Matchmaker, Matchmaker: Jewish Dating Advice Isn't Far Off From Yenta’s Heyday

Lessons We Learned From Surveying Singles Scene

Hitched: Nina and Eric met on JDate in 2011. They were married in November 2013.
Courtesy of Nina and Eric LaBarre
Hitched: Nina and Eric met on JDate in 2011. They were married in November 2013.

By Anne Cohen and Maia Efrem

Published February 13, 2014, issue of February 21, 2014.
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Lean in, lose out on love.

Today, the idea that finding and keeping a match is difficult is so pervasive that it’s being used to sell food delivery on the New York City subway. (Seamless boasts that the best way to get to third base is to have a food delivery date. Noted.) If you’re looking for another Jew, your limited options can suddenly feel even narrower.

One reason for the high intermarriage rate could be that Jews, by and large, are part of a segment of the American population for whom finding long-term partnership is a challenge — let alone long-term partnership with a person of the same faith. Like their highly educated, professional peers, American Jews are delaying marriage and starting families later in life, and sometimes dealing with fertility issues.

All the Single Ladies: A box of index cards with names of Orthodox singles sits on matchmaker Rochel Bryski’s shelf.
Anne Cohen
All the Single Ladies: A box of index cards with names of Orthodox singles sits on matchmaker Rochel Bryski’s shelf.

“[Young Jews] are organized in achieving career goals, but not when it comes to achieving personal goals,” said Sylvia Barack Fishman, chair of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University. “Women will wait because they see the men around them waiting. They are not thinking of finding a life partner until they are in their 30s. And then they see men around them start building families, but the men marry women who are younger than them, and [older] women often feel blindsided.”

But secular and non-Orthodox Jews aren’t the only ones having trouble meeting. Typing the words shidduch crisis” — (a shidduch is a Jewish match) into Google will lead you to such articles as “Navigating the shidduch crisis,” “Understanding the shidduch crisis,” “Is there a shidduch crisis?” and even “Oxytocin’s effect on the shidduch crisis.”

In certain Orthodox Jewish communities, like the Lubavitch, in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, the traditional matchmaker is still an attractive option. The process has changed little in generations. Parents approach the matchmaker, both parties are interviewed and a date is set for the meeting of the prospective couple. But even as this ritual respects tradition, the participants have evolved, forcing matchmakers to change how they do business.

“Most people that come [now] have a preconceived notion of the kind of guy they want to marry. They can almost point him out in the street,” said Rochel Bryski, a professional shadchan, or matchmaker. “They know what he looks like, they know what he sounds like. But that backfires a lot of the time. Because that guy is a figment of your imagination.”

At 55, Bryski estimates she’s made about 100 matches. In her day, she said, women typically went out with a man three times before making a decision about marriage. But today, women expect more. They go on a minimum of seven dates, and even then, they don’t always say yes.

“It’s harder nowadays,” Bryski said. “People got a lot more petty. I find that the outside world influences have infiltrated us.” Some men say, “‘I want pretty and thin,’ and the girls are more like, ‘I need a guy with a job.’ In my day, we didn’t ask questions.”

Leave the advice behind.

As it turns out, reporting a story on Jewish dating advice is a surefire way to get anxious about dating. Maia is getting married next month, but in researching the story she sometimes felt like a fretful single. You can “fake it till you make it” by pretending perfection — or even stick straight hair — until you get engaged, but what about marriage? At what point can a woman let out a sigh and be herself?

As for Anne? On more than one occasion, an interview with a shadchan veered into probing questions about her suspect singlehood. A 24-year-old man without a wife has his whole life before him. A single woman of the same age still has potential, but it is waning. Fast. (At least according to these experts.)

Still, we did find one pearl of wisdom in the book that launched our search. For all its weird advice, “How To Woo a Jew” has this precious, if clichéd message: Just be yourself.

Reach Anne Cohen at Cohen@forward.com and on Twitter, @anneesthercohen Reach Maia Efrem at efrem@forward.com and on Twitter, @maiaefrem


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