Any moment now, it’s going to ring.
I’m watching my phone.
My body is preparing itself to receive two words emphatically digitally shrieked from the confines of a New Jersey suburban home: “I’m engaged!!!”
One of my closest friends has flown to the other side of our beloved country to meet the family of the man she has concluded is her beshert (intended match). A long distance relationship, they have only actually met four times, for multiple days each visit, in the last six weeks.
Welcome to the world of frum dating. I’ll be your guide.
For starters, a common term associated with frum dating is shomer negiyah (guarding touch), meaning that the couple desists from any physical activity— including handshakes, hugs, etc— until after the chuppah. Which also means delayed gratification for the impatient among us.
Myself a Baal Teshuva (someone who became observant later in life), I became shomer negiyah five years ago, when I was 20, with curiosity about the way it would change my relationships with men. Growing up, I was ignorant of any Jewish rules regarding sexuality. Not aware there was even an option of anything different— who would agree to a nonphysical, romantic relationship?— I cheerfully chose a lifestyle similar to my peers. Though I had more or less healthy relationships, I am deeply cognizant of the scars these decisions left behind. Now I observe the positive impact physical boundaries can have on the emotional and psychological growth of a couple. I am a walking witness to the workings of both worlds.
I am reminded about a night a few months ago when I attended my friend’s birthday party at a Chicago bar. Explaining that I don’t touch men to one who approached me, I had to reassure him that I was not a victim to the delusions of an oppressive religious doctrine. Motioning to the ladies chatting around us, thin layers of fabric occasionally covering parts of their body, I grinned and assured him that though externally I am more restrained than in my past, internally I am living joyfully the greatest time of my life.
My eyes return to the silent phone, and I text her a simple, concerned “how are you?”. I wonder why the news hasn’t yet hit.
To meet a potential spouse, I might go to a coworker, rabbi, teacher, friend, or anyone who knows anyone in the religious community, and tell them what I am looking for. I have a resume I sometimes send out to shidduch (dating) groups who try to pair up people. The resume includes my personal history, where I stand religiously, what I offer and what I am looking for. The person who does the matchmaking is called the shadchan. Many times, I research into a potential spouse with given references to inquire about the person’s past and compatibility.
With this style of dating, those who enter this focused arena are aware they won’t receive the perks of the noncommittal, let’s- wake- up- in- bed- next- to- each- other- for- two- years- and- then- maybe- we –will- be- ready- for- the- marriage- talk relationship. Thus, the intensity level for men and women on discerning their needs and commitment usually matches. With any confusion, the shadchan can be called, to offer advice or to call the other party to address any concerns. The infamous male/female divide is bridged slightly by the in-between who volunteers his or her services to bring clarity to the situation as quickly and comfortably as possible.
There is no standardization; the number of dates varies by each couple. My previous roommate went on 7 dates over the span of two weeks before deciding to engage. Others will go on 10 dates, 20 dates; no proper measurement exists. Without physical interaction, which often delays cutting off an ill-suited pair, and having a well matched team decide on their future, the process is often quicker.
I will not suggest that frum dating is painless. In fact, it most often is a deeply painful process of feeling judged, being rejected, rejecting others, waiting, trying to smile when others succeed, falling into despair, reminding yourself of who you are, brushing off the debris, standing back up, and re-dialing your shadchan’s phone number to reestablish your availability in the market.
However, the perks of such a system are, without a doubt in my mind, immense. It is impossible to understand the glory of such a system without experiencing it, just as it is impossible to fully know the emptiness of a world until you leave it behind for a more satisfying existence. These days I think about my previous lifestyle and revel in my increased level of calm, joy, and clarity. In a society obsessed with youth, all I can say is thank goodness I have aged.
I glance at the phone still lying silently beside me.
In the system my friend and I have chosen, all we can do is keep our hopes high, be as levelheaded as possible, and hurry up and wait for the Almighty to do what He does best. We are determined not to be left behind as we clamor to participate in this volatile ride. We are convinced that the seats we have chosen to get us to where we need to be are, in the end, the smartest, smoothest, and most enjoyable ones available.