Cupid’s Arrow: A Letter to My Daughter

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Book Heart Pages
11 Feb 2009

My dearest daughter:

Last night we had a problem. Not a horrible problem, not something that was your fault, and yet I know our reaction caught you by surprise. I think you still don’t understand why we thought there was a problem in the first place. So now I owe it to you to sit down and explain exactly what the issue was and why we reacted the way we did.

You came home with a book your friend lent to you, looking forward to a good exciting read. The novel certainly looked dramatic: the back cover promised a page-turning thriller love story about a girl kidnapped and rescued. The art work on the cover depicted prominently the face of a beautiful blonde teenage girl, flanked by the brooding, dark face of the kidnapper and the clear-eyed, strong-jawed face of her hero.

What a shock when you found out that your father and I didn’t want you to read it! I think it was the first time we ever told you not to read something—we, who have always encouraged reading. What could be wrong with an intriguing adventure story that coincidentally has a hefty dose of romance? Haven’t we already censored all the bad stuff by banishing television from our home? And you were all the more surprised because the book came from your friend who is a nice girl from a “frum,” TV-free family, whose parents nevertheless obviously let her read the Harlequin-style novel.

The answer to your question is that the book, and many others of its ilk, communicate ways not only of acting but of thinking that are directly opposed to the kind of mindset we want you as a bat Yisrael to develop. We don’t need you reading teenage romances in the same way we don’t want you to watch television or go to movies: because kashrut is not only about what goes into your mouth. It’s also about what goes into your eyes, your ears, and your brain.

When it comes to things you put in your mouth, it’s easy to identify what is not kosher: a cheeseburger; a pork chop; pepperoni pizza. The rules are clearly spelled out in black and white. It’s much harder to identify ideas that aren’t kosher. Ideas are not physical objects you can look at, and ideas are more complex and subtle than a piece of meat or a bottle of wine. A non-kosher idea can be woven in amidst other ideas and slip in unnoticed, which makes it all the more dangerous: you can’t even identify your enemy. A book or movie that seems so innocent, so “pareve,” may contain major or minor themes that are quite at odds with our Jewish values, and we barely notice their presence because we get so absorbed into the story and entertained by the music, jokes and drama. (How many sitcoms, even wholesome ones of a previous generation, have the children responding to adults disrespectfully, but couched in such a cute and funny way there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it?)

There’s nothing anti-romance in Torah, and there’s no denial that men and women become deeply attracted to each other. The Torah world has no problem with men and women falling in love with each other.

What it does have a problem with, however, is the romance novel, Hollywood-movie version of love. The way “love” and romance operate in the non-Jewish world of today, both in the media and in real life, contain many aspects that are very much at odds with the way Torah Jews believe men and women should meet, begin to love each other and build a life together.

Having said that, it’s only fair to spell out for you exactly what it means to “fall in love” in the non-Jewish media. You can’t grow up in America without having some idea of what non-Torah-based love is supposed to be about, but I bet you never sat down and really thought about the premises and assumptions that lie behind the myths and images. So, to identify what goes on when boy meets girl in the popular media…

Chance Encounters

The first significant difference between Hollywood and the Torah world is in the way a couple meets. The Hollywood-movie couple always meets by chance. It is spontaneous, without the participation of family or friends. In much of European and American literature, the hero and heroine are solitary individuals unfettered by ties to family or community. They are always completely independent when they make life choices; they don’t call their parents to ask what they think, they don’t call a friend or consult their local clergyman.

That freedom may seem attractive at first glance, with its lack of accountability to parents, friends or teachers. But it has a flip side. It can be very lonely to be on one’s own (ask any single person who lives by him or herself). A person alone cannot benefit from the guidance of other people who care about him or her. We believe that the proper place for a person is within a community; it is through our connections to family and friends that we develop and grow as human beings.

Jewish tradition realizes that when people get married, it is more than the union of two individuals. It is the union of two families, and of two people who come from those families. If the families have no common ground, no shared goals and outlook, then their children will have a harder time getting along with each other and with the extended family. So we make sure that parents are involved from the very beginning in choosing spouses for their children. Who knows you better than your parents?

While many teenagers think their parents don’t understand them in the least, it’s probably less true than they think (the idea of a “generation gap” was never a Jewish one). Most parents always want what is best for their children and what will make them happy. The statistics bear out that those marriages without familial input are less successful. People are very often not the best judges of what is best for them.

Which is why we don’t encourage our young people to “meet by chance.” Chance meetings can lead to inappropriate, unsuccessful relationships, and to behaviors that do not befit a Torah-observant Jewish person. Why tempt fate?

Love“at first sight.”

In the movies and books, love is instantaneous and automatic. Love occurs when a man first lays eyes on a woman (or vice versa), and finds him/her so amazingly attractive and compelling that his heart stops and his life is changed forever. This particularly suits us in modern-day America, where we like our gratification instant and ready-made. So it behooves us to have our relationships spring fully formed into life, without having to spend long hours cultivating them.

The expression “love at first sight” is a contradiction in terms. How can you “love” a person you only just met? You can feel attracted to that person; you can think he or she is tremendously good-looking or feel an attraction to the sort of image he or she projects via styles of dress, bearing and expression. You can be impressed by his or her achievements, social standing, and the things other people have told you to get you interested. But you can’t feel love, because love is something that develops over time, through give and take and shared experiences, through getting to know another person and liking and respecting them more the more you get to know them. But you can’t really love what you don’t know and have no relationship with. When the Hollywood hero says, “I love you!” it would be more accurate if he said, “I desire you deeply.”

So why do many people claim to be “in love” after only a few brief encounters with another person? One answer is that they are “in love with love.” It’s so exciting and flattering to have someone you find attractive like you back that it makes people feel they are floating off the ground. They feel wanted, admired, valuable. They are in love with this feeling as much as they are in love with the person they have just met.

Or, it is fair to claim they are in love with an idea, a promise: a glimpse they have upon meeting this person that he or she may have the potential to fulfill all their dreams and desires. The image projected by the new beloved is an image that suggests, truthfully or not, that he is the person who will give you everything you desire in a spouse.

But let the buyer beware! An image can be true, or false, or simply incomplete.

III. Thrill of the Chase/Obstacles Make the Heart Grow Fonder

Any good story needs a conflict or challenge to make it work, and in a love story, the action often revolves around the challenge of a person “in love” trying to get the other person to love them back. The whole focus is on getting the relationship to the starting point of “catching” a mate: the guy has to slay a dragon or otherwise do something impressive that will wow the girl, or the girl has to connive and reinvent herself until the guy finally sits up and takes notice of her. Of course it is assumed that all you have to do is catch the right person, and then you can coast through life without having to put any more effort into the relationship.

Now, any person who has spent any length of time being single will be the first to tell you that finding the right person is no small challenge. Admittedly there are few greater thrills in life than finding someone to love who wants to love you back.

In books and movies, the conquest of another person’s heart often provides the entire suspense and excitement of the plot; once accomplished, the story ends and we close the book. The excitement of liking someone and being liked back is the fuel that allows a relationship to blast off. Just bear in mind that blastoff may be the end of the movie, but it is definitely not the end of the story.

And what would the chase be without obstacles?

One obstacle can be opposites. As if the opposite pull of male and female weren’t enough, the exaggeration of differences between the two parties makes the romance that much more dramatic and exciting. What challenge or intrigue exists in marrying the boy next door, as opposed to some exotic stranger from another context altogether? It is human nature to be intrigued by what is new and different; it is more romantic when the unlikely occurs, and “love” pulls down the barriers between people of different classes, races, nationalities and so forth.

But without wishing to throw too much cold water on such exciting stories, let me say for the record that the sociologists tell us that relationships are more likely to succeed when the partners come from similar backgrounds. It is much easier to make a permanent relationship work when two people share similar values and ways of looking at the world, when they want the same things in life and don’t have to constantly explain themselves to the other. The prince may be madly in love with the poor girl, but he will be embarrassed and disappointed when she does not know how to run a palace or behave in court; the war bride may go home with the American soldier and find she is miserable away from her familiar family, language and food, while he in turn becomes impatient with her poor communication skills and odd ideas.

There is already plenty of potential for misunderstanding in male-female relationships simply by virtue of the fact that men and women have different natures and ways of expressing themselves—the old men are from Mars, women are from Venus problem. Imagine having to also struggle against warring sets of expectations and priorities! Imagine the potential for perceiving things differently and misinterpreting each other’s desires and intentions! Compromise is necessary in every relationship, but a marriage of opposites will require much more compromise than normal, and not everybody is up to this level of challenge.

All the great “love” stories involve overcoming some sort of obstacle to the couple getting together. There the initial dislike that is really a smokescreen for smoldering, unacknowledged attraction (e.g., Pride and Prejudice, or Gone With The Wind), warring families (e.g. Romeo and Juliet), an inconvenient spouse (Jane Eyre), different origins or social class (Pygmalion/ My Fair Lady), a long-buried secret from the past (Rebecca, Jane Eyre again), etc. That’s because it’s human nature to want things we can’t have more than we want things we have easy access to. The challenge is what makes it exciting, what increases the characters’ determination to get together no matter what the cost. The element of challenge also increases the reader’s conviction that this love must really be something special if they are willing to go to such great lengths to obtain it.

If there are no challenges or conflicts, there is no story to tell. So in any compelling love story there must necessarily be walls for the prince to scale to reach the princess, a crazy wife put away in the attic, disapproving parents, a war or revolution to separate the lovers.

But what happens once all the challenges have been overcome and the couple has to get down to the often-tedious business of making a life together? Imagine that Romeo and Juliet simply got married and settled down like a regular couple. Would their passion have continued at the same fever pitch after Romeo submitted to the daily grind of going to work and Juliet had a baby and was exhausted by two A.M. feedings? How about fights between and about the hostile in-laws? How can a couple put all their energy into their passion for each other when sooner or later they have to make a living, care for children, fulfill community obligations? Better to kill off the lovers before all that passion can die its own natural death; better to just leave us with the sweet fantasy of a red-hot love whose fire never diminished.

After They Walk Off Into the Sunset

The real excitement, the real challenge, does not lie in getting yourself down the aisle. Yes, it’s a challenge, often a tough one, to find someone you want, who you feel is the right person to build a life with, and who also wants you back. But the real challenge is making the relationship work once the glass has been smashed under the groom’s heel.

Hollywood doesn’t spend much time on that one. But Jewish literature does. Shalom bayit, peace in the home, is a matter of utmost importance to us, and one which our most distinguished leaders have consecrated many hours to. Think of it this way: if you somehow acquire a fortune, you have a responsibility to manage it wisely, to make sure you don’t lose it and preferably increase your wealth even more over time. But a good spouse is worth much more than a fortune! The value of the ayshet chayil (woman of valor), and surely the ish chayil (man of valor) as well, goes way beyond rubies. Your challenge is to keep all that human richness as fresh and uplifting as the day you acquired it, to make your personal investment produce ever-increasing spiritual and emotional returns within your home.

Back to Your Book

So, my dear daughter, I’m sorry if we seem to be depriving you of an exciting book when we ask you not to read a silly teen romance. We just don’t want you getting too absorbed and enthralled with ways of thinking and behaving that are not for us. Hashem made the world so that girls and boys should feel attracted to each other, and that such feelings should be so powerful that they can see a couple through many long years of living and raising a family together. But we try to govern all our conduct—as individuals, as partners in marriage, as members of a community—with the thought of Hashem and His Torah before us, trusting that if we truly follow those paths, we will not go wrong, and we will not wrong other people. We want to be an “am kadosh”. So, darling, don’t cheapen your mind. Just trust that when the time comes, you will find your very own intended and what you will feel will be a thousand times more exciting and elevated that anything a non-Jewish book can offer you. I can’t wait to share your excitement when the time comes and, God willing, walk you down the aisle with your father to start a great adventure of your own.

Barbara Bensoussan has worked as a college instructor and social worker and written for many Jewish magazines, newspapers and websites. She recently celebrated the release of her first novel, A New Song, from Targum Press and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and six children.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.