The after school specials and young-adults (read: teenager) movies of my youth often shared a consistent theme (the ones that didn't have the word "Star" in their titles at least): there was the geeky boy, the gorgeous girl he lusted after but didn't have a chance with, and the geeky girl who lusted after him but got ignored because he was going after the gorgeous girl. Naturally by the end of the movie the gorgeous girl had proven to be a shrew that no sane male would go near and the geeky girl took off her glasses and got a new haircut to emerge as the new hottest girl in the school after helping the geeky guy out and getting noticed by him.
Being the geeky guy in high school (and university, and med school, and...) I naturally hoped one day to meet that geeky goddess-in-disguise. However, I also kept my head screwed on straight. Just because something happens in a movie doesn't mean that it has any connection to real life. I may have quietly hoped for a movie-type plot to emerge in my life but I wasn't betting money on it. I knew better.
I sometimes wonder if the shidduch crisis in the Chareidi community isn't a result of similar thinking without the last bit of insight. Especially in a generation where frum children in the "right" homes are given Artscroll and Feldheim books from an early age instead of real literature, I wonder if this kind of fairy tale thinking has taken hold and created the unrealistic expectations of today's youth.
After all, the main quality of frum popular literature is that it isn't terribly deep. The frum folks in the stories are inevitably the good guys or, if they do make a mistake, it's over something that those of us on the outside wouldn't bat an eye at. "Everyone knew Yankl was the bad boy of the yeshivah. On weekends he had even been seen wearing a blue shirt! The kofer! Even his poor parents didn't know."
Along with that are the simple, straight-forward plots and the lack of any real character-defining crisis, like the one about the shool kids who crash onto a desert island and are more worried about finding challah for Shabbos than anything else. Frodo Baggins confronting his yezter hara in the shadow of Mount Doom it ain't.
Add to these examples the ever expanding list of hagiographies in which selected Gedolim are depicted as infallible and indefatigable malachim and an incredible fantasy world, one in which every frum Jew is a, honest, pious individual, ever girl is a chaste maiden with no corrupt thoughts and everbody spends their day either learning (the men) or performing mitvos (the women).
But what happens if people stop realizing it's fantasy? What happens when the boy who grew up on this starts looking for that perfect maidel, the one just like the girl in that novel he read last summer? What happens when the girl who was raised on these tales goes looking for her own wart-free future Gadol?
Rav Yonasan Rosenblum's latest piece on the so-called Shidduch Crisis tries to address this by looking at the usual culprits and decrying the materialism-in-the-name-of-spiritualism that corrupts what should be a wonderful and romantic time for a given young couple. His advice is good and a must-read for his community.
But then he shows that he too has been sucked into the fantasy world's vortex through an offhanded comment describing one of the "novels" (I used the word for lack of a better one) he has recently read:
In the end, Nochum too has his day in court, as Haller valiantly tries to humanize him: Twenty-five years earlier Nochum too had been widely viewed as a future rosh yeshiva. But those were the days before people spoke of "money and support," and after marriage, he found himself struggling to make ends meet, and barely able to keep his head upright when he has a few hours to learn Gemara at night. All he wants is to protect his son from the same fate.
Now maybe it's just my upbringing. My parents worked very hard all my life and one of their main goals was to ensure my success in education and in acquiring a profession. I, in turn, would like to think that I have absorbed this value and am now working hard to ensure my own children have every opportunity they want available to them later. In contrast to the fictional Nochum, I take pride in being able to balance a busy career with a meaningful amount of Torah learning and I would fear more than anything else a future in which my children live in poverty because they chose to be unproductive members of society in the name of piety.
Protect his son from the same fate? From uncertaintly, poverty, a life of dependence on others, of rigid conformity and a lack of ability to think for oneself? For me such things are not measures of greater frumkeit.
There are still those of us who understand that God created this world for us to live in, to practice the mitzvos and to confront that which is ungodly around us and overcome it instead of hiding from it. For those of us, novels like this and the fantasy world that they represent are no more real than Middle Earth. Perhaps it's time that others be reminded that the real world is different too.