Give me a burger, fries and a nice Jewish mensch

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We singles have all been there — sitting through seemingly interminable dates when we really wanted to be home washing our hair.

It’s a dilemma. Many of us harried professionals hardly have the time and energy to toss a frozen lasagna in the microwave and catch a few hours of shut-eye, let alone stumble through dinner date, after hiking date, after dinner date in search of the perfect match.

A new concept called speed dating — which pairs groups of singles for a series of quick get-to-know-you conversations — may pose a viable alternative. I first learned of the phenomenon after writing a column on re-entering the dating world post-divorce. Yossi Offenberg, Jewish program manager at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, sent an e-mail urging me to give the program a try.

Word has it that speed dating — invented by the educational organization Aish HaTorah to bring Jewish singles together — has taken the New York and Los Angeles Jewish singles communities by storm. It now takes place in some 50 cities around the world. Naturally, there’s a Web site — www.speeddating.com — and a television show based on the concept is reportedly in the works.

Since the program kicked off at the SFJCC in February, Yossi told me, a number of speed-dating couples have moved into “serious dating mode.” If nothing else, I smelled column fodder.

It works like this: Participants spend up to eight minutes chatting with members of the opposite sex, attempting to garner a faster-than-lightning sense of who might suit them as a partner. At the end of each round, a bell rings and speed daters move on to the next conversation.

Think of it as musical chairs for adults or the dating equivalent of fast food: I’ll have a burger, fries and a nice Jewish boy with a sense of humor and a good head on his shoulders. Hold the neuroses.

As the event winds down, participants note in writing whom they’d like to date. If both parties share an interest, coordinators call with the names of caterers, bands and ketubah makers. (Nah, they just call with phone numbers of “matches.”)

I must admit I felt a little jumpy going in. With only eight minutes per “date,” the pressure was on to demonstrate my substance. How could I waste precious time talking about getting my nails done? I had to expound on the Human Genome Project or the U.S. drug policy in Colombia.

The coordinators instructed us we could talk about whatever we wanted, but we couldn’t ask where our conversation partners lived or what they did for a living. Those queries, we were told, could lead to superficial judgments. We wanted to get to the heart of the matter.

We were even given a list of potential questions in case we felt stuck: Did you ever own a pet? What is your favorite human quality? Was the movie “Prince of Egypt” accurate? Why? Why not? Talk amongst yourselves.

Luckily, my eight-minute conversations flowed fairly naturally and I managed to steer clear of the canned conversation topics. One man opened our dialogue by complimenting me on my eyebrows. Another told me about an action screenplay he was working on. The subject of weather only came up once!

Meanwhile, without asking the two forbidden questions directly, I managed to out one guy as a Marin County resident, one as a med student and two as techno-studs. I couldn’t help it. It’s the reporter in me.

Now let’s be honest. An eight-minute conversation offers little more than a fuzzy snapshot of a person. Still, I found myself surprised by how much one can surmise in such a short time. I sensed who the good listeners were, for example, who was shy and who could banter with the best of ’em.

By evening’s end, I’d met several seemingly mensch-like guys. It has yet to be seen whether I’ll be conversing further with any of my conversation partners. If so, I figure we ought to take it slow. After all, now that we’re used to eight-minute dates, anything longer might wear us out.