This article was first published on July 1, 2000 in Conversely, an online publication. Until the website vanished from the Internet around 2014 or so, this was easily the most popular article I had written to date. I would constantly get emails and comments, and I was even asked by another online publication to write an update a decade later (that one is coming in another post). Thanks to the Wayback Machine I was able to retrieve a copy and am posting it here.
Single Jewish Female: Dating Within the Faith
When two people get together, the combination is much more than merely that of a man and a woman. It’s all about compatibility: hobbies, interests, careers, and even finances come into play. And if you add religion to the mix, it gets more complicated – especially if your family and community expect you to date and marry within your faith. But what happens if you are a member of a religious minority? You get caught in the middle of a tug of war between the desire to share your life with someone of your own faith and the desire to share your life – period.
Flash cut to Edmonton, a city in Western Canada, population 750,000. A large cosmopolitan city that reflects a cross-section of cultures. I’m Jewish. How does this fit into the overall makeup of the city? Well, the Jewish community here numbers around 6,000, give or take. Usually take, as people are coming and going all the time – the younger folks tend to head off to Toronto or to the States. Edmonton has the third highest intermarriage rate in the country (intermarriage being defined by most Jewish religious bodies as a union between a Jewish person and an unconverted gentile).
Despite these odds, what has been the rallying cry since my childhood? ‘You’ve got to marry someone Jewish!’ yell my adamant parents, who are from New York, by the way, and have always seemed somewhat oblivious to the pervasive culture that surrounds them – although I think they have finally noticed a significant lack of kosher restaurants.
In my youth I was not even permitted to date a young man who was not Jewish. If I remember correctly, my parents’ logic went something like this: ‘Not every inter-date leads to intermarriage, but every intermarriage began with an inter-date.’ This chant was recited frequently during high school, when marriage was not even a remote possibility.
As I got older, and the pool of available men started to shrink, I began to dabble in mixed-faith relationships. This got my mother so riled up that she resorted to what I call ‘hyper-tactics’ – getting so exasperated with me she would start to hyperventilate. Conjure in your mind a Brooklyn accent somewhere between Rosie O’Donnell and Barbara Walters: ‘Oy vey,’ she would cry, ‘What are you doing to me? This is like a knife through my heart!’ I made the conscientious decision to reveal as little as possible about my personal life to my family.
‘Oy vey,’ she would cry, ‘What are you doing to me? This is like a knife through my heart!’
I’ve maintained my code of nondisclosure to this day, dating a variety of men from different backgrounds even as I’ve struggled with family pressures to seek out and mate with a Jewish man. I often find myself wondering how important it is for me to be with someone of the same religion. To be honest, and to the heart-broken gasps of my parents, I do not think it is absolutely necessary since I am not what one would call a pious Jew. I guess this issue matters more if you are religious, sharing common values and beliefs, but here in my city, where Jewish people my age span the gamut of not observant (going out dancing and to movies on the Sabbath), really not observant (only going to synagogue on the High Holidays), to absolutely, positively, definitely not observant (dining out and enjoying the bacon double cheeseburger special), the differences between a Jewish person and a Christian (or whatever other faith a person happens to be) are not as striking. As a result, those who stay in this fair city tend to marry out. Hey – if the intermarriage rate is over fifty percent in New York, do you really expect it to be better in the Yiddish boondocks?
In an effort to ‘help’ those of us who are single and looking, well-meaning but pushy friends and relatives sometimes decide to take matters into their own hands. Matchmaking is an integral part of Jewish social life – anyone who has ever seen Fiddler on the Roof knows that. What a joy it is to have a ‘yenta,’ a busybody matchmaker, in my own family – my father. Let’s see – when I was in university there was a nice-looking Jewish fellow with whom my father and I were both acquainted. One evening my dad, with his notorious ‘I am so happy I am going to burst’ smile on his face, came into my room and said, ‘I hear you met Alex Schect.’ He had such high hopes, I had to give him credit for trying. It didn’t work out – both my father and I lost interest when we found out Alex was a triple felon with assault and credit card fraud on his rap sheet.
Then there was Frat Boy. Frat Boy was someone my father knew since he was a small child. One day he came home after synagogue raving about him. To my dad, this young man was a fine, upstanding young Jewish gentleman. Standing by my belief that anyone is worth meeting once, I joined this person for coffee and listened to dazzling anecdotes about his drinking exploits – like the time he spent the night at a fraternity party with a lampshade on his head. Eventually, I made up some excuse about having to get back to work, and cut the whole thing short.
Not satisfied with his track record, my father recently decided, in the ultimate act of parental matchmaking, to enlist the assistance of the new rabbi. This rabbi is eager to score brownie points by trying to fix up every single Jewish person – and now thanks to Dad he has my phone number. No one has called me yet, and I’m thankful. I don’t know if I could handle another of these all-star dates.
Sometimes I honestly wonder if I am going out of my way looking for a Jewish guy for my own reasons or just to please my parents. I guess it is a little of both. For all of their nagging and pleading (‘Please let the guy you marry be Jewish. I am asking you both in digital and analog,’ my father said to me one day), my parents do have a point. You naturally have more in common with someone if you share the same cultural background. And then there is the question of children. Would they be raised with the same values and traditions with which I was raised, or would they assimilate into the dominant culture like so many of my fellow Jews? I can’t imagine myself as being anything but Jewish, in a cultural sense at least. As for kids, probably best to worry about that when they happen.
Do all these questions even matter? In today’s society, it seems like anything goes in the name of love. As soon as you feel that ‘spark’ for someone, you are supposed to drop everything – including what you believe in – and run for the altar with Mr. or Ms. Right. Most of my friends, including some Jewish ones, think it is ridiculous to limit your choice of potential mates on the basis of religion. After all, it is so hard in general to find someone with whom you can have a ‘meeting of the minds.’
I wonder if I’m going out of my way looking for a Jewish guy for my own reasons or to please my parents.
Obviously, for someone like me whose religious observance only goes as far as abstaining from certain foods, the level of Jewish practice is not really an issue. Any Jewish customs I happen to maintain are a result of my upbringing. I have lived my entire life avoiding pork, bacon, and other delicacies of the ‘oink’ kind – why start now? There is enough food in the world to eat. And believe, me, I don’t look like I am starving.
However, for some of the Jewish men I have dated, it has been an issue. They viewed my miniscule adherence to tradition as one step away from running off to seminary school to become a rabbi. One potential paramour nervously asked me if I would be offended, should we go out to eat, if he ate a pizza with bacon on it. Needless to say, I usually do not go for a second date with these guys. Someone once described it to me like this: the modern-day secular Jewish man is looking for the ‘virtual Shiksa’ – a woman who happens to be born Jewish, but does nothing to reflect her identity to the rest of the world. She observes none of the customs or laws; is tall, blonde, and slim; and her knowledge of Judaism is limited to whatever was taught in day school.
Ironically, the gentile men I date seem to be more understanding and accepting of me. Perhaps it is the old ‘opposites attract’ mechanism at work: they view me as different and exotic (although I do hope they see more in me than that). And because I am not strictly religious, it is easy to assume that my values and beliefs do not stray that far from those of the average gentile person who lives a good, moral life.
Still, dating non-Jewish men has not been problem-free. One man I went for coffee with once – and he was someone I knew for a long time and assumed was intelligent and enlightened – out of the blue started a diatribe about how the Holocaust takes away the world’s focus from genocide in other places like Cambodia and Croatia. Another man I dated once – accent on the once – just as suddenly started drawing comparisons between the treatment of Palestinian Arabs in Israel, and the mass extermination of Jews during the Holocaust.
The Jewish man is looking for the ‘virtual Shiksa’ – a Jewish woman who does nothing to reflect her identity to the rest of the world
These ‘non-kosher’ experiences, in many ways, lead me to believe that there is something to be said for staying within my ethnic circle. However, it appears that in the social milieu in which I live, unless one toes the party line (in other words, you can be Jewish, but not too Jewish, as one man said to me), or completely assimilates and loses all traces of his or her identity and the cultural baggage that comes with it, finding that special someone is all that more difficult. I am not getting any younger, and my yearning to share my life with someone special is only getting stronger. So, I have decided to live my life day by day, continuing to meet a variety of people. If a wonderful, caring, Jewish man (who preferably does not drink heavily and has no criminal record) comes into my life, that would be absolutely terrific. But at this point, I’m not banking on it.