It happened slowly. First I was cutting my black hair into short punk-esque styles and rocking out at secular concerts. Then I was wearing more revealing clothing when costumes were the theme of the day. Every so often I would post short clips of me belting songs at karaoke or drinking with friends. It felt normal to me, but I knew I was slowly veering from my upbringing.
I was raised in Texas by religious parents. My father had grown up traditional and my mother had grown up reform. After attending the Chabad House on their university campus together, they committed to an observant Jewish lifestyle and joined the Chabad community. They married, eventually settling in Texas, where they sent their children to the local Chabad-run Hebrew Academy and became engrossed in the Lubavitch lifestyle.
When it came time for me to look into universities, my parents and I only considered the two primary private Jewish colleges in New York. I enrolled in Stern College and moved to Crown Heights, the epicenter of Chabad-Lubavitch. It didn’t take long for me to acclimate; as a news reporter I was invited to all of the community events and participated in the media in a major way. (Big fish, small pond.)
With my magnifying glass on all things Crown Heights, I had a front row seat to the show starring Chabadniks. As I tried to fit in and belong, I was acutely, constantly reminded of my glaring non-belonging. Because I was unmarried.
For a few years I attended services at 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad headquarters, on Friday nights. I would walk down the “770 Runway,” as my friends and I liked to call it, and watched as eyes roamed my body from my legs to my lashes. Did I fit in? I wondered. I stood at the back of the synagogue with all of the other local single girls and watched through the tinted glass as the men on the level below us prayed together, their voices rising, seeping into our little room through a four-inch gap at the bottom of the glass between us. The scene was often awe-inspiring. Pride would swell through my chest and out of my fingers; I was part of something really powerful. The Lubavitcher Rebbe had led this devoted community and I was part of it, at the very center.
At friends’ engagement parties and weddings, women would take my hands in theirs. “Soon by you,” they would tell me, sincerity in their eyes. I knew they meant that I should find a life partner and be happy in life, which to them meant build a family, the ultimate culmination of all of our Jewish education. But the constantly repeated wish, “Soon by you, soon by you” made me feel that without my life partner I was not yet on equal footing with the well-wisher.
It’s funny, though, because in the 10 years that I lived in Crown Heights I have not felt an urge to marry. For many reasons. Over the years, when I looked around me I saw couples who were permitted to argue in public but not to display affection. I saw people struggling to make ends meet, complaining about private school tuitions and the cost of groceries to feed growing families. Single life, preferably with an active personal life in the form of a committed relationship, suited me just fine.
Although the life that most were living around me was not one I quite imagined for myself, I stayed. Crown Heights was my home because I made it so, and because I had an active social life with a number of family friends and other singles — transplants like me and locals alike. The only place I could call home as a young (no, I don’t consider myself old) unmarried Jewish female business owner was New York; the city is all about work hard, play hard. The rapid pace of business, the constant flow of social opportunities…it’s my kind of vibe. And whenever I wanted time to myself, thankfully, my beautiful apartment made living in Brooklyn an absolute pleasure. So I stayed.
The marriages I admired — in which respect and partnership were plain to see — were few and far between. And I was having fun. I had a very active single life: events, parties, and just going off somewhere on my own without arranging my schedule with anyone else. Although I did at times feel lonely, I felt lucky to be living a more carefree life than I imagined I would be living a few years down the road.
A recurring scene would elicit opposing emotions from my friends and me. A mother pushing her baby down the street while juggling a phone on her ear and grocery bags on the stroller’s handles…would make my friends ache with yearning for a family of their own. But me…I was relishing my freedom.
This freedom is fleeting however, for my greatest wish is to share my life with a wonderful person. I also want to have children down the line, but I do not feel rushed. Everyone else rushes me. “Slow down,” I scream in my brain. Yes, I know my biological clock is ticking. My future husband and I will deal with that when we decide that we are ready.
My good friend Batya told me not too long ago that she felt I wasn’t sincerely looking to get married. “I guess I’m not,” I admitted to her. “I love what you have,” I said, gesturing to her beautiful children playing at our feet, “and I want this one day - I absolutely do - but I’m not ready yet.”
“You know,” she said, “just because you get married doesn’t mean you have to have kids right away. You can decide to wait, that’s fine.”
That may sound like a given, but I hadn’t acknowledged my fears before that moment. Marriage to me equated motherhood and I saw motherhood as wholly overwhelming, something I was still unprepared for. That’s what scared me. Not being able to handle it all.
“Okay. Well I want to share my life with someone. And then get married eventually.”
Judaism is wonderful in that it promotes family togetherness and community togetherness. However, I have felt slowly squeezed out of the community construct as I grow in age but not stage. It’s like everyone has climbed rungs while I have stood still. Sure, I’ve dated. Lots of guys, lots of dates, which will hopefully make a great book someday.
What made me most uncomfortable was the pity in the eyes of those who noticed my uncovered head. Most of my peers had four children tangled up in their wigs, while I walked around town with two-toned hair.
I knew I had a great support system, my health, amazing friends, a promising career, and a warm bachelorette pad with wonderful roommates. But at the same time, I felt like an outcast, belonging nowhere.
For that reason, not everything resonates any longer. Take the three primary laws that constitute observant living: kosher, Shabbat, and sacred intimacy.
Over the years, in my business dealings and social interactions, kosher became more and more a cause of suffering. As it was likely intended to do, it created a strict boundary between myself and others. It was embarrassing to have to explain to people that I could not eat with them at a restaurant, they would have to stay in with me and my kosher food.
Observance, such as dining restrictions, separated me from others outside my community. What, I thought to myself, was I maintaining my separation for? For a community that I didn’t feel part of? For a G-d I didn’t feel at all present in my life? For my family miles and miles away?
Something that I viewed as beautiful, connecting, and holy was slowly becoming something that made me miserable.
Shabbat was even more alienating. Families got together on Shabbat. Often I was invited to join them but then I would go home, crawl into bed with a book or movie (Gasp! Sorry—most singles just won’t admit it), and notice the stark difference between my independent living and their natural togetherness. I would miss my siblings and my parents. Periodically on our phone calls I would complain about being left out of the most basic elements of Judaism. They said they understood but I’m sure it broke their hearts.
With regard to intimacy, it is my belief that undue expectations are put upon older singles. It is wholly unnatural for people to be celibate for so long and it causes much strain on one’s emotional and mental health. That said, I would venture to opine that the sex life of older observant singles is far from healthy, swinging back and forth from totally celibate to “the hookup culture”. However, I’ll leave that topic for another essay-in-the-making.
And other mitzvos that were always the highlight for me growing up. Kaparos? Tashlich? Megillah? What was the point now? To stand there with other single friends in stark contrast against the backdrop of family units observing Judaism together? After a while, I just didn’t see the point anymore. It no longer resonated. So I quit.
It wasn’t overnight that this change occurred, but my decision was made guilt-free. Guilt and a sense of loyalty to my family and those I respect kept me in check for many, many years. Even more than my sense of duty in performing mitzvos for G-d who supposedly had me on his radar. Why couldn’t I feel it, though? I wondered. I so didn’t want to let down the very people I wanted to emulate. But I was beyond the point of observing mitzvos for myself or for others. I wanted out very badly, to feel some relief from the pressure I placed on myself in trying to please others.
To this day, I maintain my identity as a Lubavitcher. If I am nothing else, I am most definitely that — a Lubavitcher. I strongly admire and revere the Lubavitcher Rebbe and aspire to be a good person as he emulated and instructed. But I only practice the cultural parts of Judaism that bring me joy. As do so many other older singles, but they are hesitant to admit it.
I tried very hard to maintain my level of observance, and still do keep a kosher kitchen so my friends and family can feel welcome in my home. There are many things that I find beautiful about Judaism, which is why I have remained involved in the community. Chabad Heights, located on the edge of Crown Heights, provides excellent events and classes. I dedicate time to their Chabad Young Professionals chapter. In addition, I am involved with three other pro bono projects, one of which includes soon-to-be-launched addiction prevention and intimacy workshops for teens. Charity starts at home; this is my home, so I will devote myself to it. I volunteer for local organizations because it forces me to stay involved in the community, giving me a sense of purpose and belonging. I have finally found my happy balance.
And I want to make something known:
Older singles are falling through the cracks. It may not have been their initial intention, but it’s happening. It’s no one’s fault, per se. To the contrary, it is only to the credit of the families and friends who continue to invite me to join their units for Jewish occasions that I maintain a love for the Jewish culture and traditional family dynamic.
Every stage in life is valid. We must care for everyone. We shouldn’t make any single person feel like he or she is not on equal ground as anyone else. Projecting your personal feelings of your perceived sadness for a certain stage does not mean that the other person shares those feelings. Live your life doing what resonates for you and let others live their lives happily. We are all just trying to be good people, and to bring more goodness and kindness into the world. Don’t project. We each have our own struggles, our own challenges, no matter the age or stage. And we each have our joys, our triumphs, and the things that keep us going in this life.
I did not write this piece to merely give readers a glimpse into my life, but rather to shed light onto the lives of a growing population of marginalized Jews. If I may be so bold, I now turn to you, readers, and request that you submit your personal stories or suggestions for ways to expand Yiddishkeit to include those who are also unmarried — singles young and old, widows, and divorcees.
What can we do to make Yiddishkeit for everyone? I eagerly await your input and hope that we can all grow from this.
Let us focus on the beauty in Yiddishkeit that unites us rather than the statuses among us that divide us.
Soon by you.