Young girl, you’re going to have to love yourself. You’re going to have to know your own worth in a time when other people are going to put a price tag on you. You’ll be labelled, bar coded, and put on a shelf with your expiration date clearly marked for discerning consumers. You will become a commodity for other people to examine, speculate on, and haggle over. Young girl, you’d better know who you are and stay firm in that knowledge, despite others trying to redefine you.
I was once you, young girl. I couldn’t have anticipated how all of the lessons I had learned, all of the skills and education I had acquired, and all of the friendships that I had made didn’t really make a difference in preparing me for dating. There seems to be two different sets of self-esteem in a woman’s life – one in her life apart from men and one in her life among them. Girls who grow up in a female centric world are unprepared for the emotions and vulnerability they face when they enter the world of dating. The tools needed for non-romantic relationships, often aren’t the necessary equipment required for romantic ones.
Part of this is because of the buildup. Most little girls don’t grow up with the elders in their lives opining, “Someday, Im Yirtzeh Hashem, you’re going to make a friend!” The end goal of your life isn’t described as being single with many close family ties and female friendships to enrich your existence. Even though I didn’t grow up frum, I grew up with a set of old fashioned values and expectations that didn’t differ much from the orthodox world.
As a young girl, I had a list of accomplishments I wanted to achieve. For example, I wanted to graduate from high school, I wanted to graduate from college, I wanted to write a great novel, I wanted a job to make my own money, I wanted hair that didn’t frizz in humidity, and I wanted a boyfriend. There were lots of other things I wanted, but those are the ones that come immediately to mind.
My mother only seemed to have two main objectives for me – to get married and have babies. Any other pursuit I engaged in was just biding my time until I achieved the ultimate status of “wife” and “mother” (God forbid the “mother” come before the “wife”). When it came to sex, my mother only had one piece of wisdom to offer, “Good girls wait until after marriage, bad girls don’t. The best girls continue to wait even after marriage.” I added that last sentence in myself for the benefit of my daughter.
The point is that even though I didn’t grow up in the orthodox community, and additionally I had other cultural examples of dating from my non-Jewish friends, at home I was given a very strict upbringing when it came to boys. My parents only allowed me to date when I was old enough to consider marriage prospects, and of course, those prospects had to be Jewish.
With all that waiting for dating (going through public high school without ever going out on a real date is a rare thing), I was more than ready to start dating in college. I had no idea that the people skills and maturity I thought I had developed over eighteen years would not even begin to prepare me for the vulnerability and judgement I felt upon entering the dating world.
Maybe it was the unintended message I received that this was “the big show.” While I wasn’t part of the shidduch world, where 23 years old is over the hill for a woman, I still had the sense that college was going to be my only chance to meet my future husband. When you live in the secular world as a Jew, it’s sometimes like being on a lonely deserted island, at least if you have the goal to marry another Jew. The only Jews I knew were overwhelmingly a good 40+ years older than me – relatives or friends of my family. Where did all the young Jews hang out? In my case, they were at the Hillel on my college campus.
At the first Hillel gathering I attended, there was a bevy of bespectacled Jewish near sighted hunks. Bingo! While there were more kippot than I’d ever seen in one room outside of shul, they were guys my own age and of my own tribe – it was an anthropological wonder for a girl usually known for being the only Jew in the room among her other friends. Additionally, I met some great girls who became my closest friends in college, and who turned out to be much steadier companions than the boyfriends who came and went like a revolving door.
I was ill prepared for how my self-worth seemed to become totally dependent upon how whatever boy I was dating at the moment saw me. If he liked me, I liked me. If he didn’t like me, I didn’t like me. All through my childhood and teen years, I had been given subtle messages that the sign of a woman’s worth is her husband. A valuable girl will get a valuable guy – smart, handsome, educated, white collar, financially well off. A lesser girl will get a lesser guy – not so handsome or smart, a blue collar job that doesn’t pay well, possibly abusive.
Basically, a woman’s status in life is determined by her husband’s position in life – her individual worth is developed from a young age for the purpose of eventually getting the best mate, and after that, her ultimate value is determined by who picks her. As in the orthodox world, in the secular world, a girl who comes from money can use that asset to compensate for other areas in which she may be lacking (e.g. beauty, thin figure, middos, charm, and intelligence). I didn’t come from money.
The best thing I ever did was to take an almost two year break from dating during college to get my head together. Not only did I start soaring academically, but my friendships began flourishing. I had a more active social life than when I had been dating and revolving my life around being available “just in case he calls.” When I decided to take my break, I honestly didn’t even know who I was anymore. All I knew was what different failed relationships had told me about myself – and that wasn’t me. I let people outside of myself tell me my flaws and my attributes. I let people outside of myself tell me I wasn’t good enough.
I can only imagine how much more painful this judgement is when it’s not being brought down by just one person (the guy), but by an entire committee (the shadchan, the guy, the guy’s mother, the references). I had been asked out by a few guys who I would never have considered going out with for various reasons. However, when someone unsuitable asks you out on random impulse, it doesn’t necessarily say anything bad about you that this type of person asked you out (e.g. my freshman year, a non-Jewish guy in my English class who wore combat boots and a mohawk asked me out. No offense to him, he was a sweet guy, we just weren’t a match). He was just trying his luck on a whim.
However, when it’s a committee that makes a cold and calculated decision that you only deserve to be set up with the “lesser guys” because you are a “lesser girl” that can be soul shattering. What are the reasons for being lesser? The reasons can range from being poor, having a health condition, having parents or siblings with a health condition, getting on the wrong side of an influential rabbi or school administrator, any hint of scandal surrounding your family, being any shade darker than a Miami tan on New York winter white skin, being Sephardic instead of Ashkenazic – any of these reasons or more could be why a girl’s resume is placed in the subbasement of Shidduch Central Inc..
Add into the mix that ultimately, the girl usually takes a passive role in dating proceedings with a guy she likes. Sure, a girl can put the kibosh on future dates with a guy she didn’t enjoy going out with. However, it’s usually the guy who has a stack of resumes to choose from, and initiates a date. Even if a girl wants to go out with a guy a second time, all she can do is indicate her interest to the shadchan, but it’s his final decision to call again or not.
Many orthodox guys in the shidduch system could have several different dates per week if they wanted. Many girls can go months waiting by the phone for a shadchan to call them with a suggestion. The girl has the right of refusal, but if the girl hasn’t had a dating opportunity in months, she will feel compelled to go on the date, even if he doesn’t sound ideal. The boy doesn’t feel this pressure of having few options to choose from. It’s not as big of a deal to him to pass up on one date as it is to her.
In my day, dating was like that in the secular world too. Sure, there were some aggressive girls who took the bull by the horns and asked guys out, but for the most part, if you liked a guy who didn’t seem to notice you, all you could do was throw hints and hope he caught them. Even if he did ask you out once, the proper etiquette was for him to say he would call you as you said your goodbyes, and all you could do was hope that he actually would. To call him before he called you reeked of desperation.
Young girl, you’re going to have to build walls, be chutzpadik, and fight for yourself. If you want a type of guy that you’re not being set up with, you need to wander outside the system. Girls need to band together and form unofficial networks, sharing basic information about guys that didn’t work out for them, but might be well suited for another. Don’t underestimate the number of people who have simply dropped out of the shidduch system in disgust, but who are still single and looking. Girls need to find mentors who volunteer to make matches not for money, but for the mitzvah. There are people in almost every community who devote chesed hours to setting up singles, hosting small events, and spending time getting to know the singles they are trying to set up.
Part of the problem is that some matchmakers have such an overabundance of female resumes, that the personal touch is lost. Don’t take an impersonal system personally. You are more than a dowry, or a dress size, or your mother’s gallstones, or where you went to camp when you were 10. Know yourself – don’t let others introduce you to who they think you are. Decide for yourself, and defend yourself if others try to change your truth. Love yourself and you will find another to love.