Thursday evening, I drove into downtown DC to meet my girlfriend, her co-worker, and another friend for a double date. My girlfriend and I set up her co-worker, Rebecca, and our friend, Jacob [names changed for privacy], as they were both looking to date a nice Jewish guy and girl respectively. This was my first foray into Jewish matchmaking.
The restaurant, in an attempt to be sensitive to Jewish dietary restrictions, offered a Passover-friendly menu. The menu featured classic items like matzah ball soup and brisket. Since my dinner companions were all Jewish, this worked out well. I, on the hand, was not restricted to eating unleavened bread, so I had a reuben; it was delicious. The menu not only facilitated appropriate dietary choices, however, it also led us into a discussion of each person’s experience as a Jew.
Rebecca grew up in Pittsburgh in a Jewish neighborhood. She attended a Jewish school, had mostly Jewish friends, and consistently observed Shabbat at either a friend or relative’s home. A non-Jewish friend once pointed out that she was a minority, and she didn’t believe it. Her world was mostly Jewish, so how could she be a minority?
This changed in college. Though there were certainly other Jewish students at her school, she became astutely aware that she was different than most of the people there. She found rituals that used to be comforting and familiar, strange and alienating. She rejected Jewish programs that would have offered her not only great “religious” opportunities, but also fantastic professional ones (networking events, internships, overseas fellowships, etc.). She became embarrassed by her “Jewishness.”
After she graduated, she had the opportunity to attend a Birthright trip. These trips offer young Jews the opportunity to visit Israel to develop and rekindle a sense of connection with their Jewish history and identity. This was certainly the case for Rebecca, who, following the trip, no longer felt the need to hide her Jewishness.
She now works at a Jewish philanthropic organization that is dedicated to helping young Jews find ways to apply Jewish values to their lives.
Jacob has a very different story. He grew up in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a town of 68 thousand that has plenty of Evangelical Christians, and very few Jews. Unlike Rebecca, who was unaware that she was a “minority” until college, Jacob couldn’t forget it. The nearest synagogue was an hour-long drive away. This meant that when he was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, he and his father spent hours every week driving back and forth from their home to the synagogue.
In high school, homecoming happened to fall on the same day as Rosh Hashanah. Jacob had to make a choice between celebrating Jewish New Year, a “High Holy Day” in Judaism, or attending one of the most significant and traditional American high school events. The choice was between his Jewish identity and his identity as an American high school student.
He chose to go to homecoming.
Jacob never had the opportunity to “forget” his Jewishness. He never wanted to, but it did force to him make difficult decisions that made him consider and prioritize his values.
Today, Jacob also works for a Jewish organization that encourages young Jews to actively live Jewish values.
What’s fascinating about Rebecca and Jacob’s experiences is that though they were very different, their relationship with their Jewish identity has evolved to the point that they not apply Jewish values to their own lives, they are also using it as a criteria in their search for a mate.
Rebecca told us about a few Jewish guys she knows who either have no interest in living a Jewish life or have actively abandoned their Jewish identity. It’s disappointing to her because she has learned how meaningful and rich Judaism can be if you actively incorporate it into your life. For her, this is a dating deal-breaker. She wants her potential partner to at least be interested in incorporating Jewish values into his life.
Jacob was less clear about the extent of Jewishness he would like in a potential partner, but it was still an important factor.
I’ve been with my girlfriend for over six years now, and it more or less happened by accident. Fortunately, her values and interests align closely with mine. But I never made a deliberate effort to find someone who shares the same values I did. If I were to do so, I wouldn’t know where to start. I don’t think there is a single identity that I could use as viable selection criteria. Do I look for someone who is interested in fitness? Travel? Someone who has a college degree?
When Rebecca or Jacob say they are looking for a “nice Jewish boy or girl,” that implies a whole range of values and interests associated with Judaism. Instead of listing 50 different criteria that the guy or girl needs to meet, you can get away with saying the person needs to be Jewish, and maybe add a few other criteria for good measure (being good looking is not a bad one).
Modern American culture, however, emphasizes serendipitous meetings and attraction without screening for shared values. We pick arbitrary or vague criteria, like “having a sense of humor” or “adventurous;” not the lasting stuff of meaningful relationships.
Maybe we should take a cue from Rebecca and Jacob and think more about the values that define us, and seek those same values in others.
I’m lucky, because though I didn’t do it intentionally, I already found my nice Jewish girl.