The Jewish Orthodox community in New York City has a crisis on its hands: too many young people aren’t getting married.
With Christians, I feel as though it’s a pretty consistent trend (at least in the northeast): we have grandparents who are either first-generation Americans or immigrants, and they remain devoutly religious, attending church on a weekly basis.
For their children, church attendance is a mixed bag—maybe 50 percent go to church on a regular basis—but one has to wonder whether they’re doing it out of obligation to their parents or out of pure faith. And then there are their kids—my peers. For us, Sunday mass is a thing of the past, maybe something we were forced to do as kids, but certainly not anything we continue to do on a weekly basis.
Every once in a while we’re posed these questions: “Do you believe in God?” “Are you religious?”
No one wants to say no, but who really takes the time to consider it?
I go with the safe bet: “I believe in something spiritual,” which is partly true, but again, nothing I’ve really considered or thoroughly reflected upon. If someone were to ask me what my religious affiliation was, I’d say Christian, even though I haven’t been to church in over five years.
In 2008, Michael Paulson of the Boston Globe wondered: here are the churches, but where are the people?
A Pew study showed that 26 percent of people born after 1981, when asked their religious affiliation, answered “no affiliation.”
All of which makes J.J. Adler’s documentary Unattached a fascinating window into a religious community that exists within a world that’s becoming increasingly godless.
Within this community, though, there’s a pressure to marry young—and this is the focus of Adler’s film.
“When you don’t get married young, you are likely to become less Orthodox,” explains a woman being interviewed. “They will start experimenting with different people, they will start meeting different people, they will be influenced in negative ways, they will have different values.”
And yet increasing numbers of young people have resisted this pressure, putting off on marriage until a later date.
As a group, they have moved to the Upper West Side, a “waiting station” for Modern Orthodox Jewish singles, where they live in singles’ dorms and engage in speed dating and blind dates, all in an effort to find the perfect Jewish spouse. Some have gone on hundreds of dates; many bemoan the lack of a compatible partner—despite thousands to choose from.
It seems as though the Jewish singles in these communities are simultaneously rejecting and embracing their unique culture. While elders are “up in arms” over the singles’ dorms, the singles are still actively seeking to marry within the faith, are segregated by sex, and otherwise engage in cultural practices. Many yearn for marriage, but are holding out for the right person—a luxury their parents and grandparents couldn’t afford.
Yet the security, comfort, and support of living within the isolated cultural cocoon also comes at a price: the shackles of expectation and the pressure to fit in can truly affect one’s happiness. To reject this culture, this “way of doing things,” is to simultaneously reject one’s family and friends.
It makes it all the more sad, then, when singles’-dorm resident Rachel, who is 29, says, “I’m still here … that just terrifies me. I want a Jewish home, I want kids—that’s what I want, that’s what everyone I know wants.”
A part of me wonders how many of these Jewish singles who have gone on “hundreds” of dates simply aren’t attracted to the opposite sex, but nonetheless continue to seek out opposite-sex partners out of fear of rejection.
Another theme the film tackles: how does a traditional religion confront a changing world with changing values?
Their strategy has been to have one foot in and the other out—a mix of traditional Orthodox Judaism and progressive American culture. It’s had mixed results.
As J.J. Adler explains, to try to have it both ways is seriously hampering the efforts of these Jewish singles to find a compatible spouse, and represents one of the challenges of trying to exist simultaneously in two worlds:
Women are educated with a feminist perspective in that they’re told they can be religious authorities, they can be breadwinners, they should be respected as an equal partner. The men are taught a much more traditional perspective on relationships and marriage: that they in fact are the religious authority, and they should have a traditional home life. That could be one of the contributing factors to the current situation.
“The education of the young men hasn’t changed very much,” according to a one of the Jewish elders interviewed for the film. “They have a very traditional image of the man of the household, of the person who’s the religious authority. Well when you don’t tell both sides the same message, that itself is going to cause confusion.”
How long can this last? Will outside pressures cause this way of life to crumble? Is this the beginning of the end, or will it persist, adapting to certain American cultural influences, such as the use of dating websites, while continuing to maintain the integrity of their own culture and faith?
If there’s any place for religion to succeed, it’s the United States: religious freedom is protected by the Constitution, and despite declining numbers of churchgoers, it still remains (by far) the most religious nation among developed countries.
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—Photo via En.dosidate.com