I never thought I’d get married, for the simple reason that I never thought I would ever meet someone who would love me just for who I am, faults and all. And then I met Renee Shulman …
Renee and I met one afternoon at Queens College through the Hillel group on campus. I was studying geology and had just returned from a field trip. My jeans were filthy and the rest of me wasn’t too clean either. I walked into the room where Hillel was meeting, sort of wondering why I was there. Truth be told, I would have rather been by myself or playing table tennis, but someone had told me I should drop by Hillel and so here I was.
From what I was told later, I understand that Renee, who had been chatting with a group of her girlfriends, stopped mid-conversation when she saw me. Then she pointed me out to her friends and said, I’m going to marry that guy.” Grubby jeans and all.
Renee and I got in the habit of going out with groups of friends, but really, we were usually in our own little world. We talked and joked and laughed and the more I got to know her, the more I liked her. I could see right off that she was truly special.
Renee grew up in New York, like me. Both of her parents were children of Russian immigrants. Her father’s family wasn’t very religious; he didn’t have a bar mitzvah. Her mother was raised in a sort of “Conserv-odox” family; her grandfather attended synagogue and insisted his son do so, but Renee’s mother received only homebased training from her mother in how to keep a proper Jewish home.
Renee, her mother and father and younger sister all celebrated the major Jewish holidays and festivals, but rarely attended synagogue, unless it was for a cousin’s bar or bat mitzvah. Neither she nor her sister attended Hebrew school or became bat mitzvah.
As for me, my parents were very involved at our Conservative temple. I attended services regularly, until after I became bar mitzvah. Then I sort of lost interest in religious things.
It’s funny how Renee’s limited involvement in religious Judaism increased her desire to learn more about God, yet I’d been so involved in synagogue growing up, but really had so little interest in religious matters. By the time Renee and I met, we seemed to be on the same page as far as our Jewishness was concerned: we both knew we were Jewish and appreciated the cultural aspects of being Jewish—the food, the holidays, the close family bonds—but neither of us was what you’d call religious.
Our involvement in Hillel was primarily for social reasons. We had holiday parties for Hanukkah and Purim, but mostly, it was just a place to hang out with other students who just happened to be Jewish. God had no real place of prominence there. The rabbi in charge was a Reconstructionist and provided little, if any, spiritual guidance.
Every so often Renee and I saw people on campus handing out pamphlets. They were in T-shirts that said “Jews for Jesus.” This was in the 1970s when the organization was just getting started. I didn’t know much about the group, but I knew for a fact that you couldn’t be Jewish and believe in Jesus. Renee and I dismissed the idea and went on with our lives. If Jews for Jesus was anything to us, it was a joke.
Renee and I dated for about seven years. And it was while we were dating that I began the custom of giving her roses, red roses. And not just for special occasions. I didn’t need a holiday to tell her how much I cared for her.
On the night of October 15, 1977, I took Renee to Tiffinanny’s Wine and Cheese Gallery in Valley Stream, Long Island. Before we were seated I took the maitre d’ aside and told him I was getting ready to propose. We had a lovely dinner and I asked Renee to be my wife. She said yes. The next thing I knew, the maitre d’ appeared and said, “Did you just propose to this young lady?” I nodded. “And did you say yes?” he asked Renee. She told him yes. “Then this is for you,” he smiled and gave us a complimentary bottle of champagne. It was a wonderful night.
Renee and I were married on June 25, 1978 at Hillside House in Queens. We began settling into our home and our life together. There were kinks to iron out, good days and bad days, as every newlywed couple experiences in their first few months, but overall we were happy.
But four months into our marriage something happened that irrevocably changed things for us and threatened to tear us apart.
Renee enjoyed a close relationship with my sister Carole and one day they started talking about weddings. Carole told Renee that she knew there would be things she would want in her wedding, and then she said, “Mom can pick everything she wants someday, the flowers, the place, the colors—but other things won’t be the way she wants.” And then Carole told Renee that she’d come to believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.
This was news to me, and I was very upset to hear that my sister had embraced such “spoon-fed rhetoric” as I called it. Carole’s newfound beliefs disrupted the harmony of our family.
One night, soon after Carole’s revelation, Renee informed me that she wanted to go into the city and check out what Carole had gotten herself into. “I think I might be able to help her,” Renee said.
So one Friday night she goes into Manhattan with Carole, and when she came back, I remember she went to the kitchen. I stood in the doorway and asked, “Well?”
Renee looked at me and replied, “I actually liked what they had to say. And the people were so nice—it felt like family to me.”
This was not a good day for me. Alarm bells went off in my head and before I knew it, in the fourth month of our marriage, Jesus entered into Renee’s world, not mine; I wouldn’t have any part of it. Renee became a believer of things that were not for me. I became angry, bitter and resentful. My nice Jewish wife, in my opinion, had become a religious fanatic, and I was alone.
I ate too much, drank too much, and my life as I knew it was pretty much over with. I loved and respected Renee, but could not embrace this Jesus she’d come to believe in.
It was a wrench in a perfectly oiled machine. Suddenly, everything always came back to Jesus. And so much of our lives were wrapped up in her congregation, always her congregation. We’d work all week (I was in the jewelry business, Renee was a customs broker) and then we couldn’t even relax and enjoy Saturday, because Renee was so active at her Messianic congregation. If I was dragged to Messianic Jewish services, or gatherings of her newfound “family,” I was generally unsmiling, unfriendly and distant.
She had an answer to any argument I had. Any topic or idea I raised, she brought Jesus into it. And though I refused to listen to her, she never got mad, she’d just say, “There must be a reason you are so disgruntled.” And she claimed to be trusting God. She didn’t get mad when I was standoffish around her friends. She understood that I thought the people were nice, but I didn’t want them preaching to me. So I stayed guarded. She knew I was only there out of respect for her, because she asked me to and I loved her.
I loved Renee more than life itself. And I cherished our marriage. Renee knew that the last thing I’d ever do was hurt her. As long as I was around, I’d take care of her. And she felt the same way about me. Yet, there was always a tension, because of Jesus.
And so things went on like this for years. What had once been a joke to us was now anything but funny. You have to understand what a kind and generous person I’d found in my wife. She was forever doing things for other people: knitting for them, volunteering for one thing or another, giving of her time. She began volunteering with Jews for Jesus so much that one day I remarked sarcastically, “You’re volunteering two or three times a week, Renee; you should just ask for a job.”
And so she became the office manager for Jews for Jesus in New York, of all things. She worked there for seven years.
It’s funny how before you know it, decades of time pass by and suddenly, you’ve shared almost 25 years with a person. In 2002, I lost my job of 17 years, and in 2003 Renee suffered from an adverse drug reaction, which shut down her liver.
I couldn’t really grasp what was happening to the woman I loved. Her condition worsened and she became comatose. And I realized that I was going to lose her. The reality that Renee would soon leave me overcame me—my grief was inconsolable.
I sat in the hospital between Karol and Susan, two of her Jewish friends who believed in Jesus, and I began to cry uncontrollably, with my eyes closed. A patient care attendant, Myrtle, came into the waiting room, and told me that I “had to let Jesus into my life and that he would take care of me.” Not Jesus again! Not now! Not acknowledging that she was there, and not wanting to hear this, I quickly got up and walked out of the room, waving my hands over my head, saying angrily, “Thank you, thank you.” I just wanted to be left alone!
Moments later I found my way to a chapel, and as I sat there alone I cried out to God, “Why?” Why was this happening to me and to Renee? I guess you could say I had an animated conversation or argument with God in that empty chapel…and yet, even as I yelled at him, I knew somehow that he was really there in a way I’d never known at any other moment of my life.
I was so angry and I just knew that that my anger would destroy me. Instinctively, because I had no idea where else to turn, I asked Jesus to take it away. Almost immediately, I felt the anger drop from me, and I was calm. But could I really trust this Jesus? Could my wife have been right all along?
The next day, still grieving and seeking some semblance of solace, I returned to the chapel, this time with Renee’s Bible. I found a songbook on the seat, “Songs of the Eucharist.” I found one line that sounded like I was now: “afflicted and in pain.” I looked in her Bible, and I found and read the words of Psalm 69:29-34 out loud from the Scriptures:
But I am afflicted and in pain; May Your salvation, O
God, set me securely on high.
I will praise the name of God with song
And magnify Him with thanksgiving…
You who seek God, let your heart revive.
For the LORD hears the needy
And does not despise His who are prisoners…
These words unlocked my heart; I was humbled. I finally heard God’s word coming from my own lips and I realized I needed his peace. I admitted I had done wrong and sinned in my life, and asked for forgiveness. I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. My wife’s friend Karol came into the chapel looking for me, and I told her what I had done, and that I now believed.
On September 5, 2003, the day that Renee died, I held her hand and spoke to her for hours. I told her it was all right, it was all right to go home to heaven to Jesus, and that I now believed as she did. I told her that I would one day join her, and sing and dance with her, and that she could tell me all the things that she had wanted to, and that I would now listen to all she had to say.
After Renee passed away, I came home and looked at our apartment. It is filled with symbols and reminders of our love for each other. The place is filled with all the roses I ever got for her—she saved them and dried them all. And then there are the cards. I recently found one I wrote for her one Valentine’s Day, which reads simply:
To my wife
Happy Valentine’s Day to the woman I love.
And that pretty much sums up exactly how I feel about Renee, this woman who spent half her life with me, who was so patient with me, who showed me such love.
If you’d told me even a few years ago that my life would turn out this way, I would have said you were certifiable. And if you’d told me what would happen the day of Renee’s funeral, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Renee was buried in an Orthodox Jewish cemetery, where cut flowers aren’t allowed. Yet as I stood there, in mourning, waiting to bury Renee, her friend Susan walked up to me and placed something in my hand. I looked down and saw a perfect red rose petal. “I found it in the grass,” she said, and I could tell she could scarcely believe it either, that God would give Renee one last rose to take with her. I placed it on my wife and said goodbye.
I once wrote to Renee that I would always be by her side. I also wrote to her once, on our anniversary: “Renee, my heart beats only for you. Our life together is my only reason for breathing. My best day was when I found you.”
I still miss her more than I could ever say, and yet, I have so much to be thankful for. Every day, when I get up, the first thing I do is pray and thank God for life. I go over to Renee’s picture and say the Mourner’s Kaddish for her. Then I read from what used to be her Bible. I carry that Bible with me everywhere. It’s the same Bible I had with me at Mt. Sinai Hospital when she died.
One of Renee’s favorite passages of Scripture was Isaiah 43: 18-19:
Do not call to mind the former things,
Or ponder things of the past.
Behold, I will do something new,
Now it will spring forth;
Will you not be aware of it?
I will even make a roadway in the wilderness,
Rivers in the desert.
So when I had to figure out what kind of monument to place on the gravesite, I chose a double monument headstone. I had her side engraved with the words: “Beloved wife” and impressions of a dove and roses. I know that one day I will be placed in the ground next to her beneath the words: “Beloved husband.” But that’s not where the story ends, because I now know Renee and I will be reunited in heaven, and so I had the bottom of the stone engraved: “Together with God” and “Behold I will do something new.”
As you can see, Renee is still very much with me as I enter this new chapter in my life. At a time when I could be in despair, God has given me great joy. It’s possible that he wants to do the same for you, through Jesus. Are you willing to consider his love?
—As told to Naomi Rothstein