January 17, 2008
On marrying out
When I was 25, my Orthodox girlfriends and I discussed at what age, if we weren't married, we might sleep with someone. The question was deeper than its "Sex and the City" nature might sound (although those girls had made that decision a long time ago).
The question wasn't just about sex. It was about our entire upbringing, what we had been raised for: to marry young, have children and build a bayit ne'eman b'Israel: propagate the Jewish people. When would we give up on this dream? At what age would we realize that our lives weren't exactly going according to the plan -- a plan conceived by our rabbis and teachers and parents and community and which seemed to work for many people but us -- and we'd have to create our own rules?
These days plenty of people in the Modern Orthodox community deviate from the plan -- it's actually common to marry after 25, 30 and still belong to the community -- so it's not as if one small deviation of the road map (sex before marriage) would necessarily consign us to excommunication. And yet, somehow we knew, when pondering the question, that it might.
Now, a decade later, I ask another similar question. At what age does a Jewish woman consider marrying out? At what age does she realize that even that part of the plan isn't working out? For me it was Plan B, something constructed haphazardly along the way, making addendums and amendments and codicils as time and circumstance demanded, OK, well, maybe I won't marry my first love, but I'll marry someone in the community.... OK, well, I'll date Conservative and Reform Jews ... or completely secular Jews ... or Jews-by-Choice that my family might not consider Jewish. It's a slippery slope, as the rabbis used to warn us: First you rip toilet paper on Shabbos and then next thing you know you're committing murder. Yes, first you don't get married at 25, and next thing you know a decade has passed and people are beginning to recommend that you give up on the entire Jewish enterprise.
OK, so maybe they're not recommending giving up on the whole Jewish enterprise -- a guy can convert, and even if he doesn't, you can raise your children Jewish, they say -- but let's be realistic here: You can barely get a guy to drive to the Westside, how easy would it be for him to change his religion? Once you go down that road, there is no guarantee. No, there's no guarantee for anything in life -- especially in marriage and children -- but if you date non-Jews, you'll probably end up marrying one; and if you marry someone who isn't Jewish, you might not have a Jewish family.
And if having a Jewish family is not important to you, and leading a Jewish lifestyle is of no importance to you, then so be it. Amen. Marry out.
But what if it is? What if you want a family, and what if you want a Jewish family. At what age does a woman have to choose?
It's not an easy choice. It's not like a choice of where to go to dinner or even what city to live in. It's a choice that can create a lot of loneliness, either way. On one hand, you may remain alone forever because you are too narrow in your dating choices. But on the other, you might find true love -- but does true love conquer a separation from your culture, your heritage, your family and your ancestors?
Who is to blame for this predicament? Is it the culture we live in that emphasizes Hollywood love and prevents us from realistic expectations? Is it the rabbis and community leaders who haven't done enough to embrace singles? Is it the problem of Jewish education that emphasizes the "marrying Jewish" part but forgets to articulate why -- the whys of which must be answered standing on more than one foot?
Or does the problem lie not within our stars, but within ourselves? Are Jewish men and women so familiar with each others' foibles (recall the old joke about the man who hates his son's fiancée because, he tells the son, "she reminds me of your mother....") that each can only find happiness outside the fold? And, for that matter, who is to say that dating outside the fold will guarantee a match either? Consider all the non-Jews permeating Jewish dating Web sites.
I don't know the answer to the question of where to assign responsibility. That is a question for our leaders, our parents, our rabbis, for the next generation. For me -- and the women approaching a certain age -- the culprit doesn't matter, really. The only question left now is, am I at that stage where I must choose?