It’s twenty years later and I’m dating again.
The first time was a week after receiving my gett. I met him at Union Station and we walked to the National Gallery. He was gentle and liked to hike and in his spare time he taught children how to read, but, as for himself, never read books. The matchmaker shook her finger at me and said, if he’s single, sober, and solvent, what does it matter whether he reads books—or not?
When the matchmaker asked what I was looking for in a husband, I gave her a list. It contained two items: kind and intelligent. There’s a third, question-marked item: energy. That’s because I am so full of beans that if a man were fixed to a couch, we might not work well together. But I’d give up the third item if, every so often, the man on the couch offered an encouraging word or a fast quip. I’m not particular about a man’s profession or possessions, his looks or lineage. An intelligent man reads books, and a kind man cares about others. That’s my list.
For five years I waited for the gett, preparing for a life in limbo, as a captive—neither married nor divorced. I told myself: No one is absolutely free; there are only degrees of freedom. What is a gett? A piece of paper, nothing more. I counted gratitudes.
Even so, when the bill of divorcement dropped into my hands, a whirl of euphoria passed through me. I was dancing in the parking lot coming out of the rabbinical court; I kept dancing and am dancing still.
Without any doubt, I would try again. To make amends, a tikkun, to my shattered self. The marriage was a mistake, and while in limbo I had plenty of time to consider how I’d gotten there: my impetuosity, poor judgment, fear of being left behind, being unworthy of someone worthy. Had I completed the cycle of teshuvah, of return and repair? If I were in the same position, would I commit the same mistake again?
As if a forty-something woman who had been in and out of marriage, and raised many children, could be in the same position as a girl of twenty. Why did I want to try again?
Because marriage is indispensable. It is the Jewish expression of hope, from the blessings of Jeremiah to the exiles: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jer. 29:5-6). We are still here, two thousand years after the destruction of Jerusalem, because we did not succumb. We married Jews and raised Jewish children.
Marriage is indispensable, and so divorce happens. Even when Jews lived in exile among those who forbade divorce, Jews married, divorced, and remarried. Even as our neighbors honored celibacy, Jews pursued marriage as a sacrament to God and community.
I took Jeremiah’s counsel, married young, divorced, and was trying again. What’s the rush?! my girlfriends said. Enjoy your freedom! What do you need a man for? Didn’t you have enough of that? Travel! Go to the theater!
I do not want to be alone when my children leave, I answered them.
But you will never be alone! my girlfriends said. You have us! I worried my friends would divorce me when I got divorced, but nothing of the sort took place. We love you! they said, We love you! Still, I told them, friends are not the same as husbands. Yes, they agreed, friends are better than husbands. There’s no limit to how many you can have, and you can keep finding younger ones the older you get.
These friends are incorrigible, bless them, but so am I. The matchmaker took my list of two requirements and matched them up against her list of single men.
The first time around, in my 20s, my innards were tied in knots before a date. Having no brothers and having attended only girls’ schools, I had hardly spoken to a man before being launched into shidduchim. My girlfriends were funny, generous, and teeming with life. I told myself that finding a husband is like finding a girlfriend—no? Aren’t we all made in the image of God, beginning in dust and ending in dust? Don’t we yearn and hope, all of us, for the same things?
I was a dreadful dater in my 20s, nervous as a ninny. What to wear and what to say, the importance of appearances, of not rocking the boat, keeping cards close to the chest, flirting—these skills I never acquired. If I saw something, I said what I saw. If I heard something, I turned it to humor. But my kind of joke never got a second date. Nerves compounded on nerves. I began to see myself as unworthy of marriage, as defective. My inner turmoil and sense of failure mounted…
Until I was rescued by my husband, and was so immensely grateful for his choosing me. We dated and married in the blink of an eye. He didn’t seem to see what it was that other men saw, that made me so below average, so unpopular.
Twenty years have passed. I meet with men every day. I have raised daughters and sons. I can make conversation with anyone, turning light chatter into eternal verities. Apparently, women and men are not the same. I set myself a goal, to discover the Mind of Man. And to lose my fear of men.
In the euphoria after the gett, I am ravenous for life, insatiably curious about everything. Before each date, a spark of excitement runs through me. I ask a question, he begins his stories, I ask more questions, he keeps talking. I am riveted. Every meeting is a pinhole camera into the Mind of Man.
In my 20s, I couldn’t get a second date. In my 40s, I’m in demand.
Yes, I look better. Although my father sold women’s clothes for a living, he thought of them as inventory to turn a profit, not as items his girls should put on their bodies. His sisters shaved their heads and dressed as boys after liberation from the Nazi slave camps, saving themselves from the depredations of Russian soldiers. Outer beauty for girls meant bad outcomes. My father was shabby, an ascete, an intellectual. In the car, filling empty moments, he quizzed us in Torah and mathematics. Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, he preached, watching the preening women who drifted past. Tachlis! He urged. Tachlis! I followed his teaching, and was a shabby dater.
Not the second time around. Even if beauty is within, what’s outside counts more. Especially if her face and her eyes are attending to a man. Unwavering, uninterrupted attention is irresistible. This time around, every man wants a second date. They get in line.
I was not ready for marriage when I married – still a half-child – but there wasn’t going to be someone ready for me when I was ready. A girl went along with the masses or she missed her chance. A single girl was nothing except a girl-in-waiting.
Perhaps in my 40s I’m ready for marriage. How do I know? Because I can say no to a matchmaker insisting on a second date with a man who doesn’t read books, even if he’s crazy for me. So what? They all are, and I’m looking for something particular. “And what might that be?” she asks. I describe the man to her.
When I moved to Washington, people suggested I contact Marty Ginsburg, who was the great man in my field. I invited him to lunch and, responding with charm and wit, he said he’d be thrilled. Except I had given him the wrong address for the restaurant where we were to meet. Being a mensch, he stood outside at the address I gave him. It was a winter’s day, twenty degrees below freezing. Marty was an old man by then, and not well, but he waited for me. Then, immediately after we were seated at lunch, he set before me a legal problem and asked me to solve it. No niceties, no chatting, just tachlis.
By some miracle I was able to solve the problem, and from then on we were mates. Marty told me tales of his wife Ruth and how she couldn’t get a job when she graduated first in her class from law school. He put other legal problems before me to solve.
Whenever I meet a new prospect, I think of the standard Marty set: a mensch who talked tachlis. There are no perfect partners; we embark on marriage when singlehood is the more imperfect choice. The second time around, I have the luxury to be choosy. Marriage is no longer a necessity for which everything must be sacrificed, as it was when I was a girl. It is a hope emerging out of struggle.
In the meantime, I remain single. But I no longer see this as a failure arising from a defect in my character. Many of the men the matchmaker has set before me have asked to marry me. The plethora is flattering and confusing and makes me sad for my young, shy, shabby, honest self who couldn’t get a second date. Keeping my standards high, I know that I may not find what I am looking for, and that is not a failure either. Learning to be on my own is a skill I am building because, even if I find a partner, I am likely to be alone again. It’s not comfortable to say it, but for most women, sometimes early but often later on, singlehood is an inevitability. Most old people are women.
In recent months, my older children have started dating. They are professionals in their 20s in Manhattan, kind and intelligent, with a stain on their lineage. Not because their parents are divorced, but because the mother who raised them sat for many years captive in a broken marriage. Religious couples don’t divorce because their marriages are inconvenient or even uncomfortable; they divorce because they’re desperate. My children grew up in those conditions. This is their inheritance.
If there is a tikkun to my marriage, it will not be through me. It will be through my children. They have inherited the bitter consequences of their mother’s mistakes, but also her faith. A faith she learned from her parents and which she teaches her children: although Jerusalem was plowed with salt and her people taken captive, they did not succumb. Even in exile, Jews married Jews and had Jewish children. Two and a half thousand years after Jeremiah’s prophecy of doom, Jerusalem is rebuilt and she is radiant. And she is teeming with children.
As the dream of Jews in exile has become Jerusalem’s traffic jammed miracle, so I hope my children rise out of their parents’ broken bond and build enduring love.
…Again there shall be heard…in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without humans, without inhabitants, without animals—the sound of joy and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride… (Jer. 33:10-11).