“Are you married?”
Services had just ended, and this elderly man had made a beeline to me from the other side of the mechitzah. I hadn’t even finished daavening; my siddur was open in my lap.
“Then why are you wearing a ring on your ring finger?” The man demanded.
Taken aback, I glanced down. He was referring to the silver and amethyst ring that my mother bought me in Jerusalem when I was ten years old. It’s one of those pieces that is priceless to me, and I had slipped it on as I ran out the door to synagogue that Shabbat morning, rushing so I wouldn’t arrive late for services.
I decided to tell him the truth.
“Well, I love this old ring and wanted to wear it, and this is the only finger of mine that it fits on.”
“You know, you’re sending a mixed message to people, wearing a ring on that finger.”
I did not reply.
His furrowed brow relaxed, and the consternation in his eyes was replaced by a kind of expectation which I know only too well.
“In that case, allow me to introduce you to my son.” It wasn’t a question.
I should have said, No, thank you.
Or: Sir, I’m actually trying to finish my daavening, if you don’t mind.
Or even, Back off, dude. But I was raised to be polite, and I didn’t want to offend.
He left and returned, pulling his grown son by the elbow towards me. This concerned father seemed to be in his early seventies, and his son was clearly double my age.
“Allow me to introduce my son, the lawyer,” the father said with pride. I politely introduced myself. What followed was an awkward interaction, from which the father quickly removed himself and disappeared into the Kiddush crowd, to leave us young ones to it. The son was uncomfortable. He never met my eyes. I realized that he had been forced into this “shidduch” and was as uninterested in meeting me as I was with meeting him. After a few minutes of forced conversation, I made some apology, excused myself, and left the synagogue, my prayers cut short and my patience taxed by the experience.
If only I could say this ordeal is rare.
As an unmarried woman who moves in the Orthodox & Modern Orthodox Jewish circles, the first question I usually receive from the men I meet is either about my age or my marital status:
“How old are you?”
“Are you single?”
And sometimes, “What’s your sexual orientation?”
And my personal favorite, always asked by a complete stranger, “Can I set you up with my grandson? He’s perfect for you!”
I’m surprised every time. I wish I could say it was a male thing. But women are just as bad at this, sometimes worse. It hurts more when these questions come from women, because if I’ve made it to the women’s section without being confronted about where my “other half” is, I expect a shelter of female energy. What I often get are more questions:
“Are you married, yet? No?! But at least you’re dating someone…?!”
When I answer that one in the negative, faces turn ashen. Women step away from me, twisting their diamond bands nervously, as if my single status is contagious.
Look, I get it. Marriage is a very strong social value in Judaism. It is a religion and culture whose rabbinic and halakhic structure is designed for the family group within a community. If marriage is “the most amazing thing” in our tradition, then being single has become “the most terrible thing”.
Let’s look at a letter that represents both concepts: marriage and singlehood, then we’ll explore some better questions to ask singles whom you meet in schul for the first time.
The Soulmate Tzadi
The Hebrew letters are microcosms of incredible ideas, and this is no less true for the Tzadi. This double-headed letter is a tricky one to scribe, for good reason. According to the Ashkenazi (European) scribal tradition, this letter is written with both heads facing to the left. However, what we’ll explore now is the Sephardi (Spanish) scribal tradition, and more specifically the tradition of the Ar”i (Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, 1534-72) in which the heads of the Tzadi face away from one another.
This is because this Tzadi is the letter of soulmates.
The Ar”i explains why the heads of this special Tzadi should face away from one another by drawing on a midrash (ancient oral tradition which comments on the Torah) about Adam and Eve. Tzadi begins the word for tzelem, the divine “image” in which G!d created human beings. According to the midrash, when G!d created Adam, he was not alone. Rather, Adam and Eve were originally fashioned back to back, facing away from each other, yet joined together as a single entity.
This is where the concept of a soulmate, or one’s “other half” finds purchase in Jewish tradition.
G!d then separated Adam and Eve into two beings so that they could be an ezer kenegdo for each other. This is too often translated as “helpmeet”, whatever that means, but I would translate it differently. Ezer does mean “help” or “assist.” Yet neged means “against” or “oppose”. Indeed, this is what my late grandfather Gene Thompson z”l, the screenwriter, mystery author and scholar, called an “Opponym” phrase (his more elegant term for an oxymoron). Ezer kenegdo means “assist against” or “help by opposing” or “help opposite” one another.
G!d separated human beings into unique individuals so that we could help each other become our best selves by challenging those we love to reach their potential.
Be a Mensch
I can think of two or three gentlemen, among as many synagogues, who see me as an individual made B’Tzelem (in G!d’s image) instead of as a single Jewish woman who should hasten to the chuppah. I can always count on these Menschen to ask me about what’s inside my head instead of on my hand. They are my conversation havens.
These men will say:
“Shabbat Shalom, Devorah”
These men ask me:
“What are you reading now?”
“Any insights on the weekly parsha?”
“What does the Masorah say this week?”
My rabbi will sometimes ask, “What did you think of my speech today?” And he expects an honest, intelligent answer. These Mensches all do.
These are the conversations I can really sink my teeth into. We discuss Jewish philosophy, Torah, history, science, literature, art. We discuss current events, genetics, leadership, Jewish culture, the nature of time. In short: we discuss ideas.
I once heard a wonderful quote, attributed to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
I’m an optimist. I always anticipate a stimulating discussion of ideas with those I meet in synagogue, but unfortunately I am often disappointed.
Pushing Marriage Pushes Me Away
Let’s give all our fellow Jews who ask uncomfortable questions (and try to set us up with every Tom, Dick, and Harry that they know) the benefit of the doubt. Let’s imagine this all comes from the goodness of their Yiddishe neshamah, and that the community “just wants to see us settled already!”
But here’s the problem: Pushing marriage actually pushes singles out of synagogue. The sad truth is, I often choose to stay home from synagogue entirely rather than face a matrimonial inquisition, and that, to me, is a failure of our Jewish community.
If the goal of the community is to support Jewish singles who are trying to make Judaism an important part of their lives, my fellow millennials who are already working their tuchases off trying to support themselves financially in a tough economy, and for whom marriage is an eventual goal but often times not the priority, then confronting us about “getting married” whenever we come in the door is Not. Helpful.
I’ll be frank. Several years ago, as a young professional just out of grad school with her first full time job, I was working hard to achieve my career goals. When Shabbat arrived, I wanted to go to schul to learn, to daaven with my community, to engage in Judaism. When all I was asked was my age and marital status by nearly everyone at every synagogue I attended (they didn’t even ask me my name!) it came to be too much.
I withdrew from the community for nearly five years, partly because I didn’t need that kind of pressure in my life, partly because I was working so hard at my job(s). The wedding pressure became more painful than the pleasure of being in schul.
I’m not the only one: I’ve spoken with other singles who had the same experience and withdrew for equal amounts of time. There are some single women I know who could not endure the marriage pressure and never rejoined a Jewish community again.
Ask Better Questions
I wish I could move though the spheres of Jewish worlds and get these questions instead:
“What are your thoughts on the parsha this week?”
“What projects you are currently working on?”
“What is your profession?”
I wish I was asked more often about my writing – then I could tell people that I’m writing a novel, translating a book of family history, and maintaining this blog, on top of my multiple jobs (I admit it! I’m a bit of a multitasker).
I’d love to discuss art history, and the current exhibits in museums around town.
I want to discuss Torah.
I’d frankly be happy to discuss anything other than whether or not I’m spoken for. Don’t misunderstand me — I look forward to meeting my soulmate one day. I just don’t wish to be pushed, guilted, or even tricked into his arms.
I want to be seen as an equal member of the Jewish community, who has something unique to contribute, whether I’m wearing a sheitel or not. I want the Jewish community to recognize each human being as being made in the Image of G!d, and whose accomplishments are meaningful and important, even if that person happens to be single.
Allow me to offer some advice: The next time you see a woman with naked ring fingers in your synagogue, do a mitzvah and ask her something novel.
Inquire about her work, what she’s reading, or her take on the parsha that week. She may have recently launched her own business, finished a book, or started a new job. She might just have some wise words of Torah for you.
Ask her, “What are you passionate about?”
She may surprise you.
So for all those searching for soulmates on this Tu B’Av, the Jewish holiday of love, I pray that you find them soon. For all those who have already found ’em, cleave to your ezer kenegdo and be sensitive to those who may or may not be looking. And for all those who are single and proud, I’ll see you in shul.