By Howard Barbanel
Much has been made of the so-called shidduch crisis in the Orthodox community, where girls of 22 or 23 feel as though they’re consigned to eternal spinsterhood if they’ve not gotten married by that point. Not to denigrate the very real anxiety of these young ladies and their parents, but at 22 a person has no end of personal possibilities and opportunities. At 42 or 50, not so much.
While some may bemoan that every single young man and woman is not married by their 21st birthday, there is no end of weddings filling up the calendar. Go to any large quality kosher restaurant on almost any night and you’re sure to find a sheva berachos meal in progress. In shul, a barrage of aufrufs hog the bima and bring elaborate hot kiddushim to the masses. Fifty-year-old grandmothers are ubiquitous in most Orthodox neighborhoods. There’s a whole lot of marriage activity going on, even if not every last living soul finds their bashert by 22.
Contrasting the blizzard of twentysomethings’ weddings is the near total dearth of nuptials for anyone Orthodox who is over 40. When was the last time you were at a wedding of some fortysomethings? I thought so. There is a palpable personal and communal mania to get married in one’s early twenties, which is contrasted by the equally palpable apathy about doing the same when one is over 40. Combine this with the relatively recent divorce boom in the Modern and Centrist Orthodox communities, and you have the makings of a midlife shidduch crisis.
The over-40 frum single population is not nearly as homogeneous as those in their early twenties. There are two main subgroups, the first being the never-marrieds and the second being the divorced.
The never-marrieds. This group comprises several subdivisions of its own. You have those who concentrated on their education and careers to the near exclusion of all else and/or concentrated on having a lot of fun dating a lot of people a lot of the time without serious thought, in imitation of the secular population’s mores.
Also among the never-marrieds are those who are phobic to a point of paralysis—be it fear of commitment, emotional intimacy, physical intimacy, “settling,” or any combination of the above. There are some who did manage to get engaged once or twice but pre-marital jitters or last-minute revelations scotched the wedding, sometimes at the eleventh hour, and they’re scarred or damaged from this in some fashion. There are also some never-marrieds who are confirmed bachelors and bachelorettes who actually revel in the superficially fun lifestyle of dating someone new all the time. These people will also tell you they’re still looking for “the one,” because it’s just socially unacceptable in the Orthodox world to say you don’t want to get married; but they really don’t.
Lastly, some never-marrieds are just a little bit odd—a condition that is often exacerbated over many years residing in microscopic Manhattan studio apartments talking to the walls and their cats. A lot of the over-forties have given up on Internet dating and going to singles events out of a sense of futility and ennui. Many have resigned themselves to their lifestyle and created communities of like-minded Orthodox singles (particularly on the Upper West Side) to share Shabbasos and yomim tovim together where there is zero pressure to get married. Shabbos and three-day yomim tovim require peer support because Orthodoxy is essentially a group or family activity. Because of that, on the flip side of the coin are singles who go off the derech. Due to the rigors of observant life and what can be the oppressive solitude of being alone, some people slowly, incrementally, join the secular population as a means towards assuaging the deadening effect of Shabbasos and holidays alone or spent with families that can inadvertently make them feel worse about their single status.
Study after study has shown that never-married women over 40 have the same odds of getting married as being struck by lightning (which is why parents are correct in pushing their young daughters to marry early) and even if they do manage to get hitched, having a child or two is fraught with huge expense (for medical intervention) and anxiety. Manhattan has a large population of Orthodox women who will never have children. For men, 50 is the new 40. If a man is financially successful and perhaps reasonably attractive, he can get married for the first time in his forties, but if by 50 he hasn’t tied the knot, women under 40 generally won’t consider him, and he probably has a reputation of being commitment-phobic, which earns him the sobriquet of “toxic bachelor.”
The Divorced. The escalating divorce rate in the Orthodox community apes the behavior of American society as a whole, where there is a perception that quick and simple solutions exist to complex problems. There’s nothing simple about divorce (especially with children) and it usually results in the swapping of one set of problems for another. Sometimes people are so frantic to change their lives that they’ve no real idea of how difficult it may be to ever get remarried.
The divorced population also has sub-categories. People who divorced young (under 30) and with no kids, or with one or two, have a high probability of getting remarried if they’re marriage-minded. For women over 35 it is trickier, especially as the number of children a divorced woman has goes right to the heart of her eligibility and chances for remarriage. But you still see a bunch of second marriages of people in their thirties. When the big four-oh hits, everything changes and marriages practically stop cold.
A lot of over-40 frum divorcées quite frankly have had it with marriage. They may have gotten married in their early or mid-twenties and had a number of kids with their ex and they’re burnt out and exhausted from the experience. Often, their former husbands did unpleasant things either during the marriage or the divorce (or both) and so a lot of these ladies really don’t want another man padding around the house scratching himself, watching sports on TV, and making all the male bodily noises that they now find repugnant after a decade or two of living with their often now-hated ex. They would make an exception for a hedge-fund guy bringing in seven figures a year and who looks like Brad Pitt, but these fellows are few and far between.
Many of these ladies just want to have fun. They look at themselves in the mirror and (in a state of delusion) see a 23-year-old in their reflection and so sometimes behave accordingly even though they may be the mother of several children. These women often are not able to have more children, nor are they interested in having more children, so they don’t see the need to be married, especially to balding, aging guys lacking wads of cash with which to enable Prada shopping sprees or fancy vacations.
In the over-40 Modern Orthodox divorced population, marriage has come to be seen by both sexes as something exclusively for procreation. If no procreating, no need to tie the knot. Companionship and intimacy are increasingly seen as commodities that can be leased, not purchased.
Among the divorced men, a lot of them had a harrowing divorce experience themselves where they lost their families (or any least their family life), daily access to their kids and their homes (as in their physical residences, often necessitating an involuntary downsizing in accommodation). The divorce itself probably cost a small fortune, and the men still have to pay yeshiva tuition, camp tuition, child support, and sometimes even the mortgages on their former homes. They might have three or four kids and are crushed by the burden of supporting two households even if they earn $200,000 a year. The last thing a lot of these guys want to do is take on a whole new batch of financial responsibilities (i.e., a woman and her several kids or having more kids with a new woman) when they can barely make ends meet as it is. For them “The Brady Bunch” blended family is a fantasy TV show from the ’70s. These guys feel they did their duty to Klal Yisrael (and their parents) by having several kids, and now they too want to have some fun.
Numerous studies of the general population conclusively show that women initiate nearly two-thirds of all divorces over 30. It’s a myth that mostly men are breaking up their homes. Having been on the receiving end of the devastating emotional and financial experience of divorce, the guys are often also disgusted with the institution of marriage and understandably gun-shy as well. Also, the last thing they’re looking for is a replica of their ex-wife in the form of a fortysomething divorced woman with several kids in tow. If they have no interest in more children, they also see no need to get married. Freed of the marriage chiyuv (in their minds) they look to enjoy themselves.
The toughest time of the week for the over-40 divorced is typically Shabbos because the nuclear Shabbos family table has been broken apart. It is typically during those 25 hours and on holidays that one is made most acutely aware of one’s divorced status, and it can be tough, especially in the suburbs, if one lacks extended family or good friends in close proximity. It can be harder if one’s kids have left the nest.
Generally the rabbis and organized Orthodoxy are as apathetic towards the over-40 singles as are most of the singles themselves towards the imperative of being married. The sense among communal leaders is “You had your chance when you were young, and we have to focus on the next generation,” and “You’re grownups; fend for yourselves.” So fend they do. There are several promoters who organize parties for the over-40 Modern observant crowd. Some of these events can draw upwards of 500 people. The general theme of these events is “party like it’s 1999,” in that nearly all of these parties are frantic, near-deafening dance music fests of the kind they used to attend when they were 25. Now that they’re 45 and burned from divorce or happy being never-married, they want to imagine themselves as their former 25-year-old selves, if only for a few hours.
The problem with these kinds of events is that it’s nearly impossible to talk to anyone new, let alone even hear oneself think. So people go and drink, scoping one another out and pretending to have a good time, and only very rarely make a meaningful connection with someone from the opposite sex, but the partiers party on in a cacophony of quiet desperation.
The world of Modern and Centrist Orthodox over-40 singles is the very definition of a demimonde—a micro-world. The right-wing, yeshivish people consider them to be near apikorsim, especially because Moderns dress like regular Americans and even watch TV and movies and don’t spend nearly enough time studying and in shul, in their estimation. The Moderns and Centrists often see those on the right as being either socio-culturally uncool and/or stiflingly religious. The shadchanim of the world tend towards the more right wing and towards the young, so the over-40 Moderns don’t get a lot of shidduch action. In defense of many shadchanim, they see that many Moderns are not marriage-minded, so it’s a waste of time for them.
There used to be a time 30- and 40-plus years ago when places like Grossinger’s and The Concord would attract Jews from all walks of life, and Modern Orthodox singles in particular would meet their counterparts from traditional or less-observant homes. This greatly expanded the dating pool. Those days are long gone. Most Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated (secular) Jewish singles today of whatever age generally are loath to date or even consider marriage to any kind of Orthodox person, no matter how culturally American they may be. They see us as “Amish,” envisioning Shabbos as a Satmar-like experience that creeps them out. They have more in common with secular Christians than with Modern Orthodox Jews, which is why the non-Orthodox intermarriage rate is stratospheric. They’d rather deal with Christmas and Easter than Shabbos, kashrus, and the holidays. But that’s another story. What it means in practicality is that the over-40 Orthodox single has a very small pond to swim and to fish in, and the water is evaporating with every passing year.
I don’t know what the overall prescription is for this dilemma other than that a paradigm shift needs to take place, aided by the community, to say that to be Orthodox means to be married and that marriage is not just for making babies (which is vital) but also to give you the fulfillment that comes with a richer life made possible by companionship. And that life ought not to be lived alone or in random hookups of dubious emotional satisfaction. Until Modern and Centrist Orthodox over-40 singles shed the secularist notions of marriage just for procreation, the ranks of the legion of the lonely will only continue to swell. v
Howard Barbanel is a columnist for The Huffington Post and the former editor of The South Shore Standard.