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September 27, 2016 / 24 Elul, 5776
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Purim And The Tyranny Of Beauty: A Plea to Mothers of Girls in Shidduchim


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The gathering was held in a beautifully appointed hall, decorated with cozy little tables draped in elegant tablecloths, with a sumptuous smorgasbord in the center of the room laden with fruit platters, petits-fours and drinks. It was clear that the organizers had paid fastidious attention to the smallest detail, and had labored hard to make the physical environment as elegant and dignified as the general atmosphere that prevailed in the room.

I was jolted by two different things when I opened the door to the hall. First, the sheer numbers of single girls in attendance made my jaw drop. I had hardly expected this kind of attendance, never suspecting that so many young women would have the courage to show up. It could not have been a comfortable situation for any of them – even the most “chilled” and outgoing amongst them must have felt a tad awkward. (Personally, I felt so ill at ease and nervous, all I wanted to do was pick up my pocketbook and flee). I gave them tremendous credit for doing something so proactive and gutsy. I stood uneasily with some of the other mothers, waiting for the facilitators to arrive, making small talk. Most of the mothers with whom I conversed loved the idea, but I was deeply anxious about navigating the brief encounters: How to gently ferret out vital information from these sweet young ladies without making them feel interrogated, evaluated and ultimately…judged? (Which in fact was the case.) How to end the meeting in a tactful and kind way when it became clear that they weren’t for my son? Should I feign enthusiasm and interest after the crucial few seconds in which I had already made this determination to spare their feelings, or should I move on more quickly, to maximize the time I had left? My stomach churned. How do I dance this waltz without stepping on anyone’s shoes? I should have been thinking about my son, but all I could do was worry about the girls.

The second thing that jolted me when I opened the door (and which I know will incur many a mother’s wrath, but which I feel I must speak about) was the conspicuous and glaring lack of make-up on a significant percentage of the girls’ faces. I was stunned. The girls knew why they were there; there was no attempt at pretense on anyone’s part. The mandate of the event was to give them the opportunity to present themselves in the best possible light. Why weren’t they?

Let me tell you about this particular population of girls: They were between the ages of 21 and 24, and mostly seeking “learning boys.” (The organizers’ plan for the future is to hold additional events for other age groups and different categories of boys: learners/earners, professionals, working boys only, etc.) They were eidel, frum, sincere, intelligent, and committed to the learning ideal. But even the most temimasdika ben Torah is looking for a wife whom he finds attractive. Yes, spiritual beauty makes a woman’s eyes glow and casts a luminous sheen over her face; there is no beauty like a pure soul. Make-up, however, goes a long way in both correcting facial flaws and accentuating one’s assets, and if my cursory inspection was indeed accurate (and I apologize if the girls used such natural make-up that I simply couldn’t tell), barely any of these girls seemed to have made a huge effort to deck themselves out.

Since most of the young women at chasunas seem quite presentable, I couldn’t shake off my sense of disbelief as I looked around now. What were they thinking? How had their mothers allowed them to leave their homes with limp hair and unadorned faces? With just a little blush, eyeliner and lip-gloss, they could have gone from average to pretty. There are very few women who can’t use a little extra help. Even the most celebrated magazine models can look downright plain when stripped of all cosmetics, al achas kamah v’kamah girls who are not born with perfect features. So what was going on? Were they in denial about the qualities young men are seeking in future wives? Yes, it is somewhat disillusioning that men dedicated to full-time Torah learning possess what these girls might perceive are superficial values, but brass tacks: they want a spouse to whom they are attracted. The young men themselves might be too shy or ashamed to admit it, but their mothers won’t hesitate to ask what for some is the deal maker/deal breaker question, namely: “Is she pretty?”

Thankfully, every one’s conception of attractiveness is different; beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and a woman’s intellect, personality and soul can have a tremendous bearing on the way in which her beauty is perceived. Still, there is trying, and then there is not trying. The mystery perplexed me: Why hadn’t some of the girls gone overboard in presenting themselves in the best possible light? I felt like shaking them in despair. As I further scanned the room (I had started assuming the role of disembodied observer once I realized that I was at the wrong event; my son is learning full time now, but plans to pursue a Ph.D so he wasn’t appropriate for this particular group), I could not help but notice the number of girls who could have vastly improved their appearances–gone from plain Jane to truly beautiful–if they simply made some effort. The truth of the matter is, I mulled, one way of looking at the story of Purim (and there are so many different prisms through which it can be viewed) is to see it as the narrative of the tyranny of beauty ruling every society in which Man (and woman) has ever lived. Vashti incurred Ahachshverosh’s wrath because he wished to parade her beauty and she refused (bad skin day). The women of the kingdom who vied for the Queen’s throne were given twelve months to prepare for the beauty pageant – why hadn’t some of the girls at the shidduch event taken a mere half hour?

Yitta Halberstam

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