A beautiful woman is beautiful. That’s all there is to it. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder; it’s in the woman. Nor does it depend on the light or the surroundings or the phase of the moon. If someone doesn’t see it, you don’t look again at the woman, questioning your judgment; you question his taste, even his intelligence.
Thousands of years ago, when Aphrodite, goddess of love, bestowed on Paris, prince of Troy, the world’s most beautiful woman, he did not ask Hector, “Sure, Helen’s cute. But beautiful? What do you think?” The Greeks knew beauty, knew it is holy, and went to war over it.
Today’s new and improved God wants no more such wars. Islam dictates that women veil themselves; Judaism that married women cover their hair and drape their bodies; Christianity that there be modesty in dress. God prefers mayhem be not over women, but over Him, how He is best adored. In His houses of worship, women are sequestered so men are not distracted from their duty.
However, there are sects whose temples do not require sequestration, or even particularly modest dress. What is the basis of such religions? If they do not teach awe of women’s magical power, what can they know about Right and Wrong, about the Destiny of Mankind?
This was my concern five years ago on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a somber holiday observed with a 24-hour ban on food, drink, and sex. In my synagogue, beguilingly dressed women were everywhere. You wouldn’t expect men to feel repentant if a buffet was laid out in the sanctuary; what about this buffet of women? With their contrite faces and hushed voices they were an erotic torment. As He did for Joshua, God stopped the rotation of the earth and made the day, and the anguish, endless.
At long last the service concluded. But by religious law the abstinence would not end until sunset, several hours away. To deliver ourselves from the temptation of food, a few friends and I decided to walk home. Turning onto a normally quiet block, we were surprised to come across several hundred animated people. Their apparent focus—we could not see it—was right beside a diner, an establishment we had hoped to avoid. Curious, we got too close and were swept into the crowd; it shifted, as crowds do, and pushed us against the front window. A laminated menu was taped inside the glass; at my eye level was a full-color photo of a gyro. I smiled and thought: gyro, mmmm!
A moment later dread came over me. Rather than despise the gyro, feel queasy at its bacterial under-belliness, I desired it. I was famished, but still! It was a dark omen.
I pulled my friends back. No good could come to us there. We walked out into the street, and I was much relieved when we got past the throng. But then, just as Lot’s wife had been turned into a pillar of salt when she turned for one last look at Sodom, I could not help but take a final glance toward that menu.
I couldn’t see it; there were too many people in the way. But for one stroboscopic instant the hundreds of arms and legs lined up, giving me a sight line to the center of the crowd. I saw a phalanx of large men in identical black dress. Encircled by them sat the nucleus of the gathering. This was not about food. A Greater Power was at work.
By this time I had lost faith that anything I was seeing or thinking was more than a product of my undernourished mind. I decided to confer with one of my companions, a man of roughly my age, long married, softened, slouched, skeptical. I trusted him. I positioned him and pointed to what I had seen.
It took him a moment, but then he said. “Got it. Yeah, that’s her.”
Who? A woman with features as perfect as I imagine Helen’s, with the raven hair of Zeus, Greek of Greeks, her father. It was the actress Jacqueline Bisset. My heart started to pound. My legs twitched, urging: Flee! It was my customary response to unmanageable beauty.
Then my friend said three words that changed my life. Wrinkling his nose and pushing his glasses up the bridge, he said: “She’s gotten old.”
He turned and walked on. I was too shocked to move. Other synagogues had released their faithful, and women were promenading. The younger ones, even in their mute atonement garb, glowed from the attention they were getting (sweeter, because it was forbidden); the middle-aged women, even the gorgeous ones, looked as if they felt anonymous.
Of course they did. This divine actress, one of God’s most magnificent creations, had just been dismissed by one of His less successful efforts as casually as a shopper would toss a bruised apple back into a supermarket bin. He expressed what men feel: A woman of her age (62, then) cannot be desirable. She cannot be beautiful. If she had been in the synagogue, there would have been no reason to veil or sequester her; she lacked the power to distract.
I had spent the day struggling to summon something to atone for. Now I had one. Up from my congealed memory burbled a story a friend had told me earlier in the year: When she was in her late teens, her uncle had tried to set her up with a gentleman who was in his late twenties. He wasn’t interested; she was too young. Thirty-two years later she happened to see the same gentleman online and dropped him a note. He still wasn’t interested. Now she was too old.
Several thousand years ago, the rites performed on Yom Kippur in the great Temple in Jerusalem were elaborate and dramatic. At one point, the high priest placed his hands on a goat, conferring upon it the sins of all the people of Israel. The goat was then released outside the city gates, to live out the balance of its miserable life in the wilderness. This was the “scapegoat.”
I had just assumed the same role. This woman’s story, following close on my friend’s remark, brought home to my soul a vast transgression: the trespasses of men of my generation against women of my generation.
Why me? This is an abomination I do not commit, an attitude I do not share. My life is illuminated by middle-aged women—my life largely IS middle-aged women, and I find many of them massively sexy, and some heart-stopping.
But that was the point. Like me, the goat was innocent. I know exactly what it was thinking as the city gates slammed: “I cannot believe that just fucking happened.”
How does this male attitude influence the lives of women? Do they accommodate? Capitulate? Disregard?
Are there many successful new middle-aged romances?
Can anything be done?
I spent nine years finding out. And as I did, I quite unexpectedly found out more about myself from the women I consulted than I thought there was to know.