Jewish Dating Etiquette


If you’re totally clueless about Jewish dating customs, rent the DVDs of 1971’s “Fiddler on the Roof” and 1996’s, “The Mirror Has Two Faces“. “Fiddler”, set at the end of the 19th Century, opens with the Russian shtetl (Jewish village) people singing, “Tradition”. In the song, dating tradition is explained. Actually, there was no such thing as dating in today’s sense of it. A chorus of young Jewish girls sing:

“And who does Mama teach to mend and tend and fix, Preparing me to marry whoever Papa picks?”

Relationships among teen boys and girls were strictly controlled by parents and Orthodox Jewish religious rules.

Their chaperoned times together, arranged by parents or marriage brokers (shadchanim), had nothing to do with their own choices. Maybe a walk or two together in the village square, but no time alone was permitted. Pre-marital romance or sex was taboo.

In “Fiddler”, the Papa, Tevya, has six daughters. When the matchmaker arranges a marriage between one teen daughter and an elderly, widowed butcher, Tevya is delighted because of the man’s wealth. However, in the story, unlike what would have happened in real life, Papa relents when the girl prefers to marry a poor tailor her own age.

The butcher had never been alone with his intended bride, and her meetings with the young tailor were never more than shy conversations before their wedding day. When another daughter tells Papa she has met, kissed and wants to marry a Russian Christian boy, she’s banned from ever seeing her family again. Whatever the situation of the European Jewish family of the time, there was nothing resembling dating as it is practiced today.

After the immigration surge of nearly three million European Jews to the U.S. between 1890 and 1920, they brought the same strict boy-girl traditions with them. The older Jews didn’t assimilate with American culture, but those born and educated in the U.S. began breaking away from the constraints through the emerging social and sexual freedoms of the 1920s. Then, as assimilation became complete, for the rest of the 20th and into the 21st Century, with few exceptions, Jewish dating etiquette has been the same as for all other Americans.

The Story of The Mirror Has Two Faces

In “The Mirror Has Two Faces”, Barbra Streisand (who also directed) is a 40ish, unmarried professor of English at Columbia in New York City in the 1990s, who’s fed up with the Jewish dating scene. Her typical date, usually a fellow professor or middle-aged New York businessman, calls, they make a date for dinner and an inexpensive, on-campus or off-Broadway stage show. The evening invariably ends with grappling, fumbling or occasional short-term affair, but never a long-term commitment.

Barbra Streisand star of The Mirror Has Two Faces

The Streisand character, of course, has to have the required nagging mother and a younger, more attractive sister. Their conversations about the Jewish dating scene could serve as a slightly exaggerated how-to manual on the etiquette. First, of course, get the guy with money, especially one with lots of inherited dough. The mother says the overused phrase, “It’s just as easy to love a rich man as it is a poor man.”

For that special date, the mother tells the dowdy professor-daughter, it is necessary to get all “baptized”, including the beauty shop, a new dress, stockings, shoes and all the rest. Also, talk nice, don’t indicate that your Ph.D. makes you smarter than he is, and if he wants to do a bit of kanoodling, hold out for a couple of dates till you get him hooked into a marriage proposal.

Jewish Lawyer or Doctor

The next best Jewish guy to date is the lawyer or the doctor. So, OK if he’s divorced or a widower, or even if he’s a little bit gay or younger than you. Mother: “You’re not getting any younger, you know.” Barbra, with her fantastic voice range, gestures and expressive face represents with absolute perfection all the lonely Jewish women who are disgusted with the dating scene.

Of course, Barbra would never allow her on-screen heroine, even a no-longer young single lady, to strike out in the love arena. The story proceeds when her lonely lady professor finally links up with a lonely guy professor after he also gets fed up with the Jewish dating scene. They connect through his lonely hearts ad in the newspaper. Go ahead. You write the rest of it.

I don’t know of any special Jewish dating etiquette among liberated adults today that is any different than the rules everyone follows … or breaks. If one or both of the people involved is a very religious, observant Jew, there may be dating protocols to consider, just as there may be with Catholic, Protestant or Muslim couples.

Consulting with appropriate members of the clergy about dating could be helpful, but in the U.S., there’s certainly no legal requirement to adhere to their advice until, or if, the subject of a marriage ceremony comes up. Which happens less and less today in the battle of the Jewish sexes.

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