The date seemed to be going well. Not mine—I wasn’t on a date. The one behind me.
“Which do you think?” I whispered to my best friend, Alex, leaning in over my moo goo gai pan. “First? Third?”
“You always skip second,” she said. She was right.
Alex and I smirked at each other. Second dates at kosher places? How the hell would we know? Alex had been Orthodox for less than two months, having completed her conversion in December, and I’d been serious about Orthodoxy for under a year. Together, we had only a passing knowledge of how observant Judaism worked, and though we said we were eager to date religiously, our eavesdropping at the various kosher restaurants we frequented kept us far from the Orthodox dating scene. The idea of an official Orthodox date, regardless of which website, friend, or lapse in my own judgment had orchestrated it, terrified me.
I suppose there’s not much that distinguishes religious Jewish first dates from all the other first dates in the world. But having lived on the Upper West Side for a few months by then, I started to question where these Orthodox dates, as opposed to other sorts, were headed. I began to prowl the West Side for chemistry, the kind of chemistry my secular friends had, the ones who weren’t so marriage-focused but wanted passion, love, the X-factor. I knew such chemistry was possible between observant Jews; it just didn’t strike me as especially common.
I thought, for example, about my most recent ex, also Orthodox. We had the X-factor. We had the good mess. We also had to contend with his sizable host of issues that precipitated our breakup. These included his rather offensive insistence that my non-religious upbringing was too problematic for him. Maybe it was true- within seconds of landing in any Jewish context, my ex could locate a friend of a second cousin, his uncle’s former employee, an aging counselor from his Orthodox day camp. I, on the other hand, would dodge question after question until, finally, I had no choice but to offer up my background: Where had I gone to synagogue as a child? Um… does First Presbyterian count?
Alex had the same problem. Unsure how to explain her multitude of prior lives—including a brief era where she would often pose for portraits in nothing but a Hajeb—Alex had learned to outwit the “So, what’s your background?” questions she encountered at Jewish functions. “Oh, you know,” she’d say distractedly, “a little of this, a little of that.”
Despite all this, Alex and I still wanted in. We were, after all, serious about Orthodox Judaism, and, no matter how irritating actual Orthodox Jews became, we wanted access to their world. For the most part, we’d found it. We’d mastered the art of observing Shabbat, of keeping kosher, of celebrating holidays we’d never heard of as girls. The dating, though—the dating was tricky. We had each signed up for various Orthodox dating websites, but so far we’d chickened out on the actual date part.
So here we were, our own dinner conversation suspended, devoting ourselves entirely to the date behind us between, it turned out, one physician and one woman—we could not figure out why she was in Manhattan, save, perhaps, for the date itself- who worked on Capitol Hill. The two of them had already covered the basics- her time on the campaign trail, jokes she’d made to Joe Lieberman, his grueling medical residency, the perils they’d both endured when trying to keep kosher outside of New York. Midway through their meal, Alex and I had no idea what they would discuss next.
Neither, apparently, did they. A full three minutes passed while they each studied the Chinese restaurant’s décor, drummed their fingers on their table and gulped what was left of their water.
“So,” the woman finally asked, “um, which states have you visited?”
All four of us—them, me, Alex—stopped completely. What States have you visited? As in, of our United? The woman was mortified as soon as the question left her mouth, to say nothing of her companion. I wondered how he could salvage his dignity. All attempts at a sincere reply would be boring to the point of educational, yanking the date off the West Side and stranding it somewhere in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.
The poor man struggled for an out and, finding none, began his list. “Well. Hmm. Let’s see. I’ve been to…New York, obviously. New Jersey. Florida. D.C. Wait—does D.C. count?”
Alex and I paid our bill and slipped out while he moved westward. By the time we left, he had gone through Kansas and was onto Nebraska. We walked outside and Alex, distraught, boarded her downtown train. I walked the few blocks back to my West Side apartment, logged into all the Jewish dating sites I’d paid for, and cancelled my subscriptions.