It’s not news that living as an older single can be frustrating regardless of what any given community deems as “older.” We go to sleep at night not knowing whether the person we just met will want to ever see us again; we have to make plans every week so we don’t spend 25 hours in solitude on Shabbat; we’re told to be fastidious about our behavior and appearance lest our future beloved happens to spot us standing on line at the supermarket. Yet, we live in an inherent paradox, particularly because there seems to be no place in Jewish tradition for the “older single.”
Since childhood, we are taught: “Lo tov adam lehiyot levado” (Genesis 2:18). Everyone needs a life partner by his or her side — it is not good to go through life alone. But as the years go by, we learn to be independent. Many of us are academically and professionally successful; we have hobbies, go on trips together, and host large, enjoyable meals on Shabbat. Some of us own pets, a home, and/or a car. Overall, we have fulfilling, happy lives. Yet it seems like everyone is waving their fingers at us — tsk tsk, get married already!
The rhetoric about “the singles crisis” in the Jewish community sounds like being an older single is an epidemic. Tehillim groups join together for singles and people who have serious maladies alike (at least they’re on different days). Kindhearted community members want your personal information so they can “present you” at their next shidduch meeting. And have you seen these rabbinically-endorsed ads in some Haredi magazines?
Yet the “crisis,” to my mind, is not about numbers. It’s not about being alone or mourning the years that go by while we’re on our own. The crisis, rather, is how the community treats us during our “unattached years,” and consequently, how this stigma affect us. Given that we live in a family-centric society (in Israel, it’s not just a religious value, but a general cultural one), how can we simultaneously respect Jewish tradition and accept ourselves as we are, without falling into sorrow and self-pity?
Erica Brown, in Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Number, discusses something powerful that affects everyone who has ever experienced the “unexpected dangers and unanticipated dramas” of single life, which is also how Brown describes the ancient Israelites’ experience during their desert journey. Looking at the book of Bemidar, which begins next week, Brown correlates the period in the desert to a ma’avar, the Hebrew word for passageway, a bridge or transition (For my fellow Hebrew nerds out there, here’s an ulpan lesson for you: the term for menopause, is actually gil ha-ma’avar, the age of transition).
Brown invokes the imagery of a bridge because it allows for smooth passage between two otherwise unconnected places. Without that bridge, one would not be able to cross to the other side safely or stably. Yet, while crossing that bridge (or, in the case of the Israelites, while schlepping through the desert), there is no single demarcated location. Neither here nor there, they were in a precarious, uncertain place. On an existential level, one may not even know where that bridge leads. Brown writes:
The problem with every bridge is answering the question “where is it?” without any precision…No one who sets out to cross a bridge just stays there. Such is the problem with all transitions; they require a cognitive and emotional understanding that the transition is not the destination.
Reflecting back on those years in my early twenties. How many times did my friends and I hear those golden words of wisdom from family friends and amateur matchmakers: “Whatever you do, don’t get too settled; you want to get married, right?!” (*Names of the guilty are hereby withheld!)
Keeping that wisdom in mind, I rented a room in a shared apartment and bought a used twin-size bed for a couple hundred dollars from an acquaintance. My kitchen quickly became an amalgamation of mismatched plates and silverware, relics of the roommates who once lived there too. The used couch sank in the middle and a little bit on the sides. It was certainly fun and bohemian to live in a temporary state for a few years, but sometimes “temporary” lasts for decades, and we’re worth more than a sinking couch and used bed.
Throughout our single days, we share dating experiences like battle stories, not sure whether to laugh, cry or record them so we can make our grandchildren blush one day. Most importantly, as we date, we learn about ourselves: our strengths, weaknesses, boundaries, and preferences; our joys, real needs and values. During this time in the desert-of-life, we figure out our beliefs and goals, and perhaps question the ones with which we’ve been raised. And hopefully we realize that what matters most is our own authenticity.
This sounds intense, yes, but the wonderful thing is that we can only do this when we are on that bridge of transition — when we’re neither here nor there, not dependent on any institution, school or authority’s approval. How liberating it is when you can look around and can appreciate who you are just for being you! Oh to have that perspective!
One of the most influential people in my mini-army of mentors is Bari Lyman, entrepreneur and founder of the Meet to Marry method. Bari is my friend and mentor who went on to become an author and empowering coach. In short, she helps people clear away their “blind spots/’ and articulate a clear vision towards finding “The One.” Amongst other things, she taught me is: “To find The One, you must be The One.” Akin to Mahatma Gandhi ‘s adage, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” Bari taught me that in order to get to that next stage in life, we have to know our true selves, be our true selves, and love our true selves. Guess what? No one will teach us how to do that but ourselves. In other words, live by your principles. Live by your vision of what you want your future to be, and you will create it. You will in turn begin to enjoy that journey because you will be living YOUR life authentically. Heck, you may even decide to treat yourself to a matching set of dishes.
Circling back to Erica Brown is an idea developed by brothers Chip and Dan Heath, professors of Business and Social Entrepreneurship and co-authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. They believe in the importance of articulating small, realistic goals and creating a picture of what life will look like once your goals are achieved. They call this a destination postcard, “a vivid picture from the near-term future that shows what could be possible.”
While Brown applies the destination postcard concept to Moses, Aaron and Miriam in the desert, the Heath brothers discuss the concept it in an existential sense, explaining that this isn’t just a fancy picture; it’s a guided vision to help people focus their strengths in a practical manner; a tool to help figure out “how to get there.” (Wherever there may be.)
Bari often tasks her clients with creating their own destination postcard in the form of a vision board for married life. Here, there is no right and no wrong. It doesn’t matter if the spouses are dressed modestly or are going to the beach together; it is what you want for yourself. The vision board builds a bridge to wherever it is in life we want to go.
Creating an actual picture is helpful because unlike an actual bridge, the journey to finding The One is often circuitous, neither linear nor clear. It’s often a tangled web of emotions and is sometimes tainted by negative thoughts that we’ve carried with us for a long time. The community’s negative perception of us (a la “The Crisis”) certainly exacerbates those thoughts and feelings. The exercise with the guided vision board exercise therefore straightens the path and offers clarity.
Every transition period is scary and anxiety-ridden (heck, our ancestors in the Bible invented the concept of kvetching!). Like Moses, we’re plodding through that desert, but it’s up to us to create that clear vision of our Promised Land. What does the Promised Land of marriage actually mean to you? What will it look like?
Me? Well, it took me a long time to cross my bridge, but I’m getting there. Evidently, the cute guy I met at a Shabbat dinner was interested in me. Luckily, it was mutual, and yes, we’re crossing that bridge together on Sunday. So glad I invested in myself and that matching set of dishes. Now, we’ll get to enjoy them — together.