Becoming a Jew . . . While Trying to Find One to Marry
What it's like dating in the Orthodox world, as told by a recently converted young New Yorker.
It might be hard to believe, but I am not the first person to convert to Judaism. And so this week is the first Convert Corner essay, which I hope will be a regular series to showcase both the variety of paths that lead a person into conversion and the variety of ways there are of living a Jewish life.
Catalina Trigo is a 25-year-old who works in publishing in New York City. She was born in Argentina, raised in South Florida, and grew up “Catholic/agnostic.” She completed her Orthodox conversion in August 2019.
Now, a proper Orthodox conversion is a very serious undertaking. It takes a long time and a great deal of effort.
Catalina in this essay shares some of her experience, just a slice, and I hope she writes about it more in the future. It’s an essay on dating and the journey to finding her beshert, her soulmate. Think: Swapping tinder for Jane Austen.
There is a Jewish belief that if you set up three couples, you are guaranteed a spot in the world to come, so if this essay inspires anyone to set up this week’s author, well, I’d like at least a 50% cut of the mitzvah (the good deed).
Catalina Trigo, take it away:
The second time I met with my rabbi, we got into a fight. Well, more like a heated discussion — which in Jewish life is just called a conversation. For a second time, he asked me about my dating life.
“Have any men asked you out?”
I realize that to the average Catholic this will seem odd. It’s hard to imagine a priest asking that of his congregant. But in the world I was entering, it wasn’t so strange.
I had just moved to the Upper West Side, to an apartment with three other single Jewish women, in order to move forward with a conversion to Judaism that had been years in the making. It was thrilling to finally have a kosher kitchen, and a shabbat-respectful home. But while I was very eager to meet many new people and integrate myself into the Jewish communities I was now living among, I was not interested in dating until after I was finished with my conversion.
It was either chance or the hand of God that put me on a kosher camping trip for my college pre-orientation when I was 18. By the end of freshman year, I realized I was part of a great Jewish community, and I liked it. My appreciation for religion grew. I was going to Chabad shabbat dinners, dressing up for Purim, and making challah with the Rebbitzin. I had lived in a Jewish community for more than four years before I met with my sponsoring rabbi the first time. I took an introductory class through a Conservative shul. I went to trad-egal minyanim (progressive prayer groups) in Brooklyn. And then I decided I needed a Modern Orthodox conversion.
I had already seen, from dating an observant man along my conversion journey, how influential a romantic partner could be. There can be nothing more natural than that: falling in love with someone means falling in love with the way they see the world. But I didn’t want another person’s level of observance to dictate my decisions.
So it was a bit confusing to sit down with this rabbi, who would facilitate my Modern Orthodox conversion, and have him ask about whether or not I was going on dates. I knew that Jewish conversion would require rabbis to pry into my life, and I had considered myself game. Now I was bristling.
“Umm, why are you asking about this again?”
As Nellie has mentioned on this blog, Judaism places huge weight on community, and conversion involves integrating oneself into a Jewish community and taking up its rules and customs. But if Judaism places more weight on anything else it is the family, which is the core of community, the vehicle for transmitting customs and traditions, generation after generation. Not all couples want or have children, but it is a mitzvah, or commandment, to have them (Please see your Local Orthodox Rabbi. Rules & exceptions apply).
There must be children so that there can be simchas—so that they can be named, have bar and bat mitzvahs, learn Torah, do good works, get married, have children themselves, and begin the cycle anew, creating a new link in the chain. In addition to it being a commandment itself to form a family, many mitzvot are not accessible to single people, and in the observant, Modern Orthodox spaces I inhabit, that creates not only a strong desire but a good amount of pressure to find the person with whom to build that family. This is not a bad thing! At least not for me. How the observant Jewish world can be hostile to those on the margin, and how we wrestle with it, is another subject for a different time.
Which brings me back to me and my prying rabbi.
“Are you getting asked out on dates” is not a relevant question for converts who come to conversion through a serious romantic relationship, which is common. But for someone like me — single, 25, living on the Upper West Side — there was an additional item to navigate: Jewish dating rituals. Because of course there are rituals: this is Judaism. Among all the cultural norms to learn, there are also some rituals I wish were there, like maybe what to say to every grandmother at shul who tells you about her grandson.
Shidduch dating — the process by which observant Jews meet potential marriage partners — is the Jewish equivalent of what my observant Christian friends call intentional dating or, even more similar, what my observant Muslim friends call halal dating. All it means is that people aren’t dating for fun, but rather to find their beshert (the person they’re meant to build a life and family with).
Maybe you have seen Shtisel or know some about the most traditional forms of Orthodox Judaism. I’m not that intense: my dates aren’t set up by professional schadhans (matchmakers), nor do I have a shidduch resume. But I’m also not on Tinder, and it’s not uncommon for someone I’ve only made small talk with at a meal once to message me on WhatsApp asking if I’m single at the moment and could he perhaps share an idea...?
My mother, an agnostic Argentine soul, thinks I should be sowing my wild oats and not thinking about marriage in the slightest. You’re twenty-five, she says, you should be wearing short, tight skirts that show off your butt and dancing at clubs till sunrise. She also thinks I’m crazy.
“What if you fall in love with someone who’s not Jewish?” she asked the other day as I did yet another living room workout.
“That won’t happen,” I told her between breaths. “I won’t entertain it.”
“That’s discriminating!” she exclaimed, as if catching me in a trap.
“Yes, of course. I am discriminating for qualities I am looking for in a husband. Why–” I grunted, mid-pushup, “would I go on a date with someone who I know I can never marry?”
In most other things, Judaism asks us to submit to seemingly irrational things. Kashrut? Irrational. Two day yom tov? Irrational. Kitniyot? Definitely irrational. In so many other realms God seems to ask of us to submit to mystery, to find the divine in things we don’t understand and can’t explain. But in dating, God (or the rabbis) tell us to please, not do anything silly. Please, do not fall in love with someone you cannot build a life with. But isn’t love the most irrational thing in the universe?
Dating in the Modern Orthodox Jewish world is a bit like dating in a Jane Austen novel. There are a lot of tall (or tall enough!), handsome men with large estates and nice titles — and a lot of people suggesting that perhaps you could marry the devoted and doting Colonel who is also a lawyer AND a rabbi and slowly warm up to him. They suggest dates even when there’s no reason to think you’ll hit it off with someone because they check off certain boxes and “you never know.”
Sometimes I miss the way the boys I grew up with kissed me on the cheek on first meeting without a second thought, how they flirted shamelessly every chance they got, how we danced merengue in our parents’ living rooms, and the high-risk game when we went too deep with someone right away. I am sorry to report that Jewish men do not have game like that. I am trying to learn to be patient, to adjust my expectations to this culture and learn to appreciate the slow-boil, the inch-by-inch unfurling of a person, which is what dating in the observant world requires.
This is as much about learning to be Jewish as it is about learning to be human and figuring out what I want in a partner. Perhaps I won’t know him when I first see him. Perhaps I'll be caught off guard by how easy it is to talk and laugh with someone I didn’t expect. It is hard to imagine the man I should combine my bookshelves with, someone who will make challah and learn Torah with me, match my love for a good argument, be able to handle my large Argentine family, do the constant work with me of turning outwards and giving good to the world, and actually vacuum. I am trying to keep an open mind. Should he know how to dance? Not necessarily, but he should be open to learning. Mostly, we should laugh a lot together. My mother tells me that’s important.
So: Is my beshert out there? My rabbi and I, who have long lost any qualms about discussing dating, can tell you that we really don’t know, but boy, we sure hope so. When we had that chat long ago, he mentioned that perhaps one reason to try out dating before I officially became a Jew would be to see some of the worst elements of the community come out – that some people, or perhaps their parents, could be prejudiced against me as a convert, or as a hispanic woman.
Did I believe him that those ugly inclinations could be out there? Sure. But, those people are not living up to their professed Jewish values. And any man who might not date me because I am a convert won’t be my beshert anyway.
Besides, I told him, it’s too late for me. I’m a different person now, my friends tell me. I won’t shut up about Jewish customs and talk about God all the time, they say. I’ve already made up my mind about conversion. I would have to have faith that everything else would work out.
In the meantime, my friends and I go on chaste dates and run into everyone we know at kosher restaurants. We report back to our friends who set us up. We watch our friends finally hit it off with someone, sometimes in random, magical, and unexpected ways, and then date for at most a year before they get engaged, and then we go to their weddings and sing and dance our hearts out for them because look at what joy and hope they bring. It is truly a God-given miracle that any two people choose to spend a life together and they are taking on this endeavor and going on this journey, and so by God, we will support them with everything we’ve got. And then we will scan the room for attractive people without rings and wonder when will it be our turn, and go home and text back our friend that yes, you will try that idea she had because dammit, you never know.
Nellie here again.
After last week’s essay on Judaism and pride, I got two excellent examples of enormous menorah. Both made by excellent fathers.
Michele Champion sends a picture of a noble modern pipe menorah made by her dad, Mike Mauldin of Richmond, Texas.
And from my former Times colleague Zach Wichter, we have his father Kevin Wichter’s snowy menorah in Long Island. “He's been making them out of PVC pipe and gold spray paint for friends since I was a kid.”
Love it, Mr. Wichter!
For any matchmakers with a “well you never know” idea for Catalina, please email specs to me and Bar for screening and we will pass them along: email@example.com
As for blog logistics: We have nearly 100 paying members right now. And while many are my cousins, not all are my cousins, and that’s what matters. Thanks to the generosity of those folks, we can now offer essayists $250 for their time.
We work with you to make that essay great! We = Bari. I’m already doing all the work of CONVERTING TO AN ANCIENT PEOPLEHOOD for godssake.
See you next week.