A conversation I had with a young single man a few months ago still haunts me. I was vetting participants for my documentary on the shidduch world, Single Jewish Male, and this young man had initially agreed to speak on camera about his experiences and the challenges he faced. I found him very intelligent, thoughtful, and articulate, and believed he had what to contribute to a discussion our community needs to have.
Then he called me and backed out. He explained that people close to him had warned that being a public part of this discussion would be, as they put it, “dating suicide”. I expressed my disappointment, but made no effort to talk him back into it. If someone was only 99% on board with the idea, I did not want him to participate. Indeed, two other men canceled on me, presumably with similar fears.
It worked out fine in the end; in hindsight I wound up with the right group of participants, and the film is powerful. But the sentiment that this young man expressed troubles me to the very core. It troubled me so much that I opened the film by raising the notion of dating suicide, that speaking candidly as a single about problems in the shidduch world would have catastrophic consequences on one’s ability to marry and raise a family as an Orthodox Jew.
We definitely need to talk about this.
Truth is, the fear of dating suicide is endemic to our community. It’s built into our family lives, our educational institutions, and the major life decisions we make. It’s rarely spoken of in such explicit terms – speak on camera and you’re as good as dead – but the specter of dating suicide is subtly alluded to, gradually insinuated into our psyches until we cannot imagine doing things any other way. In essence, we are not directly threatened, but made subtle offers that we cannot refuse. Go along with the system, keep your mouth shut, and someone fairly desirable who is doing the same will marry you. Maybe.
I will share some personal experiences. The first time I had a date that I really enjoyed, the girl agreed to a second date and subsequently canceled on me. The reason was that I don’t wear a hat. I was told that she didn’t mind so much, but what would her friends say? I was advised by a Rav – someone I have great respect for – to wear a hat just to please her. I replied that today it’s the hat, tomorrow it’s the tablecloth, and I cannot be with someone who lives in constant fear of what other people might be thinking.
So one of my earliest experiences in dating was being urged by a Rav to play make-believe just to get a second date with a girl who was ashamed to be seen with me.
After I started an eBay business, I was advised by a close relative to tell people I work in marketing, because it would sound more impressive to girls.
“But I don’t work in marketing. And I’m not embarrassed by what I do.”
“Doesn’t matter; tell them you work in marketing. It’s close enough, and no girl wants a guy who sells things on eBay.”
I was urged not to talk about my work with EndTheMadness on initial dates, but to wait until a girl “gets to know me” before bringing it up. Mind you, it’s not as if I introduced myself to women by launching into tirades about the shidduch world. But I was very passionate about this work, it was a major part of my life and who I was – it still is – and I wasn’t going to shy away from it, either. If someone had a problem with the fact that I have strong opinions about important issues and was dedicating myself to addressing problems in the community, I was happy to find that out sooner rather than later.
In the minds of most people, though, this is dating suicide. It’s bad enough to have opinions (being “controversial” is toxic in the shidduch world) but actually expressing them to someone you might potentially marry is considered grounds for psychiatric evaluation. At the very minimum, you have to wait until they get to know you before they get to know you.
I suppose the conversation goes something like this:
“Gertrude, we’ve been going out for a while now. I’m not quite sure how to say this, but I have some…sensitive information about myself that I have to share with you. I asked Da’as Torah and was advised to wait until now. I have…opinions. About the shidduch world. In fact, I think the shidduch world is completely messed up. Not only that, I’ve been trying to educate people and change the way things are done.”
“Oh, Chananya, that’s a terrible shock! Had you told me sooner I would have broken up with you immediately. But I’ve gotten to know you already, I’m madly in love with you, and it doesn’t matter to me anymore. I will accept you with all your flaws and problems, even your opinions!”
Apparently that’s how the script was supposed to play out based on the advice I received. Either that, or I was supposed to fall so madly in love with the other person that I would discard my opinions, my aspirations, and my very identity just to be with her. Either way, a recipe for marital bliss and personal fulfillment. Right?
I suppose iconoclasts face trouble in every society, but my experiences are hardly unique. The fear of dating suicide pervades every aspect of our world. I have seen countless letters to the editor of newspapers and magazines catering to the Orthodox world lamenting the sorry state of affairs in the shidduch world. Almost invariably, the concerned parent writes something like this:
“Please do not publish my name, as I still have children to marry off.”In other words: “I think the system is absolutely horrible. It’s immoral, destructive, and goes against everything I believe. I’m urging someone, somewhere to do something about it. That person will not be me. I’m going to continue to use it and subject my children to it. But if you’re reading this letter, please don’t do the same. I don’t believe in my words enough to act on them, or even be identified with them. But you should.”
Why people choose to live in a society that would destroy them and their families if they published their name with such a letter is beyond me. Why a person would want to marry someone who would be horrified by their real self is even more beyond me. Why a parent would urge their children to follow this path in life seems to me a form of child abuse.
The problem is far deeper than being afraid to participate in a documentary on the shidduch world. I cannot truly fault anyone for being unwilling to do so; making yourself vulnerable on camera is not for everyone. But we have a society where people decide which educational institutions they and their children will attend largely on the basis of “shidduch purposes”. The very educational foundation of a child – this most fundamental of life choices – is heavily influenced by the need to present oneself as a “good catch” on the marriage market years down the road.
Is it really any wonder so many kids become disaffected with Judaism? Is it really any wonder so many marriages have tragic outcomes?
If one has to choose between dating suicide and living a lie, it’s time we consider the nuclear option. Instead of continuing to tinker with the system and dance around the real issues, maybe it’s time we start all over and build it up again from scratch.
Enough lives have been destroyed.