August 9, 2007
Our Hindu Widows
I hear too many stories about the lack of available Jewish men, the first dates who are too lost or too pathetic, the fights over marriage and children that end the relationship and send the woman, now a bit older, diving back into the ever more shallow pool.
But I don't blame these women, of course not.
I blame rabbis.
They see the same lonely, sensational women I do: a slim, passionate Hollywood executive pushing 40 who simply, desperately, still seeks the elusive nice Jewish guy. A brilliant doctor with a runner's body who, at 44, still can't find "the one." A writer who asks me to keep my eye out for any Israelis new to town, because she figures she's dated most of the native Jews. A marketing executive who has given up on finding the right Jewish man: "If it happens, it happens."
I ask her if she still wants children, and she says, "More than anything." And tears come to her eyes.
I talked with four of these women over the space of three days last week, all wondering if I had come across any single Jewish men. I mentioned a name. Here's what happened: They had already dated the guy. I mentioned another name. Already dated him, too: At 41, he was not quite ready to settle down. A straight, eligible Jewish man in his 40s gets around this town faster than the weekend box office numbers.
Yes, this is a problem for non-Jewish women, as well, but if your requirements for potential dates includes "must be Jewish," you suddenly rule out 94 percent of potential males. There aren't enough marriageable Jewish men out there. Period. It's a game of musical chairs, and someone is going to get left out.
So these women go to their rabbis, and the rabbis wring their hands and commiserate. They also give sermons about the evils of intermarriage, about the scourge of assimilation. They might, taking a proactive approach, arrange some speed dating or singles mixer program at their shul.
Does any of this work?
Well, it hasn't for the women I know. We all know women like them, and the numbers bear it out: Later marriage means lower fertility, and outside of the Orthodox world, Jewish birthrates are plummeting.
"In a community that has long-since ceased to replace its natural losses, continued low fertility rates mean that the number of children in the communal pipeline will soon drop sharply," Jewish Theological Seminary Provost Jack Wertheimer wrote in a well-known 2005 Commentary essay, "causing a decline over the next decade in enrollments in Jewish schools and other institutions for the young."
Wertheimer's proffered solution was for liberal Jewry to promulgate the lessons and values of Orthodoxy, which, of course, result in far less intermarriage. Get women out of schools and workplaces and into marriage beds sooner, said Wertheimer. Reinforce the taboo against interdating and intermarriage.
"In the face of today's secular norms," Wertheimer wrote, "the Orthodox call on an additional source of strength: the power of Jewish norms and obligations."
Wertheimer's heartfelt attempt at a solution might help a bit, but it is more wishful than wise. It also fails to address the more pressing human tragedy behind these numbers: datelessness, loneliness and childlessness for the women we know and love.
A more practical and immediate answer lies just outside these women's doorstep: interdating.
There, I said it.
By clinging to the taboo against interdating, we have created a class of women only somewhat less bereft and miserable than the Hindu women once doomed to celibacy and isolation after becoming widows. What kind of tribe condones this? Why are single women the only class of people punished for keeping faith with Jewish peoplehood? When I asked one of these women if she would consider dating non-Jews, her answer was visceral.
"I can't believe you're suggesting that!" she said. "So much of what's important to me is Jewish: My values, my philanthropy, my activities."
But if her rabbi encouraged her to find the right man, regardless of his religion, then opened his or her arms to that man with programs, classes and encouragement -- wouldn't that increase the odds of happiness all around?
I ran the idea by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the American Jewish University and an authority on Jewish law.
"It's very complicated," Dorff said, "It is cruel to say to a woman in her 40s better you should remain unmarried than date a non-Jew,'" Dorff said. "On the other hand, how do you say to people in their 20s only look for Jews, but then tell people in their 30s and 40s, if you haven't found any, maybe you should date non-Jews?"
On the other hand, Dorff said, there are many rules we apply to younger people that we change or adjust as we age.
Clearly this is an idea the Conservative and Reform movements need to revisit, now.
The irony is that the women for whom Jewish identity is the strongest may have the least chance of passing that identity on. Our taboos have consigned them to be exiles among exiles, outcasts among outcasts. Like the Hindu widows in the movie, "Water," they pay a terrible price for an inflexible idea.
Our rabbis and community leaders need to spend less time hand-wringing and more time devising the words, teachings and institutional structures that allow Jewish women of a certain age to freely seek life partners among non-Jews, then draw those non-Jews toward the richness and beauty of Jewish life -- before or during marriage.
Yes, marrying Jewish is the ideal. Dating Jewish is the ideal. But what our inability to find creative solutions gets us is a massive group of single women who are facing their 40s childless. We have numerous opportunities to argue statistics and write essays for Commentary -- they have one shot at childbearing.
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