Teenage dating bans and skewed ‘benchmark Jewish male’ standards: A Dispatch from Misfit Hell

I don’t remember the exact point when my father announced that dating non-Jewish boys was off the table for my sister and me. It was before I started high school.

Dad’s explanation was simple.

Refusing to officiate at weddings in which the bride or groom wasn’t Jewish (if the bride or groom converted before the wedding, it was fine, because then they were both Jewish) did not square with letting his daughters run wild with non-Jewish boys*. Nor would he have any credibility encouraging teens and college students in the congregation to confine themselves to dating within the faith. (*We were both stick-straight.)

“Great,” I thought.

It wasn’t as if anyone was lining up to date us anyway. But now there wasn’t even anyone in the hypothetical lineup of the Chosen that I would have chosen.

When you grow up Jewish in a small community, you know who all the Jewish kids are because they were your nursery school classmates. None of the Jewish boys I would have wanted to date would ever have considered dating me. That included Nursery School Crush, who I’d chase from one classroom to another because I thought he was cute. He did not appreciate the attention. (By the time we were teenagers, NSC had only gotten cuter. And even less accessible. A leggy brunette I met in my 30s who went on a single date with him told me he liked “leggy blondes,” which, I realize as I write this, is a pretty accurate description of his mother.)

There were a couple of other cute Jewish boys in town, but I had a more realistic chance of dating one of the Beatles. Or David Cassidy.

Two girls in front of a 1970 Plymouth Valiant
If we’d been anywhere near cool enough to think of it, we could have formed a band called The Undateable Sisters. But if we’d been cool enough to think of that, we wouldn’t have been undateable.

I wasn’t cool, or pretty, or confident. I played cello, piano and guitar. I read books, listened to records and kept a journal. I was socially awkward and had a highly developed sense of where I didn’t fit – which was pretty much anywhere people my own age congregated.

Girls who lived in the “wealthy” suburb and went to the high school where boys like Nursery School Crush ruled fit. Girls with fabulous figures and wealthy parents – those were the ones Nursery School Crush and his ilk went for.

So, there it was.

And then, a boy named Ralph asked me to a dance September of my freshman year. He was not Jewish. I asked Dad anyway. Ralph was nice. And cute. And I was thrilled to be asked out.

Dad, as it turned out, had not been kidding.

Not only was I not allowed to go to the dance with Ralph, I wasn’t allowed to go at all. The dance was on a Friday night. On Friday nights, the rabbi was at synagogue, conducting services. What sort of message would he be sending to his congregants if his daughters were out at school dances instead of synagogue?

By the time the year ended, our father was dead, and the dating ban lifted.

I dated some non-Jewish boys and some Jewish ones. The Jewish ones didn’t work out so well. Somewhere between the end of my first marriage (to a Jewish boy) and the beginning of my third (to a non-Jewish one who owned a pickup truck and has a motorcycle), I figured out why I wasn’t as fond of those Jewish boys as my father would have liked.

We spent a lot of time at the farm where my mother grew up, because my parents were very close with her brother and sister-in-law. My cousins, all boys, were older than we were. When they weren’t watching westerns on TV, they were grabbing a gun from the cabinet and heading down the railroad tracks to shoot things, or work on an old car, pickup truck or motorcycle. They hunted, fished and drank beer, rode motorcycles and had bar mitzvahs.

Two men in a kitchen
My personal gold standard for Jewish male perfection, the slightly-older (and still pretty perfect) cousins.

Blame my cousins, who spoiled me forever for Jewish men by setting a bar that included hunting, being able to fix things, riding motorcycles and owning pickup trucks.

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