The moment I realized I was an “older single” in my Orthodox Jewish community was, naturally, at an engagement party. I said hello to a former teacher from high school. She locked eyes with me and said: “Please God by you.” It’s a familiar refrain, heard by singles at any wedding-related party, cute when you’re young, eye-roll-inducing as you get older. It essentially means: Hopefully you will reach this milestone soon, too.
This teacher and I have a tense history, which we’ve both chosen to overlook now that I’m no longer her student. Yet this was the most genuine thing she’d ever said to me. She meant it honestly and with feeling, without a hint of a raised eyebrow — just pure earnestness in her hope for my future. Which is probably why it struck me in that moment: I had phased out of the picky/waiting-for-the-right-one/I’m-actually-a-super-complex-person stage of dating. I was now the aging diva, being replaced by younger ingénues. Thinner ingénues. The situation might even be … dire.
I was 24.
I’m certainly not alone in my “situation.” In the community in which I grew up, I’m part of what’s known as the “Shidduch Crisis.” These days the term “crisis” brings to mind mass shootings and devastating hurricanes, which is why it’s funny that it’s also the preferred term in certain circles for women who aren’t busy making babies. The “Shidduch Crisis” is what the Orthodox Jewish communities of the U.S. consider a threat to society as we know it: legions of older women, already spinsters in their mid- to late-20s.
The word shidduch is Hebrew for match — plural, shidduchim. Participants in shidduchim often have résumés, much like the one you’d have for a job, except it includes photographic evidence and paragraphs titled “About Me” and “What I’m Looking For.” One who deals in matchmaking would be a shadchan (male) or shadchanit (female). In gratitude for a successful match, casual matchmakers would be given a gift, called shadchanus, while professional matchmakers could make a fee somewhere in the ballpark of $2000. Of late, extra money has been offered as an incentive for matches made where the woman is older than the man.
Some claim that the Shidduch Crisis is a false construct, a rumor started to benefit the boys’ club. It plants the power firmly in their hands. (If you could only see the glee with which their mothers leaf through the 20 to 30 shidduch résumés placed on their desks, you’d have no trouble believing that report.) Others choose to blame the situation on a Catch-22 inherent to a girl’s desirability: Send her to a good seminary in Israel for a year or two after high school, but by the time she gets back she’s aged out of the 18/19-year-old bracket that 22-year-old boys are looking for.
I guess I should be thankful that the Orthodox Jewish community is aware. That it’s working for a solution. Because from my position, the larger sin is its lack of space for single women. The structure of synagogues and actual physical spaces lend themselves almost exclusively to families. Women’s voices are heard through their husbands more often than not. Politics and institutions in the community are mostly run by men — businesses, schools, charitable organizations — which means that to a certain degree, not having a man to speak for you blocks you off from the community.
Over the past half-decade or so, much of my emotional currency has been spent figuring how I fit into the Orthodox community. My parents attend a synagogue where the mechitzah, the partition separating genders, is so stringent that I can’t see any of the proceedings. Recently a synagogue was created specifically for men my age, but when my female friends approached the organizers in hopes of creating programming geared toward women, they were told that wasn’t the focus at this time.
I’m not asking that these places become egalitarian. I’m asking that women be heard when we have something to say.
Equality in singlehood isn’t an issue with which I expected to take umbrage. Growing up I was more involved with my Barbies’ weddings than in any imaginings of my own. I did, however, nebulously expect to be married by the age of 21. I expected to have a home and a family in an Orthodox Jewish community — in New York, Chicago, or even Israel, where I spent some time growing up. I expected to host big Shabbat dinners with many guests, having many conversations, with many people who wouldn’t shut up. I expected to have to make decisions regarding which educational institutions to bestow my perfect children upon.
Now, though, I’m closing in on 30 and whatever formless anticipations I had for my life no longer apply. Or rather, they shouldn’t.
Despite having two degrees, respectable employment, bills in my own name, and a decent CV of published articles, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve failed. At times my life feels like it’s boiling down to how deliberate I can make my successes if I never get married. Admittedly, this could be because of certain relatives I choose to see often, whose idea of a blessing is to say, tearfully, repeatedly, “I hope to dance at your wedding.” Or because society at large — secular and religious alike — values finding “The One” in everything we do. My inability to ensnare a man is a failure in both circles. I’m drawn to the secular because there’s a space there for people like me, people whose lives are no less valuable than those who are married. The ultra-Orthodox sphere does not offer that same assurance.
My background wasn’t so religious that I was expected to be engaged when I was still a minor, but neither was it so secular that I got a feminist pass on actively searching for my soulmate. The first time I had friends who were guys was when I attended Yeshiva University for my undergraduate years. That’s because throughout elementary and high school, I was taught that talking to boys was inappropriate — even if you weren’t touching them, even if you weren’t thinking of them sexually, boys were off limits entirely. A student in my class lost her National Honors Society nomination because she had a boyfriend. So I felt as though I was in a weird no-man’s-land, not quite fitting into the dating scene.
Stern College, the women’s undergraduate program of Yeshiva University, is the quintessential Modern Orthodox school for getting your “M.R.S. degree” (possibly the most condescending term for a pressure society puts on all women, not only religious ones). It didn’t matter. I came out on the other end single.
Now seven years out of YU, my Facebook feed is filled with babies. So many babies. All of the babies. Many of my former female classmates are now mothers. They’re raising children, creating families with their significant others — many of whom went to YU as well. They’re continuing the legacy and traditions of Judaism, allowing the religion to pass on through their generation. They are replenishing the population with their children. They are part of communities that value them as parents now.
I became a writer because in the back of my mind it was a career that could be done from home, while I watch my children. Typing a story while I stir a pot, or whatever it is that multitasking domestic goddesses do. Ultra-Orthodox teachers encouraged me and my high school classmates to do so. If you must work, make sure it’s in a field that could prioritize childrearing. I heard one discourage the brightest student in her year from becoming a doctor because “that’s not a career for a Jewish mother.” Hope she wasn’t meant to cure cancer.
So what becomes of unmarried women whose focus on their careers was meant to be a smoke-and-mirrors illusion because outwardly focusing on boys was considered cheap? What happens when the career you thought would be secondary to raising a family, secondary to being accepted fully into your community, becomes the focus of your life?
Amidst the disappointment and the implication that I’ve failed because I haven’t found a man to take me in and care for me, I like focusing on what other single women decided to do with their time. I take pleasure in the accomplishments of my fellow singles — their creativity, their education, their research. I seek out their company and enjoy the atmosphere we create together, how we support one another. In a community that places more value on a unit than on the individual, and more value on the male component of that unit than on the female counterpart, my peers remind me that I can look elsewhere for encouragement.
No one’s primary definition should be their relationship to other people. Being a wife, being a mother, inherently means more about what you offer others than what you offer yourself. I hope to fulfill both roles someday. At the same time, I hate seeing women silence their potential for developing their own self in service of family.
Should I find myself reaching such milestones in due time, should I reach a point where I no longer have to decide whether I want to give a genuine thank you or burst out laughing when I hear the phrase, “Please God by you” yet again, I hope to remember what I learned from being single this long. My value comes from my actions, not my relationships. And my voice deserves to be heard.