Judaism. It had nothing to do with what she called the “Doily Judaism” of Memphis where you put the doily on your head to go into the synagogue and remove it immediately after you exit. There was something more real and sincere in Israel. She decided to stay in Jerusalem and landed a job working with a Dutch film crew who were shooting a documentary about the four sections of the old city. Through this experience she met all kinds of fascinating people, becoming friends with most of them and got introduced to Jewish Studies. Her parents couldn’t have been more thrilled.

Dovid couldn’t wait till the end of his undergraduate degree to hitch a ride out west. After two years of Marxism, Frisbee, and music at his liberal state school in New York, he hitchhiked his way from New York to Berkley California. In Berkley, Dovid was also introduced to people who believed in God, a totally foreign concept that people should believe in something as foolish as God. After he returned to New York Dovid got involved with a group of guys looking to make documentary films, but he didn’t stay in New York long. His mother attended Queens College at the time and got a very good deal to go to Israel for the whole family.

After Israel Dovid was meant to go continue on to Greece to work on a movie but he never did end up making it there. Dovid’s friend from high school was attending Or Sameach at the time and he invited Dovid to come to see Rav Nachman Bulman speak. “I was extremely impressed, it was erudite and insightful and learned and brilliant, very passionate and passion was the name of the game for us. I grew up with passion, it was essential.” The more Dovid studied the more he thought “I would have to be fooling myself if I didn’t believe there was a God.” His family however was not very pleased with his newfound religiosity. Religion was fine as long as he didn’t lose his humor or his personality.

Both Dovid and Shulamis decided to return to the United States wanting to explore Judaism in familiar territory. A few months after they both got off the plane in Monsey, New York they met, dated for a few months and were married, a complete shiduch made by Rabbi Ezriel Tauber. The first few years were difficult as the young couple was slowly learning each other’s emotional intricacies and needs. During their time in Monsey Shulamis became the Director of Social Services for a nursing home learning about geriatrics and gerontology while running support groups. Dovid taught at a Yeshiva in Monsey, then at the famous Kushner Hebrew Academy in New Jersey, and then at a Jewish High School in Teaneck. During their time in New York, they had two children.

After twelve years they decided it was time to move to Israel to live in a Jewish environment, not within capsules of Jews among non-Jews. They didn’t make Aliyah right away but settled in Har Nof for a test run. For Dovid and Shulamis Israel has so much “warmth and caring and life is so real and important.” When they told their families they wanted to move permanently Shulamis’s parents had bittersweet feelings about their decision, Dovid’s parents were less than supportive. Only his sister Meg believed in her brother’s choice.

It was a stressful time that came with many questions and fears. Dovid and Shulamis decided to see the Amshinover Rebbe about their worries, an extremely kabbalistic man who only saw people in the middle of the night. Birds chirping outside they took a cab to his house and he listened, asked countless questions, leaned forward with his unnervingly large eyes and said, “I see no reason why this shouldn’t work out.”

It was a hard road making it permanent, the biggest challenge being Hebrew, something Shulamis and Dovid admit is essential for full integration into the culture. Shulamis began running senior programs in Kiryat Ye’arim and Dovid took up a teaching position at a Yeshiva for troubled and disenfranchised religious youth. “They (the students) just wanted to run away from it, a lot of unhappiness, a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol, a lot of misery, a lot of pain.” This is where Dovid took up counseling unofficially drawn to “the blood and the guts of the thing,” as he says.

That experience catapulted both Dovid and Shulamis into the world of counseling. “It was my dream to counsel as a couple, with my husband,” says Shulamis. They both went to school for two years, obtained their licenses, and have been counseling religious couples as a team for the past seven years, many of whom are baal teshuvahs or the children of baalei teshuvah. They are two halves of one perfect therapist. Shulamis having a more deep and intuitive nature, and Dovid is the psychoanalytical Rabbi. Their ultimate dream however is to open an English-speaking rehab in Israel.

Dovid and Shulamis have made movies, traveled the world, studied Torah, counseled the traumatized, took chances, fell in love, and rolled with each other’s changes as a couple for four decades. Their lives both separately and together have been a constant search for wisdom. However, their ultimate discovery about themselves seems to have revolved around their marriage. Dovid said that there is something extremely important to be learned in the process of a marriage; a special something that you won’t necessarily find in any other type of relationship. It is an exercise in commitment, honesty, and EQ, a lifetime personal project in connecting two worlds.

(The title for this blog post was taken with permission from Dovid’s own book Connecting Two Worlds: Perspectives on Faith and Family, A Dialogue Between Brother and Sister, dedicated to his late beloved sister Meg Charlop.)

About the Author
Born and raised in Richmond Virginia Leigh Pennington currently attends The Hebrew University of Jerusalem pursuing a Masters degree in Jewish Studies at the Rothberg International School. Prior to moving to Israel Leigh studied Anthropology, Art History, and Religion at Concordia University in Montreal. She has been involved in several cultural preservation and historical institutions and currently interns for The Ethiopian National Project as an oral history consultant for Project Ti'ud.
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