Avi & Ljuba: A love story

How two people found each other in Israel after traveling long, winding paths in life.

Avi Lev and Esther (Ljuba) Davis (photo credit: Courtesy)
Avi Lev and Esther (Ljuba) Davis
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This is the story of how two people, Avi Lev and Esther (Ljuba) Davis, found each other, after each traveled long, winding paths and made a new life together in Israel, here in Zichron Ya’acov. Avi and Ljuba first shared their stories in writing, locally, through the KEF club of English-speaking seniors in Zichron Ya’akov.
Avi’s story
“I am one of six children born and raised in a housing project, ‘Old Harbor,’ in the Irish Catholic enclave of South Boston, known to most simply as ‘Southie.’ My name then was Bobby ‘Boe’ Adams. It was an extraordinarily close-knit community; pride and loyalty would perhaps best describe its character. To this day I feel privileged to have lived and grown up in such a unique place.
“Unfortunately, there was also an underside to my town. South Boston was a segregated town, all white, parochial in its world view and intolerant of diversity – leaving me with strong but contradictory emotions. I defend the town of my youth to those who criticize it and I criticize it to those who defend it.
“I left South Boston soon after high school graduation. Like so many youths of the ’60s, I had a need to discover something larger than myself, something that would put meaning and purpose in my life. It was at this moment in time that I met Sandy Olken, a Jewish girl from Sharon, MA. while strolling in Boston’s Public Gardens. Sandy was living in a Boston apartment with many roommates, all from Sharon, all Jewish. I had never met a Jew before I met Sandy. Now I was surrounded by Jews. One in particular, Milton Kerstein, is one of my closest friends to this day. At the time I didn’t see any significance to all of this but, of course, it turned out to be a pivotal moment in my life.
“Soon after I met Sandy I was drafted into the US Army at the height of the Vietnam War. I was a medical corpsman and did my entire tour of duty at the 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt, Germany. Sandy eventually joined me in Frankfurt and we rented an apartment not far from the hospital. We began having conversations about marriage. A good part of that conversation was Sandy’s insistence that I take lessons and courses in Judaism from the rabbi (military chaplain). So began my Jewish education. Sandy eventually returned the States but by this time I was seriously committed to my Jewish studies, engrossed in what I was discovering, while quickly coming to the realization that I had found direction – certainly a spiritual direction.
“I had what would turn out to be the first of two conversions. It was a Reform conversion and it took place in an old Frankfurt synagogue within a few weeks before my discharge from the army. Why it wasn’t destroyed during the war, I don’t know. Once I returned to the US, I felt a need to make up for some lost time – so I put off going to college for a few more years. I used the time for, among other things, reflection.
“Jewish identity was becoming a major issue for me. Although I converted and strongly identified with precepts, principals, values and laws of Torah, I didn’t feel Jewish. I has no idea what feeling Jewish should feel like but I knew I wasn’t feeling it. I felt like a fraud. It was becoming increasingly clear that I had to pursue my Judaism in a more meaningful way; I had to immerse myself.
“I attended the University of Mass, chose as my major Judaic Studies and moved into the Chabad House on campus under the direction of Lubavitch Rabbi Israel Deren. Now sporting a beard and wearing tzitzit, I underwent a Lubavitch Orthodox conversion. I felt this was a more authentic conversion. I graduated with a degree in Jewish Studies and went to work on a kibbutz in Israel for a year – Kibbutz Gvulot in the Negev, near the Egyptian border.
“Soon after I graduated from U. of Mass. I applied for and was accepted into a Smith College program towards earning a teachers’ certification. I was one of two men accepted into the program. At the same time I was active in a garin (IDF support group), Garin Narim, and we collectively made aliyah soon after I finished the Smith program.
“My first aliyah was nothing short of disastrous. My Zionist idealism held sway over the hard reality of having to adapt to a foreign culture. I was ill prepared and unable to adapt, psychologically at least, to live a life on a small kibbutz deep in the Negev desert. In time, I gave up on the dream and returned to the US, bringing along with me a deep sense of failure and the resulting depression.
“Upon landing at Logan Airport in Boston I spontaneously decided to head to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Cape Cod. My intent was to stay long enough to sort things out for myself and rebuild my lost confidence. I ended up living on the Vineyard for 38 years.
“A substantial amount of that time was spent serving and working for the only synagogue on the Vineyard, Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. I was a teacher in our Hebrew school for approximately 35 years. I performed the duties of shamash [sexton] for many of those years as well as taking care of the grounds and cemetery. Before they hired a full-time rabbi I would take my turn leading lay services. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that I married a dear woman, whom I had met in Israel, soon after arriving on the Vineyard. Although we parted ways after five years we remain close to this day.
“I met the love of my life, Esther Ljuba Davis, in the summer of June, 2008. A friend asked me if I would play flute at her daughter’s wedding, More specifically, for the b’dekin (bride’s entourage), and me being single, I said yes. I was the first person to greet Ljuba while I played the flute, as she drove up in a taxi. Ljuba told me she knew right away it was in the right place as soon as she heard the music. We schmoozed as we gathered for the nuptials and danced the night away at the reception. Ljuba joined me on the Vineyard a few months later and we have been together ever since.
“Today, I feel blessed, privileged to have lived on this beautiful island, to know countless people on a first name basis, to be deeply tied in to the Jewish community and to share my life with a woman who never ceases to amaze me. Yet from the moment I left Israel years before until I made my second aliyah with Ljuba 18 months ago, I felt an unrelenting sense of loss, a deep internal grief. I was living on the Vineyard but my soul resided in Israel. It’s as if I had no choice; I had to return to my soul. So here I am. A Jew! Living in Israel! Feeling complete and very happy! How good is that!! Baruch Hashem [blessed be His name].”
Ljuba’s story
Esther (Ljuba) Davis recalls that when she was a little girl, her family lived in Beckley, West Virginia. When she was five years old, her grandfather bought her a siddur and taught her the Hebrew alphabet.
When she was nine and a half, her family moved to Albany, New York. Ljuba joined United Synagogue Youth, a Conservative youth group, “the most wonderful thing that happened to me!” At USY she learned to lead services. From an early age she became immersed in Jewish music and liturgy and remains so to this day.
When she was 18, Ljuba got a scholarship that paid for a trip to Israel. She returned to the US and studied nursing at Beth Israel Hospital, near Harvard University, in Boston. As a first-year student she recalls lighting Hanukkah candles in the hospital lobby. While studying nursing, she made some money through singing gigs at coffee houses.
Ljuba’s mother passed away and she moved to Cleveland to be closer to her father, to care for him. She was introduced by a friend to Leo, an engineer and successful businessman. Leo was 25 years older than Ljuba and he had had a tragic life, losing his wife and a daughter to cancer. They married in December 1969 and moved to Berkeley, California.
Ljuba believes that the marriage was bashert (preordained). “It felt as if we had been together in a previous life.” Though older than she, “he was the youngest man in thought I ever knew.”
“We had a wonderful life,” she recounts; they had seven children together. Meanwhile, she became a chazanit, leading High Holy Day services and from time to time working as a nurse and as executive director of the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra in Berkeley.
Leo died suddenly, leaving Ljuba a widow.
Avi & Ljuba meet
Ljuba and Avi met at a wedding on Martha’s Vineyard. But it did not begin well. Ljuba was invited to the wedding of her friend, Debby L., and flew from Boston’s Logan Airport to the island on a small Cape Air plane. En route, the plane developed electrical problems and returned to Logan.
Ljuba was determined to attend the wedding and took the next flight out. On landing, Ljuba discovered she had lost the wedding invitation with instructions on how to get there. She asked taxi drivers if they knew of a wedding taking place that day on the island. In June! There were dozens. But somehow the details she supplied enabled a taxi driver to bring her to Menemsha, and the only synagogue on the island.
Avi recounts that he was Debbie’s gardener and that they shared a strong love of Israel. “I was single then,” Avi recounts, “and I had an ulterior motive in attending the wedding. I was a convert and knew my future wife had to be Jewish. This could be a great place to meet Jewish women!” Avi strolled around among the guests, playing Jewish tunes on his Irish flute. Ljuba drove up in a taxi. After the ceremony, they met. The reception was held in a tent, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Both liked to dance. They danced the night away and the next day went for a walk together and became friends.
Avi invited Ljuba to his home. “It felt like my home,” Ljuba recalls. “We had the same books – Judaica and non-Judaica. I couldn’t believe it.” She told Avi, “You are a recycled Jewish soul.” Avi visited Ljuba in Berkeley – and the rest is history.
They made aliyah together and plan to marry in November, with Rabbi Yair Silverman (now their neighbor) performing the ceremony.
Ljuba recounts: “Avi and I both led very active lives in our respective communities– he on Martha’s Vineyard, for almost 40 years, and I in Berkeley for over 40 years. This new life that we are making together in Israel is a joy and the fulfillment of a dream we each had, even before we met. And I truly believe that not only did HaShem bring us together in his ‘master plan’ but guided us as two wandering souls who were destined to find each other, to begin a whole new chapter in our lives as a beloved couple, to create a home in this lovely new house here in Zichron Ya’akov – and that even though we each are the products of the sum total of our respective experiences, this new house has no old history for either of us At this time it’s as if we are beginning our own creation – like the book of Beresheet [Genesis]. This place, at this time – what a miracle!” Ljuba shared some philosophy. “There is a difference,” she explains, “between fate and destiny. Fate – you have no control over what happens. But destiny – it is how you use it, it is the path you choose to take.”
“Wherever you are now, wherever we are – it is where we should be!” 
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com