The Upper West Side “Singles Crisis”

The new documentary Unattached explores the predicament of aging 20-year-old single women in the Upper West Side’s Modern Orthodox community failing to find a match. This "plague" is causing major anxiety in the community; the longer young people remain unwed, the more likely they are to leave the fold.

The film has won a Student Academy Award, screened at mainstream and Jewish festivals around the world and is currently available on the Documentary Channel. Heeb caught up with director J.J. Adler, a video director at The Onion, after it’s New York premiere at Rooftop Films this summer.

Why do these women, who are only in their 20s, think being single is a crisis of epic proportions?

The situation is a crisis because the older they get, the fewer options they have for dating, because the pool of men is so small. They feel more marginalized and that they don’t have any options, as opposed to the men, who feel like they become more valuable. You’ve got the same situation in the regular world. The difference is, the community is so tiny. If these women are hoping to stay within the community, they can reach a point where they’ve dated every eligible man.

And the crisis for the parents is that they’ve somehow failed to raise kids who are going to go on to perpetuate this Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, if their kids move here and remain single.

Why is this such a challenge for them?

When they move here, it’s the first time they’re forced into a coed social scene. A lot of them are unable to adapt to it or uncomfortable with speaking to members of the opposite sex. They outwardly say that they would like to pair up and get married, but are actually unable to make those social connections in order to fulfill that.

What’s different that this a crisis now as opposed to before?

For many years it was not acceptable for young, Orthodox Jews to move out of their parents’ homes before they were married. The later your kid gets married, the worse it reflects on your family, and if your child moves out unmarried, it’s sort of like you failed.

Nowadays more Orthodox Jews go off to college and stay in dorms. It’s strange to come live at home after you’ve done that, so the parents agree to let them move out to a glorified dorm situation on the Upper West Side. Now it’s become pretty mainstream for Modern Orthodox Jews. A community existing mostly of singles is a new phenomenon, and the community is having a hard time dealing with it.

Is the goal of moving there to get married and then leave the Upper West Side?

Oh yeah.

So it’s just a waiting station?

That’s how a lot of people feel about it. You come here to get married and leave. You go to any of the young, Orthodox communities in the tri-state area. And people move here from across the country and then move back home once they get married. That’s why it’s such a strange dating pool. There are Orthodox Jews from all over the world trying to find mates.

Does the older generation see this as being about the survival of their community?

That’s how they like to pitch it. Observant Judaism is not really being threatened at this moment. There’s such a large Hasidic and Yeshivish community. But Modern Orthodoxy is another question. I spoke to Rabbi Blau, the spiritual advisor at Yeshiva University, and he said that Modern Orthodoxy is an experiment that started 50 years ago. It was this attempt to bridge the gap between observant life and secular life. In the ‘50s, people’s expectations in terms of romantic relationships were pretty much in line with the observant community. It was a much more innocent time, at least outwardly. But flash-forward to 2009. You still have the idea of this observant branch that can interact fully with the secular world, but the values of the secular world are completely different.

So you have all these kids who are 100 percent confused. They’re told to partake in culture and mass media. But when you see all these cues of how relationships work from the outside world, how do you bring those back into an observant lifestyle? They don’t go together at all. I can relate to the adults who feel this situation is the harbinger of doom for Modern Orthodoxy, because Modern Orthodoxy, it seems, does not really work in actual, modern times. It’s now a completely different ballgame.

But don’t these people work in the outside world?

They work, but don’t necessarily hang out. I can speak from my own experience. You’re not really socializing with your co-workers the way that they’re socializing with each other. You’re always a step removed, and you’re not getting into relationships with them, especially if you’re looking for an observant person. So you’re sort of walking in two worlds, but not fitting into either.

Part of me wants to say there really isn’t a crisis, these are just kids who are having a delayed adolescence and are trying to figure themselves out and understand how to socialize. But it’s actually indicative of a fundamental problem with the concept of Modern Orthodoxy.

What led you to explore this all in a film?

For many years I was involved in the shidduch dating scene, the set-up scene. I went to Israel for a year and came back a little less religious than I started, but my parents are very traditional. I was going on these set-up dates from 19 until I’d say 25, maybe. I’d been out with hundreds of guys, and it was just getting crazy. I’d talk about it to my friends at film school, and they would say that sounds like the funniest thing in the world, make a documentary about it.

So it was kicking around in my head. And my mother forced me to actually go to one of these matchmakers. I agreed to placate her. And the matchmaker in turn forces me to attend a six-week seminar on dating.

To teach you what?

It’s this assumption that if you’re not married, you must need a lot of real help. It was like the craziest thing in the world. It was sort of a Lower Your Expectations Seminar. One of the first things she did was hand out a piece of paper and said to describe yourself in four sentences. She reads all of the descriptions and is like, “See? You’re all exactly the same. I don’t know why you think you need someone special. Nobody’s special. You need to pick two qualities that you want in a man.” Like if you want him to have a job and all of his appendages, that’s it.

It’s a funny film at times, and the audience was laughing quite a bit, but you never play the material for laughs.

Seeing it in front of an audience for the first time was really interesting to me. I think everything that everybody’s saying is funny and tragic at the same time. Depending on the crowd, they either laugh all the way through, or they’re silent. You know you have a lot of Orthodox Jews in the crowd if it’s silent.

I would hope that I’m not mocking it. I take the problems of this community very seriously. I’m very much entrenched in it, and it’s a huge part of my life. I feel like I had something to say, and that’s why I had to make this film. It’s started some conversations, which is all I could have hoped for. My intention was to be entertaining, and also to show a problem.

What has been the reaction of the people in the film?

Very mixed. Some of them feel pretty okay with the way they’re represented. I know one of the girls, Rachel, is very unhappy.

She’s the one who probably humanizes the situation the most for the audience.

I agree, and I think she represents herself honestly. I was so grateful to have her, because she really showed the perspective that exists there of a real fear, a legitimate sense of not being able to get the one thing that she wants out of life. To me, that’s so tragic and it makes her incredibly sympathetic. This is a woman who wants a simple life. She wants to get married and have children, and she cannot make that happen for herself in this community.

But she feels very upset about the film and has gotten a lot of negative feedback from people who feel she came off as desperate. But within the context of the community and the story, she’s justified to feel that way. She doesn’t have a lot of options, so the natural reaction is to feel trapped.

It seems like the bottom line is the tension between the traditional and modern worlds for this community.

That’s really what the issue is. How do you survive in his world? Is it possible to be both modern and Orthodox? When modernity is constantly changing, how do you establish a relationship with it? The kids have no models. They have no idea about who they’re supposed to be and how they’re supposed to interact with the world outside once they leave the cocoon of Yeshiva College and Yeshiva High School and their families. Without the structure of a family, how do they function as religious people? It’s very difficult.

What do you think?

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