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Sam stares at her for a second, his arms hanging at his sides, before sitting beside her and gazing into middle distance, as if he’d always planned to sit right there because where else would he sit? Of course, approaching a stranger and engaging her in conversation takes a degree of self-certainty, a sense that you’ll remain basically intact if rejected. But Sam is a man who, half an hour earlier, couldn’t tell Irenstein what his favorite color is, what his favorite food is, or what kind of weather he likes.
Sam looks terrified behind his wire-rimmed glasses.
Clutching the strap of his bag under the table as if it’s the leash of an unruly dog, he displays an impressive commitment to deflection—responding to Irenstein’s personal questions by spouting perplexing theories, including, “A major aspect of the notion of getting better at dating is not about increasing the total numbers, but increasing the yield of the process.” ).
“I would have done anything,” says Irenstein, “even given up my own life, to make sure my kids weren’t forced into cult living.” Having grown up in Israel and Brooklyn, Irenstein landed in secular New York with a third-grade-level education and a mediocre grasp of English.
When he and his wife divorced, he found himself on foreign ground. “I’d never even looked one in the eye.” Irenstein’s former Hasidic community, Gur, is one of the strictest sects, as well as one of the most sexually squeamish.
By the end of his session with Sam, he’ll have Sam approaching girls, trying to score a phone number, or at least to touch an elbow during some flirtatious banter.