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Although dating is a major preoccupation of the vast number of single twenty- and thirtysomethings, it’s hard to think of a group that so completely chooses to live in a neighborhood based on dating opportunities as the city’s young Orthodox Jews. And the Upper West Side, an increasingly Orthodox enclave, has over the past four decades emerged as courting central for modern Orthodox singles from across the country and around the world.
In the past 10 years particularly, the community has undergone what Michael Landau, the chairman of the Council of Orthodox Jewish Organizations of the West Side, described as “exponential growth.” The dating fever will spike this week with the celebration of Tu B’Av, a Jewish holiday that combines elements of Valentine’s Day and Sadie Hawkins Day. A matchmaking party on Thursday night at the Hudson Beach Cafe in Riverside Park is expected to draw 1,000 people, most of them young Orthodox Jews.
“If you get to be 23 or 24 and you’re not married, your parents are going to say you shouldn’t be living at home anymore,” said Rabbi Allen Schwartz of Congregation Ohab Zedek, a synagogue on West 95th Street near Columbus Avenue that is heavily attended by young Orthodox singles.
“Where are you going to go?” he added. “To Teaneck, where there might be another 10 singles like you? You go to the West Side, where there are another 5,000 singles like you.”
Mr. November, an English professor and poet from Pittsburgh who moved to the Upper West Side five years ago, put it this way: “It’s like all roads lead to the West Side.”
The Lure of the West Side
Many people trace the development of the dating scene on the Upper West Side to the mid-’60s, when a charismatic young rabbi named Shlomo Riskin took the helm at the new Lincoln Square Synagogue, near Lincoln Center.
A captivating speaker known for delivering relevant, modern messages, the rabbi soon drew crowds of more than 1,000 to his Wednesday night lectures and Sabbath sermons. Throughout the ’70s, young people from Orthodox enclaves in the city and beyond moved in droves to the Upper West Side, south of 79th Street, to be part of Rabbi Riskin’s community.
“What happened was the influence of secular society,” said Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, who served as the synagogue’s educational director during those years. “Until the ’60s, there was an urgency to get married. Then with the rebellious ’60s, they said, ‘Why should we get married?’ There’s no question that that influenced the Orthodox as well. People were postponing marriage.”
As real estate prices rose in the 1980s, the young singles migrated north toward West 86th Street, and then into the once forbiddingly dangerous West 90s area. By the 1990s, Congregation Ohab Zedek had replaced the Lincoln Square Synagogue as the heart of the community. These days, after Friday evening prayer services at the 95th Street synagogue, hundreds of singles spill onto the sidewalk to mingle.
Two nearby apartment buildings on Columbus Avenue, the Westmont and the 12-story Key West, across the street, became favored residences for the Orthodox, with apartments often fitted with temporary walls so that two-bedrooms could house three or four roommates. Those buildings, and more recently others close by, have become so full of the Orthodox that they are sometimes known as “the dormitories.”
Mr. November’s story is a typical one among these young transplants.
The oldest of four children, he grew up in Squirrel Hill, the leafy, picturesque neighborhood on the east side of Pittsburgh that has long been home to the city’s Jewish community. He moved back there after graduating from the State University at Binghamton in 2000. But he quickly realized that his dating prospects in his hometown were nil. (His Orthodox high school class had only 10 boys and 3 girls.) He then left to pursue a master’s degree in poetry at Sarah Lawrence College, and in 2003, thinking about marriage, he moved to the Upper West Side.
At first, he balked at the idea of moving into the Westmont, which has more than 160 apartments. “I didn’t want to feel like I was living in a dorm,” he said not long ago in a cafe near Columbus Circle, a black yarmulke pinned to his chin-length hair. But when a 12th-floor corner apartment that was slightly removed from the building’s hubbub became available, he moved in with three friends.
He also took a job teaching English at the Upper West Side campus of Touro College — its founders were Orthodox Jews — and promptly dived into the West Side social scene.
“A lot of people fall through the cracks, and there’s not much guidance about what you do to date,” Mr. November said. “But if you have charisma, you can meet people easily.
“I never dated in Pittsburgh,” he added. “When I first got here, I went on two or three dates a week.”
Sometimes he pines for Squirrel Hill. “A lot of Pittsburgh people who come here just want to marry someone and bring them back to Pittsburgh,” he said.
But for now he likes the Upper West Side, seeing its singles scene as a compromise of Orthodoxy’s emphasis on tradition and family and the modern values of exploration and individual fulfillment.
“Matchmakers still have the idea that if you put two Jews together, it will work,” Mr. November said. “But that’s a shtetl mentality. In the shtetl, what else did you know but your neighbor and your neighbor’s daughter? If you’re not sheltered, that’s not going to work. All we have are Marc Chagall paintings of that life. We’re not in the shtetl anymore.”
Pressure and Perils
On a chilly night last March, no one would have mistaken the packed dance floor at Havana Central, a restaurant near Columbia University, for the shtetl. The costumed dancers included an Ali G wearing a mustard yellow tracksuit and gold chains, a platinum blond Paris Hilton in stilettos, an Indiana Jones in khakis and several Junos, all of them ponytailed and very pregnant.
The party was a celebration of Purim, the Jewish holiday that combines the costumes of Halloween with the alcohol consumption of Mardi Gras. That night, nearly 500 people happily observed both themes, clutching plastic cups of draft beer and watery vodka tonics while they bopped and wiggled to the blaring music of Amy Winehouse and Beyoncé.
Milling near the bar with a friend dressed as a T-bone steak, Mr. November reflected on the scene. “There are certain opportunities here,” he said, “that are impossible anywhere else because it’s such a huge population.”
Isaac Galena, a co-founder of bangitout.com, a popular modern Orthodox Web site that was sponsoring the evening for the third year, struck the same note. “We’ve had six or seven marriages out of these parties,” he said. “One thing you have here is a lot of people from the same background at an age where they want to progress in their lives.”
But while the Upper West Side may offer an expanded pool of singles, some say its social offerings can distract from the presumed goal of marriage. The lifestyle sometimes resembles a relatively chaste version of that depicted in the television series “Sex and the City,” featuring below-the-knee designer skirts and kosher wine in place of Cosmopolitans.
“In a way, the West Side is like Never-Never Land,” Mr. November said. “People tell their parents they’re going to meet someone, but it’s an extended childhood.”
And paradoxically, the large numbers of eligible singles can make for more pressure to find a mate, not less.
“You don’t have thousands of Irish-Americans moving to Boston to try to meet someone Irish,” said a brunette from the Midwest, who declined to be identified because openly criticizing the community might hurt her own marital prospects. “I’ve met people who said, ‘I’m here for two months to date.’ In a way, it becomes too much.”
While some of these complaints are specific to the Orthodox community, others are common to many young New Yorkers. The freedom to live an extended single life and the wide array of potential spouses can foster what is sometimes called option paralysis.
“It’s the cable TV syndrome,” explained Rabbi Schwartz of Congregation Ohab Zedek. “There are so many channels, so many things to watch out there, you don’t end up watching any one thing.”
Still, in his opinion, frittering away one’s mating years is more the exception than the rule.
“Some singles are here for 20 years,” Rabbi Schwartz said, “but I’d say most move on within 5 to 10 years.” At that point, they marry and typically move to nearby Orthodox areas like Teaneck, N.J., the Five Towns of Long Island or Riverdale in the Bronx. “Most singles,” the rabbi said, “will tell you, ‘I do not want to be here in five years.’ ”
Flirting and Kabbalah
One fixture on the Orthodox social circuit is Congregation Ohav Sholom, on 84th Street near Broadway, where a few dozen Jews assembled on a Monday evening last spring for a class in kabbalah, the study of Jewish mysticism.
The class was part of a series of events sponsored by Jewish International Connection, an organization that aids Jews from abroad. On this particular evening, the young men and women in attendance included guests from France, Cuba, Italy, Ukraine, Turkey, Mexico, Israel and Brazil.
The kabbalah may have been the official attraction, but flirting seemed to be the real draw. Nibbling on kosher chicken kebabs and couscous, they chatted about their jobs and hobbies while Steve Eisenberg, the group’s co-founder, darted around the room making introductions.
Like Mr. Galena of bangitout.com, Mr. Eisenberg proudly recounted his organization’s marital scorecard since it began in 2000: 40 marriages among people who met through the group, plus three new engagements within the previous week. Despite the grumbling among some Orthodox singles about the pressures of dating, Mr. Eisenberg believes that they are still better off than many of the city’s singles, whose dating life consists of one-night stands and endless evenings in murky bars.
“You look at the city, which is very lonely and cold, and you look at the faces of a lot of singles in the city, and there’s despair,” Mr. Eisenberg said. “Here, there’s warmth.”
Even as the young, unattached Orthodox Jews of the Upper West Side gravitate to such scenes, parents back home are sometimes less happy about the way their offspring are spending their courting years.
“My parents don’t want me here,” Mr. November confided after the dinner in his Westmont apartment. “They don’t think it’s a good atmosphere.
“I understand what they’re saying. But I think it’s just a matter of being patient.” He still feels optimistic, he said, about meeting the right person.
By the end of that night, with the wine bottles empty, shots of schnapps were passed around as Mr. November and his friends chatted comfortably with one another.
Gradually, most of the guests trickled out. But two remained, a married pair who had made the sort of connection that many young Orthodox yearn for. Avi and Jodi Friedman, both 29, had moved into the Westmont in 2002, when they were both single, she to the second floor and he to the fifteenth. They soon met and were married four years ago, after which they moved into an apartment on the fourth floor.
Seated side by side this evening on a brown futon, they told a funny story about Ms. Friedman having been hit on recently by an older man who lived in their building. Later, the couple moved on to the subject of real estate, saying that although they would love to remain on the Upper West Side, the neighborhood was just too expensive — “unless we win the lottery,” Ms. Friedman said.
Still, they felt no ill will toward the area in which they had found each other. Indeed, as Ms. Friedman put it, “We’ve been very lucky in this neighborhood.”Continue reading the main story