A Single Problem


I have a perfect record in setting up my friends on dates: I have struck out every single time. I am 0 for 20, maybe worse. Only one relationship that I tried to initiate made it past the first date. That one lasted for four years and ended in tears, anguish and confusion. The only thing those two friends agreed on in the end is they would never accept my offer to set them up again with anyone, ever.

Two years ago, the last time I tried to set a friend up, I called her Sunday morning to see how Saturday night went. There was a pause on her end of the line. “Do you,” she said, “even know me?”

Ouch.

The problem is, I know far more wonderful Jewish single women than men. They are in their 30s and 40s, ready and eager to marry and start a family. They are smart, accomplished professionals. They have good senses of humor. They range from attractive to drop-dead gorgeous, from economically independent to loaded. And this is all they want: a nice, eligible Jewish guy in his late 30s or 40s.

No big deal? Judging from their experiences, such a creature is as rare as a Narnian efreet.

I know that on a sociological level, this oft-discussed problem has consequences far beyond one woman’s thwarted desires. The Jewish population is in decline, and our inability to breed at least at a replacement level is the usual suspect.

The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, conducted by United Jewish Communities, revealed that more than one-half of American Jewish men and more than one-third of American Jewish women ages 25-34 are not married.

Even among Orthodox Jews, who are far more likely to marry younger and bear more children, the numbers of unmarried Orthodox adults today are far higher than they were several decades ago.

Compared to other Americans, Jewish women marry later, and are more likely to be childless. In all, 42 percent of the Jewish adult population is single, and 30 percent of Jewish households are single-dwellings.

These statistics are the fodder for so much expert debate and the inspiration for every kind of singles outreach from SpeedDating to Friday Night Live to the upcoming round of holiday-themed “young single” parties. (Ten years ago, those parties were advertised to 20- and 30-somethings. Now I see the age has crept up to 40- and early 50-somethings.)

But I see the problem on a much more personal level every week. My friends want to find someone. The dating game gets old. The war stories, like all war stories, are better savored from the vantage point of the victor. At a certain point, the Howard Stern factor kicks in. A successful Jewish man in his 50s can date 20- or 30-year-olds. So the options for a Jewish woman in her early 40s grow ever more narrow.

I don’t know why that is. My sense is that finding the right mate has always been difficult: see any Shakespeare comedy, see all chick lit, read any Singles column in this paper any given week.

Being Jewish makes it more difficult — naturally — because the pool is smaller (I didn’t say “more shallow”).

But that is the dilemma, and it is not going away on its own, or through holding fast or promoting orthodoxies that, in this day and age, have built-in limitations on their appeal.

My suggestions?

One way to expand the pool is to pursue conversion. Numerous studies have shown that religion in the home is the woman’s domain: if she wills it, it is no dream. Synagogues, community and educational centers and Jewish leadership should offer all the resources and support at their disposal to a woman committed to Jewish life who enters into a relationship with a non-Jew. The acceptance and joy she finds in her faith will embrace her children and her spouse as well. Free counseling, loads of useful materials on the Web, even drop-in centers will help turn what we are conditioned to think of as loss into opportunity. The Reform movement’s new emphasis on conversion in interfaith relationships (see page 18) is a major and welcome step in this direction.

As for the rest of us, in this season of giving, resolve to give a single friend the gift of one blind date this year. One good fix-up for each person on your list. Do it –because Lord knows I can’t.

Last month I attended a wedding in Westwood. The bride and groom met on JDate. Evidently, on JDate, you get messages from people who read your online profile and are interested, but you also see the e-mails of people who’ve checked you out and passed. The bride read the profile of one such man. He had read about her, seen her picture, and decided she wasn’t the one.

“I saw you saw my profile,” she e-mailed him soon after, “and decided not to contact me. You’re making a big mistake.” By waiting for some fantasy digital woman to drop into his inbox, he was missing out on an opportunity to get to know someone real and terrific.

Impressed by her chutzpah, he e-mailed her back. They went to Hawaii on their honeymoon.

The moral of this story is twofold. One: Jewish men should realize they are missing out on plenty of wonderful women. And two: Amid the dry and bleak statistics, there’s can still be a happily ever after….

 

To Tree or Not to Tree


 

For the first time in my adult life I’m dating a Jewish girl.

Her father’s Catholic — an Italian — but according to my

rabbi, “She’s all good.”

(Maybe he didn’t use those exact words, but something to that effect.)

Carrie and I bicker but never have any real fights; that is not until Christmastime. She was raised with Christmas in her house. Chanukah was a pool they may have dipped their toes into out of some traditional obligation, but it was Christmas that they jumped into cannonball style.

Their house is covered in multicolored lights and adorned with cheap plastic Santa wall hangings. A gargantuan Douglas fir, rivaling the one in the center of The Grove, is squeezed in between the ceiling and floor. And gifts wrapped in red and green piled three-deep high surround the tree as if out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Her childhood memories are filled with Christmas as the happiest day of the year.

Then, she started dating me. And, like a Jewish Scrooge, I decided over dinner to let her know there would be no more Christmas. Well, at least not for us. I said that if we ever moved in together she would need to get used to the fact that there would be no Christmas tree in our house. She looked like she would drop her pork chop.

“I was raised with Christmas!” she said. “And I want a tree in my house.”

“I know,” I answered. “But, I wasn’t. And if we’re raising our kids Jewish why would we have a Christmas tree?”

“Because I like Christmas.”

“But, you’re Jewish!”

“My dad’s not.”

“But, you are. You were raised Jewish for the most part, you don’t believe in Jesus, why would we have a tree?”

“It’s got nothing to do with that,” she explained, quickly losing her patience. “It’s an American holiday.”

“Look, Carrie. You’re Jewish and I’m Jewish. What the hell are two Jews going to do with a Christmas tree?”

Two weekends ago we had to stop by her parents’ house she could pick up something she left there. Her mother proudly showed me the decorations on their tree and excitedly clicked on all the little lights strewn about the house.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” she exclaimed. She opened the front door. “Look at this wreath I made. I made it by hand.”

I smiled, uncomfortably. Ironically, it was Carrie’s Catholic father who saw my discomfort and said, “Some Jewish house, huh?”

Carrie’s mother once told me that when she married her husband she was very excited to have her first Christmas tree. She had been raised in a WASPY Long Island neighborhood and had hated feeling like an outcast. So, she looked forward to finally having a Christmas tree just like everyone else.

I suppose I understand her feelings — Christmas always looked like so much fun when I was a kid. We were inundated with music, TV specials and movies that showed families gathering together around the Christmas tree, tearing open gifts and singing uplifting songs. The plain menorah and a crappy song about a dreidel was no competition.

I tried to explain to Carrie that for most of us assimilated Jews there is something important about growing up without a tree.

We basically fit in with our non-Jewish friends and colleagues, and are careful not to stand out too much as Jews.

But, one time a year it becomes evident that we are different. Our houses are not decorated, we don’t have a Christmas tree and when people wish us a “Merry Christmas” we debate whether or not we should say, “Well, I don’t celebrate Christmas but thank you, anyway.”

“Once we allow ourselves to start appropriating another religion’s traditions in order to fit in with our neighbors, we have compromised who we are,” I told Carrie. “By taking away the wonderful things that separates us from non-Jews, it only damages us.”

Carrie’s mother joined in on my side, telling her daughter that it would be a little silly for us to ever have a Christmas tree in our house.

“I married someone who wasn’t Jewish, so it would be wrong for me to ignore my husband’s traditions,” her mother said. “But you are both Jewish and going to raise Jewish kids. You’re not going to celebrate Christmas. Instead, you can celebrate that other holiday — you know, the one with the candles and the spinning top.”

Carrie looked at me with resolve. “Fine, we won’t have a tree. But, I’m going to my parents’ house on Christmas.”

“Fine with me,” I answered. “If you need me, I’ll be at the movies.”

Seth Menachem is an actor and writer who lives in Los Angeles.

 

Ask Wendy


Absent Father Wants to See
Daughters

Dear Wendy,

My father left my mother when my sister was 8 and I was 5. His visits became increasingly infrequent until, about 20 years ago, we stopped hearing from him altogether. Recently he got in touch with my sister, told her he was dying of cancer and asked her to come visit. Where my sister sees closure, I see the opening of something I sealed off years ago. But she is afraid to go alone and wants me to go with her. She needs the moral support, and I don’t want to let her down.

Knotted Up Over Family Ties

Dear Knotted,

Your sister, if she decides to go, is embarking on a journey, not a simple day-trip. She may view this reunion with your father as a necessary excursion, but it sounds like you view it as heading off on something of a safari. Unarmed. I agree that your sister should not make her trek alone. But there must be plenty of other travelers — with nothing at stake — who would be happy to go along for the ride. A word of caution: Resolving one’s feelings is very different from “sealing them off.” Make sure you know the difference before you decide against seeing your father. This may be your last chance.

Gram’s Caretaker Thinks Judaism Is
Evil

Dear Wendy,

My ailing grandmother lives in a Jewish nursing home in Florida. She has a sweet and devoted caretaker who attends to her needs six days a week. I am very thankful that we have found her. There is one small problem: The caretaker is a devout Christian. She has informed me, on more than one occasion, that she prays every day that Jesus will open our hearts. The last time we spoke, she informed me that Judaism is an evil religion. I worry that she will take advantage of my grandmother’s confused state to convert her to Christianity. My mother and my aunt — my grandmother’s daughters — are amused by my account. But I am angry and very bothered. Any advice?

Worried About Grandma

Dear Worried,

If your grandmother is anything like mine was, it is more likely she will convert her caretaker to Judaism before she welcomes Jesus into her heart — no matter how vulnerable or confused she may be. Your grandmother’s caretaker may be the wrong religion for your taste, but I’d rather have a devout individual who feels she is doing God’s work than a hired hand who cares only about making a living. Or worse, someone whose caring and kindness you question as soon as you leave the room. My grandmother had a driver in her later years when her eyesight had failed. He would drink and make anti-Semitic remarks; when he was sober there was no sign of his prejudice.

Caring for the elderly is not a job many people seek. If you are not prepared to care for your grandmother yourself, be grateful that she has a companion who is above reproach in every way that matters. If it makes you feel better, I suggest you specify that when reading aloud to your grandmother, she select portions found in the Torah and not the Christian Bible.

Mixed Relationship Has Woman
Confused

Dear Wendy,

My mother is Jewish, my father is not. Growing up, I never knew what I was. I recently went on a Birthright Israel trip and felt deeply connected for the first time to my Jewish heritage. Here is my problem: I have been dating a non-Jewish man for over a year. If I ended the relationship I would regret it for the rest of my life. But I am constantly weighing my relationship with him against my feelings for the land of Israel and my desire to return there. I could not ask someone to convert to satisfy my needs. But if we have children, they would grow up as I did — confused, with nieces and nephews of other religions.

Struggling With Interfaith Issues

Dear Struggling,

There need be no such thing as a confused child. There are only ambivalent or ineffective parents who fail to transmit a clear identity to their progeny.

Yours is not the typical tale of crossed lovers. You cannot fault yourself for having discovered late in life what being a Jew means to you, nor for having fallen in love with a non-Jew before you did. Your dilemma is black and white but the solution is not. This is a matter of the heart. The worst thing you can do to yourself is to impose a deadline by which time you must choose either your religion or your man. The decision will come to you, and when it does, it will be clear. Your boyfriend will also have something to say about how this turns out. Just keep walking and see where you end up.