I met him months ago, long before I started working on my cover story on haredi rebels, at the Tel Aviv showing of Kol Nidrei, a play by Yehoshua Sobol. Inspired by true stories, the play follows haredim who lead double lives - Bnei Brak yeshiva bochers by day and Tel Aviv bar-hoppers by Friday night. The male stars of the show are actual former haredim who now study acting.
When the play ended, my friend Tovy and I got in the elevator together with a man wearing a black kippa and a blue collared shirt. Curious, we asked this seeming haredi what he thought of the play.
"I'm shaking," he said. "It really spoke to me."
He revealed to us that he lives in an ultra-Orthodox community with his wife and two children, who believed him to be at work. By going to see the play, he too was leading a double life.
Tovy and I sat down with him near the entrance to the auditorium, and he continued to tell us his story.
"I was always a very appeasing child, I always did what people expected of me, and I've always suffered," Aaron, 28, explained.
He was set up with his wife at age 18 and never loved her. He still didn't, and they both knew it. His work as a computer salesperson brought him into contact with secular Israelis, who seemed so much freer to him.
"You have a choice," he said to us. "I want that choice."
Internally, Aaron is completely secular. He no longer believes in God. He doesn't pray or don tefillin. Externally, however, he looks like a good yeshiva boy.
"I can't just shave my beard and go to my family and say, 'That's me.' I don't have the courage." He also doesn't want to give his sick mother the heartbreak that his break from ultra-Orthodoxy would cause her.
I felt sorry for him and his family - but also happy for him that he was courageously questioning his confines. And I couldn't help but feel tempted to entice him.
"Are you into nightclubs and bars, like the characters in the play?" I asked.
"I'm intrigued," he admitted. Once, an 18-year-old gas station attendant took him to a pub, but he felt "out of place."
Then I told him I was well connected with the Tel Aviv nightlife scene, but I debated whether or not to exchange phone numbers. On the one hand, he seemed like an interesting project. On the other hand, he was married.
"He's definitely into one of us," said Tovy, as he walked away.
That was obvious enough.
A few days later he called me with an "idea."
"Maybe I can join you when you go to bars or nightclubs?" He wasn't really experienced in asking a woman out on a date.
I deferred the date for a week; I was hesitant. Would I be evil by escorting him to the Tel Aviv underworld, while his wife and child are at home? Am I aiding and abetting a potential adulterer?
But when he called me again, I decided to go out with the poor soul - with caution.
We sat for beer at a pub on Rehov Ben-Yehuda on a Thursday night, Tel Aviv's party night.
We didn't have to work through any small talk, as is usual on dates, to get to the nitty-gritty. We immediately began talking real life, and the dialogue was intense.
"Doesn't your wife mind you're out late?" I probed.
He looked at me with a concentrated, attentive glance rare among the secular men I date.
"We both know that it's going to end sooner or later," he said. "We talk about it."
His admission relieved some guilt I felt in luring this married haredi. His marriage was a lost cause anyway. As long as I didn't kiss him, I reasoned, we were kosher.
And I wouldn't want to kiss him anyway. He really looked nerdy in his beard, white collared shirt, black kippa and black slacks. He totally didn't fit in at the bar, and I could tell people were looking at us, wondering what we were doing together. I fantasized about shaving his beard and taking him to the mall for a makeover. He had potential - if only one could see his face.
We continued to talk Torah, philosophy, relationships, and I shared with him the process I underwent as I began to question the modern Orthodox way of life. I realized what I really liked about him: He was a thinking creature. He thought about life, its meaning and his personal happiness.
"How does it feel to be in a Tel Aviv pub?" I asked.
"I'm on a high," he said.
As he dropped me off at my car, we shook hands and he kissed me on the cheek, but I didn't like the touch of his beard. If we were to go out romantically, I thought, he'd really have to undergo a wardrobe change.
"I really enjoyed myself," he said.
I guess I did too.
But then I wondered if he was acting. Maybe he dramatized his frustrations to attract a female savior? Maybe I was insecure and liked the feeling of being appreciated and needed by a man who saw me as a tempting, exotic fruit.
Then I remembered that this was not a play. Kol Nidrei was over. Art imitates life, but life rarely imitates art. His drama was real. Neither of us were actors.
I met with Aaron only once after that, but decided it was better not to build the friendship, especially after he called me one night out on the street when his wife wouldn't open the door for him. I didn't think it was a come-on - he really had nowhere to go.
I called him a few days ago as I was writing this article to find out how he was doing. Again, right away, he cut to the chase and updated me, as if no time had passed and we were just continuing our last conversation.
"If before I wanted to leave in theory, now I'm preparing to leave in practice," he said. He's in the middle of the divorce process, and his friends and family are all aware of his intention to leave the haredi world. "But it's hard. It's very hard."
He told me to keep in touch. I don't know if we will, and besides, I think it's best that for now - until he is truly free - I remain a minor, friendly character in his story.
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