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Note: This is the eighth of a nine-part series of personal vignettes that explore the challenges of the human journey from cradle to grave. Start at the beginning here.
A few months after my position as senior rabbi ended, I had time on my hands. While I had some teaching and consulting gigs, I hadn't yet decided what I wanted to do next in my professional career. My wife was teaching at a private school in Manhattan and was supportive of my using the time to get away and do more focused thinking. I wanted to combine work in the Jewish world with an experience in a far flung destination, and after a few false starts, I created a six-week engagement with a small synagogue in Dunedin, New Zealand, a city in the Otago Region of the South Island.
In terms of geography, Dunedin was about as far away from New York City as I could possibly get. At the time, that didn't play a conscious role in my decision, but now that I have some distance from that period in my life, I think that it did probably figure into it. I was not doing an especially good job of being a husband; I was more concerned with finding my next position than I was with spending quality time with my wife. And my connection to the Jewish community was superficial and tenuous: unless I was hired to give a talk or lead a service, I did not attend synagogue or light a Sabbath candle.
I felt generally disengaged from everything around me, personally and professionally. For me, New Zealand was an attempt to shake off that numbness as much as it was a place to return to, or rediscover, myself.
When I wasn't working with members of the synagogue in Dunedin, a congregation that began with the Central Otago gold rush in the 1860s, I could do as I pleased. My location allowed me easy access to many of the South Island's fjords, glaciers, rain forests, and mountains. My original plan to walk the famous Milford Track in Fiordlands National Park was thwarted by torrential rains that washed out most of the major trails in the area. After that disappointment, however, I was able to explore by foot the fantastical region around Mount Cook, go wreck diving in the Marlborough Sound, and go skydiving near Queenstown. I took two weeks and made a loop around much of the South Island, where I went on several other spectacular hikes as well.
My life back in New York felt very distant. That was telling in itself. Midway through my experience in New Zealand, the city I had known for two decades seemed like a memory of youth, and the marriage I had been in for the past five years felt strangely unreal. I wasn't happy, and staying in our marital status quo wasn't fair to either of us. In my heart, I knew what had to happen, for both of our sakes, and I'd known it for some time. Up to that point, though, I'd lacked the courage to follow my gut, to concede that our union was not working and that we needed to get a divorce. My numbness had crippled my ability not only to feel, but to act.
During my drive around the South Island, I spent three nights in Picton, a small harbor town and site of the terminal for the ferry that connects the South Island with the North Island across the Cook Strait. I was in Picton over a weekend, and because I was traveling though New Zealand out of the main holiday season, there were virtually no tourists on the streets or in the pubs. I met a number of locals in town: a retired navy diver and scuba shop owner; a former parole officer who was in between jobs; a college graduate with no plans for the future and no cares in the world.
That Saturday night, I drank with a group of young Maori women. They were excited to meet an American, and when they found out that I'd played rugby for several years (New Zealand was preparing to host the Rugby World Cup at the time), they refused to let me pay for my drinks. After teasing me for not having any tattoos, they invited me to join them at one of their homes outside of town to continue our little party. I felt comfortable with these total strangers. There was no pretense, no flirtation, no hidden motives — just half a dozen men and women eating and drinking and laughing through the early morning hours. I walked down a hill back toward Picton, occasionally stumbling, intermittently lost, and free. I felt no constraints, no commitments.