The way it’s expressed varies in tone and intensity: a searching look, a raised eyebrow, or just the outright question: “So, when are you getting married?”
As a 28-year-old unmarried Jewish woman, this is an exchange I tend to have with many members of the tribe. From relatives to complete strangers, the topic nearly always finds its way into whatever conversation we might be having, to the point where it seems surprising when it doesn’t. And while those asking me about my marriage prospects are almost always well-meaning and easy enough to brush off, the assumptions underlying their questions—that, if not married, I should be endeavoring to marry, and should be unhappy with my lack of success so far—highlight the curious position of many young Jewish women today.
From the time I was a toddler, it was just generally assumed, by myself and everyone around me, that a key part of adulthood would be marriage. The idea was that one day I would grow up, get a job, and get married, and that this would be the true beginning of my adult life. Every conversation about “when you grow up,” every drawing, every song, every movie that played in my head, included this seemingly essential element, this future-husband.
More or less, this is how many women grow up thinking—or are expected to think. But in the community where I was raised, among Orthodox Judaism and the associated cultural norms, this expectation was ratcheted up to the next level. There was the uniquely Jewish stress of the assumed role, and obligation, of women as eventual wives. This was evident in ancient, unsubtle ways within the Jewish texts and the laws we were taught—women, for the most part, are depicted as wives before anything else, and our mitzvot (commandments) are relegated to the sphere of assumed wifehood: baking challah, lighting candles, ensuring domestic peace.
In the day-to-day reality of life in the community, these ideas were also expressed rather unsubtly: rabbis speculating about my future husband; the absence of unmarried female teachers; classes focused on our futures as wives and mothers once we hit the 12th grade. Not to mention the permeating expectation that we owed it to the Jewish community to create Jewish marriages, which would then create Jewish children, as some sort of essential duty for the propagation of our race. No pressure or anything.
I knew early on that this sort of blatant focus on marriage was not for me. These were ideas I bristled at as a then-and-still feminist. But once I grew up and left that community, and after I watched via Facebook as many of the people I grew up with got married in their early 20s (many, I assume, happily), I realized that the expectation to marry was also a central part of cultural life in many other Jewish communities as well. It is almost unavoidable, in nearly every Jewish space I encounter: eventually, someone will enquire about my status, about my prospects, and eventually, someone will edge toward attempting to partner me with someone else. Though in these more liberal Jewish communities I do not face outright scorn for being unmarried, the assumption still seems to be that I am, indeed, trying to get married, and that I am only unmarried because I haven’t found the right person.
I hate to disappoint the Jewish mothers out there, and all the voices of the Jewish mothers embedded in many of our heads, but I’m 28, I’m unmarried, and that is intentional.
Throughout my 20s, it’s come to my attention that I have been organizing my life on a different timeline than the one I have been taught. That timeline instructs young women to find The One, a single person with whom to construct a life, before it is formed, in order to form it. But that approach has always seemed off to me. My ambition is to build up my life—as just me—instead of me as a part of a couple.
What this means is not a life as a lonely spinster. Rather, it means making my life from many communities, experiences, friends, partners, and homes. It means crafting that life from a grounding that’s rooted in many people and places, of sharing meals and beds and time with people who continually help me form myself, and sharing that self with them. It means treating relationships as organic entities on their own trajectories, rather than attempting to shoehorn one particular relationship into an elevator that must go to a specific destination—namely, marriage—by a certain point in time. It also doesn’t mean there isn’t loneliness in my life—but I believe that there is loneliness in all lives, even (gasp!) in the lives of married couples.
I want to stress here that I am not “anti-marriage.” There is a certain defensiveness that comes up when I express that I am not centralizing marriage in my life right now; people understand this as a dismissal of or disdain for the marriages of other people. Obviously, for many, focusing on marriage is the right option, the thing that makes them happy, and the direction they want to take. I don’t feel above those people and I support their choices.
I also want to stress that I’m not swearing off marriage forever, point blank, on principle. If my life takes a turn in which marriage seems appropriate, then that’s the turn my life takes, and I will act accordingly. But right now, it is not a part of my immediate aspirations. I think all young women—those aspiring toward marriage and those who are not—could benefit from acknowledging that such a stance exists, and making space for it within the Jewish community.
What if, instead of asking me about my marriage goals, I was asked about my aspirations as a writer? As a citizen? As a Jew? What if we actively worked to make spaces in which what a woman thinks about the state of the world is more important as a community member than whether or not she has decided to pursue legal, monogamous matrimony? If we could be seen as women making independent choices, rather than women either fulfilling or failing to fulfill an expectation of Jewish wifehood, that means more humanity for all of us. Plus, much more interesting conversations.