Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Shabbos Of Many Firsts

This past Shabbos was one of many firsts. It was my first Shabbos spent on the YU campus since the school year ended, as well as my first Shabbos spent on campus any summer since I started my academic career at YU. It’s really kind of lonely with so many people gone, leaving a number of married couples that live here and a handful of June zman guys who decided to rough it out and not go home (although there was a KBY Shabbaton this week, which probably encouraged some guys to stay).

Without caf meals to rely upon, I had to figure out what I was going to do for food. A friend of mine living on the other side of the Heights really came through and helped me find a night meal after I successfully received an invite for lunch. Both meals were enjoyable, but of totally opposite character.

The Friday night meal was on the other side of the Heights, and was my first singles-only Shabbos meal. I also davened at Mount Sinai shul, a supposed hotbed of singles activity, for the first time ever. Sure, I had been there once or twice before to attend concerts (notably, Shlomo Katz concerts), but I’ve never had a reason, nor desire to daven there before. I found that the stereotypes are largely true. Throughout davening, there were young men and women congregating in the empty social hall, located right next to the sanctuary (the men have to walk through it to get to their seats) as well as in the adjacent hallway schmoozing it up with one another, and that was just the beginning…

The davening itself was a bit lackluster. The chazzan (I doubt he’s necessarily to blame) started off Lechu Neranena in the Carlebach style, but then didn’t sing much else until Lecha Dodi. He used a few Carlebach endings, oddly enough, while singing mostly by himself. On the whole, I was very underwhelmed by the overall lack of congregational interest in singing/davening together. I must commend them for singing Vayechulu together though, which I don’t see so often. It’s kind of funny, because you’re supposed to say it together with other people, to the point where if you daven Shemonah Esrei too long and miss the congregation’s recitation, that you should grab someone else and have him say it with you. Yet, in most shuls when the chazzan gets to Vayechulu, everyone just starts off belting it out or mumbling it on their own, almost like a race.

It is also true that the men and women basically face one another, with two sections for each along the northern and southern walls, women behind the men with a mechitza made of interlocking metal bars that are somewhat easily seen through. I kept my hat pulled low over my eyes when sitting in my seat, or did my best to direct my gaze strictly forward when standing and facing east. I was basically successful in my attempt to avoid visual distractions during davening, though I imagine many find such an arrangement entertaining or interesting.

Anyway, after Adon Olam, the real ‘fun’ began. I had seen my friend earlier, but quickly lost sight of him as soon as the crowd started flowing into the large, open social hall for the prerequisite post-davening socializing/get-together. A few hundred (I’m bad at guesstimation) young men and women were milling about in small groups chit-chatting with one another. Truth be told, I really couldn’t handle the “scene,” I was definitely overwhelmed by the immensity of it all. I saw old classmates from YU, guys who went to Israel with me, a few married guys I knew, a girl or two I went out with – though I observed most of them from afar, only choosing to actually catch up with a few of the guys I knew. I’m not entirely against social interaction with girls, and if people are utilizing the opportunity to really meet members of the opposite gender, more power to them. It just wasn’t my thing.

I must mention that this started at around 9:40 PM and was going quite strong by the time my friend and I left with our hostess well after 10 PM. I don’t know about all those other young guys and gals, but I was hungry by that point. I guess the desire for social interaction trumps food sometimes (though they often go together).

We proceeded to head over to our hostess’ apartment where I sat down to my first singles’ meal, about twelve men and women in total, split evenly give or take.

Surprisingly, or should I say thankfully, the whole meal wasn’t awkward at all. It was quite fascinating to watch the male-female dynamics of the conversation. The hostess and her apartment-mates did most of the cooking, and guests brought things like the wine, challah, and the dessert (I had offered to bring something, but it was all taken care of by the time I was invited). We reminisced about 90’s TV shows, did an ice breaker or two, and generally talked about all sorts of random stuff.

I also had my first glimpse into this ‘other world’ of singles, which I had never experienced before. While I’m sure that sort of life works for some/many frum singles out there, it’s not something I ever want to be a part of. The whole existence affects the people there, and I could see it in both the guys and girls I ate Shabbos dinner with. I don’t necessarily think it’s a pgam per se, since for many, living in such a community is a necessity for finding a spouse (or so many claim), but it definitely changes a person. I’ve gone out with girls who live over there, and each time the shidduch was very short lived, for reasons I might understand better now.

I think there is a marked difference between the YU side and the Mount Sinai side of the Heights. The YU side, understandably, exists in an atmosphere that is permeated by the yeshiva. The main beis medrish is the center of the community (especially in its new location), and included with that edifice are the many great roshei yeshiva we have. It’s vastly different from having a shul with just one rabbi (as great as Rabbi Schwartz, a YU musmach, is). I honestly feel a greater sense of community around YU than I did at Mount Sinai. Even though you might have singles on both sides (though more women there than here), everything on the Mount Sinai side seemed so disconnected, akin to the social butterflies flitting back and forth during the “scene” following Ma’ariv. Whereas at YU, even those not married still orbit around the yeshiva, with a firm tether that keeps them grounded in a Torah reality. I don’t mean to belittle the men and women at Mount Sinai at all, but their primary focus seemed to be each other and not the davening/shul.

Now that I’ve probably offended any single readers who live over there (and feel free to express your opinions/rants in comment form), I’ll talk about my other “first” experience, which was my lunch meal.

Bad For Shidduchim, Frum' N Flipping, A Blob of Something Different, and other bloggers (mostly of the female variety, to the best of my recollection) have all written posts about their friends moving on, getting married, and already having kids, thus making them feel all the more left out. While I have had a large number of friends who have already gotten married, and a few here and there who have begun having children, I never really encountered the phenomenon in person - until now. For the most part, as many have already observed and discussed to death, married people tend to form their own little social circles, to the exclusion of their still-single friends. I can now report firsthand that being around such friends can be a bit alienating.

It had been a while since the last time I shared a Shabbos meal with this particular friend and his wife, but that was back when they were newlyweds. Now, around a year and a half later, they have a cute baby daughter. The other guests included another married couple, along with their own baby son, and another friend, whose wife is expecting. Conversation centered around the babies on hand, general tips and tricks for raising children, including feeding and nap habits, as well as fun topics such as morning sickness. As the only single person at the meal, I was left utterly without a word to contribute to the discussion half of the time. Despite the fact that I was sitting right there at the same table, eating the same delicious food, it almost seemed like I wasn’t in the room. I can’t blame any of them for unintentionally excluding me, and in the end I did learn some things from simply sitting quietly and listening to all the back-and-forth dialogue.

I was also a slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of what it means to be married, take care of a home, and have/raise kids. I don’t think that many people honestly take these things into consideration so much while dating. As much as I believe I’ve basically reached the limit to my functionality as a single man, I have quite a lot to learn about being a husband and father. True, most of that education is collected from “on-the-job” experience, but I know I could prepare myself more. I have been reading dating books for a long time now (since Shana Bet, in fact), and now the thought occurred to me that maybe I should move onto reading marriage and child-raising books… As I once heard in a shiur, the time to read and absorb dating/marriage books is NOT when you’re already engaged, because it’s too late at that point to effect any major change in any traits you might be lacking. Hence, the right time to head to the bookstore is during the time you’re single or even before you really start dating. I now think the same goes for marriage and child rearing. Though I imagine those books aren’t quite as exciting as ones about dating/how to find your bashert. I may just switch to the marriage books and hold off and the child-rearing titles for now.

Both meal experiences were like glimpses into potential futures. One, wherein I have graduated YU unmarried and still need to find my wife, the other, a bit further along in time, after I’ve gotten married and started my family. While the whole married with kids thing is a definite aspect of my future (please G-d), I’m really not too keen on being one of those social singles hanging out on the other side of the Heights. It really felt like a way station for people who have become “stuck” in life, unable to transition from singlehood to marriage, for whatever reason. I think I can better empathize with those who are unfortunately enduring that existence (some of whom have been there for many years).

One solution to this “crisis,” which I’ve mentioned before, is that people should set others up with those they’ve gone out with before. If your ex-shidduch was an all around decent person, and just didn’t match up with you, why not recommend him/her to a friend who you think would be more appropriate? If we all consciously networked together, I think we could avoid the haphazard socializing that I saw Friday night after shul.

May we all skip (or quickly move beyond) that frustrated, still-single stage in life!

I’ll end with a quote I once heard from Rabbi Orlian, one of the sganei mashgiach here at YU, when he asked me if I was busy and I replied in the affirmative:

“If it’s the right one, may it be quick. If not, may it be quicker!”


  1. I'm a member of the Mt. Sinai community and I agree with much of your critique. When I first moved, I was terrified of the social scene, not to mention somewhat repulsed by it. Now that I have lived here for a year, I have learned to navigate the ins and outs of the post-davening din, as well as the coed meals. I have learned that there is good to be found in this community, alongside the not-so-good. There are really high-quality people, as well as people more focused on the superficial. The community is quite diverse, hashkafically and intellectually, and it's just a matter of finding a like-minded group of people.

    Yet, admittedly, it's easy to sometimes get caught up in the trivialities, and not to realize when you've begun to act like people you hoped not to emulate. Thank you for the reminder--it's good to be recalled to an outsider's perspective periodically.

    (And thank you also for the inadvertent reminder that a quiet exterior is often deceptive, and that the person who doesn't take the time to truly see each new face doesn't know who he/she is overlooking.)

  2. Shades of Grey,

    I have a lot to say about this post so I’m taking you up on your suggestion “Now that I’ve probably offended any single readers who live over there (feel free to express your opinions/rants in comment form).” (Although I wasn’t offended in the slightest, probably because I haven’t lived there that long)

    Firstly welcome to the other side of the Heights! I’ve lived in the Heights for close to a year now, and let me tell you, the first time I went to Mt. Sinai, I was beyond overwhelmed. Overwhelmed is an understatement. Like you I am very much not into scenes like that. Although it no longer fazes me, I am still usually the first among my friends to want to leave, even during winter shabbosim when I’m not that hungry. The scene usually lasts close to an hour, which is fine in the winter, but like you pointed out is just too much in the summer when people are hungry (although B”H I’ve never had to wait for my hosts for an hour, it’s always much less than that!)

    Things I disagreed with in your post: In my opinion davening in Mt Sinai is almost always quite nice and the people are very into the singing. It is so nice to hear over 200 people joining together to sing. I also think that there is a strong sense of community in Mt. Sinai- they encourage people to get involved and they are always running fantastic programs. Perhaps this is due to the fact that you were only there for one shabbos while you have been in YU for many shabbosim. This is not to say that I don’t hear where you’re coming from at all, as I often prefer davening at Shenk for this very reason- it just has a different feel to it.

    Things I agreed with: The mechitzas combined with the layout of the shul is quite distracting. I tend to bury my face in my siddur to keep focus. It must be even harder for guys. The other main point I agree with is actually one that most of my fellow Heights-ters would disagree with and that is “their primary focus seemed to be each other and not the davening/shul.” Sometimes I feel like this side of the Heights is what I like to call “Social Torah Judaism,” where it’s mostly revolves around being social. While I am definitely not antisocial, I do feel a spiritual lack of some sort, which is hard to put into word, but I would call a lack of striving. This is another reason I enjoy Shenk- people are there for the davening, not the socializing.

    In terms of what you said about the “stuck” feeling- it is so true that that feeling exists on the Bennett side of the Heights. That’s why when you wrote about you felt left out because you’re friends are moving on and getting married, I wish I felt that way. Unfortunately, my friends aren’t getting married, which from a selfish point of view is great for me cause then I get to hang out with them all the time, but it pains me to see so many of my friends suffering. On some level I can be OK with the fact that I’m still single since that’s what Hashem wants for me right now, but why do my friends have to go through this as well. If I have to be “stuck” so to speak, at least they should be able to move on.

    You ended perfectly- “May we all skip (or quickly move beyond) that frustrated, still-single stage in life!” AMEN!

    Wow, that was longer than I intended.

  3. Nothing to break the ice like discussing 90's TV :-)

    Wish I had paragraphs and paragraphs to write like you and the other commentators (spellcheck says commenters is not a word?)

    Glad to hear that in YU people gravitate around the Yeshiva. I grew up having a very stereotypical view of YU and the first time I met a "yeshivish-ish" YU guy I was flabbergasted.

  4. Very true about married friends moving on. Not that they forget about you completely, but it's harder to relate, especially once kids are in the picture. Still friends, but different stages of life. They do need friends at the same stage of life, so it's not exactly surprising...

  5. You wrote this post at just the right time!
    Right when I'm deliberating if to go to the heights in the summer..

  6. SternGrad - I'm honestly quite spoiled by the Carlebach Minyan at YU. I've been a regular devotee since I discovered it. Nothing can compare (that I've seen before or since, though that Carlebach Minyan in Tzfat was also quite nice). I was just a bit confused about the wishy-washy trying to sing, but not quite singing that was going on. It wasn't even the more "pareve" format of singing some mizmorim and not others that I have experienced elswehere...

    The part I think that bothers me the most about the Mount Sinai side is that the still-single status seems to be accepted by many as a status quo. While some people move to New York for a few years to date and get married (and then move away), they don't necessarily look for the opportunity to simply join up with a singles community to live that lifestyle.

    Granted, that is a generalization, and I know there are people on that side who are having serious shidduch droughts and are suffering miserably for it. It's all symptomatic of the many issues we have with shidduchim these days, and I can't quite provide all the answers to solve the "crisis" of so many unmarried young men and women (though it would be wonderful if someone could).

    Feivel ben Mishael - there are plenty of serious guys who do value the yeshiva as the proper mainstay of their academic careers (from one of many different hashkafic perspectives). There are slackers as well - but those people exist in any system, even the more yeshivish ones. I definitely believe that the better examples should serve as characteristic of YU, rather than those who tout the brand name but don't really believe in/live the Torah-central views espoused by YU.

    Fum N' Flipping - I would say that singles life over there is quite hopping, even at this time of year. I can't speak for specific individuals (even the ones I shared my meal with), but as LRS said - there are high quality people over there. Some of my friends who I went to Israel/YU with who live over there are really good guys. I could perhaps put you in touch with some of them (or others) if you are interested...

  7. The carlebach minyan in tzfat is to this day the best place I have ever davened. No where else can compare. I once went to the Carelbach Minyan in YU and it is quite nice there too! If I didn't have to walk up a huge hill to get there I would definitely go more often.


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