Mormons and Jews: What 2 Religions Say About the Modern Dating Crisis

Believe it or not, the rise in Mormon breast implants and $100,000 Jewish dowries can explain why you're alone on Friday night

Believe it or not, the rise in Mormon breast implants and $100,000 Jewish dowries can explain why you're alone on Friday night

BY JON BIRGER

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Values.

That’s the one thing that always came up when I’d discuss theories on declining marriage rates or the rise of the hookup culture with my friends or family.

“Couldn’t it just be that times have changed?” people would ask.

Times have changed, and that is a good thing—especially the fading-away of cruel taboos that once stigmatized women who engaged in premarital sex or bore children out of wedlock.

Thing is, times change for a reason. The values question assumes that sexual mores loosen naturally from conservative to liberal. In reality, these values have ebbed and flowed throughout history, often in conjunction with prevailing sex ratios.

This article is adapted from Date-Onomics by Jon Birger (Workman Publishing Company, 2015)The dating game is rigged, but the problem is not strategic — it’s demographic.

Today, mainstream dating guides tell the everything-going-for-her career woman it’s her fault she’s still single—she just needs to play hard to get or follow a few simple rules to snag Mr. Right. But the problem is a demographic one.

Multiple studies show that college-educated Americans are increasingly reluctant to marry those lacking a college degree. This bias is having a devastating impact on the dating market for college-educated women. Why? According to 2012 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, there are 5.5 million college-educated women in the U.S. between the ages of 22 and 29 versus 4.1 million such men. That’s four women for every three men. Among college grads age 30 to 39, there are 7.4 million women versus 6.0 million men—five women for every four men.

It’s not that He’s Just Not That Into You—it’s that There Just Aren’t Enough of Him.

Lopsided gender ratios don’t just make it statistically harder for college-educated women to find a match. They change behavior too. According to sociologists, economists and psychologists who have studied sex ratios throughout history, the culture is less likely to emphasize courtship and monogamy when women are in oversupply. Heterosexual men are more likely to play the field, and heterosexual women must compete for men’s attention.

Of course, tales of scarce men and sexual permissiveness in ancient Sparta won’t convince everyone, so I began to explore the demographics of modern religion. I wanted to show that god-fearing folks steeped in old-fashioned values are just as susceptible to the effects of shifting sex ratios as cosmopolitan, hookup-happy 20-somethings who frequent Upper East Side wine bars.

Eventually I hit pay dirt.

One of my web searches turned up a study from Trinity College’s American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) on the demographics of Mormons. According to the ARIS study, there are now 150 Mormon women for every 100 Mormon men in the state of Utah—a 50 percent oversupply of women. On a lark, I emailed my friend Cynthia Bowman,* a devout Mormon who grew up in Salt Lake City and returns there often, and asked her whether Mormon sex ratios are as lopsided as the ARIS study claimed. [Editor’s note: “Cynthia Bowman” is a pseudonym, as are other names denoted with an asterisk. Some biographical details have been altered to hide their identities.]

Yes, she told me, the ratios are lopsided. And yes, Mormon men take full advantage. “They wait for the next, more perfect woman,” grumbled Bowman, a veterinarian in San Diego. Premarital sex remains taboo for Mormons, but the shortage of Mormon men was pushing some women over the brink. “There might actually be a more promiscuous dating culture than there otherwise would be in the Mormon culture because of this gap.”

Months later, still neck-deep in Mormon research, I got lucky again. I received an email from a hedge fund manager who wanted to talk to me about a job. I called back to thank him but explained I was busy writing a book. He asked what the book was about, and I wound up telling him about the Mormon marriage crisis.

“Wow,” he said, “that sounds a lot like the Shidduch Crisis.” I had never heard of it, but the Shidduch Crisis turned out to be a marriage crisis among Orthodox Jews remarkably similar to the one afflicting Mormons.

Both of these socially conservative communities are suffering from marriage crises that are testing not only their faiths but social norms as well. “You have no idea how big a problem this is,” said Tristen Ure Hunt, founder of the Mormon Matchmaker, a Salt Lake City dating agency.

Hunt, a 35-year-old who only recently got married herself, told me she has three times more single women than single men in her matchmaking database. She shared stories of devout Mormon women who wound up marrying outside the religion—officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—simply because they had no other options. She has ten friends—“all good LDS girls!”—who gave up on finding a husband and decided to have children on their own. Said Hunt, “My heartstrings are pulled daily.”

 

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wo thousand miles away in New York City, Lisa Elefant knows exactly what Hunt is feeling. “I don’t sleep at night anymore,” said Elefant, a shadchan—or Jewish matchmaker—affiliated with the Ohr Naava: Women’s Torah Center in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. “My own sister is thirty-seven, educated, accomplished, attractive, and single. I told her to freeze her eggs.”

Secular-style dating is rare in the Orthodox community in which Elefant lives. Most marriages are loosely arranged—“guided” is probably a better word—by matchmakers such as Elefant. The shadchan’s job has been made exceedingly difficult, she said, by a mysterious increase in the number of unmarried women within the Orthodox community. When Elefant attended Jewish high school 30 years ago, “there were maybe three girls that didn’t get married by the time they were twenty or twenty-one,” she said. “Today, if you look at the girls who graduated five years ago, there are probably thirty girls who are not yet married. Overall, there are thousands of unmarried girls in their late twenties. It’s total chaos.”

For Orthodox Jewish women, as for Mormon ones, getting married and having children is more than a lifestyle choice. Marriage and motherhood are essentially spiritual obligations, which is why the Orthodox marriage crisis is so hotly debated and why it has earned its own moniker. Shidduch is the Hebrew word for a marriage match, and Orthodox Jews (including the more assimilated Modern Orthodox) now refer to the excess supply of unmarried women in their communities as the Shidduch Crisis.

Mormon and Orthodox Jewish leaders alike fear that their respective marriage crises reflect some failure to instill proper values in young people. Perhaps young people are too self-absorbed? Maybe the men are just too picky? Or maybe it’s the women who are holding out for the Mormon or Jewish George Clooney?

In fact, the root causes of both the Shidduch Crisis and the Mormon marriage crisis have little to do with culture or religion. The true culprit in both cases is demographics. The fact is that there are more marriage-age women than men both in the Orthodox Jewish community and in the Utah LDS church. And just as I predicted, lopsided gender ratios affect conservative religious communities in much the same way they affect secular ones.

Youth's Fiscal Problems- St. Louis Missouri
Nina Leen–The LIFE Picture Collection/GettyImagesIt’s not that He’s Just Not That Into You—it’s that There Just Aren’t Enough of Him.

At first glance, the state of Utah—60 percent Mormon and home of the LDS church—looks like the wrong place to study what I like to call the man deficit. Like several other western states, Utah actually has more men than women. Utah’s ratio of men to women across all age groups is the fifth highest in the nation. But lurking beneath the Census data is a demographic anomaly that makes Utah a textbook example of how shifting gender ratios alter behavior. The LDS church actually has one of the most lopsided gender ratios of any religion in the United States.

“There are so many options for the men, it’s no wonder it’s hard for them to settle down,” said Deena Cox, a single, 34-year-old office manager who lives in Salt Lake City.

One fact that becomes apparent when studying the demographics of religion is that it is almost always the women who are more devout. Across all faiths, women are less likely than men to leave organized religion. According to the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of self-described atheists are men. Statistically speaking, an atheist meeting may be one of the best places for single women to meet available men.

Due to men’s generally higher rates of apostasy, it makes sense that the modern LDS church, like most religions, would have slightly more women than men. The Utah LDS church was in fact 52 percent female as recently as 1990. Since 1990, however, the Mormon gender gap in Utah has widened dramatically—from a gender ratio of 52:48 female to male in 1990 to 60:40 female to male in 2008, according to a study coauthored by ARIS researchers Rick Phillips, Ryan Cragun, and Barry Kosmin. In other words, the LDS church in Utah now has three women for every two men.

The sex ratio is especially lopsided among Mormon singles. Many individual LDS churches—known as “wards”—are organized by marital status, with families attending different Sunday services from single people. Parley’s Seventh, one of Salt Lake City’s singles wards, had 429 women on its rolls in 2013 versus only 264 men, according to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper.

Kelly Blake* is painfully aware of the horrible odds. A single Mormon in her late thirties, Blake is a reporter for a Salt Lake City television station. When Blake attends singles events for Mormons, she said there are often two women for every one man. As a result, Blake rarely meets suitable men in these settings and often winds up spending most of her time chatting with other women. “I’ll go on a [Mormon] singles cruise and come away with no dates but all these incredible new girlfriends,” Blake 
told me.

The lopsided numbers encourage Mormon men to hold out for the perfect wife, Blake said. “I call it the paradox of choice,” she explained. “For men, there are so many choices that choices are not made. The dream for the Mormon man is to get married and have six kids. As he ages, his dream never changes. But when you’re a thirty-seven-year-old woman, you’ve already aged out of that dream.”

 

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o why are there so many more Mormon women than Mormon men? The simple answer is that over the past twenty-five years, Utah men have been quitting the LDS church in unusually large numbers. ARIS’s Cragun, a sociology professor at the University of Tampa who is ex-LDS himself, said the growing exodus of men from the LDS church is an unexpected by-product of the growing importance of the mission in Mormon life. Serving a mission used to be elective; now it’s a prerequisite for leadership.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of Mormon men do not go on missions, which typically entail a mix of community service and proselytizing. Mormon men are being asked to serve missions at precisely the time in their lives—late teens and early twenties—when sociologists say men are most susceptible to dropping out of organized religion. Cragun believed the dropout problem among men is the real reason why, in 2012, the LDS church lowered the age at which Mormon men can start serving missions from 19 to 18: “I think they were losing too many men who would go off to college or get a job before they turned nineteen and then realize they didn’t want to stop and serve a mission.”

Lowering the mission age seems to be having the intended effect: Between 2012 and 2014, the number of Mormons serving missions increased from 58,000 a year to 83,000, according to the LDS website. If this trend continues, the lowered mission age should reduce the Mormon gender gap and ease the Mormon marriage crisis over time. Of course, that is cold comfort for today’s single Mormon women, as the loss of men has affected not only the supply of men, but men’s conduct too.

There is ample evidence that Mormon men are delaying marriage. News articles on this topic tend to be filled with tales of Mormon women who want to marry but cannot find a good Mormon man. The Salt Lake Tribune published an article in 2011 (headline: “Why Young LDS Men Are Pushing Back Marriage”), which blamed the marriage crisis on Facebook (“After we’ve learned everything about each other on Facebook, what do we talk about on the first date?”) as well as a “modern nonchalance” about marriage. LDS leader Richard Scott was quoted chastising young men to grow up: “If you are a young man of appropriate age and are not married, don’t waste time in idle pursuits. Get on with life and focus on getting married. Don’t just coast through this period of life.”

The Tribune story cited a survey of Mormon college students in which men expressed a belief that age 30 is now the right age to get married. The finding was unexpected, given that most Utah Mormons marry by their early twenties. In the same article, Brigham Young University professor David Dollahite complained of a “market mentality” among men at the LDS-dominated campus. When it came to dating, BYU men seemed paralyzed by indecision. “The young men think, ‘I am dating a 9.7, but if I wait, maybe I could get a 9.9,’” Dollahite told the Tribune.

Based on enrollment figures, BYU men should not be so picky. In 2013, the gender ratio among BYU undergrads was actually 54:46 male to female. With 17 percent more men than women on campus, it is the BYU women who should be the choosy ones. But because social life at BYU is so atypical, the campus-wide enrollment figures don’t reflect the true dating market. Yes, there are more male undergrads overall, but BYU’s freshman class in 2013 was actually 62 percent female—or three women for every two men. The change in the mission age probably exaggerated the freshman gender gap for 2013, but according to data available on the BYU website, BYU’s freshman class has been majority female every year since at least 1997. In 1997, for instance, BYU’s freshman class was 59 percent women.

What’s going on? Hannah Wheelwright helped unravel the mystery for me. A 2014 BYU grad, Wheelwright explained that it is common for BYU women to marry male classmates while still in school and that a material number of the newlywed women wind up dropping out of college. Consequently, the gender ratio among the single students at BYU more closely resembles the gender ratio of the freshman class than it does that of the overall student body.

Single BYU men are keenly aware of the lopsided numbers, said Wheelwright, who is a leader of Ordain Women, a feminist organization seeking the appointment of women to the LDS priesthood. “In the dating market, the men have all the power,” Wheelwright said. “Men have all these options, and the women spend hours getting ready for dates because their eternal salvation and exultation depends on marrying a righteous, priesthood-holding man.”

To be sure, the Mormon dating scene at BYU—or in Utah in general—will never be confused with Sex and the City. As I said, premarital sex is still taboo for Mormons. Yet, just as Bowman suggested, the undersupply of men does seem to be loosening Mormon sexual mores. “At BYU, a lot of Mormons my age don’t consider oral sex to be sex,” said Wheelwright.

Psychologists Marcia Guttentag and Paul Secord argued in Too Many Women?— the pioneering book on lopsided gender ratios—that women are more likely to be treated as sex objects whenever men are scarce. That is precisely what Mormon women now experience.

“Women’s bodies are up for debate,” Wheelwright complained. Mormon men have become much more demanding about women’s looks, which in turn has made women obsessed with standing out from the competition. One consequence: A culture of plastic surgery has taken root among Mormon women.

“I have seen more outrageous boob jobs and facial plastic surgery in Utah than almost anywhere in the country—especially among Mormon women,” said Bowman. “They may claim chastity as a virtue overall, but that’s not stopping anyone from getting a set of double-Ds.”

Mormons rushing to get boob jobs may sound far-fetched, but Bowman’s assertion is supported by the leading consumer review site for cosmetic surgery, RealSelf.com. According to a 2011 RealSelf study, Salt Lake City residents did more searches for breast implants on the RealSelf website than residents of any other city. Moreover, a 2007 Forbes story labeled Salt Lake City “America’s Vainest City,” with four plastic surgeons for every 100,000 people, which was 2.5 times the national average. Salt Lake City residents also spent inordinate sums on beauty products—$2.2 million in 2006 on hair coloring and $6.9 million on cosmetics and skin care products, according to Forbes. By comparison, Oklahoma City, a city with a slightly larger population, spent $172,000 and $594,000, respectively.

In this cosmetic arms race, the big guns are Botox, liposuction, and breast augmentation. “There are so many attractive girls here, the guys get choosy,” explained Dr. Kimball Crofts, a Salt Lake City plastic surgeon. (He speaks from experience. Mormon himself, Crofts did not marry till his forties.) Crofts said his office has college-age women coming in for Botox injections. The day I interviewed him, Crofts had just finished a consultation with an attractive woman in her twenties seeking a breast augmentation: “She says to me, ‘I don’t want them too big, but my boyfriend would really like them bigger.’”

Wheelwright believed allowing women a leadership role in the teaching of LDS gospel is important. As things stand now, getting married and having kids is the Mormon woman’s primary responsibility within the LDS faith, she said. The lopsided gender ratios feed preexisting disillusionment among Mormon women by making their core duty—getting married—difficult, degrading, or even impossible. Said Wheelwright, “In a religion where women are already unnecessary to the essential structure of the church, having a gender imbalance where you have too many women just compounds that effect.”

As with the Mormon marriage crisis, the Shidduch Crisis has become a source of enormous heartache for Orthodox Jews, especially older single women and their parents. (Among Orthodox Jews, “older” often starts at 21.) The Letters to the Editor section of The 5 Towns Jewish Times, a weekly newspaper for the Orthodox community in suburban New York, has become a receptacle for Shidduch Crisis–related angst and sadness. “An absolute tragedy,” is how one mother described the situation. It is “what we as a family and I as the mother of a 27-year-old ‘older single girl’ go through every moment of my life, every breathing second of every day. And believe me, sometimes it hurts to do just that—i.e., to breathe.”

The statistical explanation for why Orthodox men are in short supply is different from the one for the shortage of Mormon men. Orthodox men are not abandoning their faith in large numbers and leaving Orthodox women behind. According to a recent Pew Research study, only 2 percent of Orthodox Jews are married to non-Jews, and the attrition rate from the Orthodox movement to the more mainstream Reform or Conservative branches of Judaism has actually been declining.

The imbalance in the Orthodox marriage market boils down to a demographic quirk: The Orthodox community has an extremely high birth rate, and a high birth rate means there will be more 18-year-olds than 19-year-olds, more 19-year-olds than 20-year-olds, and so on and so on. Couple the increasing number of children born every year with the traditional age gap at marriage—the typical marriage age for Orthodox Jews is 19 for women and 22 for men, according to Michael Salamon, a psychologist who works with the Orthodox community and wrote a book on the Shidduch Crisis—and you wind up with a marriage market with more 19-year-old women than 22-year-old men.

There is no U.S. Census data on religion. But Joshua Comenetz, chief of the Census Bureau’s Geographic Studies Branch, studied the demographics of Orthodox Jews back in his college professor days at University of Florida. Based on his academic research, Comenetz contended that each one-year age cohort in the Orthodox community has 4 percent more members than the one preceding it. What this means is that for every 100 22-year-old men in the Orthodox dating pool, there are 112 19-year-old women—12 percent more women than men.

The bottom line: According to a 2013 article in the Jewish weekly Ami Magazine, there are now 3,000 unmarried Orthodox women between the ages of 25 and 40 in the New York City metro area and another 500 over 40. That’s a huge number when you consider that New York’s Yeshivish Orthodox—the segment of the Orthodox community most affected by the Shidduch Crisis—has a total population of 97,000, according to the Jewish Community Study of New York published by the UJA-Federation of New York in 2012.

That is the Shidduch Crisis in a nutshell. Unfortunately, relatively few Orthodox Jews realize that the Shidduch Crisis boils down to a math problem. Most explanations for the Shidduch Crisis blame cultural influences for causing men to delay marriage. “Those of us who’ve tossed and turned with this, we don’t necessarily believe that there are more girls than boys,” said Elefant. “We believe God created everybody, and God created a match for everybody.”

As Elefant saw things, a 22-year-old man inherently has more dating options than a 19-year-old woman, because he can date down age-wise. “The guys act like kids in a candy store,” Elefant said. Of course, if there were gender-ratio balance among all the age cohorts, single 22-year-old men would not have more choices than single 19-year-old women because most of the age-19-to-22 women would already be married to older men—thus shrinking 22-year-old men’s dating pool.

With Mormons, there is no scientific way to settle the culture-versus-demographics argument. You cannot create a social experiment with 50 heterosexual single women and 50 heterosexual single men, tell them they can only marry other study participants, and then observe whether outside cultural influences cause young Mormon men to play the field and delay marriage, even when the gender ratio is even. In the Orthodox Jewish community, however, there is a natural control group—one that does make it possible to settle the culture-versus-demographics debate with near certainty. That control group is a sect of Orthodox Judaism known as Hasidic Jews.

The core beliefs of Hasidic Jews differ from those of other Orthodox Jews in nuanced but spiritually significant ways. Hasidic Jews believe each daily act of religious observance creates a personal, perhaps mystical, connection with God. In contrast, their counterparts in the Yeshivish branch of Orthodox Judaism emphasize the study of Torah and Talmud as the primary means of growing closer to God.

While their religious practices may differ, the two groups are still quite similar culturally. Both Yeshivish and Hasidic Jews are extremely pious and socially conservative. They live in tight-knit communities. They are known for having large families. And both groups use matchmakers to pair their young people for marriage.

There is, however, one major cultural difference between the two groups: Hasidic men marry women their own age, whereas Yeshivish men typically marry women a three or four years their junior.

“In the Hasidic world, it would be very weird for a man to marry a woman two years younger than him,” said Alexander Rapaport, a Hasidic father of six and the executive director of Masbia, a kosher soup kitchen in Brooklyn. Both Rapaport and his wife were 36 when I interviewed him.

When I asked Rapaport about the Shidduch Crisis, he seemed perplexed. “I’ve heard of it,” he said, “but I’m not sure I understand what it’s all about.”

In fact, there is no Shidduch Crisis in the Hasidic community. “When I mention the term to Hasidim, they don’t know what I’m talking about,” said Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at City University of New York and an expert on Hasidic Jews.

Another academic, Hershey Friedman of Brooklyn College, reached the same conclusion, but from a different vantage point. When Friedman is not teaching finance at Brooklyn College, he volunteers as a matchmaker for Saw You at Sinai, an Orthodox dating service that combines traditional matchmaking with some of the tools of online dating. Friedman is not Hasidic himself, but he’s familiar with the Hasidic community because he lives in Borough Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood considered the epicenter of American Hasidic life.

“The girls have it made in the Hasidic world,” Friedman said. “They’re the ones in demand.” Friedman’s explanation for the absence of a Shidduch Crisis among Hasidic Jews is that there are more Hasidic boys than girls—a perception that I suspect is inaccurate but nonetheless reflects how different the marriage market is for Hasidic versus non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews.

The seeming immunity of Hasidic Jews to the Shidduch Crisis has not been lost on some Yeshivish rabbis. In 2012, a dozen American and Israeli Orthodox rabbis signed letters urging young men and their parents to begin their matchmaking process earlier than age 22 or 23. The rabbis noted that their community “finds itself in an increasingly difficult situation,” with “thousands” of single Jewish women struggling to find husbands. “[I]t has become clear that the primary cause of this is that [men] generally marry girls who are a number of years younger,” read one of the letters. “Since the population increases every year and there are more girls entering shidduchim than boys, many girls are left unmarried. Clearly, the way to remedy this terrible situation is to reduce the age disparity in shidduchim. Many [Hasidic] communities who do not have age disparities in shidduchim are not facing this tragic situation of numerous unmarried girls.”

The suggestion that the true origin of the Shidduch Crisis lies in demographics has not sat well with those who staked their reputations on alternative explanations. “This fancy cocktail of demography, sociology, mathematics, and mythology is really nothing more than a Ponzi scheme,” American Rabbi Chananya Weissman wrote in The Jerusalem Post.

Weissman runs an organization called End The Madness, which aims to reform the Orthodox matchmaking system. Weissman places much of the blame for the Shidduch Crisis on the women themselves. As he wrote on TheYeshivaWorld.com website, women are too focused on “non-Halachic externalities” (i.e., attributes not valued by Jewish law or tradition) when evaluating prospective husbands: “I would posit that feminism and un-Jewish values have had a devastating effect on the shidduch world… The same women who are supposedly just desperate to get married, who want nothing more than to meet a nice guy who doesn’t drool all over himself, categorically reject the vast majority of men they come across without batting an eyelash—and then say the problem is there aren’t any good guys.”

Weissman’s solution is for Orthodox Jews to rely less on matchmakers and more on singles events where young people can mingle and get to know each other in more natural settings. Of course, there’s plenty of natural interaction between college-educated men and women in New York City, and that hasn’t solved the too-many-women problem in the secular world.

Perhaps the most controversial—and definitely the most misogynistic— explanation for the Shidduch Crisis was offered up by Yitta Halberstam, coauthor of the best-selling Small Miracles series of books. Halberstam’s 2012 column in The Jewish Press started out innocently enough. “This is the harsh truth,” she wrote. “The mothers of ‘good boys’ are bombarded with shidduch suggestions on a daily basis—a veritable barrage of résumés either flooding their fax machines or pouring out of their email inboxes—while those with similarly ‘top’ daughters sit with pinched faces anxiously waiting for the phone to ring. The disparity is bare, bold-faced, and veritably heartbreaking.”

Halberstam knew all this because her own son was going through the matchmaking process: “I feel a little sad each time the fax machine cranks out yet another résumé for my son. I know full well that there are fantastic girls out there who are his equals—perhaps even his superiors—who are NOT receiving comparable treatment… I ache for their mothers, who repeatedly call the shadchanim [matchmakers] who never call back, but are visibly more responsive if you are the mother of a boy. Inwardly, I rail against the unfairness of it all.”

Here Halberstam went off the rails. She went on to describe attending a community event where single women were introduced to mothers of single men—and being “jolted” by the subpar looks of the girls.

“Yes,” she wrote, “spiritual beauty makes a woman’s eyes glow and casts a luminous sheen over her face; there is no beauty like a pure soul. Makeup, however, goes a long way in both correcting facial flaws and accentuating one’s assets, and if my cursory inspection was indeed accurate (and I apologize if the girls used such natural makeup that I simply couldn’t tell), barely any of these girls seemed to have made a huge effort to deck themselves out.”

In other words, the real reason these young women were still unmarried was because they were homely. Halberstam then doubled down on heartlessness, suggesting that a visit to the plastic surgeon might be in order for some of these Plain Janes: “Mothers, this is my plea to you: There is no reason in today’s day and age with the panoply of cosmetic and surgical procedures available, why any girl can’t be transformed into a swan. Borrow the money if you have to; it’s an investment in your daughter’s future, her life.”

Of the 648 mostly shocked and outraged comments posted to The Jewish Press website, one stood out: “Dear Mrs. Halberstam, I am also a Jewish mother,” it began. “But I no longer share your joyful anticipation of walking my child down to the chuppa [the Jewish wedding canopy]. She died last year, of anorexia.

“It all began six years ago, when, at the age of 21, a shadchan who professed to be as well-meaning as you do suggested that she lose a few pounds (she was a size 6 at the time) in order to make herself more ‘marketable’ (that is the term she used then). What followed was a nightmare for her, me, and our whole family that I can only hope you will never know from. If you have a modicum of rachmunus [pity] in your Jewish neshama [soul] I beg you to retract this article and apologize for your deeply, dangerously misguided advice. I am crying now as I write this and think of what my daughter had to suffer because of exactly the type of things that you have written here, and I am just so afraid for all the other impressionable young girls who will read your words and reach the same end. This is not a joke, and it is not funny at all. You could literally be killing people by making these suggestions and perpetuating the ethos that underlies them.”

Anorexia has become a quiet scourge of the Orthodox Jewish community. A report on the National Eating Disorders Association website described the intense pressure that single Orthodox women feel to stay thin during the matchmaking process. NEDA cited a study by eating disorder specialist Dr. Ira Sacker, who found that one in nineteen girls in one Orthodox community had been diagnosed with an eating disorder—a rate 50 percent above the national average.

One cultural by-product of the Shidduch Crisis that has not been hushed up is the ever-larger dowries that Orthodox brides and their families are now expected to pay for the privilege of getting married. These dowries are financial promises made by the bride’s parents to help support the young family for the three or four or however-long-it-takes years that their future son-in-law may spend studying at a Jewish seminary. The fact that these dowries keep increasing demonstrates both the market power men possess as well as the desperation felt by young women and their parents. “It was never like this before,” said Salamon. “There was always a dowry, but it was pillowcases and things of that nature—not $50,000.”

Salamon noted that the practice of brides’ families paying five- and six-figure dowries has leached from the traditional Orthodox community into the more assimilated Modern Orthodox one. Indeed, the Summer 2013 issue of Jewish Action, the official magazine of the Modern Orthodox umbrella organization Orthodox Union, included an essay by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen, a well-known Jewish scholar and lecturer. Kelemen told the story of his attempt to arrange a marriage for his daughter: “When I contacted the head of a prestigious American yeshiva [an Orthodox Jewish seminary] to ask if he might have a shidduch for my daughter, he asked me ‘what level boy’ I was interested in. Unsure what he meant, I asked for clarification. ‘Top boys go for $100,000 a year, but we also have boys for $70,000 a year and even $50,000 a year.’ He said that if I was ready to make the commitment, he could begin making recommendations immediately.”

The Orthodox Union’s executive vice president, Rabbi Steven Weil, told me he believed a backlash to the increasingly outlandish dowries was brewing. “You don’t marry for money,” Weil said. “This is not our religion.”

Weil is right, of course. It is not his religion. It is his religion’s demographics.

 

Jon Birger is a contributor to Fortune magazine and has written for Time, Barron’s, Money and Bloomberg BusinessWeek. He lives with his family in Larchmont, New York.

Adapted with permission from Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game, (Workman, August 2015), by Jon Birger.

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