From the Shtetl to JDate

An ancient Jewish tradition, arranged marriage, or shidduch, is now changing due to new lifestyles and new technologies.  Journey with a modern day matchmaker, between the shtetl and the Internet.

Arranged marriage is not dead “From the shtetl to JDate”, Antoine Strobel-Dahan (translated from French), read the original version in French in Tenou’a.

“Even the worst of husbands is better than no husband at all,” explains Yente, the old matchmaker, a bit of a smooth talker and a bit of a free loader, who is featured in Fiddler on the Roof, the musical inspired by the work of Sholem Aleichem.  Shidduch, introductions arranged by a third party, is an art as ancient as Judaism itself, supported by the commandment found in Genesis: “Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth.”  The first matchmaker, the first schadchan, probably was Eliezer.  Sent by Abraham to find a wife for his son Isaac, he came back with Rebecca – they gave birth to the Jewish People.

Jose Weber, known as the only professional schadchan in German-speaking Europe, works in Frankfurt, Germany.  Schadchan?  Not exactly, according to him.  If he doesn’t mind saying that he is a “descendant of Eliezer,” he sees his role more like that of a shaliah, an emissary of the “Grand Schadchan above”, he says, pointing at the ceiling; a sort of facilitator.  He made his first shidduch when he was a teenager, “as an amateur”, when he found a companion for his cousin.  But it was only much later that he became a professional.

“Have I made a match for you!
He’s handsome. He’s young! All right, he’s 62,
but he’s a nice man, a good catch, true? True.
I promise you’ll be happy, and even if you’re not
there’s more to life than that. Don’t ask me what. “

                                         –  Fiddler on the Roof

 With this song, the daughters of the milkman Tevye make fun of the old matchmaker.  The clichés and anecdotes about this central character of Ashkenazic literature and fantasy are many.  In Yentl, the Barbara Streisand movie inspired by the Isaac Bashevis Singer novella, the matchmaker – a man, this time – thinks that he has finally found a husband for the daughter of Rebbe Mendel.

Yentl: “A shoemaker?  I don’t know anything about shoes, what could we talk about?

The matchmaker: “With all respect, Yentl, could you please not interfere in questions that do not concern you?”

The schadchan was once a fundamental piece of the puzzle in these isolated or near-isolated little East European communities.  Young people had to get married and a link between the shtetl or the community and the outside was necessary.  The schadchan worked for the parents more than for the future bride or groom, and social position and performance in studying were essential criteria to be considered.

A lot of things have changed since Eliezer, since the Middle Ages, since Sholem Aleichem and Issac Bashevis Singer.  Not that young people don’t have the desire to form couples anymore.  Not that parents have stopped looking for the best match for their children – or at least wanting to.  But of course, in a global world, where borders have been made porous by means of communication, where democracies are open and lead to assimilation, needs and desires had to change.  In competition with the matchmaker of past centuries, we now have love, romance, mixed marriage and the Internet.  JDate, eMazal, LeaKir and probably a few dozen others are among the many virtual dating sites dedicated to Jewish singles or anyone who pretends to be.

It is in reaction to the risk of assimilation that Jose Weber became a schadchan.  Born in Colombia, his childhood was marked by Catholic anti-semitism, as traditional as it was destructive.  Following his parents on their aliyah, soon after his bar mitzvah, he discovered a Jewish world without shame or complexes.  From this experience, he developed a conviction: Jews have to marry other Jews; and an objective: to help create as many Jewish families as possible.  “I want the Jewish people to grow,” he says with mischievous ambiguity.

Married to a young Israeli girl, Jose Weber experienced love at first sight.  Eleven years of marriage and two children: “no one can say that the marriage was a failure,” he says.  But it didn’t last either.  In the 80’s, settled in Frankfurt, he turned to a Jewish dating agency from Strasbourg.  There he found his new wife and his future profession.  Several years later, he took the keys and the files and relocated the agency to his home.  Shidduch became the daily task of the former financial consultant.  After over a quarter century of running the business, he thinks he has helped 250 couples and speaks proudly of the children born of these unions whose births were often announced to him in beautiful letters full of gratitude.

Jose Weber’s clientele is international and with no particular profile even though the majority of the clients are between 25 and 65 and their religious sensibility is toward the ‘traditional-liberal” end of the spectrum.  With a few exceptions, the ultra-Orthodox do not use his services. “I am not kosher enough for them,” but mostly because shidduch is that milieu is subject to other rules: kids get married younger and it is the parents who meet the shadchan and arrange the marriage.”  A good sport, Jose Weber acknowledges how successful those old fashioned schidduchim are: “Generally these couples work well because the notion of respect due to parents, the kavod, is very important and these young people believe their parents have made the best choice for them. As for the rest, the feelings, everything is built later.”

And what about him?  Does he get requests from parents?  “Every day, Abrahams and Sarahs come to my door looking for a Rivkah for their Yitzhak or vice-versa,” he says, amused.  Often they do it secretly and swear their children would never forgive them if they knew.  What he observes is that, behind an embarrassed rebellion, the kids later seem rather relieved that their parents made that first appointment with the schadchan.

How does the schadchan know or feel that it is going to work?  “With time and experience, my instinct is becoming sharper. It often takes several unsuccessful introductions for me to be able to discern the unspoken desires of the clients and also the little shortcomings they don’t want to show me.” Jose Weber explains, all the while stating that the process is “rather inexplicable.”  “When I listen to people talk, images of potential partners come to my mind and sometimes it works.”  Sometimes, it doesn’t.  And then the clients become impatient, they get angry: “Solitude is terrible.  It makes people sad. It makes them lose confidence and courage.”  And it is precisely this solitude and this impatience that he is mostly confronted with: when a match works, the client disappears with his newfound happiness, which Jose Weber claims gives him intense pleasure and satisfaction.

Sometimes, it is more complicated.  Once a 79 year old lady registered.  Jose Weber warned her that there was no suitable candidate for her at that time.  But she insisted: “Knowing that maybe it could be possible, that someone was searching with her, made her happy.”  And he found the rare pearl: a 91 year old, four time-widowed Jewish gentleman from Berlin.  Homosexuals also sometimes come knocking on his door, a little more often lately.  For now, Jose Weber doesn’t take care of them, for fear of being blacklisted by the rabbis.  But he is looking for a solution to create a similar structure which would also help homosexuals find partners: “Don’t those Jews have the right to a happy life?  Should they be condemned to solitude? As far as I am concerned, I would rather see them with Jewish partners: I want Jews to build homes with other Jews.”

The internet has expanded his village.  Skype constitutes his “big shtetl,” as he calls it.  He just married a Siberian lady to a Parisian man.  He doesn’t criticize online services, but thinks he is not playing in the same league: “On JDate everybody registers and makes his or her selection alone.  Here I coach people, I accompany them, I comfort them, I help them look for what they really want. That is why I lead 80% of my clients to a long-term relationship.”  Even more than long-term, he says, because a marriage arranged by a schadchan is a marriage for life.  Among the couples he fixed up, he knows of only 2 divorces. Why? “Because you see the person with your brain, and the feelings only come later. Shidduch is the opposite of love at first sight.  It is less romantic but more solid.”

Jose Weber is the director of Simantov, a Jewish Matchmaking Service: