I scoured the streets of Manhattan in search of a husband. That was after abandoning Melbourne and giving up on Jerusalem. And then I met him. He arrived in the post – in a letter sent from London that arrived on Tu B’Av [the 15th day of the month of Av, think Jewish Valentine’s Day]. A mutual friend in London called me to say ‘I know the perfect guy for you — I’m going to make him write you a letter.’
I laughed and didn’t bother to object because I didn’t think anyone would capitulate to her instructions. And then the letter arrived – it was thoughtful, intelligent, peppered with Jewish sources and self-effacing humour. There was also a hint of vulnerability — a decidedly seductive trait. This letter, and many others that followed, are carefully stored in an old shoebox somewhere in our house. We are very grateful to our friend who made the match — shidduch — and Tu B’Av is the perfect day to acknowledge the efforts of all the matchmakers — shadchanim — who muster all their efforts to broker marriages within the Jewish world.
On Tu B’Av, according to the Mishnah [Taanit 4:8] “the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments in order not to shame any one who had none… The daughters of Jerusalem come out and dance in the vineyards.” This was a courting ritual and the women quoted the famous proverb “Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman that fears the Lord, she shall be praised” (Proverbs 31:30).” They were sending a clear message to the men surveying the scene — if you want to marry one of us, do not judge us by our clothes or material goods, nor by our beauty for all that is temporal. Our spiritual integrity is what’s important.
My how things have changed.
Beauty matters. Dress size matters — and to be clear, the lower the number, the better the chances your daughter will have. Wealth matters. The ability of parents to support a young couple can make or break the deal. Family matters. Proof of a significant rabbinic bloodline will usually get you a first date. Character matters. But wealth matters more.
Undoubtedly, helping people find their soulmate, or even someone who will share the mortgage payments and the school rota, can be challenging as it’s often very hard to meet a potential partner. Informally, everyone is a shadchan, making matches all the time, and across all sections of the community — inviting someone over for a drink to meet someone else, hosting Shabbat dinners, creating a book-club for like-minded people, or suggesting your niece meet your friend’s cousin — these are all wonderful ideas and should be encouraged. No money is exchanged and if things go well, you might be rewarded with a pot plant or a plate of banana muffins.
And yet when it comes to what might easily be called ‘the oldest profession in the book’ given that God started with Adam and Eve, it’s a flawed business model, for make no mistake, it is a business.
And therein lies the rub. There are a myriad of shadchan services in a highly segregated community where young men and women cannot meet casually. However, once money is involved, there is, by definition, a conflict of interests. For example, shadchanim who can find older women a match often receive a bonus, shadchanim are incentivised to encourage men in their early 20s to meet women who are slightly older than them, and there are schemes offering travel grants to help pay for flights so people can meet. Shadchanim need to ‘seal the deal’ to get paid, and a persuasive shadchan can have a disproportionate influence over the young couple. There are also free or minimal cost shadchan services but payment may be social indebtedness or psychological dependence.
More disturbing are the pay-to-pray initiatives offering righteous and holy men employment opportunities. Various schemes including Kollel Chatzos, Kupat Tzidkat Rashbi and Yad Lachim are taking advantage of Tu B’Av – the latter exhorting us to join over 500,000 Jews from across the world uniting in prayer together in merit that all singles in Klal Yisrael merit finding their shidduch.
Did anyone ask these singles if they wanted to be prayed for? Is it spiritual abuse if you are prayed for without having given permission?
While donations are optional, it is implicit that donations are expected and their charity registration number is helpfully provided. When it’s not Tu B’Av, one can out-source prayer obligations and ask these men to pray for cancer to be cured, good employment and successful children.
The wider issue is that while marriage and children are still considered the culmination of a woman’s purpose in life, it’s not as straightforward as it used to be (or at least as rabbis and communal leaders would have us believe it was). I have not found any hard data on the number of unmarried people in the Orthodox community, yet there is talk of a pervasive ‘shidduch crisis.’ Decoded, this means that there seems to be a lot more women than men who are not getting married across the Orthodox spectrum. The idea has been reinforced by the media including the popular Israeli TV programme Srugim about single Orthodox people in Jerusalem, and the youtube show, Soon by You reflecting a parallel cohort on the Upper West Side of New York. Sociologist Chaim Waxman suggests that these singles communities ‘may also be making it increasingly acceptable and less inconvenient to remain single longer.’ The charedi community is particularly consumed by this ‘shidduch crisis’ – even Akiva Shtisel found it hard to get a date and interested readers should consult Mishpacha magazine for an array of articles trying to understand the phenomena.
Reflecting broader social trends, including a rise in single-person households, delayed marriage, and women’s increased economic independence, it is safe to assume that there are now more single Orthodox people in their 30s and 40s than in previous generations. Women tend to be the focus of this discussion because of the inevitable ‘biological clock’ but it is also important to acknowledge that is also difficult for single men as their communal standing relies on their status as the head of a family.
Further, it is no coincidence that there has been a notable rise of visible LGBTQ+ Orthodox people as the forces of liberalism within Orthodoxy have strengthened, even if they are at loggerheads with those hell bent on ensuring the increasing insularity of the Orthodox community. Although the actual number of Orthodox LGBTQ+ people is unclear, they can find it even more challenging to find an observant partner and they also need opportunities to meet and shadchanim sensitive to their situation.
It’s likely that there will be a rash of young couples announcing their engagement on this Festival of Love. It might be too late, but here’s a simple request: just don’t gloat or boast. An elaborate ‘romantic’ proposal — concocted with the help of friends and often in their full view so they can film it and upload it onto social media in real time — is merely a conceit.
The intimacy of that moment when two people decide to spend their lives together deserves to be off-line. In fact, a letter to each other might be a novel idea.
First Published, Times of Israel, August 16, 2019