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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.
Aug. 15, 2008
Before I, at the tender age of 22, met my lapsed Catholic future husband, my romantic life had been unimpressive to say the least.
Relationships were few and far between, and for the most part, the guys I liked rarely showed any interest in me. My luck with males of the Hebraic persuasion was particularly bad: from Eric Wald, my on-again-off-again crush from second grade through senior year of high school, to the numerous members of the kosher dining co-op at Oberlin, my overtures of affection routinely went unreciprocated.
With the exception of a quirky classmate named Mordechai who briefly stalked each co-ed he met, it seemed that non-Jewish men were the only ones who ever pursued me. An earnest vegan from Colorado, Protestant by birth but drawn to American Indian spirituality. A staunchly atheist cellist-turned-telemarketer who was way too old for me. And my most persistent suitor in college: a red-headed guy who went on to become a Methodist minister.
Granted, my limited dating experiences hardly constitute scientific evidence. To assume these Jewish guys rebuffed me because I was Jewish is reminiscent of Seinfeld's Uncle Leo blaming every slight (and perceived slight) on anti-Semitism. Despite my many charms, I was hardly the hottest babe on campus, and I doubt the Semitic objects of my affection rebuffed every single Jewess who came their way.
Nonetheless, it's a striking coincidence, and not entirely unique to me. Many of my Jewish girlfriends have found the quest for a Jewish partner extremely challenging. And in a World Jewish Digest article this spring called "The Missing Piece," Sarah Bronson (who also freelances for this paper) chronicled the unique dating travails of American Jewry's fairer sex. Like other educated, middle-class women, the article notes, Jewish females in their 30s are caught in an age squeeze, discovering that men their own age want, and can get, considerably younger mates. But in addition, Jewish women face a particular challenge: whereas they tend to seek a Jewish mate, Jewish men (outside the Orthodox community) are less likely to exhibit a preference for Members of the Tribe.
"Both statistical and anecdotal evidence provided by sociologists, matchmakers, lay leaders and singles themselves paints a picture of a dating scene in which many more women than men attend Jewish singles events; more women actively use Jewish dating sites; matchmakers are flooded with applications from women; and single Jewish women in their late 20s and 30s are panicking," Bronson writes.
While some of these women ultimately find a Jewish partner and others remain single, a number, like me, end up intermarrying.
According to Brandeis professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, author of a recent study on non-Orthodox Jewish men's growing alienation from organized Jewish life, the typical intermarried Jewish woman is quite different from the typical intermarried Jewish man. Not only are women dramatically more likely than intermarried men to raise their children as Jews, but they tend to report that, all things being equal, they would have preferred to marry someone Jewish. In contrast, men who intermarry tend to do so because they don't see religion as important, and many exhibit "toxic" images of Jewish women, Fishman writes.
In hundreds of interviews with intermarried Jews and their partners, Jewish men repeatedly described Jewish women as "demanding, overbearing, and best escaped," Fishman writes. Interestingly, the same qualities can take on a distinctly different spin when viewed through the eyes of gentile men who have married Jewish women.
"Jewish men talk about Jewish women being loud and pushy; non-Jews describe them as vivacious and assertive," Fishman tells me in an interview. "Jewish men describe Jewish women as chunky; non-Jewish men call them luscious, voluptuous."
It should of course be noted that not all Jewish men who intermarry are rejecting Jewish women or Judaism. Indeed, many give their children a Jewish upbringing--often thanks to the nudging and support of wives who, while gentile, do everything from hosting Passover seders to volunteering at the synagogue.
Nonetheless, so pervasive is the Jewish gender imbalance that in the past few years, two prominent Jewish journalists (both men married to Jewish women), have published columns suggesting the stigma against intermarriage be dropped for Jewish women racing the fertility clock.
Last summer, Los Angeles Jewish Journal Editor Rob Eshman wrote that "by clinging to the taboo against interdating, we have created a class of women only somewhat less bereft and miserable than the Hindu women once doomed to celibacy and isolation after becoming widows."
Eshman suggests that "our rabbis and community leaders need to spend less time hand-wringing and more time devising the words, teachings and institutional structures that allow Jewish women of a certain age to freely seek life partners among non-Jews, then draw those non-Jews toward the richness and beauty of Jewish life--before or during marriage."
A few years earlier, Yossi Abramowitz wrote in Moment magazine that he "would rather dance at the interfaith wedding of my Jewish female friends who will raise Jewish children than continue to cling to an outdated communal expectation that perpetuates loneliness, lacks compassion, and is bad Jewish public policy."
Obviously, as both Abramowitz and Eshman note, intermarriage is not ideal from the perspective of Jewish continuity. Even when the mother is Jewish--and thus Jewish law decrees the children to be Tribe members--it's generally harder to create a Jewish household when only one parent has a Jewish education and when half the extended family is celebrating Christmas.
Nonetheless, while I once was plagued with guilt for intermarrying, today, as I watch my husband enthusiastically read The Jewish Children's Book of Bible Stories to our 5-year-old daughter I can't say I feel too worried that our family is betraying the Tribe.
If anything, I made things a little easier for those maydelehs who are uncompromising in their quest for a Jewish partner: thanks to my choice, there's one extra Jewish man out there for the taking--assuming he hasn't been snagged already by a gentile woman.