Saturday, October 10, 2015

Ultra-orthodox matchmaking: Everything it's best not to know 

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 feelings
Among 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."


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