Dreaming of America

Dreaming of America

Love can bloom in the darkest places, even behind the walls of an oppressive regime, as Tamara and Gary Segal discovered.

Tamara Erdelyi grew up behind the Iron Curtain, in the Transylvanian mountains of Romania. In 1979, she traveled to Bucharest, the country’s capital, to complete her schooling as an architect.

As she tells it, "I had just arrived in the city, and was waiting on the steps of the opera house to meet a friend. I noticed a young man walk by. He stopped and turned to look at me. I thought to myself, ‘I know this guy.’" He introduced himself as Gary Segal, and it turned out he had dated a friend of Tamara’s when she was a freshman in high school.

They started talking, and when the girl she was waiting for didn’t turn up, Gary invited her to his house for lunch. Afterward, they returned to the opera steps, still talking and getting to know each other.

"My friend never did show up," Tamara says, "but if she had been on time, I’d never have met Gary."

Since she had just found a place to live, Tamara asked Gary to help her move. "He sent his friend instead," she huffs. "I was pretty annoyed."

Tamara and Gary Segal.

But once school started, Tamara realized she and Gary — who was from Bucharest and also an architecture student — would be sharing some classes. Before long they were going out together.

"This may sound odd," she admits, "but not long after we started dating, we decided to get married. It was one of the only ways to achieve autonomy in Romania, and we both very much wanted to immigrate to America. We were an unusual case," she adds, "because most Jews wanted to go to Israel."

Gary had an uncle in California who was willing to sponsor them, so in March of 1980, six months after their marriage, they went to the police to ask for permission to leave the country.

"First we filled out the applications — there were what we called ‘big papers’ and ‘small papers,’ and these were the small papers."

The Segals were refused permission to emigrate five times, before they got the okay to fill out the "big" papers. "It was a game we knew we had to play," Tamara says, "But it was difficult. The dean of our school warned us, ‘You’ll suffer in America, you’ll have to work at the Brooklyn piers unloading ships.’"

In the meantime, Tamara became pregnant, and their first daughter, Loreena, was born while they were still awaiting permission. Even after their government agreed, the U.S. Consulate made them wait seven months before giving them a visa.

Finally in 1983, they were allowed to fly to Rome, where HIAS arranged the required medical tests. At the time, the uncle in California was having trouble with his sponsorship, so the authorities wanted to send the Segals to San Francisco, where they didn’t know a soul. Tamara made contact with a cousin in Englewood she had never met, and he got the Segals routed to Jewish Family Services in Hackensack.

At last they were in the country of their dreams.

Gary had one year of schooling left, so he began attending Pratt along with taking a job to support his family. The Segals stayed in Englewood for six weeks, and then rented a house, one with a yard, because Tamara’s aunt kept insisting, "This is the Garden State, you need a garden."

After getting his degree, Gary worked with an architect in Washington Township for three years, and as soon as he became accredited, he started his own firm — and virtually never looked back. His designs have twice been featured in The New York Times, once for a house in Teaneck, and the second time for the Segals’ own home in Ridgewood.

Tamara worked for AT&T and the Port Authority and, although she never got her license in this country, she also worked in an architect’s office. She now assists Gary at his firm.

Soon after they settled here, their second daughter Tahlia was born. Both girls attended the Moriah School of Englewood, and Loreena, who graduated from Cornell, is now studying to be an architect at Pratt, while Tahlia is busy applying to medical school.

In spite of their ordeal — or perhaps because of it — Tamara and Gary’s "marriage of autonomy" is one of deep affection. Tamara says, "We believe the secret to our marriage is friendship and a connection with family." The Segals have returned to Romania several times to visit those they left behind, and are thrilled to see all the changes, now that communism is a distant, but still chilling, memory.

Nancy Butler is the author of 1′ Regency romances, three nonfiction titles (including "The Quotable Lover," Lyons Press), and three novellas, and has twice won the prestigious RITA from the Romance Writers of America.

Did you and your bashert — Yiddish for "intended" — meet in an interesting or unusual way? Do you have a love story to tell? Write to editor@jewishmediagroup.com, and your story may be included in this column.

read more: