Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Shidduchim Crisis

It is commonly said that in the Orthodox community there is what they call a Shidduchim Crisis. Apparently, there is a surfeit of girls who are not finding boys. Pots without lids… what is to be done?

I was reminded about this crisis when I read in the Times just recently (8/08/06) that there was an episode on the WE (Women’s Entertainment Network) documentary series “Secret Lives of Women” about women who fall in love with men serving long prison sentences or are on death row. The series had already dealt with the issue of “Cutters,” women who injure themselves, and was now ready to take on the more pressing question of women who marry cross-dressers and women who are jail brides. The critic who reviewed the show pointed out “Marrying a convict has some advantages: at least you always know where he is.” She went on to say, “Prison marriage seems like the maximum security version of a Harlequin romance: all poetry and distant yearning, and no snoring or dishes left in the sink.” Apparently the shiduchim crisis exists everywhere in the world, and we should be grateful for the blessings we have.

The crisis itself is very puzzling. Normally, when there are buyers or sellers of any good or service, the market clears. Why is there this imperfection when it comes to matching young men and young women? It is not just that there are slightly more women than men. We are not talking a half a percent of the relevant population, but something more like five to ten percent. One reason might be that men marry down, and once a girl gets past a certain age, the men tend to become fewer in numbers. I’m not convinced this is true. The problem is particularly acute in the Orthodox world and men marry down everywhere. Second, if you start out with a hundred guys and a hundred girls, at the end of the day if there are twenty girls left over, there should be twenty guys left over.

I, therefore, conclude there is no shidduchim crisis. There is a status crisis. As Ricky Ricardo used to say, “Let me esplain.” We start off with a hundred guys and a hundred girls. Of the hundred guys, twenty are fancy and eighty are plain. On the girls’ side, fifty of the girls want a fancy guy and fifty girls are happy with a plain guy. Five years later, the fifty girls who were happy with plain guys plus twenty who wanted and found fancy guys are married, leaving thirty boys and girls without mates. The problem is the same as it was at the beginning. Fancy girls don’t want to marry plain guys. We can make the model more complicated by running it the other way with plain guys wanting fancy girls. Between the two, thirty are left unmarried.

Why would a plain girl particularly need a fancy guy or vice versa? I think the answer is money. It’s very expensive to live an Orthodox Jewish life…very, very expensive. If you just think about day schools alone, five children cost somewhere between forty and a hundred thousand dollars after tax. If you live in New York or some other major city, rents and prices of homes are very high. Kosher food, the cost of living in a congregation, and the desire to have large families, all contribute to making it very difficult to live an upper-middle-class life. Children who start out with an affluent life are very reluctant to give up their lifestyle and marry a decent guy who is not a big money-maker. Conversely, guys who have average prospects for earning a living but have upper-middle-class tastes are reluctant to marry a girl who is middle- or lower- middle- class. It’s a problem.

What is to be done? I read that some rabbis have proposed, in the classic style of Chelm, to abolish eighth grade. The idea is that if they abolish eighth grade, the boys will go to study in Israel a year earlier and come back earlier, increasing the supply of guys. Why do that? I say why don’t the rabbis make a law that no girl can be said to be between the ages of 25 and 30? During those years, she should say she’s 24 for six years, thus, increasing her eligibility. Abolish the numbers rather than the grade.

Economists in recent years have been talking about asymmetrical information as a cause of markets not clearing. The intuitive idea is that all the players should have access to the same information which increases confidence and enables trades to occur. If I believe the market is rigged because the insiders know what’s happening and I don’t, I’m not going to trade the market. Ultra-Orthodox boys and girls have a problem meeting and talking at length. Each of the two players knows lots about themselves and little about their prospective mate. If young people could meet a bit longer without parents and shadchunim (matchmakers) going “Nu,nu, so what’s happening?”, the problem of asymmetrical information would be reduced. It might be helpful to have a dedicated internet site only for young orthodox people, maybe without photos, where some of the preliminary difficulties and awkward moments can be ironed out by e-mails and instant messaging.

On a personal note, it occurred to me to blog when I read the very moving blog of a woman who called herself Shomer Negiah. Her blog which went on for about a year was devoted to the problem she had of being in her mid-thirties and never having kissed a man. Ultra- Orthodox Jews do not hold hands or kiss, etc. before marriage. The blog was so honest and moving that it became almost a metaphor for all people who are alone. What made her blog so remarkable were the clarity of her prose and the lucidity of her self-understanding, despite the fact that she really did not have the benefit of analysis or life experience. The blog ended when she finally decided to kiss a man who she had been dating. I very much hope she comes back and tells us how her life has progressed since then.


At 9:09 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...


What I am reading from you is that there are two factors contributing to the "crisis" both of which I wholeheartedly agree.

1) Ultra-Orthodox and Strict Orthodox (refer to your earlier post for definition) feel (and perhaps are) ill-equipped to deal with the opposite sex given their unfamiliarity. Bluntly: if up till age 20 you're not supposed to even "talk to a boy" you're gonna have some serious problems when you suddenly start to date. Thanks for reminding the olam of the "never been kissed" blog, which, as you say, highlights the point rather well.

2) Lurking behind the scenes is the usually-unmentioned financial constraints inherent in shidduchim. For example, in more extreme Haredi circles there are explicit price tags on the "best boys" (Briskers expecially), even in poverty-striken Israel. This example supplements your examples, albeit in the opposite direction. The larger point here is that the frum world has bound up money and marriage in unnatural ways.

I still want to comment on your last three or so posts which have left me reeling in their recreance (thanks

At 9:46 AM, Anonymous MF said...

This might be your first blog post that is on an issue I know well that I also agree with 100%!

I have a lot to add, to supplement what you wrote. Just a few points. I'm going to talk about the more general, secular version of this problem since I know nothing about the Orthodox version of this crisis.

One point is, I think that a large reason for this crisis is that, women are much much less likely than men to have attitudes and ideals that are unresponsive to the market, thus limiting significantly how many will be successful in the marketplace. For example, I know many, many, many, many women who have the very romantic attitude of, "This is how I am. Love me or leave me. I am not changing one bit, I am who I am, and I am looking for my perfect mate, who loves and accepts me for who I am and how I am." So many believe this because this is the stuff of Jane Austen novels, the classic ideal of romance that they are taught from a young age. Guess what? In the real world, unless you are exceptionally lucky or an exceptionally amazing person, this idea is a recipe for failure: most people aren't amazing, therefore, most guys look at girls with this attitude and say, "you think you're so perfect? Well, if you want to attract someone, you need to learn to act in a way that is attractive to them, not to you! Next!". Contrast this female attitude with the standard guy's attitude that most guys I know have (except for the small number of guys I know who have been very unsucessful with women): most guys I know think, "If I want to attract a woman, I need to act in a way that she finds attractive. You know, I don't really think that paying for her expensive dinners or doing X or Y or Z is fun and I don't want to do it, I don't like it at all, but this girl I like finds that attractive, so I'm going to do it, so that I can attract her." And guess what? Guys are much much more successful in the marketplace, because they are more responsive to the market itself (thus they will be more successful, tautologically).

Point 2: Also, if 80% of guys are plain and married and the same for 80% of girls, this doesn't leave an even 20% unmarried for both sides. For example, it is somewhat more common for men to divorce their wives and, say, marry their hot 21 year old secretary, but it is rare for a woman to do the same. Therefore, lots more women are married to many fewer many (although not simultaneously of course).

Point 3: remember, in Argentina and Latin America, social mobility historically takes the form of poor young women marrying wealthy young men. (Social mobility through entrepreneurship and hard work doesn't really exist in Latin America.) I think that there's a much weaker version of this trend in the US. Therefore: while upper-middle-class women are looking only for upper-middle-class men, upper-middle-class men are looking for women of all classes -- thus increasing the pool they can choose from and, consequently, making it much more difficult for upper middle class women. People talk about this crisis because, it is really an upper-middle-class crisis and, like everything in life (such as, the crises newspapers talk about!) they tend to talk about issues facing the upper middle class, not everyone else. Therefore, I also think this issue is small and more class based than it seems to be on the surface.

That's it for now. More to come later, if I get around to writing my thoughts up :)


At 4:20 PM, Anonymous Shidduchgreiper said...

This is the REAL cause of the shidduch crisis.

Look at the pool of men in this market. Take away the really short ones. Take away the extremely plain or ugly ones. Take away the ones who can't support an orthodox family (keep in mind the cost of being orthodox these days). Take away the ones with bad manners. Take away the ones with severe emotional problems. How many will you still have left?

On the other hand, look at the girls. They are prettier, smarter, and more together than ever. They coo, clean and do chessed by the droves. They are even going for good careers, like nursing, OT, PT, and special ed. What gives? Why would these women with their newfound economic freedom want to shoulder the almost insurmountable burden of a frum family with your typical single man these days? What's in it for her? Just a question.


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