US Jews make unorthodox proposals

For observant Jews, "popping the question" is not what it used to be.

September 25, 2006 03:35

love marriage wedding. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

All it took was one phone call from her boyfriend. Aviva Jacob's life would never be the same. She knew Yoni was injury prone. He was an athletic guy, loved sports and did what it took to win... even if that meant tearing his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). But she also knew that he wasn't prone to exaggeration, that if he told her to take a car service instead of the subway, he meant it, and that if he was unable to finish sentences, it was because he was in excruciating pain. So she raced to the hospital, dashed up the stairway and barged through the doorway on the sixth floor to see a sulking Yoni perched up against the table with his leg in an air cast. The crutches were leaning on his chair. "I saw him and I was like, 'Oh my God, this is not a joke, this is for real,'" Jacob recalled four months later. Yoni convinced her that he needed to see a doctor at a nearby hotel. Alone at last, he got down on a knee and ripped open the cast. Inscribed in bright red letters and floating purple hearts, were the words, "Will you marry me?" "I didn't want to just do the typical romantic thing - y'know, the stuff straight out of the book," Yoni said. "I wanted it to be the ultimate surprise." After weeks of Google searches for "awesome engagement," endless brainstorming sessions with friends and hours of self-reflection in the shower, Yoni made up his mind. "Listen, it was either that or I was going to dress up as a homeless man and follow her down the street, asking for money," Yoni said. "I didn't want to scare her that badly, so I stayed with the first option." While Yoni's antics might seem unorthodox or even inappropriate, he's not alone. These days, thanks to a mix of culture, entertainment and technology, getting down on the proverbial one knee won't cut it anymore... even for American Orthodox Jews. "It's the topic of discussion at every wedding or engagement party - 'How'd he do it, how'd your guy propose to you?" Yoni said. "The single guy overhears this and he thinks, 'Man, I wanna be known as that guy with the good proposal.'" This should come as no surprise, given a cultural environment where "proposal experts" receive airtime on Oprah and TV shows such as The Learning Channel's Perfect Proposal have transformed this phenomenon from a private moment between two individuals into "must see TV." Jewish Web sites such as have joined the trend, broadcasting reports on engagements to an eager audience of friends and family. "There is an element of de-privatization here that has turned what was once a private issue into a legitimate topic for public consumption," said Jenna Joselit, a professor of American and Modern Judaic studies at Princeton University. "In the past, you would talk about how you met or your plans for your wedding," Joselit said. "But never in a million years would you ask, 'How did you it?' That was a private thing. Now, it seems as if it's become the topic de jour." In Talmudic times, the act of marriage was more a financial transaction than a romantic process. The fathers of both parties bargained over dowries, negotiated an agreement and signed a contract. Today, romanticism has penetrated into Orthodox proposals, as it has clearly done in American pop culture as well. However, Orthodox engagements are usually not nearly as long as in secular society. "You've got to understand that there's no such thing as 'simply going out' in Orthodox circles," said Elli Fischer, an Orthodox rabbi who used to be in charge of the University of Maryland's Hillel. "If you're an Orthodox Jew and you are dating, it means that marriage is on the radar." Fischer, 30, said long engagements were discouraged among religious Jews. He described engagement as an "unnatural state" due to the restrictions placed on the couple by Jewish law until marriage. "They both know [marriage] is something they have to talk about, that it's inevitable. So there's a question, how do you advertise it, how do you make it more interesting?" Fischer said. He said engagements averaged about six months. Year-long engagements, he said, were unheard of. "When you show her the ring, her jaw won't necessarily drop to the floor because the element of surprise is no longer really there. So you've got to figure out how to make her jaw drop." For most Orthodox American men looking to get married, this causes added stress. "I definitely think there's pressure in Orthodox circles for guys to come up with these unbelievable proposal ideas," said Jona Rechnitz, 24, a graduate of Yeshiva University. "The girl always wants to know when it's gonna happen and her friends always want to know how you are gonna do it." Rechnitz certainly defied expectations. "I was thinking helicopter ride or asking on the jumbotron [scoreboard] at [Madison Square Garden] Garden, but everyone does these things. I had to do something crazy." And so one morning, he woke his wife-to-be at 5 a.m., whisked her away in a limo and flew her to Disney World in Florida... for two hours. They hopped on one or two rides, moseyed around the park and then finally, in front of the Magic Castle, Rechnitz got down on one knee and proposed to his shocked girlfriend. They immediately caught a plane back to New York City, where friends and family were waiting to celebrate. "I know his personality - that he's fun and crazy," said his wife, Rachel, "and I knew he'd do something different. But I wasn't expecting this." Rechnitz had been so nervous that Rachel would be disappointed by his proposal that he first decided to throw her for a loop - he faked it. "I took her to a Starbucks two weeks before I actually popped the question, to see what her reaction would be like if I proposed to her without any special games," Rechnitz said. "As she took a sip of coffee, I got down on a knee and presented her with a black box." "You should've seen her face... It turned bright red. She was like, 'You're not really proposing like this?'" Rachel said that she would not really have minded had he proposed at Starbucks, but Rechnitz remained adamant - she expected better. "It's called 'pulling shtick,'" Fischer said about the day eight years ago when he surprised his wife with a limousine, two dozen roses and a diamond ring outside her graduate school. "It's not quite a prank; that has a negative connotation. It's more like a creative ploy." Israela Meyerstein, a marriage and family therapist with 30 years of clinical experience, said that although she had not seen any academic studies on the phenomenon, she was aware of a growing trend. She believes such elaborate proposals are harmless and may even add a positive dimension to the matchmaking process prevalent in the Orthodox world. "It's such a serious process...with both the guy and the girl interviewing each other about all of these issues," Meyerstein said. "These gimmicks add a little bit of playfulness. And that is a positive thing as long as it is not taken to the extreme." Meyerstein said, however, that the focus of engagements should not be an extravagant scheme, but rather romance and intimacy. For Yoni Rosenblatt, 24, a physical therapy student at the University of Maryland, the allure of proposing in an elaborate way proved enticing, but not enough to forgo romance. Initially, after much consultation with his best friend, Rosenblatt had a plan. He would feign getting hit by a car driven by his girlfriend and her sister. Rosenblatt would fall to the ground, clutching his knee in supposed pain. His girlfriend would immediately rush to his aid, only to see him on one knee ready to propose. Luckily, Rosenblatt decided it was a bad idea. "Why would I do something like that?" he said, six months after marrying his girlfriend, Rachel. "It might be creative, but it's not romantic." (JTA)•

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