Sarah Lavane’s new book, Unmatched, is making waves in the Orthodox community. It’s a funny, intimate,and uncensored look at the Orthodox dating world. Lavane agreed to be interviewed by The Jewish Link and shared some of her other thoughts about being “unmatched” in a community that puts extremely high value on marriage.
What was your motivation in writing a book about your very personal experiences around dating in the Orthodox world? What were you hoping to accomplish?
Over the years, my single friends and I always felt that people who were not in our situation just did not get it. Whether it was a relative who lectured us, a matchmaker who felt we were too picky, non-religious or non-Jewish people who were baffled that we weren’t inundated with dates, they all made certain assumptions about us. I always felt the compulsion to set the record straight for myself and all singles. I was tired of being misunderstood.
Almost two decades ago, a very young girl wrote a “bad date stories” book. I had no interest in it. I knew she had little life experience. What could I learn from a kid? But it was very popular with young women, who all ran out and eagerly bought a copy. One of my neighbors asked if I had read it and offered to loan me her copy. When I read it I was very disappointed, as I expected I would be. It was a poorly written book that mocked all her bad dates and really did not address any of the issues. Back then, I thought I could definitely write a better book on this subject. I suppose that was the seed. As the years passed, the compulsion to write that book grew, but every one of my attempts fell flat until I began with a writing challenge nearly four years ago.
As I say in the book, I wanted to bring solace and comfort to the “unmatched” as well as empathy and awareness to the “matched.”
Of all the stories that could be shared of your life and community, what about this particular topic did you want to share with the world?
I’ve always been open to sharing more about Judaism with the world. I’ve talked to non-religious or non-Jewish colleagues, friends, and neighbors about Jewish history, Israel, being a child of Holocaust survivors, Jewish law, or anything else about my religious background I was questioned on, including this topic.
But this was the sole topic that I felt my own Orthodox world didn’t fully comprehend—and should. I needed the “matched” society I was living in to understand the “unmatched” among them better. A whole segment of society was written off as a “shidduch crisis.” We are their friends, neighbors, colleagues, and relatives—and we need to be understood. I wanted to put the human face on this community issue.
I’ve already received comments from married Orthodox people admitting they had no clue what singles went through until they read my book. Or, that they will never look at a single person through the same lens again. It is gratifying to know my book can make people more empathetic.
My primary focus initially was my own community, but I wrote the book so that others can appreciate the story as well, because so many non-Orthodox have asked or been curious about what it is like in the Orthodox world. I also included a glossary for those not familiar with Hebrew or Yiddish terms.
Many people seem adrift, unanchored, lost, or unstable. The breakdown of family, faith and purpose has been destructive to society, in my opinion. There are too many stories out there putting faith in a bad light, as something one needs to escape. Perhaps it’s a good thing to counteract that by having a story display the flip side: how a woman’s faith or belief in a purpose higher than herself can sustain her through difficulties. In the end, though, people may not share my belief or faith, but we all share the emotions of love, hope, heartbreak, loss, regret, and so much more. This story should resonate with everyone.
In your book, you describe your dates with remarkable detail, even though some of these dates happened more than 20 years ago. Had you written notes about these dates at the time they occurred, or do you just have an excellent memory?
A memoir is only as good as one’s memory, but memory sometimes may play tricks on us. I dated a few hundred men. I don’t remember all of them. The stories I included in the book are only a small fraction of my dates, but these are the ones that stood out for one reason or another. They were extremely funny, humiliating, painful, or important to me. They were the stories I’d tell others so every repetition reinforced the story in my memory. I can’t say I remember every guy’s name or which restaurant he took me to. But if he left the restaurant without telling me or paying for the food, I definitely remembered that!
Tell me some of the things you dislike about matchmakers with whom you have worked. What are the qualities you feel a good matchmaker should possess?
When a matchmaker is unkind or pushy, or blames singles for their predicament instead of genuinely looking out for them, it doesn’t feel good. Matchmakers have to ask themselves honestly what their motivation to set people up really is. Are they truly there to help? Are they looking for matches for their own kids? Just trying to keep busy? They have to restrain the urge to lecture singles, or at the very least, keep a respectful tone while doing so. In all likelihood, they will say something that’s been said before.
If a single person wants advice, they will ask for it or go to a coach or therapist. I have gotten more unsolicited advice from matchmakers than dates, but that’s not what I contacted them for. On the flip side, so many singles don’t give the matchmakers proper courtesy or thanks. They are, after all, spending time on our behalf. I’ve been on both sides of the equation. Respect is a two-way street.
Describe one or two great venues in the New York metro area for a first date? Where should a man never take a woman for a first date?
People have different preferences, but my best first dates were always activities such as bowling at Lucky Strike or skating at Bryant Park. They’re better icebreakers but some people prefer to meet for coffee or dinner for the first time, especially for a blind date. There are some who manage to be creative without spending much. One man brought a tour book with him and we looked up and read about all the skyscrapers as we passed them. Another took me to the free night at the Brooklyn Museum. For me, it’s not about a specific venue or how much they spend. It’s about whether we are able to connect, and interesting activities usually offer more opportunities for bonding. One should never take a woman out to eat at a sleazy restaurant, but neither should he take her to a venue that he can’t afford and limit her order. That happened to me way more often than it should have.
Shidduch resumes have become the norm in the Orthodox dating world. Do you think they serve a useful purpose in helping make successful matches? Or do you think they do more harm than good, in that they prevent potentially good matches from happening because they cause individuals to rule out shidduch suggestions if not all the boxes are checked?
That’s a tough one because so many shidduchim do happen through resumes. However, for me that was less successful than other methods of meeting people. The one shidduch I made was between two people I didn’t know well at all. It was just a feeling. They reminded me of each other, and had I known everything I know about them now perhaps I wouldn’t have suggested it. For instance, I didn’t know that the bride was very aliyah oriented. Had I known that, I may have thought it wasn’t a good idea. For myself, I’ve met many people on my own that I probably would’ve written off based on their resume. When meeting people, we screen each other based on conversation, personality and chemistry. When reading resumes, it’s natural to screen people based on facts on the paper, which often shouldn’t matter. Photos and social media can help or harm shidduchim, too. There’s a lot less risk-taking these days than there used to be because of that.
Being shomer negiah becomes increasingly difficult for Orthodox singles as they get older. How can one maintain control of their sexual urges as they enter their mid-20s, 30s, and beyond? Is it psychologically healthy to suppress these normal sexual feelings for so long?
Everyone navigates this in their own way. There are people who stick to Halacha and suppress themselves. Some guiltlessly cross sexual boundaries. Others give up and go off the derech. None of those options seem healthy to me. Many, like me, walk the tightrope of wanting to do the right thing, but slip up every now and then. Each of these choices has a price. A lot of singles have difficulty reconciling their desire to do the right thing with their need to feel human. It’s tough, precisely because there is no satisfactory answer to this dilemma.
Additionally, it’s generally not discussed because we are a discreet religion. Addressing it in the book was challenging. I wanted to bring it up in a modest way, but still appeal to the broadest audience, spanning liberal to machmir. Writing about it was tough and made me feel extremely vulnerable. It is a memoir, after all. I was afraid of judgment on every side. Those more strict would question my behavior, and those more lenient would wonder what the big deal was. I think the fact that I addressed it at all is one of the reasons this book has garnered such strong reactions.
In your book, the discussions with God about your struggles in the dating world were particularly fascinating. Do you still talk to God about this and other subjects? Has your faith in God changed in any way as you have grown older?
I talk to God all the time. Every time I get home safely after a long drive, I thank God for that and for giving me a parking spot! I don’t go around babbling to myself, but I do pray with much more kavanah than when I was younger. I’m much more conscious of God’s design in the world and His role in my life than I ever was. Even the manner in which this book unfolded was so miraculous. I saw God’s hand in every step of the process. Being on my own so much, especially during COVID or when I was alone for a seder, it can get very quiet. The distractions and noise of life vanish. One can despair, ignore or push God away—or one can embrace Him. I chose the latter.
Describe the most important qualities in the guy who you would want to marry?
I dated many men who had great qualities. Many were kind, smart, nice, and had a great sense of humor. I usually gravitate to creative or philosophical types. But it’s not a specific quality I’m looking for. I want to feel at ease being myself and find someone with my values who enjoys my company as much as I enjoy his. It’s about two people both feeling that way at the same time.
What are the things that you like most about the online Orthodox dating world? What are the things you like least?
The answer to both is not having a shadchan. On one hand, there’s no one to pressure you into unwanted dates. On the other hand, there’s no one to help or guide you if there’s an issue.
Some folks claim that large Orthodox singles enclaves, such as the UWS or Washington Heights,
actually deter successful matches, in that they make being single much more comfortable and
enjoyable. Do you agree with that argument, or do these communities serve a beneficial purpose
in that they allow more opportunities for singles to meet one another?
I think both are valid arguments. Some people meet and marry. Others are comfortably single in those communities. That’s what makes this issue so frustrating. There are no clear solutions. Every segment of Orthodox society has different ideas about what would be best, and yet none are ideal solutions nor problem-free.
What is your reply to the people who say that the reason that you are not married is because you are being too picky or because you are not willing to compromise?
The older I got, the less I replied to this statement. I don’t see the benefit of lecturing someone about this subject. Those who are picky won’t listen anyhow. And those who aren’t picky will feel hurt. What’s the point? Having said that, many people are picky about what they wear, what they eat, where they live. If there is one thing which people should be picky about, I’d think it’s the person they plan to spend the rest of their life with.
What message do you hope readers glean from this book?
I think different readers will each find different messages meant for them because I do cover so many different themes. For some it may be about what mistakes not to make. For others it may be messages of empathy, forgiveness, resilience, moving on from loss, faith, or validation.
My pre-readers came from all walks of life, ages, marital status, and religious levels. What was interesting is that the category that most divided reactions into two groups was marital status. Married people generally reacted with sadness and more empathy for singles. With singles, the overriding emotion was validation.
But messages aside, sometimes readers just want a good, absorbing story to get lost in. One that hooks them and doesn’t let go. So many readers have commented that they could not put the book down, read it straight through, stayed up all night, or that their spouse who hadn’t read a book in years stole it from them. It was thrilling to hear that!
What has most of the feedback to your book been like so far?
Jaw-dropping. The reception has been overwhelmingly positive to a degree I never envisioned. One of my single pre-readers told me she burst into tears when she finished it. I had worked hard on keeping the tone upbeat, so I asked her why. She told me that for the first time she felt that somebody “gets” it.
Others have told me it made them laugh and cry and everything in between. Married people thanked me for giving them insight into the singles world, and some admitted they had never fully understood it. Another single woman messaged me to say that maybe now she can forgive herself. She had always blamed herself for how her life turned out. These reactions have blown me away.
Just last night a woman I know called me. She got married in her 50s, after being single longer than she had been married. She started sobbing right on the call and said that I articulated what she couldn’t articulate all those years. I’m really stunned. This woman is married almost a decade and she still felt so strongly, how it validated her single years.
I often thought of trashing the entire manuscript. I didn’t think it was that good, and I was definitely afraid of putting so many personal struggles out there for public consumption. But now I am so glad I didn’t abandon the project. My hope for this book was that it would serve a purpose, and I’m grateful to see it has already begun to do just that.
(inside a box at the every end)
To order a copy of Unmatched by Sarah Lavane, please visit www.UnmatchedStory.com
By Michael Feldstein