A few weeks ago, an article in the Orthodox Jewish newspaper The Jewish Press began to make waves in the religious community. Yitta Halberstam, a well-known Jewish author, wrote about the process of trying to find her son a wife. In her part of the Jewish community (a right-wing faction of Orthodoxy sometimes known as yeshivish), it’s not uncommon for a professional shadchan (matchmaker) to pair up young eligible men and women. A shadchan who makes a successful shidduch (match) can be paid well for their services. However, there has been a recent “shidduch crisis,” which is that there are more prospective brides than grooms. Orthodox boys are waiting longer to marry, while girls are essentially considered over the hill if they’re not married by 18 or 19.
One way that shadchanim (the plural of shadchan) have tried to solve this issue is by hosting events where mothers can meet and interview prospective daughters-in-law. Halberstam attended one of these events and she admitted that the whole process made her uncomfortable. However, as the mother of an eligible bachelor and therefore someone in a position of relative power, Halberstam could have called off the whole thing and pointed out how awkward and unfair it was to the young women involved.
Instead, she penned a long rant about how young women should wear more makeup and their families should be willing to pay for plastic surgery if that’s what it takes to land a husband.
She acknowledged that a night trying to woo prospective mothers-in-laws must have been a nervewracking experience for the teen girls:
“I was jolted by two different things when I opened the door to the hall. First, the sheer numbers of single girls in attendance made my jaw drop. I had hardly expected this kind of attendance, never suspecting that so many young women would have the courage to show up. It could not have been a comfortable situation for any of them – even the most ‘chilled’ and outgoing amongst them must have felt a tad awkward … I gave them tremendous credit for doing something so proactive and gutsy.”
However, the choice wasn’t gutsy – and it may not have even been a choice. These young women live in a culture that values marriage and family so highly that an unmarried woman feels like a burden and an outcast. If going to the Orthodox Jewish equivalent of in-law speed dating was her best route to getting a husband, she would probably go even if it scared the heck out of her.
However, while Halberstam was initially aware of the discomfort of the setting, she quickly lost compassion for these girls:
The second thing that jolted me when I opened the door (and which I know will incur many a mother’s wrath, but which I feel I must speak about) was the conspicuous and glaring lack of makeup on a significant percentage of the girls’ faces. I was stunned. The girls knew why they were there; there was no attempt at pretense on anyone’s part. The mandate of the event was to give them the opportunity to present themselves in the best possible light. Why weren’t they?
So, wait a sec: Halberstam says she knows how awkward and uncomfortable these poor girls must feel about their situation, then turns around and berates them for not wearing enough makeup? Not only that, but she then bashed the poor girls’ mothers! She continued:
How had their mothers allowed them to leave their homes with limp hair and unadorned faces? With just a little blush, eyeliner and lip-gloss, they could have gone from average to pretty. There are very few women who can’t use a little extra help.
Halberstam’s place of privilege as the mother of a boy makes her blind in this situation. Most likely, these young women were afraid of wearing too much makeup because they didn’t want their prospective mothers-in-law to think them vain or silly. Every woman tones it down before she meets the parents and that probably goes double, if not triple, if one lives in an uber-conservative community to begin with.
In other words, there was no way for the young women to win in this situation.
But Halberstam wasn’t letting go. In an effort to seem relatable, Halberstam shared her own story of growing up less than gorgeous. Thanks to the help of a “mentor,” Halberstam lost weight, straightened her hair, got a makeover, and landed a man. The moral of her story? If you do it right, you could be the mother of a desired son, like her, instead of a lowly daughter who is reduced to going to staged meet-and-greets in order to find a life partner. She even suggests parents borrow money if they think they have to get their daughter cosmetic surgery to make her more marketable:
There is no reason in today’s day and age with the panoply of cosmetic and surgical procedures available, why any girl can’t be transformed into a swan. Borrow the money if you have to; it’s an investment in your daughter’s future, her life. .. If your daughter’s shidduch prospects are being hampered by a flaw or problem that can be banished or remedied, please give her the emotional and financial support to correct it. Yes, I know that we all want to be cherished for who we are inside, but whether we like it or not, appearances do count. [All italics are hers.]
She keeps insisting that the process is flawed, yet her suggestions to get cosmetic surgery and a makeover are ways of keeping the process in place. In actuality, a healthy dose of feminism might help these young women realize that they’re worth something — whether they have a husband or not. Those women choosing to opt out of the shidduch system would ultimately hurt men like Halberstam’s son, who face absolutely no pressures whatsoever to look a certain way. The men in this community have worth simply because they are men, while women must compete against each other in order to land one of these men as a prize. We never learn whether Halberstam’s son is attractive, kind, funny, smart, or hardworking. The only thing we learn is that he’s male, and that’s all he has to do to deserve a young, sexy bride. He won the lottery by being born, and so did his mother. And because the existing system favors their family, Yitta Halberstam sees no reason to ask the community to change or even encourage boys or mothers themselves to be less looks-obsessed.
In Halberstam’s piece, she references Esther, a young Jewish girl who won a “beauty contest” and married a king, only to use her newfound power to help save the Jewish people. (Note: Esther won by not wearing any makeup at all, and her prize was being married to the king instead of just placed in his harem, but whatever.) But weight loss surgery and hair straightening won’t save anyone — it will just keep an outdated and unfair system for women in place a little while longer.
Case in point: Halberstam’s pride and joy is now 24 and a full-time “learning boy” (a young man who studies Jewish texts all day instead of working), and his fiancée is 19. Mazel tov!
Lilit Marcus is the former editor-in-chief of Jewcy.com. She now writes the Faith Goes Pop blog for Patheos.com.