Naomi is a type—mid-late 30’s, observes the Sabbath, eats only kosher food, has a university education, a prestigious job with financial security, a wide circle of interesting friends, and an appreciation of the arts and literature. She’s also, however, discouraged: Won’t she ever meet a man to marry; is the possibility of motherhood foreclosed? A virgin with a sense of the ironic, she laments, “I could never have children on my own. How could I encourage them to keep the halacha, how could I stress the importance of the family, and then explain that I went to a sperm bank or that their father was just a friend who did me a big favor? It’s a little crazy.”
Single older Orthodox women in the 90’s are facing a crisis of faith—fueled by pragmatism—in the face of limited available and suitable male partners. There are no official statistics. However, at most ‘”singles” events, women outnumber men three to one. On “singles weekends” at Catskills resorts, women have been known to leave before the weekend is over, feeling cheated that the unequal numbers gave the men the freedom to waft between women, picking out the youngest and prettiest.
As I eat my Sabbath dinner with single Orthodox women-friends, we inevitably get around to wringing our hands over the grim situation.
“I should go to more parties, I guess,” sighs Andrea, a 36-year-old Manhattan lawyer. She is making explicit society’s message, internalized by women, that it’s somehow our fault, that “if you really want to get married, you have to make more of an effort.”
The conversation then continues on its well-worn track, veering into the “religious men are such wimps” plaint. The basic thrust of this dialogue is that Orthodox men view the world as black or white, whereas we women see gray, and thus handle the world much better. The office Christmas party, the soggy matzo sandwiches, leaving work early on Friday afternoons despite important projects—all are gray. We accuse Orthodox men of retreating into rigid patterns that avoid or even deny gray, reducing life to an “us” and “them” paradigm.
Eventually we come around to our supply-and-demand analysis.
“It’s a numbers game in which there are just not enough men to go around,” bemoans Jenny, 33, an urban planner.
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe there actually are enough men,” hazards Naomi, who has had a bit of experience with men who seem to go weird on her. “But not the right sort of men—they can’t handle women with an education, with money, or with a need to maintain a bit of independence.”
As for me, I have been asked many times if I would go out with a non-observant man, and for quite a while my response was unwavering. “I don’t want anyone to take on Orthodoxy because of me. I would rather go out with someone who already is observant, otherwise religion becomes an unnecessarily complicating factor, and it becomes impossible to separate personality issues from frustrations regarding religious difference.”
Generally, the only people who have understood this party-line of mine were other Orthodox women who had grappled with the same issues. Ten years later, though, I must say, things are beginning to look different to me, and the platitudes of my twenties seem naive and rigid, though I understand that, in a more perfect world, these attitudes might have felt valorous.
These days, many of my Orthodox women friends have serious relationships with nonobservant men, and while some of these relationships eventually founder, others have led to marriages in which observance and ritual seem almost inevitably destined for compromise. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that.
What’s a woman to do?
Well, lately I think I’ve discovered a new possibility. At age 32, I have started to look at non-Jewish men differently. I have always enjoyed platonic friendships with various non-Jewish men, both sides safe in the knowledge that any- thing other than friendship was strictly off-limits. Suddenly, though, much to my own surprise, I have hit upon a solution that is obvious in its simplicity, yet scary in its implications. What about gently weaving Orthodox conversion, circumcision and all, into the conversation? Why not take a decent, interesting, emotionally healthy, witty and intelligent non-Jew, and make him part of the clan? Someone willing to enter the clan would surely appreciate the significance of the religion, and share the sensitivity I feel towards continuity and preservation.
This may not sound outrageous to those readers who know a lot of interfaith couples, or to those who view marriage as an irrelevant social institution. However it does sound close to heresy to women like myself, who want a traditional marriage and family, and who have never dreamed of marrying a nonobservant person, let alone a non-Jewish one. It also poses a challenge to halakha which states that conversion precisely for the purpose of marriage is to be discouraged.
But the 90’s may be, for better or worse, a time for bold innovation. There are too many stigmatized, older, single, observant women out there. The Jewish community should not ignore us. And Jews unhappy about the overall decline of the Jewish population should be concerned about our welfare, too. Though American society is all about opening options and choices, still, it would be enormously helpful to me and to my Orthodox women-friends to feel encouraged (and legitimized) in explorations that are unorthodox, in decisions that may contradict the “happy endings” of storybook romances in the shtetl.
Some Orthodox women have no interest in marriage, and it’s important, of course, that we respect every woman for whatever her life’s choices are. Speaking for myself, however, and for most of my “thirtysomething” friends, we do not want to be left languishing and childless.
Sally Berkovic is a freelance journalist now living in London.