My parents’ old car (a Ford LTD sedan, as I recall) had a red button affixed near the dashboard marked “Panic Button.” As soon as I learned what “panic” was, I asked the question: What happened if you pushed it? The answer: It was a gag button, so nothing happened. Maybe it was to remind you not to panic, because it never helps, and there’s no magic button to push to reset time and return you to your pre-panic moment.
Years later, the Singles Crisis arrives: It is the capitalized subject matter of lectures, panels and events, attended by singles, marrieds, professors, demographers and rabbis in the Jewish community. For those of you just joining this conversation, here’s a quick recap: Because today’s Jewish singles are “choosing” to marry and have children later (if at all), the Jewish people are not reproducing quickly enough.
Many men claim to be ready for something serious, while their dating behavior indicates otherwise. Many women realize panicking is pointless while others panic into a desperation that frightens “the living date-lights” out of their male potential counterparts. And all of us singles are to blame, because of our choices, our sense of entitlement, our independence and self-emancipation from traditional communities and communal expectations.
Never mind the Jewish creative initiatives, which may be at a possible all-time high; extinction as a people is the palpable possibility. If there is a panic button for Jewish continuity, I think we can safely consider it pushed.
From this pack of the uncoupled emerges 27-year-old Doree Lewak, a single friend of mine, with a new book about panic, beyond the borders of synagogue and academic studies: “The Panic Years: A Guide to Surviving Smug Married Friends, Bad Taffeta, and Life on the Wrong Side of 25 Without a Ring.” Once I catch my breath from reading the title aloud, and check Lewak’s Web site (http://thepanicyears.com), I feel it. Twenty-five? If 25 demands panic, what does 35 (or 45) call for?
“I can’t ignore the reality: Millions of women are panicking into their pillows at night about it ‘not happening for them,’ and many comprise the sub-25 set,” Lewak says when challenged. “If someone is hardwired to panic, she’ll panic at 22 or 25 or 35.”
I supposed that if you’re panic-inclined, it’s efficient to get singles panic out of the way, clearing the way for day school tuition panic in your 30s.
The Jewish community seems inclined to panic, early and often. But perhaps panic isn’t solely a Jewish domain.
“I think that certain religions, and especially Jews, do process the panic “differently than perhaps more mainstream communities,” Lewak opines. (Panic is an entity that Lewak capitalizes throughout her book, and even in her speech, you swear that you begin to hear the uppercase letter.)
The source of this pressure is “front and center,” the young author says, pointing to the first mitzvah in the Torah: “P’ru ur-vu,” she says, “‘Be fruitful and multiply’ is hard to ignore or to take lightly. So Judaism has the makings of the mantra ‘Born to panic!’ It’s as much the fault of the dating landscape here as it is women’s self-imposed pressure/imperative to marry.”
But panic should be a two-way street: Who’s putting the “man” in such a “mantra”?
“The Panic Years do affect men, but it’s calibrated differently for them ... around 36, or when the last bottle of Propecia is recalled, and then they have no choice but to settle down,” she jokes.
Of course, we all know that panic isn’t about an open patch of pate; it’s about an open state of mind, which can be good or bad news, depending. “The key to finding a ‘PF’—that’s Potential Fiance(e), in Lewak’s bookspeak—“is that open-mindedness in the search; sometimes when we cast such a narrow view for the kind of guy we think we want, it’s almost always impossible to find him.”
Because Lewak was my friend before I ever learned she was writing a dating book, I worried that her published expertise in “Panic Years” would hurt her dating prospects.
“There is absolutely no shame in admitting you want to look for a serious relationship,” she assured me. “We should be able to have a dialogue about this very legitimate and widespread phenomenon without worrying about ‘outing ourselves’ as closeted panickers.
“Making yourself vulnerable and talking openly about the existence and presence of the Panic Years is the marker of strength; denying its very existence and becoming overly defensive about it is fooling no one but you.”
Esther Kustanowitz sometimes panics when her laptop battery runs down too low, but knows which panic button to push (the manual reboot). You can reach her at email@example.com.