Ultra-orthodox matchmaking: Everything it's best not to know
'You're not a pure Ashkenazi? Your brother has Down Syndrome? You have a sister that left the faith? Your socks aren't long enough? Then you're best off with a match type B, or maybe even C.' Ariella Shternbach, a haredi girl from a good home, dives into the world of matchmaking in a closed society.
I remember the lesson as if it were yesterday. As in all 12th grade classes full of teenage girls, many of us focused on chatting between ourselves until the teacher got fed up. "Just so you know girls," she said in a dramatic tone, "when I speak with mothers and matchmakers about a student of mine I don't gloss over the reality. Your behavior today, even in class, will determine the kind of man that will be suggested for you in the future."
"Indeed, no man will want a girl who sometimes chats during lessons," I said out loud. The teacher gave me a stern look. "No boy will want a girl as rude as you," she retorted. In hindsight, perhaps she was right. According to Haredi society's rules, I'm already approaching the category of spinster, at the age of 25. On the other hand, perhaps my best friend – let's call her Shani – was right when she said to me recently with a look full of compassion: "Of course it's going to be very difficult for matchmakers when you have a Sephardi mother."
Because that's how it is with us. Even in the most emotional field – love – feelings are at the bottom of the list. There is no love at first sight, rather only after serious consideration, sometimes financial. The type of classes you took, the institution at which you studied, determine who you will wake up next to throughout your adult life; the type of socks your father wears, or the length of your own socks, determines who the father of your children will be; the ship that brought your grandparents to this country will filter your choice of men; and your family members' choices will affect your fate in no small way, sometimes more than your own choices will.
Your ethnic origin, divorced parents, family members who have gone secular or are newly religious, a brother or sister with Down's Syndrome or who is on the autism spectrum, right up to details including the type of cellphone you have – all these are cold, hard statistics in what was supposed to be the simplest and warmest factor in your life.
First and last date: Don't develop feelingsAmong the traditional Haredi public – not the modern stream, which has changed in recent years – pairing one's children is the exclusive responsibility of parents. No yeshiva boy is supposed to choose a girl himself. When parents think the time is right, the phase known as "starting to listen" begins – that is, taking suggestions and statements from matchmakers. For the Hasidim it happens around the age of 18, sometimes even younger. For Lithuanians and Sephardim, it's around the age of 20.
During this stage parents approach matchmakers, tell them about their son or daughter and specify what they are seeking for their child. Finally, much like in the job market, they give the names of their relatives, neighbors and teachers who can provide those interested with "recommendations," or simply additional details.
When the two sides feel that the stats are good, a meeting between the couple will be arranged. In most Haredi communities the couple will meet a maximum of three times before they become engaged. In the more devout Hasidic communities, the strict rules permit only one meeting, lasting about 20 minutes. The rationale: they will probably develop feelings, and feelings are bad for business.
Mendi (all names in this article have been changed), a good young man from a pious Hasidic family, exceeded the allowance. He and the girl matched with him - we'll call her Tamar - insisted on sitting together in a room for almost an hour. The result: the rabbi canceled the match, claiming that the rules had been violated, and tried to find him a new match. Mendi refused. A saga began that included both sides' parents, shouting, crying, a religious court and payment of damages.
It wasn't that Mendi was looking for someone of a different ethnicity or even a different stream of Hasidism. Actually, from a genetic perspective, it is quite likely that Mendi and Tamar share a forefather, as the goal is indeed to find a match with a boy or girl who has the most similar background. "There is so much difficulty adjusting in these kinds of relationships that they prefer to set up matches with a partner from their immediate surroundings," explains a couples' counselor from the sector. "This person will have the same mentality and behaviors. A match like this stands a much better chance of surviving for a long time."
Despite the logical explanation, the bizarre requests, invasive questioning and racist demands have long lost any sense of proportion. This is how I found the "female match from the top Lithuanian stream in the sector," the "specialized female match of Middle Eastern origin," and even "the female match for the problematic ones." I wonder if I'm thought of as a "problematic one."
Racheli, already 22 years old, was looking for a match for a long time before learning the hard way what is thought of as "problematic." Ostensibly, her path to the wedding seemed simple: being from a good Hasidic family, her observant parents and 10 brothers and sisters and wonderful recommendations meant that she passed the first selection stages. But even with all that, the boy or his family always withdrew at the last minute.
"It's the work of God, probably the right partner simply hasn't turned up yet," she told herself at first. But the right match didn't turn up for years. Just under two months ago, the innocent Racheli realized what each one of her suitors knew: one of her little brothers is on the autism spectrum. A sweet boy, intelligent and funny who can sometimes, when one doesn't understand him, be a little aggressive. This detail, which any intelligent person knows has nothing to do with Racheli, has turned her into second-rate goods – "type B."
And how did she discover the truth? "When I met the last match, a good guy whose brother went secular, he told me," she says. "He wasn't personally bothered by it, but it was important for him to tell me that before our meeting a friend of the family warned him that 'one of Racheli's brothers is afflicted and you should know whether it will be passed on to your children as well.' To my joy, he also said that he would prefer to have children like my brother, rather than children that are closed-off, ignorant and inhumane."
The hotline: Ashkenazim, press 2Pooling matches is a relatively new initiative of rabbis for the Haredi public. It's actually a telephone stockpile, where youngsters – or, in many instances, their parents – register their need to find a match. The system is based on recorded messages of suggestions for male and female matches, according to various different categories.
The rules and conditions are different from those in the world of ratings or secular matchmaking. Here there is no place for physical descriptions. Or rather there is, but only in order to note the boy's height and things related to his beard, for it is well-known that the beard makes the man (yes, what is true for hipsters is also true for Haredi youth).
I register with enthusiasm. The managers of the pool ask me to record a message and provided me with fairly narrow details about the boys waiting to be matched: age, height, origin, where he studied, line of business, characteristics about him and characteristics he's looking for in a partner. Already the first message from the system provides a clarification: "For your information, regarding ethnic groups: if there is good suggested match with someone God-fearing and virtuous and it is overall a good pairing, but he or she is from a different group - we cannot reject the match out of hand because of our preference or that of the parents. No one can know who their true match will be, so it is always worthwhile discussing and weighing up each suggestion with your rabbi."
And indeed, the message – don't reject someone for being from a different group – is important and open-minded. But no more than three seconds pass before the system continues its clarification: "For matchmaking suggestions from Middle Eastern communities and Sephardic countries, press 1. For matchmaking suggestions for Ashkenazim, press 2."
The first problem. I'm half-half. Half Middle Eastern communities and Sephardic countries, half Ashkenazi. I press 1 and 2. Maybe this is how you get to the mixed option. Maybe not.
"Twenty-four years old, single, Haredi, half Ashkenazi and half Sephardi," the recording says. "Studying in an important and well-known yeshiva. He is a guy with a good heart, God-fearing. Looking for a girl who will permit him to study Torah and who will take care of the house. Someone modest and virtuous. The mother can be contacted."
Without going into the issue of managing the home or head coverings, on the face of it he sounds suitable. I call the mother, present myself, and without delay start with the most difficult question:
Would you be opposed to a marriage with a Sephardi girl?
"The boy has an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother."
And what does he prefer?
"It's what we are also seeking for our children."
"Yes. My son is looking for an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother. This is how my children will marry."
Why does it matter on which side they are Ashkenazi or Sephardi?
"The children want to establish an Ashkenazi household, according to the father."
So then why does the mother still need to be Sephardi?
"I'll tell you why. If both the father and mother are Ashkenazi, they will not want children from a Sephardi mother."
Ah. An Ashkenazi family wouldn't want a family like that?
"Not a family that is half and half, no."
So it's no problem for you to take Ashkenazim, it's only a problem for them?
"Families that are fully Ashkenazi – on both sides – will not want to take us."
"Because there will have been something… Parents divorced or some other mess. All sorts of things. What can you do? This is our world."
Indeed, this is our world. It's not clear how many of those looking for a match are from a disadvantaged group. Youngsters with a severe case of Down's Syndrome, or who are on the autism spectrum. Or, heaven forbid, children of divorced parents. All those who can only be matched with someone who is type "B" at best. Sometimes type "C" or "D."
Hani is a good friend of mine. We studied together in primary school. In contrast to me, she was always thought of as the perfect student: God-fearing and respectful of her teachers. But it became clear that was not enough when it came to choices for her heart. Or the choices of her parents' hearts.
"Not long ago they suggested for me a boy from a very good family, but it seemed weird that they wanted me," she told me one day. "Why? Because they are Ashkenazi and the parents aren't even divorced. We decided to try and get a little more information about the guy, because it didn't make sense that they would want a Moroccan match, a daughter of divorced parents."
And what did you find out?
That the boy suffered from psychotic episodes and was on medication."
They suggested someone psychotic for you just because your parents are divorced?
"Because I'm Moroccan and the daughter of divorced parents. That's how it works. Only a guy like that would agree to settle for a Sephardi girl like me."
Going back to the pool of matches, I try to be optimistic. Maybe if I try to talk to the parents myself, they will agree that their sons can marry someone half-Mizrahi like me. There's no reason not to.
"Sephardi? No!" My hopes are dashed during a conversation with a father who registered his son in the pool.
Even if she is from a good family?
I realize you are Ashkenazi.
"We are from a family of rabbis!"
There are also Sephardi rabbis.
"Yes, but we are from a very prestigious family. We are not a regular family."
Matching like with likeI try again; perhaps this time I will find my life match. On the line is a matchmaker who opens with the reasons for racial separation. "It is righteous and I support it," he says. "This is how you match like with like."
And who can the son of divorcees be matched with?
"Someone whose parents would also make it difficult for them to find a match."
I have a friend, her parents are divorced, a fantastic girl. What would you suggest for her?
"I have parents who are newly religious."
But parents who have come to the faith later in life follow a Haredi lifestyle, no?
So then why will regular Haredim not want them?
"You ask too many questions. There are no rules, but this is how it's managed."
Sarah, who is a Breslov Hasid, gently explains to me what she can do for a girl with divorced parents. "Let's say that the girl is a bit big," (meaning old, let's say 23) she says. "There doesn't have to be an awful reason, but there must be a reason. If she agrees to take the children of parents who are newly-religious, she could do very well indeed."
Another match, a girl from the Karlin Hasidic stream, is a little less politically correct. She claims, for example, that a sister who has gone secular is preferable to parents who are observant but weren't born religious. At the same time, she says, "there are enough parents who are newly-religious to find matches for them."
So those who are new to religion can only be matched with others in the same situation?
"No, there are those who settle. It depends on what a person's weak points are. If he is at the start of the matchmaking process and he has a lot of suggestions, he will only pick the better ones. But for us, Hasidim, there are more men, so if you've already been listening to matchmakers for two years and nothing suitable has come along, then you settle."
As for me, I don't want to settle, even though I've already gone to the second phase of matchmaking: inquiries. The wonder that awaits me on the other side of the divide has no chance of meeting me if I don't pass the inquiries phase.
What does this actually mean? That the parents of my knight in shining armor will call our neighbors. They will sweetly ask about my family; whether shouts come from our house. None, thank you very much; is the house clean? Spotless, good that you asked; is there a computer? They have no idea, and that's a good thing. After that the parents will approach the school I attended, speak with my former teachers – yes, including the stern instructor who will tell them how rude I am. They will call my parents' places of work. There are those who will request medical records, who will check if there is a history of illness in the family.
This phase is responsible for forming the problematic and pervasive mechanism of hiding, which occurs throughout Haredi society. Someone in your family is sick? It's not talked about. Your parents fight? Shush. The desire to be eligible for a good match overpowers all logic.
Sari is an example of a victim of this attitude. She is 23 years old and married a match, but when she brought children into the world her husband informed her that he is not interested in her, that he had cheated on her with several other women and that the only reason he is staying with her is because of the children. Sari wants to get divorced – not an unreasonable idea, as she is young and has her whole life ahead of her. But the parents disagree. "Wait a while," they say. Why? "Because the parents have more children that need to get married. If I get divorced it will destroy my brothers' chances for a match."
And that is mild compared to the case of Nehama, who was sexually assaulted by her father. Five years have passed since, but although she is bursting she has not uttered a word, "in order not to harm my two little sisters' matches," she says with a terrified look. "I'm lost. I've been ruined, even if I get married. But if people knew that my father sexually abused me, it would come down on my entire family."
Love needs to build, chemistry doesn't hurt either
But let's say that I pass the inquiries stage. What can learn from a 20-minute meeting - as is custom in a pious Hasidic community – with a boy who is a total stranger, under the supervision of all his relatives and the matchmakers? And even if we could have three meetings, what could I really find out about him? No wonder that among many Haredi youth, like me, the patterns are being broken. We are marrying later, we are weighing our options more carefully and we meet in different ways. Maybe this is the reason why certain sections of our community are already allowing more than three meetings.
Actually, in the last few years the consent of both parties – that is, the pair being matched – has taken on a more meaning expression. This generation is moving forward and if in the past only a minority asked their children, today it's on the increase. I personally have already refused match suggestions, without the input of my parents.
"Without basic chemistry you can't get married," declares Dina, who has already notched up dozens of pairings and to whom I have turned for help. "After all the inquiries, after we've already built a profile, we meet in order to see if there's chemistry and a personal chemistry. That's the basis for everything."
Haya, a neighbor of mine, got hitched to a match 38 years ago and is still married. To the same man. Eight out of her 15 children got married in the same way. "We aren't looking for love," she tells me. "We don't marry because I love you or you love me. We have a common goal – to build a home in Israel – and we work together in order to achieve that aim."
In truth, there's something to what she's saying. Factually, the divorce rate among the haredi public is substantially lower than throughout Israeli society as a whole. Yes, sometimes it's for the wrong reasons, but sometimes it's really for the right ones. Whether I find a match or choose to meet someone via a different route, ultimately love really is something that can be built. Through your children, for example. From the moment they are born, you have no choice. You will love them like you have never loved before, solely because of the fact that they are yours. And that's how it has to be. Is there any greater love than that?