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One matchmaker, not enough mensches, and all-too-much mishegoss on D.C.’s Jewish social circuit.
“Where’s the lavender??!!”
Drips and drabs of black and white paint accented with splotches of metallic aluminum and salmon pink inhabit every square inch of Jackson Pollock’s Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist). There’s no trace of purple, violet, or even mauve. The conversation-starter murmured behind my back comes across as innocuous without being idiotic. Mildly pleasant and somewhat playful. Even ironically iconoclastic. And among the gang of self-identified art lovers prowling the lower level of the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing this particular Sunday afternoon, this kind of observation has been internally vetted—at least twice, if not 10 times—before the larynx has even been primed for action.
As docent Michael Weyl ushers the group through Barnett Newman’s 14 black-and-white Stations of the Cross, a late-30-something homely, dark-haired man wearing jeans and a blue sweater cozies up to a brunet 20-something woman and opts for a more prosaic approach: “So—you like this modern-art stuff?”
I see the cartoon bubble floating above her head: Oy vay iz mir! I know. I’m thinking the same thing.
Weyl, a charming older gent who seems to possess both the intellect and looks of James Bond’s Q, stops in front of the pop-art images of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse in Roy Lichtenstein’s Look Mickey. Weyl uses the painting to explain Lichtenstein’s work as a “reaction against the subjectivism of abstract expressionism,” or something like that. The young woman uses the Lichtenstein as a reaction against her wannabe suitor’s expressionism and quickly reintegrates herself into the crowd.
Her brief acquaintance, who introduced himself as Michael to another young woman back at Calder’s mobile, hangs back and confers with a late-30-something cohort wearing khaki pants and a bomber jacket. Michael smiles and speaks softly, no doubt giving his friend the highlight reel. Meanwhile, Weyl wraps up with a few words on the distinctive style of Lichtenstein’s Rouen Cathedral (Seen at Five Times of the Day) and ends the formal tour.
The crowd lingers amid Lichtenstein’s primary colors, talking in groups of two or three about how much they have learned and enjoyed meeting each other. A few awkwardly exchange business cards. They’re art lovers, with an emphasis on finding the latter: Weyl’s tour was part of a monthly event known as “Shiddach and Chagall.” Shiddach’s not a Russian Jewish painter, but the Yiddish word for “a match” or “an arranged marriage.”
And without a shadchen, or professional matchmaker, to orchestrate the introductions, as Amy Irving had in Crossing Delancey, the afternoon’s strictly self-service: A few feet in front of Claes Oldenburg’s Soft Drainpipe—Red (Hot) Version sculpture—a maraschino-cherry-colored tube that drops to the ground like an elephant’s trunk—Michael and his bomber-jacketed friend just happen to land right next to another young woman from the group.
Michael begins his spiel. She’s had her eye on him this afternoon, as well. “So are you guys on the circuit?” she says, cutting off the small talk.
They know exactly what she means. Stops on the circuit—such as “Shiddach and Chagall,” sponsored by the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center (DCJCC)—specifically target Jewish singles in the Washington area. In fact, on almost every night of the week, one Jewish group or another sponsors something geared toward bringing together unattached members of the tribe, or MOTs for short.
(Take the schedule for the week of March 17, for example: There’s the Purim Ball—Purim being a holiday that celebrates the triumph of Queen Esther and the Jews of Persia over Haman, an adviser to the Persian King Ahasuerus—sponsored by area Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) on Saturday. Mosaic, a group of REI-fleece-clad outdoorsy Jews, travels to Winterthur Museum and Gardens in Delaware Sunday morning. A Purim Megillah reading, a festive event that typically attracts more than 1,000 people, takes place at Adas Israel Congregation Monday night. A 20-something happy hour sponsored by the JCCs occurs at the Lucky Bar Tuesday. Rabbi Tzvi Teitelbaum holds his “Young Professionals Weekly Torah Portion” discussion at the DCJCC on Wednesday. Arlington-Fairfax Jewish Singles cooks Israeli at the Arlington Fresh Fields on Thursday. And the calendar fills up, Jewishly, day after day, from there.)
“No, I don’t go to too many of these events,” Michael responds nonchalantly.
“I hear there’s this big EXPO 2000 thing beginning this Thursday,” the young woman adds.
“Yeah. It’s basically an older crowd,” Michael says knowingly, as he and his friend shake their heads. “I might go to the dance or something.”
Say you’re a single, young black professional living in Washington, D.C., and you’re interested in meeting other “bourgies”—ahem, excuse me—single, young black professionals. Members of this group, you believe, share similar family experiences, educational backgrounds, career aspirations, and overall values. That combination of ingredients, you believe, creates a natural kinship or connection. And you’ve reached a point in your life, perhaps, where you want to make a connection—either temporarily or permanently—with a special someone.
With happy hours featuring free munchies and a fine-looking crowd of Howard University-educated graduates, Republic Gardens on U Street NW might give you a good start—or perhaps ending.
Let’s morph you into a Fugazi-deifying hipster for a minute. Even with Positive Force and all, taking on the establishment gets lonely sometimes. So where to? When there’s not an indie-rock gig at the Black Cat, you might grab a drink at Kingpin on U Street or the Raven in Mount Pleasant.
And now, say you’re a nice Jewish boy or girl who’s just moved to the District to pursue a career on Capitol Hill, or in a downtown law firm, or in one of Washington’s ubiquitous nonprofits (and you don’t want to spend your entire social life schmoozing with co-workers, especially if they’re lawyers). Where now? For many, the hunt begins around 10 on a Saturday—morning, not evening, mind you—at Adas Israel Congregation’s Traditional Minyan, a religious service that attracts many young Jews.
“There’s God, and there’s single girls,” George Washington University medical student David Taylor not-so-jokingly explains as he weighs the two with his hands one Friday night. It’s not really difficult to figure out which omnipresent force pushes most single men out of bed and to services on Saturday mornings.
The Traditional Minyan’s two-and-a-half-hour Shabbat service offers a nonthreatening and downright pious spot for 20- and 30-somethings to scope out, stare at, and speculate about the other gender, all the while fulfilling their responsibilities as Jewish adults. Seats toward the back of Kogod Chapel are most preferable, because they offer the widest view of the assembled. But even those stuck in the front rows have their opportunities, like the time in the service when minyan leaders parade the Torah around the congregation: What better opportunity to turn right around and sneak a long peek at the looker one row behind you, who, until this point, has only existed in the very corner reaches of your eye? And then there’s always the well-timed trip or two to the bathroom, when, of course, you might just have to spend a minute—or 20 minutes—kibitzing out in the hallway.
The kosher meet market reaches its peak at 12:15 p.m. or so, when the minyan spills out of Kogod and mixes with the larger Adas Israel congregation, which has witnessed at least one 13-year-old get bar- or bat-mitzvahed in the temple’s main sanctuary. As the intergenerational mob slowly moves downstairs for the Kiddush—the traditional post-service gathering where wine and light snacks are consumed—the synagogue bifurcates again: The bar mitzvah crowd heads straight into Kay Hall, whereas minyan members generally flock to Wasserman Hall, a small social room tucked below the staircase.
The scene in Wasserman Hall resembles most Northwest Washington yuppie parties, although the wine comes in cough-syrup-dosage cups and the snacks of choice include gefilte fish with a side of horseradish. Mixed groups of men and women stand, chat, and network with that special Washington intensity. There’s hardly a wallflower in the group. It’s a time-honored ritual going off inside a time-honored place: strategically reaching for lemon cake in front of the handsome cutie who helped dress the Torah during services or conveniently pouring a cup of coffee next to the hottie in the Ann Taylor suit whose praying was bound to attract the attention of more than just the Omniscient and Omnipotent.
Over the past two years, the Traditional Minyan has unquestionably become the hub of D.C.’s Jewish social scene—a Republic Gardens, so to speak, for single-and-looking MOTs: “the best-looking minyan in town,” as more than one participant puts it. Kesher Israel Congregation, at 28th and N Streets NW in Georgetown, has a largely young Orthodox following. Fabrangen, which meets at George Washington University’s Hillel, veers more toward guitar-stroking, consciousness-raising Reform types. But the Traditional Minyan within Adas Israel’s Conservative congregation draws the spectrum—from Orthodox to Reform to actively questioning, or perhaps actively looking, so-called secular Jews.
“It’s a haimish place,” says Dan Shapiro, invoking Yiddish to explain the minyan’s friendly, communal atmosphere. Shapiro has attended the minyan regularly for more than five years. “What this minyan is able to do is attract and provide a really satisfying experience for people with an amazing number of [Jewish] backgrounds.”
In recent weeks, attendance has averaged between 250 and 300 people. Some minyangoers, like Shapiro, are married or otherwise out of the dating pool, of course, but a healthy number are single and very eligible—as they aggressively report.
For those who date exclusively Jewish, the number of fish in the D.C. sea remains finite. “So far, I’m talking to just the usual suspects,” reports one 20-something to a friend as she scouts Wasserman Hall on a recent Saturday. She turns to me. “You want to talk to new people—you haven’t met before—you know what I mean?” And the minyan’s limited demographics sometimes create quite an incestuous atmosphere. “Some men have dated—or have tried to date—almost every woman here,” reports one male minyan member, who himself seems quite familiar with many of the young ladies walking around Wasserman.
“There’s definitely an undercurrent of the singles scene,” admits Abbey Frank, who serves on the minyan’s coordinating committee. The religious context makes the rituals of the meet-and-greet challenging, at times: The Jewish Sabbath prohibits any type of work, including writing, so men and women sometimes duck behind a column or retreat to the back of the room—so no one will notice—to jot down a phone number or exchange business cards.
It’s not as goofy or hopeless as it sounds: At the conclusion of services two weeks ago, one congregant rose to announce the engagement of two of his minyan-attending friends. Without any cue, the entire chapel spontaneously burst into a congratulatory song, like Semitic Southern Baptists: “Siman tov umazel tov siman tov umazel tov,” the audience repeated, clapping along loudly, with an excitement that had seemed largely sequestered during services. In a way, perhaps, the minyan was saying siman tov, a Hebrew expression meaning “good omen,” to itself. Two more marrying within the faith! Hallelujah! Take that, you shiksa-goddess-worshipers! After nearly two minutes of celebration, the congregation quieted down. And then another young man popped up with an announcement: “It must be spring in the air, because I’m announcing an engagement, too,”—and voices started singing, palms began slapping, and the minyan went meshugge again.
The Traditional Minyan hardly began as a Talmudic Together Dating Service. The almost exclusively Hebrew, congregant-led service started nearly 30 years ago with a small group of men at Adas Israel who wanted the opportunity to pray separately within a more traditional Shabbat service. As attendance dropped and the service neared extinction in the early ’90s, minyan coordinators decided to make the services egalitarian and invited women to participate. As word of mouth spread, more and more young Jews began showing up at the service to intimately connect to Judaism, to the D.C. Jewish community, and, as the engagements surely testify, to each other.
The service’s surprising resurgence offers a refreshing antidote to mounting Jewish hysteria about the impact of assimilation and intermarriage to non-Jews, which is estimated, according to a 1990 Council of Jewish Federations study, somewhere near 52 percent. According to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, approximately 180,000 Jews live in the Washington metropolitan area. Many are unmarried and under the age of 40.
And in a city like Washington, which hosts a very high percentage of nonobservant Jews, according to the statistics, it’s quite bizarre that young Jewish social life revolves around the rites and rituals of synagogue. “It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful that there’s a place within the community that young Jews can meet each other within the orbit of the Jewish tradition,” says Adas Israel Senior Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg. “It’s within the home that the core values are taught, so helping Jews to meet or to simply support each other in Jewish endeavors is very important.”
Minyan novices usually make the mistake of showing up on time, at 9:30 a.m., when the service barely makes the quorum call required by Jewish law. Unlike the Shabbat service held simultaneously in Adas Israel’s Smith Sanctuary, the minyan has no rabbi or cantor to lead prayer; minyan members take that responsibility themselves, on a volunteer basis. As the morning service winds its way through the Torah portion, the predominantly young crowd begins to trickle in. Many live nearby and walk to services from the large brick apartment buildings of Quebec House, located directly behind Adas Israel on Quebec Street NW, or the Van Ness condominium complex only a short hike up Connecticut Avenue. No doubt the synagogue’s influence has made Cleveland Park a mecca for young Jews. “You live in Quebec House, and it’s like a huge Hillel,” says one young woman who attends the Traditional Minyan. “I say I live in Adams Morgan, and [people react] like I live in Harlem.”
Between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m., the 275-seat chapel gets crowded; seats start to become scarce. By the time the noon stragglers show up—the so-called “Adon Olam” crowd, named for the concluding song of the Saturday morning Shabbat service—it’s standing-room-only in the back.
Some argue that the late attendance spike and the growing number of Adon Olamers mean that the Kiddush scene has overtaken the religious function of the minyan. “Well, that’s one of the dangers of its great success,” admits Wohlberg. “On one level, I’m happy to see so many young people come to synagogue. On another level, I don’t want [the minyan] to lose the substance of what it is….People hear how dynamic it is, and they come even though they don’t know how to participate. They’re there to see who’s there. I guess that’s a byproduct.”
Minyan regulars counter that synagogue has always been a social nexus. “I guess that I don’t consider the dual functions to be any more pronounced than in any other community,” says Shapiro.
Bet Mishpachah, a predominantly gay and lesbian congregation that meets for Friday night Shabbat services at the DCJCC, hosts a smaller, but equally thriving, scene. Nearly 100 people showed up at 8:30 p.m. for services two Fridays ago, and almost all stayed for the post-10 p.m. Kiddush.
As I chat with two members and munch on Kiddush-provided crudités, a young woman bounces in front of me with a supportive friend in tow. A level of intimacy, even with complete strangers, is presumed. “You ride my bus!” she announces, boldly breaking into the conversation.
“The 42?” I respond, taken aback by her brazenness. “I’m hardly ever on there anymore.” But her interest in me—and my modes of transportation—takes a fatal nose dive after she finds out that I’m here as a reporter.
“Most people who come to the minyan come both to get spiritual fulfillment and to see their friends,” Shapiro notes. “I can’t think of a case where people have been judged by motive or a presumed motive for coming. Sometimes you can’t get going on Saturday morning, but you still want to hear ‘Adon Olam.’”
Other critics believe that the minyan’s social dynamic brings a special meaning to the term “chosen people.” “It’s like high school,” says one occasional minyangoer, who emphasizes its cliquish atmosphere. “There’s an in-crowd. For example, after services some people have Shabbat lunch, but they say, ‘We’re only going to tell certain people about it.’”
And the minyan’s Orthodox-like adherence to liturgy and ritual means that many Reform and secular Jews—and even some brought up in the Conservative tradition—feel disconnected and uncomfortable. The minyan chants all prayers in Hebrew, forcing English-only readers to follow along silently. Even simple decisions—when to sit and when to stand—can confound, making the experience quite anxiety-ridden for the uninitiated. “You can either push [the discomfort] down and ignore it, or you just don’t go at all,” says one minyan regular, who enjoys the service but admits that it presents barriers for many young Jews. “The price of [not going], though, is that you lose having any sort of Jewish life in Washington.”
All of it—the expectations, the pressure, the finger-crossing desire to meet and mate with familiars—comes together on Christmas Eve: Lulu’s New Orleans Cafe transforms into one tacky bar mitzvah party, as more than 1,000 Jewish singles pack the Foggy Bottom nightclub for the “Matzo Ball”; similarly named events also take place in Boston, New York, Miami, and other large U.S. cities.
“It’s like having your grandmother standing behind you the entire time,” says 25-year-old D.C. resident Samantha Levine about the dance, an annual event sponsored by the Society of Young Jewish Professionals. It’s the one night out of the year when even so-called stealth Jews crawl out of the woodwork. “People know what’s going on. Of course, it’s Christmas Eve, and you’re bored off your ass. And here’s Lulu’s filled with Jews,” says Levine.
Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington Adult Services Director Harley Liebenson, who coordinates a competing Christmas Eve “Gefilte Fish Gala” at Polly Esther’s, agrees that there’s a certain emphasis on family planning at these events. “Within Judaism, there’s a sense universally that singleness should not be a large portion of anyone’s life,” says Liebenson. “If we have breeding programs for peregrine falcons, we should have breeding programs for Jews—so that they can lead Jewish lives as a result.”
And at a time when Orthodox rabbi and author Shmuley Boteach appears on the afternoon chat-show circuit touting a book titled Kosher Sex, D.C.’s Jewish social events seem to have a distinctly Old World mentality. “Sometimes I get a little Yente-ish,” says DCJCC Director of Adult Programs and Public Affairs Amanda Chorowski, referring to the matchmaker character in Fiddler on the Roof—or perhaps just using the Yiddish word for “gossip.” “I’ll ask [when I see a couple talking], ‘So, how did it go?’ and sometimes I’ll take business cards and exchange between them.”
Each month, Liebenson, Chorowski, JCC of Northern Virginia Youth and Singles Director Beth Greenburg, and Jewish Graduate and Professionals (GAP) Coordinator Alexis Kilstein, who programs events for 20-somethings through a grant from Hillel of Greater Washington, meet to discuss D.C.’s Jewish social calendar. But unlike the others, Kilstein absolutely cringes at calling her functions “singles events,” a term she thinks smacks of desperation and dorkiness: “What GAP wants to do is to say to 20-somethings that the Jewish community has not forgotten you,” Kilstein says. “Whenever you have a group of 20-somethings with similar interests and similar backgrounds, they meet each other and it’s wonderful. But I wouldn’t label [GAP activities] singles events.”
On the first Wednesday evening in March, Kilstein is playing host to 18 Jewish 20-somethings gathered in the upstairs dining room of Zed’s Ethiopian restaurant. Like a good Jewish mother in training, the 23-year-old Kilstein is concerned mainly with the fact that nobody’s eating the largely lentil and vegetable offerings, even though she barely nibbles on the food herself.
The dinner guests alternate boy-girl-boy-girl around two tables, except for Brett and Corey, who sit across from me. “When I first moved to D.C., [GAP] events were a good way to meet people,” says Brett, who adds that he now attends an event every couple months. In fact, he’s here tonight with two friends he met through GAP; they all share a love of swing dancing, which they plan on doing after dinner. “Some people come looking for girlfriends, some looking for friends, some looking for answers on why Judaism should be part of their lives,” he says.
Right now, I suspect, Brett’s interested in the latter two quests. He’s been dating a non-Jewish woman pretty seriously for almost a year, he tells me. We discuss some of the hurdles in an interfaith relationship. “You want to raise the kids Jewish,” Brett says to me at one point. “And you’re not even sure why.”
Corey, who has been intently staring at his lap until now, turns his head: “You live with her?” he asks.
No, Brett answers.
Corey, I have already discovered, is ubiquitous at both GAP and DCJCC-sponsored events. I first met him at a GAP-sponsored bar night a few weeks prior, at Pangea in Foggy Bottom. It wasn’t his bright-orange sweater or distinctive schlep that attracted my attention that evening; it was his friend Neal, a thin, bespectacled young man wearing a baseball cap, who occasionally flashed a sign: “Has anybody seen my wife?” in both English and Arabic to young ladies in the crowd.
In between brief—sometimes very brief—conversations he conducted with many of the women present that evening, Neal also shared with me another piece of paper folded in his pocket: an ad he had placed in JDate.com, a Jewish Internet dating service. “I am looking for a living person who wants a rewarding life outside of prison,” he had written under the heading “More About My Perfect Date.” “Someone who enjoys factories, eggplant dishes, and soap more than the next guy.”
The circuit has its predictable number of regulars. “You go to these events, and you see the same people,” says one young woman who has attended a few Jewish singles gatherings this past month. “And then you start to wonder, ‘Do people think that I’m one of them, too?’”
Kilstein later tells me that she has a hard time finding venues for GAP bar events, because attendees generally run up very small bar tabs. Other staples of the bar scene are in low demand, as well: Only one person lights up a cigarette at the bar during the entire evening. Olga, a young woman aggressively working the crowd, sees other patterns, which she says she finds attractive intellectually, if not always physically: “It seems like the crowd is safe. You know, people you meet have college degrees.”
“Jewish people are doctors,” interjects her friend Ellen. Throughout the evening, GAPers find out all about their future matches—where they grew up, went to college, went to camp—through a well-known practice called “Jewish geography.”
“Sure, there’s the Camp Ramah connection,” says Stephen Gordon, referring to the overnight camp many Conservative Jewish youngsters attend.
Corey and Neal show up two days later at “Hearts for the Homeless,” a Valentine’s Day event sponsored by GAP and the DCJCC. Almost two dozen unattached 20-something MOTs assemble care packages, which include peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and cookies, and then head off in packs from the DCJCC to do a mitzvah (good deed) for the homeless—and, they hope, though it doesn’t look too promising from the outset, to meet their matches.
Corey and Neal pair off with Rachel and Joanne. Rachel, a perky young woman with shoulder-length blond hair, has come tonight to “meet some new faces.” The foursome head down Connecticut Avenue after breaking with the pack at Dupont Circle. They express surprise when they find almost nobody in Lafayette Square, across from the White House. They meander east down Pennsylvania Avenue, where they quickly hand out all the goodies. Corey and Neal then walk the women to the Farragut North Metro station, and they chat amiably for a few minutes. The women say goodbye, but Corey and Neal have one last piece of information-gathering to do: “Hey, Joanna, do you have a card?” Neal asks Joanne.
“It’s not Joanna,” she scolds him. “I’m just very anal about that one thing. You didn’t call me—you called some girl named Joanna.” But she ends up prying her business card out of her wallet anyway.
On the walk back to Dupont Circle, Neal explains to me that he has no future with Joanne anyway, because he’s already dated one of her best friends, whom he also met at a Jewish singles event. “The Jewish dating scene is so small,” he laments.
I ask him about other social dynamics at work as we walk through Farragut Square. “Everyone’s nervous,” Neal says, at one point removing his cap to reveal a shiny scalp on top. “They haven’t met anyone through friends or college or grad school or work. This is like their last stand.”
“I think you’re just projecting,” Corey blurts back.
“I’ve only been to four of these events,” Neal quickly responds. “I’m working on other angles of my life.” (Neal, of course, shows up with Corey at a JCC-sponsored happy hour at the Bottom Line the next night.)
As we turn north on 19th Street NW, Neal stops in the middle of the street to make one more point to the reporter: “By the way, I’m not Woody Allen-esque. I’m Lou Reed-esque. Get it straight.”
Hmm…I was thinking more George
Rachel sits still and very straight in her chair, positioned about smack in the middle of the multipurpose room at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, in Rockville. As she scans the scene, she sees right in front of her own eyes very possibly the worst nightmare she could imagine about Jewish singles events: A crowd of balding, nebbishy, predominantly older men aggressively hitting on younger women, like herself. It makes the crowd she met at “Hearts for the Homeless” look like young Romeos.
We’re both here for Bud Light Comedy Night at EXPO 2000—”the Mid-Atlantic’s biggest event for Jewish singles!” EXPO 2000 spans four days: The kickoff was cabaret night on Thursday; a Shabbat dinner was held on Friday; a National Zoo Tour and Bud Light Comedy Night have filled Saturday; and an afternoon of seminars will anchor Sunday. The event will culminate with the “Extravaganza Dance” Sunday night.
(I had already been prepped for the crowd by attending Shabbat dinner the night before. “Debbie, you look fabulous,” said a 50-something, short man named Frank to a zaftig brunette as I walked through the multipurpose room door. “You’ve slimmed down since the last time I saw you. You’ve lost a lot.”)
Standing on a mobile wooden platform with yellow smiley-faced balloons floating around him, Liebenson introduces opening act Len Levi, who has come “all the way from Gaithersburg.” Levi, who obviously has seen more than his fair share of deli sandwiches, wears a pair of black suspenders to keep his gray corduroy pants slightly above the tail of his striped brown shirt.
“No one’s noticed that I’m wearing a wedding band,” Levi starts off by saying. “I know I’ve crushed the hopes of every woman in this room…” he pauses, “‘Crushed’ being the operative word, of course.” Add in a few corned-beef jokes, Jewish-sex jokes, and the punch line, “I think the reason us Jews wandered 40 years in the desert is because Mrs. Moses didn’t have a map,” and you know all you really need to about Levi’s routine. Rachel makes a quick exit after headliner Gary Greenberg, author of Self-Helpless and The Pop-Up Book of Phobias, finishes his bit.
By Sunday, the laughs have ended, and everyone gets down to the serious business of finding his or her basherte, or soulmate. I’ve inadvertently left my EXPO 2000 packet at home, so I scramble down the hallway checking the pink fliers posted outside each doorway to find my first seminar this afternoon:
Room 1: Obtaining a Mortgage
Room 3: The Key to Successful Intimacy
Room 5: Reducing Stress With Magnets
Room 8: Kosher Wine Tasting
Room 10: Single, Looking & Happy
Room 15: Self Esteem & Dating
It’s like showing up for the Abnormal Psych final with only a vague idea of where the test will be given, and, even more sweat-inducing (at least in my dream) without a blue book. No one else has approached this afternoon’s business cavalierly: The lobby’s crowded with men and women studiously buried in their Expo 2000 Matchmaker Ad-Books, pens in hand, scribbling down the occasional hopeful sentence or phone number on blue or pink matchmaker response cards. It’s approaching 2 p.m., and there’s only a little more than an hour left before the submission deadline.
Perry, whom I met on the zoo tour Saturday afternoon, scolds me for showing up late and skipping out on the jazz brunch, which began at 11:30. He’s already handed in his seven matchmaker responses.
I open the door to Room 12 and quickly read the movable chalkboard—”Matchmaker, Make Me a Match.” I’m in the right spot. I duck into a seat at the end of the second row, next to Joan, who’s dressed in a peach sweater, thigh-hugging leather miniskirt, and heels. It’s an interesting interpretation of Sunday best, especially among the Saturday-Sabbath crowd.
Sitting behind a rectangular table in front of the room, in a sensible lavender pantsuit, is Leora Hoffman. Lee-aura—as she says with just the right Fran Drescher-esque post-nasal drip—owns Leora & Associates, a “personal introduction/ relationship service,” and writes the “Dear Leora” dating advice column for Washington Jewish Week.
Leora’s a Yente with a J.D. “In affairs of the heart, it’s very difficult to be your own advocate,” she tells me later, when we meet in her office in Bethesda. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Hofstra Law School, she moved to Washington to pursue a career in law and, along the way, got married and began a family. Following the birth of her second child, in 1989 she abandoned contracts and torts for something far more satisfying: matchmaking, or “my work as a relationship specialist,” as she’s wont to call it.
“I’m the type of person—it’s just my karma—that people can confide in,” Leora explains.
People are willing to pay through the nose to confide in Leora. Her “executive” search package for $3,800 includes an all-out assault on finding Mr. or Ms. Right, as well as clothing and image consulting. With the “deluxe” package, for $2,800, Leora will work off a 750-person pool of available matches she maintains as well as advise some wardrobe do’s and don’ts. The $2,000 “basic” membership package gets you at least a few dates from Leora’s eligible pool.
“When it comes to relationships, there’s really no substitute for the personal touch,” Leora says.
The personal touch, and how soon to employ it in a relationship, dominates the seminar discussion initially. “There are men out there who get to know someone by having sex,” Leora instructs the class of eight men and 13 women as I sit down. Whoa! I don’t remember Yente ever uttering those words in Mrs. Rachamim’s fourth-grade production of Fiddler on the Roof.
“There are situations where it was sexual right away, and it worked out,” she continues. “There are some people…they are really hot, and they want to go to bed right away.”
A 60-something man, sporting a gray pinstriped suit, floral tie, and pretty severe comb-over of his coarse gray hair, vigorously flaps his hand in the air. “I respectfully disagree with you,” he says, rising to his feet. He identifies himself as “Dr. Carl Sandler.”
He announces to the class that his degree—Leora later tells me that he’s a Ph.D. in “the sciences”—gives him insight into matters of the heart. He says that he and Leora have a working relationship, and he pulls out an unopened bag of Valentine candy hearts and presents them to her.
“You should have been leading the workshop,” Leora says with some irritation.
“I told you that I thought I should,” Dr. Carl shoots back. “A relationship is never about sex,” he lectures the group. “It’s about emotional intimacy and nonverbal communication.”
Two or three 40-something women begin heckling Dr. Carl about his monologue, and he slowly returns to his seat in the front. As his knees bend, his eyes make some nonverbal communication with Joan, my leather-loving seatmate. Even after his derriere hits the seat, Dr. Carl’s head continues to move: down, then up, then down again. He smiles.
Joan quickly turns away, toward Leora.
Leora runs through some quick rules of thumb for dating. I glance over to the woman wearing a white turtleneck and bright-red sweater on my right, Carol, who has ignored Leora’s Yente wisdom in favor of the Matchmaker Ad-Book. With her left finger, she moves from the top to the bottom of the page:
“Help! I am a SJM, 36, looking for….” Carol quickly moves her ballpoint pen from the top-left-hand corner of the ad diagonally down to the right and from the top-right-hand corner down to the left. A big X.
“ISO partner, 50s, to share joyous life…” Another X.
“We could do so many great things together. Let’s meet!” Bupkes.
I can’t keep up with Carol’s fast and furious pace. She’s Xed out almost an entire page before I’ve reached the fourth ad. Carol’s a picky one, obviously.
After a few minutes, Leora’s discussion shifts back to when to get it on. Stephanie, a woman sitting two seats away from Dr. Carl in the front row, quizzes Leora, using examples from her past relationships as avenues of inquisition. I turn my head away from Leora for a moment to get a look at Dr. Carl’s reaction: Almost precisely at that time, his head falls down onto his chest. Then his head and shoulders make a tilting move toward the right. His eyes are closed.
His inattention soon grabs the attention of the entire classroom: Chaaaw, Huuh, Chaaaw, Huuh, Chaaaw, Huuh….
“You’re snoring,” Stephanie says, shaking Dr. Carl’s arm furiously.
“No, no, I’m listening,” Dr. Carl says as he brushes her off.
As the session ends, Leora invites each person in the class to fill out a form, which will place him or her in Leora’s matchmaking pool for no charge. Almost everyone grabs the form. Some even return it before they exit the classroom.
I get to “Finding the Love You Need” right when Dr. David Rose begins to speak. “The point of an intimate relationship is to heal and to finish childhood,” he says. Uh-oh. An unreconstructed Freudian.
In his blue suit with a black T-shirt, Miami Vice-style, Dr. David sets up the dynamic in every relationship: the minimizer and the maximizer. In order to work through relationship problems between the two opposing forces, Dr. David instructs us in three steps: mirroring, validation, and empathy.
“Anyone have a small piece of unfinished business with an old partner?” he asks us.
“Oh geez,” says Mike, a 40-something man with a comb-over and a horizontally striped sweater vest.
Mike takes a seat in front of the class, along with another 40-something volunteer named Janice, who agrees to act as Mike’s old flame. “Valerie, I just can’t go on like this with the relationship being all about you,” he says to Janice.
Dr. David coaches Janice on mirroring back to Mike his feelings with one or two sentences. She fumbles initially. “You think this relationship is all about me?” she says.
No, no, Dr. David instructs. That’s too confrontational.
Mike returns for a second round: “Basically, I should kiss the ground to be with a beautiful woman 18 years younger than me.”
Whoa! Triple-sevens! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Almost every woman in the classroom makes some type of noise, from “Humph” to “Hhmmm” to “No wonder.”
As Janice torturously continues to mirror Mike, I pack my bag and head out into the hallway in search of “The Key to Successful Intimacy.” I open the door to Room 3. Dr. Carl smiles from his seat near the door.
A few moments later, he scribbles a few words on a yellow Post-it note and leans on his copy of Science in an Uncertain Millennium. He instructs those sitting in his row to pass the note to Wendi, a petite woman with dark, curly hair, most likely in her early 30s.
Wendi looks at the note, nervously smiles, peers at Dr. Carl, and then quickly looks away. She later tells me that Dr. Carl wanted to know if she had placed an ad in the Matchmaker Ad-Book.
The session concludes about 10 minutes later. Wendi leaps out of her seat and heads straight for the door. Too bad. Dr. Carl’s stationed at Checkpoint Charlie. He grabs her right arm as she tries to get out the door.
“Are you going to be at the dance?” he asks.
She freezes. “I think so.” She scurries away.
I meet Perry in Room 13 for the “Single Solution.” About 20 people, mostly men, are sitting in preschool chairs arranged in a circle. Liebenson soon races in the door, informing us that the instructor—though she confirmed as late as yesterday—has not shown up. Perry’s disappointed. “This was a really good one last year,” he says.
As 5 o’clock approaches, the crowd starts to pace the lobby. It’s time for them to find their matches. Liebenson emerges from the board members room with the box of Matchmaker-Ad responses, the honey pot of EXPO. “It’s an investment in fantasy,” Liebenson admits about the ads, which seem to be the focus of the weekend. The singles line up like lottery-ticket buyers when the jackpot hits $35 million. They quickly move to the front and rip the cards out of the envelopes.
Perry has received one response: “Also intelligent with a great smile. Brown-eyed 32 yo SJPF, marketer in publishing. Has the joie de vivre,” he reads to me.
Perry stumbles over the last couple of words. The joy of life, I tell him.
“Ooh, so she’s classy,” he says with enthusiasm.
As I pass underneath the purple-and-white balloon rainbow at the Bethesda Marriott Sunday night for the EXPO “Extravaganza Dance,” I spot Michael from “Shiddach and Chagall” roaming the hallway.
The band Mixed Company plays tunes like “Whoomp (There It Is)” for folks on the dance floor, while others roam the hallway, passing by the “Decade Dens”—”special salons” for each decade-segregated (20s, 30s, 40s, 50s) age group. The 20-something Decade Den remains fairly busy all evening, with many heads sporting gray hair; the 50-something room is empty almost all night. Perhaps they’re all out on the dance floor.
Dr. David, the guy who ran the “Finding the Love You Need” seminar, is posing for a photo in the 30-something room. I watch from a distance, notebook in hand. And then he sets about finding the love he needs.
He walks over to me. “So, with that out of the way, can I ask you something?” he says.
We step back into the 30-something room and repair to a corner.
“I notice you don’t have a wedding band on your finger,” he says. He smiles and maximizes, no doubt. “So are you Jewish and single?” CP