Arts & Culture

Angetevka

On a flight from Florida to New York, my mother-in-law was chatting with another grandma, and one thing led to another, and they exchanged phone numbers.  Not their own: rather, those of their respective unmarried grandchildren.  When my mother-in-law gave … Read More

By / October 29, 2008

On a flight from Florida to New York, my mother-in-law was chatting with another grandma, and one thing led to another, and they exchanged phone numbers.  Not their own: rather, those of their respective unmarried grandchildren.  When my mother-in-law gave my nephew Josh (who was 33) the other granddaughter’s phone number, he inquired, "What’s she like, grandma?" 

"Oh, she was lovely," my mother-in-law began.

"The girl, not the grandma." 

"Oh.  Well, she said she was lovely, too, I’m sure she was very lovely.  She’s very successful, she’s Jewish, she’s lovely."  **

My children are still teenagers, and not yet needing intimate intervention from grandma.   But recently at the kosher bagel store here on the Upper West Side, I got a glimpse of my children’s potential future – and I almost called the grandma hook-up hotline. 

It’s Sunday, late morning.  I’d ordered bagels and whitefish salad and other assorted items in the hopes of heading off my children’s ever-present, "Mom, there’s nothing to eat!" While I’m waiting, I can’t help but overhear a man sitting at one of the small tables saying very loudly, "I’ve had some non-Jewish girlfriends and it’s hard.  You like them, they like you – I’ve had struggles, so yeah.  As you get older it’s more difficult.  When I was younger, I saw guys who were my age now who weren’t married and I thought there was something wrong.  I thought I’d be married by now.  I’m re-evaluating myself."

Ever so casually I turn my head to look at the man who is baring his soul.  He’s 40′ish, and his companion is a woman in her early 30s.  Her voice is quiet, so I’m forced to edge closer to the refrigerated drinks and frown as if in deep thought over my Iced Tea selection, while unobtrusively perking my ears.  She says that her two sisters are not married but that her parents don’t put pressure on any of them. 

Her parents’ forbearance is unfathomable.  Someone should report them for child negligence. 

The man continues.  He grew up conservative but then became orthodox and observant.  For a while he didn’t work on the Sabbath but now he does.  "I would never mix dairy and meat," he reassures the young woman, "or eat pork or shellfish."   This implies that he does or might eat chicken and beef out.  While many modern Orthodox people will eat vegetarian or fish in non-kosher restaurants, chicken or hamburger that isn’t certified kosher is barely a step above consuming shellfish.

My food is bagged and I pay, but I’m not ready to leave, so I sit at the counter, drink my coffee, and surreptitiously pull out a piece of paper, and start transcribing this couple’s conversation.  With great effort,  ( as if I need more space, I push my stool out, a few inches closer to their table) I manage to hear the woman say, "I read an article about how people in general are staying single longer, but in the Jewish community it’s even higher.  Jewish women are more educated and more independent."  The subtext, I imagine, is, "I’m single because I’m smart and independent, and you better be okay with that!"  The guy goes on to mention somebody who got engaged and then broke up – I’m not sure what that signifies.  They are throwing information at each other without saying a thing about their favorite movie or book or a weird dream they had or how they love falafel on King George Street in Jerusalem.  It is as bloodless as a job interview.  They are taking great care to skirt anything personal.  If their criterion for a partner is first and foremost that he or she be religiously observant, why don’t they talk about how they feel about God, or ways in which God is important to them?  Were they Christian, they would already be offering to pray for one another.

In the background, John Mayer is crooning, "Say what you need to say, say what you need to say."  Over and over the words drone, but the couple doesn’t seem to hear, or maybe they do and this is exactly what they need to say: I don’t eat lobster. 

The last thing I record is him recounting a Shabbat dinner at which the question was posed: if your mother told you that she was not, in fact, Jewish, (which would render you not Jewish according to Jewish law,) would you convert or not?  He said that everyone at the table had said they would convert if such a thing, God forbid, happened.

At home, I find my 19-year-old son, David, in the family room clutching his golf club and practicing his swing.  I relay the conversation I’d overheard, and how weird it was that they hadn’t seemed interested in discovering who the other person was.  All they’d talked about was their level of Jewish observance, because obviously that was the deal breaker.  If that wasn’t compatible, then nothing further could transpire.  My sense had been that it was all about how the other person fit into the larger Jewish community, not whether he or she fit well as an individual.  David shrugs and pulls the golf club back in a mock swing.  "I better not find you in the bagel store 20 years from now," I warn him. 

"Ha ha.  Very funny," he swings. 

With effort, I control the urge to suggest to David what my father routinely (and seriously) advocated to us kids growing up.  My father believed (and believes) that the Biblical ways were the right ways.  Consider him a Christian Tevye – Tradition!  Back then, parents were responsible for finding their children a partner, and Daddy felt that he could do a good job of it.  The mere thought of Daddy choosing anything – a pair of socks! – for me was frightening.  Not that he wasn’t discerning and didn’t have decent taste.  But I figured if he’d had the chance, he’d choose a guy who could change spark plugs, drink shots of whiskey and discuss Eternal Salvation, as opposed to the swarthy, foreign type that I wanted.   I found someone who would not have been my father’s pick, nor was he my "type," proving I guess that there is no formula, but by dumb luck it’s worked out, anyway. 

But the thing is, luck doesn’t always prevail, and then you end up on endless Dates-To-Nowhere, in which you recite your resume while mentally evaluating how well the other person meets the requirements of your check list.  Why not let mom or dad or Grandma help out?  And that is why when I’m at an Orthodox synagogue on a Friday night, and the man on the other side of the mechitza, (the curtain that separates the men’s section from the women’s), pokes his head through to ask me to get his daughter’s attention, I whisper back, "That’s your daughter?  She’s lovely!"

"Thank you," he whispers.

"My son," I mouth and point at David.

"Oh!" he says.  "He’s very handsome."

"It could be good," I suggest.  At this point, we’ve practically pushed aside the mechitza for the sake of making a match for our children.

When it comes to my children, I’m not above collecting phone numbers or pulling aside the curtain.   It’s Anatevka all over again.  Call me Tevye.   I’m gonna play the fiddle, even if I know they will dance to their own tune.

**Josh did call the girl, and they met for dinner downtown.   "She wasn’t terrible looking…she was a runner, so she had a nice body.  She had no personality, though.  Worse than that, she didn’t react to anything I said, and she had nothing really to offer.  We had a horrible table…my feet were jammed up against a floor unit/space heater, and it was blasting hot air on my legs.  When we walked out, I saw the actor David Cross (from Arrested Development and Mr. Show), and that was by far the highlight of the night.  I can’t even remember if she and I really said good-bye to each other.  We basically just walked in different directions homes.  Never spoke to her again."

Next week: Part II  She/He Was So Lovely.  So What Happened?