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single women enjoy lives of meaning and connection

Alone, but not lonely,
single women enjoy lives of meaning and connection.
By Rahel Musleah

Ellen Tillman won’t call herself single. "I say I am not married. Single seems to imply that I stay home and knit and have lots of cats." No cats, she clarifies, but she knits happily with a group of friends once a month.

Though she’s never been married, she’s far from being a desperate single whose life is on hold. Tillman, 54, bought a condo in Rockville, Md., when she was 35 and worked as an economic consultant until she started her own insurance and financial planning business at 42. She gets her "kid fix" from her 18-year-old niece, her 14-year-old nephew and her cousin’s two children. She values her freedom and independence, as well as her friends. "I don’t sit around and say, ‘How horrible; I should be married,’" says Tillman.

Tillman is, in fact, part of a new majority. According to a New York Times analysis of census data, 51 percent of women in 2005 said they were living without a spouse (never-married, widowed or divorced). The list of famous never-married singles includes Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and journalist Maureen Dowd. Economic advances stemming from the women’s movement make single life possible for more women.

Any Web search under "single women" will not only turn up hundreds of dating sites, self-help books and magazine articles, but also the Alternatives to Marriage Project, which advocates equality for unmarried people (, and information about National Singles Week in September.

"Nearly all American women will for some of their adult lives exist singly—that is a statistical fact," writes Betsy Israel in Bachelor Girl:The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century (Morrow). "Some of us will enjoy it, some will feel relieved or depressed or will have no particular views on the subject. And yet we all know that ‘single’ as a social entity has its unique complications. Namely, other people’s sexist attitudes."

Israel traces "single phobia" to antiquity, but her own research examines stereotypes from the industrial revolution to contemporary society. "The media refrain remains the same: No matter what the single woman says, she can’t really be happy … And for a long time, I think, women believed it." But single life is no longer a "half-life," she concludes.

No one would call Rabbi Sally Priesand’s life a "half-life." Ordained in 1972 as the first woman rabbi, Priesand knew at 16 that she wanted to be a rabbi. "My parents gave me the courage to dare and dream," she says. "When I began attending classes at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, the faculty thought I’d come to marry a rabbi—not to become a rabbi. Once I was going out with a classmate for a long time and a professor said to him, ‘When are you going to do the school a favor and marry her and help us get rid of her?’"

In her rabbinical school interview, Priesand said she planned to have a nursery next to her office, but she ended up making a conscious choice not to marry. "In the early years I made decisions based on what was best for women in the rabbinate—not necessarily what was best for me," she says.

Because Jewish tradition encourages marriage and children, she worried that she was not a "proper role model"—until she discovered a Talmudic teaching that if you partner in the upbringing of a child who is not biologically yours, it is as if you are the parent. "Having spent 25 years in one synagogue—Monmouth Reform Temple in New Jersey—I feel I have lots of children." To those who advocate that every Jewish family should have two children and a third for those lost in the Holocaust, she replies: "I fall on the side of quality instead of quantity. People should take more responsibility for their own Jewishness."

When Priesand retired last June, she didn’t consider moving away from the community: "My temple is my family," she declares. On a broader scale, her synagogue doesn’t plan separate events for separate groups. Instead, a single parent with children may be matched up with an older couple whose grandchildren live far away.

Likewise, involvement in Jewish organizations is Tillman’s way of contributing to Jewish continuity. She serves on JWI’s National Leadership Council and this year will chair the Women’s Pomegranate Campaign (gifts of $1,800 and over) for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Though she was wary of how she would be accepted as a single in a synagogue setting, the Conservative egalitarian synagogue she joined eight years ago has accepted her warmly. The friends she has made, both married with children and unmarried, often include her in their Shabbat and holiday celebrations.

Like many other singles, Rikki Fayne, 39, didn’t plan on living a single life. For years, she pictured herself as a traditional wife and mother. But as she reached her early 30s, she says, "I saw myself more with a baby—and the ideal husband was the blurry background." Through donor insemination, she now has two children: Madeline, who will soon turn 6, and Sophia, 3. "It’s not that I didn’t want to get married," says the fourth-grade teacher who lives in Tarzana, Calif. "It’s that I wasn’t willing to give up having children just because I wasn’t married."

Fayne belongs to a local chapter of Single Mothers by Choice; seven of the eight members are Jewish. The women, most of whom decided to have children around age 40, serve as a support group and family for one another. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Jewish women may account for a large percentage of single mothers by choice.

"In the Los Angeles area, my life is not outrageous in any way," says Fayne, who notes that she and her friends describe themselves as "strong, independent women" rather than singles. Though there are bittersweet times when she wants to share her children’s milestones with someone else, she says, mostly she "treasures the moments when it’s just me and the girls. This is my family. This is my reality and I embrace it." Fayne has put dating on the back burner. Her brother and her cousin’s husband serve as male role models for her children.

A year ago, she joined the Reform synagogue she grew up in, enrolling Madeline in religious school and becoming active in the sisterhood and a social action group. Her parents have passed away, but their presence still hovers in the synagogue. "Every time we go to services, someone tells them, ‘I knew your grandma.’ I wanted them to be in a place where they had a history," says Fayne. She attributes some of her independent thinking to her parents’ example. "They had a wonderful marriage, a love story every couple should aspire to, yet they were also independent."

Of course, says Fayne, there are times she thinks about how different her life would be if she were married—but it would also be different if her parents were alive, or if one of her children were a boy instead of a girl. She is even happier that she decided to have children early because some of her older friends struggled to conceive.

Hagit Bartuv, 38, a Jerusalem resident who lives an Orthodox lifestyle, is in a "new relationship." But, she says, if she is still single in two or three years, she will start her own family through donor insemination. "The rabbis accept it, even encourage it over remaining childless," she says. "The doctors say, kadima, do it now. Don’t wait until you’re in your 40s."

Bartuv, the project coordinator at the Yakov Herzog Center for Jewish Studies, wrote in the modern Orthodox Edah Journal about the difficulty single women face in the Orthodox community, where, even past 30 and with successful careers and rich personal lives, they are still regarded as children, "as appendages of their parents…. The single woman internalizes the social concept that a woman does not become a woman until she marries and establishes her home," she wrote. "Society’s voice becomes an inner, critical voice, inducing a deep sense of something missing."

For instance, says Bartuv, if she is invited to a family bar mitzvah, she doesn’t receive her own invitation, though she lives by herself. Instead, she is included in her parents’ invitation along with her 15-year-old brother, while her younger married siblings receive their own invitations. Her parents try to counter the stereotypes: Bartuv recalls that her grandparents bought her married siblings silver hanukkiot. When they passed away, her parents used part of the inheritance to buy her a hanukkiah and inscribed it in Hebrew, "A memento from Saba and Savta."

Everyone, says Bartuv, desires love in their lives. "I want to have someone to share life with and to take the car to the garage—even if I know I can do it myself. Yet it’s often an illusion that all the sadness and loneliness will go away the minute you find a partner."

For Shelley Kleiner (not her real name), an urban Jewish professional in her 40s, singleness is rarely a topic of discussion or a part of her self-description. "My identity as a single person is more how people view me than how I view myself," she says. "Whether I’m happy or content does not have to do with being single. The things I’m unhappy with—job security and family health problems—would be problems even if I were married." When people remark that they are impressed that she has been able to buy two adjoining apartments in Manhattan (she remodeled to create one large apartment), she replies that she doesn’t see that as the mark of a person.

Kleiner says she had a 10-year relationship, dates regularly, "frequently enough has romantic companionship," and always has one male friend with whom she shares emotional intimacy. She takes an active role in the lives of her niece and nephew, who sleep over at least once a week. She spends holidays and vacations with family and friends, both married and single.

What does make her unhappy is when people view her as a "subcategory" or a stereotype. "Being single is a segregating factor in the Jewish community," she says. In contrast to the inclusiveness of Priesand’s congregation, Kleiner has found that "Jewish organizations are not especially inclusive of different family styles. Usually, there are events for singles and events for couples, events for men and events for women, but not events for people."

Chicago-based psychotherapist Karen Gail Lewis, 63, author of With or Without a Man: Single Women Taking Control of their Lives, says that many in her clinical practice blame themselves and embark on a destructive "fix-it" solution: "If I can identify the problem with me, then I can fix it, and then I won’t worry about being single." She teaches women how to shift their thinking away from the subtle cultural messages they may not even know they are receiving. "For instance, if you’re told, ‘You’re too choosy; give a guy a chance,’ you may not trust your judgment or intuition." To help women take control of their lives, she asks them to imagine meeting the man of their dreams—but not for eight years. Asks Lewis: "What would you do in the meantime?"

"Singles need to make themselves heard that they will not buy into stereotypes," says Lewis, "ever-single" herself and in a long-term relationship. "Being married or single should be like having long or short fingernails—just a fact of life."

Rahel Musleah is an award-winning journalist, author and speaker. Visit her Web site,


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