Reality TV seems to be learning a thing or two from haredi dating.
In the new FYI reality show “Married at First Sight,” six singles agree to be set up by a team of four professional matchmakers — and legally marry their selected mate upon first meeting.
The professionals — a sociologist, a psychologist, a sexologist and a spiritual adviser — claim to use “scientific methods” to find three compatible couples from a pool of 50 singles. And while none of the participants is Jewish, three out of the four matchmakers are.
“Can it just be a coincidence that we’re all Jewish?” said Greg Epstein, the show’s “spiritual adviser.” “Probably not,” he laughed.
Epstein, 37, who grew up attending a Reform synagogue in Flushing, Queens, received his ordination as a Humanist rabbi in 2005 and today serves as the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University. He doesn’t usually use his rabbi title, and felt “spiritual adviser” was a safer bet for the show.
Matchmaking is well entrenched in Jewish culture. Even today, most haredi communities use matchmakers to mediate between young couples. “Shidduch résumés,” documents that include information about the individual’s family, education and values, along with references and a photograph, are traded between matchmakers and then given to eligible singles. Once both sides have agreed upon the match, the couple goes out. Depending on the community, the courtship can last between one date and several months.
“Married at First Sight,” which premiered last month on A&E’s FYI Network and runs through Sept. 9, takes these minimalistic dating practices to a new level — by eliminating dating completely. Though each couple is given the option of getting a legal divorce at the show’s close, it is clear from the episodes thus far that each couple is committed to the long term.
“Putting marriage first actually increases the likelihood that these couples will succeed,” said sociologist Dr. Pepper Schwartz, one of the show’s matchmakers.
“With marriage comes an immediate commitment to try and make things work, no matter what,” said Schwartz. Dating, on the other hand, leaves much more room to back out when confronted with any hurdle, she said. “It’s all about the mindset going into a relationship. If you start at the altar, you go in ready to compromise and determined to work through differences.”
“Married at First Sight,” which airs on Tuesday nights, is not the only reality dating show that skips the usual stages of courtship. VH1’s new series, “Dating Naked,” introduces two complete strangers to one another — minus their clothing. Both shows take the fast track to intimacy, leaving the treacherous dating scene in the dust.
And modern-day matchmaking is not exclusive to the Jewish community. In Singapore, the government provides matchmaking services to all citizens, making the role of matchmaker into an institutionalized position. In India, classified ads are filled with parents looking to marry off their children. But, thanks to “Fiddler on the Roof,” Jewish matchmaking has a particularly strong resonance in the American cultural landscape.
“We come from a minority community where there has historically been a strong focus on who you’re dating, and who you’re not dating,” said Epstein. “For centuries, Jews didn’t have the liberty to date outside the fold. Matchmakers flourished within small, insular communities.”
It’s not just the Jewish people’s history of persecution that has given countless yentas jobs over the years. According to the show’s sexologist, Dr. Logan Levkoff, matchmaking is rooted in the Jewish view of sexuality.
“Sexuality was never prohibited or looked down upon in Judaism,” said Levkoff, who comes from a “proud” Jewish background. “That’s why matchmaking was always encouraged. Marriage and sex are praised, and made priorities.”
Raised on Long Island with a strong sense of Jewish identity, Levkoff had always envisioned a unique career path for herself. “As a Jewish woman, I was always taught the importance of giving back and challenging norms,” she said.
Participating in “Marriage at First Sight” was one way to challenge the norm. She, too, was pleasantly surprised to find that two out of her three co-professionals were Jewish.
“The fact that so many of the experts were Jewish speaks to a larger picture of how Jews embrace taking risks when it comes to love,” said Levkoff. However she stressed that the show is not modeled on “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“This is a modern-day social experiment,” she said.
So — could matchmaking experience a renaissance in the modern, mainstream singles scene?
Dr. Pepper Schwartz thinks it could happen.
“People are already trying to use experts to help them find somebody — it’s not such a far jump to what we’re doing on the show,” said Schwartz, who also comes from a strong Jewish background. While the average single might not want the “drama” of meeting directly at the altar, using an intermediary is a very palatable option for many.
“The singles scene in New York is downright intimidating,” said Epstein. “There are millions upon millions of options. In today’s world, you can literally date whoever you want — man or woman, from any racial, ethnic or socioeconomic background. For many singles, the options can be paralyzing.”
When cultural and religious barriers don’t exist, she said, there needs to be some method of discerning Mr. Right from a first-date nightmare. “Singles need some sort of method of narrowing down the options,” said Schwartz. “For some, a matchmaker could be the answer.”
Still, Levkoff warned against singles depending too heavily on the “shadchan” (matchmaker). Successfully navigating the singles scene requires knowledge of self more than anything else, she said.
“In the best-case scenario, this show will introduce the idea of matchmaking into the public discourse. It’s an opportunity to challenge preconceived notions about the practice. But individuals still need to take responsibility for their own love lives,” said Levkoff. She was careful to refer to herself as a “social scientist,” not a matchmaker.
But viewers don’t always make the distinction.
Epstein, for example, has been flooded with matchmaking requests since appearing on the show.
“I couldn’t believe how many people were emailing me to ask if I could be their matchmaker,” he said. “Gay couples, older couples — I received thousands of emails.”
But, he stressed, the point of the show was not to encourage a “diffusion of responsibility” when it comes to relationships, but rather, “promote radical thoughtfulness.”
“It’s tempting to put your life in the hands of an ‘expert’ and say, OK — fix this. Find me love. But that was not the point of the show!” he said.
“If viewers take away one thing from this show, I hope it is the necessity of intense introspection before you look for a significant other,” he said.
While Epstein plays a matchmaker by day, he stresses that neither he nor his three colleagues have all the answers. “I prefer it be clear that I’m just giving advice — I’m not making foolproof matches,” he said.
“I might be a rabbi,” he said, “but I’m not privy to divine information.”