God, Brains and Hearts

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

love illustration 311 (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
love illustration 311
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)

It happens hundreds of times a day - mostly inthe afternoons and evenings - in hotel lobbies, on park benches and atother public places. If you're not in the know, you won't even catchon. It's the phenomenon of blind dates among somewhat nervous youngmodern Orthodox (and many haredi) men and women interested in gettingmarried. They are absolute strangers except that they have probablyspoken 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."

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

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 affecta decision to commit one's life to a stranger after a relatively shortperiod, without first even physically touching the other or being alonein 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, strikinglybeautiful but still-unmarried Orthodox woman doing a master's degree inbrain research to examine it through personal interviews and studies ofneurotransmitters and hormones.

RACHEL LANGFORD, who graduated from a Petah Tikva ulpana(high school for religious girls) and now lives with her family in BneiBrak, 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-dateexperiences of 11 single observant women and the author - out of 34such women plus secular ones and religious men from around Israel.These are interspersed with chapters about research on how the braininfluences such choices. Langford did not include the ultra-Orthodox(haredi Jews), but she did interview young religious women from a widevariety of backgrounds, schools and styles, from Bnei Akiva to Ezrayouth movements.

The author, a student at the Hebrew University-Hadassah MedicalSchool who is researching potential stem-cell treatment of mice andchick embryos damaged by alcohol and narcotics, has an interestingbackground herself. She comes from the showbiz and artistic Langfordfamily. Her grandfather Barry was a BBC and Israeli TV director; herfather Jeremy a ba'al teshuva (returnee to Orthodox Judaism)and glass artist; her mother Yael a chemistry graduate who became abrainwave enthusiast; and her aunt Caroline an actress and former wifeof 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 thatthe religious dating scene can be quite superficial. Numerous youngobservant women will automatically turn down a suggested match if theprospective partner wears his tzitzit out of his trousers (ornot); has a beard (or not); wears jeans; is shorter than her; wearssandals with socks (or without); lives in the settlements (or not)wears a large (or too-small) crocheted kippa; is more than a couple ofyears older; studies in yeshiva (or not); has served in the IsraelDefense Forces (or not); or has a car and apartment of his own (ornot).

Many young religious men will turn down a suggested wife if sheis not wealthy and shapely; has a car or apartment (or not); is leftwing (or not); will wear the "right" head cover after marriage; hassleeves 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, butthey usually require only a very few meetings before they decide tomarry, and some - especially hassidim - won't see each other againuntil the wedding.

She begins the book with a scene in an ulpana in whichthe news spreads that an 11th-grade pupil has gotten engaged. This isopenly discouraged by the principal and teachers, as girls are notsupposed 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, eventhough she presents all of them in the first person without pseudonyms.She met a young man named Meir, a horse lover like herself, and chattedwith him while on horseback, she in an appropriate skirt (for modesty)rather than riding breeches; as a result, all she got was bruisedthighs. "I didn't hear heavenly music when I looked at him, and noheart-shaped pink stars sparkled in my head..." she recalls in thebook.

Langford has a wonderful sense of humor and a talent for detailwhen she describes a woman's date with a young man who disappears fromtheir park bench when she looks in the other direction for a splitsecond. She searches for him for quite a while, thinking he couldn'tstand her. Finally, she finds him sitting under the leaves of a tree.Embarrassed, he explains that a big dog had come near; since hisbrother had been savaged by a dog, he is traumatized by them.

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

Youngobservant Jews are usually given books on dating written by rabbis andother 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 understandit," Langford comments.

Langford,who has gone on "several dozen" dates over the years since competingher national service, complains about the heavy social pressure tomarry as soon as possible. "I discovered that social pressure comes notjust from outside, but also from the brain," she says, getting to thepure science part of the story.

When a woman smells a baby's head or skin, her brain isaffected by a pheromone - a chemical signal that triggers a naturalresponse. "Her brain tells her she wants to become a mother." Someperfumes contain ylang ylang, which affects the brain and can ignite anemotional connection.

In a chapter of the book, she also notes that when a youngwoman 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 partywhere there are several attractive men or women, your brain registersyour attraction for each one. Romantic love can activate brain activitywith a high concentration of receptors for neurotransmitters likedopamine, which is linked to euphoria, addiction and craving, ornorepinephrine, which is connected to sleeplessness, hyperactivity,heightened attention and goal-oriented behavior. Brain scientists havecompared brain scans taken of people in various emotional states andfound significant differences.

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

LANGFORDNOTES that according to Canadian studies released last year, belief inGod can "help block anxiety and minimize stress," but plenty of stressremains for observant daters. None of the 11 personal stories presentedmarried any of their dates, and many of those involved found theirexperiences uncomfortable. "One of my points was to stress that it isvital for people to improve communications skills, including non-verbalones," she says.

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

If one has gone out for a few weeks but feels the relationshiphas 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, thereare a dwindling number of places where eligible religious men and womencan meet. Many little boys and girls are separated in kindergartens,she says, although she says it is preferable if they do not study inthe same schools from intermediate through high school. If one doesn'tfind "the one" in a youth movement (many of whose branches are now sexsegregated), one needs other places in one's 20s. There is a Jerusalemsynagogue that periodically offers Torah lectures for men and womensitting 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 bepressured and should want a shidduch out of free will. Thereare people who go out only to avoid the social pressure, not really toget married. I say that only the person himself or herself knows whatis good for him or her."