In a dusty warren of offices on 42nd Street near Grand Central Station (where a plastic-covered album of yellowing client photos sits on a desk and there isn’t a computer in sight) 80-something Dan Fields and his 35-year-old grandson Joseph Speyer are talking about that most elusive of elixirs: the chemistry of love.
"I don’t have a five-page questionnaire" like some of the other dating services, Speyer says, "because you’re going to tell me what everybody else tells me: that you want someone honest, someone sincere. After you leave, they throw it out anyway," he says of his competitors. "It’s all luck and instinct. Whatever’s on paper means nothing ’till they meet."
With but a single tall filing cabinet, one short one, and a closet full of boxes (spilling over with the 20,000 large cards on which they’ve written their clients’ names, contact information, height and religion) Field’s is the granddaddy of New York matchmaking services, two old-school guys in the increasingly high-tech, Internet-driven dating-service field.
"Love Coach" Robin Gorman Newman, author of "The New York Guide to Meeting a Mensch" (N.Y. &Co.) and a personal dating adviser, is a big fan of Internet dating sites like Jdate.com but says that old-fashioned matchmakers (like the quintessential Yenta from "Fiddler on the Roof") fill an important role.
"There are still quite a few people who are not comfortable with the Internet. When working with a matchmaker, it’s personal, it’s human," said Gorman Newman, who has dubbed the week around Valentines Day "International Flirting Week."
Malky Primak is one of New York’s dozens of traditional shadchans. Based in Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood, conveniently situated between Borough Park and Flatbush, she specializes in matching people who are Sabbath-observant, from Modern Orthodox through chasidic.
In the business a dozen years, she says she’s made many matches that have ended up under the wedding canopy, though she declines to specify how many. "I don’t like to say, bli ayin horah (I shouldn’t attract the evil eye)," she said.
Though Internet dating sites catering to Orthodox Jews abound (frumster.com, shidduch.com, orthodate.com), nothing compares to a personal touch, says Primak.
"In some of the cases, people use me to talk through relationships and problems and concerns. That the Internet doesn’t have to offer," she said. "With a matchmaker you have that human interaction to really get a sense and deep understanding of what the dynamics of the relationship are. If things are not heading in the right way, if there are issues, with a shadchan you have an intermediary," she says.
Primak declines to specify her fees, but says that traditional matchmakers often charge something modest upfront, ranging from a few multiples of chai, or $18, to a few hundred dollars, and expect "substantial" compensation from both halves of a couple if things work out.
Shoshanna Rikon is her non-Orthodox counterpart. The 29-year-old started Shoshanna’s Matches two years ago, and today has between 2,000 and 3,000 clients in her database and two marriages ("plus two couples who are really serious," she hastens to add) to her credit.
After making some informal romantic matches between friends in college, she was working in recruiting and had availed herself of a few dating services when it occurred to her that she could do a better job, Shoshanna said.
Though not observant herself, she makes only Jewish matches because, she says, "I’m tired of seeing interfaith marriages, especially with all the people dead in Israel. It just hits a sore spot."
Shoshanna, whose office is on the East Side, charges $750 for seven dates or $1,000 for 12, and works with people from 20 to the mid-50s.
Much to her own amusement, says Shoshanna, a lithe young woman with shoulder-length dark hair, she finds herself being set up on dates by her own clients.
Being single, she says, is an asset in her line of work. "I see what to do and what not to do on dates." Her personal challenge, she says, is to try to refrain from giving courtship advice to her own dates.
Back at Field’s, a visitor challenges Joseph Speyer to prove his claim of remembering the vital stats of every client.
The details of each large card (height, religion, etc.) are, Speyer swears, all contained in his head. To prove it, Speyer tells a visitor to pick a woman’s name. He pairs the first name with a last one and ticks off her height, age and religion. From the file cabinet, he plucks out her card. It’s true, he has remembered everything on the card.
Out of the 100,000 people who have paid Fields to make their match over the past eight decades (Fields’ grandfather started the firm in 1923) uncounted thousands of the couples have married. "Sometimes they tell us but most of the time, they don’t," says Speyer, who resembles a young Dennis Franz. He says that each year there are "a couple thousand" weddings as the result of their work, and that invitations to 35 weddings arrived in their office in January alone.
Fields matches everybody according to what they request: Jews with Jews, Christians with Christians, Jews with Christians. "They come in saying they want Jewish only, but once they figure it out they’ll date anybody," Speyer says.
And their client base is broad: clients range in age from 18 to 90, he says. "I’ve got doctors, lawyers, people in insurance, any walk of life."
"We got everybody," echoes his grandfather, "Even dwarfs. We have ’em."
About half of their clients are Jewish, and of those about 15 percent are Orthodox. Just the other day Speyer heard from a 25-year-old Orthodox man, whose parents had been matched by Dan Fields a generation ago, who became engaged to a woman he met through the agency.
Lots has changed about the business of dating, in Dan Fields’ time ("people are more open-minded now, they live together four or five years and then he moves out") but the rise of Internet and speed dating hasn’t affected their business.
People tend to go to matchmakers before they try other ways of meeting potential mates, says Speyer, "because if they could have done it" themselves, "they would have done it long ago."
"People come in, they get feedback, so we really narrow it down and get to the right one" for them, he says. For that prices start at $100, for three matches, and go up to $1,000 to have an unlimited number of cards pulled.
There seems to be no shortage of people in need of Fields’ services. During an hour in the office, the phone rings non-stop.
"Seven days a week, we make people happy," Dan Fields says.
But even the most traditional matchmaker concedes that a single person hoping to find their mate shouldn’t limit the way they go about it. "There is not one way that works," Malky Primak says. "People have met through every single method. The more effort they put into it, the more success they’ll have in finding their bashert."