Legal Issues, Politics & Religion

Staying Single When You’re Jewish

January 1, 2013
By Julia Duin

The pressure to get married runs deep in Jewish culture forcing single Jews to make tough choices about if, when and who to marry.

Staying Single When You're Jewish - Photo by Jessica Peterson

Photo by Jessica Peterson

Oy vey. Single Jews are under lots of pressure to get hitched these days.

Some ultra-conservative Jewish women are going to desperate lengths to get a guy, I learned at a “Food, Body and Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community” workshop sponsored by the Renfrew Center in Bethesda, Md. which specializes in treatment of eating disorders.

In recent years, the Renfrew staff had noticed a spike in Orthodox Jewish patients.

The Orthodox community is big on matchmaking so there’s plenty of pressure on the bride to be fit, we were told by Dr. David Hahn, who works at Renfrew’s Philadelphia center. Plus they’re expected to remain that way after the birth of several children, sometimes 10 or more. Some of these women turn on their own bodies, going bulimic or anorexic to reach that desired plateau of thinness.

The speakers at the workshop said there’s a reason for the paranoia. Sometimes the prospective groom’s family will not only want to know the girl’s dress size but also that of her mother so they can project what the bride will look like in two decades. Adrienne Ressler, a panelist at the event, told me the savvy Orthodox girl wants to be chosen by “the best groom and the best groom’s family.” She said to market their daughter, sometimes her family will post her health records online. “The pressure is to be very thin,” she said. “It’s like buying a horse.”

One reason single Jews feel under the gun to get hitched is that, theologically, the cards are stacked against them. Look at the Hebrew Bible. There is no word for “bachelor” there. A man was expected to marry and produce a family, unless he was a prophet like Jeremiah who was told by God not to marry as a sign of the imminent destruction of his society. The only categories for women are married, widowed, or virgins awaiting marriage. The concept of staying unmarried one’s entire life was unheard of. Judaism from the get-go was inhospitable to the idea of lifelong singleness.

“A lot of commandments are only fulfilled through having a family,” says Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah, a Reformed congregation in Los Angeles. “There’s a lot of pressure in the Jewish community to marry. So much of our cultural Judaism revolves around the family experience that singles are left out.

“I know a lot of single Jews. But I don’t know many Jews who are happy being single. There’s a great longing in Judaism to pass on tradition, to teach the next generation, to start families. And the Talmud (commentary on Jewish law dating from the second century A.D.) says ‘A man without a wife is not a complete man.’ In Ecclesiastes, it says ‘Two are better than one.’ I don’t know of any biblical texts that talk about not getting married.”

So, what to do? Matchmaking is an honored tradition in Judaism, as we well know from Yenta, the matchmaker in “Fiddler on the Roof.” In the 21st century, matchmakers are called “shadchanim.” Their going rate is about $1,500 per match and you can get a list of active ones on websites like www.shidduchim.info.

If you want to laugh, google “Star-K shidduch incentive program” and read how Star-K, a kosher products business in Baltimore, got into the marriage business by offering $2,500 to any matchmaker who could find a mate for one of many single Orthodox Jewish Baltimore women. Within seven months of the offer, 10 matchmakers had qualified for the grant. Today, online matchmaking sites such as the Beverly Hills-based JDate charge $40 a month to try to match up the 25 percent of America’s Jews that have never married.

David Lee, Allegro Photography

David Lee, Allegro Photography

I talked with a few folks who’d successfully used the service, which has a worldwide customer base of 650,000 members. Abby and Dan Savell of Santa Clarita is one couple who met via JDate. Married in 2003, they produced a son, Jadon, in 2008 who is now in a Jewish pre-school.

“For us, it was good not having to worry about the religious side of it,” Dan said about their dating days. “Religion can be a deal breaker for people and you don’t want to find that out too late in your relationship.”

He and his wife, it turned out, had similar views on synagogue attendance and ways of keeping kosher. Abby told me that before she decided to join JDate, she had never dated a Jewish man.

“I just wanted a place where there was a concentration of Jewish guys,” she said of the site.

A good Jewish man, followed by Jewish offspring, can be hard to find for the highly educated Jewish woman who delays marriage.

“The number one demographic in America that struggles with fertility is Reformed Jewish women,” says Rabbi Klein. “They get married so much later. They as a group are the most educated women in America. When you have a community that waits, then entering into middle adulthood – as a single – where there are families all around, is hard.”

Greg Liberman, president and COO of JDate, told me his service aims to help single Jews form Jewish families, so as to cut down on the 50 percent intermarriage rate.

“If both parents have a Jewish background, they are more likely to raise their kids as Jews,” he told me. “Every single family I’ve talked to, who has met on our site, is raising their kids Jewish.”

“Rabbis reach out to us all the time and buy subscriptions on behalf of their single congregants,” he added. “They say half the marriages they do are for people who met on JDate.”

Rabbi Klein said that one-third to one-half of all the marriages she performs are with couples who met on JDate. And that’s not just because she’s located in Los Angeles; the same high percentages of JDate couples married under the huppah at her previous job at a Connecticut synagogue, she added.

But Brooklyn Rabbi Niles Goldstein, who told me he was once a spiritual adviser to JDate, thinks no one is pressuring single Jews to marry.

“The traditional pressure within the Jewish community for Jews to marry other Jews has diminished,” he told me. “While that pressure is still present, it has lost much of its potency and power. And intermarriage has been largely accepted as a fact of life, certainly by many of the more progressive movements and rabbis. I think that for the majority of single Jews, while they would like to find a partner who shares their faith, if they don’t or if they fall in love with someone of a different religious background, they would be fine with their decision. For better or worse, romantic love trumps religious affiliation every time in today’s culture.”

Sometimes romantic love does turn up a Jewish mate, as it did with Beth, the lead character in the 2003 novel “Seven Blessings” by Ruchama King. Beth’s thoughts near the end of the book just before her wedding in Jerusalem give the upside of why being a family of one matters to God.

“I don’t want to shake being single, not entirely at least. It’s given me some things,” she says of her 39 years. “Added edge in prayer, I think. Single people pray differently. We know we’re really alone and that’s the best way to stand before God. We can’t afford to rely on a spouse’s prayers in case ours aren’t good enough.”

Copyright © Julia Duin / 2013 Singular Communications, LLC.

Julia DuinJulia Duin has worked for five newspapers over a 25-year period, including the Houston Chronicle and, most recently, at the Washington TimesShe has a master’s degree from Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and has written five books. Her latest books are “Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do About It” (2008) and “Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community” (2009); however, her first two books were on singles. She is pictured here with her daughter, Olivia Veronika, 5, who she adopted from Kazakhstan in 2007. 
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