I grew up three minutes away from a village in New York called New Square. It is a community of Skver hasidim, as in the city from Poland and not as in the shape. It contains about 8,000 residents within its small village that has a total area of 0.4 square miles (0.9 km²) …pun intended.
It so happens that in 1990 my mom did a favor for a family who lived in New Square. She drove a couple to their sick baby who was in the ICU in New York City from Monsey every day for months on end. My mother was driving anyway to visit my sister, who lived in the ICU for three years, so it wasn’t such a crazy favor. This family, because of that daily ride for a short period of time, practically adopted our family with gratitude, inviting us to every single simcha that took place in their family.
This family has 16 children, and many many more grandchildren… so with brisim, bar mitzvahs and weddings… Well, you do the math how often we were invited to share in their celebrations.
From a young age, I attended many of their weddings in New Square. I even had my New Square wedding outfit that only came out of the closet for these auspicious occasions.
This is what I witnessed, and as I got older, began to understand: A girl is anywhere between 18-19, her parents arrange a shidduch (match), the idea is brought to the Rebbe for “approval.” If he says to continue, then maybe the potential couple meets once, maybe twice, and mazal tov… they are engaged. Anywhere from 8 months to a year later, they marry, not knowing each other and having no past experiences with the opposite sex.
You feeling horrified? Perhaps disgusted? Well, let me tell you, those were my feelings exactly. For many years, I judged, ridiculed, and couldn’t understand how this “arranged marriage” custom shared the same Torah I learned and lived by.
Fast forward to my bat mitzvah gift from my parents: a trip to Israel for nine weeks in the summer. This is the summer I got to know all my dozens and dozens of first cousins, many of whom I hadn’t known until this trip. I stayed with four different first-cousin families and one of them, my father’s sister, were (and still are) Amshinov hasidim. I absolutely fell in love with my aunt, uncle and ten cousins who lived in a two bedroom apartment in Jerusalem. I loved everything about that apartment, no matter how different it was in language, culture and upbringing. I specifically became close with the eldest girl. She was 16 and I was 12 at the time, but we became very close. We went places, had fun, acted silly and immature and just had a good youthful time together. I went home to NY at the end of the summer and a few months later, my friend, this youthful naive cousin (now 17), was engaged. It was one of the strangest things I ever felt. Total shock.
Fast forward again and hold on tight, I’m doing this fast. Over the next many years, I went to a lot of hasidic weddings, including many of my cousins from that family who got married, co-workers weddings and of course, the good old New Square gang. It took me years to understand what was going on because for so long I was so confused, so judgmental, so unappreciative of their way of doing things, and not understanding or accepting these old fashioned and mysterious ways. Weren’t these couples traumatized? Are the “sheet myths” true? (That theory was debunked years ago!) How do they learn to communicate? How could their marriages last?
Then, about a month ago, these same Amshinov cousins married off their seventh child (kinina hora) and watching my 19-year-old cousin, who knew NOTHING, and had never talked to a boy before… well to be honest, I was just amazed. I saw her and her new husband walking together the day after the wedding and they were adorable!! They had connection, clear chemistry and a vivid spark.
So there I am, thinking….I grew up in a fairly Modern Orthodox home, in NY, in the real world, watching TV my entire childhood, I then made aliyah single, lived in Nachlaot, did the hangout thing, dated a bunch of guys, dated my to-be husband intensely for long intimate dates…got married and subsequently (seven years later) got divorced. I mean, who am I to talk? Pass judgement? Do I really believe my system is better? The divorce rates in the frum community are sky high. But in comparison, divorce is ranked higher in the frum non-hasidic communities than in the exclusive hasidic communities. Fancy that.
I currently work among hasidic women, most of them Slonim and Gur. I am not hasidic in the slightest, but I have watched one particular young woman, now a good friend of mine, start her job single, young and fresh, then get engaged to a man she barely knew, get married and create a beautiful and blossoming marriage. I asked her when she was engaged, how could she possibly know he was the one? She told me a story that she wasn’t supposed to have heard, but her sister-in-law to-be told her anyway.
She said that her then chatan (now husband) came home one day and was crying. His parents thought the marriage was perhaps a mistake and that he didn’t want to marry his bride. They inquired if he was okay and his answer was this: there were once two rabbis in Europe who both started yeshivas. They both started the same time and did the same things to make each yeshiva a success. After a few years, one yeshiva became a famous well-known established place of Torah and one closed down completely. The rabbi of the closed-down yeshiva turned to the rabbi of the flourishing yeshiva and asked, ”We did the same thing. Why did you succeed and not me?” The rabbi’s answer was: “Every night during the time of building your yeshiva, you worked on where the seats should situated, how many floors should be built, which holy books should be bought, which door handles to buy… but in contrast, I just sat and cried on the soil of the land. I cried and cried that that it should be a success. Those tears is what built this home; my yeshiva.” This was the story the chatan said. He looked at his parents and said, “That is why I am crying. I am building a home with tears of hope and prayer for our future!” And that is why my friend knew this was the man for her.
There is something happening in that world that the we, the not-religious, or modern, or yeshivish, or Israeli Sephardic Jew don’t understand. But they get it, and that’s all they need to make it work.
By nature, I love all types of people. I love different cultures, ethnic groups, religions and customs. I love people and their differences. I look at these arranged marriages and realize that they might not be how you and I do it and we might want to write columns-worth of why we believe it’s wrong. Yet, at the end of the day, most (not all, but MOST) of these marriages grow into successful relationships. They figure it out, learn on the job, have faith, pray and learn to be married. I for one, respect this way of marriage now and really look at their way of dating and “tying the knot” as different, but an understandable phenomenon. It is arranged, but by no means is it deranged.