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Earlier this week Yitta Halberstam published a provocative article on “The Shidduch Crisis” in the Jewish Press. I would like to begin this post by thanking Yitta for sharing her lengthy perspective and offering what I would consider good advice overall – people should look their best when approaching dating. While some of the measures she recommends are not ones I would recommend to my own children (plastic surgery), I think she raises a great point overall relating to both the role of looks and the role of parents in dating.
With that said, I would like to examine these two dynamics and consider the causes and consequences.
The Role Of Parents
I had a chavrusa in yeshiva a number of years ago who we tried to setup with one of my wife’s good friend. We knew both of them fairly well. Their personalities, likes and dislikes and overall passions were very similar. After “looking into her” my chavrusa’s mother declined the opportunity. It is now 6 years later and both of them are still single. This is not to say that this would have been a slam dunk match-made-in-heaven, but they didn’t even give one another a shot. They never got to the first date.
I also know a number of near engagements and engagements that were broken off (across MO and “yeshivish” circles) due to pressure from parents and other mentors.
Parents and mentors have an incredibly important role to play in the lives of their children and students. It’s important to our Jewish community that they continue to play this supporting and nurturing role. While this system often works wonderfully, I believe we still have more work to be done in promoting torah values when it comes to the importance of looks and the appropriate role of parents in shidduchim. And it is our responsibility as parents, friends and members of the community to make a realign our values.
Regardless of one’s social or religious standing, it is a nearly universal truth that Jewish mothers think the world of their children, and want the best for them. What’s best for our children does not mean what we believe is best, but what will work best for them. This requires that parents play a supporting role, and play it responsibly. This also means that both parents should be involved, and in many cases I have found that one parent may have particular hang-ups, and their spouse can often be an effective normalizing force.
Parents Behaving Like Adults
It is the responsibility of both parents, educators and mentors to remain rational and normal when guiding young people through the dating scene. Parents must focus on what they think should and will matter most to the long term success and happiness in their children’s marriages. Parents in a happy marriage love one another and their children beyond traditional first-glace looks. We must raise our children to take the same perspective in dating. The surface is important, but it is far from the defining factor in a relationship.
I don’t know of any strong or lasting relationships that lived and died on looks. I have never met anyone who, after a few years of marriage said that looks are why their relationship remained strong or why they stuck it out through tough times. Looks are important, but most guys and girls can be attracted to one another if they make an effort in presenting themselves well, and find greater reasons for admiration than first glances.
Marriage is not high school. It is not up to a parent to decide whether or not someone is beautiful or striking, nor should this be a primary consideration when considering a spouse for our children. We aren’t auditioning models, we are considering our children’s futures. Again, responsibility is the name of the game.
Advice from My Mentors
My rebbe, Rav Bronspigel once told me that most boys could be happy married to most girls they date. My rebbe Rav Berzon once openly told our shiur that they cannot expect to marry a “10″, and that those who marry for looks will have to learn to grow meaningful affection before kids enter the scene. Another good friend of mine told me that it almost always pays to take up a prospect for a first date, and to keep a positive attitude and an open mind going into each date. He also advised that when a friend asks about a girl who I had previously dated, I only tell him the most positive attributes she has as this is likely to get them started on positive footing. This positive attitude is surely why to Yitta’s point, it’s important that we show our best side possible when heading into dates. I shaved my facial stubble, shower, put on nice clothes etc. I would hope that a seriously interested young woman would do the same.
After years of proper education, I never asked friends or those setting me up on dates about the girl’s looks. I never felt comfortable asking, and this honestly was not my #1 priority (in all fairness, my wife is beautiful). I believe it was Rav Berzon who advised me going into my first “official” date that I should use each date as an opportunity to look for positive attributes in the girl and make a decision about future dates along the same lines. Focus on the positive.
I met my wife many years before we started dating through mutual friends. I was ultimately reintroduced to her and setup by my rebbe, Rav Shmulevitz. His advice going into dates was to smile and try to learn about the other person. Focus on the positive and build from there. My neuroses would have to be dealt with later. My good friend Yitsy Haber similarly advised fun activities that could create a fertile ground for positive conversations. That’s how Toys R Us became my go-to first date location. It opens up avenues for discussion, fun and personality which were important to me.
Dating isn’t about looks. It’s about exploring opportunities to build a relationship together. We need to learn to put looks into perspective. We also need to, as a society, make it unacceptable or shallow to ask about a girl’s (or guy’s) looks before a first date.
Looks, Looks and Looks
While it is important that we look our best, it is our responsibility as a society to recognize the relative importance of good looks. We put a lot of emphasis on a lot of good things. We are a great culture and a strong community. And with all of our growth, one of our new objectives must be to reward and celebrate people who prioritize things greater than appearances in shidduchim.
A shadchan once told a good friend that her husband was special because he didn’t speak about looks when he spoke about what he was looking for in a girl. This shadchan had over 30 years experience and considered his not asking about appearances to be a strong virtue. This has to become a virtue that we embody and celebrate in our community.
As a guy who was in a yeshiva where many of my friends were “in demand” I would like to share a remarkable conversation.
It was a friday night and I was seated at a table with a few guys who were certainly in demand and had plenty of options. They were solid learners who were also committed to earning a real parnassah, and they were in pretty good shape (we played football together). One of the guys suggested that it was “shallow” to ask about a girl’s looks before a date. Another said it was OK to ask, but he was clearly being defensive. The consensus around the table ended up opposing him.
These guys were the real deal, they had real torah values. Our community needs to be more like this.
The Broader Opportunity
Looks are not going to go away and looks are important. It is imperative that we try to look our best and remain strongly upbeat and positive when meeting a prospective spouse. That said, we as a community need to take pictures out of the picture. If we don’t want our children running to get plastic surgery, we need to teach our children to look for the positive in one another. We need to create a society where our children aren’t comfortable judging one another or turning down a shidduch based on a headshot on a shidduch resume or on Saw You At Sinai.
Our community is better than this. We owe it to ourselves to ma ke our communities a reflection of the values most important to us.