Events with Esther
(A longer version of this piece appears at MyUrbanKvetch.)
Recently, Jews observed the holiday of Purim, which thematically centers on disguise, withheld information, and political intrigue. To commemorate these themes and celebrate the inner parts of our lives that we might not always feel comfortable expressing, Jews traditionally dress in costume. Some costumes are fun, or (taking a cue from secular cousin Halloween) present an excuse to sex it up a little, at least for the one day. But if the theme was exposure and honesty, my costume choice was clear: I would become the clichés that people write (over and over again) in their online dating profiles.
How would I do this? Could I wear “a little black dress and jeans and a t-shirt”? How would I visually manifest “working hard and playing hard”? Should I get a fake arm, throw it around my shoulder, and label with a sign that says “my ex – but don’t worry, he’s out of the picture”?
I started with the little black dress, and attached to the front of the dress a whiteboard of sorts – then let people add their own clichés via stickers. And then the public art/commenting phase began. Afterwards, I knew I needed to analyze this piece of public commentary for the audience of online daters and beyond, so that we can all learn to be ourselves and not clichés.
Alongside “work hard and play hard,” “I like a fancy night out, but also a night in,” “friends and family are important to me,” and “a perfect date is when you don’t want it to end”- as well as “looking for someone with a good head on his shoulders,” which was scribbled on a sticker in Hebrew – were several categories of clichés:
The Blame Game: These comments blame someone else for your presence on JDate, usually a parent or a friend. “I never do this,” “I can’t believe I’m on JDate,” “my friends made me join.” However you got here, you’re here and so is everyone else, so get over it.
“Duh” statements: “I love travel and sushi,” “I love to laugh,” “communication is the most important thing,” and “love to hike and bike.” They don’t really tell you anything about the person in question: it’s like saying “I’m a carbon-based lifeform who enjoys breathing oxygen and locomoting bipedally” (except less interestingly). And as for “my mom thinks I’m a catch,” we’re so glad for you, and are certain that this focus on your mother during a search for a life partner is not at all negatively influencing your results.
One of my upcoming events has me presiding over a group discussion at NYC’s Skirball Center on the subject of “dating and Jewish ethics.” (November 28th, $10, or free if you email me to register in advance.) Among the items I’m hoping to address is the issue of “full disclosure” when it comes to setting people up. How much about a person’s past (or present) do you reveal before a first date? How much of it is really important, and how much is hearsay, conjecture, and personal bias?
I’ve argued before, in this space and in others, that we often know too much about our blind dates that influences the framework in which we see them. Even before we’ve met, if I know someone’s age or profession, I might make certain negative assumptions, and hold to those assumptions even if the date itself is going well. (And by “I,” I’m using myself as “Everydater.”)
Some things are objective: a person is so many feet tall, or is an accountant. (Sorry, accountants. I don’t know why I’m picking on you.) But then there’s the other stuff that people tell us about prospective dates that we probably don’t need to know in advance of a first meeting. “He’s not that tall or attractive, but he’s a nice guy,” does not have a single gal looking eagerly forward to the date. “She’s kind of boring, but I understand that once you get to know her, she’s really got a good heart,” sounds like a compliment. But her prospective dates will likely remember the negative, rather than be open-minded. Not every person has a good sense of humor; not everyÂ 40-year-old looks like an old man; not every accountant is boring. (Although in my experience, it takes an exceptional person to defy that last norm.)
In reading this post at SerandEz, whose blog I don’t visit enough, I became aware that this isn’t just my problem. Especially within the religious Jewish community, there are certain things that people leave out of their conversations with the matchmakers. For example, if someone was in some way “off the derech” (off the path of religious Judaism) at some point in their past–instances of eating disorders, drug use, depression and promiscuity might be examples–that might be left out. Not exactly a lie, but not exactly truth either. Aside from a kind of disturbing but not unsurprising tendency to connect homosexuality with child abuse, the comments section reveals some interesting theoretical situations and responses to some of the questions brought up by the issue of honesty in matchmaking situations.
So the larger question is, how would you handle such situations? Say you’re setting someone up with someone else who “has a past”–would you reveal all, or be selective about what you reveal? And what if you’re the one being set up….would your answer differ? Would you want to know about high school drug use, even if the person is reformed? What about learning disabilities or a history of depression? What about whether a person has been married and divorced before?
How much would you want to know about a person before you even get to know a person?
What is gossip? Is blogging gossip? Is discussion of celebrity weirdness gossip? What are gossip’s defining qualities?
OK, I admit that there’s a substantial element of self-promotion to this post. This Tuesday night, I’m facilitating “Gossip on the Internet: A Sin or Just a Sign of the Times?” at the Ideas Cafe at the Skirball Center on the Upper East Side. (It’s $10–which is a bargain itself, considering it gets you the content of the event itself plus wine, coffee and cheese/snacks, but if you email me, I’ll get you comped. See “Plus, for you, a bargain” below.)
It’s not directly related to dating. (For that Ideas Cafe, just wait for November’s session.) But seriously, folks–you’re actively engaged in blogculture, perhaps even reading Gawker, Defamer and other self-described gossip blogs. You regularly participate in our critical discussions of various topics, sometimes even attacking the opinions of others (because attacks on others themselves would never happen here)–at some point, does that cross over into the realm of gossip? And is gossip only gossip if it’s about people who are good? What if we said that Hitler’s mother was a hamster and his father smelt of elderberries? Would that be gossip? And does it matter whether or not it’s true?
If you’re in NYC and are free, come on by to the Ideas Cafe (more detailed info–including a SPECIAL OFFER–below). But if you’re not, feel free to discuss here.
A descriptive paragraph to entice you: Our sense of right and wrong tells us gossip â€“ however pervasive â€“ is wrong, but restraint is hard. In the age of the Internet itâ€™s next to impossible. With the most powerful, ever-expanding grapevine in human history at our keyboarded fingertips, gossip is both easier and more viral. Anonymity removes accountability. But where is the blurry line between the useful and the malicious? How do we decide whatâ€™s true and whatâ€™s hearsay, whatâ€™s harmless and whatâ€™s slander? What ethics apply? And should celebrities, who choose to live in the public eye, be treated differently from the rest of us? Join us to discuss these and other questions at Ideas CafÃ©, a Tuesday evening salon in a Jewish environment open to all voices.
Plus, for you a bargain: There’s a $10 entrance fee–cheap considering it includes wine, coffee, cheese and other snacks–but which you can have waived by being on the magic list. To be on the magic list, email me by Tuesday morning, and your entrance will amazingly be comped! Ta-da!
WHAT Ideas CafÃ© â€“ a weekly salon for open discussions of issues of the day â€“ will consider the guilty pleasure of â€œGossip on the Internetâ€ and explore whether itâ€™s a â€œsinâ€ or just a sign of the times â€“ and what rules and ethics should apply.
WHEN 8 p.m. Tuesday, October 24, 2006
WHERE Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning. Enter at 10 East 66th Street (Nearest subway stop: #6, East 68th St.)
COST $10 at the door ($5 for Skirball Center students).
NOTE For information and weekly topics visit www.ideascafe.org or call (212) 507-9580. The Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning â€“ a unique New York City educational facility in its fifth year â€“ offers a wide range of programs and courses exploring what it means to be a human being and Jewish in the 21st century.