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In Melbourne Shabbat begins Fri 21 Jul 2017 05:05 PM and ends Sat 22 Jul 2017 06:06 PM
ח' תמוז ה' אלפים תשס"ח
People often compare dating to interviewing for a job. In the Orthodox Jewish world, this notion is taken almost literally.
Upon returning from post-high-school studies in Israel, young Orthodox women (such as myself) meet with recruiters, commonly known as shadchanim (matchmakers). After determining whether the young woman wishes to marry a "learner" (a man studying full time in yeshiva), an "earner" (a professional) or a combination of the two, the shadchan collects the prospective bride's "shidduch résumé," detailing everything from education and career plans to dress size, height, parents' occupations and synagogue memberships. The shadchan then approaches a suitable single man or, most likely, his parents -- who add the woman to their son's typically lengthy "list."
Before agreeing to a noncommittal first date, the man's parents begin a thorough background check that puts government security clearance to shame. Phoning references isn't enough -- of course they'll say good things -- so they cold-call other acquaintances of the potential bride, from camp counselors to college roommates. The questions they ask often border on the superficial: "Does she own a Netflix account?"; "Does she wear open-toed shoes?" (The correct response may vary depending on how Orthodox a woman the man is looking for.)
Just as the economy is headed to recession, the shidduch system is in crisis mode. Or so the rabbis moan, noting the surplus of women eager to marry and the corresponding shortfall in the quality and quantity of available Jewish men. It's not that there are more Orthodox women than men out there; experts instead attribute the shortage to the broader sociological trend of postponing marriage, which works to the disadvantage of women looking for spouses their own age or just a few years older. Men who are 30 will date women as young as 18 and may turn their noses up at dating any woman past the age of 25. The 20% or 30% of women who don't get hitched right away begin to worry they'll be left out in the cold for good.
Sensing this shift of power, mothers of sons who remain in the matchmaking system increase their demands: Any prospective daughter-in-law must be a size two, or a "learner" son must be supported indefinitely by the girl's parents. For men, "it's a buyer's market," says Michael Salamon, a psychologist and author of "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (2008). "And the pressures of dating are creating all kinds of social problems, such as eating disorders and anxiety disorders. It's frightening."
I used to shrug off this talk. Genocide in Darfur is a crisis; being single at 23 is not. But the communal pressure is hard to ignore. Orthodox Judaism, like most traditional faiths, is geared to families; singles lack a definitive role.
Then there's what social worker Shaya Ostrov calls the "popcorn effect." During the first two to three years following high-school graduation, 70% to 80% of Orthodox women get married; weddings then peter off. "The system works for a very limited period of time," says Mr. Ostrov, the author of "The Inner Circle: Seven Gates to Marriage." Friends of mine compare dating to musical chairs; nobody wants to end up an "old maid," and so they get engaged, hoping doubts will prove unfounded. "Young women," notes Sylvia Barack Fishman, professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University, "are often made to feel that they are damaged goods if they have not married -- and married well -- by their early 20s."
Part of the problem is the increased number of "serial daters" who, as Ms. Fishman says, are "shopping for perfection." When Mr. Ostrov runs workshops, he asks male participants in their early 30s how many girls they have dated. "One hundred seventy-five is not an unusual number," he says. "Dating" in these cases usually ends after just one or two meetings with each girl.
Many men admit that their refusal to commit themselves to a woman stems from fear of making a mistake. The only thing worse than being an "older single" male, it seems, is being a 25-year-old divorcé with two children. It is women, though, who are usually more stigmatized by a split. Indeed, one big problem in the Orthodox community is the "Post-Shidduch Crisis."
"We're seeing more and more recently married, young Orthodox Jews getting divorced," says Mr. Salamon, who estimates that the divorce rate among the Orthodox has risen to an alarming 30% in the past five to 10 years. (Hard data are difficult to come by, Mr. Salamon says, because the Orthodox shun research studies for fear of harming their own or their children's shidduchim.)
The core of the problem is that young marrieds don't know how to accommodate each other, says Mr. Salamon. And singles need to start asking the right questions. "Family history has nothing to do with whether you'll make a good husband or wife," he says. The rigid, interview-style questioning is only wreaking havoc: "They're looking for some sort of guarantee. But who can guarantee happiness?"
Ms. Snyder is a staff reporter at The Jewish Week.