Productivity vs. Procreation
When my older sister Liz first began expressing her frustrations over urban singledom, I judged her impatient and dramatic. She had been out of college only a few months, yet the prospect of spinsterhood seemed to loom over her with the same imminent inevitability as wrinkles and gray hair. Unattached and 20, I was immersed in the world of college, where relationships were coveted but rare, an all too frequent casualty of the fast-paced and egocentric culture of Manhattan ingénues. Finding a life partner trailed far behind dreams of exotic career, travel, and scholarship.
Four years later, as an increasingly time-consuming job and Liz’s upcoming wedding vie for my attention, the incessant ticking that once taunted her has joined the din of my universe, reminding me that for all I achieve as a professional, nothing can substitute for what I experience as that all-important injunction to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).
I was raised in a household with the oft repeated maxim: “Find work that enlivens and challenges you daily.” My parents, high school sweethearts, knew the rarity of their story and refrained from imposing it on us, stressing instead the value of hard work and assuming the other pieces would fall into place. I didn’t have a serious boyfriend until college, so my adolescent relationship discussions with family were limited to crushes on my physics tutor and Edward Norton. After the college relationship ended, my family occasionally inquired about new attachments, but never seemed unnerved by my unwavering single status. That was,
until I graduated.
Now, as a single Jewish professional, I can count on hearing one question every time I speak to my great-grandmother: “How’s ya love life?” When I tell her “same ol’ story,” she counters with advice: “Don’t be too smart on the first date. You don’t want to intimidate him. Save the intelligence as a bonus once he gets to know you.”
While my great-grandma’s courtship strategy seems antiquated, the expectation underlying it resonates deeply. Here is a 104-year-old woman inquiring about her legacy. She arrived at Ellis Island in 1912 on a boat from Lithuania and later watched powerlessly as the Nazis annihilated the European Jewish community she left behind. This history weighs heavily, manifesting in the obligation to increase the Jewish nation; every Jewish birth is a finger in the eye of the Nazis.
And she’s not the only one prodding. My mother—who, despite meeting my father at age 17, waited to establish her career before marrying at age 26—increasingly offers to perform matchmaking inquiries on my behalf. Occasionally, she’ll mention a temple member’s single son who’s “worth Googling” or request permission to circulate my business card.
And while the Reform Jewish community in which I grew up prides itself on being attuned to the constantly evolving social norms of the modern era, the family unit remains our community’s fundamental building block, an idea reinforced in our sacred tradition.
The V’ahav’ta , one of our most frequently recited prayers, reminds us that we shall love God with all our heart, soul, and might, and that we shall transmit these values to our children. In its pedagogic assumption, the prayer appears to reflect a deeply rooted belief that an individual’s obligation to God is inadequate until substantiated by the proper devotion of her progeny.
And consider the most commonly observed home-based holiday, Passover. Even as the seder has become a celebration of egalitarianism, with many families adding Miriam’s cup or an orange to the seder plate to symbolize the inclusion of women and other marginalized individuals, the ritual, with its four questions and four sons, is structured around the education of children.
Add to this the priority all streams of Judaism place on ensuring the endurance of the Jewish people, and I wonder whether our faith may value the family above the individual.
All of this prompts me to ask: Am I selfish for ranking academic and professional above romantic pursuits? Do I neglect my duty to family and community by postponing procreation? In this I’m troubled by an important nuance of timing: While women my age are encouraged to find partners, find jobs, and settle down, our male counterparts are permitted a decade or more of wiggle room to “sow wild oats”—or, in the case of my twin brother, have the “luxury” of working 12-hour days to get ahead without having to justify his priorities.
Having witnessed the campaign of a female U.S. presidential candidate and two consecutive female Supreme Court Justice appointments, I cherish women’s hard-won rights to build meaningful careers and become national leaders. I find deep fulfillment in my job at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism mentoring teens at L’Taken social justice conferences and educating them about the value of tikkun olam (repairing the world). When the female participants sense their own leadership potential, I know I’m helping secure the legacy of the world’s Clintons, Kagans, and Sotomayors. Still, I have this nagging feeling that I’m avoiding a major adult responsibility—like giving tzedakah or scheduling regular dental checkups.
Here’s my problem: Work makes me feel good and dating makes me feel lousy. At the office I’m in my comfort zone; I feel productive and am treated as a valued member of the team. In the harsh dating world, in contrast, success is achieved by those best able to conceal their aspirations for a committed partnership behind a façade of carefree, live-in-the-moment coquetry. I feel no compelling reason to join a dating website where the premium on witty banter and tactical chitchat grows exponentially without in-person contact, effectively forcing people to manufacture their own chemistry. While close family members have found husbands and wives on the Internet, it’s not for me; I refuse to instant message myself into matrimony. Moreover, during an in-person encounter, nothing makes me feel more like a faceless statistic than flirting. The moment socializing with friends veers into a “hunting project,” my spark is extinguished by the presence of so many other single girls contending for the same prize.
So what’s a young woman to do? Harboring myself in the asylum of my profession in the hope that Mr. Right eventually penetrates its sacred confines and wins my heart seems, well, unrealistic. Yet, forcing myself to navigate the universe of single professionals knowing that men my age are likely to be a decade removed from their search for commitment strikes me as futile.
So in an effort to find balance between feeling productive and doing what it takes to meet the right man, I’ve begun seeking opportunities to combine my passion for learning and social justice with the excitement of socializing. From lectures and concerts to group dinners and community service, I can donate my cherished free time to enriching activities—and gain agency in determining how others perceive me. At the bar, I’m just “another Jewish girl looking for a husband” (the statistic); at the lecture, I’m Juliana, the girl who reads Philip Roth (an individual). While this new balancing act is not a panacea, it feels like a step in the right direction.
I also try and remind myself to be grateful for my blessings—not to overvalue what I lack but to properly value what I have. In these economic times, when almost 10% of the population struggles with unemployment, I am privileged to have a job and lucky to wake up each morning with a sense of purpose and excitement about my work. Though the pressure is on to find a mate, I’m content leaving him a mystery as I make my foray into the professional world.
For the time being, I’m going to ignore the ticking and co-opt some of that bona fide male wiggle room. I can’t stop the clock, but as a single woman I can certainly relish every moment.
Juliana Schnur, a lifelong member of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, is projects coordinator at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.