Two journalists in love: Nellie Bowles (left) and fiancee Bari Weiss.
Two journalists in love: Nellie Bowles (left) and fiancee Bari Weiss.

S.F.-raised journalist’s path to Judaism started on a date with Bari Weiss

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The New York Times staff cafeteria doesn’t offer much in the way of ambiance for a first date. And Nellie Bowles wasn’t even clear her 2018 meetup over office coffee and a cup of Goldfish crackers was a date before she sat down with Bari Weiss, the prominent, politically moderate, Israel-defending opinion writer who’d become a lightning rod over the range of permissible views in the Times.

“She’d messaged me about what I, at the time, thought was some nonsense fake news about conservatives being deplatformed on social media,” said Bowles, a writer and Bay Area native who made a name for herself with sharply observed articles covering Silicon Valley. “My thinking was, I’d set her politics on a better course. But I ended up falling in love the second I saw her, and tech news became the last thing on my mind.”

That fateful encounter radically changed the trajectory of Bowles’ life, sparking a relationship with Weiss, who is now her fiancee, while awakening her desire for religious practice — which she is now fulfilling by converting to Judaism. In recent months, she’s taken to writing about the experience on her Substack blog “Chosen by Choice.” Rather than serving as a chronicle of her Jewish journey, her essays thoughtfully explore the ways that Judaism is reshaping how she moves through the world.

One recent piece, “Why I Want a Giant Lawn Menorah,” is a meditation on Jewish pride. She draws a parallel with queer identity, informed by her experience of coming out as a teenager at a relatively conservative boarding school. If there’s a choice between blending in and standing out, Bowles is all for the latter. That predilection was confirmed by a too-close-for-comfort encounter with a blatantly anti-Jewish demonstration.

While hanging out at Manny’s, the Mission District café and community meeting place founded by LGBTQ Jewish activist Manny Yekutiel, who has family in Israel, she witnessed one of the first in a series of protests in which he was denounced as a Zionist bent on gentrifying the neighborhood. “It was really disturbing and scary,” she said. “Manny is one of my favorite people. I said, let me write about this or get someone else to cover it, but he didn’t want to draw more attention. That was my first real experience with antisemitism, and now I see it all the time.”

In many ways, the reasons behind Bowles’ decision to convert are not uncommon, taking place in the context of a committed relationship and driven by the appeal of Jewish ethics and discipline more than by a spiritual epiphany. She’s been drawn to the comforting rhythms of Jewish ritual, “the practice of it, the behavior, the rules, doing Jewish life,” she said.

“Over the last 20 years, the number of people who identify as spiritual but not religious has skyrocketed. But what I’m missing is structure and the religion part. I don’t want to do away with that. I’m letting the belief in God part come naturally.”

Now living in Los Angeles with Weiss, she hasn’t had much of a chance to connect with the Jewish community there due to the pandemic. But her experience in the Bay Area was deeply fulfilling. Less than a year after she met Weiss, knowing how central Judaism was in her life, Bowles started taking an introductory course at The Kitchen, the independent congregation in San Francisco founded by Rabbi Noa Kushner.

If there’s a choice between blending in and standing out, Bowles is all for the latter.

At that point she hadn’t decided on whether to convert, and Weiss was still based in New York City, “so the experience felt entirely my own,” Bowles said. “I’d go to class every Thursday night in the Transamerica Pyramid, and then Fridays The Kitchen 101 group would go to shul together. It was held in this space at the Friends School in the Mission. After Rabbi Kushner’s sermon, they’d slide the doors open and we’d all have a big family-style dinner. It was magical. And it really clicked for me.”

Rising quickly from the San Francisco Chronicle to the New York Times (via Recode, The Guardian and Vice News), Bowles established herself as one of the top young journalists covering technology, with award-winning investigative work. She co-wrote “Video Games and Online Chats Are ‘Hunting Grounds’ for Sexual Predators” with Michael H. Keller for the New York Times series “Exploited.”

Venturing outside of tech, she’s often provided clear-sighted coverage into terrain largely untrod by her colleagues. After dozens of dispatches from the national press sugarcoating the disorder in Seattle’s anarchic Capitol Hill protest last summer, Bowles offered a far bleaker portrait of the situation in her New York Times piece “Abolish the Police? Those Who Survived the Chaos in Seattle Aren’t So Sure.”

Immersing herself in Jewish practice has had a profound impact on her work as a journalist. In a recent piece on her blog, “Learning How to (and How Not to) Kill,” she discusses how the halachic doctrine against gossip, lashon hara (“evil tongue”), has reoriented her reporting, leading her to consider carefully whether including a juicy, potentially embarrassing or life-altering detail is truly in the public interest. The master at crafting stories that go viral has found a calling higher than clicks.

“I credit Judaism for that entirely,” she said. “We all want to worship something and serve something. As soon as I realized that I didn’t need to worship the crowd and serve the crowd, something shifted in my priorities and changed my whole approach to reporting and writing.”

A sixth-generation San Franciscan, Bowles grew up living primarily with her mother, who is Greek Orthodox. But most Sundays they attended the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin around the corner from their house in Cow Hollow. She enjoyed the rituals and smells, but faith eluded her. She didn’t have much exposure to Jewish practice, either.

“I remember the first time I watched the candles being lit and heard Shabbat songs at Bar’s apartment,” Bowles said. “I was actually almost a little frightened. The language and the rhythm of it was so different from anything I’d ever heard. Honestly, if they’d killed a live chicken right then I would have been like, all right, makes sense, that’s what comes next.”

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.