Friday, April 27, 2012
Ex-Hasid Turns Dating Coach
Irenstein tries a new angle: “Who do you think wants sex more,” he asks Sam, “men or women?” Sam concedes that this may not be a universal truth, but in his experience women totally want it more.
According to Irenstein, lack of self-confidence pervades the recently ex-Orthodox, who refer to themselves as OTD, or “Off the Derech” (derech is Hebrew for path). Once they’ve gone off the path, for a variety of reasons including loss of faith, distaste for the lifestyle, and longing to educate themselves beyond the Jewish texts, OTD’ers are like immigrants in the secular world, unsure of the language and customs of dating, battling the voices of their parents and rabbis, who warned them that touching the opposite sex before marriage would incur God’s wrath.
“There are three problems specific to the ex-religious when they first try to date,” Irenstein says. “Inexperience, having no identity, and having no understanding of the opposite sex.” That makes sense when you consider how insular the Orthodox communities are. Premarital sex, even premarital touching, is prohibited. And there is a rule for everything, including which shoelace to tie first and what to do with one’s facial hair. OTD’ers who come to Irenstein never had the awkward, albeit formative, experiences the rest of us had—slow-dancing with some height-inappropriate partner in seventh grade, locking braces with someone in the back of a movie theater, getting to “second base.” Their questions for Irenstein range from the peculiar such as, “Is it OK to pay a girl $80 to go out with me?” to the commonplace concerns of men on the New York dating scene: “How many dates before I should allow her to split the check?”
At 29, Irenstein was married with two daughters, living in the Hasidic community he’d grown up in. He remembers his 6-year-old coming home from school and telling him that non-Jews existed solely to witness the good deeds of the Jews. He’d wanted out of Hasidism for a while, but that was the day he pulled his kids out of school and laid plans to move. “I would have done anything,” says Irenstein, “even given up my own life, to make sure my kids weren’t forced into cult living.”
Having grown up in Israel and Brooklyn, Irenstein landed in secular New York with a third-grade-level education and a mediocre grasp of English. When he and his wife divorced, he found himself on foreign ground. “I had no idea how to talk to women,” he says. “I’d never even looked one in the eye.” Irenstein’s former Hasidic community, Gur, is one of the strictest sects, as well as one of the most sexually squeamish. Even married couples aren’t supposed to kiss, and they’re allowed sex only for purposes of procreation.
Ryan Pollack, a 35-year-old Footsteps member, reminisces about his early days in the secular world. “I met girls,” he says, “but I was constantly in the ‘friend zone.’ I had no clue how to take things to the next level.” When he met Irenstein at Footsteps, Irenstein invited him to a pool party. Pollack brought a girl with him and Irenstein pulled him aside to say, “She likes you. Kiss her.” Never having kissed a girl, he was scared, but with Irenstein’s encouragement, he went for it. “That changed my life,” Pollack says. Soon after, Irenstein took him shopping. Since growing out of baby clothes, Pollack had worn nothing but the requisite white button-down shirt and black pants. “He showed me Calvin Klein,” Pollack recalls. “He showed me blazers! I started wearing blazers with jeans and the response I got was incredible. People started looking at me. Girls would say, ‘You look so handsome.’”
After a couple of hours of talking in circles with Sam, about whether or not he wants to be in a relationship (“some people do want a relationship, and some people don’t want a relationship”), about his dating experience (“I don’t know how you define that”), and about whether or not he’d like to just have some sex—OK, that one was my question (“That’s hard to answer because the answer has a lot of implied meanings”), Irenstein leads him out into Union Square to talk to some real live women.
We stand outside Barnes & Noble, watching the people pass. Irenstein points to a woman sitting nearby, engrossed in her BlackBerry, and starts feeding Sam lines: “Tell her you’re waiting for somebody and that it looks like she’s waiting for somebody,” Irenstein suggests. “Say you can babysit each other for 5 minutes.”
By Diana Spechler - Slate.com.