Jerusalem — Suddenly, it’s hip to be square in the Holy Land. Since the beginning of the year in Old Katamon, a historic, tree-lined neighborhood here, at least two dozen singles in their 30s and 40s have announced their engagements.
Although there is nothing unusual about Israelis getting hitched (by the age of 40 more than 90 percent have been married at least once), many, perhaps most of the above-mentioned brides and grooms met their soulmates through a professional or amateur matchmaker.
Strange though it sounds, even the most ultra-modern, hyper-skeptical Israelis are seeking out matchmakers, having attended countless parties, hikes and lectures aimed at singles. And although they still surf the many Internet dating services that cater to Jewish singles, they yearn for a maternal shadchanit (matchmaker) to make them the perfect match.
During the past couple of years, the number of matchmakers in Israel has risen steadily as the country has grown more Westernized. Though numbers are sketchy, participants at a matchmaking convention held this winter — the first of its kind in Israel — estimated that several thousand Israelis, the majority of them religious women, are engaged in matchmaking on a professional or voluntary basis.
Traditionally accorded an important place in Jewish communities of old, matchmakers lost much of their status in the newly established State of Israel. With the exception of ultra-religious Jews, whose strict modesty codes forbid casual dating, native-born Israelis scorned the “quaint” ways of their parents and grandparents.
Yet as Israel becomes a Westernized nation, with an annual per-capita income of $17,000 (just behind that of the United Kingdom), young Israelis say they are tired of the bar scene and dissatisfied with large, impersonal matchmaking services with thousands of clients.
“I don’t like to admit it because there’s a stigma attached, but I’ve registered with a couple of matchmakers,” says Gil, a secular 28-year-old engineer who declined to provide his last name. “I like the fact that a nice Jewish mother is looking out for me. Internet dating and video dating are just too random.”
Yohanan Peres, a sociology professor at Tel Aviv University, links the matchmaking revival to changing demographics.
“Rather than marry their childhood or army sweetheart at 21 or 22, as they did a decade ago, young people are postponing marriage to attend college and launch a career,” Peres says. “When they do finally decide to get married, they often find it difficult to find a spouse.”
Gittel Nadel, a professional matchmaker whose efforts have led to 40 marriages during the past nine years, theorizes that the thousands of singles who go to matchmakers are seeking security.
“The world is a crazy place and people are looking for some sanity. They’d like to meet people in a respectable way, not go through the dating-scene meat grinder,” she says. “The world of matchmakers is safer.”
Nadel, who works in the religious community, interviews all potential clients, aged 18 to 70, for one to two hours. “I really want to know what’s inside a person, not the titles after their name or their family background. Most of it is intuition. If a person seems unstable, I won’t accept him.”
Beth and Stephen Franks, one of Nadel’s success stories, credits the matchmaker’s personal touch for bringing them to the altar. Married 12 years ago, they have an infant son.
“Not every matchmaker should be a matchmaker, but Gittel’s a wonderful, funky woman,” says Beth, 26. “She didn’t say, ‘You’re a woman, he’s a man, you should meet.’ She really listened to me and wanted to know who I am inside.”
Stephen Franks, a 30-year-old dentist, says that matchmaking takes some of the guesswork out of dating. “In a shidduch [match], you know that both the man and woman want to get married. That’s not the case when you meet someone casually,” he says.
Ellen, a Katamon resident in her 30s, agrees. Seriously dating a man she met through a professional matchmaker, Ellen says that the men she meets through matchmakers “are serious about getting married. You know that they’re not just going out for kicks.”
Not that matchmaking offers any guarantees. “You can go out with dozens of guys and nothing happens. Usually that’s because you’re not ready,” Ellen says.
“If I’d met the guy I’m dating now a few years ago, I doubt if we’d be thinking of getting married. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time.”
Asked to “rate” the matchmakers she has consulted, Ellen says those who charge the most money once an engagement is announced — typically $500 to $1,000 from each partner — are the most serious. “They seem to try harder than the ones who only charge the price of phone calls. For them it’s a livelihood.”
While they prefer to discuss their successes rather than their failures, matchmakers admit that not all matches have a happy ending.
At the matchmakers conference held in Jerusalem, more than 100 women aged 30 to 70 shared ideas — and client lists. One participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, recalled how she had arranged a match between a young man and woman from very observant families.
“The couple became engaged, thank goodness, but before the marriage they underwent genetic testing,” this matchmaker recalls. “They learned that both carried the gene for Tay-Sachs [a fatal genetic disease that strikes Jewish infants] and immediately called off the engagement.”
Prenatal screening would not have solved the problem, the matchmaker explained, because ultra-Orthodox rabbis usually forbid abortions unless the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy.
“Matchmaking is a huge responsibility, not to be taken lightly,” the matchmaker said.
Nadel agrees, but stresses that she receives guidance from a higher authority. Reciting from the Talmud, she says, “according to Jewish tradition, 40 days before a child is born a call goes out in Heaven proclaiming who that child is intended to marry. I’m definitely working for the boss.”