Interview with Rabbi Cahana and his wife Karen Knie-Cahana on love (interviewed in 2009 by Marilyn Bronstein and Philip Belove for their radioshow Love Tangles)
Question: You’ve been married how long?
Karen: 26 years
Ronnie: We’ve known each other 36
K: I know I met Ronnie when I was 12.
R: And I’m jealous of those 12 years before, what happened? I keep asking her parents.
Q: What sort of things can you know about somebody else after 25 years, which you didn’t know after 15 years?
R: Nothing, you don’t know anything. You’re always starting over. If you’re talking in another kind of realm of this is the greatest gift in the world, and you’re in wonder, then you have always this notion that I’m just starting over- I didn’t know anything until now. It’s wonderful. It’s the greatest gift of being alive, is being inlove. And so you start again, and you just say wow, who are you? You’re so fascinating, there’s so much. It’s just wonder. That’s the attitude that love allows you; to live in a dimension where there’s nothing but the privilege of being close. It’s god’s gift.
Q: Could you tell a story that would illustrate that?
R: From the beginning there was magic. I just knew that it was about a destiny of this line and only this line, an exclusivity. And so when we met with love it was important for me to reduce myself, because I was more teacher than equal. But at the same time I also loved how Karen was so close to me, as she would look with a kind of a sparkle, when I was teaching, always had her eyes on me, but not any more than a teacher. So, I also believe that I’m accepted on a very ethereal level by Karen. And so I hold the highest pedestal towards the highest sky to Karen. But at the same time I know that my role is to take her out of just the practical world and the world she’s so competent in and much more, be a force for her in a poetic, sublime interaction. There was always an awareness that we were more than what anyone else could see about each other.
Q: When was the dawning of that awareness; was there a moment?
R: I allowed it.
Q: Where were you? What were you doing?
R: We were in a Zionist youth group together. There was a point where she came of age, she wasn’t 12 anymore and I noticed her. I knew that she had endless dimension, that she had infinity inside of her, and so I told her about it.
Q: Where were you?
R: We were walking in a field, in a baseball field. We spent a lot of talk, and a lot of exploration of expressing ourselves, but that was teacher [and student], madrich and chanich. It wasn’t mutual, and then at a certain point she was of age, and I wasn’t any more in that position, and she was going off to Israel and I felt strong loss anticipating her going off into the greater world. And she’d taken a lot of my teachings, and a lot of the romance of my teachings into her life, and she was now kind of launching. And it became intimate.
Q: How old were you? How old was she?
R: She was 17, and I’m 5 years older. You were 17 . . .
K: Yeah, and you were 22.
Q: So this was when the relationship between you changed?
Q: and what did you say to her?
R: I kissed her.
Q: Were you surprised?
K: We were in a youth movement, so the nature of a youth movement is that young people are working with younger people. So Ronnie would have been two tiers above. When I met him he would’ve been supervising my leaders. So in terms of the hierarchy he was quite a bit older, and 12 to 17 is a huge difference. I remember actually seeing Ronnie for the first time. He had been in Israel, part of the movement was learning together and learning to teach each other. We’d already started the weekend, and I think you may have come in, we were in Texas, and the University of Texas was about an hour away. So, I remember sitting in this open field area, a different field than the one we feel in love in and there were some Texas brushy woods. And I see this figure, moving through the woods. You know, Ronnie walked like a gazelle. He moved with one leg out and the other one pulled in very straight. Walking solo, in the distance through these woods. And I was mesmerized, as a young child. I remember thinking: who is that? Who is that creature? That was the first time I ever saw Ronnie, and then he came and he was absolutely such an other kind of force. He came with an other kind of teaching and worldliness in some way. It was really magnificent. I saw him definitely pedestal style. Definitely there was a looking up. In many ways, you still have that affect on me; you still have that affect on other people, just being very unique. But every time we would get together in his community, in Houston. When we would gather, he always had this child that was with him. When we would get together and he would lead group discussions, there was this child with him, this child with Down syndrome. She must’ve been about, at the time 6 or 7 or 8. And he would hold her hand while he was teaching, and he was 18 years old or 19 years old. And she would look up at him, and then he would walk off and he would bring her everywhere and it was his sister. And that’s when I made this other assessment of Ronnie- what teenager would not feel in some way burdened or stigmatized or something to bring their mentally challenged sister with him, everywhere he went. And he would always bring her along, and she looked at him so longingly, and he was so gentle, that I really felt that there was a very special person inside. Not only somebody who had great things to teach, but somebody who had great humanity. It was very very special. I think that was very powerful.
Q: So when it came to the walk in the baseball field, did you see this coming?
K: Absolutely not. I mean you can’t, I’m extremely loyal and I’m very bounded. So my sexuality, it doesn’t flow out of my relationship. It’s contained I don’t think I ever give off messages to anybody of openness. I’m contained and I’m closed. And I think that’s innate in me. It’s like I don’t see outside the structure and I don’t try and play with the structure entirely. Ronnie was in a counselor kind of roll or an advisor kind of roll. It didn’t occur to me to see beyond that, it’s a boundary issue so I respect those boundaries. I never thought of Ronnie in that way at all I thought of him in more of a teacher kind of roll or a mentor or somebody who had something to teach. And we worked together, we worked on programs together. But I always saw him in that very special rollIt was evening and we started just taking this walk, Ronnie and I. Just talking, talking about programs, about ideas, about life, Ronnie was a philosopher, so philosophy. So we started this walk and I think this walk was about 4 hours till about 4 in the morning. So about midnight we started this walk back and forth, back and forth; and as we were talking, there was a kind of an energy that kept moving and an intensity. And I think through these hours and hours we came to this place of magic. Absolutely I wouldn’t have seen it coming before the walk and by the end there was nothing more obvious. It was totally obvious after that.
Q: So after that, you two were just together?
K: Well, I think that was around April, of the year that I was graduating high school. And the following year I was planning to spend the next year in Israel. I was leaving in September so we back and forthed quite a bit that summer, spent a lot of time back and forth and then Ronnie said the most beautiful thing anybody could every say to somebody, he said, “go”, and this was something he always said until we really committed our lives together. He said, ‘you’re going away for a year and you’ll see if you find something better than what we have, you’re blessed, otherwise we’ll come back.’ We always corresponded and Ronnie’s a poet and he sent beautiful love poetry. He set the model of freeing each other that when were not together to try and find the perfect love. I had relationships, Ronnie had relationships, so we did that a few times, where we went off and weren’t in the same environment. I was in Israel for a year and came back and then Ronnie was in Israel for the next two years, actually.
Q: But then after that, together and apart, then after that it changed and then you decided to get married?
K: It took about 8 years.
R: Our parents decided.
K: Our parents told us. Our parents brought us together, and said we think it’s time.
R: We created a ceremony for our parents, they gave us blessing. Really vowing and understanding the depth of promise and the ultimate of promise. You’re held to it very strongly. You have to really do internal and preparatory work. In creating the structure of the home that you’ll build and the involvement of the seriousness of relation. It’s called in English, the conditions.
Q: You each wrote conditions? I don’t know what that means?
R: Love conditions. How I’ll always honor. There are certain things I would never do; there are certain things I would never say. You’ve given me so much precious, where you’re frail or where your own secret world and you’ve allowed me that closely so that I’ll always honor. We built up for the bottom, to honor is knowing what not to do and what not to say to each other, what’s tender and what’s been preserved or kept very much only for each other; and that’s a sacred safety that we give to each other, I hope. Which I try to teach when I marry other families and other couples, I try to teach them be very honorific to that gift that someone’s given you of their vulnerability. Well it’s not necessarily written out and given out to the world. But then there was just how urging each other to our growth, to our own emerging of ourselves and those were how can I be the person that you already see, and how can I be the one that allows you to push me towards places that I’ve kept bounded. That’s the gift of why this is an eternal love, because we’re starting over every time, constantly seeing each other just right, just new, with the promise still being very active.
Q: Was all of this as well articulated when you were young?
Q: How did you know this at so young?
R: My parents love each other so deeply. I saw the greatest of loves. My father walked across Israel just to see my mother. She came from the most broken, broken losses from concentration camps as a young child also. She was 17 when she came to Israel. And he knew her and he saw her and he told her she’s so beautiful when people told her she’s an animal, she’s the lowest of low and he said ‘you’re the most beautiful woman’. And I knew that I couldn’t live on any other plane, than that kind of love because it wouldn’t be truth it wouldn’t be this great. What had I prayed for all my life? So I had articulated in that language continually. I know a family when they come into they’re home, they’re just an ordinary, run of the mill, walk about, dealing with the world, with the harsh scratches. The home, they only whisper. That’s the only language they have in their house. They would never call from another room. They just whisper to each other- wow it’s you. Just one for each other, like that. And that adds, I find, and I realize people doing their love in such majestic ways that I try to incorporate it into our story. There is only one story, that’s your love story. And I know that there were people that were hurt, that didn’t marry Karen that wanted to very much; and there were people that wanted to join into my attention and I know there was a large price for our love. It has to be great; it has to be so important.
Q: What do you mean a large price?
R: Because there were people that wanted to join into the love that they thought was meant for them and Karen also had many suitors, all the time. There was hurt. There were ones that came around us.
K: He’s still attending to some of those. Not envying just still attending to taking care of people that were hurt in the past.
R: Love is dangerous and it should be. Like god is dangerous, you can’t be willy nilly with other people’s souls.
Q: You had said in passing something about wanting to talk about how marriage works. I wanted to pick up that thread.
R: I’m a rabbi and Karen’s a social workers and there were times that we worked together as kind of couples counseling. We worked together on that. I was fascinated about her being able to probe and define sharply where the crack was and how to heal.
K: You’d asked what you can know about somebody after 25 years that you don’t know after 15. When you asked that and Ronnie said you know, ‘it’s always new’. What struck me was, there are things you learn about somebody after 25 but not at 15 and it’s through the lens of the family project. That after 25 years we’re launching our children and I think we absolutely, absolutely loved the family project but as it’s winding down on some level in the form that it’s been, I think I’m learning things about Ronnie through that lens and his relationships and his intensity in the relationships with the children, that I think I didn’t see at the 15 year mark. I think that’s been really, really interesting. We’ve had a thread that has run all the way through with us, that I think we’re really going to get excited about when the children aren’t living at home at all. We have a really long trajectory because we had 5 kids over a 10 years so we’re still very much in it; but one of these days they’re not all going to be living at home and we’re excited about that again cause we had a lot of time together.
R: We took a two-year honeymoon. After we married we traveled for two years.
K: So that was incredible and it gave us an amazing foundation with each other that I don’t think we felt the great urge to go away the way my parents had that urge to leave and to spend time together. We haven’t had the same kind of urge to do that but we also I think spend much more time together throughout the day. I think we’ve tried to arrange that but I think it’s just interesting to see Ronnie in relation to adult children
Q: What are you seeing that was surprising or delightful or a day you hadn’t anticipated?
K: I think he has the relationships with them in this mentoring kind of roll that I saw as he mentored younger people when we were much younger. When we first met and he takes that roll with them and they look to him like that, that’s really beautiful; and I didn’t see that as much through the middle years with younger children. It’s seeing that core person all the way through and I think the middle years were more challenging years for Ronnie with young children.
Q: How was it that you didn’t see that mentoring when they were in the middle years? They just didn’t know how to ask questions? They had a different maturing task?
K: I guess if I think of what the household was, you have a 4,6,8, and 10 year old. You have a 1,3, 5, and 7. There’s just a lot going on. So it’s wonderful but I think all of that it was probably just harder to sift out. And as we have one that’s in Kishinev right now, so there’s this conversation that goes on. You get more of that individualizing.
Q: They’re not quite their own people until they’re teenagers?
K: Yeah, and well we moved a fair amount. I remember moving into a sizable home after having lived in an apartment for five years when we had the last two children. I remember moving from Sweden to Toronto and we moved into this sizable home, finally we’ll have some space, it won’t be four kids in one room or something like that, everybody will have sort of their space and privacy. We moved into this home and we were like a glob, wherever we would go everybody would go together. I anticipated everyone was going to spread out but nobody wanted to, everybody kind of clung together. Ok let’s have this organic organism move into the kitchen now. Or one would say I think I’m going here, me too, me too. So we had this kind of, and still do in many ways, this kind of clan thing that we sort of clan together and the kids they spindle around each other, they sit on each other’s laps and they twist around each other. They’re very connected. So I think as they’re older and they head off on their own adventures…
R: And they love adventure. And their own love adventures that they’re coming to. To model what does it mean to be a person that can give love.
Q: And they share that with you? That’s quite wonderful.
R: It is very. Because you’re right they do articulate. It is wonderful to see their quests, their fears, and can I be a person that loves greatly and what to demand, what to ask for, how to give away, how to be honoring and not to cheapen love. The language of the home is always a discourse of love. I think it’s the only thing to really talk about from a religious point.
Q: Were you always very good at saying ‘no’? Where does saying ‘no’ fit into your partner and fit into all of this? So many people imagine that really being in love means you never have to say ‘no’.
R: I think people live in a comfort zone of close and distance, sometimes it’s accordion like. When you just need to chase, you need to pursue the other and sometimes when you are being pursued, you turn your back and sometimes you keep going a little more. It goes inward and outward, with different readiness; but I want to always try and be ready when anyone within our family asks for their time, their need. I try to be prepared all the time to that request. And so it’s important to learn quiet and there’s importance to learn the jumble of all of us together.
Q: In this context, when you say request, are you talking about the request to refuse? Refusal as a kind of a request?
R: The request to be attended to, to be noticed. I think it’s very necessary for a person to be discovered all the time. And so what do they have to do get that attention. If it’s crude or rude, if it’s coarse and noisy, it’s a different sort of thing. It’s a conversion that’s going on even if they’re not saying that, so to get the attention you do need, that you’re asking for at that time is sometimes negotiated and sometimes overwhelmed- it’s just ahh that’s exactly what I’ve been asking. It’s a necessary component to be known and I think everyone wants that so deeply, to be known. If we talk intimacy, which is failing all around the world. I don’t want it to be our failure with each other, to be known just as is. I think that’s what’s built into Shabbat, in the system of Shabbat, that this is a time of eternal paradise and it’s just strolling together, because that’s the only person I want to be with.
Q: That the Shabbat would mean, here for sure, you are going to be known by your intimates and accepted for who you are?
R: Can’t wait for that. Every Shabbat we bless each other, every Shabbat we tell each other our secrets about them and their secrets about us.
Q: What does that mean to tell each other our secrets about them?
R: When you give a blessing to someone, it’s hard. It’s hard. It’s saying I know this, I saw what’s going on this week, I know you. I’m involved and I want more of it, I want it to come forward, don’t hide.
Q: Well this is interesting because we had been speaking with another couple, where their complaint was that she would say she knew him better than he knew himself and then he would reject that claim and find that claim intrusive and at times inaccurate
R: He’s missing the privilege of that. I can’t wait to tell them: wow, you’re that interested in me, oh wow, thank you, thank you, tell me what you know, I want to see through your eyes what I don’t see, what I can be. But I think everyone does have something they’re preserving yet to the future and so if someone peers too closely it might be that they’re not yet, some people need to do the inviting and so that’s a very important negotiation that he might be saying, when I say you’re ready. I don’t know how do you do it, how does a person become more intimate than they know about themselves, what do you do when you…?
Q: No, I’m with you…I can’t see all of myself, I have blind areas, I have things about myself, I don’t see. Many of them are things that I wouldn’t even know how to appreciate so I’m very grateful when I’m told certain things about myself. It allows me to be more of who I am, although at times I’ve experienced when somebody has told me their perception of me as if it were the final truth about me and then I find that oppressive.
R: It’s still limiting.
Q: Although I like what you said, that at some point, I may say that’s more of me than I want to let you into right now. It’s the accordion, that’s what you’re talking about with the accordion right? When are you going to expand it?
R: Does that mean when we live superficially or surfacely we’re just aware of, we’re honing in on just how we feel on the perception of now. I think I want to teach my children kind of an eternal trust and not just a temporal reflection on time. So with younger kids, as Karen was saying, I think we’re always interpreting the world for them: what is reality? What is the story? What is it that I’m experiencing? We put a valance on: thisis important, this is what our family sees as important, that’s how we educate to go through all these sensations that happen with reality and how do we interpret a successful negotiation with society. But then at a certain point, the children want a lot more, and they want another reality and the best of reality; and that’s when we have this new conversation with them of not just successfully negotiating the adult world or their peer world, but negotiating really, God’s world. And we’ve always implanted in our children, that God language, and now they want to try it out.
Q: So, if we talk about, the world of the family, the world outside the family, and then the God world.
R: And they weave.
Q: But when you say negotiating the God world. I mean I have heard so many things said in the name of God that I do reject, just in my cells. So I would love an example of what you would mean by that?
R: That’s a private story of whatever you resist or whatever you interact with your own life force and your own soul language of how thankful you are to your life, how grateful you live in the world of splendor, everyone has their own different kind of nuances to that and so that shouldn’t be imposed from the outside; or mine isn’t yours and I have to honor. Of course God has been politicized, and made so rudimentary, and vulgarized, that don’t allow that to be the language of God.
God forbid. It should be a garden, of course, it should be something so, so magnificent. But I do know Judaism does give the world a God that expects something from you, that there is a push for high, high, growth for that ethereal world. There is a sense of a reward in Judaism that I love being able to tell my story with each person helping, each of my children, my wife and I, in our interpretation, our legend with God. There’s an ease of God language and vocabulary that shouldn’t be foreign to any of us but definitely I won’t allow our family to be ashamed of that.
Q: Where would be a place? Were there places where she has called you or you have called him, where it was a real stretch, where it was a surprise?
R: We have the same dreams. Either we talk in our sleep…
Q: When you have five kids that’s where you have to meet.
R: We can wake up and finish each other’s dreams. We’re very much in a very, very long and beautiful dialogue about each other. Actually we wrote that in our wedding invitations. There’s the most beautiful line in Judaism, it’s just holy, it’s a language, it’s a discussion to god and it says in one of our prayers and we say this, ” I am yours and my dreams our yours” so that night world is just as important to us, to me, as the day to day practical
K: I think there’s also something about trying not to call someone where they’re not ready to go and just being in touch with that place. You know, yes to gently urge, but we’re gently urging each other and not to try and have an agenda that way.
Q: Do you always have a sense about the delicacy of that particular part of the negotiation?
R: That’s what I mean by honoring – what not to do…
K: Ronnie calls this home, this is home, and it doesn’t really matter where we are. But wherever we are together, this is home. You know we traveled for two years and we were always at home, wherever because we were together. That it should be safe, not to threaten, maybe to go, maybe to urge, maybe to encourage but not to threaten ever.
R: I think people are clogged up; life gets plugged, up to the point of paralysis. And it’s wonderful to be able to find ways to clear the plumbing.
K: But if you are plugged or I am plugged. We know those places between us. It’s not to not acknowledge those but not to threaten them. Resistance is a timing issue.
Q: So maybe this would be the time to see if you could choose a little story that would encompass what you actually see as the challenge in the relationship.
R: But that’s what I meant about the courtship. We’re continually in the courtship and trying again and looking and starting over.
Q: You’re always in the challenge.
R: I love it. I love that privilege because it’s so fascinating to commit to that.
Q: And the courtship is, how do you win her over? What is courtship for you?
K: I’m so easy.
R: Yeah, it’s so beautiful. Cause I mean it’s not ever just satisfied; I’m blessed all the time because of the future. I’m blessed always.
K: You’re very giving. Ronnie you’re happy in doing details and Ronnie’s not a detail guy, I do the details. But he’s happy coming along and orchestrating that. You said where is the ‘no’? Ronnie doesn’t say ‘no’?… Yes iseverything, there’s no ‘no’.
R: Prayer prepares you, every days prayer prepares you for that privilege. This is the reason for the day, thisis the wondrous gift I can be apart of with you. So that’s kind of on the look out for the awareness of the magic and the world opens up to us and we’re so blessed, so truly given it all…
Q: Is there a story for you? Would you be able to put the challenge into a story? Just that would capture it, like if you had to do a play of it, you would see it?
R: We’re in the time now of taking care of our parents, and I watch Karen with just real amazement. So, so delicate with my family and her family and our family and with everyone and where their stories are. And Karen touching anywhere or anyone, I see again, her touch is urged on by God and it works and it works so beautifully. That’s what I see. I’m aware of today that way.
K: I think we raise each other. We have really different qualities…We work each other as we go through life. Ronnie is completely spontaneous. Yes? Very spontaneous. I’m less spontaneous, so I fell in love with Ronnie’s spontaneity and I’m challenged by Ronnie’s spontaneity, I think. I try to live up to it, I try to live it, I try to be it but Ronnie’s still much more spontaneous…and Ronnie’s yes, he’s both spontaneous and he’s yes, so if you put that together and you put that together in the Rabbinate then everybody is ‘yes’ and everybodyis spontaneous and everybody is always welcome, and we love an open home. But I think, I’ve asked for more, little bit of control, a little bit. We would always have open door, whoever and whenever, the door was flowing in and out. But I mean I really love that. I certainly, I love what that brings; I love the life that that brings.
Q: You know people think you’re supposed to get likes together. I guess that’s what I’m asking about the challenge, because what happens when you bring different qualities together, then what happens with that?
R: I’ve never seen a day that Karen was in the bluster of the void. I chose her and I know her only in joy. I only know her joy. I’ve never seen her not dance. I’ve never seen you in the way of despair, I’ve never seen the world of loss that you’ve absorbed into, through your skin. You know how to really glide into life so beautifully, always.
K: But do you have loss?
R: So I was raised in a Holocaust family, I was raised by parents who were orphans. I was raised by a world that pushed away the void and then lived kind of fantasy inside their own love. But I completely believe in your love. I completely believe in your wondrous, gorgeous sense of dancing in life. I try to catch up to that, I learn all the time. You’re a fantastic teacher. Wow, what a privilege I got to be that close to you.
K: I think with those different qualities, we’re constantly learning from each other. Particularly midlife, you kind of bump into your limitations somewhere, so it’s a reminder.
R: And you with my sister is heaven.
K: Maybe there’s a grounding, maybe that’s my function, is more of the anchor piece but I keep always being reminded of the possibles.
R: The tangle is spaghetti, the will to tangle together and to be involved; it’s not a tangle of gnarl or hard knots. It’s a tangle of I can’t wait to entwine with you.
Q: Hmm, I can’t wait till I’m entwined you. That’s nice, really beautiful. Any last thoughts that you wanted to share?
K: I don’t know, I think we’re still growing up somewhere.
R: There’s a naivety to love, it’s a wonderful belief knowing what to overlook and to be in the privilege of a kiss of a breath of each other
K: Well that’s, maybe that’s the thing about the polarity. That when you get the spontaneity, you get the spontaneity; and when you, you know when I lean to – spontaneous, yes – you know then its to move back to the side of that spontaneous yes! You know, somewhere or whatever those qualities are. Ethereal, my mother used to say: you know, Ronnie is an El Greco, he’s just, everything is elongated and long, and she’d say: you know, he’s hyperbolic, everything is magnificent. And I said: you know Ronnie is always, you know when I said I was inspired by the intensity I was inspired by the extremes also very much. Everything is hyperbolic, everything is very, and it’s very, and it’s very. He’s a lot of just fullness. So I think it’s to fall in love with over and over again with what I fell in love with originally. And so when I, because I think we don’t change really. I mean what we are, what are essence is, it’s the 360 degrees of what I might encounter that may make me look at it through one lens or another lens but there’s this base lens that I feel in love with Ronnie through, so it’s to return to that place.
Q: 36 years, 360 degrees
R: I see no polarity, I see exactly what I need and exactly perfect. It’s perfect.
K: You do, you do. Yeah that’s very much you.
R: I pray that everyone has that.