“You don’t have to do anything,” Irenstein tells her.
Glib as that sounds, his response reflects his experience. He’s used to the ex-Hasidic women he coaches inquiring about “rules”: “If I go on a date with him, won’t I have to sleep with him?” “What should I do?” “Don’t women have to dress up to go out at night?”
“They’re raised to do what they’re told,” Irenstein tells me. “They always did whatever their husbands and rabbis said. I try to teach them that secular life is about doing what you want, not what you’re ‘supposed’ to do.” In Sara’s case, bars are key to absorbing the lesson. “She has this image in her mind of what ‘bars’ are. But bars are a vital part of secular life. They’re a big part of dating.”
Beautiful with thick hair and long eyelashes, Sara holds intense eye contact that implies not “I’m comfortable in my skin,” but “I dare you to take me down.” Once you get her talking, she is startlingly open about the details of her life, and about how disappointed she is that she’s spent the last few years essentially alone. One of the main setbacks for OTD women like Sara is isolation—many socialize with other OTD’ers or no one at all.
Because they don’t know what’s socially appropriate and what’s not, they often keep to themselves rather than risk social humiliation. They’ve done the hard work of leaving their communities, but they have no idea how to replace their old lives with new ones.
“There are things you can do,” Irenstein tells Sara. “For people like us, dating isn’t intuitive. We have to learn. People say ‘go with the flow,’ right? ‘Be yourself?’ ” He shakes his head. “Trust me,” he says, laughing, “don’t.”
“OTD women grapple with how to make social cues clear even when they’re forming new friendships,” said Lani Santo, executive director of Footsteps. “With men, they wonder how to be honest about their feelings and how to communicate when they want to be ‘just friends.’ ”
“Who’s cute?” I ask her. “Who’s your type?”
“I guarantee you,” Irenstein says, “the guys you’re attracted to are attracted to you.”
“People are friendly,” Irenstein tells Sara. “You can talk to them. You can go up to those people at the bar and ask, ‘How’s the food here?’ and they’ll tell you.”
Within seconds, they’ve pulled Sara into the conversation. As the five of us chat and joke around, one of the guys slings his arm around Sara’s shoulder. She stiffens for only a second before moving closer to his body. For the first time in her 22 years of life, she’s engaging with secular men.
When we finally break away from the group and return to Irenstein, Sara is ecstatic, trembling so violently, she drops her phone. “We have to leave now!” she squeals at Irenstein. “I’m shaking!” She laughs as she pulls him to his feet. “I can’t stop shaking!” She shows us her quivering fingers. Once we’re out on the sidewalk, she says, “I think one of them liked me!”
“What did I tell you?” Irenstein says. “Everyone will love you.”
By Diana Spechler - slate.com