In her 20s, she thought solely about her education. In her early 30s, she concentrated on moving up the corporate ladder. Only as she began nearing 40 did it really sink in, quite suddenly, that she was still single.
Now, at age 41, Cara Levinson continues to hope that her life might have a happily-ever-after ending. But she isn't nervous or even phased by her lack of marital status. That's because she knows that in no way is she alone.
According to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, some 36 percent of Jewish women remain unmarried by their 35th birthday, up from three decades ago, when the same survey found 25 percent of women (and men) hadn't been married by the big "3-0."
Why do Jewish women – who, statistics show, tend to marry later in life than the rest of America – hold off on tying the knot?
Levinson, the director of business strategy for a health-care marketing company, said that in addition to focusing on her career in her 20s and 30s, she concentrated on dating, not getting married.
Levinson's path – education, career and then possibly marriage – is quite common nowadays, with the average age of first marriage for American women, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2004 current population survey, set at 26, nearly six years older than it was back in 1970.
"Jews always married later than other white people," stated Riv-Ellen Prell, an anthropologist and professor and chairperson of American Studies at the University of Minnesota. "That's why Jews moved up so quickly from the immigration class to the middle class. Have small families, marry later, and invest a lot in the profession or education of the husband or son."
In contrast to other white women of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, Prell explained, Jewish women went to college. "They pursued degrees in classic helping positions, such as teachers or librarians, and typically would leave the workforce to have children but re-enter when the children were a bit older," she said.
And thanks to the second wave of the feminist movement, which began in the late 1960s, now more than ever, women are earning law degrees, running for public office, heading large Fortune 500 companies and acquiring more letters after their names than ever before in history.
"Now we're less dependent on men, and have a great deal of freedom," said Prell. "It shifts how we think about marriage; we can share interests and the formation of family, but it's not an economic decision."
Levinson's a case in point. Instead of waiting for Mr. Right, she took matters into her own hands, and about six months ago gave birth to a baby girl through artificial insemination. Until Mr. Right comes along, she plans to be a single mom, an idea, Prell said, the Jewish community has become a lot more comfortable with in the past several years.
While Prell said she believes there is no downside to the feminist age or the notion of supporting women to fully realize themselves, others have identified a kind of backlash to the movement and its effect on marriage.
"What we hoped for in the '70s is enough change to enable men and women to devote themselves to work and family," said Lori Lefkovitz, a professor of Gender and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and director of Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies. "What we got was the ambition and need for women to have satisfying work and family without enough change to the infrastructure of marriage to make it possible."
Lefkovitz explained that while women now have the opportunity to be professionals, it's very difficult to focus on a career, marriage and motherhood – and be good at juggling everything.
She stressed that, like Hara Podel, an attorney in Center City, she didn't think women were choosing to put off marriage so much as they felt like they had to in order to attain other goals – mainly, career goals.
"A few years ago, I would have said I'd be married by age 26," said Podel, now exactly that age. "Now, it's more like 30. Because of my career, I need to have at least five years under my belt at the firm before I can have kids and limit my hours."
Podel said that she'd never give up getting married or having children just for her job, but as a lawyer, she's accepted that, at least until she's established herself at her firm, her personal plans may have to be put on hold.
Dalia Levine would agree that she's not really putting off marriage, but simply concentrating on other aspects of her life. Levine is a doctorate student at the University of Pennsylvania in the chemical and biomolecular department and, while she said she would like to get married before she completes her program just shy of her 30th birthday, the 26-year-old has other priorities right now.
"The little time I do have, I want to spend with my friends," she said. "I wouldn't just date someone just to date someone because I don't have that much time. But if the right person came along … "
Good News for Grads
There is good news, though – at least for the women who want to marry – in research released by sociologists Joshua Goldstein and Catherine Kenney.
Historically in the United States, lifelong singlehood was more common for highly educated women, but Goldstein and Kenney's 2001 research concluded that nowadays, a college degree makes women more likely to marry, not less – albeit perhaps later in life.
These are conclusions that prove important for a highly educated group like the Jews. According to Jewish Distinctiveness in America: A Statistical Portrait, a study sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, 61 percent of Jews have a four-year college degree or higher, compared to just 23 percent for the national average.
So what does all of this mean for the other half in the dating equation?
"She wants the career and the decent guy and the house and the SUV and the dog and the 21?2 kids," said Roy S. Gutterman, a 35-year-old who just this week begins a singles column from a man's perspective for the Jewish Exponent.
"I don't know if you can get everything you want in life," he added. "It breeds frustration in women who can't get it all, and it puts pressure on men."
The double-edged sword, according to Gutterman, is that men are attracted to intelligent women with careers, but don't want all that comes with it.
"I don't know how I will react if I get married to a professional woman – and then what?" he posed. "I don't want my kids going through day care.
"Does that make me a stay-at-home dad? I don't know."
Prell said that while some look back nostalgically to the era of sock hops and soda fountains as an easier time – when women married someone who would support them – she notes that it's no accident that the feminist revolution occurred.
Women wanted more.
"The good news is there are more choices," announced Prell. "The bad news is there are more choices."
With all these choices, Prell said, couples must negotiate the roles each will play in a forthcoming marriage – breadwinner, caretaker, or a combination of the two – as opposed to decades ago, when there were much fewer options. But once a woman chooses a particular role, that may mean slim pickings in the dating pool.
"Women have become educated enough and find fewer eligible men because there are fewer quality men," said Adina Steinberg, 34 and single.
"Women don't need to get married to show independence – we already are independent," she said. "We just want to find someone special."
So has the mantra for these women become something akin to "the best things come to those who wait"? Or is this waiting game going to backfire?
If anything, a happier ending may be in store for them.
According to a 2002 report from the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control, spouses with a higher education and income are less prone to divorce.
"Divorce is always looming over our heads. We see our parents' marriages and all the statistics," said Steinberg. "Maybe women on some not-so-conscious but underlying level think about how many divorces are out there and think, 'I'm not going to rush into something that ends.' "
'Out in the Cold'
Levinson added that in her experience, at a certain age, the eligible men – those who want to be a partner, and not just a protector – are looking for different qualities in women.
"If you look on JDate, for instance, men in their late 30s and 40s are looking for women in the 25-to-35 range, even though they are in their 40s," said Levinson. "They perceive that's what they need to have a child. Women in their late 30s and early 40s are kind of out in the cold.
"I started looking for divorced men because I think that they are more likely to understand the nuances of what it takes to have a relationship. They know what it takes to commit."
Nevertheless, single women focused on their career and success remain positive that they, too, will find a match, even if it's not as utterly compatible as they once thought.
"I think it's possible to have it all – though the chances may be much less," said Levinson. "I haven't given up yet."