The first time it happened, a well-dressed woman with ebony tresses and ample perfume pulled me aside during Kiddush and said, "Excuse me, are you married?"
She grabbed my right hand and glared at my naked finger.
"No, I'm not married," I replied.
"Are you Jewish?"
"Am I Jewish?" I thought, incredulous. I'm in temple, on Shabbat. This is not a pashmina draped over my shoulders. It's a tallit.
"How old are you?"
"Very good," she said, all smiley and nodding.
She meant "very good" not because she felt Jewish-feminist pride that a single young woman is attending Shabbat services, but because my answer affirmed that I have six more childbearing years before I turn 30.
"I have a son! He is handsome, a lawyer. Can he call you?"
I know how to handle men, but their mothers? An entirely different challenge. Until I moved to Los Angeles, I had never been "hit on" by women. Now women twice, thrice, even four times my age (I call them mothers-on-the-prowl) approach me nearly every Shabbat. Sometimes, they attack in the middle of the Amidah.
The interrogation usually happens in this order: marital status, ethnic/religious status, age. This maternal screening/courting ritual is difficult to deter. If I'm feeling naughty, I slip a ring on my index finger then stay silent after question No. 1.
At first, I was naÃ¯ve. I dished out my Jewish Journal business cards like I had a thousand gathering dust on my desk. I didn't really think they'd call.
I've since learned that Jewish mothers out to wed their sons have the chutzpah to persist until the messiah arrives. Oh did they call -- reminding me that we met on Shabbat and that their handsome, corporate finance, lawyer/surgeon/mogul/magnate sons were going to ring.
Flattery turned to frustration. Could I stomach all these dates with men who were complete strangers? Did I want to date a man whose mother was doing his dirty work?
I dealt with the phone and e-mail dating inquiries with "busy"excuses or ignored them altogether. It's easy to delete a voicemail from a guy you've never met, but negotiating the fragile terrain of The Mother Set-Up is fraught with sensitive social etiquette I'm not well versed in.
How do you explain -- in person ï¿½"to an overbearing Jewish mother that you have zero interest in being set up with her sensational offspring?
You don't. So it continued, every Shabbat when three or four or five mothers, grandmothers and even sisters would repeat the weekly ordeal:
"I have a son. He's in real estate. A good business. Very handsome!"
"I have a brother. He's 40, a plastic surgeon, very handsome!"
"I have two sons. Both doctors, very handsome. Have your pick!"
I stopped bringing the cards to temple because I thought I might be fired if my editors ever listened to my voicemail.
Then things changed. It started happening during services -- a tap from behind, "Excuse me, are you married?"
"No, but do you think this could wait until after the rabbi's sermon?"
So The Mothers would whip out their pens.
"Here, please. Write your phone number. My son will call you."
I attend a Conservative synagogue and haven't picked up a pen since one of the cantors reprimanded me for taking notes during a Shabbat lecture.
I started telling The Mothers that I do not give out my number on Shabbat. They laugh; then they ask again.
One providential morning, an attractive mother in hot pink satin gave me the third degree and went to fetch her son. I snuck into the sanctuary, hoping to disappear in the rabbi's lecture, but the next thing I knew The Mother and The Son were sitting right behind me, patiently waiting half an hour for an opportunity to arrange the shidduch. Ugh!
After some chit-chat, The Mother suggested her son and I exchange phone numbers. To give us privacy she stepped a few feet away.
I wondered if she'd want an adjoining room on the honeymoon.
I walked away deflated. He wasn't even cute. But something more bothered me: Mothers elicit the desire to please, which makes my refusal -- and me ï¿½"disappointing; as if they pose a challenge I can't meet. And maybe it hurts a little that their community embrace begins and ends with marriage machinations. Or perhaps, the sheer persistency is convincing me I might be wrong to doubt them.
I remind myself that I possess my own romantic dreams which do not include being followed three floors down into the parking garage in pursuit of a phone number. I'm not Britney Spears or a flank steak.
I guess I'm deceiving them by projecting the image of a woman who's ready for that kind of arrangement. With my remaining childbearing years, I plan to hold out for the moment when I see him across the room, and our eyes meet like two souls dancing.
But I gotta hand it to 'em -- those masterful mothers. If only their sons knew what they wanted in a woman as much as The Mothers know exactly what woman they want for their sons.