The first time Jennifer Hindieh saw Alexander Najman, she wished he would go away. Instead, after bumming a Marlboro off her in September 2011 at Long Island University, he stuck around and tried to strike up a conversation.
“I was lost in thought,” she said. After fishing a cigarette out of the pack and handing it over, she gave him the universal code to get going. “I looked down at my phone. I was thinking, don’t talk to me.”
Ms. Hindieh, then a freshman at the university’s Post campus, in Brookville, N.Y., was annoyed that Mr. Najman, a graduate student at Stony Brook University working part time in Post’s philosophy department, had trouble taking a hint. She didn’t particularly care for his demeanor, either.
“He was doing the kind of stuff guys do to impress you, acting all full of himself,” she said. After a few drags on his cigarette, though, he made her laugh. By the time he stubbed it out and walked away from the outdoor bench where Ms. Hindieh’s smoke plumes had led him, she had forgotten her first impression and given him her phone number.
She wouldn’t regret it.
Mr. Najman, 32, is the founder of Get Accepted, an academic and career counseling service. Until 2017, he was also a philosophy professor at LIU Post. Ms. Hindieh, 29, is a teaching assistant and graduate student in molecular biology at Adelphi University. She expects to earn a master’s degree next spring before pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Both are from Long Island. Ms. Hindieh’s parents, Rim and Barbara Hindieh, divorced when she was young; they raised her and her older brother, Raymond, and older sister, Danielle, in Roslyn Heights. Mr. Najman grew up in Port Washington with his parents, Lynn and Lee Najman, and an older sister, Liz.
At the time of the campus bench encounter, both were in serious relationships that were seriously in trouble. “I was incredibly unhappy,” Ms. Hindieh said. “My relationship was kind of similar,” Mr. Najman said, adding that he had been with his partner for years but was unsure how to call it quits.
“I think everybody goes through a relationship like that, where you stay because it’s comfortable,” Ms. Hindieh said. “Sometimes it takes meeting someone new and feeling that spark you were missing to realize, I’m not happy, and it’s not fair to the person I’m with.”
She didn’t feel that spark at first with Mr. Najman. When they started texting and meeting for coffee and snacks between classes, both on campus and off, it didn’t surface either. What did seem obvious was that they had a lot in common besides their unhappy relationships. Both were trying to kick the cigarette habit. Both were major dog lovers. And both were obsessed with their fields of study, especially where they overlapped and intersected.
“The incredibly short version of an ongoing debate is, neuroscientists think they understand everything about the human brain,” Mr. Najman said. “And as philosophers, our job is to convince them that the human brain is different than human consciousness.”
As their friendship grew, so did their determination to start over romantically, if not necessarily with each other. By the summer of 2012, Mr. Najman was prepared to end his relationship with his girlfriend. Hearing about Ms. Hindieh’s struggles with her boyfriend was a catalyst. “One time, we were hanging out and he said, ‘You’re not happy. Don’t do this to yourself. You’re a great person, don’t let someone treat you this way,’” Ms. Hindieh said.
Mr. Najman’s encouragement came with no ulterior motive, he said. He was just trying to be a good friend. But by then Ms. Hindieh, who was finally starting to feel a spark in his presence, suspected otherwise. “I think he was more attracted to me than he admits,” she said. “I would catch him staring at my butt a lot.”
A little less than a year after they first met, when both were finally single, Mr. Najman and Ms. Hindieh put together a plan to hang out over whisky and cigarettes at Ms. Hindieh’s father’s house, where she was living.
“I made the first move,” Ms. Hindieh said. “I just grabbed his face and kissed him.” Neither has kissed anyone else since. “With the intensity of the connection, it was almost like, Why would I hang out with anyone else when I so enjoy being with this person
Ms. Hindieh was raised in a household with Middle Eastern tradition, though her mother was born on a United States Army base in Germany. “She cooked Middle Eastern food and loved to use little Arabic phrases, like ‘I love you’ and ‘sweetheart.’ She loved the whole culture,” she said. Her father spent his childhood in Aleppo, Syria, where his family, who were Maronite Christians, helped to hide a Jewish tailor from persecution in the 1940s. “My father always taught us that we lived in a family where all faiths were respected,” said Danielle Hindieh. “That was at the core of how we grew up.”
When Ms. Hindieh introduced Mr. Najman to her family in 2013, she knew his Jewish background wouldn’t be a problem. The Najmans were likewise open-minded when they met Ms. Hindieh. Though Lee Najman spent his childhood in Israel, Mr. Najman said his family is shaped more by progressive politics than national origin or religion. “We’ve always just kind of been open to whatever,” he said. “My mom likes to do Passover. She calls it ‘the oldest tradition in the book.’ But that’s about it.”
By the time Ms. Hindieh was ready to move into an apartment with Mr. Najman in Levittown in 2015, Rim Hindieh was thrilled with how his daughter’s love life was progressing.
“My dad doesn’t usually give more than two-word answers to anybody he talks to,” she said. “But with Alex he smiles and jokes around. I think he was so relieved to see his daughter with someone who treated me the way I wanted to be treated. He was like, ‘Oh, good, we found her someone nice. Now I can go and retire.’”
The Najmans, too, were glad the relationship was gaining momentum. Lynn Najman said she was impressed by her son’s focus on Ms. Hindieh’s wants and needs. And Liz Najman said, “Alex and I have gotten so much closer since he met Jen. She’s the one person in his life he doesn’t feel he has to be cool in front of.”
Ms. Hindieh’s lack of patience for pretenses, evident from that first day on the bench at Long Island University, has been freeing for Mr. Najman. For example, just after they moved in together, he didn’t hide his panic when Bailey, a pit bull puppy they adopted, gobbled a bottle of prescription medication he had left in a bag on the floor.
“Alex was screaming,” Ms. Hindieh said. “We were like, ‘Oh, God, we’ve only had this dog two weeks and already we’ve killed her.’”
Bailey was fine after a trip to the emergency room. That incident, plus the reputation of her breed, subject to generalizations about viciousness, also knitted them closer as a couple. (In 2016, when they had to find a new apartment because their landlord was moving, Ms. Hindieh put together what she called a storybook about Bailey’s life to prove their dog was not threatening. Mr. Najman secured pet insurance.)
The couple is also cognizant about other stereotypes — particularly that people from Israel and Syria dislike each other. Rumblings of disapproval surfaced from distant relatives after they moved into their new apartment in Huntington Station and announced their engagement. He proposed with an emerald solitaire bought online at Ritani, a site for ethically sourced diamonds, on Oct. 31, 2018.
But even before then, the two have had conversations about whether they should get married.
“I think we were just really happy for a long time and kind of thought, we don’t need to get married, who cares?,” Ms. Hindieh said. “But then we started making up logistical reasons, like our taxes will go down and we can get on the same health insurance.”
When she saw the ring, presented to her over coffee but not cigarettes — both had long since kicked the habit — she was happy those reasons were in place. “I was half asleep but I was screaming,” she said. After she said yes, “I called everyone.”
Her parents and siblings, as well as Mr. Najman’s, were delighted. But as the couple started putting together a guest list for what they called “the peace in the Middle East wedding,” Ms. Hindieh heard from those distant family members who had misgivings.
“It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, not that Alex was Jewish, but that his father was Israeli,” she said. “And while I understand it because it’s such a hot topic, I’m not going to stand for that type of behavior, and a lot of people in my family feel the same way.”
Ultimately, she said, “I threw my middle finger up in the air and said, It’s my life. I’m going to love who I’m going to love.” She disinvited anyone reluctant to celebrate their union.
Their wedding was Sept. 14 in the parklike grounds of the Village Club, in Sands Point, N.Y.
Ms. Hindieh, in a Badgley Mischka dress that her father helped to pick out, walked with him down a grassy aisle, littered with rose petals, to Mr. Najman. Her six attendants, wearing mint and sea-foam green dresses, awaited her as 75 guests stood for the bride’s entrance. Bailey, in a custom wedding dress of her own, ordered by Ms. Hindieh from Etsy, preceded her as Lee Najman held the leash.
Under a huppah woven with white and pink hydrangea and roses, Daniel Reitman, a childhood friend of Mr. Najman who was ordained by the Universal Life Church, officiated. Liz Najman, also a Universal Life minister, participated in the ceremony.
“I met Alex when he was 4, and I’ve never seen him as comfortable with another person as he is with Jen,” Mr. Reitman said.
“I’ve known him his whole life,” Ms. Najman said. “Jen, you make him a better person.”
After an exchange of rings, Mr. Reitman and Ms. Najman pronounced them married. Mr. Najman stomped on a glass to cheers of “Mazel tov!” The couple plan to privately read handwritten vows on their first wedding anniversary.
As guests recessed into the club’s reception room, they passed a sign that had instructed them where to sit for the ceremony. “Pick a seat but not a side,” it read. “You are loved by the groom and bride.”
ON THIS DAY
When Sept. 14, 2019
Where Village Club, Sands Point, N.Y.
Unleashed Ms. Hindieh’s social media posts about her dog Bailey’s custom wedding dress were met with a flurry of media attention, though not all positive. “Most people thought it was adorable,” she said. “But some people said, ‘She’ll probably maul the flower girl.’ There was stupid stuff like that.”
Traditions Mr. Najman celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Village Club. “He practically grew up here,” said his mother, Lynn Najman. Ms. Hindieh imported a few of her own traditions. During the reception, a D.J. wove Arab music into a soundtrack of American pop. She and a few family members demonstrated their belly-dancing skills.
Conflict Avoidance In addition to the wedding cake, cookies from a favorite Middle Eastern bakery were served for dessert. But the dinner menu steered clear of Middle Eastern main dishes. “You can’t serve Middle Eastern food to Arab people,” Ms. Hindieh said. “They’ll always say they cook it better.”