Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Importance of Being Moishe

If you want to read a good book about the shidduch crisis, try Oscar Wilde's 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest. Pay particular attention to the scene when Lady Bracknell interrogates a young man who wants her daughter's hand in marriage. Bracknell asks him all the important questions: whether he smokes (she is pleased that he does), how old he is, how much money he earns, what type of house he lives in, and who his parents are. She is horrified to discover that he never knew his parents, and that he was found as a baby in a handbag at a railway station.

On more than one occasion I have found myself conversing over the phone with a frum Lady Bracknell whose daughter was set up with a friend of mine. These mothers always have specific criteria they want to know about. It might be my imagination, but they seem woefully indifferent when I try to explain how great a guy my friend is. I am still not clear as to why the mothers are getting involved at all.

I also am on the dating scene, and a few months ago I went to a yeshivish bookstore for help. I wanted ideas, but I was prepared to take anything I read with a grain of salt. I passed up the first book I saw, which seemed to spend many chapters on the subject of background checks to prevent domestic abuse and other ugly situations. That was not the sort of advice I was after. I finally found a book titled Successful Dating, and when I turned to the inside cover, I discovered that it was actually titled Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover. Cute.

I was disappointed. I knew something was awry when it defended a Rav's instruction to a young man to stuff his shoes with paper because he had the misfortune of being shorter than his date. This book also advised against marrying people from foreign countries.

More recently, I got a book called Dating Secrets, and it is more along the lines of what I was looking for, especially its chapter "The Second Date and Beyond." Abraham Twerski provides the foreword, a commentary on the "shidduch crisis." While he makes some good points, I stopped short when he said the following: "Regardless of how much the frum community has tried to insulate itself, the prevailing cultural ideas have penetrated the defenses." This is the sort of statement I constantly see whenever the "shidduch crisis" is raised: it's all Western society's fault, and the solution should be to distance ourselves further from horrible Western influences.

The flaw in this argument is staring them in the face. Western society cannot be the culprit, for Western society isn't having a shidduch crisis. Western society is having a divorce crisis, and it's fair to question the predominant Western attitude toward marriage. But there is no widespread problem of non-Jews finding partners in the first place. The reason that we have this problem, and they don't, is rooted almost entirely in the restrictive social customs that plague our community.

Take the claim that one shouldn't marry someone from another country. I'm not denying that cultural differences may potentially be a source of conflict in a relationship. But to make a blanket statement against marrying foreigners is only to increase the chances that people may end up rejecting their besherte. And while the author was quick to insist that he wasn't discouraging people of different national backgrounds from dating, impressionable readers are likely to use this dubious advice to pass up worthwhile matches.

The shidduch world is full of similar bits of questionable advice, which create an atmosphere of pigeonholing and judgmentalism. A shadchanit for SawYouAtSinai recently told me that some women were rejecting my profile because I'm willing to consider dating a woman who wears pants. I'm not offended: any woman who judges my frumkeit based on such matters is probably not meant for me anyway. But this says something about the values of the shidduch system. It's not about finding suitable spouses, it's about conformity and parochialism.

These values are deeply ingrained in the very structure of our community. I don't claim to have easy answers on how to confront them. But the first step is surely not to place the blame elsewhere.

No comments: