This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for nearly two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names and locations have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.
I come from what’s considered a pretty small family in my community. My parents are both Holocaust survivors, but growing up, our neighborhood wasn’t just Orthodox Jewish families like mine. A lot of my friends were Italian, so it was really easy to see the difference between how other kids were raised, and how we were being raised. I went to an all-girls school that had a double curriculum: morning classes were religious, and the afternoon classes were secular.
By the time I was 19, three quarters of my high school class was engaged. The typical age for marriage was in the early twenties, so I didn’t really feel too much pressure at the time. But in our community, you don’t have “boyfriends.” You look for husbands.
I decided to go to college instead, which is not unheard of, but not exactly very common, either. It’s part of tradition that men get married first, so I waited for my younger brother to get married. And then time just went on, and by my late twenties, and certainly into my thirties, I was considered leftover. And now I’m in my 40s, I’ve never been married, and I am still a virgin.
The men in my age group become strange. Either they’re religious bachelors who aren’t supposed to have had sex before marriage, and you can imagine what a 40-something year old virgin is like — they’re the mama’s boys, village idiots, criminals, or social misfits. Or they’re having sex behind the scenes, which is also problematic because then this person just doesn’t want to commit to marriage.
So the ideal, really, is men who are divorced and are looking for women who were also married before. There used to be a stigma to divorce because it was much less common then, but it’s become more accepted now. Even so, divorce is pretty taboo. The question always arises: what could have been so bad that this person sought a divorce? And whose fault was it?
Most people go online to meet others, on websites like JDate, which is not very religious. Then there’s JWed, which—you can tell by the name alone—is for more observant people. There are also matchmaking clubs, which are basically a group of housewives who get together to try to set people up.
In about 30 years, I’ve gone out with over 500 men. Most have been complete disasters. I’ve gone out with a Japanese Orthodox Jewish man and a black Jewish man. All of the converts I’ve dated are always lovely, special people. I’ve had a guy tell me on the first date: “I was arrested for rape, but I didn’t do it.” I’ve dated conservadoxes—conservative Jews who lean more towards Orthodox, and ultra Orthodox Hasidic men, too.
I once let a woman from my community set me up on a date. The guy calls me on the phone—he sounds so erratic—and tells me he’s going to be an hour early. I wait half an hour for him, and he doesn’t show up. Finally, I go home and call the lady who set us up to let her know. She starts apologizing profusely and begging me to give him another chance. She says: “He looks like George Clooney.”
So I give him another chance and we decide to meet up a week later. He shows up, on time this time. And he’s missing a front tooth!
But it wasn’t all bad. A few years back, I was very excited about a guy. Before you go out with someone, it’s common to check his dating references. Essentially, you call his rabbi and his friends to confirm that he’s a good person. I had done everything and felt really good about him. But for some reason, I went home after our date and looked his name up online.
There are sections in Jewish newspapers that have lists of men who withhold divorce from their wives. Divorce, in the eyes of the Jewish law, is called a get. If your husband refuses to grant you a get, you are an agunah. This means you’re unable to move on with your life—you can’t remarry.
His name came up on one of the lists. Our community shuns a man who doesn’t grant his wife a get, but because we live in a big city, he could basically go to a new rabbi and everyone would be none the wiser. I felt so heartbroken. I had really gotten my hopes up.
At this point, I feel like I’ve failed. I’ve put so much energy, time, and effort into finding myself a partner. I don’t know why this is happening to me. I feel like a pathetic, nerdy loser with no social skills. And I’ve heard people say as much about me—they assume I’m gay, maladjusted, or picky.
I don’t see a realistic solution that would make me less lonely and depressed. I’ve been in love a number of times, but it’s never turned into a marriage. And I don’t have unrealistic expectations: I just want someone who’s my friend, someone I can have a normal conversation with and who shares my values. And it wouldn’t be awful if I were somewhat attracted to him.
I told one of my mentors once, during a dark period: “I am angry with God. I feel that I can’t pray because he doesn’t listen to me anyhow.” And she said: “Well, it’s good that you’re angry because that means you still have a relationship with God. At least you’re not indifferent.”
And she’s right. This hasn’t made me question my beliefs. Even if I’ve never experienced intimacy, and even if I never find someone to share my life with, I am happy because I’ve always followed my principles. But I am still human. I feel most lonely when I’m sick and there’s no one there to make me tea. Or when a light bulb goes out and I have to change it myself. Or when I’ve spent time in a home filled with noisy children, and I have to come back to my quiet apartment.