Valentine's day is upon us, and even here – amid the voices of the cynics calling out “Saint Valentine is a Christian thing!” and the pervasive “What are the ‘chevre’ (gang) up to?” culture that is Israel – romantic dinner bookings for two are on the rise. Bouquets of overpriced red roses seem to have cropped up everywhere and balloons emblazoned with ‘I love you,' are flying high.
Yes, the Hallmark-inspired day of love has made it to our happy shores. But for a great many of those who want in on the fun, an important ingredient is still missing. And that would be – a date.
For those singles, the first thing to know when it comes to surviving the romantic holiday – as well as, really, any other date-less night – is: You are not alone. In fact, says the (happily) single 38-year-old businesswoman Daniella Perlstein, you are in very good company.
According to the latest Central Bureau of Statistics numbers, compiled two years ago, 35 percent of Israeli women between the ages of 35-49 are what is called, in Hebrew, “pnuyot,” which means seeking or open – or, if you must, single and, sigh, alone. For men, the numbers are even higher: 42 percent of 35-49-year-olds call themselves “panui.” Both these numbers indicate a sea change from the situation in Israel a few decades ago. According to the statistics, the chance of a 35-year-old woman being unmarried in 1971 was 1 in 40; today, at least one in four women that age is unattached – and her pool of fish in the sea is growing every year.
When it comes to the 19-25 crowd, the numbers of those seeking love these days is even higher, with 65 percent of males, and 46 percent of females listing themselves as single.
These numbers might seem unusually high to anyone who spends weekends looking for a friend to hang out with and finding none because their shacked-up friends have all gone to zimmerim (bed and breakfasts) in the Golan with their significant others – but, as they say at the bureau, them’s the facts. The statistics include those who have never before been married and those who are widowed or divorced – a number that's rising, which accounts for a significant increase in the overall number of available singles. Also, the statistics do not include Muslims or ultra-Orthodox Jews, two communities known to marry young and stick it out longer.
In any case, Perlstein says, the point is there are pnuyim and pnuyot out there to spare – and she knows where and how you can find them.
The daughter of a chemical engineer and an industrial engineer, whose brother is a computer programmer, Perlstein, who has a degree in economics from Tel Aviv University and an MBA from Columbia University in New York City, is, like the rest of her family, good at crunching numbers. But she is also blond, sexy and intrigued by matters of the heart – all of which makes her perfectly suited to her current job, as the general manager of JDate in Israel in Europe.
“When I took the job a year ago, the first thing I did was a strategic study to understand the market,” says the former Google executive, who grew up between Rishon Letzion, and Pretoria, South Africa, with some stints in Vienna, Austria and New York. "The social media digital market moves very fast, and I wanted to figure out what was going on.”
What she found was that the vast majority of single Israelis between the ages of 25 and 49 – some 80 percent by her staff’s calculations – either use Internet sites for dating, or have tried them, at least once, in the past. Perlstein herself often indulges, of course. “I have met amazing men on the site. Completely amazing,” she says coyly, taking off her dark glasses, fixing her casually messy pony tail and sitting down for a quick mid-morning coffee in the singles Mecca of the Middle East known as Tel Aviv – where a whopping 83 percent of men and 71 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 29 are unattached.
“Where do you meet dates?” is one of the questions asked on the survey Perlstein sent out after she took on the job. Four years ago, the answer to that question was through friends, at work or at parties and bars. But these days, the answer is through friends (we are, after all, the people of the shiduch, or set up), through Facebook and through online dating sites.
“Men in Israel don’t hit on girls in social situations with the same ease American men do,” says Perlstein. “In the States, and also in Europe, people come up and talk to you – they just need a fraction of a second of eye contact to encourage it. In Israel this does not happen. The men here act differently. They don’t just come up and ask you for a drink or ask you out.”
Meanwhile, Israeli women, argues Perlstein, are not known for their bar-side flirting manners. “Girls here are not as approachable as girls in the U.S. or Europe,” she assesses. “They are tougher and won't be polite if they are not interested – something that then deters men.”
But such (un)social behavior does not mean that young Israeli men and women aren’t as keen as anyone else to find a mate. In fact, says Perlstein, pressure in this country to be in a relationship is higher than in many other countries. “In a lot of other places, being single is more legitimate. It’s even fashionable in some countries these days not to want a partnership or kids. Here that’s not the case. This is a conservative society with a lot of pressure to get married…to someone Jewish….”
The solution, which rises like a phoenix from the ashes of bad social-flirting skills, the pressures coming from mom and dad, and the fact that Valentine ’s Day is about to crash down on us is, of course, the Internet.
Whether your poison of choice is JDate, the most popular site in the country with, according to Perlstein, 100,000 active users in Israel and 750,000 all over the world; the U.S.-based “JWed” or “SawYouAtSinai,” sites catering to those who want to meet marriage material; or “Yenta” the new free mobile app that finds Jews who are not only physically nearby but want to, well, hook-up immediately, you might want to get clicking.