New York – I know I’m going to be crucified, but if the appeal I make below helps even one girl in shidduchim, then it will be worth all the fury and outrage that shall inevitably descend upon my soon-to-be beleaguered head.
The other night, I was invited to a fascinating new shidduch initiative. Endorsed by leading rabbonim and spearheaded by a few righteous women valiantly trying to transcend the spiraling “shidduch crisis” in some small but meaningful way, the concept was to bring mothers of eligible young men together with young women looking for shidduchim (members of both groups were pre-screened and issued personal and discreet invitations by the organizers) in both a balabatish setting and a dignified way.
Everybody knows that the experiences of boys in shidduchim–in contradistinction to their female counterparts–is vastly different. This is the harsh truth: The mothers of “good boys” are bombarded with shidduch suggestions on a daily basis – a veritable barrage of resumes either flooding their fax machines or pouring out of their e-mail inboxes– while those with similarly “top” daughters sit with pinched faces anxiously waiting for the phone to ring. The disparity is bare, bold-faced and veritably heartbreaking: In the shidduch “parsha,” boys are constantly being courted and pursued, while the best girls’ resumes barely elicit a modicum of interest.
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As a friend recently told me: “When my nephew was 19 and started shidduchim, he went out with 19-year-old girls. When he turned 20, he still went out with 19-year-old girls. He kept getting older, but the shidduchim that he was “redt” continued to be 19-year-old girls. Now he is 24 and baruch Hashem just got engaged –to a 19-year old girl.” Sadly, women do not have this same recourse.
To rectify this inequity, a few concerned mothers brain stormed together and concluded that “shidduch resumes” (which never even existed as a concept when I was dating 35 years ago) fail to accurately capture the essence of the person being “summed up” and often–especially in the case of the girls– get lost in the shuffle. One organizer told me: “The boys’ mothers barely give the girls’ resumes a passing glance–they are so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers coming their way–and it becomes a daunting task to sift through them. And the resumes themselves are severely limiting. Can you really get a genuine sense of who the girl is from the resume? What does it tell you about her personality, her character, her intellect, her neshoma? It is demeaning to reduce a girl to a few sentences.”
The rationale underlying the new shidduch initiative was this: If eligible girls would be given personal and meaningful “face time” with prospective mother-in-laws, they would be able to present their qualities far more efficaciously than a cold and lifeless curriculum vitae.
Now for my full disclosure: I am the mother (baruch Hashem) of a great boy. He is continuously sought out, “in perpetual demand” (kinehora). I should be grateful that in shidduchim, he “wields the upper hand.” But as a woman who identifies with and feels great compassion for the throngs of girls in a parallel universe who are not being chased, I feel a little sad each time the fax machine cranks out yet another resume for my son. I know full well that there are fantastic girls out there who are his equals–perhaps even his superiors–who are NOT receiving comparable treatment. They are neither being hounded nor pursued half as vigorously as he, and they are denied the latitude of choices that he receives every day. I ache for their mothers who repeatedly call the shadchanim who never call back, but are visibly more responsive if you are the mother of a boy. Inwardly, I rail against the unfairness of it all (although the shadchanim are completely innocent of any wrongdoing, whatsoever; it is the system that is at fault– not they—the stark realities of supply and demand). Thinking of the mothers who do not have the privilege to wade through as many resumes as me, I try consciously not to revel in the continuous stream that cascade over my desk. I know how fortunate my son is, and I feel for those who aren’t.
So, when one of the extraordinary women who organized this event invited me to participate, I was actually reluctant to attend. Quite simply, there was no need. But because I like and respect this woman so much, and wanted to validate her efforts, I RSVP’d “Yes.”
“How are you going to work this?” I asked. “How are you going to ensure that all the girls get equal time? Are they not going to feel degraded? Is this process not going to end up even more demeaning than a resume?”
The organizer assured me that there would be facilitators on site who would introduce each girl to every mother. The facilitator would escort the mother to the tables where the girls sat, and be hyper-vigilant that no girl gets bypassed. I wondered how many girls would feel comfortable with this arrangement and actually show up, but as I said before, I wanted to support my acquaintance’s endeavor with my physical presence, so I went.
The gathering was held in a beautifully appointed hall, decorated with cozy little tables draped in elegant tablecloths, with a sumptuous smorgasbord in the center of the room laden with fruit platters, petits-fours and drinks. It was clear that the organizers had paid fastidious attention to the smallest detail, and had labored hard to make the physical environment as elegant and dignified as the general atmosphere that prevailed in the room.
I was jolted by two different things when I opened the door to the hall. First, the sheer numbers of single girls in attendance made my jaw drop. I had hardly expected this kind of attendance, never suspecting that so many young women would have the courage to show up. It could not have been a comfortable situation for any of them – even the most “chilled” and outgoing amongst them must have felt a tad awkward. (Personally, I felt so ill at ease and nervous, all I wanted to do was pick up my pocketbook and flee). I gave them tremendous credit for doing something so proactive and gutsy. I stood uneasily with some of the other mothers, waiting for the facilitators to arrive, making small talk. Most of the mothers with whom I conversed loved the idea, but I was deeply anxious about navigating the brief encounters: How to gently ferret out vital information from these sweet young ladies without making them feel interrogated, evaluated and ultimately…judged? (Which in fact was the case.) How to end the meeting in a tactful and kind way when it became clear that they weren’t for my son? Should I feign enthusiasm and interest after the crucial few seconds in which I had already made this determination to spare their feelings, or should I move on more quickly, to maximize the time I had left? My stomach churned. How do I dance this waltz without stepping on anyone’s shoes? I should have been thinking about my son, but all I could do was worry about the girls.
The second thing that jolted me when I opened the door (and which I know will incur many a mother’s wrath, but which I feel I must speak about) was the conspicuous and glaring lack of make-up on a significant percentage of the girls’ faces. I was stunned. The girls knew why they were there; there was no attempt at pretense on anyone’s part. The mandate of the event was to give them the opportunity to present themselves in the best possible light. Why weren’t they?
Let me tell you about this particular population of girls: They were between the ages of 21 and 24, and mostly seeking “learning boys.” (The organizers’ plan for the future is to hold additional events for other age groups and different categories of boys: learners/earners, professionals, working boys only, etc.) They were eidel, frum, sincere, intelligent, and committed to the learning ideal. But even the most temimasdika ben Torah is looking for a wife whom he finds attractive. Yes, spiritual beauty makes a woman’s eyes glow and casts a luminous sheen over her face; there is no beauty like a pure soul. Make-up, however, goes a long way in both correcting facial flaws and accentuating one’s assets, and if my cursory inspection was indeed accurate (and I apologize if the girls used such natural make-up that I simply couldn’t tell), barely any of these girls seemed to have made a huge effort to deck themselves out.
Since most of the young women at chasunas seem quite presentable, I couldn’t shake off my sense of disbelief as I looked around now. What were they thinking? How had their mothers allowed them to leave their homes with limp hair and unadorned faces? With just a little blush, eyeliner and lip-gloss, they could have gone from average to pretty. There are very few women who can’t use a little extra help. Even the most celebrated magazine models can look downright plain when stripped of all cosmetics, al achas kamah v’kamah girls who are not born with perfect features. So what was going on? Were they in denial about the qualities young men are seeking in future wives? Yes, it is somewhat disillusioning that men dedicated to full-time Torah learning possess what these girls might perceive are superficial values, but brass tacks: they want a spouse to whom they are attracted. The young men themselves might be too shy or ashamed to admit it, but their mothers won’t hesitate to ask what for some is the deal maker/deal breaker question, namely: “Is she pretty?”
Thankfully, every one’s conception of attractiveness is different; beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and a woman’s intellect, personality and soul can have a tremendous bearing on the way in which her beauty is perceived. Still, there is trying, and then there is not trying. The mystery perplexed me: Why hadn’t some of the girls gone overboard in presenting themselves in the best possible light? I felt like shaking them in despair. As I further scanned the room (I had started assuming the role of disembodied observer once I realized that I was at the wrong event; my son is learning full time now, but plans to pursue a Ph.D so he wasn’t appropriate for this particular group), I could not help but notice the number of girls who could have vastly improved their appearances–gone from plain Jane to truly beautiful–if they simply made some effort. The truth of the matter is, I mulled, one way of looking at the story of Purim (and there are so many different prisms through which it can be viewed) is to see it as the narrative of the tyranny of beauty ruling every society in which Man (and woman) has ever lived. Vashti incurred Ahachshverosh’s wrath because he wished to parade her beauty and she refused (bad skin day). The women of the kingdom who vied for the Queen’s throne were given twelve months to prepare for the beauty pageant – why hadn’t some of the girls at the shidduch event taken a mere half hour?
Some women who are deeply religious or intellectually inclined may delude themselves into thinking that their male counterparts will only see, appreciate and cherish their inner beauty, and that will (or should) be their overriding priority. All other surface qualities will be secondary, subordinate to the place where their neshoma stands. Truly, it is an ideal that I passionately share with them–the yearning to be seen in a soulful way, visible to the heart but not necessarily the naked eye– but unfortunately we are not living in an ideal world.
Many years ago, I had a conversation with Georgie, the internationally renowned hair stylist and sheitelmacher, who brought a certain new aesthetic to the frum world when she first launched her business. Georgie told me then that she wished she could persuade young women in shidduchim to participate in “make-over” sessions with hairstylists, cosmetologists and wardrobe consultants, who would help them achieve their best possible look. “I am often shocked by how little these girls do for themselves,” I vividly remember her saying. “How will they ever find a shidduch?”
Surprisingly, a well-known story about the Satmar Rebbe t”zl drives home this point. During his incarceration in concentration camp, the Rebbe refused to eat the meager provisions that were customarily doled out to the inmates–the proverbial crust of bread and watery soup–because of kashrus concerns. He subsisted solely on the portions of raw potatoes that Hannah*, a young woman working in the kitchen smuggled out to him daily – at great risk to her own life. The Rebbe tzl had tremendous hakoras hatov for her sacrifice, and always publicly acknowledged that she had saved his life. Later, they were both placed on the Kastner train, and found refuge in the safe haven of Switzerland. When the urge to re-embrace life asserted itself, and young refugees started dating and getting married, no one courted Hannah, who had lost all her teeth during her years of privation. One day, the Rebbe summoned his Rebbetzin, and handed her a large wad of cash. “Please give this to Hannah,” he said, “and instruct her that she should use the money to pay for dentures. And after the dentist has repaired her mouth, please tell her that she should use the rest of the money for makeup.” Soon afterwards Hannah became a kallah.
If the Satmar Rebbe t”zl – a tremendous Torah giant who resided in such lofty realms –could perceive what the obstacles were to Hannah’s attainment of a match, surely we (l’havdil) who dwell in far lower spheres should confront the need to make our daughters as shidduch-worthy as possible, no matter what it takes.
Mothers this is my plea to you: There is no reason in today’s day and age with the panoply of cosmetic and surgical procedures available, why any girl can’t be transformed into a swan. Borrow the money if you have to; it’s an investment in your daughter’s future, her life.
Recently, an acquaintance of mine reported the happy news that her first cousin had become a kallah for the first time at the tender age of forty. “She wowed her chasan with her beauty,” she said. “That’s what gave her an edge over the other women her age.” Then she paused. “Let’s see…she had a nose job….gastric bypass …botox injections….her teeth were capped…..and she wears violet-blue contact lenses…There’s practically nothing about her that’s real!” she laughed. “But…guess what? She’s getting married next month!”
I grew up a homely teenager. My weight and my frizzy hair were just two of my issues. I still cringe when I think of the pain that was my constant companion. Even though I excelled in school, and my writing had been published from the time I was eight, nothing could ameliorate my self-consciousness, the terrible ache of knowing that I was not pleasing to the public eye.
One day, when I was 19, and a particularly angst-producing dating situation had ended in disaster, Dr. Jean Jofen z”l, an extraordinary woman whom I was privileged to have as a mentor, turned to me during a discussion, and apropos nothing at all, suddenly asked me why I hadn’t done anything to make myself look and feel better? I was speechless. She was right, what she said was simple and obvious, yet no one had ever asked me before. I just thought you had to take what fate dealt you; it never crossed my mind that you could change things or eliminate them altogether. (I don’t think pro-active was even a word then, or a concept, either).
Jean urged me to take some cosmetic steps that changed my life: a diet, hair-straightening, and most significant of all: a “nose job.” The resculpted nose gave me newfound confidence and spurred me to continue along a path of self-improvement. I lost 30 pounds and found Ollies, a hair-straightening salon in Queens that actually managed to tame my unruly locks. And my dating situation got much better. Although I have never trumpeted this part of my personal history in such a public way, I am doing so in order to hopefully give chizuk to the multitudes of young women who struggle – unfairly – in this very frustrating shidduch “parsha.”
So, my dear sweet mothers who are bristling with indignation at my thesis and feel deeply offended by my proposition: please do not be hurt by what I am suggesting. I truly want to help. If your daughter’s shidduch prospects are being hampered by a flaw or problem that can be banished or remedied, please give her the emotional and financial support to correct it. Yes, I know that we all want to be cherished for who we are inside, but whether we like it or not, appearances do count. And no Yom Tov demonstrates that reality more than Purim.
It is no crime for a young woman in shidduchim to enhance her appearance; in fact, it is probably an imperative. And though she may not save the Jewish people from genocide, putting her best face forward will definitely help her perpetuate Klal Yisroel in a microcosmic way, giving her that extra edge in finding her zivug and building a bayis neeman, please G-d very soon.
Yitta Halberstam is the author and co-author of eight books, including the best-selling Small Miracles series (Cincinnati, 1997-2003) and Holy Brother: Inspiring Stories and Enchanted Tales about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (New Jersey, 2002). Her most recent book is the anthology Changing Course: Women’s Inspiring Stories of Menopause, Midlife, and Moving Forward (Cincinnati, 2004).