by Carole Shamula
republished from August/September Nasawi News
How much is a single Jewish life worth? I received an invitation with this question in bold red letters. A shocking device used to draw us singles to yet another singles event? The gall of these people to embarrass me into attending another one. I opened the envelope and to my surprise, it was an appeal for an organization that supports children dying of cancer. I was so defensive about being unmarried, I assumed the quote was addressing my predicament. Was I crazy? I surveyed my fellow Syrian bowling league members at our Thursday night game and the girls, in unison, barked "Zero!" at me. I was not alone.
Our community is designed to expedite our calling, to be wed and out of the house by 18, not to be 30, tragically solo and living in Manhattan, like me. This tradition came down from Aleppo, Syria, to the Lower East Side, where my grandparents settled, to my parents' generation in Bensonhurst, and on to mine in Flatbush.
My parents met at their Syrian bowling league. "Every Sunday afternoon we'd bowl at Maple Lanes and if you were lucky a guy asked you out to dinner and a movie." "I saw you t.o. (take-off) with Eddie last night,' my friends would grill me later," my Mom explained.
In the 50's, my parents' era, Magen David Yeshiva was used as a meeting place for singles. They offered activities such as hay rides, and Spanish dances featuring singers such as Tito Puente, and they'd dance the mambo, tango and the cha-cha. On Wednesday nights, they'd bowl at MDYs alley in the basement, put a dime in the juke box and boogie to "Its Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom-Time."
The Sephardic Community Center on Ocean Parkway was built in 1977, to serve as my generation's singles haven. Community leaders envisioned our need for a mingling place so we'd avoid resorting to bars in Manhattan, which would eventually lead to intermarriage. Their foresight protected us from assimilation, an epidemic that has dissolved 60% of American Jewry. We're so busy socializing inside, who has time to go out?
Every Shabbat, potential mates of my day thronged at the corner of Avenue S and Ocean Parkway to flirt. I hung out there but by 21 most of my girlfriends had gotten married, and the next generation took over. On the High Holidays, however, singles of all ages, ranging from 16 to 42 years old, crowd Ocean Parkway and Avenue T in front of Congregation Shaare Zion, the community's main synagogue. I outgrew that stage by choice. How much abuse could I take?
In my parents' day, marriageables packed Bay Parkway, from 69th-72nd Street, on the holidays. "A toothpick couldn't fit through the crowds," quipped my mother. Friday night, they loitered in front of the 69th Street mailbox. On Passover, Shaare Zion synagogue hosted a Matzoh Ball Dance. Mingling was always a full time job in our world. The winter is our hiatus from the summer, which is exclusively for mating. Imagine that. The Jersey Shore became our hub. Bradley Beach then, and Deal now.
Summer nights, in the '50's and '60's, were spent hanging out by the Sandbar on the Bradley Beach boardwalk. Single women dressed to hook a date for Saturday night. Sandy, my mother's friend said, "The girls wore strapless dresses, hair swept up and heels on, which kept getting stuck in the boards." "You were lucky if you secured a date Friday night, otherwise you had until Saturday before sundown to find one. I'd end up at Jane Logan's for ice cream or at Ashbury arcades with the other wall flowers."
I related too well. By the time I was of age, Deal, a few towns south of Bradley, was it. The logistics may have changed but never the tactics. The Deal Casino, a cabana/beach club limited to Deal residents who joined, became the crux for singles and families. On weekends girls hosted and continue to host, coming out parties. Most Deal parties are open-house and take place in lavish tents built in backyards on acres of land that make up for the miniature ones we have in Brooklyn. These pseudo-celebrations are insufferable. It's pitch black outside, the music blasts, people are squashed, walking in circles and can hardly hold personal conversations without scanning the room for new prey or simply to take it all in. "I'll never forget wobbling around the tents in our tight lycra dresses and ridiculous high heels that would sink into the grass with every step," my married friend, Sharon, reminisced.
One outsider visiting a Deal party described it as "the only party I ever went to where nobody was having fun." My friend Debbie, a newcomer to a Deal engagement party, coined the atmosphere saying, "I felt invisible. People looked through me making no eye contact whatsoever." "Plus,î she said, not one girl ate a thing, aside from picking at a few vegetables." She felt like she was in a turn of the century movie. "The bride waltzed down the stairs in a bustier of satin and lace, her hair up, draped with exquisite jewelry and lavish make-up. She looked like the Queen of Sheba." "The flowers that adorned the house," she raved, "looked like they were transported from the Met."
Syrian women always look their best, wearing full faces of make-up even at the beach in the finest clothes, and sporting size 6 figures as a result of strict dieting and rigorous exercise. The Deal Casino has the only beach where most of its members stand up socializing, instead of lying down and basking in the sun. An outsider would think only models dressed in Prada and Chanel bikinis were allowed in. Just one beach over, at Phillips Beach, there are peopledressed in Prada and Chanel bikinis were allowed in. Just one beach over, at Phillips Beach, there are people lounging around, in ripped jean shorts and Hanes T-shirts, under umbrellas, a foreign concept to the Syrian-husband seeking female. I was born on the wrong side of the beach.
Parading in bikinis, from circle to circle, girls try to flirt their way into Saturday night plans and never dare to dip in the ocean and risk ruining their hair or make-up. I, on the other hand, wear shorts until itís time to swim, at which time I find the spot closest to the water, drop my stuff and run. That way when I get out, I can make a mad dash for my towel and cover up before anyone gets a chance to peek. God forbid anyone should see me in a bathing suit. Being a size 8 was shameful.
I could have married a few different men who asked, but being married for the title, status and respect I would attain did not outweigh my fear of being chained to a man that I was not in love with. Some women compromise and marry men just to keep up a lifestyle. I wonít make that compromise; I'd rather be single and hopeful than married and miserable.
My friends who married at 18 and now have four kids may worry about me. Thatís okay. At 18, I also thought being 31 and unmarried was a disaster. The irony is I enjoy my single life. I work at the World Jewish Congress, attend lectures, travel, date and spend time indulging in activities I would have never explored otherwise. I had time to become a teacher in Jewish Studies, earn a BA at NYU and a dual masterís in Bible and Jewish education. Iím proud of this.
My friend Sally, on the other hand, who married at 17, is now happily married at 31, with four children. Yet, when I told her I was traveling to Europe for three weeks, she said she felt robbed. She never had an independent adult life. She looks forward to middle-age, when her kids will be grown, so sheíll be free again. Imagine how an unhappily married Syrian woman feels.
I would have given up my late twenties single life for a man I adored. Instead, I was marching in weddings and wondering when my turn would come. Soon my girlfriends were grocery shopping, decorating homes, playing Canasta and then Bridge. I would have been sad living that cloistered. My married friends may not want to be in my place. Yet, at times they wish they could have my freedom. Interestingly, 31 and single is as much of a problem for me as 30 and married is for them.
Carole Shamula is a writer whose work has been published in the Forward, Jewish World Review and Jane magazine.
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