Somewhere between speed dating and cocktails with guys she used to baby-sit, Wendy West got frustrated.
The 35-year-old realtor looks like Bridget Jones with a twist of Manischewitz: crooked smile and polished apple cheeks, a master's degree, and a killer sense of sarcasm. But while she may be utterly confident in her self-worth, Mr. Right didn't get the memo.
It's a fate shared by thousands of women. But West's quest is a bit more vexing: She's looking for a fellow Jew. In Cleveland, it might be easier to find a heterosexual priest.
Religion itself isn't really the issue. West's shoes aren't exactly on a first-name basis with the temple steps. But when history has done its best to wipe you out, you acquire a certain tenacity to keep your people afloat. Comfort is also at stake: Many Jews want a mate who understands the importance of matzah ball soup and crippling guilt, lighting Sabbath candles on Friday nights, sending the kids to Israeli summer camp, and wine that tastes like grape juice.
"Certain things, only another Jewish person would be able to identify with and understand," says Joel Gabelman, a 30-year-old from Pepper Pike.
So while the Irish and Italians eventually marry Germans and Slavs, Jews tend to stay loyal -- especially in Cleveland. Nearly 90 percent of married Jews here mate within the faith.
Ideally, West's mate will only be "mildly Jewish" -- i.e., he may not go to temple, but he calls his mother and enjoys Sunday bagels and lox just the same. Such men are a dime a dozen in Manhattan. But in Cleveland's eastern suburbs, the pool is ever-shrinking.
According to a recent study, only 10 percent of the area's 81,500 Jews are in their twenties and thirties. That's what happens when you nag your children to become lawyers and accountants -- they're too busy studying patent law to breed.
And since they're largely congregated around Beachwood, Lyndhurst, and Pepper Pike, everyone knows everyone. If this were an episode of Grey's Anatomy, no one would be getting laid.
"It kind of gets a little bit incestuous," West explains.
The older she gets, the more disheartened she becomes. The brassy, smart-ass shtick only goes so far. Somehow, it hasn't been enough to win her a snuggle buddy on Saturday nights. "I'm definitely looking for somebody who's highly intelligent," she says. "I'd rather be single than settle for somebody."
She tried JDate. With 600,000 "active members worldwide," it's the Jewish equivalent of Match.com, proving that the horrors of mating recognize no theological boundaries. Most of the profiles, West notes, are "just pathetic."
Davidlawson99, a divorced 32-year-old, simply writes: "like to have a kid with u."
EATAPICKLE implores, "WHERE IS MY JEWISH PRINCESS?"
AlexTheCat7 calls himself a "fun and excitement loving, adventure and trill seeking kind of a dude. To loosely describe myself I would say: 'Take the world in a love embrace'"
The guys West did end up meeting never made it much past coffee. Either they didn't hit it off or she knew someone they had dated. Undaunted, she dutifully attends happy hours and fund-raisers organized by the Jewish Community Federation. But the pickings are slim. Either the guys are way too young -- "I really don't feel like going and hanging out at a bar with 22-year-olds. I'm really not a pedophile" -- or they're simply unattractive.
I'm supposed to procreate with these people?
"My eggs are hiding right now," she says. "My tubes are tying themselves as we speak."
She's not the only one -- and it's getting worse. The upwardly mobile just don't breed. Already, only a quarter of local Jewish families have young kids at home.
But when your faith has survived centuries of war, Inquisition, and genocide, you're not about to surrender to bad dates. So the Federation recently invested $10 million in a campaign to attract and keep young Jews. Committees formed, and surveys fanned out all over the country, asking people what would make them move to Cleveland.
"Dating has been a focus from day one," says Scott Simon, chairman of the task force.
What he can't promise, of course, is that women like West will find their soul mates. When legions of girls are sitting at home playing Scrabble because all the cute, straight Jewish doctors are taken, no amount of Mexican Fiesta mixers can help them. What they need is a miracle.
It begins almost at birth, this fascination with marriage. At 13, your Bat Mitzvah suddenly makes you an adult, which means you get to stand under a disco ball in front of all your relatives, swaying at sweaty-arm's length with the boy who used to tease you in Sunday school.
In college, you attend High Holiday services sponsored by Hillel, learn to apply lip gloss and feign interest in the tribulations of the pre-law set. You graduate and get a good job with health benefits. Still, Grandpa keeps asking when he'll get to sing "Hava Nagilah" at your wedding. After a while, you start getting invitations to Shabbat dinners, where the guests conveniently include that nice Jewish boy who just finished med school.
"I let everybody fix me up -- my mom, random people in stores," says Kerry, a petite 25-year-old.
Before they can marry, though, they have to meet. And the first hurdle to attracting young Jews to Cleveland has nothing to do with religion. It's about jobs.
"What sucks is that no one ever says, 'Man, I'm only 24, just graduated college, and I want to live my life. I'm going to Cleveland!'" writes Dave, a 26-year-old architect.
His JDate profile highlights beaming cheeks and a love of guitar, but he complains that most girls he meets only plan to stay in town for six months before heading to jobs in New York, Chicago, or D.C. "Everyone comes home from college thinking they'll be here for a while, save up some money living at home, and then maybe move on a few years from now," he writes. "They find that there's no jobs to be had and jet."
Granted, Cleveland's brain drain is not unique to Jews. It's a yuppie curse, but because so many Jews are yuppies, it's especially hard on them. You can't push your kids to become lawyers and MBAs, then expect them to find a Fortune 500 corner office in the Rust Belt. Nor can you convince them to stay home, lower their expectations, and date a nice mechanic from Parma. If herds of dark, handsome stockbrokers are roaming the bars of Chicago, why would you settle for leftovers at Bar Louie?
One girl Dave met on JDate seemed cool, and the first date went smoothly. It wasn't until later that he discovered she'd been offered a job with a talent agency and would be leaving for L.A. in three weeks.
"Again -- Cleveland fails once more to keep anyone here," he writes.
Robin Liss was raised in Beachwood and came back after college to be near her parents and her boyfriend at the time. But she's 31 now, and working in a profession -- environmental engineering -- that features few young Jews. She's too shy to attend Federation events alone and has been downright frightened by some of the profiles on JDate. If she were offered a job transfer out of town, it would be hard to pass up.
"I have no real motivation to stay here," she says.
Jewish leaders are hoping to provide some of that motivation. One goal is to help young people get jobs. If they submit résumés, leaders will use their connections to get them interviews. A planned online concierge service will help them find a preschool and buy a house. There may even be cash incentives for moving here.
"No organization has stepped up with this kind of funding . . . It's really unbelievable," Simon says.
While these lofty programs are getting started, though, yuppies are still fleeing in droves. And many say the dismal dating scene pushes them out the door.
If you're young, single, and Jewish, my advice would be to get out of Cleveland."
Such is the wisdom of Gabelman, who moved to Chicago last summer after getting an MBA at Case Western Reserve. "I was frustrated," he says. "I had a lot of friends here in Cleveland, but the dating scene here was not good."
Trust him; he's an expert. His BlackBerry is filled with digits from girls he dated and discarded.
First, there were the women who lied about their weight online. It's no secret that midwestern ladies of all stripes tend to lean a little to the Bette Midler side of the scale. But Gabelman has no patience for those who fudge numbers. When they appeared in person more zaftig than expected, it was always a disappointment.
"I'm a health geek," he says, tugging his T-shirt across what are presumably 8 Minute Abs. "I want to find someone like myself."
He brought one such unfortunate soul to T.G.I. Friday's, where she made the mistake of ordering a salad. "If you're hungry, eat something!" Gabelman implores. To make matters worse, she offered to pay for the salad. He joked that he would've let her if he didn't have a coupon.
Gabelman's not trying to offend. "I'm a little bit of an asshole, but it's a tongue-in-cheek asshole," he says. He just wants people to be more upfront. "I want to know what I'm getting into."
Another less-than-waiflike girl spent the first few minutes of their date at a bookstore chewing gum, "cracking like a cow." Gabelman was so annoyed that he called a mutual friend, gave his date the cell phone, and let them chat while he browsed the magazine rack until she was ready to leave.
A third woman hit him with a CSI interrogation. Are you getting out of a serious relationship? On any medication? Been divorced? Have any kids?
Then there's the problem of measuring up to Daddy. Jewish American Princesses, raised among the sprawling lawns and private pools of Orange and Beachwood, are accustomed to the finer things: Gucci heels, Luis Vuitton purses, BMWs. For a bachelor just starting out, it's tough to compete.
"Brian," a 32-year-old sales director, is fed up with such Paris Hiltonsteins. "It's like the old stereotype: very materialistic," he says. "Fuck 'em."
Once, he had a date who was appalled that he was studying to be a teacher. She pointed out that there's not much money in education -- and in her world, it's always about the money.
"Well, have a nice night then," he replied. And left.
But he doesn't want his real name used, lest he sour future prospects. Besides, his mother would kill him.
"One of the things I hate about the Jewish community is, everybody's in your business," he complains. "I do my thing, and if I want you to know about it, I'll make sure you know."
Meanwhile, single women are torn between pride -- why settle for a schlump? -- and, well, reality. As they readily confess, genetics have been unkind to the male faction of the tribe, where receding hairlines and neuroses make Woody Allen look well-adjusted.
You know the type: nasal tenor, blinking eyes behind thick glasses, orders the southwestern chicken salad -- hold the cheese, sour cream, and salsa -- until you're looking across the table at a man eating boiled chicken and lettuce. As dessert arrives, he mentions calmly that he has insomnia and only sleeps three hours a night. By the way, would you like to see my documentary on Roth IRAs?
Sharon Drozen devised her own way of weeding out the worst. She calls it "The Lindsay System." It involves calling her friend Lindsay Silverstein, a South Euclid native who boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire Jewish population between the ages of 28 and 32.
Her advice worked well -- until Drozen once forgot to make the call. The unfortunate suitor "instantly thought we were a couple" after one date, she says. He phoned relentlessly, even after Drozen told him she had found a boyfriend. "Like, a year later, he still calls me."
After a while, the pool of eligible singles can shrink to a number countable on one hand. Eric Greenberg calls it "Two Degrees of Jewish Cleveland."
"Anyone that's single I've either been out with or I know," says the stubbled, 29-year-old architect, surveying the crowd at a recent happy hour.
"I went on a date with her," he says, pointing to a blonde, "then her best friend."
He tried JDate for three years. Now he just cruises it for dates for his friends.
Others simply give up; $35-plus a month is not a good price for failure. When Brian's married sister in Toledo offered to buy him a JDate membership for his birthday, he declined.
"I told her I'd rather have a DVD player."
While the pickings may be slim in cyberspace, they're even worse on earth. Bar-hopping has not been a reliable dating method since 1976. And even if it were, geography presents a problem. Liss, the engineer, explains that whenever she has beers with co-workers, they go to the West Side. When's the last time you saw a cluster of Jews in Lakewood?
The Jewish groups do their best, hosting a busy roster of kosher sushi dial-a-thons, Israeli cooking classes, and wine bar soirees. But they often have trouble attracting crowds. And the settings run more toward fourth-grade birthday party than Bachelorette romance.
One Saturday night, hours after the Ohio State-Michigan game, a group that caters to college students hosted a skating party at the Cleveland Heights Community Center. Hopes were high. The future of Jewish Cleveland would be there, ready to meet, mingle, and procreate.
Just after 8 p.m., Ricky Marcus of Cleveland Hillel arrives with a few friends and a pile of pizzas. They sit down to wait. And wait. As the minutes tick by, Marcus apologizes, explaining that turnout for such events is "pretty hit-or-miss." Usually 10 to 15 students show up, as long as free food is involved. He's not sure about tonight, though.
Finally, one girl appears. With her mother.
The Jewish Federation's events tend to be more popular. Aimed at a slightly older crowd, they take place at swanky bars and restaurants. But if you go alone, prepare for confrontation with swarms of happy pairs.
On a recent rainy night at the Fairmount Martini & Wine bar, the latest Federation happy hour is in full swing. Twinkling Christmas lights, candlelit tables, and an abundance of polished wood give the place a Hallmark-commercial feel. Young men, still dressed in power suits, offer earnest handshakes and business cards to girls sipping vodka cranberries.
The usual JDate suspects are here. There's URIceMan17, the lanky dark-haired medical resident chatting up a girl two heads shorter than him. Eric Greenberg is at the bar, surveying the field.
Near the back, a few newcomers are hiding. Sharon Zaidenras, a 23-year-old with a silver sweater and deadpan delivery, is more than happy to offer her thoughts on the dating scene.
"It's impossible," she says. "I've never met a normal Jewish man."
This dilemma has plagued mating efforts since the dawn of the sixth-grade slow dance. At nearly every event, there's a cabal of guys whose conversational skills seem borrowed from a Ben Stiller sketch. Who wants to spend two hours being chatted up by a young George Costanza?
"I don't find people that I enjoy conversing with there," Drozen says carefully. "I've actually stopped going, as have most of my friends."
The situation is so grim that Gabelman once started his own networking group. It featured a dinner-and-game night, bowling, softball, and other activities. At its height, about 15 or 20 people showed up. Then someone complained that the club should be more exclusive, to weed out the Napoleon Dynamite set. Gabelman instituted a rule that all members needed three references to be admitted. It was doomed.
There are some success stories. Nearly everyone has a tale about a friend or relative who met their mate on JDate.
There's Silverstein, who met her husband a few years ago at a Federation event at Tower City. Dave Silverstein had recently moved to town from Detroit, which gave him an advantage no other prospect could offer.
"He was new blood, and I sunk my teeth in," Silverstein says.
She offered to show him around town, and they never stopped hanging out. Silverstein, who had broken up with her high school sweetheart partly because his parents wanted them to marry in a Catholic church, was ecstatic. "I was so happy and thrilled that I was marrying a Jewish husband," she says. "I always knew that I wanted my children to be Jewish."
Jason and Allison Wuliger met two years ago at a Federation happy hour at Lopez Bar & Grille in Cleveland Heights. Allison arrived with a group of girlfriends and low expectations.
"I had never been successful before," she remembers, "so I wasn't really looking for it."
But Jason, now 26, was hooked at first sight. Home on summer break from law school, he came to the event only because his sister was an organizer. Then he saw a group of girls arrive, including a hopelessly adorable brunette.
He was so tongue-tied, he couldn't even ask for her number. So for the next few weeks, he hung out with her friends, hoping she would reappear. When that didn't work, he finally called. "There was just something that made me say, I don't want to let this go," he explains.
On their first date, they spent three hours chatting at a wine bar on Coventry. Eight months later, he proposed at the same place.
All of which bodes well for the legions of local singles still looking. Brad Kleinman, a business consultant from Beachwood, certainly hopes so.
At 25, he has everything a Jewish mother dreams of: thick, well-shellacked hair, a master's degree from Case, and an easy grin.
Yet every other week, he must explain his predicament to Grandma. He calls it Monday Night With the Old People, a tradition that involves elderly ladies analyzing his love life over dinner at Corky and Lenny's in Beachwood. When they ask about the women in his life, he has little to report. He hasn't had a serious girlfriend since college, and she wasn't even Jewish.
JDate has been a disappointment. Kleinman won't ask for a second date unless he feels some kind of a spark, and the handful of girls he met online couldn't light a Bic. One prospect seemed cool, and agreed to go on a second date to a movie. But when he called to confirm, she blew him off, disappearing into the netherland of cyberspace.
"She blocked me from her buddy list," he says, still a bit incredulous. "She obviously wasn't interested."
Still, he tries not to let the odds take him down. Being in love, he explains, "messes with your head." Spend enough time with one girl, and you get used to the company. Once she's gone, loneliness sets in.
"I know that I'm gonna get married before I'm 50," he says. "Just maybe it'll take a little time."