Looking For Marriage On The Upper West Side

Jennifer Bleyer writes:

The Westmont is home to large numbers of young Orthodox Jews, and because pressing elevator buttons is forbidden on the Sabbath, which begins Friday evening, the many young people who had been invited to dinners in the building were hiking up multiple flights to reach their destinations.

Young men wearing dark suits pressed against the walls as young women in pencil skirts and high heels carefully made their way up the stairs, balancing berry pies and dishes of potato salad in their arms.

One of the dinners took place in the 12th-floor apartment of Baruch November, a 31-year-old Orthodox man. Although dating is a major preoccupation of the vast number of single twenty- and thirtysomethings, it’s hard to think of a group that so completely chooses to live in a neighborhood based on dating opportunities as the city’s young Orthodox Jews. And the Upper West Side, an increasingly Orthodox enclave, has over the past four decades emerged as courting central for modern Orthodox singles from across the country and around the world.

In the past 10 years particularly, the community has undergone what Michael Landau, the chairman of the Council of Orthodox Jewish Organizations of the West Side, described as “exponential growth.” A matchmaking party on Thursday night at the Hudson Beach Cafe in Riverside Park is expected to draw 1,000 people, most of them young Orthodox Jews.

“If you get to be 23 or 24 and you’re not married, your parents are going to say you shouldn’t be living at home anymore,” said Rabbi Allen Schwartz of Congregation Ohab Zedek, a synagogue on West 95th Street near Columbus Avenue that is heavily attended by young Orthodox singles.

“To Teaneck, where there might be another 10 singles like you? You go to the West Side, where there are another 5,000 singles like you.”

Mr. November, an English professor and poet from Pittsburgh who moved to the Upper West Side five years ago, put it this way: “It’s like all roads lead to the West Side.”

The Lure of the West Side

Many people trace the development of the dating scene on the Upper West Side to the mid-’60s, when a charismatic young rabbi named Shlomo Riskin took the helm at the new Lincoln Square Synagogue, near Lincoln Center.

Throughout the ’70s, young people from Orthodox enclaves in the city and beyond moved in droves to the Upper West Side, south of 79th Street, to be part of Rabbi Riskin’s community.

There’s no question that that influenced the Orthodox as well. People were postponing marriage.”

As real estate prices rose in the 1980s, the young singles migrated north toward West 86th Street, and then into the once forbiddingly dangerous West 90s area. Two nearby apartment buildings on Columbus Avenue, the Westmont and the 12-story Key West, across the street, became favored residences for the Orthodox, with apartments often fitted with temporary walls so that two-bedrooms could house three or four roommates. Mr. November’s story is a typical one among these young transplants.

The oldest of four children, he grew up in Squirrel Hill, the leafy, picturesque neighborhood on the east side of Pittsburgh that has long been home to the city’s Jewish community. “I never dated in Pittsburgh,” he added. Isaac Galena, a co-founder of bangitout.com, a popular modern Orthodox Web site that was sponsoring the evening for the third year, struck the same note. “In a way, the West Side is like Never-Never Land,” Mr. November said. The freedom to live an extended single life and the wide array of potential spouses can foster what is sometimes called option paralysis.

“It’s the cable TV syndrome,” explained Rabbi Schwartz of Congregation Ohab Zedek. Flirting and Kabbalah

One fixture on the Orthodox social circuit is Congregation Ohav Sholom, on 84th Street near Broadway, where a few dozen Jews assembled on a Monday evening last spring for a class in kabbalah, the study of Jewish mysticism.

Despite the grumbling among some Orthodox singles about the pressures of dating, Mr. Eisenberg believes that they are still better off than many of the city’s singles, whose dating life consists of one-night stands and endless evenings in murky bars.

Even as the young, unattached Orthodox Jews of the Upper West Side gravitate to such scenes, parents back home are sometimes less happy about the way their offspring are spending their courting years. 

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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