Season of Isolation
Being single shouldn't mean being lonely at the holiest time of year
The anxiety dreams came earlier than I expected.
I knew they were coming, and I tried to brace myself, to be ready to fight off creeping depression, triggered, ironically, by a time of year that should be a period of joy, of growth, of connection to the sweetest of the sweet: The High Holiday season.
The holidays are supposed to be about renewal of one's relationship with the ineffable and, less sublimely, about being with your family and the people you love. But after 11 years of the holidays as a single adult, I dread Tishrei's approach with increasing intensity each year.
Try as I might to focus on recognizing God's dominion, on being grateful for all He's given me, and to devoting myself to working on the myriad ways I need to improve myself, sadness creeps in. And, to be honest, embarrassment.
Another year has passed and I am still alone.
That's where the anxiety dream comes in. The details are fuzzy, but it began with me standing in the back of my parents' shul with my best friend from childhood, excited to see people I'd not seen in a long time, and ended with me leaving the sanctuary, shame-faced, humiliated and feeling I did not belong. I had the dream during a Shabbat-afternoon nap, so I couldn't write down the particulars, but when I awoke, my heart pounding, dread hung in the air like perfume, sullying an otherwise beautiful summer afternoon in Jerusalem.
Another year has passed and I am still alone. Again, I will walk into shul and take inventory of how other people's lives have moved forward, which couples have outgrown their snug Jerusalem apartments, which girls nearly a decade younger are now on their second or third kid. And I will feel conspicuous. Perhaps I am being paranoid, but I will feel embarrassed when I see something looking like compassion in people's eyes when they speak to me. I'll hear their thoughts: "Still not married." And I'll try to smile graciously when one or two well-meaning semi-strangers intone meaningfully that they hope that "this year will be the one."
Yet again, I will be a -- welcomed, beloved -- guest at someone else's table. I won't stress over cooking and cleaning and buying new shoes for the six- and eight-year-olds. All I'll need to do is buy a hostess gift. I'll have time for classes and the luxury of being able to reflect, to process, to do teshuvah. And I'll try to remind myself of how fortunate I am for that... how crazy my friends would think me for envying them their sleepless nights and harried days.
And once in shul, yet again, I will whisper, cry, scream the same silent prayer and somehow keep my faith in the God Who, for reasons not clear to me, doesn't answer.
I'm a part of a demographic that's not supposed to exist, and the Jewish community hasn't yet figured out how to accommodate the fact that we do.
It's not easy being single when you don't want to be, wherever you are. But it's even harder in an incredibly family-oriented society like Israel or like the Jewish world -- especially the observant parts. I live in Jerusalem, the most flourishing Jewish "community" in the world. But I'm a single, religious woman -- I don't belong to a synagogue, I don't appear on some neighborhood's "nishei" (women's auxiliary) list, I'm not needed in a minyan. I fly under the communal radar; there isn't a berth for me, socially. Without descending into melodrama, I'm a part of a demographic that's not supposed to exist, and the Jewish community hasn't yet figured out how to accommodate the fact that unfortunately we do.
It's no wonder that so many of us drop out and create alternative sub-cultures of singles who all hang out together and somehow stay stuck in the same phase of life. If a society repeatedly bemoans the existence of people like me without taking action to help change my objectionable status, is it any surprise that people want to create substitute communities where they feel less like freaks and nebs? Or, God forbid, is it so surprising that some people simply leave the community altogether?
Jewish society expects people to get married. Male or female, you haven't really made it to adulthood until you do (Bar Mitzvah speech notwithstanding).
The last two years, the High Holidays were strange. Each year, I was coming out of a relationship that seemed so close to The One. Even though they hadn't worked out, they had filled me with hope: I'd been so close-the real thing must be just around the corner. But then I spent most of this year trying to piece myself back together after the relationship that had seemed perfect, that seemed real, that seemed everything I had waited for, that seemed to hold the reason for why I'd had to wait so long... exploded in my face. I was shattered, utterly, and a year on, am still limping, still trying to understand why it happened, why I had done the things I did, why, in His wisdom, God decided that I had to go through what I had gone through... I've tried so hard to learn from it, as I've learned from my other relationships, to grow from it, to let it teach me things I obviously needed to learn. But, mostly, 16 months later, I just feel aching and hurt and dismay.
Now comes Rosh Hashana again. And here I am, still alone. Hineni.
Time to crown the king, to account for my deeds, to make a reckoning of my last year, of the gift of another 365 days...
And all I can think of is sitting at someone else's table. Again. (Let me be clear: I am blessed with wonderful friends who offer, who invite, who try to alleviate the discomfort they know I suffer. I am grateful, deeply grateful. But I just can't believe that I am reliant on their kindess again.) Again: I'll be holding close my friend's kid, who's getting old enough that he won't be able to sit on my lap much longer, and wondering when I'll be able to give my mother a grandchild, if ever. And I'll be thinking this while seated next to another friend of a friend who will volunteer that she knows so many wonderful girls just like me, "but no good guys."
And her words will echo in my ears as I sit in the shul where I don't fit... and I will once again pour my heart out to my Creator and beg him to let me give all that I believe I have to give. Every phase of life has its difficulties: Please, switch mine. So many single women have to fight bitterness and despair, the loneliness and sadness that is soft background music to our days, even when our lives are otherwise blessed.
Please, God, switch: Test me with the hard work that marriage entails. Let me be struggling, sleep-deprived and isolated, like all of my friends when they had their first babies. Let me think I'll go crazy if I don't get some time alone, a moment's peace. Let my in-laws be annoying me, and confusing me over which side of the family to go to for the holidays. Challenge me with a step-child or two.
If I manage to pull myself out of my self-absorbed fog, I'll pray for others in my situation, Jewish men and Jewish women who want more than anything to be able to build Jewish homes. Whatever's holding us all back, let this be the year that we are no longer alone. Let this be the year that each of us becomes a part of the Jewish past and present -- and future -- by establishing Jewish families.
Let this be the year that my friend's friend doesn't unhelpfully inform me of the lack of good guys but rather goes home and makes a list. She'll make some phone calls. She'll find at least five good guys to set up with at least a few of the oceans of good girls she claims to know (and let this be the year that she realizes that telling those girls that there aren't any guys out there really isn't constructive).
Let this be the year when people remember to include single people and divorced people and other people without families.
Let this be the year that more rabbis and communal leaders stop screaming gevalt over the increasing numbers of unmarried older people and start doing something about it. Let them start addressing issues of commitment, of derech eretz, of communal structures -- whatever it is that is holding so many of us back.
Let this be the year when people remember to include single people and divorced people and other people without families. Remember that every holiday, every Shabbos, is a reminder to us of how we don't fit in, of what we don't have.
Let this be the year when people with kids invite the couples without kids -- just because they can't provide playdates for the afternoon doesn't mean that they're not a part of your community. Let this be the year that people remember that asking someone "what's taking so long" to have kids might just be the most devastating thing a person who's struggling with infertility could hear.
Let this be the year when the harried, overworked mom and dad getting ready for a three-day yom tov will stop and pause and remember how incredibly blessed they are to have each other, imperfect though they may be, and that their screaming, misbehaving children are the greatest gifts God has to give.
And let this be the Rosh Hashana when the dull, throbbing emptiness subsides long enough for us to remember that, whatever is missing in our lives, there is only one place for us to turn.
Earlier this year, I went to see a shadchan (matchmaker), a lovely, intelligent woman whom I'd been warned was sometimes a touch socially awkward. After we spoke for a while, she said, "Ach, you are so smart, and funny, and interesting, and pretty..."
I waited for the "but..."
" -- I'll never be able to find a husband for you!"
It was one of those moments where I knew I could choose either to be devastated or find it funny. After all, what she was really saying is that it's not surprising that's it's taken me longer to get married -- I'm a special girl, I need a special guy.
I smiled and said that she didn't need to worry.
"You're not the one who's responsible for finding my husband," I assured her. "That's God's job. The only question is whether you'll have the privilege of being the way He chooses to make it happen. And I trust Him completely."
Let this be the Rosh Hashana that I remain ever mindful of that.
Frieidl Liba bas Chava would appreciate your prayers, for her and for other members of klal yisrael who need to get married or have children.
Mazel tov! Freidl Liba bas Chava got married! Click here to read all about it!