In a flurry of phone calls and emails, friends had advised me not to always write what I think; I’m an unmarried girl, this will affect me later, this is bad for shidduchim (matchmaking prospects). They remind me to be careful, tread delicately – “we’re not telling you to stop writing, Heaven forbid; only we beg you, be careful.” I nod politely and explain that I know quite well how to censor, thank you very much. My parents were raised in the Soviet Union after all.
Rightfully, I had been warned – because every time, every evening, begins and ends with a discussion of writing.
The whole thing is almost scripted: Stepping out of my building in stilettos, fixing my pencil skirt while turning off the sound on my phone; his car pulls up. This week’s law-or-rabbinical student smiles at me: “How are you?” I take note of his yarmulke (suede or velvet?) and I think, I don’t know, how are you? Or rather, who are you?
I smile and invoke my gratitude to God.
I know that he, whoever he is, has already read whatever he could find on Google, and I know he’ll read this, too. It’s a matter of minutes, usually, until he shyly alludes to an article. He’s done his research and he already knows my opinion on absolutely everything. Sometimes, as we stroll around Manhattan, he will quote my writing verbatim, and I will shudder at the incongruity of my words – small, cursive, scribbled in an old notebook – and the foreign male voice reciting them aloud. I can already predict the end of the evening, or perhaps next week or three weeks after that, when he will make that inevitable, anxious joke: “So, will your next story be about me?” And I smile and think, “Do something interesting first.”
Later, when I tell my friends about these moments, we laugh nervously. Late nights often find us exchanging stories about our adventures in this place of breathlessly tall towers, this dating jungle of New York’s Orthodox Jews. Over cups of tea, we try to outdo one another with the wildest words of wisdom we’ve received from our elders: Make yourself pretty and go to a shul kiddush on Shabbat morning, stand in the back corner by the window, someone’s aunt wants to take a look at you, she has an idea for you. Your skirt is too short, if you really want a learned husband you should have this fixed, I’ll recommend a good tailor. Be sweeter, you’re too stubborn, too aggressive. Smile, nu, don’t look so jaded. And be a little dumber, I know you want a smart husband but let me tell you something from experience, they’re all fools anyway.
We often wonder aloud about how we’ve consciously chosen this system of shidduchim, when we could instead go to bars like the rest of the world, or at least to Shabbatons, weekend retreats, that are supposedly more relaxed. We know we’ve chosen this for the sake of building homes with common values, yet there’s a certain premature exhaustion in the voice of an unmarried Orthodox girl: She’s often tired of those benevolent friends and older women and rabbis who will request resumes, references and photographs, offering names until they all begin to sound identical. She finds it draining and almost comical to have to feign surprise when yet another financial analyst takes her to the Brooklyn Promenade and shows her the blinking lights of Manhattan, which she knows all too well, probably better than he does.
In the hotel lounges and Israeli sushi bars, the French restaurants with lights dimmed, the waiters scurry about with bottles of Chianti and eye her because it’s not her first time there, only last time it was with someone else, another suit-wearing companion. The neighboring tables watch too, curious about the young couple who might be engaged to marry within months; she knows that the younger girls are wide-eyed as they play guessing games nearby, because only a few years ago it had been she herself watching from afar: “What do you think, Leah? Is it their fifth date? No, no, they look too uncomfortable, must be a third.”
It becomes a dance in its own right, one that the single Orthodox girl learns quickly: the walks in wintry Central Park, eyes looking, car doors opening, not-so-casual Pellegrinos in rooftop bars. The knowing glances across the Sabbath table and the quick calculations: This one is from a good family, known for its charitable acts. He’s studying to be a doctor. Tradition is a subtext in this world of Orthodox dating; the couple discusses studies, careers, families, Israeli politics too; but refrains from holding hands. Touch is limited to her foot accidentally bumping against his under the table, to moments on a crowded Fifth Avenue when they are so close that he can catch a whiff of her perfume.
As he watches me step out of the car and walk toward my building, his careful compliments still ring in my head.
But what if I’m not beautiful, I think. What if I’m just young, lively, 21, and all these evenings have become some chanting refrain, like the ones they taught in grade school alongside ancient verses and Rashi script. And as I dress to go out for an evening, as I play with my earring clasp and yet again crack a joke, something sarcastic, biting, I tell myself: Maybe this one will be different.
There are times when I consider putting aside these shidduch dates, but I realize that I have no interest in stepping outside of the warmth of my small, familiar world. There’s no other place I’d rather be in, no dizzying cocktail party that can rival the quiet intensity of our traditions. So instead I come home each time and write, taking note of each amusing line he attempted.
And in the meantime, editors from Outside magazine will contact me and ask me to write a story: “Tell us about your chasteness, your oppressive modesty, tell us how you struggle.” I laugh quietly, pick up a pen with trembling fingers, and wonder at that, too: What is there left to say about all this, after all? If I dare to write any more about the life of a young Orthodox woman, that endlessly intriguing creature – will I offer a window, a human face? Or will I only further objectify myself in the eyes of the outside world, while betraying those within?
Perhaps they were right, those matchmakers and teachers and friends. An unmarried girl shouldn’t write what she thinks.
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