Hard-to-marry-off children have been worrying parents since Genesis, when Leah, her eyes tender from the sadness of being unwanted, took part in a hoax to trick Jacob — her younger, prettier sister’s suitor — into marrying her. There’s no indication of how old Leah was at betrothal, but the tone of the text prompts a mortifying thought: Had she lived in our time, the future matriarch of the Jewish people would likely be another tough case for the matchmakers.
Or so I surmised a few months ago after a crowded panel in Manhattan on what has come to be known as the “shidduch crisis” in Modern Orthodoxy. Over the past decade, rabbis, activists and parents have been wringing their hands over the “ever-burgeoning number of religious singles and rising percentage of failed marriages” in the community. This event was only the most recent of many discussions devoted to the topic.
Having once been both single and Modern Orthodox, I recognized many of the audience members — not exact faces, of course, but types: The knitted-browed parents, bantering anxiously among themselves; the fresh-faced Stern and Yeshiva University students who seemed too young to take the bus themselves, let alone join in holy matrimony; a handful of older singles brave enough to show their faces at such a gathering.
The evening’s discussion traversed a lot of ground, but it was clear that among its primary goals was the prevention of those too-often-seen tragic situations — “marriages that end, God forbid, in divorce” and “people who are in their late 20s, even 30, and not married.”
The timing could not have been better — or worse: Three days earlier, I had signed divorce papers; six days later, I turned 30.
Of course, the world is filled with singles wishing to be part of doubles. Since the fate of every society turns on the success or failure of its particular set of mating rituals, each one develops its own specialized system of coupling. But what happens when those rituals erode?
This is the bind in which Modern Orthodoxy has lately found itself. Over the past decade, the movement has drifted to the right — adopting, along the way, the belief that greater stringency in Jewish law and ritual equals greater religiosity. Distinctions that might seem infinitesimal to an outsider — “she’s a Bais Yaakov girl,” “he wears a kippah sruga” — have become fundamental differences, and competitions have sprouted up over who follows which obligations more strictly.
Along with new perspectives on the legality of singing in the shower and smoking cigarettes on Passover, there also has emerged a more exacting code of modesty and celibacy for singles. In response, ever younger people have begun racing to the chuppah, with many of us discussing potential mates as early as high school.
This is the system used successfully by the ultra-Orthodox, who place more emphasis on God, family and community than on individual choices: Each person has confidence in her mate not only because he is right for her, but because he is right for everyone and everything in her life. On the other end of the spectrum, the secular world offers a method based on individualism: Release yourself from everyone else’s expectations, and date as many people as it takes to find the one.
The problem is that both of these opposing philosophies are now circulating in the Modern Orthodox community, and their coexistence is causing static — mixed signals, false expectations, miscommunications. The confusion might be surmountable, but muddling through it requires two things that Orthodox Jews who’d like to remain marriageable don’t have: experience and time.
The first inkling that I did not have nearly enough time to find a mate was in my junior year of yeshiva high school. We were learning about Amuka, an area in northern Israel where the prayers of people looking for their besherts (destined partners) allegedly are answered, when I was seized with confusion.
“Can each person only have one beshert?” I asked.
“I think so,” said the rabbi.
“But what about a woman who remarries after her husband dies? Which one was her beshert?”
“Only God knows,” came the reply.
“What if my beshert lives in, like, Pakistan?”
“You have to just believe, Alana.”
I can’t, I thought suddenly. I don’t know enough about the world.
And with that, Amuka became my Archimedean point, the place where I stood when I inadvertently lifted my entire religious world off its axis. After that, the questions came quickly — even leading, briefly, to a period of greater observance.
By the time I started my second year at Barnard, I was taking classes on other religions, had an Episcopalian best friend and regularly attended non-Jewish campus events on Friday night, as long as I could walk to them.
But as my curiosity about the larger world expanded, the atmosphere of Modern Orthodoxy contracted. I wanted to engage with the secular world — to learn about it as well as to experience it — but the same adventures that might have once been par for the Modern Orthodox course now threatened to make me an outcast.
I was too attached to religious life and thought to abandon it entirely. Instead, I made the kind of unspoken compromises with my parents (and, by extension, the community) that some people make with God: I will not go to services often, but when I do, I’ll attend Orthodox synagogues; I will eat nonkosher in restaurants but at home will abide by rules strict enough that the rebbe could snack in my kitchen; I will avoid premarital sex, but won’t follow the laws of negiah.
This last item was, in fact, the only one for which I had an intellectual defense. I was shy and insecure about sex and knew enough to fear its power as an obfuscating force in relationships. The more I knew, I thought, the better my chances that I wouldn’t mistake lust for love.
Fooling around before marriage has, historically, not been an uncommon practice among Modern Orthodox Jews. After all, they gave the world the “tefillin date,” so named for the men who brought along their phylacteries in hopes they wouldn’t be home in time for morning prayers.
By my early 20s, the community had moved significantly to the right. People found themselves caught between rules of the old world and the kind of curiosity about sex and dating fostered in the new one.
“It is bad enough to be alone, but to be not sexual is almost as bad, and the two together is terrible,” writes an anonymous Orthodox blogger. “I have had fantasies of killing myself. I have considered hiring a male prostitute and getting it over with. No, I have not tried either of those last two things, chas vishalom…. To all the married people out there telling older singles that they should deny themselves, I wish I could respond, ‘Let he who is 34 and never been kissed cast the first stone.'”
I was 25 when I married — a bit old compared to my yeshiva classmates but still within respectable limits. To a casual observer, Daniel might have seemed like a rebellious choice: He did not grow up Orthodox; his father is not Jewish; his last name is Scotch-Irish. But he was almost as connected to the community as I was, having just gotten out of a relationship with another Orthodox woman.
He had started learning Hebrew, loved Shabbat and had relatives in Israel. And, unlike me, he had yichus, a distinguished lineage: His grandfather was a famed civil rights lawyer and Zionist activist. He was different enough, and yet similar.
After a year of dating, we wanted to move in together, but I knew this was unheard of in our circles. So I made another silent compromise: I’d marry the person of my choosing, but at an age and in a way that would be acceptable within the community.
Daniel and I married before we should have, a step that put undue pressure on a young relationship and two people still struggling to define themselves. When the marriage ruptured, so did the thin thread holding me to Orthodoxy. I became angry at the community for depriving me of my adolescence or, rather, for being too rigid to encourage it.
As psychologist Naomi Mark said at the panel on the shidduch crisis that I attended, the community expects young adults to have marriage, education and careers settled, or at least on track, by their early 20s, leaving no time to make the kind of mistakes that teach us who we are. My effort to avoid these mistakes — to experience the world but not so much that I’d be forced from the community’s safe corral — threatened to split the baby. And the baby was me.
In the end, I chose self-definition over religion. As Plato promised, the examined life is indeed fulfilling — firsthand experience of oneself trumps guesswork any day — but it’s not nearly as pretty as the brochure implies. For me, the ugliness lies not in the fact that by opening the door to all experience I’ve ushered in pain as well as joy, or because in the course of learning about myself, I’ve unearthed a few things I’d rather never have known — though both have certainly happened.
What most disquiets me is the limbo. Unlike my Orthodox peers, who can be sure of the basic contours of their lives, I writhe with uncertainty: Where will I be living 10 years from now? What school will my kids attend? How kosher will my kitchen be?
Sometimes, the fog gets so intimidating that I start to wonder if there’s still time to go back, to abandon all this liberty and just get comfortable again. Alas, I fear all this experience has ruined me; I’ve lost too many virginities — intellectual, emotional, psychological and, well, otherwise — to mesh again with that life. Plus, as the panel proved, the community hardly needs another 30-year-old woman in need of marrying off, especially one without a younger, prettier sister to use as bait.
Alana Newhouse is the arts and letters editor at The Forward.