Attending a wedding means many things to an older single. It means dealing with a plethora of conflicting emotions. It means appreciating the value of friendship and family. It means working on yourself to share in the joy of others. Genuinely.
But above all else, it means brachos. As soon as your hand gets the extra squeeze, it’s time to paste on the smile and start gritting your teeth. Commonly prefaced by some version of al tehi birchas hedyot kalah b’eineicha, the reciting of a long-winded version of “im yirtzeh Hashem by you” commences. It is imperative that you stand demurely throughout, dutifully intone “Amen,” and extricate numb hands from a sweaty viselike grip only as your counterpart’s shuckling begins to mercifully slow its pace.
We have come to realize that no harm is meant and all care deeply for our happiness. As Kipling wrote, “I always prefer to believe the best of everybody; it saves so much trouble.” I would go so far as to say that there is a place tucked away inside us that appreciates it, even. So, as the saying goes, we grin and bear it.
Thankfully, I have reached the sweet spot where the well-wishing has faded into the regular background hum of a Yiddishe simchah. You struggle to find parking, a ticket is handed to you for your coat, and you get accosted by the fellow who absolutely needs to daven Maariv before the kabbalas panim. Mildly annoying to be sure, but forgotten as soon as you find your seat in front of those ubiquitous light green pickles only accessible to caterers and the bowl of lukewarm cream of chicken.
There is one benediction, however, that I cannot endure: “You should be zocheh to want to get married.”
I brandish my spoon as some sort of weapon as I look up, hoping desperately that my benefactor is someone at whom I can safely lash out. Preferably a cousin close in age and not my elementary school principal. The unspoken assumption that my problem is lack of ratzon could not be further from the truth, and words that properly denigrate this special level of condescension will forever escape me.
There is nothing in life we wish for more. Rest assured, we yearn. Bigly. For authentic partnership, heavy responsibilities, and a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself. For marriage and all that comes with it. It gnaws at us our every waking moment. More than you will ever know and more than we will ever care to share.
Many openly wonder that it seems we could be doing more, trying harder. “The girl is in Lakewood, what’s the big deal? You’re both tall, or short, or smart, or Jewish. Give it a shot, you never know. You can’t get married if you don’t date.”
There is truth to all of this, of course. They are called clichés for a reason. It is also true, and often lost in the shuffle, that we are very human. The process of dating does not take place in a vacuum. It is often disappointing, sometimes painful, and always exhausting. An emotional toll is collected along with every tank of gas and every ten-dollar Diet Coke at the Plaza.
At some point, every older single reaches an impasse. Dating in our world is a strange kind of limbo. Engaging in its pursuit is critical, yet its inherent misery does not allow for any sort of prolonged engagement. We must stay motivated in an arena where the only goal is to find the way out of the building.
Sometimes I think there are details in our current system that impede progress. We are playing the most difficult form of Escape the Room, with unneeded obstacles in lieu of helpful clues. Allow me a bit of imagination, a touch of creativity, and a small measure of goodwill. Join me in trying to make this easier on ourselves — bearable if enjoyable seems too great a request — while not compromising on the values we hold dearer than life itself.
Heavy parental involvement in a shidduch is the backbone of our system. The vetting, reading between the lines of a sem roommate’s breathless recommendation, and other consequences beyond the scope of young men whose sense of accountability heretofore extended to executing monthly sponja duties, are wisely handled by experienced adults. It is left to the young ones to be adequately attired and to ably argue the merits or hazards of potching your kids in 2019.
This is no longer a truism for those of us in the old guard. We are tasked with navigating the legwork of shidduchim ourselves, while juggling budding careers and fitting in time to seriously learn. This is in no way a complaint, just charting the direction life has led us. We shoulder our own responsibilities and thrive on them. Help is there for us, and we greatly appreciate it, but ultimately the shots are left for us to call.
It naturally follows that staying motivated correlates to how responsible we are asked to be in the dating game. There are innumerable ways we can achieve this, some vanilla, and some a bit more radical. I am hesitant to wade into the more controversial concepts, as I fear losing the thread, creating static and discord rather than resolve and dialogue. There are a few thoughts I have that feel like a decent enough place to start, a “safe place” in modern terminology.
Keep the Shadchan in the Shadows
Perhaps as we age, the role of the shadchan should decrease. The shadchan could still nudge it along, sure, but lurk more in the background. An obligatory phone call to “set up the date” may well translate into a deeper sense of how this is on us, for real, and every effort should be made into actually making this work. Skip the interview with the parents. There will be time for Viennese crunch and water in crystal glasses when the shidduch begins to show promise. At that point we might even partake. It’s about the couple now, everything else is unneeded formality, unnecessary distraction. If a guy chose a sweater over the restrictive suit and tie, and the hat was left in the backseat, there is no reason to fret. It is not a show of disrespect, but a boy exhausted with formal cues. Authenticity, not irreverence. Let him be. He is doing what feels right for him to succeed.
Go for the Coffee Date
Another place we can unfetter the older single is in how we structure a first date. The idea of coffee dating has been gaining steam, no pun intended. Sometimes we know ten minutes in, girls and boys alike, that this is not right for us. Flailing to fill three hours exchanging his and her tales of trips to Tzfas and SEED challah-making events doesn’t particularly move one to keep doing it all over again. Starbucks can be utilized for more than just complimentary Wi-Fi. No contract for a second date, 45 minutes of plain getting to know each other, no need for a pick-up or a drop-off. Again, we are looking to make the process less formidable, more enjoyable, and even productive. This will engender a greater sense of commitment — not, as some may worry, less.
Cast a Wider Net
At the same time we are asking others to shift their focus from the trivial, we as older singles must adjust our mindset as well. Cast a wider net, and display less rigidity toward what constitutes an intriguing suggestion. Reduce emphasis on what looks good on paper, and stop gathering so much information. Be age appropriate, as a dear friend urges me often. Never settle, but never stop weighing your priorities. There is someone out there, somewhere — it would be nice if we actually got around to meeting her.
Our community, and more importantly our faith, views innovation with great suspicion. In a world where change and progressivism serve as code words for pushing the boundaries of an ever-receding morality, we tread with hesitant footsteps, if we dare tread at all. Reform of social norms carries with it such peril that doing nothing is many times the prudent course of action. “Chadash assur min haTorah” has forever been a staple of our chinuch and the battle cry of our leadership — for very good reason. Its wisdom has been proven a hundred times over.
I do feel, however, that it has also been our way to hear a different point of view, to mull over other perspectives. Without a whit of concession on tzniyus, without giving an inch on our principles to a culture rotting in public view, there are ways we can improve a success rate for a segment of our nation that is struggling with a mission that seems to grow only more difficult. We fight valiantly to stay alive in the moment and to keep the fire in our eye flickering for a bright future.
We want to get married. Help us want to date. If this becomes the underlying meaning of your brachah for ratzon, I lay down my spoon, joyfully accept your heartfelt prayers, and settle serenely back in my seat to enjoy my bowl of soup, wrapped in the warmth of something truly meaningful.