“I got a degree from seminary in numb and dumb” the 20 year old, soon to be married woman said to me. I did not know what she was referring to so I asked her. This conversation took place over six years ago but I remember it vividly and kept a record of it.
“It’s simple” she said. “We were taught to be indifferent, numb to our emotions and who we are and also not taught much useful information; we didn’t get a serious or valuable education. We are numb and dumb!”
Over the years I have heard people complain about their lives, the schools they attended, the value of their education, or lack thereof, even about specific teachers. I have also heard them complain about their family and lifestyle. But this young woman seemed to have conceptualized her complaints quite well. She told me that over the years as an adolescent, teenager and into seminary she was taught to believe that her emotions were at best secondary to those of her future husband; that her husband would be the king of the household and she would learn to happily follow his requests; that she would have many children and would also work outside of the home to support her husband and children; that there were two tracks open to her, either as a teacher or in a vocational setting, neither of which she wanted to do nor would they be high paying. But most frightening to her was the part that said that whatever was expected by her husband she would have to follow. She did not come from a highly sheltered home environment, both her parents are professionals. She was railing against a double standard that she had been educated in and that she saw as patently unfair even misogynistic. And she was most concerned that if she did not follow the steps advised by the educational process she would never be truly happy even though the thought of living that way made her even more unhappy.
In the last few months I have heard the phrase “numb and dumb” from a number of young women. What seemed at first as a turn of phrase by a bright young woman a few years back seems to now have some traction. Most importantly, I have heard the phrase in extremis over the last week following the article by Yitta Halberstam in The Jewish Press. I do not doubt that Yitta is a fine woman interested in advancing the discussion of the problems and pitfalls in shidduchim but in that article she advocated teaching young woman the importance of appearance even to the point of advocating that they have plastic surgery. I believe she is terribly misdirected in her suggestions. I do agree with her that it would be helpful if young women learned how to care for themselves better but by that I mean learning about the importance of nutrition and exercise. As someone who treats young women suffering from anorexia, bulimia and addiction to diet pills I am loathe to consider advocating another source for addictive behavior – plastic surgery.
There are two primary flaws to the argument for the position that Yitta advocates. The first and most glaring is the wide discrepancy between that which she seemingly accepts between men and women. This is precisely the issue of being “numb and dumb” that the women discussed. Young men, not just women, also need to be taught how to take better care of themselves. Frankly, I am sure that having kugel and chulent three or four nights a week is simply not a healthy form of nutrition for young men. Women should not be the only ones watching their weight. Maybe these men need to learn to eat better and exercise too. Maybe they should learn that wearing a white on white French cuff shirt and a Borselino hat are not the only things that are important. Perhaps the most important thing they must learn is how to act toward and speak respectfully with young women. Unfortunately they are never allowed to do that as social interaction is so broadly shunned. At the point that young people start dating they have so little experience with members of the opposite sex that they are awkward and unsure. The pressure is intense but rather than try to properly prepare for and gain from the experience they seem to instead focus on superficial– looks and money — not personality and the ability to understand and interact. And, Yitta is sadly perpetuating that.
The other significant issue is similar to the well worn phrase – too many cooks spoil the broth, too many intermediaries spoil the dating process. Teachers are parenting, stepping in with advice about things that are often best left to parents. Parents are over-parenting. You do not create a healthy and happy child by diminishing their sense of self or limiting their options or, by saying that they are simply not attractive and need radical intervention to improve. If your child is old enough to marry they are certainly old enough to date without parents or shadchanim orchestrating every move. The failure is the system that has developed in the last twenty years. We are trying to recreate an approach that never existed and because it isn’t working we seek an answer. Unfortunately, we keep looking in all the wrong places.
To get beyond the Shidduch Crisis, which is not simply about finding a spouse but has also led to an increase in divorces and domestic violence, we have to acknowledge that we created it. We created it by telling our children that they cannot make wise decisions and that they are not smart enough to handle themselves socially. Now we are making it worse because we are telling men that they are near perfect and women that they are not capable of grooming themselves properly or worse, by giving a very mixed message that appearance is not that important until it becomes critical. At that point surgery is a must.
The woman who first introduced me to the phrase “numb and dumb” did get married. The first two years of her marriage were quite difficult and almost ended in divorce. Ultimately her husband understood that his wife had real needs and encouraged her to pursue them. Too often this is not the case.