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Coronavirus lockdown meant a break from shidduch pressure — until it didn’t

I’m expecting my cap and gown in the mail any day now, and that is not a sentence I ever thought I’d write. In fact, a lot of unexpected things have been happening lately. Unprecedented things. Which is why I was startled to receive an email from my university the other day regarding an upcoming Zoom event: “Dating and Relationships Now,” it’s called. There are two panelists: a representative from the matchmaking website called “YUConnects,” and a psychologist from my university’s counseling center.

Trust Yeshiva University to keep Jewish dating culture alive even during a pandemic.

A long-time burden has finally eased, if only temporarily, and, for once, there’s not much we can do about it.

Hadassah Penn

It’s a shame, because, while there are many things I miss about YU, and will continue to miss once I have graduated, the ever-present pressure to be meeting people, to be pursuing marriage as the best and ultimate pre-graduation achievement, is not one of them.

It started when I arrived in the Spring of 2018, just in time for the annual YU Seforim Sale, and it simply never stopped. The pervasive marriage mindset interrupts schoolwork, complicates should-be-casual social events, looms over downtime, and surfaces almost daily during conversations with friends.

Until now.

Have you ever sat down to study and then realized you left your notes at school? And you thought, “Oh, well, I can’t study right now; I guess I’ll go do something fun instead?” That’s how I’ve felt these past few weeks. Oh, well, I can’t date right now. I guess I’ll go focus on my schoolwork/continue my job search/watch Mad Men ten years late through a feminist lens instead. The current climate, terrible and upsetting in so many ways, has also been surprisingly, enormously freeing.

A long-time burden has finally eased, if only temporarily, and, for once, there’s not much we can do about it.

That’s a petty perspective, maybe. But it’s not unearned. For years, my age has been “already nineteen,” “already twenty,” “already twenty-one” (read to the rhythm of a ticking clock). And here, finally, is a chance for me to be twenty-one and just twenty-one. A bleak twenty-one in my childhood bedroom, but just twenty-one nonetheless.

“Busy” is no longer a euphemism for “she’s waiting to hear back about a second date.” It’s just… busy. Busy with essays and video chats with friends and cooking for Shabbat. Busy with jigsaw puzzles and remote internships and almond tea. Neighborhood walks and old songs and spring cleaning. Normal activities, perfect in their normalcy.

Or they were. And then I started to hear about Zoom speed dating. Zoom shidduch dates. People passing around lists of the best virtual activities to try during dates (including, but not limited to, a Kotel cam and a free online version of the Myers-Briggs personality test). And now, once again, the pressure is kicking in.

It scares me, this cultural inability to pause the marriage mill for even several weeks. I have friends who are still dating over Zoom, because they worry that every month of age lessens their shidduch prospects. I have friends who are convinced that they’ll fall behind if everyone continues to date and they do not. We are perpetuating a toxic culture, one that undermines the individual self-worth of young women by pinning it entirely on marriage at the “right” age, even during a literal global pandemic.

I say women because the young men I know are far less concerned about these issues on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t to say these pressures don’t exist for men, only that the societal pressure to marry and marry soon seems to rest largely on the shoulders of young (very young) Jewish women.

That dating panel that I mentioned earlier, the one facilitated by YU? That’s a women-only event, and YU men have not been offered an equivalent. Is the school filling a need created by female students? Perhaps. Is it simultaneously condoning and encouraging a distracting, unhealthy perspective of early adulthood? Absolutely.

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This is in no way an indictment of married YU students or YU students who are currently dating. It’s normal to date in college, and normal for those relationships to sometimes evolve into marriage. What I have trouble with is the nowness of it all, the need for marriage to happen right away, as soon as possible.

If you want to date right now and you are able to do so safely, I support your right to proceed. But think about your reasons: Is this something that makes you feel good right now, less lonely? Is dating one of the few ways you can prep for the future right now? Or are you simply afraid of the guilt and worry that would come from taking a break? If it’s the latter, consider slowing down for a bit; there’s no shame in focusing on your own well-being in a time of global crisis, no matter what that voice in your head has been conditioned to tell you.

For me, this past month has been, in an upside-down kind of way, a blessing. A respite from the constant weight of five semesters at YU, from weekends plus summers in my religious New Jersey community, from well-meaning neighbors who tell me I’m “next” in a vaguely ominous fashion.

But what does the future look like — the post-quarantine society that we will, we hope, have the privilege to shape? We’ve already figured out ways to keep the shidduch scene running during quarantine. When quarantine lifts in weeks or months, will everything go back to normal? I can see it now and I’m already exhausted: beverages in hotel lobbies and the nicer Starbucks locations, shidduch resumes and references and being “busy” all over again.

What if we decided to slow things down? To let students focus on school first and marriage second?

Instead of snapping right back to single-mindedness, instead of “making up for lost time,” give young adults space to create, to develop, to change and explore and experiment. Give us something to strive for that isn’t marriage. I promise we’ll rise to the occasion.

Hadassah Penn is a graduating senior at Yeshiva University, where she studied journalism and art history. Hadassah is passionate about feminism, activism, and the arts, especially as they relate to Jewish life. Currently writing for Mission Magazine, the YU Observer, and her own enjoyment.

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