In observant Jewish families, dating is often prescribed by traditional rules far removed from American customs.
Of all the mysterious statements in the Talmud, one of the best known says that finding a true partner in life is as difficult as parting the Red Sea.
In the world of Orthodox Judaism, where family is second to God alone, people are always working to part the seas so men and women can get married, fulfill the commandment to multiply and ensure the faith for another generation.
As the father of a recent bride put it: “Matchmaking is the favorite indoor sport of Jews.”
Whether they are professionals using computers, a yeshiva rabbi intimate with all the qualities and quirks of his students, or Aunt Malkie who just happens to know a nice boy from a good family, somebody is always trying to fix people up.
Certain Hasidic families in the United States still choose mates for their sons and daughters as they did in 18th-century Poland.
Before Orthodox Jews get to the wedding canopy, they must navigate a dating process governed by religious laws and customs that most of society would find unthinkable, beginning with informal but detailed checks of family, character and health.
(One young man just starting to date has kept a recent surgery secret so as not to hurt his chances of finding a wife.)
The way the Orthodox see it, the average American does more homework deciding to buy a car than choosing a spouse. The Orthodox divorce rate, estimated at about 5 percent, suggests they do their homework well.
Dating prohibitions include touching, which is said to hamper the work of picking a mate since physical contact intoxicates the senses. Time spent completely alone is forbidden, since it might set the stage for touching, and outings just for fun are frowned upon.
Such boundaries lead to a lot of evenings sipping soda in the lobbies of big hotels while trying to fathom another person’s dreams and visions.
Other safe places include museums, the zoo and a place that’s become something of an inside joke: the airport.
“I’ve been on an airport date once or twice, hasn’t everybody?” Chuckie Epstein, a 25-year-old Orthodox pilot, says with a laugh. “It’s a cliche now, but the airport is a good place for a first date. It’s not heavily populated at night, it’s quiet, there’s a lot of room to walk around, it’s indoors, which helps in the winter, and it’s safe.”
Movies are usually out of the question until a couple is engaged, and even then, many Orthodox Jews do not partake of pop culture. Because laws of modesty largely keep the genders separate from about grade school until dating begins, early dates are often awkward experiments.
“It can be pretty tough,” said an Orthodox man, who did not want to be named for fear that his views might hurt his standing in the Jewish community. “I can count on one hand the crushes I’ve had. If a boy or girl has a reputation for flirting too much, it might be harder for them to get married.”
On one of his first dates, this young man was mortified to discover that the bench he’d picked in New York’s Battery Park for conversation was in a gay area.
The rules are often stretched (some daters hold hands, others kiss) and can be broken in ways anyone who has been on a date can understand. One young woman breached the law that demands sensitivity to the feelings of others when she kept looking at her watch as her date attempted to explain his goals in life.
Shadowing everything is the idea that this dating has tachlis, or purpose. That purpose is to find your bashert, or “meant to be.”
Dating usually begins at 19 or 20 for a woman, about 21 for a man. Some young people let their parents know when they’re ready, others need to be prodded by their parents to get in the game.
Our rabbinical student, let’s call him Yaakov, describes a typical case: “For starters, everyone’s a nice girl. The shadkhan [matchmaker] tells you when it’s OK to call, and the guy gets very nervous trying to create a conversation with someone he’s never met.
“You say you’ll pick her up at a certain time and get spritzed up in a suit and hat. A lot of guys hate wearing the hat on a date, but it shows respect. Mom and Dad answer the door, and she’s hiding in her room so you have a few minutes to meet the parents, who ask stuff they already know: ‘Where do you go to yeshiva?’ ‘What does your father do for a living?’
“And then the girl walks in, you say hello and turn right back to talk to the parents again. You’re thinking: ‘This could be my wife.’ She’s thinking: ‘This could be my husband.’ And the parents are thinking: ‘This could be my son-in-law.’
“It’s hard even if it goes well,” he says. “If it doesn’t go so well, it’s horrible.”
The rabbis tell the young men the same thing mothers advise young women: Trust the system, everything will work out.
As it did for Rivkah Goldfinger, 21, and Dovid Stein, 24, married May 19 after knowing each other for eight months in an almost storybook example of Orthodox courtship, complete with the kind of surprises that pop up while you’re busy following rules.
Credit: Rafael Alvarez