“Panui?” the stocky, sweating, balding guy in the un-tucked white dress shirt and tiny knitted kippah atop his head, asked me over the blaring modern Chassidic dance music.
At first I thought he was asking if I was ‘free’. I was weary of people who approached me at weddings asking that question. They all seemed desperate to make a shidduch between an unsuspecting guy like me and some perennially single woman they knew (usually a distant relative of theirs), but then I realized he was only asking about the chair. I nodded and he sat down.
“Ravak,” he said, extending his hand – not to shake mine but to reach for the Diet Coke across the table – “Guy Ravak.”
I chuckled to myself. By loose translation his name would be ‘single guy’. I had a flashback to the mid 90’s sit-com ‘The Single Guy’ starring Jonathan Silverman. I recalled that the recently deceased Oscar winning actor Ernest Borgnine played the doorman on that show.
“Yeah, it’s a funny name,” Guy Ravak admitted as he downed his drink. “What’s even worse is being single in your late 30’s with that name.”
He had a point. Guy Bachelor? Guy Singleman? Of all the possibilities, Guy Ravak was the worst.
“So here we are at the singles table,” he sighed as he gestured at the six other temporarily unoccupied seats. “I’m guessing all our tablemates are younger single friends of the groom, off somewhere waiting for him and his bride to emerge from their private ‘yichud room’ so they can dance up a storm.”
I nodded. This was certainly not his first wedding. And the two of us were well past the ‘can’t wait to dance with the groom’ stage of our lives.
“Nu?” he asked after surveying the room. “What about the talent?”
“Talent?” I had no idea what he was talking about.
“The women. The single women. A nice big modern-religious wedding like this, there’s got to be a lot of single women around. So, what’s the scoop on the ‘talent’?
“Oh,” I said, squirming in my seat. “Well, it’s kind of hard to say.”
“Come on, I know I got here late, but surely you checked out some of the bride’s single friends during the chuppah?”
“Actually, no,” I stuttered. “It was separate seating. I mean really separate. I couldn’t see any of the women during the ceremony, except maybe the bride – and her mother.”
Guy shook his head in disgust as he scooped some hummus with his bread roll.
“Well, what do you expect these days,” he muttered. “Modern orthodox weddings are getting more Haredi by the year. It’s bad enough that the chuppah and dancing are separate, but the seating at the meal too! Look around. You’ve got men seated in the front of the hall and women in the back. It’s like one of those Mehadrin buses. And don’t get me started on that! I’m telling you, after the main course, I’m out of here.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, suddenly getting defensive for no good reason. “What’s so wrong with being separate? If that’s what the families want, why not?”
“Listen,” he moved his chair closer to be heard above the thundering music. “You were brought up modern orthodox, right?” I nodded. “Your parents were probably in Bnei Akiva.” I nodded again. He had me pegged. “When your parents got married everyone sat together at the chuppah – unless maybe it was in a shul – but we are here at some kibbutz event hall called ‘Gan Ha’toucan’ or something like that, so that’s no excuse. When our parents were young they had mixed dancing, even in Bnei Akiva! You and I grew up with mixed seating at simchas, right?”
I couldn’t disagree.
“Ok, maybe we had separate dancing,” he continued, “but it was two circles, men and women in full view of each other, separated by just a few meters – not like this!” He pointed in the direction of the dance floor where the men were dancing in plain view while the women were dancing behind an enclosed moveable partition as formidable as the Berlin Wall. The way things were going, the women should have considered themselves ‘lucky’ to still be dancing in the same room as the men.
I craned my neck to try to catch a glimpse over the wall.
“Don’t bother,” Guy groaned. “I’ve tried to sneak a peak at other weddings like this. You can’t see anything – trust me.”
“Still, if that’s what they want,” I reasoned.
“But it’s not good,” Guy said firmly. “I’ll give you the separate dancing. Heck, I’ll grant you the separation of sexes at the chuppah. But what’s so wrong with mixed seating at the meal? How are single guys like us supposed to meet single women if we’re seated at the singles table with only other men?!”
He had a point. Traditionally weddings always had some element of mingling. How could one wedding lead to others in the future if singles had no chance to meet eligible members of the opposite sex?
“It’s the whole system that’s the problem,” Guy explained as he refilled his glass. “When we were kids, not so long ago, we had co-ed classes throughout elementary school. Nowadays many national-religious schools inIsraelare separating the boys from the girls in third grade, sometimes even from first grade!”
“Maybe that’s because it’s harder for teachers to control mixed gender classes. Or maybe that’s what the parents want now.”
“Nonsense!” Guy bristled as he fumbled with his glass. “Mixed gender classes were good enough for our parents and for us too, so why change now? I’ll even take it a step further. Take the last four years of elementary school, add junior high and high school, and suddenly you realize that you have been in same-sex classrooms for a whole decade. Maybe you were in a mixed gender youth group like Bnei Akiva, but that was only once or twice a week, and although it was co-ed, it started getting stricter as the years went on. Then many national-religious kids take a year or two to go to a pre-army academy or yeshiva, and then go on to the army or national service, all gender separate, for the most part. By the time you get to university, where you might actually sit next to someone of the opposite sex, you’re already well into your 20’s.”
“But, nothing,” Guy was on a roll and nothing could stop him. “You’ve missed your prime dating years. You spend the next decade going to singles events, speed dating, and endless shidduch dates. You have a profile on every Jewish dating website known to man. You have hundreds of single friends on Facebook whom you’ve never even met in person. You end up renting a flat with other single people of your age and gender in Katamon or Givat Shmuel. And then where do you end up?”
“Sitting at a same-sex singles table at some kid’s wedding?” I replied sheepishly.
He raised his glass in mock L’Chaim and took a long sip.
Realizing I had struck a nerve, I said nothing.
After a long pause, Guy asked, “Do you know what today is?”
“No, I meant the Hebrew date. It’s Tu B’Av. You know how many couples want to get married on this date, the 15th of Av, ‘the ‘so-called’ holiday of love’? I am invited to two other weddings tonight. In fact, I think I’ll split soon and check out the next one. With any luck, they’ll have mixed seating over there.”
I wanted to say something biting, but thought better of it.
“Here’s the thing about Tu B’Av,” Guy began to lecture me as he wiped his brow with a cloth napkin. “It says in the Mishnah: ‘There were no greater festivals forIsraelthan the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur. For on those days the maidens ofJerusalemwould go out, dressed in white garments that were borrowed, so as not to embarrass those who were poor, and dance in the vineyards.’”
“I know that story.” I assured him, picking up where he left off. “And what would they say: ‘Young man, raise your eyes and see which you select for yourself. What would the beautiful ones among them say? Look for beauty, for a woman is for beauty. What would those of prestigious lineage say? Look for family, for a woman is for children. What would the unattractive ones say? Make your acquisition for the sake of Heaven.’”
“Very good,” Guy smiled, pleasantly surprised at my knowledge. “So, you see, Tu B’Av was traditionally quite an important day.”
“Yeah, I guess all the guys back then were busy checking out ‘the talent’, as you say,” I smirked.
“Don’t laugh, my friend.” Guy Ravak got very serious all of a sudden. “Notice how many times the passage uses the words ‘see’ or ‘look’: ‘Raise your eyes and see’, ‘look for beauty’, ‘look for family’, etc.” He jerked his head in the direction of the women dancing behind the wall. “Back then the single women may have danced in a vineyard, separately from the men, but they were meant to be seen by the eligible bachelors at some stage in order for the men to be able to choose a bride. Otherwise what was the whole point? Maybe the men weren’t supposed to stare and leer at the eligible women, but they were certainly supposed to look. Spending Tu B’Av eve at a wedding where you can’t even see ‘all the single ladies’ is missing the whole point of this holiday! Think about it.”
I thought about it. In fact, I was still thinking about ‘all the single ladies’ (including a fleeting image of Beyoncé) as he got up to leave. Not wanting to be the only one left at the table, I accompanied him.
Guy Ravak lit up a cigarette as soon as we got outside the hall.
“So,” I said sarcastically, “what do you really think about all this gender separation business?”
He took a long drag from his cigarette, exhaled, and put his arm around my shoulder.
“The trend at some of these weddings reminds me of a story,” he began. “There was this young man about to get married. He goes to his rabbi to get some last minute counseling before his wedding.
‘Rabbi, I realize it’s tradition for men to dance with men, and women to dance with women at the reception. But, my bride and I would like your permission for the two of us to dance together.’
‘Absolutely not,’ says the rabbi. ‘It’s immodest. Men and women must dance separately.’
‘So after the ceremony I can’t even dance with my own wife?’
‘No,’ answers the rabbi. ‘It’s forbidden’
They move on to other subjects regarding married life and eventually the groom asks about having relations with his wife.
‘Of course!’ replies the rabbi. ‘It’s a mitzvah.’
‘What about different positions?’ the groom asks.
‘No problem,’ says the rabbi.
The groom asks about all sorts of different positions and the rabbi answers ‘yes’ each time. Finally the groom asks, ‘What about standing up?’
‘Absolutely not!’ says the rabbi.
‘Why not?’ asks the groom.
The Rabbi leans forward and whispers to the groom, ‘It could lead to dancing!’”