Dame Esther Kustanowitz: The Interview

EstherIf I was single, childless and living in New York City, I’d want to be Esther Kustanowitz. Girlfriend lives on the Upper West Side, makes a living writing columns for the Jewish Week and Generation J while taking on all manner of subjects in her own blogs (My Urban Kvetch and Jdaters Anonymous, as well as Jewlicious) with alacrity and sass. She does improv comedy on the side and is a shaineh maideleh to boot.

Strangely, Esther would rather be me. Well, probably not the fuschia hair, but the married-and-kids part. I keep trying to convince her that it’s really not that fabulous, that having a Jewish-Carrie-Bradshaw-type career brings much more opportunity for fame, fortune and adulation, but she won’t be convinced.

She did me the honor of meeting with me on my solo trip to NYC for bagels and coffee at Zabar’s so I could pick her brain a bit about what it’s like to be an observant Jewish single woman looking for love. In person, Esther is as smart and funny as her literary persona, begging the question: Where is this woman’s man?

As a Jewish dating blogger, do you ever accept a date that you know isn’t promising just so you can write about it?

I know it sounds strange as someone who writes a singles column and runs a site called “JDaters Anonymous,” but I really don’t see myself as a Jewish dating blogger. A jewish blogger who dates, sure, if I’m lucky. But I’ve been very careful not to report on actual dates.

I feel very strongly that someone who’s awful with me might be great with someone else, even one of my readers, so I never want to get in a situation where I trash people I’ve met. I sometimes write about what’s going on in my head, as an emotional purge when I need support from my blogfriends. But I often post that on a delay, so it’s not a direct reflection of that day’s state of mind, and in most cases, is not traceable to a specific person. Plus, the thing with blogging is that you never know who’s reading. It could be the guy or his parents. Or, more likely, it could be my parents, who read me regularly.

So, in a word, no. I don’t accept bad dates for material’s sake. That probably cuts me off from some amazing stories, but I’m really only interested in dating to meet someone, not to have more to complain or write about. There’s enough to blog about without rehashing dates, believe me.

How do you meet most of your dates?
Setups or online, although I pretty much loathe the process of online dating, mostly because people have horrible profiles and could really use the writing services I provide to E-Cyrano.com. I actually don’t meet that many prospective candidates in general. I’m not saying this to sound conceited, but most of my friends just tell me that they don’t know anyone good enough for me. This somehow doesn’t seem possible: it either means that they have very poor taste in friends, or that I’m some sort of demigoddess who can’t date mere mortals (um, no). Most of the time, I’m like, “dude, let me decide.” But I guess it’s to their credit that they’re not fixing me up with someone just because we have complementary biological equipment. That shows some discretion, which isn’t all bad.

How many dates do you go on in a month?
Two, maybe. Seems sad, but true.

What was the worst of ’em (not counting your non-dates?)
Well, I haven’t gone out with anyone truly awful, just guys who were clearly not for me. There was one guy who claimed the fact that he was allergic to all fish except shellfish constituted a divine communication that permitted him to eat shellfish. Same guy spouted some racist garbage about “sending all the Puerto Ricans back”; so I jokingly asked if we could keep Ricky Martin, and he said “no, I’m not a fan of his music.” Like I said, not for me.

And of course, there was the date with another guy when I felt a sharp pain in my chest, like a rubber band had been shot at me. Luckily, he hadn’t shot me with a rubber band, but my bra strap had snapped, leaving me partially unsupported. I managed to survive the rest of the date wearing only half a bra. I don’t think he ever knew…but my discomfort on the last part of that date had nothing to do with him. My discomfort on the first part of the date, however, is another story…

Would you ever date a non-Jewish man? How about a non-religious Jewish man? How does your level of observance factor into what you’re looking for in your mate?

I used to say that there’s no way I could ever love someone who wasn’t Jewish. But as it turns out, that’s not true—I have developed feelings for guys who weren’t Jewish, but I’ve forced myself to transition them into platonic roles in my life. To an extent, I still consider one or two of them among my soulmates, but I believe that there’s got to be someone out there who’s a better fit religiously.

Judaism plays an immense part of my life and it would be difficult to live my life with someone who didn’t share my observance, let alone my faith. My level of observance is a little odd, but adaptable. I have been known to frequent Modern Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, and could go a little bit more or less observant from where I am now, but Jewish observance would still factor in heavily. I have lots of Jewish education running around my brain, and it creates a frame of reference and worldview that is best understood by someone with a similar background. Of course, there may be a point at which I say screw it, I’m going to choose love, in whatever package fate provides. But I’m really not there yet. My answer today, on the cusp of 34, is still “if a man’s not interested in living a Jewish life, he’s not for me.”

Why do you think secular Jews want to date/marry other Jews? If it’s not about religion, then does it just come down to bagels? Or is it because even the most athiest among us holds a secret hope buried deep in our DNA that their child will become the Messiah?

First of all, let me clarify: most Jewish parents think that their children are the Messiah. And this is especially true about how Jewish mothers view their sons, which is, in my opinion, part of the general problem that single Jewish men have when they’re looking for women. Of course that’s a generalization. Which I don’t engage in, generally speaking. Um, what was the question again? What was the question again?

Oh yeah, why feel the imperative to marry Jewish if you’re secular? I believe I asked you that when we met up in New York…I guess some people feel a connection to Israel or to Judaism that isn’t practice-oriented, that a strong Jewish identity isn’t necessarily tied to a synagogue, a JCC or even to an individual connection to the Torah/Bible.
I think things may also be different out of the NY area. Here, everyone’s Jewish by association, if not by birth or by observance. It’s hard to distinguish what’s Jewish and what’s New Yorkish. For instance, on TV, whenever there’s a Jewish character, he’s always dark-haired, loud and abrasive (or if the character is a woman, big-haired, jewelry and fur-clad, and totally “JAPpy”) with a NY (Long Island or Brooklyn) accent. While there certainly are Jews in the world who fit that type, it’s not universally true. Jews come in all shapes, sizes, names and affiliations. Which means that there are a lot of “unaffiliated” people who identify culturally with Judaism. Some of them feel that this identification requires intramarriage. Others clearly believe that they can maintain their Jewish identity without a Jewish spouse.

And then there’s a whole range of people in the middle who think they have to find someone who observes exactly the way they do.

Then there’s the not-inconsiderable parental guilt factor. People do all sorts of things because of parental expectation, for what might be known as shalom bayit, keeping peace in the house. What’s most difficult for me to understand is how parents who raise their kids without any kind of Jewish tradition or education, without any sense that Judaism is important, still expect their kids not to marry out.

I feel very strongly that if you’re going to expect that, you need to provide an environment that’s distinctly identifiable, one that cannot be easily duplicated unless both partners are Jewish—and not just Jewish in name, but Jewish in some sort of practice, whatever it is. Chanukah candles, Passover seder, weekly Friday night dinners before everyone goes out with their friends, going to Israel, or whatever. Something that creates a positive, identifiable and distinct Jewish identity.

And lastly, I believe with perfect faith that bagels (with or without lox) are an equal opportunity food.

4 thoughts on “Dame Esther Kustanowitz: The Interview

  1. Come to Israel – both of you – little jewish campers and all – there’s tons of bagel places here now!! You can feel free to post about your dates with Israelis Esther … or the culture shock of dating Israelis!!! Bring a bodyguard!

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