Sex & Love
Breaking Up is Hard to Do—Especially in the Orthodox World
Silence surrounding engagement break-ups leads to social stigma. It doesn’t have to be that way. Read More
It wasn’t quite lunchtime or dinnertime when I met my friend at a cafe on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It had been five weeks since my broken engagement, and this was the first time I was seeing my would-have-been bridesmaid, who lives three blocks from my Washington Heights apartment.
Dressed in her black skirt and J Crew vest over her Kiki Riki, she arrived at promptly 4:30. She asked me about school, she asked me about my roommates, but not once did she ask me how I was doing. Not once did she bring up the ‘incident,’ my source of emotional turmoil.
Within half an hour, I was fed up. I needed to talk. Didn’t she see that my eyes were red and bloodshot? Didn’t she notice the fifteen pounds that had melted off me in the last month? Didn’t she see the bags under my eyes?
“So, want to know about my ‘hashtag’ broken engagement?” I asked, with a hint of desperation in my usual sardonic tone.
She stared at me. After a moment, she became over-animated. No, she didn’t need to hear about it, she said, but she did want to comfort me: “It’s, like, so good that people aren’t treating you like a stigma,” she said over our salads. When I look visibly confused, she added, “like, broken engagements are stigmatized, but it’s so good that everyone’s treating you normal and, like, not a stigma.”
I took a sip of Merlot. So this was how my life was going to be now. Great.
We had finally finished cleaning up my fiancé’s parents’ Jerusalem apartment from the engagement party they threw us the night before, when his parents told him they needed to speak to him. Later that night, he went on a walk with his father. I stayed in their apartment watching TV—after all, how long could it possibly take? When they came back more than three hours later, he told me we needed to go for a walk. Protesting because of the bitter cold, I asked if we could just talk inside. “You’ll want to be outside for this one,” he told me.
I layered up, donning his thick pullover, black thermal leggings, a black knee-length skirt, striped knee socks covered by black winter boots, and my black coat. I guess my subconscious was already prepping me for the upcoming mourning period.
With that, we stepped onto the narrow, winding roads of Palmah Street together for the last time. We had many memories of these roads—my fiancé had moved to Israel over the summer to conscript to the army, and this was the third time we had been in Jerusalem together in the last six months.
“My father wants us to postpone our engagement indefinitely,” he said.
Seeing as we’d been engaged for just more than five weeks, and that his parents had encouraged us to have a short engagement, I was at a loss.
“What does that mean?” I asked. “Does it affect our practical plans?”
He wasn’t sure.
“Where is this coming from?”
He was silent.
“Talk to me—what just happened over the last three hours?”
“What I just told you,” he said.
“But why did that take three hours? What else happened?”
He didn’t know.
After dancing this confusing tango for about fifteen minutes, I asked if we could speak to his parents—after all, they seemed to be the ones with the answers.
After waiting outside a theater for twenty minutes, his dad walked out sporting a grin fit for a Cheshire cat. The air was tense. He asked about our day, or something mundane like that. “I was wondering if you could explain what’s going on,” I blurted out, seemingly incapable of small talk.
“We need to test your relationship,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve gotten to know my son more this month and now I see that he’s irresponsible. He’s not ready to get married. He’s not a man.”
“Huh?” I said, in total disbelief of what this father, who had wanted us married within four months, was now saying about his own son. “I don’t see that in him—could you give me an example of what you’re talking about so I can understand?”
I looked at my fiancé hoping he would stand our ground, champion our cause. Nothing. He looked more like an injured child than I’d ever seen him in our two and a half years together. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.
“Look,” I said, trying to digest everything that was happening. “Could we sit down in the morning and talk about this? Maybe if you and your wife have specific concerns we can alleviate them or work on them—we’d be more than happy to do that.”
He looked at his son, no longer addressing me, the girl he clearly regarded as unfit to clean his shoes.
“I’ve decided and that’s it. Can I go to sleep now?” With that, he walked away.
Naturally I broke down on the spot. My fiancé said nothing.
On the first day of my last semester of graduate school, my fiancé ended our engagement over the phone. I called to wish him goodnight. He told me that he didn’t know what he wanted. I was confused. We had discussed this. He wanted to marry me. He wanted to find a way to make it work with his family. It was difficult, but that was what he had said he wanted.
“Is this the last time we’re ever speaking?” I asked, assuming he would say no and we could build from there.
“Yes,” he said choking back tears. “Know this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
“Sucks,” I said. You can always count on me for my eloquence and emotional expression. “Good luck. Bye.”
Click. By severing the phone connection, I felt like I had severed a vital limb. But where were the paramedics?
In a national online poll of 565 single adults conducted by Match.com for Time Magazine, 20 percent of participants said they had broken off an engagement in the past three years, and 39 percent said they knew someone else who had done so. Forty percent of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. And everyone and their brother breaks up with a significant other at some point. Break-ups are painful, certainly, but they’re not heavily stigmatized.
But in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, a broken engagement is regarded differently than it is in the secular world. Our community places so much importance on marriage—in some circles, it is still the marker of ultimate success. When a couple becomes engaged, they meet a societal ideal. If they break the engagement, for whatever reason, they then fail to meet this ideal. A break-up tarnishes both parties with failure, even if they’re otherwise successful individuals. People whisper. They’re uncomfortable. What, they want to know, is wrong with these two people?
So people don’t talk about their break-ups, and friends skirt around the topic. Silence creates stigma—which leads to more silence, which leads to more stigma. My father, quoting Job and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, encouraged me to take my heartache in silence and leave everything up to God. He was there for emotional support, but he didn’t think I should be speaking about my relationship.
This pressure—and stigma—is felt more acutely by women than men in the Modern Orthodox community, I think, because status is conferred less readily upon us. In recent years, Modern Orthodox women have taken leaps in carving out spaces of equality within the framework of halakhic Judaism. My current roommate is one of the founders of the Washington Heights’ Kol B’Ramah partnership minyan, in which women can lead parts of the prayer service. Another close friend has taken on the cause of women’s leadership in Jewish communities. Her mission is to ensure that women can become presidents of synagogues, make announcements from the pulpit, and lead communal (though not ritual) events.
I have found that my friends willing to champion the role women in Judaism have been more understanding of me, and more accepting of my broken engagement “situation.”They don’t see me as broken. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because they know that women are more than silent voices behind a partition in synagogue. They know that a woman’s worth isn’t measured solely by her status as a wife, fiancé, or partner.
The first time I went to shul in Washington Heights after “the incident,” I bumped into a group of girls I had known briefly in college. They wished me mazal tov, but when I gently explained “I’m not engaged anymore—but it’s OK! How are you?” they made up an excuse to walk away faster than Severus Snape confronted with shampoo.
So I understand why my would-be-bridesmaid was concerned I might be treated like “a stigma,” and why my father encouraged silent stoicism. But over the last few months, I’ve come to the realization that if we just spoke more honestly about our break-ups, the stigma would be diminished. People would no longer literally cross the street to avoid me, concerned I might infect them with my single-hood (or perhaps because they don’t know what to say).
As my relationship crumbled, my voice and ability to tell stories, to reflect, kept me sane. I spoke to my friends. I spoke to my family. I was never silent. I experienced a traumatizing misfortune: the person I trusted most in the world, the man I would have spent my life with, let me down. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me—or even wrong with him, for that matter.
Just as there is new a openness to talking about sex education and mental health issues in Orthodox communities in order to de-stigmatize those topics, why don’t we talk about break-ups and romantic disappointments more honestly? This will help undo the fear of being seen as “damaged goods.”
Has it affected my dating life? Well, some people ask uncomfortable questions about me, like, “Why didn’t her fiancé want her? She seems like a catch, but obviously there’s something more…,” but frankly, I don’t want to date those people. I have realized that anyone who views me as stigmatized isn’t someone I can build a life with—our ideologies and perspectives are too different.
Rachel Delia Benaim is a freelance religion reporter whose work has been featured in Tablet Magazine, The Diplomat Magazine, and The Gibraltar Chronicle, among others. She lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.