In 1926, a distraught father wrote to the Forverts’s advice column, A Bintel Brief, with a problem: Where are all the Jewish men?
With four daughters to marry off, and no Jewish husbands in sight, the man was considering moving to another city. “We live in a country town where we are the only Jewish family,” he wrote. “Here, it’s impossible to marry off a girl, because there are no Jews, only gentiles. We beg you to advise us.”
In his response, Forverts Editor Abraham Cahan assured the father that he was not alone; in order to preserve Jewish continuity, many parents were taking such drastic steps.
Fast-forward eight decades, and Patti Stanger, aka the Millionaire Matchmaker, has similar advice. Location, she writes in her book, “Become Your Own Matchmaker: 8 Easy Steps for Attracting Your Perfect Mate,” is key. To women, she says, if your city is full of young women and not enough single men to go around, you should move.
Jewish singles may have traded in their Yiddish Dear Prudies for click-seeking authors, but when it comes to dating, they are as lost as ever. The latest work in the ever expanding genre designed to get Jewish singles to meet each other is “How To Woo a Jew,” a 274-page manual on finding your perfect member of the tribe, written by JDate’s official advice columnist, Tamar Caspi.
Using the book as our jumping-off point, we set out to survey Jewish dating advice today, examining how it has changed since Yenta hobbled through Anatevka, looking through her register of young singles to whip up a perfect match. What we found is that the platform for the advice is different, but its spirit remains the same. Jewish dating advice has never only been about solving the private problems of lonely singles, it’s about ensuring Jewish continuity in the face of stark intermarriage rates, a problem that the Jewish people have been trying to address since Abraham sent his servant Eliezer to find a suitable match for Isaac.
As two women on different points on the millennial spectrum — Anne Cohen is 24 and single; Maia Efrem is 28 and engaged — we were no strangers to dating advice. But we quickly realized we had only scratched the surface. In our reporting, we read five dating advice books, perused countless online columns and talked to matchmakers and proud JDate couples. Here’s what we learned.
Finding one’s bashert is a woman’s responsibility. And it’s no wonder, almost every single dating guide out there is written by women for other women. Perhaps the most famous Jewish advice givers are Sherrie Schneider and Ellen Fein, who compiled “The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right” in 1995. They, in fact, were recycling advice given to them by their own grandmothers 20 years earlier. The self-help book has since inspired hundreds of others like it.
The 35 commandments listed range from the sensible — “Be honest but mysterious,” “Don’t rush into sex,” “Don’t date a married man” — to the petty: “Stop dating him if he doesn’t buy you a romantic gift for your birthday or Valentine’s Day.”
And there’s the make-your-inner-feminist-weep advice: “Don’t talk to a man first”; “Don’t discuss the rules with your therapist”; “Don’t call him and rarely return his calls.”
So, where do Jewish men fit in all this? The thing is, they don’t.
As Schneider explained in a phone interview: “Men don’t need rules. They don’t think about dating the way we do. Yes, they think about sex, but they think about work and sports.”
A quick search for dating guides for men turns up tips like “Be confident; Don’t forget your manners; Offer to pay.” But when it comes to women, Stanger does not mince words. One of her mantras is, “The penis does the picking.” And forget everything you heard in middle school: “What’s on the outside does count,” she says. According to her book, women with short hair or curly hair (read: Jews) are hopeless. And Spanx are a girl’s best friend, until she gets the diamond, that is.
But most important: don’t call him first.
Jewish women seeking to nab a nice Jewish boy are advised to play up their heritage or hide it completely — depending on whom you ask. Of course, in order to “woo a Jew,” you need to find one first. Caspi suggests dropping Yiddish words into casual conversation with a prospective date. “If you’re at a bar and a guy is talking to you and you just can’t seem to pick up on his religion, then slip in an ‘oy vey’ when two waitresses nearly collide,” she writes. “Add a ‘la’breut’ when someone sneezes. Even a flirty ‘that’s mishegas,’ will work. If he looks at you helplessly, then you have your answer. If he adds his own Yiddish phrase to the mix, then you can breathe a sigh of relief and continue getting to know him.” This probably won’t work if you are Sephardic or didn’t grow up with Yiddish. In fact, most of the Jewish dating advice is geared toward heterosexual Ashkenazi women.
(By the way, Amy Webb, author of “Data, A Love Story,” disagrees with this tactic for another reason: “The word ‘bashert’ seems to get thrown around [on JDate] in a way that no Jew I know would use — ‘shiksa’ is not a word you use like ‘tapas.’”)
And then there’s the advice to pretend you’re not Jewish — in order to score a Jew. Avi Roseman’s self-published “Secrets of Shiksa Appeal,” posits that the trick to nabbing a Jewish husband is to emulate a fantasy shiksa. Roseman teaches readers how to leave the JAP at home, how to “dress like the sexy girl his mother never wanted him to date,” and explains how to keep “him hooked after a good shtup.”
JDate claims responsibility for more Jewish marriages than all other dating websites, citing a 2011 report that surveyed 1,000 married Jews who met online. The report, commissioned by JDate but compiled by an independent research company, found that 52% of the relationships had their start on JDate, with Match and eHarmony coming in at 17% and 10%, respectively.
JDate doesn’t work for all Jewish lonely hearts, but it did for Nina and Eric LaBarre. Nina signed in on a Saturday night and almost immediately received a “flirt” from him. Thinking JDate’s automatic message was actually written by Eric, she was immediately charmed by his wit. The two went on a date that Monday and again that Friday. The deal was sealed. “We met, and I could tell from the first date that there was something special about her,” Eric LaBarre said. Aw.
But JDate, it turns out, can actually complicate dating for some. “With the Internet, we now have so many more options,” Caspi said. “So you go on JDate, and you’ll see this type that is exactly what you want, and there’s so many of them. So you try for all of them, because, why not?”
How to wade through all the profiles? The trick is to get specific with your preferences. Caspi advises making a spreadsheet and rating each date on a point system. Stanger says to make a list of your must-haves in a man. Webb got downright scientific. After drafting a list of 72 dream traits in a man, she screened the competition by creating 10 fake male profiles to learn the secrets of the most popular women on the site. She then made her own super profile, and, eventually reeled in her husband.
But if you’re thinking of sharing that chart with your significant other once you’ve nabbed him or her, don’t. Caspi advises against actually showing the spreadsheet if the process ends in a relationship. Eric LaBarre agreed. “I would probably run away,” he said “You’re going to go out with someone, have a conversation. It doesn’t have to be like shopping on Amazon, which person got the biggest rating from you.”
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.
“[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.”
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.