America’s Biggest Problem: Loneliness…

A National Enquirer Headline, 1980-something

While standing in the market check-out line I was startled to see this statement and for the first time I was in agreement with this tabloid! It hit a nerve in me as I was in the throes of a divorce, family members were in shock, didn’t know what to say so could not offer much in the way of emotional help, and friends, mainly couples, were deciding whose side to take! I had three children at home to care for, daily car-pooling while managing all their activities and my own Temple volunteer work. But I felt like crying all day long because my primary emotion was loneliness.

In response to the article in written by Carole Leskin on January 4 about being alone, with no spouse or partner, children or grandchildren while being family-less struck a painful chord in me. First, I commend her for being brave enough to open herself up to the pain of putting out there for all to read her deepest feelings and my empathy for the sadness that she lacks those blood-binding people who make up our family of origin. Also, I was struck by the realization that so many people don’t “get” what some others carry in their hearts while living their daily life.

First and foremost I must say that I am blessed with children and grandchildren, unlike Ms. Leskin, and want to let her know that I feel her pain, regardless of our different circumstances. I have never remarried—have you tried J Dates? That’s a whole other discussion!—but even with the lovely friends I have, I must confess that I do experience the “two’s-company-three’s-a-crowd” all the time! I will clarify that my oldest and closest friends live 400 miles away so when we are together I am always included and have never felt odd-man-out. But in my local social circle, it is another story.

Here’s a perfect example of one of my painful experiences: I joined a Hadassah chapter hoping to meet and make new friends not long after I relocated to the Bay Area from Los Angeles, after my divorce. There were two women I liked and wanted to get to know them. I had also made a new friend through Temple, though the Temple friend did not know the other two ladies. I decided to invite all of them, with their husbands, to dinner at my home. I had never met their husbands so to break-the-ice I suggested each couple bring a side-dish that was a family favorite that had a story behind it; was it your Bubbe’s recipe, did it come from the old country; was it only served on special occasions? The three women loved the idea and I was excited for the evening. I prepared all the other dishes for the dinner anticipating a lovely evening, though, feeling some anxiety that I had no “other” seated next to me and not knowing what to expect, especially from the men.

My guests arrived at 7:00 and made me feel good with compliments about my table setting and my home. We had time for small talk during hors’ d oeuvres and the dinner discussion was such fun while sharing family food stories, which led to where we all came from, how Jewish cultures varied from different cities and coast-to-coast. There was never a lull in the conversation; everyone participated evenly with no one person dominating the exchange of interesting stories of our childhoods, Jewish up-bringing and, of course, Jewish geography. We sat at the table till after 11:00, way after dessert, then moved to the living room for more chatting. It was midnight before my company left and I felt so pleased and excited that I had the beginnings of some new friendships.

As an unsaid Jewish protocol taught to so many of us, I received a phone call the next day from one woman who thanked me for a lovely evening, delicious dinner and great company! To my great disappointment I never heard from the other two ladies. It stung.

Some three weeks later I bumped into one of the women—one who had not called—in the market. We exchanged pleasantries and she said what a great time she and her husband had at my house. I noticed her basket was filled to the top and she said she was having a dinner party the next evening. My first silent reaction was, “Oh! And I did not get an invitation!” As we parted I was feeling hurt but then realized that maybe it was a family gathering/ a business dinner/people from out-of-town. I let it go.

Two weeks later I was at Temple and saw the woman who had not met the other two couples until coming to my house. She immediately started telling me how much she liked the other two couples and “what a great time we all had at one of the other couple’s home at a dinner party!” Obviously the lady I met in the market two weeks before invited the two couples from my gathering and left me out. Beyond painful.

I do believe if I had a husband, partner or date I would have been included in the invitation. No, I never saw those three couples again, not because I didn’t want to but because they never reached out to me for a weekend activity, just a week-day lunch from one woman where there was a time restraint for me because I worked and she didn’t.

It is the painful reality if you are a single woman and not part of a couple, socialization with husbands and wives is more likely NOT to happen. I said “more likely,” for there are many exceptions. But I know too many women who have had similar experiences of being left out on couple evenings. I will say that many of these friendships with married women can happen if you will accept lunch dates, mostly during the week because weekend social activities are about couples.

I know there are many people with other experiences but please know there are just as many stories of single women feeling left-out. Weekends, holidays, special events can be a very lonely time for singles, men too, but more for women.

During this time I was on the National Board to the Reform Movement’s Sisterhood, now called Women of Reform Judaism, WRJ. Using my resources from my involvement I started to investigate different synagogues around the country, wanting to know if there were any groups, chavurahs or events that were designed for singles and more than the movie-night out or a Yom Kippur dinner, but get-togethers with consistency and substance. Not to my surprise and to my great disappointment, hardly any Temples geared any activities or even expressed any awareness that there was a need for single activities! That led me to wonder how many singles were involved in Temple Boards. More research showed very few singles appeared as big k’nockers for the planning and leadership among our synagogues.

After interviewing a variety of singles around the country two important themes seemed apparent: Singles often felt that their Temple members saw them as “different” because they were not part of an in-tack family (divorced, widowed or widower and never-been married were words that were whispered!). Others expressed definite feelings that because “maybe” they were not as financially secure as other Temple members and could not donate or give large contributions to the synagogue or other Jewish funds that they were passed over as leaders! Please be assured that I did not make this up, as I experienced both these issues as many others had too. I kept my confused and hurt feelings to myself for a long time.

But then I decided to do something. By using my presence on the National Sisterhood Board at Regional and Biennial Conventions I conducted workshops and seminars on Singles within Our Synagogues: A Lonely Place to Be. This resulted in being invited by several synagogues to stand on the pulpit at Friday night services and share the topic with the congregation, invitations to speak at various Sisterhoods, (the word got out to a Conservative Synagogue Women’s Group and they invited me to share my concerns) as I had created a plea for ideas, plans for activities, events and proposals of how to get more singles involved as leaders in a variety of needed ways that was beyond just creating singles activities.

The most important mantra I wanted people to hear was: “You don’t need others living in your home, let alone a husband or wife, to be a family! You, your children, your roommate, your parent, your dog or cat, whoever shares a roof over your head and feels love and companionship ARE A FAMILY!  There is no set definition of a family! The world is changing and so is the reality of what makes up a family, as should the awareness, language and thinking of what constitutes a family!” And that was in 1983!

One of the most heartfelt compliments I have ever received came from a single woman who came up to me after a Friday night service and hugged me while sobbing and said, “You have changed my life!  My beloved cat and I ARE a family! Thank you for giving me some dignity and the permission to suddenly feel whole!” She never knew what she gave back to me.

An added sense to loneliness for single women is friendships with other single women. It is not always an easy relationship to cultivate. Many single women are on the search for a husband. Remember back in the 60s when lots of parents sent their daughters to college to get their “MRS.” degree? Finding a husband takes as much effort as studying for the SATs! There is strategy, figuring out your available potentials, where to hunt them down, how to dress, how much do you reveal about yourself, do they need to know you’ve been married twice and have four kids and don’t have a job? Important questions to contemplate and sometimes a girlfriend can be your best alley, or not!

Like running a race there is definite competition among women who are out to find the perfect man. Some women train for the event and others choose not to. Example: I rarely went to bars with girlfriends; I was more the dinner-and-movie kind of friend, but I was convinced by a very attractive and outgoing gal that this was the way to get yourself seen and known. She had invited three other women, all charming, financially secure and dressed to the nines. We sat in a booth in a lovely hotel bar chatting away when suddenly the lady who organized our soiree gave a little yelp and pushed the other two women to her left almost to the ground as she quietly screamed, “Look! Look at the door! They are gorgeous!”

In her gorgeous four-inch heals she sprinted to the door towards three men and to my amazement she deliberately bumped into one of the potentials—I don’t even know how she assumed they were single!  Hmmm, maybe they didn’t have to be—and then she dropped her purse smack in front of the men and my table mates and I watched in awe as one man graciously bent over, picked up the bag, handed it to her, engaged her in conversation and with the ease and suave of an experienced bar-hopping-male-seeking-female escorted her as they walked to the bar with the two other gentlemen following right behind! And there the four-some sat drinking and laughing while the women she had invited had no more contact with her for the rest of the evening!

I went home feeling a great sense of loneliness and betrayal. When women in the same circumstance cannot support one another, making friendships a contest and one-ups-men-ship and puts the desire to be seen by the opposite sex above the companionship of sisterhood, it often then inhibits many women from trusting the motive of other women.

Loneliness is visceral, crying comes easily and feeling as though the world is passing you by is real. Being in a crowded room can be the loneliest place you never want to be. When talking to singles, Temple services, especially the High Holidays, is the most often named time singles experience a sense of aloneness as  you watch the glances between couples, or, as I have noticed numerous times, when men touch the back of their wife’s neck or run their fingers through their spouses hair. It is so loving and sweet but beyond painful if you are alone. (I once was invited to an Orthodox High Holiday Service and recognized so many local single women there and realized because the seating was separated by the Mechitza, screen, it took off the pressure of not being a couple!)

I share my experiences and thoughts to bring awareness to an issue that in 2016 still exists, hoping that actions, behaviors and words that bring pain and hurt to vulnerable people can be looked at with a mindfulness view while knowing that each one of us can make a difference to another. Some choose to be single and like it that way. Not being a couple causes much grief for many men and women. Please look around, invite a single person to join you, you will be doing a mitzvah.

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