Lianne, 41, took Jacob, her 4-month-old baby, out of his stroller and held him in her arms as we sat down for coffee on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She and her husband, Mark, conceived Jacob just weeks after they were married about a year ago.
Like me, Lianne was once a more observant Jew, having become more religious in her twenties, attracted to family-style Sabbath dinners and holidays. And like me, Lianne believed modern orthodox Jewish men would be more likely to want to marry and have children, which is what she and I both yearned for.
And like me, as Lianne reached her late thirties, still single and childless, she began to reconsider her more observant lifestyle when she found fewer men who were not put off by her career as a successful internist and/or men she found at her level of sophistication and worldliness. She began to date non-observant Jewish men, dipping a toe in here and there, until, like me, she realized that secular Jewish men who wanted to marry Jewish women wanted to marry Jewish women who would eat in non-kosher restaurants and go out before the sunset on Saturday nights after the Sabbath ended. She had to make a choice to go back to being less-observant and date non-orthodox men if she wanted a greater chance to marry and have children.
"I believed I had made the right choice for myself a decade earlier," Lianne contended as she fed a calm Jacob. "But not all choices, no matter how good our intentions, have the outcome we hope for or expect."
Lianne's husband, Mark, a secular Jew, is an equal partner to his wife in many ways. He also wanted a Jewish household, but one that did not follow the strict rules of orthodoxy. Lianne admitted that before she met Mark, she was considering dating non-Jewish men. "I was not planning on having a baby on my own, but I had to find love and I was determined. I met Mark through a colleague and I realize I am so very lucky to have met him when I did. A few years ago, I expected to marry a yarmulke-wearing Sabbath observer. My family is not what I imagined, but it's so wonderful." As Jacob tugged on her necklace, Lianne added: "I am so grateful for this little guy, and for Mark, and to have been able to maintain a Jewish household as my parents did and their parents did."
Earlier today, Pew Research released A Portrait of American Jewry, the first study of American Jewish life in over 10 years. It seems love and marriage are more elusive than ever before for Jewish women and men in America. The report states that there is a steep decline in marriage rates, with just over half (51%) of Jews indicating they are married, down from 60 percent cited by the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS). And of those Jews who are married, 44 percent are married to non-Jews.
While I am no longer observant, I still identify strongly as Jewish. I am traditional, and I plan to marry a Jewish man, regardless of whether or not I am still able to become a mother. But I have heard from my Jewish friends, both men and women, that as they near or pass age 40, they are less inclined to exclusively marry a Jew, even if they had always planned to.
Sara, 41, is an entrepreneur who began dating non-Jewish men in her late thirties. "I can't keep hoping I meet a Jewish guy who is ready to get married," she told me recently. "I really like Peter and while I don't yet know that he's the one, I'm open to seeing where it goes. I want to be in love, get married and have kids. That's my priority."
Like Sara, most Jewish women wait for marriage before giving birth as their fertility wanes. Pew Research reports that never married Jewish women are mothers to only 0.2 children on average by ages 40 to 59.
And like many never-married Jewish women, Sara is not alone in her consideration of later-age intermarriage. I contacted Pew Research for a deeper understanding as to whether it's Jewish men or women who are more likely to intermarry. The previous study by the NJPS suggested that Jewish women are less likely to intermarry, citing a higher sense of Jewish spirituality and greater desire to marry within. But the new Pew Research data proves otherwise. "Jewish women are slightly more likely to be intermarried than Jewish men," Liga Plaveniece, Communications Associate, Religion & Public Life Project, Pew Research Center, explained exclusively to me via email. "Among married Jewish women, 47 percent are married to a non-Jewish spouse. Among married Jewish men, 41 percent are married to a non-Jewish spouse."
While only a slight difference, Jewish women are more likely to marry non-Jewish men than Jewish men are likely to marry non-Jewish women and that raises the question as to why. Are we simply not meeting compatible mates? While a quarter of American Jews have never married, Liga Plaveniece added that "of single, never married Jews, 53 percent are men and 47 percent are women."
So, if there are more single Jewish men (perhaps a surprise to single female Jewish readers who lament a lack of available Jewish men), then why are nearly half of Jewish women intermarrying? Perhaps it's because Judaism is matrilineal; no matter whom we marry, our babies are Jewish by halacha (Jewish law). Perhaps it's because Jews are much more likely than Americans overall to have a household income of $150,000 (25% vs 8%) and some Jewish men find a matching income level to theirs less appealing? (I admit this is an anecdotal and not research-based assumption). Perhaps Jewish women find it harder to meet potential Jewish mates that they connect with on multiple levels, like Lianne, Sara and myself? Perhaps Jewish men are less interested in marriage overall?
The data doesn't offer answers to these questions. But what is does report is that "American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people." Ninety-four percent of American Jews, of all denominations, regardless of martial status, and equally among genders, believe this. And yet our collective fertility rate, i.e. our production of Jewish children, is lower than the national birthrate (2.2) at 1.9. But interestingly, among Jews married to Jews, the birth rate is 2.8, much higher than the national birth rate. And among Jews who marry non-Jews, the birth rate is lower at 1.8.
As Lianne gently put Jacob back into his stroller, she repeated her earlier words, perhaps empathizing with my remaining single and childless at age 44. "We made the right choices. We thought a closer tie to Jewish observance would lead to love, marriage and children. But luck is something we cannot control." I tickle Jacob's tummy as he laid in his stroller, satiated by his feeding, and he replied with a happy smile. "He doesn't do that for just anyone!" Lianne said to bolster my pride. "You're special!"
He's out there, I thought to myself as Lianne and I parted ways. I will find that Jewish man who will smile for me, not just anyone. Will it be too late for motherhood? I'll have to take that chance.
Melanie Notkin's second book, Otherhood, lightly based on some of her posts here on Huffington Post Women, will be released in early 2014 by Seal Press and Penguin Canada.
Melanie Notkin is the national bestselling author of Savvy Auntie: The Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers and All Women Who Love Kids (Morrow/HarperCollins)