An Orthodox Jewish woman’s mystifying journey to find marriage and meaning
Currently churning with initiatives and opinions, the Orthodox community has embarked on trying to solve the so-called shidduch crisis. Statistical surveys, dating coach training, matchmaker incentives, geographic-based programs, innovative events and plenty of finger-pointing all underscore the failure of our current processes to help those seeking to marry. Community responsibility is a good thing, and the investment of serious ongoing resources, beyond writing letters to the editor, speaks well of the observant community’s efforts to reform, tweak and bring attention to problems in our “systems.”
Addressing systemic change with care, sensitivity and understanding is the hallmark of Jews who feel that they are all one family and act accordingly. Individuals and organizations take up a challenge, doing their hishtadlus for Hashem and His people.
The recently published Unmatched, written by Sarah Lavane, a pseudonym, unpeels the layers of the individual quest for a life partner. Like the immersive experience of a visitor to a museum of the blind, the reader is plunged into an alien environment—the quest of the Jewish woman in search of a compatible mate, along with the raging emotions, the humility, grief, betrayal, despair and faith. A courageous attempt to explore the pain and the ongoing cycle of needing to please the date, the matchmaker and oneself, the book gets an A+ for achieving the author’s expressed goal of sharing the mystifying journey of a lonely woman of faith.
With vulnerability at every layer, the author, who has been dating for decades, reveals her growing self-awareness as she talks with the Ribbono Shel Olam during epic disasters and growing relationships that go nowhere. The author shares it all—from her childhood impressions of romance to her concern about what the neighbors will think (“My neighbors were passing by and staring”), her self-doubt (“What was wrong with me? Was I sabotaging myself? . . . Was I subconsciously afraid of marriage?”) and her ongoing effort to expand her dating opportunities as an open-minded, accomplished, worldly young woman.
Back when the author began dating decades ago, she didn’t have a checklist like many of today’s young people. From the start, she has been open-minded and unafraid to date people with varying cultural and observance levels. She attends Shabbatons, goes to events, meets matchmakers, uses online dating sites, volunteers in varying venues, organizes a singles event, learns with the Jewishly uninitiated, seeks berachos from holy people, implements segulos and prays for others. Why G-d, why? She’s trying so hard and she wants His grace.
The warrior who emerges pained from the struggle, yet stronger in faith, is the picture she wants the reader to take away. Ki sarisa im Elokim, for you have struggled with G-d, is not the end for this daughter of Israel. Vatuchal—and you succeeded—is. The blunt force of effort to connect with Hashem, emulating Him and bringing His G-dliness into the world, may be brutal, but it brings the woman of faith closer to Him. From the cyclical maelstroms of despair and defeat come meaning and purpose.
Sobering and inspiring though the takeaways may be, the read is an entertaining one. With deft show-don’t-tell storytelling skills, the author takes us with her on the highs and lows of the awkward dates with “Biker,” “Grandpa,” “Cool but Kind,” “Seatmate,” “Smitten,” “Goth Guy” and “Swell,” to name a few. Often there is a brief insight at the conclusion of a dating saga, hinting to us that this part of the journey has meaning. She could have used a coach to help her with this one, she was indulging in fantasy with that one, she was developing assertiveness, guilt drove her to say yes, blind dates don’t work, and vetting is better. One of her more memorable conclusions: “Men are like a pair of high-heeled shoes. They could make women feel beautiful and pained at the same time.”
The author’s style is illuminating, with a wry touch as she points to external sources of pain: being called a girl, receiving unsolicited counsel (“Compatibility, comshmatibility doesn’t matter… all you really need is a good person . . . You’ll never find someone perfect…”), the instant expertise of the recently married, the suggestions without research, the assumptions about frequent vacations (“Did people realize that singles don’t necessarily have a built-in partner to go on vacation or spend holidays with—that we often have to scramble to make plans or go solo?”), the invasive questions about age, the interview-style dater, and the dumping without closure. The biases against her Brooklyn background and other presumed biases abound. We’re there with her at uncomfortable singles weekends, therapy appointments, and dates with men of varied levels of observance. She exposes her need for intimacy, and her deepest yearnings, feelings and efforts to resolve her challenges, with authenticity and clarity. How much hishtadlus must she invest? How much effort must she put forth only to experience humiliation and pain again?
Anger at G-d is a subject for many philosophers as well as for survivors of the Holocaust. How could a benevolent G-d subject His faithful follower to so much inhumanity and atrocity?
At Rachel’s Place, the Brooklyn shelter that I helped found for young women who cannot live at home, a similar emotion is often expressed. The residents often ask: Why did You give me parents who neglected me? Parents are supposed to care for their children, and You gave me these?! As the young women work through their emotions, they often come to realize that even anger is an expression of a relationship. Telling G-d what we feel, even if it is anger, hurt and betrayal, is connection.
While deftly keeping it personal, Sarah Lavane deepens our respect for and sensitivity to the individual unmatched woman of faith. Courageously acknowledging that her physical and spiritual desires are at odds, she takes us through her dilemmas and choices. Her honesty and self-knowledge compel the awareness that we know little about the spiral of inner struggle and growth of the unmatched. Rather than condescend to an object of chesed, stand up for the lone woman of faith.
While this riveting narrative has many elements—bargaining with G-d, jealousy, gratitude and the ultimate acceptance of G-d’s mystery—some concepts are absent. The infrequency of the word “single” in the narrative, for example, struck me. Perhaps by de-emphasizing the word, the author is subtly telling the community: Don’t define me by my marital status. I’m a person with accomplishments and feelings, and I don’t want to be defined by the object of my yearning.
Loneliness is another term that seems to be missing. There is no direct discussion of this emotion in the book, but it is obvious that the writer is seeking someone to communicate with easily, to engage with, as well as to marry if he is compatible.
The lack of bitterness in Unmatched and the absence of shrill railing at our community’s processes, prejudices and preferences validates the truth of the author’s resolve. She controls herself to do the good and the G-dly that may or may not change her fate, as she grows closer to the true Controller of her destiny.
Rebbetzin Faigie Horowitz, MS, is a writer, political advocate, and nonprofit veteran who serves as the rebbetzin of Agudas Achim of Lawrence, New York. She is a co-founder of JWOW!, Jewish Women of Wisdom, a community of Orthodox midlife women.
On Being a Single Woman: Excerpts
Only You Can
Months went by and I was trying to refocus on the positive aspect of the men I was meeting. I had heard about the tile syndrome. One can walk into a room tiled with a thousand tiles and if one tile was missing, the eye would be drawn to what was missing, instead of what was there. Was I guilty of that? Was I judging men for the one thing they lacked rather than everything else they offered? I resolved to try not to do that. As much as I recognized when a man was nice or kind, if I didn’t feel I could be myself with him, if I didn’t feel our personalities or interests were anywhere in the same ballpark, if I didn’t feel I could develop a friendship, was I expected to force things and marry him? Some people offered guidance. “Oh, you’ll be so busy when you’re married; you’ll talk about the kids, you won’t need to share interests!” or “Compatibility is overrated.” None of their advice seemed sound to me and I wondered whether they were happy. Didn’t I deserve as much? Or if they were not, did they expect me to follow suit? Had they married young? Could they comprehend what I’d been through? Mostly I didn’t want advice that felt like judgment. I wanted them to introduce me to men. But those who gave unsolicited advice freely very rarely came up with a date suggestion. There were others who were sensitive and knew that single women were not overly picky. They saw the situation for what it was. They knew that as difficult as dating was for men, the odds were stacked against women. These sympathetic people were generous with their time and their encouragement, and they worked hard to come up with good suggestions. But the pool of eligible men was shrinking. As much as they helped, G-d was in control, and I needed His help more than theirs. So I prayed again and again. Please help me to do Your Will. To marry someone Jewish. To build a Jewish home. Only You can.
Excerpted, with permission, from Unmatched, p. 77.
Boys and Girls
It doesn’t matter how old you are, or if you’ve never been married in the observant world, you are considered a “boy” or a “girl.” If you are male, you are called up to the Torah in the synagogue as a bachur—a lad. The indignity of it should spur the bachelors to marriage. The older I grew, the less I wanted to date a bachur. I felt that one who had experienced the companionship of a spouse or the responsibility of children often had a certain gravitas that others who had never been married, including myself, did not. I myself was considered a “girl” but wanted to marry a “man,” not a “boy.” I had responsibilities at work, obligations toward my parents and family, volunteered as a Big Sister, and offered help to others in need, yet I felt myself living a more juvenile life than I should’ve been. I was self-centered in a way that a married person cannot be. I could leave my lights on or off, my windows open or shut, set the alarm for any hour, never wait for my turn to shower. Of course, many married people are just as selfish, often to the chagrin of their spouse and at the price of their marital harmony. . . .
As a “girl,” circumstances at times made me feel out of place, stupid, or childlike: when I stood in line with men to sell my chametz and the rabbi disregarded me; when I attended a Tishah b’Av lecture and the speaker railed against singles for causing a “new holocaust;” when a salesman in a furniture store sailed right by me to assist a young couple who had entered the store after me; when I’d be the only single in a room full of married people, or worse, as a friend related, she’d been shunted off to a children’s table at a wedding. My self-esteem and that of other “girls” worked hard at combating all these pitiable moments. I also held off on doing things, thinking I’ll do that as soon as I marry. My roommate had taken her microwave oven with her, and I had resisted replacing it for months thinking my husband would have his own and we’d buy one together. It was silly. In the same vein, the day I bought my apartment, I was in tears. Though it was fiscally wise, I had wanted to commit to a husband before committing to a mortgage. This was not the way I had imagined things happening. It took time to unpeel the layers of mental blocks preventing me from living fully.
Excerpted, with permission, from Unmatched, pp. 111-113.