Why finding a Jewish husband is no cakewalk
Meet Daniel: he’s 31 years old, grew up in a Conservative home and now considers himself “Reconstructionist, if I have to affiliate myself at all.” Living in a small college town, highly educated and extremely social, Daniel (who declined to provide his last name) dates almost constantly, but says that only about 15 to 20 percent of the women he dates are Jewish. A woman’s Jewishness “is not that important,” he says.
“For my parents, it’s important that I marry someone Jewish. But for me, being Jewish is a plus, but I’d be happy to marry someone not Jewish if we have other things in common,” he explains. “I feel there is a much bigger division between those who are observant of any religion [and] those who are non-observant than there is between religions.” He would therefore rather that his children be “unobservant Christians” than very religious Jews.
Now meet “Jacqueline” (who wished to remain anonymous): she is 32, also grew up in a Conservative home, lives in New York City and works in the non-profit sector. She is funny and smart and wants to get married – specifically to a Jewish man. “I want my children to grow up with Jewish values and be part of the Jewish community,” she says. “It’s important for a married couple to have those common values and a similar heritage.”
Yet Jacqueline has had a hard time finding a suitable Jewish mate. “My friends and I talk about it all the time,” she says. “It’s a major problem. You have fantastic women who are beautiful, intelligent, warm, great to be around, who have senses of humor and want to be wives and mothers, to be part of a couple – and we are not able to do that because the men are not in the same place.”
Jacqueline and Daniel are both indicative of a phenomenon well-known among Jewish communal leaders and dating experts. What is commonly referred to as the Jewish “singles crisis,” and in Orthodox communities as the “shidduch crisis,” appears to affect women more drastically than men, both practically and emotionally. 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 20’s and 30’s are panicking.
As well they should be, sociologists say. As difficult as the “dating scene” can be for many men, it is often more challenging for the fairer sex, especially in the Jewish community. Jewish women, particularly Orthodox ones, are even more likely than non-Jewish women to be caught in the “age squeeze,” the phenomenon of women in their 20’s who think they have plenty of time to get married, only to discover in their 30’s that men their age prefer to date younger women. What’s more, highly educated and professionally accomplished Jewish women have a harder time finding mates because their achievements and success can be intimidating to potential partners.
Perhaps most painful, especially for those in the Reform and Conservative movements, is that Jewish men are increasingly alienated from synagogue and communal life – and some hold active antipathy toward Jewish women. A monograph to be released this spring by Dr. Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of Contemporary Jewish Life at Brandeis University, and Daniel Parmer, a Brandeis University graduate student who works with her, shows for the first time that as women have become more active in Jewish ritual life and culture, men have increasingly disappeared, rejecting both the trappings of communal affiliation and Jewish women. Seen in this light, the “singles crisis” is not an isolated problem, but rather a symptom of a more radical one: a pervasive identity crisis that profoundly affects Jewish men.
Ever since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) stunned American Jewry with its high intermarriage rates, American Jews have become acutely aware of the number of Jews who choose either to in-marry or inter-marry.
The most recent NJPS of 2001 reported an intermarriage rate of 47 percent. Among the denominations, of all Jewish marriages that occurred between 1991-2001, 3 percent of Orthodox intermarried, 20 percent of Conservative, 45 percent of Reform and 56 percent of those who identified themselves as “just Jewish.” The NJPS also found that young Jews enter into marriage of any kind at rates significantly lower than that of the general U.S. population.
Broken down by age, in the 35-54 year age range, 37 percent of Jewish men and women intermarried. Among those under age 34, intermarriages accounted for 47 percent of weddings among Jewish men and 37 percent of marriages among Jewish women.
Significantly, the study also found that, among Jews over the age of 30, only 20 percent date “mostly or only” Jews, and 71 percent date both Jews and non-Jews.
A key to understanding the dating tribulations of Reform and Conservative women (Orthodox singles behave somewhat differently) is in an often-overlooked statistic about intermarriage. According to Fishman’s monograph, “Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent,” women who intermarry get married, on average, three years later than women who marry Jewish men. This three-year gap, which is much smaller for men, is statistically significant, she says, and reflects women’s initial desire to marry a Jew. The intermarriage comes about, she and other sociologists explain, after a woman gives up on finding a Jewish husband and decides to marry a gentile rather than stay single.
Fishman and Parmer found that, in interviews, “Jewish women who married non-Jewish men overwhelmingly say that their original preference was to marry a Jewish man, but that with the passage of time other factors gained consideration.
“I never got that narrative from a guy,” Fishman says. “The guys are not thinking about children and the implications of being married to a non-Jew.”
In the 2000-2001 NJPS, both affiliated and unaffiliated Jewish men were less likely than their female counterparts to rate religion as “very important” to them. Says Dr. Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life department at the American Jewish Committee, which monitors Jewish life in America, “if one doesn’t care whether they marry a Jew or not, marriage to a Jew probably will not happen.”
Jewish women more actively seek husbands who share their backgrounds for several reasons, Fishman says. First, among Americans generally, women are more likely than men to describe themselves as “religious” and to believe that religion is important for raising ethical children; Jewish women are no exception. Similarly, American women, including Jewish women, are more likely than men to keep close family ties – and are therefore, Fishman says, more likely to want to marry someone who will please their parents.
Jewish men, however, may not feel as strongly about maintaining family ties. According to Fishman and others, non- Orthodox men are increasingly feeling disenfranchised from communal Jewish life as women take on primary leadership roles.
“A lot of men were alienated from Jewish life,” Fishman says.
According to studies cited in Fishman’s monograph, American Jewish girls are more likely than boys to receive a Jewish education, especially after their bar or bat mitzvah. They are also more likely to join Jewish youth groups, participate in college Hillel activities, take Jewish studies classes, describe themselves as affiliated with a wing of Judaism, attend weekly worship services, partake in adult Jewish education, visit Israel, attend secular Jewish events and engage in volunteer Jewish leadership.
“The growing gender imbalance among American Jews is a critical, and painful, challenge in Jewish life today,” Fishman and Parmer write.
Alienation and Antipathy
But it’s not simply a matter of many men disappearing from Jewish life or not caring whether their wives are Jewish or not. Disproportionately, compared to non-Jewish men, American Jewish males harbor active antipathy toward Jewish women. They complain, Fishman and Parmer write, that dating Jewish women is more work than fun and that Jewish women are “demanding, overbearing, and best escaped.”
Fishman conducted studies in the late 1990’s in which groups of Jewish men, non-Jewish men, Jewish women and non- Jewish women in and around Los Angeles were asked to choose, from among many photos of anonymous females, a “typical Jewish woman” and to describe her. They were then asked to describe the “ideal Jewish woman.”
The last three groups – male and female gentiles, as well as Jewish women – overwhelmingly described Jewish women in neutral or positive terms such as “smart,” “able to talk about anything,” “beautiful,” “voluptuous” and “well-read.” In describing the ideal Jewish woman, they used the same terms.
The responses of Jewish men were markedly different. They were likely to describe the typical Jewish woman as “talking too much,” “having to have an opinion about everything,” “obsessed with food,” “overweight” and “materialistic.” And when they described the “ideal” Jewish woman, they chose different photos – of supermodels – and described them in opposite terms, such as “quiet,” “not saying much” and “likes to listen.”
So, at a singles mixer, if a Jewish woman asks a man what he does for a living, “a Jewish man will interpret that question as hostile,” Fishman says. “They say ‘all Jewish woman care about is how much money I make,’ as if there is no other reason for a person to ask you what you do when they are getting to know you. If a non-Jewish woman asks the same question, it does not get interpreted that way.”
“These are self-image issues,” Fishman continues. “Men are ambivalent about their Jewishness, and they project that onto the women. They feel that if they are attached to a non-Jewish woman, it will break the curse.”
Evan Marc Katz, a Jewish dating coach who calls himself “America’s Leading Dating Expert,” sympathizes with Jews who have difficulty connecting with other Jews.
“If Jewish men find Jewish women to be difficult, then perhaps the answer for the women is to date men who are themselves easier,” Katz says. “We’re a bright people, a questioning people, but a neurotic, complaining and negative people. Would you want to be around that? We’d be well served to at least get aware of that [quality] and be responsible for it, and not be too surprised if others aren’t responding well to it. We have a lot of mishegas. It’s no wonder we don’t want to marry each other. We’re very lucky when we find someone who loves us.”
Late Marriage, No Marriage
Of course, the phenomenon of panicking single women is not unique to the Jewish community. Indeed, thanks to the hit HBO comedy series Sex and the City, the desperate 30-something female is now a clich?.
A primary social force contributing to the increase in singles is delayed marriage, the trend in the last few decades to get married at more advanced ages. While in the 1950’s and 60’s men and women typically got married in their early or mid-20’s, few singles become seriously interested in marriage today until their mid-to-late 20’s.
Especially Jewish ones. By the time they have reached the age of 34, only 48 percent of Jewish men and 64 percent of Jewish women have married, compared to 59 percent of the general American male population and 0 percent of the female.
Delayed marriage decreases the chances for marriage, Bayme says, just as delayed pregnancy decreases the chances of childbearing. It also changes singles’ expectations, both of themselves and of their dates. “Marriage has become something you do when you’ve done everything else,” Jacqueline says. “When did it happen that you had to be complete before you got married, instead of planning to grow together?”
But there is another implication of delayed marriage for the Jewish community: Jews who get married immediately after college are more likely to marry other Jews than those who marry later. So the fact that few students expect to marry when they graduate means that they are losing chances to in-marry.
“There is a pool of Jewish women and men of the same age in college together,” Fishman says. “That is the highest density of potential Jewish partners they will ever see again, since Jews go to college in proportions much higher than other ethnic or religious groups in the U.S.”
She adds that men who are most keen to commit to a long-term relationship are most likely to get married young. Thus, as women get older, the men they date are increasingly likely to be what Fishman calls “resistant to commitment.”
“In the Orthodox world, especially,” she says, “when a guy who is not resistant to commitments meets a girl he likes, he marries her.”
Additionally, women’s dating pools become quantitatively smaller as they get older, due to what several experts called the “age squeeze.” In general, women prefer to marry men around their age, perhaps a few years older or a few years younger. Men, meanwhile, almost unilaterally prefer to date younger women – often, much younger women.
“You have a Jewish man and a Jewish woman who are both 28,” Fishman says. “They are both in graduate school or pursuing careers. The women see that not all the Jewish men are married yet. They are not panicking. What they don’t realize is that in their mid-30’s, when the men decide to settle down, the men will not be looking at Jewish women their own age. Instead, they will be looking at two different populations: Jewish women who are 10 years younger than they are or non- Jewish women.”
Sara Brownstein, a matchmaker who worked with hundreds of Los Angeles Jewish singles until she moved to Israel four years ago, puts the age squeeze slightly later, saying that “When a man in his 40’s wants to get married, if he does not have children, he will look for a woman under 40 because he wants children. They do not understand that if a woman is 35, 36, she does not want to marry a man who is older than 41, maybe 42. If he is in his 50’s, if he has children he does not want new babies. He could marry a woman in her 40’s, but those women still want children. They feel the men are too old.”
Graduate School Paradox
To be sure, many Jewish women have their own negative, undeserved stereotypes about Jewish men. And it is possible that Jewish women are indeed more “demanding” than non-Jewish women, for documented reasons.
Jews are among the most highly educated minorities in America. More than half of all Jewish adults (61 percent of men and 50 percent of women) have received a college degree, and a quarter (29 percent of men and 21 percent of women) have earned a graduate degree. Jews are almost twice as likely to hold a college degree than Americans generally and four times as likely to hold a graduate degree.
Unfortunately, their academic and professional success decreases their dating pool since, as Cohen says, “men want to ‘marry down’ and women want to ‘marry up.'”
Although no one is advocating that women avoid graduate school, Dr. Michael J. Salamon, a psychologist and the author of The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures, says “the problem [in the Jewish dating scene] is that women are overeducated and find the men boring. The men are intimidated. And the women are not getting what they want.”
He also notes that this phenomenon makes “in-marrying” a difficult proposition for Jewish men with low levels of education. Fishman goes a step further and says that many Jewish men are attracted to gentile women because non-Jewish women and their parents are perceived as easier to impress.
The problem is just as big, albeit different, in the Orthodox community. While intermarriage is extremely low and marriage is not delayed as much, community leaders note the seemingly disproportionate number of “fabulous girls” (including this reporter, I feel obligated to divulge) who would very much like to get married, yet reach their 30’s or 40’s with no luck.
Sociologists and matchmakers have various explanations. First, they say, it is true that Orthodox Jews tend to marry young, but this means that those men who are still unmarried in their 30’s are even more likely to be “resistant to commitment,” as Fishman calls it.
Perhaps more important, the “age squeeze” is more pronounced among Orthodox Jews than in other groups. Danielle Jacobs, the chief operating officer of SawYouAtSinai.com (a dating Web site with over 25,000 Orthodox members) and the founder of JRetro- Match.com (a site with almost 10,000 non-Orthodox Jewish members) says “age is a sensitive issue in the Orthodox community, more so than in the secular world. Men are not as open to dating women their own age, never mind a woman who is older. A man is less inclined to date a 30 year old if he can date a 23 year old.”
The Good News
True, something like half of all Jewish people marry out of faith, but half do make the decision to in-marry, hurdling all the obstacles facing them. That’s why, despite all the social forces contributing to the Jewish “singles crisis,” experts emphasize that there is reason for optimism, both for individuals and for the community.
In terms of Jewish communal policy, they offer several suggestions.
First is the need to create experiences that will help more Jews, particularly boys and men, feel good about being Jewish. “What is necessary,” says Bayme, “is to build a value system in which people say ‘I value Jewish life so much that I can envision sharing my life only with another Jew.'”
Second, Bayme says, “adolescent Jewish education needs to become a universal norm in the Jewish community. If you agree that adolescence is the critical age when people form ideas about who they want to marry, then the idea that Jewish education stops at bar mitzvah is really hurting us. It’s almost criminal that just when young people are ready to discuss dating, that’s when we lose them from the educational system.”
He also suggested that Jewish communities more actively encourage young people to choose colleges and graduate schools not only on the basis of academic strength, location and size but also density of Jewish life. “If you are living in an environment surrounded by other Jews, the chances are that much greater that you will date a Jew,” he says.
For individuals, especially women, who seek to get married, Fishman says that the single most effective way to increase one’s chances is to become willing to marry outside of one’s preconceived age criteria; that is, for a woman to open herself to the possibility of marrying a man 10 years older than she is.
Singles who have found love offered similar advice: to be flexible, but not just about age. “Rebecca” (who wished to remain anonymous), 31, has carefully cultivated her image as a “high-powered career woman” and recently got married after actively seeking a husband for 10 years. Her new partner “is not someone I would have given a chance to 10 years ago,” she says. “In terms of academics and career, I’m more accomplished. But he’s a good person who treats me well. And he’s very cute. This is a guy who wants nothing more than to make me happy. I’m not settling; I’m happy. I love him. What makes a person a good person isn’t necessarily the same qualities that make them super-accomplished in their career. But it’s a lot harder to teach someone to be a good person than it is to help them be a little more accomplished.”
Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Congregation Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Chicago says that his Orthodox congregation of 400 members celebrates approximately 15 weddings per year. “Half of them meet at the Shabbat tables of other members,” the rabbi says, “and the other half met online.
“We have women who get married in their late 30’s and 40’s and are having kids,” he continues. “It’s really nice to see.”
And finally, Brownstein says, keep the faith. By the age of 44, an American Jewish woman is more likely to be married to a Jewish man than to still be single. And despite all the complaints that singles expressed about online introductions, Jewish dating Web sites, including JDate, Frumster and SawYouAtSinai, have helped thousands of couples get engaged. Moreover, in the time it took to research and write this article, this reporter attended two weddings of friends in their 30’s and learned of the engagement of a third.
“We see people getting married all the time,” Brownstein says. “You never know what awaits. Statistics are not as important as faith.”
This article originally appeared on www.worldjewishdigest.com