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When I was single, I spent a lot of time on OKCupid. But when I got Jean’s message, I’d never seen her profile before. My filter was set to see only women up to age 33. I was 37. Jean was 36.
I wasn’t ageist—at least that’s what I tell myself—but I want to have kids. When I did the math in my head—1 year minimum dating + 1 year minimum engagement + 1 year minimum to have a baby—the math got hard. There were other things to be wary of. She was a teacher. I had dated teachers before and was looking for something different. And then, under religion: “Catholic.”
When you’ve spent enough time on dating sites, you know what it means (or what you think it means) when someone who isn’t Jewish mentions their religion. It’s a big, almost political, statement. It means their religion means something to them. It means they knowingly are excluding a significant number of potential suitors who are actively anti-religious, non-religious or uncomfortable with the whole topic. And it probably excludes another not insignificant number of people who are wary of anyone being too serious about anything on OKCupid.
My profile said “Jewish.” But “Jewish” comes with a lot more useful flexibility than “Catholic.” When people write “Jewish,” they could be declaring an important part of their identity. Or, they could be sharing an interesting detail, a conversational topic for late in a good first date. They could be including “Jewish” for other Jews on the site who will only date Jews, as a way to make it through their filter. Occasionally, people write “Jewish” because they’re actually religious. Then again—most of those people are on JDate instead.
I wasn’t against dating someone who wasn’t Jewish. But I want to raise my kids Jewish. “Catholic” signaled a different intention.
But she was cute. She was rock-climbing in one picture. She held a (good) beer in another. There wasn’t a pink Red Sox hat or Macchu Picchu picture in sight. I liked her message to me: It was thoughtful. She had read my profile. She appreciated that I noted that I was aware that my job description sounded “douchy.” (I’m a business strategy consultant for the telecom industry. It does sound douchy.) I liked that. Also, I had recently broken up with somebody—a “perfect on paper” and Jewish, but not so perfect a match in reality, somebody—and was still kind of beat up about it. So I wasn’t looking for anything serious at this point. I figured we could have fun for a little while.
She was late for our first date. Not terribly late, only 15 minutes or so.
“I’m sorry, I’m a time optimist,” she said, a little out of breath. She didn’t seem sorry.
“It’s OK. I used to be a punctuality Nazi,” I said. “But I’ve mellowed.”
On our fourth date, she came over to my apartment.
By this point, I knew I liked her. She was smart. She was funny and self-deprecating but confident. She was a great listener. We always had something to talk about. But she didn’t fit my script. The age, the profession, the religion, a vegetarian to boot. It sounds shallow—and it is. But online dating’s greatest attraction (and no doubt its deepest flaw) is that it offers the promise of enough choice to find someone who actually fits your script. No settling necessary.
Liking her carried another danger, more significant than the risk of going off-script. Permanence. Permanence with somebody who cares enough about their religion that they include it on their online dating profile. Permanence with somebody who may feel strongly about raising her children Catholic, and will probably have better, clearer reasons for doing so than I do for wanting to raise my kids Jewish.
We were lying in bed, smiling at each other.
I asked her the question I knew could end things.
“Soooo…,” I said, turning toward the ceiling. “This Catholic thing. What does it mean for you, in terms of how your kids are raised?”
She sat up. She seemed intrigued, not anxious, about the serious turn the conversation had taken.
I wasn’t sure what answer I wanted to hear.
“Well. When a guy says they’re Jewish on their online profile, I know it usually means he wants to raise his children Jewish. I wouldn’t have sent you a message if I weren’t prepared to do that.”
“Seriously!” she said. “I go to church because I was raised Catholic. But I would probably be Muslim if I were raised Muslim. Or be Jewish if I were raised Jewish. I just want my children to be raised in a religion. What religion that is is less important.”
This was someone to take seriously. What kind of person thinks a first message on OKCupid all the way through to child-rearing? Or rather, what kind of person actually makes a decision about a major life compromise they’d be willing to make before they hit Send? I knew she was thoughtful, but this was another level.
But this wasn’t just a hurdle cleared, or even just a deep source of potential future conflict addressed early on and head-on. It was a gift, yes—as it is for all Jewish people whose partners are willing to make this compromise. It was also a challenge.
When two Jewish people decide to have a family, this kind of conversation can be put on the backburner. Regardless of whether they send their kids to Hebrew school or whether they observe Shabbat, the parents can be confident their children will identify as Jewish. Two Jewish parents + bagels and lox + appreciation for Woody Allen movies = Jewish upbringing. But when your partner who puts “Catholic” on her OKCupid profile says, “I just want my children to be raised in a religion,” she is laying down a challenge: If you are making me sacrifice sharing my religion with my children, then you better be ready to share yours. Bagels and lox + Woody Allen movies ≠ Jewish upbringing. This means Hebrew school, bar mitzvahs, weekly Shabbat perhaps, talking to your children about God…
What had I gotten myself into?
One of my favorite holidays is Hanukkah, and for that, I give a lot of the credit to the Beerorah. The Beerorah is something that my fiancé Derek and I came up with the first Hanukkah we were dating – well, really it’s a gift pack from He’Brew brewing company (a division of Schmaltz brewing) that his best friend had given him when the friend found out he was dating me.
We joke that the Beerorah combines our two loves: “My love of God with his love of beer.” And Derek really does love beer – it’s his hobby in a true aficionado’s way. I have learned more about craft beer in the four-and-a-half years we’ve been together than most people learn in a lifetime, and we love to visit beer bars and breweries just to try new and rare beers. Also he and his best friend have a collection of over 500 bottles of (craft) beer, carefully inventoried in their “beerventory.”
As for me though, the love of God part is apt too. A Conservative Jew, Judaism has always been a large part of my identity. Growing up, I attended synagogue every Saturday because I wanted to – not only to gain guidance from the Rabbi’s sermons or to enjoy the serene satisfaction of the silent Amidah (one of my favorite prayers), but because it was the center of the social circle for my friends and I. Go on a date? Having family drama? Meet at synagogue and we can discuss it.
But going to synagogue and practicing Judaism were also integral to my identity in part because of the climate in which I grew up. I am from Riverdale, NY – home of eight or nine different synagogues and many many Jews. Nonetheless, my synagogue was swatstikaed one weekend when I was in Hebrew School. On the night before Kol Nidre (the holiest night of the year) a year or two after September 11th, our synagogue was firebombed with Molotov cocktails. We attended services while eager news crews waited outside to interview us and have gone through metal detectors and pat downs with varying regularity ever since. So my Judaism and its essentialness to my identity came in part from the fears to my safety that came with it – and the way those fears bound my group of close friends and I together to the community and to each other.
That said, it was never essential to me to date a Jewish guy. I greatly enjoyed learning about different religions and cultures and watching people experience aspects of Judaism for the first time. I always had a strong opinion about how I wanted to observe Judaism and had my own relationship with God. I knew that my kids will be Jewish, that I am Jewish, that my family is Jewish, that I will never be anything but Jewish. And honestly, I knew I needed a laid back low-maintenance sports fan kind of guy – I wasn’t sure I would necessarily find that within the Jewish community.
You can say “Oh, but traditions! But continuity! But faith!” but I have also found that Derek has been much more respectful of my faith and practice than the Jewish guys I’ve dated. One got mad at me for not answering the phone while I was at a Friday night Shabbat dinner. I got in a heated argument with another who asked, “But WHY do you believe? WHY do you have faith? Where’s the rational proof that God exists?” Both were the moments when I knew the relationships wouldn’t work out. The Beerorah was one of the first examples of Derek’s openness and respect of my faith. And when we light it together each Hanukkah (this year was its fifth iteration), it reminds me of that – that we can meld what matters to us together to create something just as wonderful (or more wonderful) than the original. I haven’t compromised anything – I’m still Jewish, and I still have my love of God and my observance. He still has his love of beer. And we both have each other.