by Ross Kryger
Every character trait has its benefits and detriments. On my very first day in Israel, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, I decided to visit a popular tourist site called “The Wailing Wall” (whatever that was). Glancing around, I was intrigued by so many people praying outdoors, and although I wondered could be on the other side of this impressive structure, my eye was on the ramp. What could be up there? I thought, totally unaware that my “invisible impurities” presented any type of barrier from my finding out. I slowly ascended the ramp, and when I almost reached the top, I was suddenly halted by an exceedingly tall man holding a large brown robe. “In order to come up here,” he whispered in a rather demanding tone, “you must put this on.” I was confused, but I was also a bit shy by nature. I did not ask the reason, and I did not want to put on his robe, which anyway was about three sizes too large. I looked downward and subtly shook my head, then turned away and quickly returned to ground level. I remember that months later in yeshiva, upon hearing an Eliahu HaNavi story, I thought about this strange man.
My best friend landed in a BT yeshiva two years before I arrived in Israel, and although I now accepted his invitation after graduating college to visit him, I had no desire to meet his other orthodox comrades. Being a shy stranger in a strange land, I stuck closely with him, and eventually started paying attention to some of the ideas I was learning. I extended my stay (from two months to just over four years) and for the first eight months, we spent every Shabbos together. I was friendly to everyone in the yeshiva and made a few acquaintances, but after my best friend transferred to another yeshiva in a different town, I felt lost. While it didn’t affect my learning all that much, I wasn’t able, on my own, to gain the emotional support I sorely needed. My family at home was understandably hostile over my absence at my brother’s church wedding, and my decision to remain in Israel during the Gulf War sent matters spiraling downward.
I was never one to make conversation easily. I was the Haggadah son who didn’t know what to ask, so I rarely had any occasion to approach a rabbi about anything. The rabbaim were always friendly and polite, but I was missing that necessary deeper connection. Many times I would notice another student sitting at a table and talking with a rabbi for an hour or more, wondering what they could possibly be talking about, and feeling a twinge of jealousy over not having the same attention. Even learning with a chavrusa was somewhat difficult. Although much of the time I understood the basic meaning in the Gemorrah, I never offered an argument or a different perspective, but rather found myself nodding my head to any type of logic presented (perhaps to some guys, I would be a dream chavrusa!) Hillel says in Pirchei Avos that a student who is too shy will never learn, and I certainly have no doubt that I missed out on countless opportunities.
By far, the parsha of shidduchim was the most difficult. After noticing for a while that guys who have been in the yeshiva as long as me were either getting engaged or actively dating, I approached a rebbe who knew somewhat of my family circumstances, and sheepishly asked him when I should consider starting. He stared at me incredulously and said, “You’re not dating yet?!” The words, “I was waiting for you to tell me when and how to begin” luckily didn’t escape from my mouth, as the last thing I needed was a rebbe who thought I was full of chutzpah. He then gave me the name of a few shadchanim and their addresses, and told me I could later give him a name to check out. I was a little curious that he didn’t discuss with me about the process in general, or even if I was ready.
Most shadchanim smiled when I informed them that in my “former” life, I never had a girlfriend (it seems my shyness turned out to be an asset after all.). Although they offered me names of girls from all types of families, I was most excited to hear the names of BT girls. I really wanted someone who could understand me, and where I was coming from in life. She would have a spiritual side, and we could grow together. (I’ll give away the ending—I married a wonderful FFB, but the contrast in our married life is for a different article, perhaps.) The first name I received was of a BT girl, and I passed it on to my rebbe, who told me to go out for now, and he would check her out. The shadchan set up the date, and I just needed to take a bus and meet the girl at a hotel. What a great system for a guy like me! On the designated night, I was a little nervous, and arrived at the hotel. There were four girls standing outside. They all looked at me, waiting for me to do something. Since I couldn’t pick out the girl myself from the lineup, I was at a loss for the proper protocol. Luckily, one of them finally decided with a grimace that I just couldn’t be her date, and walked away (well, excuse me!) With great embarrassment, I chose one of the remaining three at random, and stammered, “Are-are-y-you Sh-sh-shoshana?” “No, I’m not,” she replied firmly. I was somewhat relieved, as she was about five inches taller than me. The real Shoshana slightly smiled and introduced herself. She seemed to be knowledgeable in this system, as she explained that this happens quite often. We left the final contestant outside (presumably brokenhearted) and found a quiet table in the lobby.
I sat down, and she sat down. I nodded, and she nodded. I smiled, and so did she. How long was this date supposed to be? I really don’t know what I had expected a date to be like, but pathetically, guys like me need a manual. Was there one under the table? Little did I know that I was expected to…talk. And talk. Certainly not my area of expertise. The date was on the short side (I know it was, because when we left the hotel, contestant number three was still waiting for her date). The next morning, I was more than a little surprised when my rebbe quietly remarked, “The date was how long?” But I must have done something right, because she agreed to go out again. Then the floor completely fell through. My rebbe informed me of certain information which might effect this shidduch, and advised me not to continue. I had no problem with that, but then I stupidly (!) passed this on to the shadchan, and somehow it got back to the girl who traced the information to its original source. I still remember the dreadful conversation with that rebbe, who was understandably livid, to say the least, and hinted that I should find someone else to consult with. I was devastated. (Not to mention disgusted over the pain I must have caused the girl.) And now I was totally alone. This was my introduction to the world of shidduchim.
After a break, I did start dating again, but every date was so exhausting, and keeping the conversation going was worse than heavy manual labor. Things would inevitable fizzle out. I also had nobody to talk to in the yeshiva. In addition, it was very hard for me to say the word “No” to a shadchan. It was all quite confusing. Soon after, I made a decision to return to America, and entered a yeshiva in Brooklyn, far from my hometown. My issues with shidduchim followed me there, and to make matters worse, I actually had to call the girl before we went out! There were guys who told me that they spent four or five hours on the phone with a girl, and I couldn’t imagine how this was possible. (I once spent two hours on the phone, but that was when my insurance company put me on hold.) And then, after an actual date, I had to make the decision, of course, by myself.
Another problem which came up is that I began to develop stereotypes. Even though looking back, I feel that every girl that I dated, without exception, was a special person, I really did not feel that a Brooklyn FFB girl would be able to understand me at all. For whatever unfortunate reason this came about, I really did not want to pursue such a shidduch, but again, I found it too hard to say “No”. (It would be a great punch line to say that my wife is from Brooklyn. She’s not. Sorry.) Overall, my career in shiddichum lasted for six long years. Luckily, I never became depressed or despaired, although I couldn’t figure out how guys became engaged. It was like a huge mountain. When I did finally become engaged, I saw that the whole process entailed enormous siyata d’shmaya, and I guessed that up in Heaven, they were tired of watching me go through this.) The first few dates were quite a lot of work for me, but I just kept plowing through. On my last date, we were driving through my hometown, and she casually remarked, “If you’re waiting for me, I’m ready.” I grasped the steering wheel. It was the closest I ever came in my driving career to hitting a tree. We’re now married with six children.
Everyone knows that the biggest rule in shidduchim (besides serious davening) is that one must have someone with whom to consult. In BT yeshivas, a guy is fortunate if he makes that vital connection with a rebbe with whom he feels comfortable. If the guy feels the rebbe understands him, then he’ll take the leap of trust in the rebbe’s judgment, even if it seems that he personally would do the opposite of what the rebbe says. People do make mistakes, but a guy must trust someone, and as my Rosh HaYeshiva once said, one has siyata d’shmaya when he listens to his rebbe. But not everyone is so lucky, especially guys like me. Sometimes it’s not easy for us too search out the help we need. We find the same occurs in school age kids. Many times, a rebbe might not concern himself with a student because it seems like he’s doing just fine…he never complains, he does everything right, and he sits so quietly in class. How many students have fallen through the cracks because in reality, they were not doing just fine, and could’ve have really used some attention? Many are just ashamed to ask. Guys in a BT yeshiva are like school age kids. They’re in a somewhat new environment, and are learning just like the school age kids. And they all need attention, especially when it comes to shidduchim.
The yeshiva must make sure every guy has appointed to him a mentor or a rebbe when he begins to date. Every guy must be accounted for, everyday of his yeshiva years. (There must also be a service provided through an organization for single guys who are not in yeshiva, or living on their own). Sometimes you have one rebbe whose job is too deal with shidduchim, and guys need to make appointments to speak with him. But that’s very hard, because after a date, a guy needs someone to speak with NOW. Having hanging indecision for a lengthy period can also be detrimental.
The fact is that practically, there aren’t too many solutions to this problem. But I think that everyone who is employed a BT yeshiva should, before he goes to work, sit on the floor with his legs crossed and eyes closed (like the Jews in India before they discover Jerusalem and yiddishkeit) and repeat over and over, “He has no family, he has no support, he is alone.” Or can they can just repeat this mantra in their heads while surveying the beis midrash and finding at random a guy to shmooze with about his life. Even if the guy seems he’s doing just fine. BT yeshivas are filled with rabbeim who understand human nature and can guide others according to the Torah, and everyone should have strong connection with one.
As we watch our families grow, may we always merit the proper guidance and may we only share simchas together.