God, Brains and Hearts

A book written by a researcher looking for the neurological and even genetic factors behind falling in love.

January 24, 2010 10:37

love illustration 311. (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)


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It happens hundreds of times a day - mostly in the afternoons and evenings - in hotel lobbies, on park benches and at other public places. If you're not in the know, you won't even catch on. It's the phenomenon of blind dates among somewhat nervous young modern Orthodox (and many haredi) men and women interested in getting married. They are absolute strangers except that they have probably spoken a few times on the phone in preparation for their first meeting, or were briefed on the potential marriage partner by relatives, friends, rabbis or matchmakers who suggested the "shidduch."

Unlike secular, traditional and even some religious Jews who follow less-rigorous practices, members of this sector do not "pick up" others or get picked up at parties, bars or on the street, and the aim is not having fun or going to bed. Everybody participating in this dating game - in their late teens, early 20s and sometimes beyond - is serious about getting to the huppa as soon as possible.

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It is said that 40 days before birth, God decides whom the person will eventually marry (bashert). Making matches is also said to be as difficult as splitting the Red Sea.

What psychological, social and even biological influences affect a decision to commit one's life to a stranger after a relatively short period, without first even physically touching the other or being alone in the same room?

Although this phenomenon has been chronicled in a top-rated Srugim (Crocheted Kippa) TV series on YES, it took a 27-year-old, strikingly beautiful but still-unmarried Orthodox woman doing a master's degree in brain research to examine it through personal interviews and studies of neurotransmitters and hormones.

RACHEL LANGFORD, who graduated from a Petah Tikva ulpana (high school for religious girls) and now lives with her family in Bnei Brak, has produced a 138-page Hebrew book on the subject.

Titled Darush: Nasich Al Sus Lavan (Wanted: A Knight in Shining Armor) and available at www.rachelilangford.com, it offers the blind-date experiences of 11 single observant women and the author - out of 34 such women plus secular ones and religious men from around Israel. These are interspersed with chapters about research on how the brain influences such choices. Langford did not include the ultra-Orthodox (haredi Jews), but she did interview young religious women from a wide variety of backgrounds, schools and styles, from Bnei Akiva to Ezra youth movements.


The author, a student at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School who is researching potential stem-cell treatment of mice and chick embryos damaged by alcohol and narcotics, has an interesting background herself. She comes from the showbiz and artistic Langford family. Her grandfather Barry was a BBC and Israeli TV director; her father Jeremy a ba'al teshuva (returnee to Orthodox Judaism) and glass artist; her mother Yael a chemistry graduate who became a brainwave enthusiast; and her aunt Caroline an actress and former wife of actor and director Assi Dayan.

Rachel (known to friends as Racheli), had a more conventional childhood as a religious girl who loved horseriding.

She concedes in an interview with The Jerusalem Post that the religious dating scene can be quite superficial. Numerous young observant women will automatically turn down a suggested match if the prospective partner wears his tzitzit out of his trousers (or not); has a beard (or not); wears jeans; is shorter than her; wears sandals with socks (or without); lives in the settlements (or not) wears a large (or too-small) crocheted kippa; is more than a couple of years older; studies in yeshiva (or not); has served in the Israel Defense Forces (or not); or has a car and apartment of his own (or not).

Many young religious men will turn down a suggested wife if she is not wealthy and shapely; has a car or apartment (or not); is left wing (or not); will wear the "right" head cover after marriage; has sleeves and hemline that are "too short"; or if she is older than him. The mind boggles.

There are some different criteria among haredim, she says, but they usually require only a very few meetings before they decide to marry, and some - especially hassidim - won't see each other again until the wedding.

She begins the book with a scene in an ulpana in which the news spreads that an 11th-grade pupil has gotten engaged. This is openly discouraged by the principal and teachers, as girls are not supposed to date until after graduation, even after national service. But the fact that the girl will soon be married - and quickly pregnant - gives the 17-year-old automatic prestige, she writes. "How romantic!" her girlfriends swoon.

ONLY THE first dating story can be attributed to Langford, even though she presents all of them in the first person without pseudonyms. She met a young man named Meir, a horse lover like herself, and chatted with him while on horseback, she in an appropriate skirt (for modesty) rather than riding breeches; as a result, all she got was bruised thighs. "I didn't hear heavenly music when I looked at him, and no heart-shaped pink stars sparkled in my head..." she recalls in the book.

Langford has a wonderful sense of humor and a talent for detail when she describes a woman's date with a young man who disappears from their park bench when she looks in the other direction for a split second. She searches for him for quite a while, thinking he couldn't stand her. Finally, she finds him sitting under the leaves of a tree. Embarrassed, he explains that a big dog had come near; since his brother had been savaged by a dog, he is traumatized by them.

In another dating escapade, the young man insists on walking kilometers to a "perfect place to talk," but the girl gets bogged down in an dirt path that suddenly turns to mud; because of the rules against touching, he does not extend his hand to pull her out, and her clothes and limbs become filthy.

Young observant Jews are usually given books on dating written by rabbis and other experts. But, like one young man who insists on accompanying an "unsuitable date" to her bus stop even when she doesn't want him to, "there are cases in which they learn the protocol but don't understand it," Langford comments.

Langford, who has gone on "several dozen" dates over the years since competing her national service, complains about the heavy social pressure to marry as soon as possible. "I discovered that social pressure comes not just from outside, but also from the brain," she says, getting to the pure science part of the story.

When a woman smells a baby's head or skin, her brain is affected by a pheromone - a chemical signal that triggers a natural response. "Her brain tells her she wants to become a mother." Some perfumes contain ylang ylang, which affects the brain and can ignite an emotional connection.

In a chapter of the book, she also notes that when a young woman is at the acme of her menstrual cycle - when she is ovulating - she becomes very critical of other females so as to overcome "competition" from them.

She quotes studies showing that when you walk into a party where there are several attractive men or women, your brain registers your attraction for each one. Romantic love can activate brain activity with a high concentration of receptors for neurotransmitters like dopamine, which is linked to euphoria, addiction and craving, or norepinephrine, which is connected to sleeplessness, hyperactivity, heightened attention and goal-oriented behavior. Brain scientists have compared brain scans taken of people in various emotional states and found significant differences.

Beware: A surge in dopamine can make you be unable to think logically for a while. Functional magnetic resonance instruments (fMRI scans) can't actually read people's minds, but they can display emotional complexity, the author notes. There are even genetic influences, she says.

LANGFORD NOTES that according to Canadian studies released last year, belief in God can "help block anxiety and minimize stress," but plenty of stress remains for observant daters. None of the 11 personal stories presented married any of their dates, and many of those involved found their experiences uncomfortable. "One of my points was to stress that it is vital for people to improve communications skills, including non-verbal ones," she says.

The author found that if she runs alongside a potential mate, she feels better toward him than when she doesn't; the endorphins released by exercise are apparently involved. If the young man's eyes face upwards, "his brain is in a visual phase." If she does the same, Langford maintains, "this can improve communications. This has been researched."

If one has gone out for a few weeks but feels the relationship has no future, Langford advises being polite but telling the truth. "Don't ask why and don't argue," she advises.

She bemoans the fact that with increasing religiousity, there are a dwindling number of places where eligible religious men and women can meet. Many little boys and girls are separated in kindergartens, she says, although she says it is preferable if they do not study in the same schools from intermediate through high school. If one doesn't find "the one" in a youth movement (many of whose branches are now sex segregated), one needs other places in one's 20s. There is a Jerusalem synagogue that periodically offers Torah lectures for men and women sitting on different sides of the aisles without a physical divider, she says, and this should be copied.

Langford concludes the book with this sentence (in Hebrew): "Let us choose our way to chose a mate." Young people should not be pressured and should want a shidduch out of free will. There are people who go out only to avoid the social pressure, not really to get married. I say that only the person himself or herself knows what is good for him or her."

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