Category: Personal

When I Was A Lad

Thoughts on turning 34

I believe I’ve passed the age
Of consciousness and righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight.
I once believed in causes too,
I had my pointless point of view,
And life went on no matter who was wrong or right.
Billy Joel, “Angry Young Man


This year’s birthday post will probably be an improvement over last year’s, which in retrospect was kind of depressing. To be sure, it reflected where I was at the time and if anything conveyed a sense of forced optimism. While today I don’t feel a sense of enthusiams or exhilaration, I can honestly say I’m much calmer – perhaps even using the term “stable.”

The funny thing is that nothing specific happened this past year to account for any significant change in mood. Of the two major life issues of family and career there has been little progress if not outright setbacks; my fultile experiences in blind dating are now well documented and I faced the disappointment of not getting into PhD programs.

So what happened?

My best guess is that while in the past I’ve tended to obsess about the “big questions,” this year I’ve been working on handling the smaller, immediate, and more controllable issues which come up every day. Instead of viewing each decision as an immensely important life defining choice, I realize while all actions have repurcussions few result in the dire consequneces I would sometimes imagine. It’s not that things aren’t important anymore, it’s just that I’m seeing things from a new perspective.

In short, I think I’ve mellowed in my old age.

I’m only partially joking here. Despite what the AARP thinks, I know that 34 isn’t really “old” (though I suppose it’s relative). But I do think that at 34[1. “לד” in Hebrew, hence the gematria inspired title of this post with the bonus Gillbert and Sullivan reference, FTW.] I’m starting to approach life differently. It’s not that I don’t have priorities, goals, or dreams,[2. I’m still clinging to my delusions of academia] but I am reevaluating exactly how to accomplish them and manage the inevitable disappointments, keeping in mind that life is much bigger than anything I can imagine.

I have no idea how long this new attiude will last or if it will help result in any of the meaningful changes to which I still aspire, but I can guess that I’m going to find the process much more enjoyable.

And of course, I have my friends and Loyal Readers along for the ride.

The Statistics of Shidduchim – A Case Study In Futility

One man among a thousand I found,
but a woman among all these I have not found. (Kohelet 7:28)


There was a time on this website I used to write about my dating life, which as it turns out I haven’t really done since 2006. I think I’ve avoided doing so for a number of reasons, the main ones being my being in a long-term relationship (since ended) and now a relatively public figure as a pulpit rabbi. However, in two days time I will taking a significant step in the dating process by leaving the popular dating site Saw You At Sinai1 (SYAS) as a paying customer.

For those unfamiliar, SYAS is essentially an online implementation of the blind shidduch / matchmaking dating system. Users create profiles, but instead of searching for other singles users choose matchmakers who do the searching and suggesting for them. Some prefer this method to avoid being contacted directly by creeps, having a reliable person vet out the weirdos, or less cynically prefer to have a mutual acquaintance look out for the interests of both parties. The obvious limitation is that a user’s options are entirely dependant on the judgement of the matchmaker.

As of this posting, SYAS boasts 595 matches made and there are of course hundreds if not thousands of Jewish couples who continue to meet through the shidduch system. However, despite empty platitudes of encouragement, it is obvious that this system does not work for everyone, and I would place myself in this category. Thanks to the records of my SYAS account, I will prove mathematically just how ineffective and futile blind shidduch dating can be.

In the SYAS system, a matchmaker suggests a match which is then sent to either the man first, the women first, or both simultaneously (to avoid deadlocks the women make this decision in their preferences). Once a match is sent either party then “approves” or “declines” a match accordingly. If both parties approve, contact information is released and it is expected that they’ll call and arrange a date. Simple enough.

Now let’s start with my numbers. The first recorded match I have is in 2004 at which point I was still living in Chicago. That gives us about 7 years to work with, minus 2.5 years during which time I suspended my account while in a serious relationship. Here are the stats:

  • 711 suggested matches
  • 152 of which I accepted
  • Yielding 28 first dates
  • And zero (0) meaningful serious relationships

Breaking down these numbers, I approved approximately 21.37% of all suggestions and of those women whom I approved only 18.24% reciprocated. Out of all 711 total suggestions, only 3.93% resulted in an actual first date. As pathetic as these numbers are, they don’t even tell the full story. In the event a woman chose to receive the suggestion first, it would not necessarily appear in my list and thus I could be under counting just now many times I’ve been declined.

One could look at these numbers and say that I’m too selective even though my percentage of approving women at 21.37% is greater than the 18.24% reciprocity. From my experience, here are the main reasons why I declined matches:

  • Already Friends / Dated – I don’t have an inherent objection to dating people I already know, but I can tell if I’m not interested. If I’ve already dated someone, no point in trying again unless there’s a good reason. On the plus side, it does give me a sense if the matchmaker is on the right track.

  • Too Far / Distance – I’ve never done well with long distance relationships, and since becoming a rabbi I have neither the time nor money to travel. Despite saying this explicitly in my profile I’ve gotten many suggestions for people who live outside of my stated geographic range. (The most inexplicable one was London). A bad sign since it clearly indicates the matchmaker ignored what I had to say.

  • Personality – This is a little more complicated to quantify. As I discussed in my guide to online Jewish dating, writing profiles can be tricky. More often than not, women on SYAS write horribly generic statements which tell me nothing about themselves such that I have no idea how this person would match the personality for whom I am looking.2Even off the site I’ve found that many people find it difficult to answer the simple question, “how is she what I’m looking for and vice versa?” Just recently a good friend was pushing me to date a mutual friend of hers, however she was at a complete loss at how to describe her beyond the generic, “nice, sweet, pretty” bromides. Following what I’ve said years ago, I will only invest time, energy, and money into people whom I want to date. Meaning, there has to be a good reason for me to go out with this person as opposed to me justifying my reluctance.

I’d also add that I’ve periodically gone outside my range just for the sake of not being too obstinate, though the results have been the same.

Then of course is the actual date itself. In my experience, absolutely zero (0) blind shidduch date in any media has ever produced a meaningful serious relationship (though a few have resulted in good friendships). There are probably a whole slew of personal reasons for this, some of which I’ve explored at length elsewhere on this site. Both of the serious relationships I’ve had have come from meeting people in normal, if not optimal social settings.3

Has shidduch dating worked for some people? Absolutely. However, to insist that people continue to operate within the confines of a system which has clearly failed them is, as Einstein would put it, “insane.” One person is not a statistically significant sample, but I doubt my experience in the blind shidduch world is unique.

While I’m not quite giving up on dating, I am acknowledging based on the empirical evidence that this method is not working for me and it would thus be foolish to continue actively pursuing blind shidduch dates, let alone paying for the privilege. Since I started dating I would not be surprised if I have received at least 1,000 total dating suggestions; but like Kohelet, I have not found even one.

As Kohelet might say in this case, this is a time to move on.

1. The site’s name itself is sort of an inside Jewish joke, referring to Midrashic statements that all Jewish souls were present at the reveleation on Mt. Sinai. See for example B. Shabbat 146a.
2. To be sure, not everyone can express themselves verbally, but as I wrote in the guide to online Jewish dating, if you cannot get your personality across in a profile, don’t choose this medium since your profile is all someone has on which to rely. Additionally, it is possible to write good profiles; compare for example random ones found on Ok Cupid with any of the exclusively Jewish sites.
3. One at the first Edah conference, the other at a Shabbat meal in Washington Heights.

The “Pathology” of Life

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true – or is it something worse?”
Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

Since becoming a pulpit Rabbi I have intentionally avoided writing about my personal life, but recent news prompts me to share some ideas which I suspect will resonate with at least some of my loyal readers. As some of you may know I recently applied for PhD programs in Religious Ethics, with the intent of focusing on the relatively unexplored ethical tradition of Rabbinic Judaism. With two M.A.’s, life experience, and a clear program of study I considered myself to be a decent candidate – certainly as good as anyone else who would apply. However, spots for these fellowshipped positions are extremely limited. One program to which I applied accepts an average of two students a year, though occasionally will go up to three or down to one. In a bad economy where more students are applying to graduate schools rather than going out into “the real world,” these programs are inundated with applicants. The other school to which I applied received over 10,000 total applications for graduate school study.

Thus it was not a complete surprised when I learned that I was not accepted into either of the two programs to which I had applied. To be sure, my GPA and GRE scores could have been higher but even so this would not have guaranteed admission. If potential advisors are not interested in an applicant’s chosen field of research, they have plenty of other willing potential students from which to choose. Furthermore, despite my academic background in Talmud, I intentionally did not choose to apply through the Rabbinics department because my interest was more in learning the ethical theory (and as I found out later the Rabbinics departments only had one opening). Since a PhD in an academic discipline rarely results in a significant financial payoff, I considered it pointless to pursue one unless there is at least some personal interest in the process.

Which brings me to my point of why I applied for Religious Ethics in the first place. For many years I had thought about doing a PhD but couldn’t quite determine the direction. It was after I first gave my class in Economics and Social Justice in my shul that I realized Religious Ethics was not only a field in which I was interested, but that it was an area in which I could contribute.

When I researched programs I found two universities which not only had a program in Religious Ethics, but also had a significant Talmud department. I was ecstatic. From everything I read it seemed that either institution would be a plausible fit, but more than that, it just felt right, that this was what I was supposed to do with my life – that this was the path I was supposed to take.

Applying was stressful; I had even delayed applying one year due to being in a suboptimal emotional state. I managed to overcome all fears of rejection, edited 3 old papers for writing samples, and dealt with needless drama involving a recommender, and still everything got in on time. Given how much I invested in applying, I’m holding up surprisingly well. I’m not crushed, not curled up in a fetal position wondering where my life went wrong, and not even regretting my decision to apply and setting myself up for the eventual rejection.

But even though I am disappointed, in some ways I think I’m more confused than anything else. After all, why would I be pointed in a direction with such a strong intuition, forced to overcome a whole lot of anxiety, and yet not actualize the goal. Why would I have the feeling that this PhD was part of my Path when clearly it was not meant to be?

Naturally I don’t have any useful answers, but I do think the question is itself important. We’d like to think that we’re on a path and that maybe we have some guidance in choosing which path we ought to take. Sometimes we’re given opportunities and other times we’re given intuitions which would help direct our choices. But what do these opportunities and intuitions really mean? Superficially it feels like these are directions we ought to take, but in reality these are just emotions – subjective and open to interpretation.

I can say this; I’m not going to obsess over not getting in, even if it means not pursuing a PhD in the foreseeable future. But what I will do is meditate on the emotions I’ve experienced and try to understand the signals I’ve received and their possible meaning. I don’t suspect I’ll find any substantive answers, but I do feel it is a question worth pondering.

Oh, The Places I’ve Been

My passport is expiring in a couple of months and to be on the safe side in case of emergency I’m renewing shortly. When I was younger I used to admire each stamp in the book as a badge of honor, a symbol that I’ve “been there” and “done that” and the official seal was more meaningful than key chains or cheap t-shirts. Today I’m looking over all the stamps in the past 10 years and remembering where I was not just in terms of geography but even existentially. Who was I? Why did I go to these places? Who was I with at the time? are all questions which keep rushing back, filling my head with pictures as if I’m scrolling through Picasa.

So more for my own personal record than anything else, here’s a summary of my last 10 years of international travel.

Lag Ba’Yuter

Thoughts and Ruminations on Turning 33

For my annual birthday post it’s hard for me not to look back to the previous year especially in accounting for a whole slew of personal issues. Far from being a “year of the heart” as I had hoped, at times I look back on 32 as being a “lost year”, at least emotionally. Perhaps I’m still feeling the effects of the breakup or the regular stressors of being a rabbi, or just good old fashioned insecurity.

Typically this isn’t the way one wants to feel on one’s birthday, but I’d like to suggest that there is an important lesson – at least for myself – in turning 33.

The YUTOPIA Sermon Citation Challenge

Anyone who has heard my sermons knows that I like spicing up my talks with various non-religious references from popular and obscure culture. Perhaps my best/worst line was the following analogy: “The Jewish community is like Soylent Green – it’s made of people.”
I didn’t say they were always funny, but they do make sense in context.
Sometimes people get the references, other times they don’t, but I’ve taken the attitude that I’m just going to drop what I can and let people pick up what they may.
So I’d like to try something new as a challenge. This week I’ll actually take requests – you tell me what references to make (the general the better), and I’ll try working it into a coherent sermon.
In other words, hit me with your best shot, and I’ll hit you with my best peshat:

Year Of The Heart

As part of a New Year’s intellectual cleaning, I came across this post which I had intended to post on my birthday. This was actually the first year I didn’t post anything since I started YUTOPIA nearly 6 years ago. As for many people, past year has not been the easiest for me on multiple personal levels. While I will not elaborate on most here, the year is ending with me coming out of a long relationship and reentering the tumultuous waters of Jewish dating. This recent emotional adjustment, though unpleasant, has been a motivating factor for reevaluating and revising the thrust of the overdue post below.

Charitable Advice

Dear Loyal Readers,
I recently decided to cash out my credit card points from my American Express card to move. In my program each point is worth 1/2 a cent. As you could imagine most of the items in their store are “overpriced” at that ratio, but through their “Giving Express” program, AmEx allows for donating points at a rate of 1 cent per point to any charity in the GuideStar database.
I currently have 8,000 points left which translates into one $50 donation and three $10 donations.1 The question is, where should it go?

Back In The Game

Dear Loyal Readers,
Over the past few weeks I’ve hinted at some more changes going on in my life and for the usual reasons of busyness I haven’t gotten around to posting. The big news: I accepted the position of Rabbi at The Stanton St. Shul1 in New York’s Lower East Side and even had my first Shabbat last week.
As you might expect, it’s a big change for me being my first rabbinic position – especially on top of all the craziness in my life over the past few months.2 Still, I’m very excited to be taking on this new challenge and hopefully work on myself in the process.
In terms of blogging, I’m going to have to be even more careful with what I say up here. Obviously some things will have to be “off limits,” but I on the other hand since I’ll be doing more teaching I should be able to post more Torah as derashot or some shiurim.
I’m still looking for apartments on the LES, but thankfully I’m getting help from the community and the great people at LoHo Realty, so for the time being I’ve been commuting into the city.
So that’s the scoop. If anyone out there is interested in the community or wants to come by for a visit, please let me know!

1. The website could use some work, but I hope to add my expertise in that area as well.
2. Plus since it’s technically a part-time position I’m currently taking classes in Revel, possibly en route to a PhD in Talmud but that part is still tentative.

In My Prime

What would you do if you were stuck in one place
and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered? — Groundhog Day

It’s that time of year again for the annual birthday introspection. Last year I turned 30, which led to my completely fabricated “Big Round Number” theory. This year I turn 31, which as a friend pointed out to me, means that I’m “in my prime” in the mathematical sense.
As I hope everyone knows by now, a prime number is “a natural number which has exactly two distinct natural number divisors: 1 and itself.” There’s something pure about a prime number, a number distinct such that it stands alone. It’s identity is not determined by other numbers, but rather a prime number exists only in relationship to itself and the core identity of 1.
I started ruminating about ideas of identity: what makes us who we are, and how we define ourselves etc. Ironically, today’s summer addition to was the 1993 classic Groundhog Day which deals with identity defined by knowledge and actions, such as the identities we form through sheer mindless repetition and predictability.
This past year for me was anything but predictable. It was only March when I was still working at a cushy stable job at JPMorgan Chase with a nice apartment and simple routine. Since then I got laid off, wrote three master’s theses before passing, found out I needed to move, and we’re not even close to being done with more big changes coming (details to follow shortly). In general, there does seem to be a sense for me this year of forcing myself to break some patterns, accepting new challenges, and being in a position where I’m forced to be more independent and proactive in determining how the next year will progress.
For now I will simply thank everyone for the multitude of warm birthday wishes1 and I look forward to sharing what promises to be an exciting year with everyone.

1. Thank you Facebook