Elyakim Kislev opens his book on happy single life with a scene from his childhood about growing up in Jerusalem in a modern Orthodox family. He describes how he went to shul with his father and would notice a widower in his thirties, with his only son. He pitied him because no wife waited for them at home with a warm Shabbat meal. In those circles, he was the man you didn’t want to become.
Fast forward to Kislev’s adulthood, and a changed Kislev sometimes felt a bit like that pitied man. He’d attend Orthodox Shabbat dinners (whether in Jerusalem or New York, where he lived and studied), facing subtle judgment.
“You know the situation that you feel at the Shabbat table and there are three couples and you,” Kislev said at a Jerusalem café after a day’s work as a faculty member at Hebrew University specializing in the fields of social policy, minorities, and single studies. “And you say: ‘I’m good with my situation,’ but somehow in the air there is this feeling that I need to justify myself or kind of talk about the person that I’m dating now, so I’m kind of having this statement that: ‘I’m joining you, don’t worry!’”
Today, Kislev, 38, lives in Tel Aviv (“the refugee camp for singles”), no longer Orthodox but “religious” in his own way, pioneering “singles studies”
as author of Happy Singlehood
: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living (University of California Press).
Until the last few decades, public policy makers, academic, social, and governmental institutions, literature and films have largely underrepresented this population, regarding “single” as an unelected, default, even undesired status. But while gay rights, women’s rights, and ethnic minority rights have fought to be seen and heard, he is proud to make the case for “singles’ rights.”
“Some people told me in my interviews that sometimes they’re so upset with the question: ‘Do you want to be married,’ so that you want to respond: ‘Wait, are you happy with your married situation? Maybe you want to divorce your wife? Are you sure you want to be married? Can I offer you the single way of living? It’s actually great!’”
It shouldn’t be “politically correct,” for example, for someone to automatically fix up a single person unsolicited. He compares it to someone asking a black person if they would like to be white.
“You can ask very sensitively: ‘How do you want me to approach you? How do you identify yourself? ‘Are you interested at all in this marriage thing?’ And maybe then you can ask.”
Of course, not all singles are happy with their state, but many are – or they at least would be if only society would let them. Big cities aside, conservative societies, such as Israel and the United States (where birthrates are higher than the OECD average), often begrudge singles their happy solo living, making them feel inferior, incomplete.
IN THIS well-sourced and researched book, Kislev thoroughly explains the growing popularity of the “single by choice” phenomenon, providing real-life examples culled from interviews and blogs with singles. And for those who are “single by circumstance,” laying off on the pressure will allow them to enjoy the search for a lifelong mate and also choose more wisely.
In Happy Singlehood, he also addresses the matter of single “discrimination.” Policy makers continually come up with policies to assist families but neglect singles’ needs. Employers sometimes expect childless singles to stay later at the office; they get virtually no tax breaks; and no solutions are imagined for their communal and social needs, especially for older singles, divorcées and widowers. They often must fend for themselves.
Singles are a growing population – a Pew study estimates that singles account for some 25% of the population in the post-industrial era. The move from agrarian life, opportunities for financial independence and mobility in the digital age, urbanization, women’s liberation, worldwide secularization, and the welfare system have reduced the economic, social, and demographic need for marriage and child-bearing as a traditional family unit.
Well-versed in the Bible from his Orthodox background, Kislev does not believe that being single – as one metaphysically desirable state – goes against the Biblical saying: “It is not good for man to live alone.” The Bible actually portrays a gamut of marital and romantic arrangements.
“Exactly the same book, Genesis, continues to tell us about the history of a very complex family with tense and complex relationships: beloved and less-beloved women, mothers of high status and mothers of inferior status, and fertility problems. This is the human reality and the biblical story does not try to hide this reality. Therefore, we also need to receive the entire spectrum.”
Furthermore, loneliness is not necessarily solved by marriage.
“We need to understand that singles are better in forming social relationships and having friends and they derive greater joy and happiness from friends. In this sense, we need to get rid of all notions about lonely single people. It’s not true.”
HE DESCRIBES singles as a separate “class” deserving of respect and legitimacy. They are often among the most creative, social, adventurous, independent and generous populations. Married people may be in as much – or more denial – about their emotional state.
“You can be married and the loneliest person on earth and you can be single and feel so connected.”
What about the unique type of personal development that comes through loving – and fighting with – an intimate partner?Sometimes, he said, being alone can bring with it equal or superior moments of life-changing self-discovery, evolution and reflection.
“Certainly, a partner can certainly support personal development through mutual feedback and development. But sometimes a relationship is an escape, a kind of a white noise that distances people from themselves and from what they are destined to do.”
As for bearing children, more options exist for childbearing out of the framework of marriage, such as single parenting and co-parenting, for those who would like to have them. Still, he doesn’t extol one form of coupling, non-coupling, parenting, or non-parenting over the other. He simply strives for singles to be included as equal, legitimate members of society.
“There is a full spectrum and we need to accept the whole spectrum,” he said.
Kislev, currently single, is not at all opposed to marriage for himself and others. It was actually his brothers’ divorces that provided some of the impetus for writing the book.
“We’re so used to the ‘happily ever after story,’ and it’s so ingrained, and Disney knows very well how to be in favor of women, blacks, Asians, and ethnic people – which is great, of course, we should support it – but they still promote the ‘happily ever after married’ story.”
He thinks animated Moana may have broken that mold, one of the first Disney movies with a strong female heroine who has no love interest. Other films may be hinting to a new wave – like Her, in which a man has a love affair with a digital woman. Human relationships with AI are the subject of his next book.
“We can say it’s weird, but I don’t come to it with judgment. We should just observe it and be open that times are changing.”
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